Until Death 

Part 4

By Enginerd

Chapter 16 - Conditions


A raven landed on top of an old, rusty refrigerator, watching Janice amble up the dirt road to the junkyard.

Seeing the large hubcap arch that adorned the entrance, the archeologist smiled. It was oddly comforting, as was the rest of the old place. It hardly looked like any time passed at all, she noted from a cursory glance of the various appliances and automobiles cluttering the area. But time had passed and much had changed. And for Larry, for the better. Now there was a Mrs. Underwood sharing his humble home in the center of his junkyard. Larry had found and married his high school sweetheart, who was widowed early in the war. Her kind-hearted friend got a second chance and didn't waste it, she thought happily, personally grateful there were such things as second chances.

As she walked up the gravel walkway that crunched with each step, she could hear Larry humming to the tune on the radio. Entering the garage, she smiled, finding Larry was under the hood of an old car, bouncing slightly to the beat. "Honey? Could you get me a spanner wrench?" He asked, holding out his hand without looking up.

She smirked and got a hammer and handed it to him. "Thanks. Uh, sweetie, that's not. . . ." he said and stood, startled to find his friend. "Uh, I thought you were Mary Anne," he said sheepishly.

"I should hope so," Janice said and smiled. "Pumpkin."

"Janice!" Mary Anne called out happily as she entered the garage with a glass of lemonade. "Would you like some?"

"No thanks," she said, watching the small woman give the lemonade and a quick kiss to her beloved.

"Thanks, sweetie," he said, giving her a peck back, then glancing at Janice with mild embarrassment.

Janice smiled, happy for her friend.

"Look what Larry got me," Mary Anne announced enthusiastically, proudly jutting her hand beneath Janice's nose.

"Wow," Janice said with surprise, glancing between the expensive ruby ring and her friend, who scratched the back of his head and shrugged. "Nice rock," Janice added.

"Isn't it? It wasn't even my birthday or our anniversary! It was such a wonderful surprise," she gushed and kissed his cheek. "Well, I've got a ton of chores. If you change your mind about something to drink, Janice, just give a holler," she said happily and returned to the main house.

"Larry . . . " Janice said and winced.

"Don't worry about it. It was my own fault for thinking she would be in that dress shop longer than I would be in the jewelry store," he shrugged. "I've never seen so many rings, Janice," he said with amazement, shaking his head.

"Jesus, Larry, you could have explained," Janice offered, feeling guilty for her friend getting stuck with such an expensive gift.

"Nah. I didn't have the heart to tell her I wasn't looking at jewelry for her," he said. "You should have seen her face light up when she spotted that ruby ring," he relayed wistfully. "I guess I'm a big ol' pushover, huh?" He said with a sheepish chuckle.

"Nah. You're just in love," she said warmly.

"What's the difference?"

Janice blinked. "Being in love sounds better?"


As Janice drove away from the junkyard, heading back towards town, she shook her head, looking curiously around her truck. When she found out it was at Larry's, she asked Mel what the hell happened to it. Mel just smiled at her and said "nothing much." Of course, that just made Janice more insistent on finding out what happened to HER truck. Mel calmly added that it was "nothing to worry about." How can people actually believe if they say that, you won't worry? Janice wondered with amazement. She at least thought she should be able to find out what happened from the boys. But they were no help. And Larry! Her old friend just said what Mel did, that it was "nothing much," she recalled, shaking her head. She must be losing her touch at interrogations, Janice thought, muttering "nothing much."

Adjusting the amazingly clean rearview mirror, which matched the rest of her now sparkling truck, she had to admit that Mel's decision to just let Larry fix it - instead of waiting for her to recover and fix it, which, Janice had made a point of reminding Mel, she was perfectly capable of doing, whatever the problem might be - was actually not a bad one. Besides, Larry could use all the cash he could get his hands on now, she considered with a guilty wince. With a sigh, she turned on the radio. Quickly finding a tune she liked, she started to whistle and looked up, suddenly seeing a woman in the road.

"Christ!" She bit out as she slammed on her breaks, pumping them a few times before comprehending they were useless. "Shit!"

Turning the steering wheel hard over, she cringed as the truck swerved, barely missing the woman. Two hubcaps flew off and loudly bounced down the road like escaping cymbals. Janice lurched forward as the truck wheels hit the gravel on the shoulder of the road, loudly kicking up a cloud of dust and debris. "Fuck." Janice struggled against the steering wheel to stay in the gravel to slow down, but the truck continued its rebellious path off the road. Leaving the shoulder, the truck over-turned and tumbled down the embankment into a ditch. The truck came to a sudden stop when it slammed into a thick tree that snapped loudly and crashed on top of the truck, the final note in the deadly symphony of crunching metal and shattering glass.

A chilling calm returned.


Slowly walking down the steep embankment, she stopped to gaze at the twisted wreck of metal and glass. The radio continued to play a defiantly happy tune as a single wobbly tire continued to drunkenly spin.

Needing to be absolutely sure, Miranda grimaced as she approached and hesitantly looked inside the crunched cab. With a horrified gasp, she turned away, clamping her mouth with her hand, struggling not to lose her lunch. After a long moment to collect herself and steady her stomach, Miranda pulled a small tuft of blond insurance from her pocket. Staring at it numbly, she released it, now unneeded. She watched as the hair was lifted by a gust of wind and floated into the forest.

"It is done."


"Yes, thank you, Mary Anne. Yes. I'm sure she'll be home any minute. Yes. It sounds wonderful. I can't wait to see it. Uh Huh. Good-bye." Mel hung up the phone and sighed heavily. Looking at the expectant twins, she shook her head. "She left Larry's hours ago."

"Mama?" JJ asked. "If the truck broke down, maybe she is walking back?"

"Or trying to fix it," Daniel offered.

"We should drive out to get her!" Paul announced.

"I'll leave a note, in case we pass each other," Mel said. She had wanted to go the minute it was noon and Janice wasn't home. But she knew she needed to give the independent archeologist some time and she did, begrudgingly. Now was time for action. She went to the kitchen and jotted down a short and sweet note - 'Janice, you're late and in trouble with your family. We all went out to get you. Love Mel.'

"I'll drive," Daniel offered, going to the phone stand where Mel's keys were. "What?!?" Paul blurted.

"I'll drive, thank you very much," Mel said, quickly snatching the keys from Daniel's hand

"But you know I can drive well," Daniel argued upon deaf ears for Mel simply smiled and opened the front door, motioning for the boys to go to the car.


As the sun started to set, Larry glanced up from the wreckage to the road above, where Mel and JJ stood, watching. Mel had told him they had to get rid of the truck before someone, like the police, found it and started asking questions - like what happened to the driver. A question he wished he could answer. He didn't understand why the boys and Melinda kept telling him Janice was going to be ok. They all saw the blood and the condition of the cab. How could anyone survive that? But then, where was Janice? He sighed and focused on recovering the truck from the ditch.

"Ok," Paul said, after he and Daniel checked the taut chain that they had wrapped around the felled tree that pinned the truck. Larry turned on the winch and slowly dragged the tree off of the truck. It finally fell to the ground with a heavy thud.

It was slow work, complicated by the darkness falling, but Larry and the boys managed to pull the truck from the ditch. After the wreckage was up righted, Larry hooked it to the back of Larry's tow truck and pulled it back onto the road.

"I should be able to take it to the junkyard without anyone noticing," Larry told Mel as he looked around the empty road.

"Larry," she said uncomfortably, her eyes briefly meeting his before refocusing on the disturbing truck. "I can't explain," she said simply.

"I'll tell you, I don't understand any of this," he responded softly. "But I'll do whatever you and Janice need, Melinda," he said simply to his friend.

She nodded gratefully to her loyal friend and glanced to the wreck. After a moment of staring numbly at the remains of Janice's beloved truck, she absently asked "I don't suppose . . . ?"

"Uh, have you thought about getting a new one?" He said hesitantly, scratching the back of his head as he stared at the truck he doubted even Janice could fix.


"Miranda, what a nice surprise," the old nurse said, glancing up from writing Ellen's vitals in the chart. Miranda glanced at her and smiled weakly.

"I'll see you later, Ellen," the nurse said to the unconscious patient with a smile. "Have a nice visit," she said to Miranda, who nodded and slowly pulled up a chair. She sat and numbly stared at Ellen for a long while.

"She was in the way . . . ," she whispered and laughed oddly, leaving the rest of her thoughts unspoken as she stared off into nothingness.


The twins took the events in stride, Mel noticed with amazement, wishing for that ability. Before they went to bed, Daniel even told her it was a good thing they didn't find her, because that meant Janice had left on her own.

As far as Mel was concerned, there was absolutely nothing good about this. The night slowly wore on and she found herself pacing around the dark house, with no hope of getting to sleep. She glanced over the living room, recalling when they had finished renovating the place and moved in. Her lover was so positive this barn would make a great place to live. Mel knew that never in a million years would she have imagined that the Ol' Miller barn would become such a wonderful home, albeit a little cramped now. She shook her head, knowing she would never have imagined having three boys to care for either. The Lord works in mysterious ways, she thought, silently thanking him and praying for Janice's quick return.

She squinted at her watch, which just told her more time had passed without knowing what had happened to Janice. She shook her head, holding her arms tightly around her chest, wishing Janice was in them.

She wandered into the kitchen and decided to make herself warm milk in an attempt to calm down and get some rest. Pulling a pot out from a kitchen cabinet, she stared at it, recalling how Janice thought warm milk was the most disgusting thing on Earth. Janice would change her mind if she got a good look at the crunched and bloodied cab, Mel considered, absently strangling the pot handle.

A faint crashing sound outside, startled her. She quickly glanced out the kitchen window towards the garage. Squinting into at the darkness, both hope and concern filled her. Was it Janice or that man Janice saw?


JJ and the twins peered out of the kitchen window, watching Mel walk towards the dark garage with a pot in hand. She looked around uneasily and cringed, spotting the garage door ajar.

"Janice?" Mel called out apprehensively, carefully pushing the door, which opened with a soft creak. Hearing someone move, she quickly reached for the light switch and tightly clenched the pot handle. As if she might have somehow operated the switch improperly, she flicked it off and on again with a frown. The garage remained in darkness.

"Janice??" She called out nervously, staring at her pot with irritation, wishing it was a flashlight.

"Go back inside." A mumbled voice crackled from the other side of the sedan, making Mel jump.

"Janice?!?" Mel blurted, clenching the pot against her chest. She squinted, able to faintly see the outline of her shifting slightly by the bags of potting soil across the garage.

"Mel, go ins . . . " Janice continued to try and talk, which was less difficult now that she could slightly move her jaw.

"What happened?" Mel asked, continuing to squint, hoping to better see her. But her eyes had not yet adjusted to the darkness.

"Nothing much," she garbled.

"Nothing much?!? I saw the truck!" Mel said, stepping towards Janice.

"Mel, STOP." Mel froze hearing the desperation in Janice' voice. Janice regretted the outburst, gingerly cradling her throbbing face.

"Am I supposed to just stand by and do nothing?!?" She cried in frustration.

"No. Go inside. Tell the twins . . . I'm here, recovering. They'll understand." She said with difficulty. The pain was so great and she was so tired.

"But I don't! Why don't you let me take you inside?!? You'll be more. . . ." Mel said, nonplused.

"Jesus Christ," Janice snapped. "Can't you just leave me alone?!?" She groaned, physically and emotionally a wreck.

Mel winced at the cutting words. "No. I can't," Mel said with simple honesty. "Can't I get you something?" She weakly pleaded, wanting . . . needing to help.

Struggling to remind herself that she was not the only one suffering, Janice finally offered "Clean clothes."

"I'll be right back," she said with relief and turned.


"Yes??" Mel said hopefully, quickly turning towards Janice.

"I just don't want . . . you or the boys . . . to see," Janice said weakly and added the one word Mel couldn't bring herself to fight. "Please."

"All right," Mel said reluctantly, going against every instinct she had.

"Thank you."


As Mel gathered up fresh clothes in their bedroom, Daniel stood by the door.

"She just doesn't want us to see her," he said. "She's done that before, when she was in bad shape. She'll be ok soon," he said, honestly believing it. Mel shook her head, not happy.

"How do you get used to it?" Mel asked, and remembered to get a second ball of socks from the drawer.

"It's not about getting used to it. It's about taking what comes and living with it the best you can," Daniel said sagely.

She looked thoughtfully at the young man who sounded very much like Janice and nodded.


"Janice?" Mel said as she entered the garage. "I've got clean clothes and bedding for you . . . it should help make you more comfortable," she said uneasily. "I'll put them on the hood."

"Thank you," Janice said softly, seeing her dark form move to the car, deposit the items, then step back. "Good night, Mel," she said, then heard movement but not the Southerner leaving. Janice sighed wearily, knowing the stubborn Southerner had no intention of leaving. "Mel . . . "

"I promise to respect your wishes and not look, but if the garage is good enough for you, it's good enough for me," she said firmly. "Of course, I'm going to owe JJ more baklava now. He wanted to camp out here too," she said and sighed as she finished clearing out a spot for her blanket and pillow.

"Mel, you don't need. . . ." Janice said, already feeling guilty enough for subjecting Mel to this whole mess. She didn't see why Mel should also have to spend the night in the garage.

"Don't you dare tell me what I need," Mel interrupted vehemently. After a moment, Mel heard a heavy sigh as Janice carefully retrieved the clothes and bedding from the hood. As they each fumbled around in their dark corner to make their spot as comfortable as the garage would allow, the tension was thick.

"I don't suppose I could talk you into going inside?" Janice spoke weakly as she lay on her back on some bags of dirt, grateful for the pillow Mel brought.

"I don't suppose you'd come with me," Mel countered stubbornly, fluffing her pillow forcefully. Janice sighed. After a few moments, Mel could tell Janice wasn't sleeping from the irregular, heavy breaths and occasional shifting. "Can you tell me what happened?" Mel asked softly, concerned when Janice didn't answer. "Janice?"

"I ran off the road . . . hit a tree," Janice said, her voice still raspy. She could hear Mel's disappointed sigh. She finally added "I saw a woman. I swerved to avoid hitting her."

"You saw a woman?" Mel said with concern. Had she seen Janice walk away? Would she involve the police?

"Yeah," Janice said and sighed. "You don't think there was a woman. Do you?" Janice asked, without accusation.

"I never said th. . . ." Mel said, surprised.

"It's ok," Janice said and coughed, shifting so she could breath better. "I've been wondering myself," Janice admitted uneasily. "I didn't find any trace of anyone beneath the window. There should have been something. Footprints . . . something. What if, I didn't really see anything? I only took my eyes off the road a second. Then she was just there. What if . . . my mind's going?"

"Your mind is not going, Janice. You are still able to win arguments with me."

"You're still here," Janice countered with a weary sigh.

"I never said all arguments. And this not an argument, it's a compromise," Mel said firmly. Hearing no response from her partner, she continued "Janice, there are many possible reasons for being surprised by someone in the road. Why are you thinking it's a hallucination?"

"When I died before, there was always a reason. What if . . . that headache was just a symptom? What if I have a problem with my head? The boys managed at the lake - thank GOD they're strong swimmers . . . but what if one of you were with me driving back from Larry's? You would have . . . ," she said, clearly distraught.

"Janice," Mel interrupted, trying to focus on one concern at a time. "If that were even true, and you did have a problem with your head, why would you be seeing people that weren't there?" Mel argued. "Why not have blurred vision, memory loss, balance problems . . . ?" She rattled off.

"I don't know," Janice said with irritation. "I . . . I just thought I knew what to expect. It wasn't this! I just want. . . ." Janice growled, then quickly fell silent.


After a silent moment, Mel asked again but suspected the answer.

"To just stay dead," Janice whispered wearily. Mel took an uneasy breath. Even knowing what she was going to say didn't take all the pain out of hearing it. "You think that's giving up, don't you?" Janice asked guiltily. What Melinda Pappas thought meant everything to her.

"No, Janice," Mel said with surprising conviction. "I think . . . you're just tired of all of this," Mel said softly, wiping her eyes.

"Yeah," Janice said softly, thankful Mel understood. She must be tired as well, Janice thought sadly, wondering why she put up with it at all. Janice heard her partner shift around again, no doubt trying to get more comfortable.



"I don't suppose . . . I could convince you to go inside?" Janice asked, her fingers absently caressing her pillow.

"Not unless we go in together," Mel said firmly.

"Oh," Janice said, reluctantly comforted by her partner's stubbornness. Blinking back tears, she half-heartedly protested "Doesn't seem like a compromise. . . ."

"Will you let me hold you?" Mel asked, surprising the archeologist.

"N. . . Not now," she said with difficulty, wanting so much to say yes.

"Then it's a compromise."

Chapter 17 - Back to School


Mel drove to the University, glancing at Janice with concern. She was worried it was too soon for Janice to be out and about. After receiving another concerned glance from the Southerner, Janice sighed.

"Mel, I'll be fine," Janice said firmly, looking at her protective partner.

"It's only been a couple of. . . ." Mel argued.

"It's the first day of classes, Mel. I've got to go," Janice interrupted.

"I know," Mel sighed softly.

"Just think of this as a compromise," Janice offered with a pleased smile.

"Janice?" Mel said, keeping her eyes dutifully on the road.

"Hmmm?" Janice responded with a grin.

"When only you get your way, that is not a compromise," Mel explained.

"Huh," Janice responded thoughtfully, then asked for clarification. "But when you get yours, it is?"

"Ah, you do understand," Mel said with a smile. Janice shook her head with a smirk.


Miranda stood outside Melinda's classroom, watching her beloved give some final advice to her last class of the day. How tired she looks, she thought sympathetically. But even in the worst of times, Melinda still exuded amazing grace and dignity, Miranda thought with great admiration. And she always looked impeccable, she thought with an appreciative sigh, noting how her tailored burgundy suit accentuated her tall, elegant figure. I'll talk to her after class, Miranda thought, planning her careful entrance into Melinda's life. I'll be her friend, her best friend, she thought happily. Then she will learn what I've known all along. We belong together, Miranda thought with a wistful sigh.

"Heh, keeping them late the first day. That's my girl," Janice said with a grin, peeking into the class around Miranda, who spun around and gasped. "Miranda? Are you OK? I didn't mean to scare you," Janice lied, feeling really bad, considering how ill the student looked. "Jeeze. Maybe you ought to sit . . . whoa," Janice said and quickly caught the stunned girl, whose knees gave out.

"Miranda?" Janice asked with concern, looking into wide eyes.

"N. . . No . . . ," she said with horror, looking at the now very much alive archeologist before her eyes rolled back and she passed out.


"What happened?" Mel asked, pulling Janice aside in the waiting area when she arrived at the campus clinic. After class, she heard about the commotion in the hallway and rushed immediately over.

"I don't know. She was in the hallway, watching you during your class. I startled her . . . then she passed out," Janice said with concern, shaking her head.

"What did you say to her?" Mel accused, getting an amazed look from the irritated archeologist.

"Nothing that would make her pass out!" Janice spat in a hushed voice, her eyes dropping to the floor uneasily.

"What did you say, exactly?"

"Uh, I . . . I just mentioned that you were keeping your class late the first day and said . . . ," Janice said hesitantly, finishing with a slightly embarrassed mumble ". . . that's my girl." Mel looked at her with surprise.

"There really was no need for that, Janice. I've already spoken to her," Mel said quietly, looking around the nearly empty room. The receptionist glanced up at the two women with a smile then returned to her paperwork.

"Well, I think you forgot to mention that she should stop her drooling," Janice snapped with irritation.

"Janice," Mel said with a sigh. "I had made it very clear I was not interested. You didn't need to say anything."

"Well shoot me for being just a little irritated with the way she was stalking outside your door."

"She may have been just waiting to talk with me. She is still a linguistics major and I am. . . ." Mel said

"No, Mel. You didn't see it. I did. She . . . . " Janice said and stopped, seeing the sudden concern in Mel's eyes. Her irritation immediately melted into disappointment and self-doubt. Poorly covering the worry and hurt, the proud archeologist desperately clung to anger and growled "Ah fuck."

"Janice, I didn't mean. . . . "

"Janice?" The young, blond nurse came out of the examining room with a warm smile.

Mel glanced at the nurse with surprise. She looked like she was barely out of high school, she noted.

"Miranda will be just fine. She can leave when she feels up to it. She had a dizzy spell and is struggling with her stomach at the moment. But she admitted to not taking care of herself. I've reminded her she needs to eat three square meals and get plenty of sleep," the nurse said authoritatively.

"Can I see her?" Janice quickly asked.

"Uh, she . . . was rather embarrassed. She would prefer you didn't check in on her," the nurse said with a wince of sympathy.

"Oh," Janice said uncomfortably. "Mel, maybe she'd rather you check on her," Janice offered Mel, knowing the tall woman wanted to. Mel looked at Janice and nodded weakly.

"I'll see if she doesn't mind," the nurse said and retreated to the examining room. After a brief moment, she returned with a smile and a nod.


As Mel approached the examining room, she found the back of her neck tingling again. She sighed, rubbing her neck, wondering if she was reacting to the laundry detergent or something. She found Miranda seated and staring at the floor, a million miles away. Mel smiled as she entered the examining room.

"Dr. Pappas," the student said, immensely pleased she had come.

"Miranda, you caused us a scare," Mel said softly. "How are you feeling?"

The student laughed uncomfortably. "Uh, I'm fine now. Just a stupid dizzy spell," she said, tucking a strand of hair nervously behind her ear. "My own fault really. Not eating or sleeping right. When Dr. Covington startled me . . . I uh, guess it all caught up," she shrugged and bit her lip.

"I'm sorry she startled you, Miranda," Mel said sincerely. "She wanted to see that you were OK, but the nurse said you didn't want to see her," she probed curiously.

Miranda smiled uneasily. "I . . . I'm just a little . . . mortified," Miranda blurted, her eyes dropping uncomfortably. The last person she wanted to see was that archeologist. The recent memory of her bloody body in the mangled truck flashed in her mind, causing a shudder. Dr. Covington must have a talisman or spell of protection or . . . something, Miranda considered uneasily, knowing she would have to find out so she could defeat it.

"She really does feel bad about scaring you and wanted to apologize," Melinda said, surprising Miranda, who didn't know what to say. "Well, you can expect one later, when you're up to it. She won't rest until she makes things right," Mel promised, though it sounded more like a threat to Miranda. "That's one of the things I . . ." Mel said warmly, then stopped herself. With and uneasy smile, she pushed up her glasses.

Miranda's brow furrowed. "I suppose, I could see her . . . now. I wouldn't want to worry her about this," she added magnanimously with a smile as she got up. "I was ready to leave anyway."

"Wonderful," Mel said with relief.

When the two entered the waiting area, Miranda was surprised at the sudden sour look appearing on Melinda's face. Looking at Dr. Covington and the bubbly young nurse, who smiled happily as she chatted with her, Miranda quickly realized why. The pretty nurse was standing rather close and touching her arm in a rather familiar way, Miranda noted as her eyebrow lifted with interest.

When Janice spotted them, she called out "Miranda!" Quickly looking to the nurse, she said "Excuse me?" The nurse smiled with a nod and watched the very nice archeologist join the student and Dr. Pappas, whose cold eyes stared at her. Her smile faded at the disconcerting look as she decided the examining room needed straightening up.

"How are you feeling?" Janice asked with concern.

"Fine. I just had a dizzy spell. There's nothing to worry about," Miranda said, glancing at her uneasily. She tried not to stare, but it was so amazing. There was no trace of the gruesome accident marring her face.

"Uh, still . . . I'm sorry for scaring you," Janice said with a guilty wince as they both glanced at Mel, whose cool blue gaze followed the nurse as she returned to the examining room. While the barely veiled jealousy made Janice sigh, it inspired Miranda.

"It's ok, Dr. Covington," the student said magnanimously. "I am not going to let a little scare keep me down," Miranda smiled with amusement, no longer concerned about being unable to get rid of Dr. Covington. She had a more poetic plan.

She would just let Melinda do it.


"Amen," Melinda said, finishing her usual prayer of thanks before the dinner. Looking up from her plate, she saw the boys inhale their food like they hadn't eaten for a week. When she sighed heavily, she felt a squeeze on her hand. "It's your fault, you know. If you were a bad cook, they wouldn't dive in like that," Janice offered with a grin.

The twins looked up at them curiously, down to their plates, then at each other. "You're eating like a pig," Paul explained to Daniel.

"Me?!? You're. . . ."

JJ offered two quick snorts and giggled, highly amused with himself. Mel's eyes shut. Another new skill, she sighed and looked at Janice.

"SO, how was school today?" Janice interjected with a warning glare for the three musketeers as she released Mel's hand after another squeeze and picked up her fork.

Mel shook her head and rubbed the back of her neck.

"Fun! I love school, especially spelling," JJ announced happily. Mel smiled, pleased her son had the same enthusiasm she did for learning. The twins looked at each other. Spelling?

"What about you guys?" Janice asked, looking at the twins.

"School's OK, I guess," Paul next volunteered with a shrug. "Homework isn't that hard. I've gotten an A+ on my first paper."

"That's wonderful!" Mel quickly praised. "Can I see it after dinner?" Janice asked. "I'd like to see it too," Mel added. "Sure," Paul said with a very pleased smile.

"Well, I hate school," Daniel declared, successfully wiping the smiles from everyone's face. "I can't believe they make you sit in one stupid spot for an eternity! And you have to ASK to go take a. . . ."

"It's only been a few days," Mel quickly interjected.

"Trust me, you'll get used to it," Janice added knowingly, recalling her restlessness in Sister Carmichael's biology class, which she cut so often she had to take it a second time. If she could learn how to sit in that miserable battle axe's class to avoid a third year, she was confident Daniel could endure whatever teacher he had.

Daniel frowned, not convinced.

"Especially if you have a teacher worth looking at," Janice added with a smile, recalling Sister Mary Kathryn's classes fondly. She glanced at Mel, who looked at her, apparently not amused. Janice cleared her throat and sipped her water.

"Mr. Johnston's a smelly ol . . . " Daniel snarled.

"Daniel," Mel scolded him gently. He sighed with a shrug and ate his food. Janice looked at him curiously, surprised at his acceptance of Mel's caution

"Daniel's just mad because he was late the first day and has to sit up front. Mr. Johnston always asks him questions," Paul said with amusement, eyeing his brother.

"Jerk," Daniel snarled at Paul.

"Don't even think about arguing at this table, you two. Understood?" Janice said firmly.

"Yes, Muló," they said in unison and sighed.

"Daniel, sitting in the front and getting asked questions is a good thing," Mel interjected with conviction. "Active participation helps you learn so much more."

Janice winced, anticipating Daniel making some stupid comment to aggravate Mel.

"It seems more like torture, Mel," Daniel admitted wearily. "He doesn't seem to pick on other students."

"When he asks you questions, do you try your best to answer them?" Mel asked.

"Yeah. I get them right too . . . most of the time," he said with a shrug, looking at her expectantly.

Mel smiled. "Good," she said approvingly. "And I think perhaps Mr. Johnston realizes you are worth the time to pick on," she added knowingly and sipped her coffee.

Daniel eyed her thoughtfully, then added stubbornly "Well, it still seems like torture," making Mel chuckle.

Janice glanced between the two with surprise. It looked like they had finally declared a truce. She wouldn't be needed to run interference anymore, she considered, picking up her drink. To her surprise, that thought wasn't entirely comforting.


As they settled in for the night, Mel sighed as she sat on the edge of the bed, stopping her brushing to rub the back of her neck.

Janice eyed her curiously. "Sore neck?"

"Have you had any problems with the laundry detergent?"


"Never mind," she sighed and shook her head, still rubbing her neck. "I'm glad Miranda's OK. She seemed to be in good hands at the infirmary," Mel added, glancing uncomfortably at Janice, who sat down next to her. "That nurse seemed nice."

"Gail?" Janice said, pulling Mel's hand away to rub the back of her neck for her. "She's a smart kid. Did you know she finished nursing school two years early?"

"No. I didn't have the pleasure of visiting with her. So Gail's not just a pretty face," Mel offered tightly, not thrilled with Janice's detailed knowledge of the young woman she had only recently met. "Is she?" Mel asked as Janice stopped rubbing her neck.

"No. She's an intelligent young woman," Janice said with a sigh. "And she's not my type," she added to appease Mel's unnecessary concern.

Mel closed her eyes a moment, laughing without humor. "So . . . should I be relieved that your type is a more simple-minded, mature woman?"

"Mel," Janice growled with frustration at this ridiculous conversation.

"Why wouldn't she be your type, Janice?"

"Jesus, Mel."

"Why wouldn't she be your type??" Mel persisted.

"Maybe because she's not you. But if this is some roundabout way of trying to tell me you'd rather hook up with Miranda, then I just might have to reconsider my type," she snapped.

"Don't be ridiculous," Mel said, making Janice's brow furrow with amazement. "I love you. But I am getting older and you're not. Someday, we're going to have to face . . . . "

"Stop," Janice said, bolting up from the bed, finished with this conversation.

"I am getting older," Mel said emphatically, pointing to the small streak of gray in her raven hair. "You can see it already. . . ."

"Damnit! It doesn't matter!" She said, angrily turning towards her.

"How can you say that, Janice?" Mel said. "There will come a time . . . "

"A time when I'll toss you aside to fuck another woman just because she's younger?!?" Janice spat, making Mel wince. Janice laughed incredulously. "Are you really that unsure of me? Are you that unsure of my love for you?" She asked, unable to hide her hurt.

"I know you love me, Janice," Mel interjected uneasily. "But it isn't about that . . . "

"What the HELL is it about then, Mel? Because I have no fucking clue!"

"It's about the day when a young woman catches your eye and you look over to me and see . . . an old woman," Mel admitted as tears formed. "How can I possibly compete then?" She whispered with anguish in her voice.

Janice stepped in front of her and looked down into uncertain eyes. With a gentle hand, she touched the tears she had caused . . . again. "You won't have to," Janice vowed firmly. "Because whenever I look at you, Melinda Pappas, I see my soulmate. How can anyone compete with that?"

Mel burrowed into Janice, who kissed her head and hugged her tightly as Mel quietly wept.

Chapter 18 - Surprises


"Really?" Janice said happily on the phone, then looked up uneasily, hearing Mel coming down the stairs. "Uh, good. I'll be by later today. Thanks," she said, hanging up the phone quickly.

She greeted Mel at the bottom of the stairs with a smile.

"Who was that?" Mel asked as she picked off a stray hair from her green suit and frowned, noting it was gray.

Why did Mel have to have such good hearing?!? "Uh, the Library." Janice cringed at the lie. "They called . . . about a book!" Brilliant, Janice thought with a slight wince.

"Funny, I didn't hear the phone ring," she mentioned absently, looking in the hallway mirror and adjusting the small pin on her lapel.

Ha. Ha. FUCK!

"Actually, uh I called them," Janice amended uneasily. "You look great, by the way," she quickly added with a winning smile. Well, that was the truth, she considered.

"Thank you," Mel said happily as she went to the kitchen, followed by Janice. "Do you want a cup?" The Southerner asked the relieved archeologist, who declined. Mel poured herself another cup of coffee with a smile. She enjoyed being able to savor her coffee and her quiet time with Janice after the boys left on the bus. One of the benefits of a late-morning class, she mused. "What book?" She asked with interest, sitting down at the kitchen table.

Jesus H. Christ . . .

Mel eyed her partner as she took a sip, noting Janice seemed agitated. It wasn't like she had to be anywhere, Mel considered wryly, still not sure how Janice managed to get her Friday's off.

"Just one I was looking for . . . for class," Janice offered uncomfortably. "Uh, is that new?" Janice asked suddenly, looking at her outfit more closely . . . with a winning smile.

"No. I've had this a while," Mel said, looking at her curiously. She's acting odd, like she's hiding something, Mel noted. "Do you want me to pick it up for you?" She asked.

"No! Uh . . . "

"Are you feeling ok?"

"Great. It's actually the city library, and kind of out of your . . . ," Janice said quickly.

"That's no problem at all, Janice. Really, I can still . . . "

Good GOD!

"Sweetheart, you should focus on your class, not picking up books for me. I'll walk or bicycle into town later," Janice said vaguely, with a shrug. Seeing Mel start to argue, Janice added "I can handle getting a book, you know."

"I know you can, Janice," she said with a sigh and let it drop, understanding the fiercely independent archeologist needed to do things her way . . . even if she didn't always understand why. "Maybe when you are in town, you could stop by campus and join me for lunch today," she mentioned as she looked at her watch and got up from her chair. "I'll be in my office, eating my peanut butter and jelly sandwich . . . all alone," Mel said with a pout, standing in front of her. Really close.

She always wears such nice perfume. Just enough . . . .

Janice blinked. "Uh, I . . . I was going to . . . visit with Lee for lunch," she blurted. The disappointment appearing on Mel's face made her want to kick herself. Ah Hell.

"I guess I will just have to endure your absence until dinner then," Mel said and sighed dramatically. "Say hi to Lee and Christine, and don't enjoy the day without me too much," she added sternly.

"I'll make it up to you," Janice promised sincerely, making Mel smile.

"I should hope so, Dr. Covington," Mel said and kissed her, before heading out the door.

Janice watched as Mel got into her car and drove down the driveway. As she turned onto the street, Janice immediately glanced at her watch. "FUCK!" She blurted and dashed to the phone.


Melinda looked up at the clock. "Time," she announced. "Put your pencils down."

Many students moaned. She guessed they were the ones who hadn't bothered to find out that she was well-known for her pop quizzes. Perhaps now they have learned to be better prepared, she considered unsympathetically, knowing that if they didn't make an effort to keep up with the plentiful homework, they would soon learn that she was also known as, unfairly she would argue, the "Destroyer of GPAs."

"Well, I hope ya'll have a great weekend," she said brightly as the students got up and sluggishly filed out of her classroom.

She looked at her watch. Only a few hours left before she too could begin her weekend, Mel thought with anticipation as she left her classroom. She felt like an incredible weight had been lifted after she spoke with Janice about her fears. Despite the initially angry reaction, Janice knew exactly what to say to comfort her. She always did, Mel considered with a smile, remembering how few words were actually needed. At times, when she allowed herself to be vulnerable, Janice's eyes were like windows, allowing her intimate access to her heart and soul.

Mel knew their life ahead would not be easy. But as long as she was with Janice, she believed their troubles would be bearable.

Returning to her office, she was surprised to see Janice's office door close. A pleased grin emerged as she dropped off the quizzes on her desk. A rendezvous at lunch with her favorite archeologist sounded so much better than grading quizzes at the moment, she considered, pushing her glasses up, and headed towards Janice's office with a smile.

Rubbing the back of her neck as she walked up to her door, she frowned, staunchly vowing that the next time she shopped, she'd get a new laundry detergent. She had to do something about this irritation, Mel considered and shook her head. Perhaps Janice will give me another neck rub, she thought with a big smile and opened the door.

The sight of Janice and nurse "Gail" entwined on the couch stopped her cold. Her smile dissolved as she numbly witnessed Janice hungrily kissing the young woman as one hand roughly kneaded a breast that spilled from her unbuttoned uniform and the other burrowed between the white, stocking-covered legs. A toe-curling moan coaxed from the nurse ripped through Mel's pounding heart.

The nurse's head whipped to the side as her neck was nipped and bitten. Her eyes widened when she saw they were not alone. "Oh GOD!" She gasped with horror and jumped up from the couch, knocking her lover onto the floor with a thud.

"Whoa! What's the matter, baby? I thought . . . " Janice said from the floor and looked up at Mel, who stared at her, stunned, like a deer in headlights.

The nurse scurried clumsily around, collecting her shoes as she awkwardly buttoned her uniform. With her face beet red, the nurse rushed out of the office past a still frozen Mel, muttering "Oh God. Oh God."

"Janice?" Mel said, finally finding her voice, though it was very small. She pushed up her glasses nervously, feeling sick.

"Uh, I can explain?" Janice said calmly and got up from the floor. "She doesn't mean anything to me. Not like you," she offered with a cavalier shrug, casually buttoning her shirt and tucking it in her pants. Just like she does in the morning in their bedroom, Mel noted numbly. "You're the only one, Melinda," she said, stepping towards her. Mel took a step back. "Really," she said as she wiped the smudge of lipstick from her cheek. "There's no competition."

The heartless insincerity finally prompted Mel to flee. Turning abruptly, she collided into the door. She fumbled to straighten her glasses, which dangled from her face.

"How can there be? You're my soulmate, baby." She heard though her strangled sobs as she ran from the office, desperate to get away. Words that had soothed her troubled soul before, now cruelly mocked her, crushing her fragile heart.

After watching the shattered Southerner rush out of the building, Miranda returned to Dr. Covington's office with a contented sigh. With a smile, she approached the desk, where the old book rested, pulsing orange.

"Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned," she said with amusement and chuckled, reaching out to affectionately stroke the worn leather binding.

She glanced at the picture on the bookcase behind the archeologist's desk. Picking it up, she gazed at the image of the two women in overalls, painting. After sneering at the archeologist's evil grin, she focused on Melinda. Tenderly tracing her finger slowly over Melinda's shocked face, Miranda noted that not even the wide streak of paint dribbling down the side of her face could mar her incredible beauty.


With her elbow on the table and her chin in hand, Janice stared at the clock and blew out an exasperated breath. Strumming her fingers on the dining room table, she concluded the perfectly planned evening had a minor flaw.

It didn't account for the ever-punctual Southerner being late.

She had no trouble getting Victoria and the Colonel to take the kids for the weekend. Well, after first promising JJ some baklava, she recalled, rolling her eyes. Her stomach growled as she glanced at the trays of Lee's culinary masterpieces that were slowly getting cold, despite the fancy, covered serving trays. In addition to minimizing the chance of burning dinner, getting food from the Spot helped turn part of her white lie into the truth, for she actually did say said "hi" to Christine and Lee.

Restless, she stood and started to pace, occasionally glancing at the table, which she had to admit, looked pretty damn good. She found a really nice table cloth, though it required a once-over with the iron, and used Mel's good china and silverware, which now sparkled brightly because of the frantic last-minute polishing that was desperately needed. She also dug out the crystal wine glasses for that red wine she picked up at Lee's recommendation. At the center of the table was a vase of red roses, like the ones she had placed on Mel's nightstand. Mel really loved roses, she noted with a sly smile. She also enjoyed romantic music, which Janice was playing softly in the background.

Janice went to the living room and plopped on the couch, staring at the candles on the mantle. She would have preferred a fire, but it was too hot for that, begrudgingly admitting that there were some benefits to cold weather. But she didn't want to wait until the cold weather, she considered, knowing the time was now.

Fishing out a small velvet pouch from her shirt pocket, she loosened the drawstring and extracted a plain gold ring. She gazed at it thoughtfully.

It was an extraordinarily ordinary ring. But it was far from ordinary to Janice. Despite the irony, the unconventional archeologist had always wanted to give Mel this conventional symbol of love and commitment. At first, Janice had wanted to get a huge diamond for Mel, but quickly realized that besides being cost prohibitive, Mel's tastes were modest when it came to wearing jewelry, preferring less to more. Janice hoped she still preferred less to more, for she couldn't afford that much more. And she was not about to accept or borrow anyone's money for something like this. She had to do this on her own, she staunchly believed.

The more Janice looked at the band, the more she knew just how perfect it really was. It was basic and pure, like her love for Mel. And it was rugged, so Mel wouldn't have to worry about wearing it gardening or out on a dig. If she would want to wear it at all, Janice noted with a pessimistic sigh, putting the ring back in the pouch and in her pocket. It wasn't like they already didn't draw enough attention to themselves.

Restless, she got up and paced in the living room. Kind of hard to have a perfect evening with Mel when Mel wasn't there. What was keeping her so late? Probably some urgent linguistics problem Miranda had that needed Mel's immediate and undivided attention or the world would fall apart, Janice mused with irritation.

Hearing a car, she muttered "Finally" and went to the front door. Surprised to hear knocking, she opening the door and found Victoria Pappas with a very sour look on her face.

"Are the boys OK?" Janice asked with concern.

"They're fine."

"I don't suppose you know where Mel is?" Janice asked, looking around her curiously.

"Janice, may I come in?" Victoria asked impatiently.

"Uh . . . sorry. Come on in. Do you know where Mel is?" Janice asked curiously as Victoria stiffly nodded and entered the barn.

"She's back at the mansion."

"She didn't mention she'd be stopping by the mansion," Janice said with surprise. "Would have been nice to know," she muttered, scratching the back of her head with a frustrated sigh.

Victoria was surprised by the elaborate table setting with dinner waiting to be served. Very impressive, she thought, noticing how the formal setting was complemented by the other romantic trappings of music and candlelight. It gave her cautious hope.

"Is all this an apology . . . or just an attempt to appease her, until the next time?" Victoria asked bluntly, motioning to the table as she walked over and sat down on the couch. Victoria's adversarial tone matched her posture. Her back was straight as a rod and her purse, neatly centered on her lap, tightly clenched by her wrinkled hands.

"Apology? Next time?" Janice laughed. "What did I do this time?" She asked with amusement, sitting across from Victoria in a chair by the fireplace.

"Janice, your caviler attitude is neither amusing nor helpful," Victoria snapped. Janice blinked, waiting for her to say something that made some sort of sense. "Fortunately, there is hope. I've seen relationships survive much more . . . permanent . . . indiscretions. But there must be a commitment to work at the relationship and of course, a sincere apology and vow to never, ever, indulge in such behavior again," she said tightly, annoyed to see Janice's eyes dart around the room. "Are you willing to do that for Melinda?" She asked. Janice looked at her with a furrowed brow.

"Victoria?" She asked calmly. "What the hell are you talking about??"

Victoria was shocked and deeply dismayed. "I had hoped you still cared enough about my granddaughter to want to repair the damage you caused. But I can see I'm wasting my time here," she said, briefly revealing deep sorrow, before taking a brisk breath and standing.

"Oh no you don't," Janice snarled jumping out of her seat, startling the older woman. "You don't come into my house, accusing me of not caring about Mel and expect to leave without telling me what the hell you are talking about. Sit. Down. Now," she growled.

"Are you threatening me?" She said indignantly.

"If that's what it takes! Just what the hell are you accusing me of, Victoria?"

"I had thought you would at least have had the decency to acknowledge your mistake, Janice," Victoria responded crisply.

"Jesus! I make so damn many, it might just help to know which one you want me to acknowledge!" Janice spat with frustration.

"I'm talking about the one this afternoon, where Mel caught you having sex with a woman in your office," she said bluntly. "Or is that not considered a mistake these days?" Victoria added, noticing how quickly Janice's angry steam dissipated. "Did you have any idea how much that betrayal would hurt her? And what of the boys?" Victoria asked angrily.


"Janice, be reasonable," Victoria said nervously to a disturbingly quiet Janice, who drove up the long driveway to the Mansion. Victoria found it difficult to refuse Janice's offer to drive her back as Janice had informed her that she was taking the car, with or without her.

This whole matter distressed the Pappas Matriarch for many reasons. Besides the incredibly heart wrenching betrayal, she also didn't actually mention to anyone that she had gone to see Janice instead of meeting with her bridge club. Mel had made it perfectly clear that she would not tolerate her interference and Victoria suspected that technically, trying to facilitate a reconciliation could be classified as interference. If it only hadn't back-fired, she sighed. The last thing she expected was Janice to want to face Mel so soon.

In front of the mansion, Janice stopped the engine and shook her head. Be reasonable?

"Janice, she won't talk to you," she tried again. "Don't you understand? She just saw you with that woman," she continued, getting an incredulous look from Janice, who shook her head again and got out of the car. "At least wait a while," Victoria tried again, but to no avail. Janice ignored her and marched into the house.

"Oh my," she exhaled with worry.


Hearing the car, the Colonel came from his study with a book in hand, puffing his pipe. He was surprised to see Janice march into the house. Her warning glare to not interfere was unnecessary. William knew only Melinda could handle her own heartache. He sighed with great disappointment, watching Janice start to climb the stairs. Never in a million years would he have thought this could ever happen. Not with them, he sadly thought, wondering if Janice could repair the damage.

Victoria quickly entered the house after Janice, startled to find her husband looking at her. He puffed his pipe and raised his eyebrow. "Uh . . . ," Victoria cringed.

"You know what she said, Victoria," Colonel scolded her, glancing back to the steps as Janice reached the top.

"Yes, yes, I know what she said," Victoria interjected wearily as her husband puffed his pipe. "But I just couldn't stand by and see . . . . "

"It's their problem, Victoria. It's not our place to interfere," William said sternly.

Victoria sighed.


Janice paused at Mel's door and took a few calming breaths. The whole situation was ridiculous. It would be OK once she talked with Mel, she believed. As she lifted her hand to knock, the twin heads poked out of the room down the hall.

"Muló? What's going on with Mel?" Paul asked in a hushed tone.

"She didn't tell us, but she's been crying," Daniel offered loudly, eyeing her suspiciously. "What happened?"

"I'm trying to find out!" She ground out with a clenched jaw. "Go to bed," she snapped, surprising them. She shut her eyes a moment, reminding herself this wasn't their fault. Whatever "this" was. "Please?" She asked more calmly. "I . . ."

Mel's door suddenly swung open, surprising Janice, who quickly turned to face her partner. Cold anger radiated from the tall woman. It was unnerving. Janice finally remembered to speak. "M . . . "

"Leave." Mel coldly cut her off.

Janice winced but plowed ahead. "I'll go - After we talk," Janice promised uneasily, getting a twisted sneer from the Southerner.

"So now you want to talk?"

"Ye. . . ."

The slap was swift and loud. Even the Colonel and Victoria, who were in the study downstairs, cringed. Her cheek stung and she would have cursed, if she hadn't been so shocked. It wasn't the first time she had been slapped by an angry woman, but it was the first time by Mel.

"That is all I have to say," Mel said coldly as Janice blinked and absently reached for her cheek.

What the hell is happening? "I don't know what you saw," Janice said, struggling not to shake. "But it wasn't me."

Melinda couldn't believe how easily that blatant lie rolled off Janice's lips. "I can't live like this," she said starkly, allowing a glimpse of misery to slip through a crack in her wall of anger. Retreating to her room before that wall crumbled into a weak pool of anguish, Mel shut and locked the door.

Janice stood, numbly staring at it, feeling helpless.


Janice slowly turned and looked into their shocked faces. "It'll be ok," she said with a weak, unconvincing smile that didn't last, and cleared her throat. "Y. . .You should stay here, like we planned. OK?" She said, getting uneasy nods. She also nodded and unlike her arrival, calmly descended the stairs and left the mansion.

"William, shouldn't we drive her home?" Victoria said uneasily, going to the door to watch the stunned archeologist slowly walk down the driveway, into the night.

"Victoria," he said with a disapproving sigh and returned to the study.

Victoria frowned and sadly closed the door.


After a long walk, Janice finally arrived home. Sluggishly closing the door behind her, she stood at the entrance and glanced over the dark room.

They had lovingly transformed this old barn into a home, where they had shared their lives, as lovers, as parents. And now, Mel didn't even want to share a conversation. This was supposed to be their sanctuary. But it was no longer a sanctuary. It was just a place, she thought as a feeling of emptiness settled over her.

She walked to the couch and sat. Exhaling loudly, she stared at the dark fireplace. Tomorrow we will talk, Janice thought with fragile hope, still unnerved by Mel's intense anger. Mel had been angry at her before - but never like that. Janice got up and paced. They had to talk. Mel would tell her exactly what the hell she saw and then they could straighten this whole ridiculous mess out.


In the morning, Janice woke slowly, stiff from the awkward position she had slept in on the couch. Hearing a noise in the kitchen, her heart quickened. Part of her really hoped it was a burglar. Quietly, she started to get up when Mel emerged from the kitchen.

"Mel . . . ," she gushed with hope, standing awkwardly. All they had to do was talk and everything would be all right.

The tall woman eyed her with narrow eyes, then inspected the formal setting as she slowly circled the dining room table. She stopped, bending over to sniff the roses at the center. "Seems you went to a lot of trouble. What a shame," she said flatly, looking at her coldly.

"Mel, Victoria told me you saw me with another woman. I swear to GOD that's not true. I'd nev. . . ."

"I know what I saw," Mel interrupted calmly, looking curiously under the lid of a square serving dish. She winced. Greek food.

"Well I know what you didn't see! Goddamnit, Mel, it wasn't me!" Janice snapped.

"If you are going to yell like that, I'm leaving," she said, placing the lid back down.

"No!" Janice said with panic. They had to talk. Then everything would be OK. "Mel, look. I can understand you being upset - if you saw what you think you saw, but you didn't see me!"

"Are you calling me a liar?"

"For Christ's sake . . . "

"Well! I had hoped we could at least discuss the twins."

"W. . .What about the twins??"

"Well, I want them."

"You want them . . . " Janice repeated with a laugh of amazement.

"Please don't act so surprised," she said, stunning the archeologist. "You must know in your heart that they would be better off with us. You are not exactly a model parent," she said bluntly.

Janice took an uneasy breath, unable to argue.

"And I would appreciate it if you found someplace else to stay. It's comfortable here. But I couldn't exactly come back with you still here, now could I?"

"Mel . . . ," Janice said, feeling helpless against this tidal wave of confusion.

"We'll stay at the mansion, until you find a place. But I really don't want to wait too long. It would be best for the boys to get back to a normal routine as quickly as possible."

"I don't understand . . . "

"What's not to understand, Dr. Covington? It's very simple. What we had is over."

"In one day, because of something you THINK you saw, you'll throw everything we have away?"

"What happened yesterday . . . "

"NOTHING happened! If only you'd . . . ," Janice cried with frustration.

". . . . really doesn't matter," she offered, making Janice want to pull her hair out.


"I've been thinking about this much longer than a day," Mel said solemnly. "I've tried Janice, I really have. But I just can't do it anymore. It's just too hard to be with you," she said with a sigh. "Surely, you must understand that," she added sadly.

Janice stared at her. Again, she was unable to argue. She did understand.

"If you still love me, and care about the kids, you'll realize it's best if you just leave. It will be easier for everyone. It's not just what I want . . . it's what we need," Mel said sincerely.

After a moment, Janice was surprised she could find her voice. "I'll get my things," she said weakly.

Miranda watched as Janice ascended the stairs, for what she expected to be the last time. "Divided we fall," she said with a satisfied smile.

Chapter 19 - The Bridge Club


"Hit me!" Gladys Merrick said with enthusiasm. Victoria raised her eyebrow at the tempting idea but instead dealt the last player her card. "Stay," Gladys said with a grin and tossed a blue chip in the modest pot.

"Call," Julie said as she contributed a blue chip. Victoria turned over her card announced "The house has twenty."

"And this gal has Twenty-One! Ah ha!" Gladys announced triumphantly as she revealed her ace and set it on top of her queen.

They sat around at the small card table by the window of Mrs. Elizabeth Redding's palatial living room as the afternoon sun brightly lit the room. Elizabeth sighed and said "eighteen," revealing her cards and giving them to Victoria, who dutifully collected them.

"Thirteen," Julie said with a shrug. The three astonished women looked at her. "I didn't want to go over twenty-one!" Julie said defensively.

At forty-two, Julie Thurmond was still unmarried and the youngest of the group. She was allowed to fill Widow Stouffer's spot when she finally moved into her children's Kentucky home. Although Julie was an exceptionally horrible card player, she had an amazing knack for collecting interesting tidbits and more importantly, sharing them with the older group.

"Well Mrs. Merrick, you did it again," Julie Thurmond said, shaking her head with amazement as Gladys collected her chips.

"Yup. Can't keep this old gal down," the most senior member of their group said with a chuckle. "Speaking of old gals being down, what's gotten into you, Victoria. You look like someone stole your family jewels," Gladys probed. The ninety-seven-year-old was the only one who could get away with calling Victoria old. Victoria knew that complaining to Gladys would only invite more unwanted comments.

"Just feeling a little tired," Victoria said, stirring sugar into her tea with a sigh. Elizabeth rolled her eyes. True to form, Victoria volunteered little, if any, personal information.

"So, is Melinda feeling better?" Gladys asked, glancing at Elizabeth, who raised her brow with great interest. "I heard she's called in sick today."

From Mrs. Kipler from the admin office no doubt, Victoria thought with a weary sigh. "She's better. I imagine she should be going back very soon," Victoria said, knowing Mel couldn't avoid running into Janice forever.

"Something must be going around the University. I heard that one of the clinic nurses, Gail, called in sick today too. And Dr. Covington looked so bad, people were surprised she was teaching today," Gladys noted as she and Elizabeth eyed Victoria.

"Well, Janice is a tough young woman," Victoria said neutrally, making Elizabeth sigh. Gladys smirked.

"Up for another hand?" Mrs. Merrick said, getting grimaces from the three other women. Gladys frowned. "Party poopers."

"Oooh! Speaking of jewels," Julie shared excitedly. "Did you finally get to see that huge ruby ring Larry Underwood gave his wife?"

"Almost got the damn thing stuck in my nose, with her shoving it in my face like she did. It is nice though," Gladys admitted, daintily sipping from her teacup. It contained Southern Comfort, for medicinal purposes, of course.

"Good Lord, yes!" Elizabeth said.

"Had I known the junk yard business was so profitable, I might have given Larry a second look," Miss Thurmond mentioned. "He is rather handsome, after you peel away all those layers of grease."

"You are getting desperate," Gladys commented. "It's a shame you don't have Christine Whitherspoon's money," she noted sarcastically. "You could buy a restaurant and try to catch yourself a cook."

"He's a Chef, dear," Victoria corrected her with a polite smile. "He wears a funny hat," she explained and sipped her tea.

"Buying a restaurant out of love sounds so sweet," Julie said wistfully.

"Maybe so, but it hasn't gotten her to the altar yet. You haven't heard any news on that marriage front have you, Victoria?" Gladys asked.

The Pappas matriarch shook her head no, sipping her tea. Elizabeth glanced at Gladys with frustration. Gladys smirked.

"I guess Lee is still looking for the perfect ring," Julie said with a shrug, and biting into a finger sandwich.

"Well, she is certainly a lot closer to marching down that aisle than I had ever expected her to be," Elizabeth mentioned.

"Really? With her "hospitality" towards all those soldiers at Fort Jackson during the war, I thought she'd be married with children by now," Gladys said bluntly and eyed Victoria. "So, when do you think Dr. Covington will start showing?" Victoria looked at her blankly. "Good God, Victoria, you are really out of it. Don't suppose we'll get much useful information from you today, huh?"

"Like usual," Elizabeth muttered, then announced "I heard Dr. Covington just got her own place by campus. I guess she needed more room with the child coming." Elizabeth eyed Victoria for a reaction, only getting a sad sigh as she picked up her tea and sipped.

"She probably didn't want to inconvenience Melinda with another child and a husband," Julie offered that tidbit teasingly.

"Husband?" Victoria said with surprise, continually amazed with the rumor and its ridiculous stories.

"The right thing to do, especially if you're bringing a baby into this world," Gladys said approvingly, sipping her Southern Comfort, which, she had told the ladies a number of times, had gotten her through her ninety-seven years.

"Oh, do tell," Elizabeth said enthusiastically to the young woman.

"Well, Clara Drake, you know, my good friend from finishing school who works part-time at Grayson's Jewelers? Well, she'd work full-time if she could, but she has to take care of her baby sister during Tuesdays and Thursdays, when her Mama has to . . . "

"Good God, would you just cut to the chase, girl?!?" Mrs. Merrick interrupted with frustration.

"Which one?" Julie asked, having juicy gossip on Clara's mother too.

"Dr. Covington's future husband?" Gladys growled impatiently, then turned to Victoria. "You haven't heard anything about that, have you, Victoria??"

"No. I can't say I've heard anything about a husband," she said with a polite smile. "But I am interested in hearing Julie's news. As you know, Janice is a very close friend of the family's," Victoria added, looking at Miss Thurmond expectantly.

"Oh! Yes! Well, Clara said Dr. Covington stopped by the store and picked up a wedding ring that had just come back from the engravers. Nothing as extravagant as Mary Anne's marvelous ring, but it was a wedding band none-the-less," Julie gushed.

The news made Victoria even more depressed. How did something so right go so wrong so quickly?

"So, what did it say?" Gladys asked.

"Clara couldn't tell. The letters were Greek," Julie said with a shrug, causing the old woman to grumble.

How could Janice want to get Mel something as meaningful as a ring, then ruin everything with a thoughtless lunchtime liaison in her office that same day?? During a time she knew Mel would be only a few doors away, no less? Victoria shook her head.

"You'd think an archeologist would make more than a junk yard owner wouldn't you?" Elizabeth interjected thoughtfully.

Janice can't be that stupid. Victoria's eyebrows furrowed. She's not. Janice is too clever. That was one of the things that worried her at first, she admitted, prompting her to dig up information on Janice. While the archeologist had experienced a disturbing amount of legal, financial, and personal problems, she was not driven by selfishness or prone to stupid mistakes - unless she was infatuated and blindly acting with her heart. Like getting involved with that horrible opportunist, Alice Wright, Victoria recalled with a shudder, suddenly concerned that Janice may have become infatuated with that young nurse.

"Yes, you would. But she is caring for teenage boys and new babies are a big expense," Julie reasoned, pouring herself another tea.

But that doesn't make any sense either. There wasn't any indication of Janice being interested in that nurse. And the way Melinda and Janice act around each other, it doesn't seem like Janice would want or need to seek . . . attention . . . away from home. Victoria cringed, her thoughts uncomfortably bordering on an image she really did not want in her head.

"If he got her in the family way, he should be buying the wedding rings. Really!" Gladys grumbled and sipped her Southern Comfort, which she swore would get her past 100 . . . or at least to dinner.

If Mel hadn't actually seen Janice in the arms of another woman, this whole thing would be preposterous. Victoria sighed, utterly perplexed.

"Well, she ought to be saving for the child. But I don't know how she possibly could be. She constantly goes to the Spot. Really, I know Christine and Lee are friends of her, but splurging like that all the time can't be good for her bank account. Especially if she continues indulging in feasts, like the one she had last Friday," Elizabeth said.

"What feast?" Gladys asked.

Victoria recalled that horrible Friday vividly. When Mel arrived at the mansion, she was a total wreck and in tears. It was heartbreaking to see what they had torn apart so suddenly and painfully. She still wondered if the elaborate dinner Janice put together, which had to have taken a lot of time, even for a seasoned hostess, was her attempt at an apology for that afternoon's indiscretion.

"Well, Lorraine, from the bank building? Saw Janice come into the Spot and pick up all sorts of those Greek-type dishes . . . with lamb and spinach and that feelow pastry stuff. I wish I could have Greek food, but it gives me the vapors," Elizabeth said with a sad sigh.

"Elizabeth dear, you can say gas. You're among friends here," Mrs. Merrick said with a snicker.

"Gladys, you know a Southern lady doesn't have gas. She has vapors," Elizabeth corrected her.

"Last Friday??" Julie asked. "That's when Clara saw Dr. Covington pick up that ring. Oooh. Maybe, she fixed a romantic dinner Friday and he proposed! Wouldn't that be so romantic?" Julie said excitedly.

Victoria glanced around the table uneasily as random practical thoughts started to weave together. With the time it would take to get into town, without her own truck, to pick up that ring and the food, then come back to get everything set up . . . how could she possibly squeeze in a nurse? Janice may be immortal, but she's not Superman.

"With a store-bought dinner? What's this world coming to?" Elizabeth said, shaking her head.

"Well if she's gonna walk down that aisle, she ought to do it soon," Mrs. Merrick said sagely.

"Why?" Julie asked.

"You know what they say, the first child can come anytime, the second one takes nine months," Elizabeth chimed in knowingly.

"Ah," Julie said in understanding.

Dear Lord, could she really have been telling the truth? Victoria's eyes widened.

"Looks like Victoria has the vapors, now," Gladys noted and sipped her Southern Comfort.


Miranda sat in the hospital room, chatting with the still-unconscious student.

"I passed Dr. Covington in the hallway this morning. She looked so heartbroken, I almost felt sorry for her," Miranda said with a shrug as she got up from her chair and paced leisurely around the room. "I have no idea why she continues to stay. But I'm sure after one or two more visits, she'll come to her senses and finally leave us all alone."


After leaving the gals, Victoria embarked on a mission. One, she supposed, could "technically" be considered meddling. She sat at her large mahogany desk in the mansion's library and pulled out a pad of paper and pen from the middle drawer. With determination, she picked up the phone and dialed.


"Yes, I do regret the pain Melinda is in. She's so upset, she couldn't even come to school today," Miranda sighed and shook her head sadly. "But you know as well as I that it was necessary, Ellen," she turned and argued to the unconscious patient. "Something harsh had to be done. That unhealthy hold Dr. Covington had over her had to be severed," she said with conviction, then sighed sadly. "Dr. Covington could have spared Melinda all that pain, if she would have just died when she should have."


"I see. What time did you say that was, Clara?" Victoria said, diligently taking notes on her pad of paper. "Uh huh. No, she didn't mention a fiancé to me. You don't say. Really? That's very interesting dear, but I do have to run now. I appreciate all your help. Say hello to your mother for me. What was that? Uh, no, it's Greek to me, too," she said and rolled her eyes. "Uh huh. Yes. Good-bye dear," she said and hung up. Looking over her notes, she selected another name and picked up the phone to collect more pieces to this disturbing puzzle.


"But soon, Dr. Covington will be gone. And Melinda and the boys will be happy again, Ellen," Miranda said brightly. "I'll make sure we'll be the family we all deserve to be. When she comes back to school, I'll be able to start showing her how special she really is. She'll realize how much time she has wasted with Dr. Covington."


After seven rings, she got an answer, after a startling crash.

"Larry?!? This is Victoria Pappas. Are you all right? Good. Good. Yes, those cords can be troublesome. Oh, We're fine, thank you. And I trust when you are not answering the phone, you and Mary Anne are doing well? Wonderful, I'm glad to hear that. I understand you were kind enough to drive Janice into town on Friday. Do you happen to recall when you were with her exactly? Uh huh. I see," she said writing down more on her tablet. "Really? That long? Well, that is embarrassing. I thought I had taught Melinda better than that," Victoria said with a frown. "You always keep your silver polished. You never know when company might drop by. Well, I'm sure Janice appreciates all your help. Yes. I agree, they do act like school children at times. I'll do that. And tell Mary Anne I'll see her in church on Sunday. OK. Good-bye, Larry."


Mary Anne walked out of the bedroom in her robe and slipped her arms around her husband, who hung up the phone in the hallway. "Sweetie, who was that?" She asked, kissing him between his shoulder blades and hugging him.

"Mrs. Pappas," he said with a shrug, turning in her arms and kissing her forehead. "You look beautiful," he said softly kissing her cheek. "Where were we?" He said with a grin before he kissed her lips.

"What did she want?" She asked, glancing at the phone.

"Uh . . . I don't really know," he said sheepishly. Mary Anne looked at him and shook her head with amusement.

"What am I going to do with you?" She said with a smile, getting him to blush. "Perhaps I should thank you for the ring again," she said and took his hand, pulling him into the bedroom.

Chapter 20 - Duty


A young man in an ill-fitting suit, peeked around a brick wall and looked up at the sign, "Red's Diner." Noting no one on the sidewalk nearby, he ventured from the alley and nervously peeked into the restaurant's front window.


Janice sipped her water and pushed the unopened menu away. She already knew what she wanted. But sometimes knowing what you want wasn't enough, she thought with a bitter sigh.

She had gone to the high school to see the twins at lunch. That didn't go very well. She frowned, knowing she should have expected the questions. Daniel was hurt because she wouldn't tell him what was going on. But what could she say to them? Mel hallucinated something that made her really angry at her? Mel told her to pack up and leave all of them alone? Mel couldn't take the stress of living with an immortal?? They would end up choosing sides, which wasn't what she wanted. Regardless of what was going on between the two of them, Janice knew Mel really cared for the boys and they really cared for her.

Thankfully, Mel had not brought them into this ridiculous argument. Well, it wasn't actually an argument, Janice thought with frustration. It took two people who were actually talking to each other to have a goddamn argument, she concluded, wondering if Mel would ever want to talk to her again. That cold dismissal stung Janice far more than a slap ever could. At least the slap showed Melinda had feelings, even if it was anger. Janice could deal with anger. She understood anger. But that dismissal . . . .

She had thought about doing what Mel asked - walking away from all of them. How could she not consider that? Being immortal put her family in an awkward position. Maintaining the secret when she died was hard enough, but as Mel had pointed out over and over and over, she wasn't growing older. People would notice eventually - unless they moved every few years, which she didn't want the boys to have to keep doing. They deserved a chance at being settled in one place, in a good home. And with Mel and JJ, the boys would have a good home. They got along well with JJ and finally seemed comfortable around Mel.

Taking a deep breath, Janice glanced around the room and watched the waitress bustling with the dinner crowd's orders. With a long sigh, she waited patiently. Classes were done for the day and she had nowhere to go. She had already put together her lesson plans for the year, which took up some of the time over the excruciatingly long weekend.

Too bad she couldn't just get drunk, or throw herself into an exhausting dig. She really needed to find something to keep herself preoccupied or she'd go crazy. Janice chuckled wryly. Too late.

She was crazy. The obvious answer was to walk away from Mel and the boys. But she couldn't do that. It was because of the very reason she couldn't possibly cheat on Melinda. She was crazy in love with Mel and her family. Janice shook her head, frustrated it wasn't enough to fix this.

If she could only figure out how to convince Mel of the truth. She had thought about seeking out Gail during the weekend, hoping she could shed some light on this alleged liaison. But she thought it better, well at least safer, to just wait and talk to her on campus today. But Gail had called in sick, just like Mel. She felt so fucking helpless!

The petite waitress with a sunny smile finally made her way through the crowd and to Janice.

"Hi ya, honey. What will you have today?" She said and winked at the archeologist, with her pad and pencil poised to take her order. Normally, Janice appreciated people who enjoyed their work. But this attractive woman, who before Mel, might have been an interesting diversion, was annoying as hell.

Janice made an effort to smile back. It came out more like a grimace. "Soup and sandwich special, Sally."

"One SouSa special coming up, Dr. C," she said as she wrote the order with a quick flourish, that ended with a happy tap of her pencil and a big smile. Janice politely grimaced again.

As she started to leave, Janice asked "Uh Sally? Would you mind telling me if there's a guy in an ugly suit staring through the window at me?" Janice asked, sipping her water nonchalantly.

The waitress looked at the window, then grinned at Janice. "Honey, I think you have an admirer. He's kinda cute, in a crumpled, frightened puppy sort of way," she chuckled.



He pulled back from the window with a gasp when the waitress glanced at him. A group of people laughed and chatted as they passed him, making him jump. He cringed and fingered at his collar as he glanced around the sidewalk that now seemed teaming with people. He hated crowds.

The people finally dispersed, some going into the diner and some continuing down the street. He took a calming breath and looked back into the diner, surprised to find the archeologist was no longer at the counter. When he leaned closer to the window, scanning curiously for the woman, a firm hand grabbed his collar and another grabbed his belt. He shuffled helplessly backwards on his tippy toes, into the alley as his pants rode up uncomfortably high. "Ow ow ow," he blurted. He sighed with relief when she let go of his belt. However, the relief was short-lived when she slammed him against the brick wall and pressed a forearm firmly against his chest. He looked down into his attacker's angry green eyes.

"Are you suicidal?!? Now is REALLY not a good time to piss me off," Janice snarled, brandishing her fist, just waiting for an excuse to pommel someone.

He squeaked. Shaking, he quickly closed his eyes and crunched his face in concentration. After a short moment, he opened his eyes in panic. Quickly, he closed his eyes and crunched his face again.

"What are you doing?" She asked wearily.

"I'm still here!" He said in horror when he opened his eyes. He quickly crunched his face again, trying to take calming breaths that were more like pants.

"Yeah," Janice sighed with disappointment. She couldn't very well beat up a crazy person. But finding a sane person was becoming harder and harder these days, she thought grimly. "You're still here," she agreed flatly. "If I let you go, will you promise not to run? Cause if I have to run after you, I swear to GOD, I'm not going to be happy," she snarled again to the nervous man. He quickly nodded yes.

Her eyes narrowed as she recalled his face. "Weren't you in the hospital? A couple weeks ago?"

He nodded yes. She sighed heavily. Great. "Do you want me to take you back to the hospital?" She asked.

"Why would I want to go back to the hospital?"

"Because you need to go back?" She asked the escaped nutcase.

"No. I don't. You're here, not there," he explained.

"Uh Huh," she said and sighed, then eyed him suspiciously. "You haven't been to my house too, have you?"

He nodded.

"So you've been following me?" She asked, crossing her arms over her chest.

He nodded.

After a moment, she rolled her eyes. "Is there a reason you are following me?"

"Yes," he said and nodded firmly. After a minute, she exhaled wearily, pinching the bridge of her nose. Why was it so goddamn difficult to have a conversation, any conversation, that made sense!?!

"Are you going to . . . ," she stopped herself, took a calming breath and carefully asked "Please, tell me why."

"I need you to help me get my book back."

"You lost a book?"

He nodded rapidly and looked around with embarrassment.

"Why me?" A question she had asked herself a lot lately.

"Because you're special," he said simply.

She blinked at the man in the ill-fitting suit a moment, then laughed sadly. Looking at his annoyingly innocent face that smiled at her, she surprised herself and offered "Why don't I buy you dinner?"

"I don't eat."

Janice stared at him another moment, then tried again. "How about I eat while you tell me about this book you lost?"

He started to smile, then frowned.


"Will we be going in there?" He said uneasily, pointing to the diner. "I don't like crowds."


Victoria returned to the Library after another excruciatingly tense dinner. The boys didn't chat like they usually did and silently ate their dinner. She would have preferred their bathroom humor to their uneasy silence. And Mel? Mel just sighed heavily and poked at her food. Leaving them to listen to William's inane small talk about some new investment or something. Dear Lord, something had to be done!

She shook her head wearily as she sat down. Pulling her notes from the desk drawer, she reviewed the facts that had confirmed her suspicions. So now what? Mel wasn't receptive to any discussion about Janice at the moment, convinced she saw Janice in her office when she couldn't have possibly been there. But what did Melinda really see? How could she get Mel to listen? Now what?!?

The knock on the door frame startled her from her thoughts. Victoria looked up from her notes to find Paul, Daniel, and JJ entering the study. "Hello," she said with surprise. Paul nodded to Daniel, who closed the door before the trio marched to her desk and eyed her.

"Is there something I can do for you boys?" She asked uneasily, suspecting the answer.

"Yes. We want you to tell us what is going on between Muló and Mel," Paul said, prompting nods from the other two.

"And why Mel slapped Muló," Daniel added.

"And why Mama is so sad!" JJ finished with a furrowed brow, crossing his arms across his chest.

Victoria cringed, not sure what to say. She didn't want to interfere. "Uh, have you asked Melinda?"

"She won't talk to us about it," Paul said flatly.

"And Muló is no better," Daniel complained.

"You've seen Janice?" Victoria said with surprise.

"She came to school at lunchtime to see how we were doing, but she won't tell us what's wrong between them," Paul said with frustration.

Victoria was at least thankful that Janice and Melinda were not bringing the children into the middle of this. But their silence wasn't exactly helping them either.

"She moved to an apartment," Daniel said with anger. "She moved and didn't even tell us!"

"She told us today you idiot," Paul snapped back.

"I am not an. . . ." Daniel countered.

"Nana, please tell us what's going on?" JJ interjected.

"Boys, Janice and Melinda both love you," Victoria said diplomatically.

"That's what Muló said," Daniel growled with irritation.

"It's true, Daniel," Victoria continued firmly. "They are having a serious misunderstanding right now and are just reacting to their hurt feelings. I am sure when they. . . ."

"Muló cheated on her, didn't she?" Daniel asked pointedly, knowing that was the only thing that could break them apart. The boys looked at him with surprise.

"Are you nuts? Muló would never . . . !" Paul quickly argued.

"How do you explain that slap?" Daniel countered. "And Muló moving out . . . ?!?"

"Cheated?" JJ asked with concern. Cheating was really bad . . . .

"Stop it, right now! All of you," Victoria interjected angrily, glaring at the three boys. "Janice did NOT cheat on Melinda," she said with conviction.



Janice opened up her brown bag at the small table in her apartment, eyeing the odd man sitting across from her, who looked around the room with interest.

"So, you lost a book, Titus," she said as she pulled out the sandwich.

"Yes." He smiled at her as she unwrapped the sandwich, curiously eyeing it.

"You don't chat much, do you?"



She sighed and bit into her sandwich. She suspected this was going to be a long night.


Melinda entered the hallway from the kitchen, surprised to see the boys leave the library together. "There you are. I was wondering if you were interested in playing cards or. . . ."

They looked at each other than her uneasily. "Uh, I really can't. I've got some homework," Paul said apologetically.

"Me too," Daniel said.

"Oh. OK. I'm very glad you are keeping up with it. You never know if you'll have a surprise quiz," Mel said with a small smile as the boys nodded and went upstairs.

"Mama? Could you read me a story instead?" JJ asked, getting a nod from his relieved mother, who needed the pleasant distraction.

"All right. Why don't you go up and pick one out?" She said with a smile, gently rubbing his back. "I'll join you in your room after I talk with Nana a moment."

"OK, Mama," JJ said and went upstairs.

Melinda curiously entered the library and saw her grandmother at her desk, gathering some papers and placing them into a folder. "What were you and the boys talking about?" She asked.

Victoria sighed. She thought about a sarcastic comment but instead opted for the truth. "They were concerned about you and Janice," Victoria said and stood.

"Grandmother, you have no right . . . !" Mel said furiously.

"Melinda Victoria Pappas, don't you dare raise your voice to me!" She swiftly interrupted. "For your information," Victoria said and she pushed the chair towards the desk. "Your boys came to see me because you are too afraid to talk to them," Victoria said crisply.

Mel's mouth dropped. "Don't worry," Victoria quickly continued. "I didn't say anything to make them think any less of you or Janice. I know that is part of the reason you have avoided talking with them about this mess," she said and collected her folder of notes. "Now, I think you should plan on going back to school tomorrow, Melinda. You can't hide forever," Victoria said bluntly, marching past her stunned granddaughter, adding. "Even in the worst of times, a Pappas has never neglected their duty . . . unless you're planning to start now?"

"You don't understand," Mel said in a pained voice that tore Victoria's heart.

"Oh you'd be surprised, Melinda," Victoria said. "You hurt. All right, we all understand that. But now is the time to start healing. If not for you, for those three boys," Victoria said briskly and left her granddaughter standing alone in the library.

"How?" She whispered to the empty room.


Mel entered JJ's room and smiled as the pajama-clad boy looked up from his small desk. "I've picked a story."


"Robin Hood!" He held up a thick book and handed it to her.

"Honey, we're not going to be able to get through all of it tonight," she said, eyeing its thickness.

"It's OK," he said simply as he stood and climbed onto his bed. "Mama?" He asked.

"Yes?" She said, sitting on the edge of his bed.

"You've always said that it helps to talk things out if something is bothering me. You can always talk to me, Mama," he offered with an expectant look, surprising her.

"I know, honey," she said and smiled weakly. "So, Robin Hood, is it?" She asked uneasily, opening the book, and pushed up her glasses.

He sighed unhappily and nodded, staring sadly at his thumbs that he twiddled.

Mel winced, feeling guilty. "It's going to take some time before I can talk about it, honey. Will you give me that?" She asked.

He gave a small smile. "OK, Mama. But the sooner you talk about it, the sooner we can fix whatever is wrong between you and . . . . "

"Time, JJ. You said you'd give me that. Please," she said uneasily.

"OK," JJ said with sigh and slumped shoulders. "I just miss her."

Mel nodded uneasily, took a deep breath, and started reading her son his story.


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