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Introduction:

Jessica learns that there really is evil in the world.
“Of course not.” Jessica said, “That’ll be fun.”
“Chris?” Justine asked. Jessica looked up to see Chris standing before the sofa but rather than look at Justine he was looking at her.
“Jess. I have to apologize to you.” He said. “Letting everyone listen to your private affairs was wrong and I’m sorry … and damn I’m embarrassing you again.” Chis said.
Jessica felt her face turn red but she really didn’t feel embarrassed. Even with everyone in the room watching and listening.
“My face does what it wants.” Jessica said, “Just ignore it. I appreciate the apology. Thanks.”
Chris smiled at her. “Thanks.”
“Time to go Amanda.” Don said, coming to the sofa with Stan, Caleb and Quinn trailing behind him.
“Good night … and wish me luck!” Amanda said winking at the girls as she took one of Don’s hands and one of Caleb’s and headed for the door.
A few minutes later Jessica and her men were alone in the living room.
“I know it’s been a long day.” Riley said moving behind the sofa and sliding his hands down Jessica’s chest until they rested on her breasts, “But would you have some energy left for an orgasm or two?”
“Oh yeah.” Jessica said in a breathless rush.
“In that case, go to the bedroom and undress. When we come in we expect to find you on all fours on the bed. Legs spread, butt in the air.” Angus said.
“Yes master.” Jessica said.
“And your mouth wide open.” Josh added.
“Better get going then.” Jim said when Jessica nodded. Jessica rushed to the bedroom and got into position. She watched the men file into the room, each undoing their pants and just the way they looked at her made her moan.
“We’re going for a record number of orgasms tonight.” Scott said sideling up beside her, pulling her nipple with one hand and sliding his fingers into her with his other.
“In the least amount of time.” Riley added, sliding his thumb into her mouth.
“Let’s see what it takes to get you to collapse from orgasmic exhaustion.” Jim said from behind her. He parted her butt cheeks as wide as they’d go, and then pressed his tongue on her anus.
“Oh!” Jessica exclaimed when she came.
“And that’s one.” Angus said. “I laid bets on one hundred orgasms in half an hour.” He said sliding his hand under her stomach and between her legs, using one finger to tease her clitoris.
“One hundred?” Jessica gasped around Riley’s thumb.
“I bet two hundred.” Riley said and when Jessica rolled her big beautiful eyes up to look him he slid his cock into her mouth. “Let’s get this done.” He said, and they did.
She hadn’t reached a hundred orgasms but it seemed pretty close by the time she couldn’t take it anymore. She lay in Scott’s and Angus’ arms. Riley lay with his head by hers, his legs in the opposite direction. Josh and Jim lay at the other end of the mat, their feet entwined with Jessica’s.
“It was nice of Chris to apologize about the phone thing.” Riley said.
“Mhmm.” Jessica muttered, barely able to move.
“Especially since I never got a chance to talk to him about it.” Jim said.
“What? “ Riley demanded. “You mean he apologized on his own?”
“Is that hard to believe?” Jessica asked.
“I honestly don’t think Chris realized that what he did was wrong.” Jim said.
“Oh. Well, maybe Sean said something to him.” Jessica said.
“Sean.” Josh said.
“Is that what you two were talking about earlier?” Riley asked.
“Partly. Either way, it was nice of him to apologize.” Jessica said her voice fading as she drifted off to sleep.
“Six o’clock tomorrow. What are the chances that Craig, Jay and Terry will be late?” Scott asked with a yawn.
“None.” Angus said.
“Damn. Good night then.” Scott said. Minutes later they were all snoring.

Two weeks passed. And they were really good weeks.
Physiotherapy every day made them all stronger.
They got into the routine of physiotherapy every morning. After the physiotherapy the men, Jessica, the girls and their men, and Abe and Rick, would work out together for an hour and then do an hour of combat training. A combination of physical fighting, with a strong emphasis on hand to hand combat where a knife was involved, and marksmanship.
Jessica had never felt stronger, even with her wound not one hundred percent healed yet. And she could see that Sean, Corey, Chris, Caleb, Mark, Stan, Don and Quinn were gaining a whole new respect for Leah, Sara, Justine and Amanda. Jessica was too. They worked hard. Really hard.
Combat training was followed by chores. And with the exception of the past week because the men had to mend fences and catch up on other fixes that had fallen behind while they were wounded; when the weather was nice, which was almost always, the rest of the afternoon would be spent at the pond swimming and relaxing. They’d spent so much time there that Jessica had joked that they should build a resort around it. Slides and diving boards into the pond, a mini bar on the side, lawn chairs, umbrellas …It seemed to be the favorite place to be for all of them.
They’d always be home in time to have dinner and then there would be a couple of hours of study time. The girls worked together on math. It had been frustrating at first because the other girls did not have the same level of math that Jessica had. Jessica had finally convinced them that they needed to start at their appropriate levels. So, the girls studied grade six math, and Jessica did twelve nine. When the girls needed help, Jessica, or any of the other men were able to give it, but when Jessica needed help it mostly fell to Abe or Rick. Jessica worried that her men would be upset by this but she soon realized that they were relieved that their lack of education didn’t need to be made blatantly obvious. Jessica would spend some time learning to code with Don every evening also.
After studying, there would be an hour of two of entertainment. Either jamming, or playing cards, video games, or watching a movie. The big change there being that Jessica and the girls would do these activities with the men rather than each sex doing their own thing. That, in Jessica’s opinion, was the best thing that happened to them. More and more they were beginning to feel like one big family.
And then at night when everyone retired, Jessica and the men would have crazy sex for what seemed like hours, Jessica trying her best to contain her screams but not often successful. In those two weeks the men had had to restock on condoms six times. And then, when they were done that Jessica would read aloud from one of the novels she was studying for her English course. They were nearing the end of Romeo and Juliet.
In the last few days Terry had been called away so Jessica’s physiotherapy shifted to doing gymnastics and stunt dancing with Abe and Rick. She was surprised to find that her body remembered what it had learned in gymnastics.
Abe, Rick and Jessica had just finished a physically taxing stunt routine and collapsed on the grass in the secluded clearing.
“Here.” Rick panted as he passed Jessica her water bottle.
“Thanks.” Jessica said and paused before drinking as she watched Rick toss Abe his water bottle. They sat on either side of her and as per usual acted like they were no more to one another than friends. This bothered Jessica more and more, especially as all the romantic match-ups in the group around them became more and more intimate and publicly displayed. Through it all, with the exception of Mark who still had no one, Abe and Rick were the lone pair. Seemingly alone. Being alone would have been one thing, but since Jessica knew they were together it seemed doubly cruel for them not be publicly together like everyone else was.
Jessica had tried to think of a subtle way to raise this with them but she couldn’t. And she didn’t know when she’d have the time alone with them again. So the only option was just putting it out there.
“You can hold hands or kiss or something in front of me. I don’t mind.”
Rick had been in the process of gulping water. The water sprayed out of his mouth and nose.
“Sorry,” Jessica said slapping his back as he choked on the water that he’d inhaled.
“Why would you say something like that?” Abe asked but while his voice was stern Jessica was confused by the bemused look on his face.
“Because I know that you are together and I feel kind of bad that you can’t show it. Especially while all the rest of us are hugging and kissing in front of you. It must be hard. But I don’t mind if you hug and kiss in front of me. Really.”
“How did you find out about us?” Rick demanded in the gravelly voice caused by trying to cough the water out of lungs. He was glaring at Abe and Jessica was surprised by the hostility that was rolling off of him. His body was rigid and Jessica was sure that if looks could kill, Abe would be dead a thousand times over. For his part, Abe looked surprisingly relaxed. “Well?” Rick prompted when Jessica hadn’t answered.
“Um, Angus saw you two kissing …”
“Fuck!” Rick exploded launching himself to his feet. He advanced on Abe, who had stumbled to his feet in surprise. “This is your fucking fault!” He jabbed his finger in Abe’s face.
“Wait, wait!” Jessica begged, holding her hands, palms out between them. “It’s not a bad thing, honest!”
“Who else knows?” Rick demanded.
“Riley, Scott, Jim and Josh …” Jessica said. Rick glared at Abe again and shook his head in frustration.
“Sean and the others?” Abe asked. Jessica looked between Abe and Rick, even more confused. Abe had taken a step back but otherwise there was nothing about him that indicated that he was anxious or angry. In fact, he looked entertained.
“I don’t think so.” Jessica said.
“See, it’s not that bad.” Abe said to Rick and he looked like he was trying not to laugh. Which made Rick even madder.
“Fuck you!” Rick growled and gave Abe a shove.
“You should be relieved …” Jessica said and stepped between Rick and Abe just as Rick was about to shove Abe again. “Get out of the way!” Rick snarled.
“Think about it.” Jessica said not moving, “all of my men know and you never suspected they knew. That means that they accept you. That’s great, isn’t it?”
“Fantastic.” Abe said from behind Jessica and he sounded like he was laughing. To which Rick responded by growling.
“What about Paul and the rest of your clan?” Jessica asked, “Can you be yourselves at home?”
“No!” Rick barked and he looked horrified at the prospect.
“I think they have other ideas about us.” Abe said.
“You mean about you and Stasia?” Jessica asked.
“You know about that?” Rick asked, so surprised that he seemed to momentarily have lost his anger.
“There are rumors.” Jessica said. “So I guess they’re not true?”
“Those are true.” Abe said in a tone that made Jessica look back at him. He seemed to have sobered. This time Rick seemed amused.
“So you’re bisexual?” Jessica asked, even more confused by the growing concern on Abe’s face and the lack of concern on Rick’s. In fact, Rick relaxed, crossed his arms and smiled at Abe with what looked like a smug expression.
Abe sighed and nodded.
“Okay. Well, I guess that helps right? I mean, you can kind of be intimate together, with her. So you’re not completely lonely, right?”
“Right.” Abe said. He seemed to sag a little. Confused by Abe’s reaction Jessica turned to Rick who was busy looking her up and down.
“We’re not lonely.” Rick finally said and his anger seemed to be gone too. “But thanks for caring.”
“Do we have time to practice a bit more before the work out?” Jessica asked finding the ensuing silence awkward.
“Actually, there isn’t going to be a work out today.” Abe said and he seemed relieved by the change in topic.
“There isn’t?” Jessica asked surprised.
“No. Riley said that they have some work to do in the back field and they’d be going right after physiotherapy. But, he suggested that we go to the pond instead. And he said to make sure you knew that you were to ride double with me on Cinnamon. No other horse, and not by yourself.”
“Ah. Okay.” Jessica said but she was really confused. None of the men had mentioned anything about skipping the work out. That wasn’t the kind of thing they’d forget to tell her.
“Riley only found out once you’d already headed out here.” Abe added, reading her expression. “He got a call that the material was being dropped off at the south field this morning. He asked me to pass the message along.”
“Oh. Okay.”
“Let’s go get our suits.” Rick said when Jessica still didn’t seem satisfied.
“Shorts and t-shirt.” Abe corrected, pointing a finger at Jessica.
Jessica nodded as they went to the house.
Half an hour later they came around the trees that circled the pond and Abe heard Jessica gasp behind him.
“What’s going on?” she whispered. She had to rub her eyes to believe what she was seeing. The pond was still there but everything around it had changed. There was a wide strip of cement circling the pond. On it were lawn chairs with umbrellas, and picnic tables with umbrellas. Attached to the umbrellas were hundreds of balloons. On one side of the pond there was a small structure that looked like a little house, next to it a cabana style bar. Further back there seemed to be a stable of sorts. Along the pond shore there were several slides of different heights and layouts, some diving boards. A paddle boat was tied to the shore and in the middle there was a floating trampoline.
Everyone was there, standing in a bunch, and when Abe, Jessica and Rick got closer they threw up their arms and yelled, “Happy birthday! Surprise!”
Jessica was so stunned that Abe had to lower her down to Jim when he came to help her off the horse.
“She’s definitely surprised.” Stan said with a laugh when Jessica gaped at the transformation around the pond, and then at the men, followed by their friends.
“This is my birthday party?” Jessica stammered when Jim squeezed her shoulder and then kissed her head.
“The first part of it.” Scott said. “We’ll spend the day here but tonight we’ll jam back at the house. Have a bon fire.”
“And you did all of this …” she said sweeping her hands at the house, the bar, and everything else, “for the party?”
“We did it for you. It’s part of your birthday gift.” Josh said.
“Consider this the gift that you should have had for your nineteenth birthday party.” Riley said. “Everyone helped build it. It’s from all of us.”
“Gifts for your twentieth and twenty-first are still to come.” Angus added. “Hey, why are you crying?”
Jessica shook her head as tears rolled down her cheeks.
“It’s beautiful …” she mumbled and threw herself into Jim’s chest. She tried to wipe her eyes but realized quickly that she couldn’t stop crying. So she kissed Jim said thank you and moved to Sean who stood next to Jim. She kissed him on the cheek and thanked him. But before she could move to Leah who stood next to him, Sean mumbled, “Come here.” And pulled her into a hug.
“Happy birthday.” He said into her ear, “You deserve it. You may not know it, but you’ve brought a lot of joy into our lives, you deserve nothing but joy back.”
Jessica looked at him in surprise when he held her at arms length, winked at her and passed her over to Leah who wasted no time pulling her into a bear hug.
“Happy birthday kiddo.” Leah murmured and then Jessica moved to Corey. By the time she was finished hugging, kissing and thanking everyone Jessica felt giddy. Even Rick who had a history of being stand-offish had bear hugged her. She was feeling high on love.
“Here’s the first of many gifts.” Josh said, pulling her under his arm and holding a box out to her. It was wrapped with a pink bow on it. Jessica looked from it to Josh, and then to the other men.
“Okay, Sara wrapped it … but the gift is from us.” Angus said, “Open it.”
Jessica tore into the box and pulled out two tiny pieces of bright orange material. She looked at them, at first not understanding what they were but then she realized that one of the items had two cup like pieces to it.
“A bikini?” Jessica asked in disbelief.
“It seems to be the trend.” Angus glancing at Leah, Sara, Justine and Amanda, all wearing practically nothing.
“You better go put it on before we change our minds.” Riley said. “You can change in the pool house.” He added, motioning to the little house.
“Come on.” Amanda said grabbing Jessica’s hand and dragging her to the cute little building next to the bar. Jessica noticed speakers on the porch roof and music was drifting out of them. The other girls trailed behind.
Inside Jessica looked around in awe. It was like a little cottage. There was a sofa, TV, small kitchen, bathroom. Even a fire place, which Jessica found odd.
“Look at this.” Justine said pulling Jessica into another room. “They have a hot tub, and sauna in here. It’s like paradise. Like your very own little paradise.”
“This is … amazing.” Jessica whispered. She loved it. And then her heart dropped. If they couldn’t find a way to leave the clan without going on the run, they’d have to leave all of this behind.
“Get changed … quick. I want to see what they bought you.” Leah said.
Jessica looked at the material skeptically. It really did look like the same style of bikini that Leah was wearing. And that consisted of barely enough material to cover her nipples and her pussy. Leah’s butt cheeks were there for all to see … a skinny strap between her cheeks to keep the bottom up. Clearly no room for a vibrator there.
Jessica put on the bikini and to her dismay she realized that it was exactly like Leah’s. Jessica was surprised that the men would buy her something like that. And she wondered if she should be embarrassed to be so naked in front of everyone. But it didn’t really bother her as much as she thought it should. Watching Leah bounce around as if she were fully clothed gave Jessica extra incentive to just go with it.
“Wow.” Amanda said when Jessica turned around and looked at herself in the mirror. “Your men got you that? You’re never going to get out of the bedroom you know.”
“I’m kind of wondering about that myself.” Jessica said. “They picked this bikini right?” Jessica asked Sara, “Not you, but them.”
Sara nodded, “I just wrapped it. They’d already bought it.”
“Okay.” Jessica said with a shrug. “Let’s go.”
The girls emerged to a chorus of whistles. Jessica blushed despite herself and when she turned to the men they took one look at her, turned and jumped in the pond.
Jessica followed them and enjoyed the cool water as she swam through it.
“Thank you so much!” she said at the side of the pond, treading the water until Jim pulled her into his arms.
“You’re welcome. And this is just the beginning.” Scott said.
“But with the bikini I think we’ll be spending a lot of time in the water.” Angus said, “And it’s probably better if you’re not in it with us.”
“We’ll be fine once we get used to it.” Jim said, “Come on, I’ll get you a drink.” He pulled himself out of the pond and then helped Jessica out.
“Let’s go on the slides first!” Jessica said, grabbing Jim’s hand. She waved the girls and their men over and the next few hours were spent sliding, diving and jumping on the trampoline. Riley, Angus, Scott and Josh joined them too.
Eventually they stopped for lunch.
There were sandwiches, salads and drinks. And a birthday cake. The men had taken a picture of Ebony and some cake decorating genius had replicated it onto the cake. ‘Happy nineteenth birthday’ was written on the cake in pink and nineteen candles burned on the cake.
Jessica didn’t bother trying to stop the tears that rolled down her cheeks.
“Make a wish!” Sara said.
Jessica closed her eyes and mentally wished with all her might that they could all get out of the clan unscathed. Everyone clapped when she blew the candles out in one breath.
“Happy birthday Jess.” Scott said, handing her an envelope and pecking her lips. “Open it.” He urged when she stood staring at it.
Jessica opened the envelope, fished around in it and pulled out a picture of Ebony.
“I know he was unofficially yours already.” Scott said, “But I’ve made it official. The papers are inside. He’s yours to do with as you please.”
“Thank you!” Jessica said throwing herself at Scott, wrapping her arms around his neck.
“You’re welcome.” He whispered in her ear. “We’ve opened a bank account for you in the same name that’s on your id. I’ve deposited the down payments that I got on Ebony’s foals and when they are born, you’ll get the remaining money. That’s a couple of hundred thousand dollars and you can spend it any way you want.”
Jessica stepped back and stared at Scott.
“That’s too much.”
Scott shook his head. “It’s not enough.”
“Let’s have some of that cake.” Riley said when Jessica and Scott continued to stare at one another. He squeezed Jessica’s shoulder with one hand, Scott’s with the other. “It’s a great gift Scott. Come join us when you’re ready.”
Once everyone had moved away Scott brought his hand up to Jessica’s cheek. “No amount of money is going to be able to fix what we’ve done to you.” Scott said, “Nor can it reflect how much I love you, in any way. But on your nineteenth birthday, horrible things were happening to you. I don’t even want to think about it …” he said with a shudder, “Can we pretend that this is what really happened to you on your birthday? A party thrown by the friends and the men that love you, gifts that are meant to please you, not bribe you … I know exactly what this looks like.” He added when Jessica was about to argue. “You’re going to get gifts from all of us men and they’re all going to look like a bribe. Please believe me when I say that they’re not meant that way. They’re meant to say ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I love you’.” Jessica was sobbing at this point. He kissed her cheeks. “So, happy nineteenth birthday … right?”
Jessica nodded.
“Good. The next cake is for your twentieth birthday, and the one after dinner is for this year. I promise, we’ll never have to catch up again.”
Jessica collapsed against Scott and cried. He held her, hard. And it made her feel good.
“Are you okay Jess?” Josh asked from her left. Jessica nodded and lifted her head to find Jim, Angus and Riley surrounding her and Scott too.
“I can honestly say that I’ve never been better.” She said. “Thanks.” She added when Riley handed her a towel. She wiped her eyes and got herself under control. “I really appreciate all of this. Thank you.”
“We’ve saved a huge freakin’ piece of cake for you.” Josh said holding his hand out to Jessica, “Ready to eat it?”
Jessica took Josh’s hand and followed him and the other men to where everyone else sat eating cake.
By the time Jessica finished the biggest piece of cake she’d ever eaten, she was happy to stretch out on a lawn chair and relax. The girls were on lawn chairs next to her.
Jessica sighed, sipped the rum laced fruity drink that Riley had delivered to her and watched the men push each other into the pond. Scanning the girls Jessica noticed Amanda looking from the group of men shouting and laughing near the pond, and Quinn, sitting by himself at one of the picnic tables. She looked distressed.
“I thought things were going well.” Jessica said. Amanda looked at her in surprise and then shook her head.
“They were … or so I thought.”
“So what happened?” Justine asked.
Amanda shrugged. “Don, Stan and Caleb seem to think that I like Quinn more than I like them.”
“Do you?” Jessica asked.
“No!” Amanda said but not too convincingly.
“That was real convincing.” Sara said.
“Look. I’ve known Don, Stan and Caleb my whole life. Quinn is … new. There’s something different about that and I guess I kind of like it. But I don’t treat them differently … honest.”
“I’ve known Corey my whole life.” Leah said, “And trust me, knowing him sexually is different. Really different.”
Amanda nodded. “Yeah, that definitely adds a new dimension to what I know about Don, Stan and Caleb.”
“So sex with the five of you has been …?” Jessica asked.
“Nonexistent for over a week now. Things started okay … I think. I just don’t know anymore. I’m half expecting Quinn to go back to his clan.”
“So during combat practice, when the four of them looked like they were trying to kill each other, they really were?” Jessica asked.
Amanda nodded and sniffled.
“We went through that with me and Jim.” Jessica said and laughed when the girls looked at her in with surprise. “The thing was, Jim was more like a brother to me at the beginning and because of that I did have more feelings for him. And I didn’t realize that I was treating him differently. It caused major issues … major.”
“Well, they’re fine now.” Sara observed, watching Jim and Scott toss Riley into the pond.
Jessica nodded, laughing at the men’s antics, especially when Angus and Josh shoved Jim and Scott into the pond. “But it was a long and painful process before they all started feeling equal. You have to figure out what you’re doing to make Don, Stan and Caleb think that you like Quinn more, and you have to stop. And quite frankly, at this point, you have to reverse it.”
“How?” Amanda asked, sniffling while she spoke, “How am I supposed to do that? I honestly believe that I treat them equally.”
“Hey, Manda!” Don called from the side of the pond, “Come in with us!”
Amanda shook her head, and called back “Later maybe.”
Don looked disappointed. So did Stan and Caleb who had been watching.
“Amanda,” Quinn called, getting up from the picnic table, “Another drink?” he asked holding his beer up.
Amanda’s face lit up and she nodded, “Thanks!” she called back and threw in an enthusiastic wave.
Jessica looked between Amanda and Quinn, who headed to the bar, and Amanda and Don, Stan and Caleb. Don, Stan and Caleb looked at one another and clearly upset they turned away.
“Amanda!” Jessica snapped.
“What?” Amanda asked, surprised by Jessica’s tone.
“You’re joking right?” Jessica demanded.
“Oh come on.” Leah said when Amanda looked completely clueless. “You blew off Don, Caleb and Stan but your face lit up like candles on Jessica’s birthday cake when you spoke to Quinn.”
“You definitely favor him.” Jessica said.
“And it’s obvious.” Justine added.
“I do?” Amanda asked clearly upset by the idea. “I don’t mean to …”
“Hey!” Sara squeaked. Sean had appeared as if from nowhere, scooped Sara up and ran for the pond.
“Oh no!” Justine managed to mutter when Chris scooped her up and took off for the pond too.
“Corey, no!” Leah muttered, beating her fist on his chest as he turned and headed for the pond.
“Not now …” Amanda said when Caleb scooped her up but her distress was either lost on him or he ignored it because he made for the pond like a bat out of hell.
Jessica was just about to get up, feeling lucky that she’d avoided being thrown in the pond when an arm as hard as steal wrapped around her waist from behind.
“Just where do you think you’re going?” Riley asked and before she knew it Jessica was bouncing along in Riley’s arms as he ran for the pond. A throaty chuckle rumbling from his chest as they went.
There was a lot of noise coming from the pond. All of the men not currently carrying women to throw into the pond were in the water cheering the running men on. This included Abe and Rick so everyone was accounted for except Quinn.
When Scott, Jim, Josh and Angus started chanting Jessica’s name, Jessica threw her arms around Riley’s neck and locked them tight, her chin resting on his shoulder.
“You guys are crazy.” She muttered into his ear, “I’m not going in the pond without you … you know that, right?”
A low chuckle erupted from Riley. “You seem pretty sure of yourself. I know you’re the birthday girl and everything but you should be prepared for disappointment.”
Jessica laughed some more and squeezed him even tighter, but then flicking her eyes back from where they’d come she saw Quinn standing near the lawn chairs, Amanda’s drink in hand, staring after them. Everything clicked into place. This had been designed to intercept Quinn’s drink delivery. When Quinn turned slowly and began to walk back to the picnic table Jessica realized that she should do something about things and sooner rather than later. And as the noise from the pond got louder as she and Riley got closer she realized that she may not get another opportunity to be alone with Quinn.
“Stop Riley.” Jessica said.
“Yeah, right …” Riley chuckled.
“No really,” Jessica said pushing herself upright in his arms and patting his chest with her hand, “I really need you to stop.”
Riley slowed a little but didn’t stop.
“Jess, you’re going in the pond.”
“I know, I know … but can it be later? Right now I have to go talk to Quinn.” Jessica said looking back in Quinn’s direction.
“Quinn!” Riley exclaimed pulling up short and staring at Jessica. From the direction of the pond Jessica could her men demanding to know why Riley’d stopped.
Jessica nodded, “Amanda’s been favoring him and now he has problems with Stan, Don and Caleb. Someone has to talk to him.”
“And that someone is you …” Riley said.
“No. It’s you, and the other men. But, and this may come as a shocking surprise to you, you’re not the most approachable people in the world.”
“You don’t say … you do realize that that’s not the most complimentary thing you’ve ever said to me.”
“I’m sorry …” she said kissing his cheek, “what I meant was that for people who don’t know you well, you don’t seem approachable. And by ‘you’ I mean you men in general, not just you.”
“Oh yeah, that makes me feel much better …”
“It’s not coming out right …” Jessica said, looking back at the pond. The shouting had stopped and everyone, but of most importance to Jessica, her men, were watching her and Riley in silence. “Riley, I really don’t want to spend much time on this. I’d rather celebrate my birthday with you guys but Quinn is the odd man out right now, and Amanda’s scared that he’s about to go back to his clan. If we don’t take this chance right now, none of us may get a chance to talk to Quinn before he leaves. Give me ten minutes to talk to Quinn, and you guys talk to Stan, Don and Caleb. Hopefully Quinn will come and talk to you too and we can give them some direction in working this out.”
“Okay. Ten minutes.” Riley said turning and walking back toward Quinn, “Should I walk you back?”
“No, I’ll walk.” Jessica said looking back at her men. At this point Scott was yelling, “Boo, hiss!” and Angus was demanding do know where they were going. Josh and Jim just stood watching them. “Can you explain it to the others? This will take ten minutes and then I don’t plan on giving any more time to it today. I’d much rather play around with you guys.” Jessica said, kissing Riley’s lips. “So ten minutes.” She said again, hugging Riley tight, “and I’ve made an observation. While everyone else is soaked, Scott is ridiculously dry. When you come to get me in ten minutes you have to help me get him into the water.”
Riley laughed, “I’m glad to see that Scott giving you his gift first hasn’t curried him any favors with you …”
Jessica looked at Riley to see if he was serious but to her relief, he was laughing and his eyes sparkled when he winked at her, “Just kidding.” He said. “We’ll make sure he gets what’s coming to him … don’t worry.” Riley pecked her lips and lowered her to the ground. “And don’t worry, I’ll take care of these yahoos.” He added when Jim yelled, “Jess, where you going?”
At this point, not only were Scott, Josh, Jim and Angus watching her and Riley, but so was everyone else. Don, Caleb and Stan did not look impressed, and Amanda looked worried.
Riley smacked Jessica’s butt before turning toward the pond. Jessica jogged back toward Quinn. He watched her come but seemed surprised when she stopped in front of him. Quinn sat on the picnic table, feet on the seat. He’d placed Amanda’s drink next to him.
“Mind if I sit?” Jessica asked, indicating the space on the other side of the glass.
“Rrrr, no.” Quinn said motioning to the table top. “Do you want Amanda’s drink? I don’t think she’ll be drinking it anytime soon.”
“Sure, thanks.” Jessica said, taking the drink and sipping it.
Quinn went back to staring in Amanda’s direction.
“She favors you you know.” Jessica said and took another sip.
“So they’re feeding you that BS too.” Quinn stated, nodding at Stan, Caleb and Don.
“No, I observed it. And she is.”
“Whatever.” Quinn snorted and shook his head in disbelief.
“The irony of it is that it may not be the big things that make her favor you, but the small seemingly benign things. We went through the same thing. You should really speak to my guys.”
“Okay … no thanks.” He said with a shake of his head.
“Why not?”
“Because, I don’t think they like me very much.” Quinn said.
It was Jessica’s turn to shake her head. “I know you probably didn’t know any of my men very well before you started dating Amanda, but let me tell you that they tend to lean on the jealous side. In fact, you may recall that every time we’ve been swimming prior to today I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt.”
Quinn nodded.
“Well, they feel comfortable enough around everyone here, including you, to let me wear next to nothing. Here I am sitting next to you in what barely counts as a bathing suit, and they’re letting it happen. Trust me, if they didn’t like you, this wouldn’t be happening.”
“They sure don’t look too thrilled.” Quinn said nodding toward the pond. Jessica looked down to see the men talking to Caleb, Don, Stan and Amanda, but staring up at Jessica and Quinn. They’re expressions were quite relaxed.
“No, they’re good.” She said. “Listen.” She said turning back to Quinn, who looked skeptical about her pronouncement on the men’s mood. “I don’t have a lot of time. What I want to point out to you is that the simplest little things done over and over again can go far in giving you the advantage over Don, Caleb and Stan. A simple example is a cup of coffee. Amanda may like one teaspoon of sugar and lots of cream in her coffee. You may know that, they may not. So you’ll bring her the perfect coffee and they won’t.”
“You’re kidding me, right? I mean, they’ve known her their whole lives, how can they not know how she likes coffee?” Quinn demanded.
“She may have known them her whole life, but neither of us know what kind of relationships they had. They may have known dittley about her.”
“And how’s that my problem?” Quinn asked.
“It depends on how committed you are to seeing this relationship work. If you don’t care if it works then it’s not your problem at all. But if you want to give it a chance then it’s completely your problem. You’ve gotta want to make Caleb, Don and Stan equal in Amanda’s eyes.”
Quinn suddenly straightened. “I think they’ve lost patience.”
Jessica followed his gaze. Scott, Jim, Josh and Angus were waiting on the shore of the pond, watching Riley striding toward Jessica and Quinn.
“No, it’s probably been ten minutes. He’s supposed to come get me.”
“He looks like he wants to pound me into the ground.”
“You’ve obviously never seen Riley angry before … right now he’s completely calm. But as an FYI, you could work on your warm and cuddly look. I almost kept going when I saw your face. Anyway, think about the coffee example. It’d be a small and easy change to make and I guarantee you it’ll get you some major mileage.”
Quinn leaned back, away from Riley when Riley finally stopped in front of them.
“Ready Jess?” Riley asked.
“You betcha …” Jessica said standing on the picnic table seat and jumping into Riley’s arms. She looked at Quinn, “Do you want to come help us shove Scott in the pond? He’s got it coming …”
“No … thanks.” Quinn said.
“We should talk.” Riley said to Quinn, “Maybe tomorrow.”
Quinn nodded.
Tossing Jessica in his arms a couple of time, producing laughter and squealing from Jessica, Riley took off in the direction of the pond.
“Get me close enough to Scott that I can take him in with me.” Jessica was said as they went.
“No prob.” Riley said, “If I have to I’ll come in with you … but you’ve gotta protest a bunch Jess or Scott’s going to be suspicious.”
“Okay.” Jessica said with a giggle, “But just remember you told me to …” and Jessica launched into kicking, twisting, and screaming, all of which were only possible in their full effect because Riley let her. It wasn’t long before they were nearing the pond edge.
“Scott man,” Riley yelled, “I need your help!”
Scott was laughing and when he reached out to grab Jessica, Jessica launched herself on him, clasping her hands around his neck. The momentum of that as well as Riley giving him a good shove sent Jessica and Scott into the water.
Jessica and Scott came up laughing. The men on shore hooted and clapped and then all cannon bombed into the water around them.
The next hour was spent fooling around in the pond.
They’d played water volleyball for most of that hour. Now the men sat on the edge of the pond watching Jessica still play with Amanda, Leah, Justine, Sara, Rick, Abe, Corey, Don, Stan, Caleb, Mark and Sean.
Declaring themselves waterlogged, the men said they were going to get a beer and a fruity drink for Jessica. And they were, but they couldn’t help but sit and watch Jessica have so much fun. She was absolutely beaming.
“Where the hell does she get so much energy?” Riley asked.
“I don’t know but it’s a damn good thing she does.” Scott said, elbowing Riley and making an exaggerated wink.
“Speaking of which …” Angus said, “I cannot believe we agreed to buy her that bathing suit. Even in the water, where I can barely see her body, and it’s freezing cold, I still get …”
“Turned on?” Scott asked.
“You don’t know the half of it. I have plans for tonight and I’m not sure …. Let’s just say Jessica may not be able to walk or talk for a while afterwards.” Angus said.
The men looked at Jim when he nodded and grunted in agreement.
“What? In case you haven’t noticed you guys have made me into a sex obsessed barbarian. I want to … do it … to her just as much as you do.” Jim said.
Josh elbowed Angus and hissed, “Smile …” when Jessica looked over at the men. She beamed at them, and they beamed back.
“Thank God we’re wearing these ridiculously long short trunks or Jessica couldn’t help but see my … need.” Angus groaned.
“It’s a good thing she’s so far away because believe me those shorts are hiding nothing.” Jim said, eyeing the bulge in Angus’ crotch.
“Man … “ Angus groaned as he slid into the water, closing his eyes as the cold, spring fed water worked to hide the evidence of his desire. “You have no idea how many times I’ve had to push Jessica away from me so she wouldn’t know …”
“I do have an idea … trust me.” Scott said.
“I’m just glad you were right about the other guys and Jessica in that bathing suit.” Riley said to Jim, “I was really nervous when she first came out with that thing on.”
“Yeah, I thought I was going to have to pound someone into the ground.” Angus said.
“Apparently, not everyone is as perverted as we are.” Josh said with a half laugh.
“Like I said,” Jim added while Angus hauled himself out of the water onto the side of the pond. “We didn’t get turned on by the other girls in bikinis, it follows that the other men won’t get worked up over Jessica. Not everyone is a full blown pervert.”
“That’s a relief.” Riley said looking at the men that continued to toss the ball around with Jessica and the other girls in the pond.
At that moment Amanda cast a sad glance at Quinn who still sat on the picnic table … staring steadfastly at Amanda. Jessica noticed, and also looked over at Quinn.
“Manda, catch!” Don yelled and tossed the ball to Amanda who missed it.
“That’s been going on for the past hour.” Josh said nodding his head at Amanda, “This situation with Quinn, Caleb, Stan, Don and Amanda is going to ruin Jessica’s party.”
“I’ve been thinking about that too.” Riley said, “I have half the mind to send them home.”
“And that wouldn’t ruin Jessica’s day …” Scott said.
Josh snorted, “Not an option Riley.”
“Well, this can’t keep up …” Angus said. “Great …” he added when Amanda, who had been swimming toward the ball, swam past it and pulled herself onto shore.
“Manda, where’re you going?” Caleb asked as he, Stan and Don swam after her. Once on land, Amanda looked over her shoulder, saw the men swimming after her and took off at a run toward Quinn.
“Shit!” Corey hissed, and he, Chris, Sean, Mark, Justine, Leah and Sara followed.
“Look, we can sit here and piss and moan about this, or, we can do like Jessica wanted us to do and go talk to them.” Jim said, “That is what Jessica wanted us to do, right?” he asked Riley, “Or are you fucking up the message delivery again?”
Riley narrowed his eyes at Jim, “That was the message, yes. But I don’t want to spend Jessica’s birthday party dealing with other people’s problems.”
“Neither do I. But the day is young.” Jim said, “If we take care of this now it will salvage the rest of the day. I mean, Jessica’s trying really hard to act like she doesn’t care …” Jim continued, getting to his feet, like the other men were doing also, just as Amanda reached Quinn, flew into his arms, and then hid behind him as the other men reached them. Jim flicked his chin in Jessica’s direction. She was observing Amanda and the others and looking very uncertain as to what to do. She was slowly moving toward shore, Rick and Abe following her lead. “But she does. If we want her to have fun, we have to do something about this.”
“Fucking shit …” Angus muttered. “Fine. Let’s do this.” He said turning and marching toward the group by the picnic table.
Just then Caleb yelled, “You asshole!” and slugged Quinn, and Amanda screamed “Stop!” at the top of her lungs.
“Jess! Jess!” Josh shouted as Jessica began swimming for shore. “We got it, just relax … ‘k?” he asked, palms up when Jessica stopped and looked over at him. She flicked her eyes over to where Corey was holding Caleb back, Sean was stepping in front of Don and Stan while Amanda helped Quinn up. And then, at Riley, Angus, Scott and Jim jogging up toward the group. Looking back at Josh she nodded.
“Do you want me to stay here?” she asked.
Josh nodded, “With Rick and Abe …” he said, looking to the two men to ensure they didn’t mind. Both nodded. “Don’t worry about anything okay? It’ll be fine.” Josh added.
Jessica nodded, “Be careful, all of you.” She said, “And don’t let Angus get punched in the nose again. I don’t think his nose can take another break.”
Josh smiled. She’d said it in as light a tone as she could but it was clear to Josh that Jim was right. She was pretending to not care. Why, he had no clue, but she was.
“Gotcha. Be back soon.” He said and strode toward the group by the picnic table. Part way he looked back to see Jessica swim for the ball, reach it and toss it to Rick. Turning her back on the chaos on shore, she swam back to complete a triangle with Rick and Abe, and continue to volley the ball around. Josh shook his head, and jogged to catch up with the others.
“Aren’t you worried that your men are going to lose it on them?” Abe asked, catching the ball when it came to him and looking at her men storming toward the group at the picnic table.
Jessica turned to look at the men too.
“No, it’ll be fine.” She said.
“How do you know?” Rick asked, “They look like they’re going to slug somebody.”
Jessica watched the men for a moment and could see how the tension in their bodies could be misconstrued as anger. Their bodies were definitely tense but she read no violent intent in them.
“Trust me.” She said, turning back to Rick and Abe, “They’re not angry. Annoyed, yes, but not angry.”
“But how can you tell?” Abe asked, “ If that’s not their angry body language I’d hate to see what is.”
“Apparently we’re not the only ones misreading them …” Rick muttered. Jessica followed his gaze. Caleb had been struggling against Corey, Quinn trying to gently shake Amanda off of him … but when her men arrived everyone took one look at them and immediately took a step back.
Jessica chuckled, “I guess it’ll work to their advantage.”
“I guess …” Abe said when no immediate violence occurred. His attention was quickly diverted when Jessica lobbed the ball toward him.

“Look.” Riley said when he and the men arrived at the group. “We already spoke to you …” he said to Caleb, Stan and Don, “And I don’t know what Jessica said to you …” he said to Quinn, “But we’re going to do this all together now and get this settled once and for all. In this situation it is critical that Amanda treat you all equally, and that you all …” he said fixing his eyes on Quinn, Caleb, Stan and Don, one by one, “enable her to. The only way you can do that for sure is to do everything … and I mean everything … together. It won’t be forever …” he added when all four men groaned, “eventually you’ll all feel equal and it won’t be an issue anymore, but to begin with everything has to be exactly equal.”
“I’m sorry,” Don said, “but I find it impossible to believe that you all really felt that unequal. I’ve seen no evidence that you have any issues with each other at all.”
“That’s because we don’t have any issues with one another now.” Scott said. “But believe me we did. And it was bad … really bad.”
“So bad that Scott, Josh and I almost left with Jessica.” Jim added when no one looked convinced.
“And they were prepared to kill us to get away.” Angus added.
Silence hung in the air.
“That’s bullshit.” Caleb said, having evaluated the timber of Angus’ tone and the expressions on his, Riley, Jim, Josh and Scott’s faces, “There’s no way you’d be this calm about it if that had really happened.”
“We weren’t calm.” Riley said, “Not at all. We beat the shit out of one another when Angus and I found out. And things would be different for us right now if it hadn’t been for Jessica’s desire to stay with all of us.”
“We went through some very painful times.” Angus said.
“Painful and awkward times …” Josh added. “But in the end we made an oath to each other. That’s how we got these tattoos.” He said pointing the tattoo on his shoulder.
“Part of the oath requires to be completely honest with one another … absolutely no secrets.” Scott said. “And I’d suggest that for you too. It’ll be ugly at first because I don’t think you’ll have a lot of nice things to say to one another. But at least you’ll know you can trust one another. Things’ll get better after that.”
“So that’s why Jessica is always telling you everything?” Leah asked.
Jim nodded.
“I don’t know …” Stan said. “You guys have known each other for forever. We’ve known Quinn for a few weeks. I don’t see how it can work.”
“Everyone has to be open to it … 100% open to it.” Jim said. Everyone looked at Quinn, who was looking surprisingly thoughtful.
When he realized everyone was waiting for him to say something he cleared his throat. “Normally I’d be skeptical about this whole thing …” he began, pulling Amanda from behind him, around to stand in front of him. He looked at her. “But I’ve had the ‘benefit’ if you want to call it that, of sitting up here and observing. And what I’ve observed is that Jessica consistently, methodically, naturally, and creepily treats each of her men equally.”
“What?” Amanda stuttered.
“It’s weird. She never spends more time with one man more than the other. It’s like she has some internal clock … she moves from one to the other like clockwork. She looks at, smiles at, touches, kisses, hugs, laughs with … loves, each one the same. When Jessica came to talk to me she never once mentioned anything about how she treats her men, or what you would have to do to make us feel equal, but she did talk about me and what I could do to make you see us men more equally. And it goes pretty well with what these guys are saying.”
Quinn looked up at Stan, Don and Caleb. “If you’re willing to try, I am too.”
Silence hung in the air as Don, Stan, Caleb, Quinn, and Amanda looked at one another.
“You know, this sounds like something we should all be doing anyway.” Sean said. He looked at Sara, “You and me … you and me …” he said again looking at Leah, “and you and me.” He ended, looking at Corey. “It really can’t hurt for us all to be honest with one another.” He added, looking over at Chris, and then everyone else.
“I’d only recommend that if you’re committing to staying together no matter what.” Jim said. “It isn’t easy, at all. And there will be times that you’ll think it’d be easier to walk away then bother. Give it some time and think about it.”
“But not you …” Scott said to Don, Caleb, Stan, Amanda and Quinn, “you have no choice if you want your relationship to survive.”
Don nodded his head. “I’m in.” and he extended his hand to Quinn, who shook it.
“Okay.” Stan said and did the same.
“Amanda?” Caleb said when Amanda seemed to be watching the men in stunned silence, “Are you up for this?”
Amanda nodded, “I’ll do anything to make things better. Just please, include Quinn and I’ll do whatever I have to to make sure you all feel equally treated.”
“Okay, I’m in too then.” Caleb said and shook Quinn’s hand.
“What the hell?” Angus suddenly grumbled. Everyone looked at him in surprise, and found him looking down at the pond. They followed his gaze and saw Jessica, Rick and Abe coming up for air in the water.
“What?” Scott asked.
“Just watch …” Angus said as the three climbed onto land.
Jessica, Rick and Abe seemed to be coordinating something. Then they lined up, ran at the pond and executed two handsprings and a double back somersault into the water in perfect synchronization.
“What the fuck …” Riley muttered as the three broke the surface, high fived one another and then swam for shore.
“Gymnastics.” Jim said.
“She told us about that the other night.” Josh added, “What they were doing when Terry wasn’t around for physiotherapy.”
“Yeah, but fuck, when she said gymnastics I thought somersaults and cartwheels not something that belongs in the circus …” Angus grumbled.
“She did mention stunt dancing …” Scott said.
“I’m afraid to see what that means.” Riley said.
“She wanted us to do it with her … remember?” Josh asked. “And, I can fucking somersault into the water too. I’m going to show her my moves … come on.”
“As you can see …” Riley said to everyone, “even with complete honesty you can be surprised. And now it’s completely up to us and how we handle this that will determine how Jessica feels about us. She was honest with us, told us about the gymnastics and dancing all on her own accord and all pre-emptively. So …” Riley said, his face breaking into a smile, “I’m good with going down there and belly flopping my way into joining her, Rick and Abe. The old me would have thrown a fit … and that would have scared Jessica and pushed her away from me. And the old Jessica wouldn’t have told us about any of this and we would have had to pry everything out of her.”
“The old me would have beaten the shit out of her.” Angus said quietly. “Any excuse to abuse her, I would have taken it. But I trust her now and it’s not her fault that I’d imagined something different from what she meant. I think I can tumble my way into the pond too.” He said, his voice and mood lightening. “Let’s go.”
“I’ll grab her that drink she wanted.” Jim said, “Meet you down there.”
“Funny.” Scott said as Jim was about to turn away, “That’s what the old you would’ve done too.”
“Naw,” Angus said, “the old him would’ve been finding some way to keep me from hurting her.”
“Was it really that bad?” Amanda asked.
“Better believe it.” Angus said, “But that’s ancient history. Race you to the pond…” he said and took off running.
Jessica, Rick and Abe had just crawled onto shore and now looked up in surprise to see the whole group running and screaming toward them.
“What’s going on?” Abe asked.
“I don’t know.” Jessica said with a laugh, “But we better get out of the way …” and she dove into the water, followed by Rick and Abe. They came up in the middle of the pond just in time to see Angus launch himself into the air, legs spread but bent, clutching his knees and rotating through the air only to over shoot the turn and belly flop into the water. Right behind him was everyone else. Jessica was laughing at the noise and waves created by the mob. From under the water a hand grabbed her ankle and then alternated with a second hand, climbing up her leg. Jessica looked down and laughed when Angus broke the surface. She wrapped her arms around his neck when he pulled her against him.
“That was a seven.” She said with a laugh and kissed him.
“Seven!” he demanded but laughed. Soon everyone had surfaced, Riley, Josh and Scott beside Jessica and Angus.
“Jess, I think you understated things when you told us about the gymnastics you were doing.” Scott said.
“I did?” Jessica asked and instantly looked concerned.
“We just imagined a different level of gymnastics that’s all.” Riley said.
“Yeah … like kindergarden level.” Angus said.
“Oh.” Jessica said but she looked between the men and it was obvious that she was upset by the fact that the men had been taken by surprise. “I’m really sorry. I should have explained things more. I used to do competitive gymnastics, and dance. I guess I didn’t think to make that clear.”
“No worries Jess.” Josh said.
“But about that stunt dancing …” Angus said.
“Oh my God, yes …” Jessica said suddenly looking very upset with herself.
“Jess …” Riley said cupping her cheek, “Relax okay? You didn’t do anything wrong and we’re not upset with you. We’d just like a more detailed description of this dancing … and you did say you wanted us to do it with you.”
“Yeah, come on.” She said beginning to swim toward shore, grasping Angus’ hand and towing him behind her.
“Your fru fru drink …” Jim said, approaching as Jessica and the men pushed to their feet and holding a glass up to Jessica.
“Thanks,” Jessica said taking the glass and sipping it before handing it back to Jim, “Wow, that’s good, and strong ….” She smacked her lips. “But I have to take it easy on that for a bit … and so do you.” She said indicating the beer Jim was holding in his other hand. She turned to the other men, “So Rick and Abe will show you how to hold and catch me …” she continued, waving her hand to beckon Abe and Rick.
“What do you mean, catch you?” Scott asked.
“Well, stunt dancing involves a lot of throwing. You toss me up and I do gymnastic moves in the air.” Jessica said.
“Figures …” Angus grumbled but to Jessica’s relief he smiled and winked at her.
“Umm,” Jessica said as the others got out of the water and came to watch. “Normally I’d suggest Rick or Abe demonstrate … but I don’t think I’m appropriately dressed for that.” She said looking down at her scanty bathing suit.
“Really?” Riley asked, eyeing Rick and Abe.
“Don’t worry about that …” Corey said with a laugh, “I don’t think there’s much to worry about there …”
“What?” Rick demanded. Corey’s laugh died and his face reddened as he realized he’d spoken aloud.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Rick growled.
“I, ah, saw you. By the garage the other day …” Corey stammered.
“Must’ve seen what I did.” Angus said.
Rick looked between Corey and Angus and his face turned bright red.
“Who knows?” Rick demanded.
“Rick …” Abe began, stepping forward and putting his hand on Rick’s shoulder. Jessica was once again struck by how calm Abe was in comparison to Rick … even when Rick shook off Abe’s hand and glared at him.
“Who knows?” Rick repeated.
“We all do.” Leah said, “I mean, Corey told us …” she glanced around at Corey, Stan, Sean, Don, Chris, Caleb, Quinn, Mark, Justine, Sara and Amanda, “And we don’t care. It changes nothing for us.”
“And I told Jessica, Riley, Scott, Josh and Jim.” Angus said, “We don’t care either.”
Rick stared at everyone. His face changed to six different shades of red before he finally exhaled and shook his head. “Whatever.” He said, “Regardless of that, I think everyone would be more comfortable if Jessica was wearing more clothing for this. You gotta grab her ass and neighboring areas a lot.”
Jessica was nodding.
“We can do this up by the pool house just as easily as we can do it here.” Abe piped in. “So she can change.”
“Okay.” Josh said, scooping Jessica into his arms. “Let’s do it.” And he started toward the pool house.

A couple of hours later Jessica sat perched on Josh’s lap while eating some of the sandwiches that had been brought out again.
An hour and half had been spent stunting. Everyone had raised a sweat … Leah, Amanda, Justine, and Sara also learning the stunts with their men. It had been an excellent exercise in building trust between Caleb, Quinn, Stan and Don. For the kind of things they were doing there was an incredible amount of trust that the girls had to have in the men to catch them. Amanda had demonstrated repeatedly that she trusted each one of the four men to the same degree by never flinching with one more than the other.
And Jessica had noticed that Mark seemed to be teamed up with Justine and Chris. And there seemed to be a level of intimacy between Mark and Justine that Jessica hadn’t seen earlier. And, Chris didn’t seem to mind. Jessica felt an odd sense of relief. She couldn’t help but feel sorry for Mark. It couldn’t be fun being the only one without a romantic interest.
Jessica’s men had received an extra boost to their egos too when as the stunts had progressed in difficulty Abe had mentioned that everything past the most basic moves Jessica had been unable to complete with him and Rick because she hadn’t trusted them enough. That had earned Jessica lots of extra pats, kisses, hugs, squeezes. The men were happy, of that Jessica had little doubt.
Once everyone was tired to the point that mistakes were starting to be made, they’d all changed back into their bathing suits and swam. And now they were eating.
No sooner had the sandwiches been finished than Angus appeared carrying another birthday cake, candles lit.
Jessica made the same wish she’d made earlier and once she’d blown out the candles she admired the cake decoration again. On part of the cake there was an exceptionally well-drawn image of a race car rounding a track. On the other half there was a book with a quill hovering over it. Jessica was on the verge of asking who had decorated the cakes when Josh held up a wrapped package.
“Happy birthday Jess,” he muttered into her ear, wrapping his arms around her and squeezing her tight once she took the package from him. “This ones from me … open it.” He urged. Jessica unwrapped the package to reveal a comic book. On the front there was a picture of a young girl, surrounded by five hairy and menacing looking monsters. The title read, ‘Taming the Monsters.’ Jessica opened the cover and found a paper that looked like a certificate. On it she read, ‘proceeds in support of The Victims of Violence non-profit organization’.
Jessica shifted so she could see Josh.
“Look at the cover again …” Josh said. Jessica did and was surprised to see that the girl looked like her and the monsters each resembled one of the men. “Jess …” Josh whispered in her ear, “the proceeds from the porno comic go directly to you and I, but this comic … the proceeds from this comic go to help victims of violence. You’ve tamed us Jess … you’ve made us better. I had to put that into a story and I kind of thought you’d appreciate the money to help others … Jess, are you okay?”
Jessica had started crying. Burying her face in his chest, Jessica continued to cry.
“What did you give her?” Riley asked. Josh handed the package to Riley who looked at it and then passed it to Scott, who continued to pass it around.
“What a great gift …” Amanda said, looking it over again before handing it to Sara.
Jessica nodded as she finally managed to get control of her emotions. “Thank you Josh. I love it.” She kissed him.
“Here Jess, here’s my gift.” Angus said handing her a small envelope. “It’s not quite as emotionally moving as Josh’s …” Angus said and Jessica snapped her eyes up to ensure that Angus truly was as calm about Josh’s gift as his voice implied. “But I think you’ll like it just the same. Open it.”
Jessica fumbled with the envelope and produced a key from it. She looked at it and then at Angus.
“I know you love racing cars, but your first love was motorcycles. This is for you …” he said sweeping his hand to his right where Sean and Corey stepped aside and revealed Riley standing next to a brand new motorbike.
“Angus!” Jessica exclaimed.
“I know Jim got you one …”
“Second hand …” Jim said.
“Second hand.” Angus agreed. “It’s here, as a spare, but this is brand new. And we all …” Angus continued sweeping his hand to indicate everyone present, “have one too. They’re in the barn there.” He nodded to the new structure to the right of the pool house, “And we’ve created a dirt bike course in the back field for us all to ride on.”
“Thank you Angus!” Jessica said throwing her arms around him. He picked her up in a bear hug.
“You’re welcome … Riley and Jim will be giving you their gifts back at the house tonight …” Angus said.
“And we have gifts too …” Leah said, “back at the house.”
“But for now, do you want to go for a ride?” Angus asked.
“Yes, yes, yes, yes!” Jessica exclaimed.
“Then you’ll need this …” Scott said handing Jessica a box, “it’s still part of Angus’ gift. And so is this.” He said producing a new helmet. It was black with a pink thunderbolt on either side. “And this …” he added producing new riding boots.
“Open the box …” Angus said placing Jessica on her feet. Jessica ripped the box open to find a riding suit. It too was black with a pink thunderbolt on the back.
“Thank you!” Jessica said again, while sliding one leg into the suit. “Can we ride?”
“Okay, okay, let’s go.” Angus said with a laugh.
*******************************************************
“This is the life.” Chris said, raising his beer bottle in the air.
“Hear hear.” Riley said raising his. Angus, Corey and Sean did the same. Following a couple of hours of riding … everyone at varying speeds - from Sara’s five mile an hour crawl to Jessica’s one hundred miles a minute – they had returned to the pond for another swim. Riley, Angus, Corey and Sean had pulled a few lawn chairs together, each taken a beer and kicked back.
Jessica was curled up with Josh on another lawn chair, not exactly in the distance but far enough away from everyone else, reading the comic Josh had made for her.
Jim and Scott were down by the pond with everyone else having a blast.
“I wish …” Corey started, “I wish …” he repeated after a swig of his beer, “that it never had to end.”
“Unfortunately we have to head back to the house to take care of the horses and the dogs.” Riley said, “But we’ll continue there. Have dinner, campfire, jam … the fun won’t be over, not by a long way.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Corey said, “I wish that this …” he said nodding to the surroundings and all the people in them, “and everything back at the house didn’t have to end, ever. But now that Daryl’s folks believe that he and his clan took off, I guess it will have to end. ”
Silence ensued. The night before Riley had received a call from Tom. He wouldn’t divulge what changed his mind but he called to say that he believed that Daryl and his clan had run away. He said they wouldn’t bother them anymore … apologized for the inconvenience. The men had decided to leave the news as a final birthday gift for Jessica. As of tomorrow she would be free to go wherever she liked, whenever she liked. They all would. But unfortunately this also meant that Sean and his clan would have to go back to work. They would see each other less and to the men this meant that the window of opportunity for asking them to leave the clan with them was closing. But this statement of Corey’s opened an opportunity for the question to be asked.
Riley and Angus exchanged a look. A look filled with hope. Could Corey be saying what they thought he was?
“Amen.” Sean said and Chris nodded.
“What … what was that look for?” Corey asked, looking between Riley and Angus.
Riley looked to Angus who shrugged.
Riley sat up and planting his elbows on his knees he leaned forward.
“How serious are you about that?” Riley asked Corey, “About never having this end?”
“Very serious.” Corey said. “I’d love to have a normal life … this life.” He looked around. “I’m tired of killing people for the sake of killing people. I guess you probably don’t want to hear that …” he said looking down at his beer. “But that’s how I feel.”
Sean and Chris looked worried as they looked between Corey, Riley and Angus.
“Actually, that’s exactly what we wanted to hear.” Riley said. “We intend to leave the clan … we just have to figure out how. And we want you … all of you, to come with us.”
“No fucking way.” Sean said as he, Corey and Chris stared at Riley.
“Fucking way.” Angus said. “Do you think all of you would come?”
Sean nodded as he looked around. “We can ask, double check. I guess the weakest link is Quinn. Not sure how dedicated he is to the cause.”
“Assuming we’re all in … how would we do it? We sure as hell don’t want to be looking over our shoulders for the rest of our lives. You know as well as we do that no one leaves the clan.” Corey said.
“Not alive anyway.” Chris added.
“We don’t know how we’d do it.” Riley said. “I guess we were waiting to see if you’d come with us. And we hoped you’d have some ideas.”
“We’ll find out if we’re all in. Now.” Sean said.
“Quinn too?” Angus asked.
Sean nodded. “If we’re going to have a problem with him we better find out now … take care of it now …” and there was no doubt about what Sean meant by ‘take care of it’.
“Not here.” Riley said. “No violence Sean, not with Jessica around. She has a strict no violence rule …”
“Right …” Sean said with a laugh, but it petered out when Riley and Angus stared at him.
“To be clear …” Riley said, “and you should be too when you’re discussing with the others, we’re leaving the clan, and we’re leaving violence. We want a normal, peaceful life. Any issues that we still have with the government Jessica intends to deal with in court.” Riley couldn’t help but smile when he said it.
“You’re kidding … right? That’s a joke?” Corey asked.
“No joke.” Angus said, “Jessica’s finishing high school so she can get her law degree. And that’s the deal if you come with us. No violence, a peaceful life, and if you want to take issue with the government you do it the legal way.”
“I know it’s a lot.” Riley said. “If you need time to think, fine. If you decide you can’t come, I hope you’ll help us or at the very least not hinder us when we go.”
Sean, Chris and Corey looked at each other and then nodded.
“We’re in.” Sean said. “Give us half an hour and we’ll tell you about the rest of us. We just have to be careful about Rick and Abe … wouldn’t want them to catch on. Chris, you take Mark and Justine …” he nodded at the pair who had just gone by them on their way to the pool house. “Er, is something going on with you three or is that going to be a problem?” Sean added when Mark slipped his hand into Justine’s.
“No we’re together now. The three of us, Mark asked when we got here. I guess polygamy is in fashion again.” Chris said with a meaningful look at Riley and Angus.
“Yeah, that’s us …” Angus said, “trend setters.”
“We need to distract Rick and Abe, and one of you two need to be with me when we ask Quinn. I’m not sure that I can peacefully deal with him if he says no.” Sean said.
“I’ll get Abe and Rick to help me put the motorcycles away.” Angus said.
“Let’s leave Josh and Jess out of this.” Riley said. “If everyone agrees to come with us we can tell her tonight. Another birthday gift.”
The others nodded and Sean, Corey, Angus and Riley headed down to the pond. Chris followed Mark and Justine up to the pool house.
Within moments Rick, Abe and Angus were heading toward the barn.
“We need to talk.” Sean said when the others moved to go back into the pond.
“That doesn’t sound good.” Caleb says.
Quinn eyed Sean, Corey and Riley as they subconsciously spread out into a semi-circle, effectively blocking the way for any of the group to move past them. The only option would be to jump into the pond and swim across … and Quinn seemed to be considering this as he looked at the pond, the land beyond it, and back at Corey, Sean and Riley.
“You look nervous.” Sean said to Quinn.
“You look like I should be nervous.” Quinn replied.
“What’s going on Sean?” Amanda asked, taking Quinn’s hand. She looked petrified.
Sean looked at Amanda, and then Caleb, Don and Stan who had moved to stand next to Amanda and Quinn. When Sean had let Quinn join the clan he’d had a few reservations, the biggest of which being that Quinn was a complication. He was an unknown. Sean sighed. This was definitely a complication.
“Riley, what’s going on?” Scott asked. It was clear that Sean was not looking forward to the conversation and that alone sent alarm bells in both Scott and Jim’s minds. But Riley waved his hand at them in a downward motion and shook his head.
“Quinn, when you came to the clan you and I had a conversation about your expectations, and the contributions that you intended to make to this clan. You were sufficiently vague that I couldn’t get a good sense of what you were really about. Then I had a chat with Tristan. He characterized you as a quiet moderate that leaned heavily toward not supporting the cause. He said you weren’t happy with the more fanatic beliefs of many in Tristan’s clan. Hold on …” Sean said when Quinn started eyeing the rifles that lay scattered on the grass around the pond. They’d brought them for protection against animals, since Tom was no longer a threat, but had left them mostly unattended. “Before you do anything stupid, hear me out. You’ll notice that I let you join our clan. Moderate to even extreme moderation, if you catch my drift, works for us.”
Sean paused to let his words sink in. And after a moment they did. Quinn shifted his eyes from the guns to Sean and looked somewhat relieved.
“Given all of that, I still know jack about you. Regardless, I’m going to give you the same options that I’m giving everyone in the clan. You have to decide how dedicated you are to us. How far you’re willing to go for us. If you have any doubts, any misgivings, we’re going to give you the chance to leave right now. To leave, and never come back.”
“No …” Amanda whimpered.
“Sean man, that’s hardly fair.” Don said, “We just started working on our relationship with Amanda. How can he know if he’s devoted to us or not?”
“He has to have some idea.” Sean said, “Besides, there will be a chance for people to leave after our talk too. But they’ll be leaving with some information that makes us very vulnerable. Betrayal at that point would lead to a death sentence.”
Riley cleared his throat.
“Hey, not even Jessica would argue with that.” Sean said.
“Jessica?” Jim demanded, bobbing and weaving to see past Sean, Riley and Corey. Desperately trying to see Jessica, “What does this have to do with Jessica?”
“Relax Jim.” Riley said, “Jess is just fine. She’s still lying with Josh on the lawn chair, see?” he step aside and pointed to where Jessica and Josh still lay looking at the magazine.
Jim and Scott relaxed when they saw that Riley was right. Jessica was still curled up with Josh.
“Jessica doesn’t want any violence and we’re trying to ensure that for her.” Corey said. “But if any of you decide to stay and hear what we need to discuss and then decide that you can’t live with it … you will have to vow to keep the information to yourselves. I think even Jessica would agree that a leak would be sufficient to warrant the death penalty.”
“She doesn’t know this is happening, does she?” Scott asked Riley.
Riley shook his head, “We want to include this as part of her birthday gift later tonight.”
Scott nodded. Jim wasn’t sure that she’d agree with this tactic but if this conversation was going to be about what he thought it was going to be about, he had to agree that there were no alternatives.
“So.” Sean said, “Quinn, do you want out now, or will you take your chances and stick around for the conversation and then keep that info to yourself for the rest of your life whether you stay or not?”
“Sean …” Caleb said.
“And you four.” He said to Caleb, Don, Stan and Amanda, “Have to decide if you’ll stay or go with Quinn, if that’s what he decides.”
“Right now? We have to decide right now?” Stan asked.
“Why?” Leah demanded when Sean had nodded at Stan. She looked around at everyone. Sara looked like she was going to cry. Amanda looked near hysteria and all of the men looked worried. Sean, Corey and Riley included, which ratcheted up her level of concern. “Why does it have to be decided now? And why aren’t Josh, Jess, Angus, Rick, Abe, Chris, Mark and Justine involved in this?”
“Josh, Angus and Jessica are already in … as are Scott and Jim.” Riley said.
“It’s none of Rick or Abe’s business, and Chris is talking to Justine and Mark right now.” Sean added, tilting his head to where the three sat on a picnic table near the pool house, talking.
“We need to know where we all stand now.” Corey added, “There’s no point in dragging it out longer. And I think you’d better come here … now Leah.” He added when Leah hadn’t moved. Leah narrowed her eyes at his tone but moved to stand just behind him.
“Sara,” Sean said, “over here.” Sara’s mouth dropped open and she looked from Corey to Sean, as did everyone else.
“Sara,” Corey said, “Sean told you to do something …” there was a warning tone to Corey’s voice that further confused everyone. Sean and Corey were on good terms again but handing power over one another’s sisters to one another was beyond good terms. But Sara moved to stand behind Sean. Fear won out over confusion.
“So, what will it be Quinn?” Sean asked.
“I’ll stay.” Quinn said. Amanda, Caleb, Stan and Don visibly relaxed.
“Thank you …” Amanda muttered and pushed her way under Quinn’s arm and wrapped her arms around him.
“Okay.” Sean said. He looked around at everyone and decided that fast and direct was the best approach now. “We’re leaving the clan.”
Silence hung in the air as everyone gaped at one another.
Scott and Jim silently moved to stand next to Riley and observe the stunned looks on everyone’s faces.
“That’s impossible.” Stan said.
“No it’s not.” Riley said.
“We’ll have to take the clan out.” Don said.
“Either that…” Quinn said when Sean shook his head, “or they’ll take us out.”
“No violence.” Riley said. “Jessica will not accept any bloodshed. Ours or theirs. We have to do it peacefully.”
“That’s impossible.” Caleb said.
“Difficult, but not impossible.” Scott corrected.
“As Angus and I told Sean and Corey,” Riley said, “we’re leaving for a life of peace. Jessica intends to get into law and then politics. She will support our cause, legally. That is what you’re signing up for if you come with us. We can be free and together, but peaceful. If you don’t want that, or don’t want to take the risk of leaving, go now. Keep it to yourself, but go now.”
Everyone looked at one another.
“I haven’t been happy with the clan tactics for a long time.” Quinn finally said. “I still want to stay and I’m fine with peace. I’ve seen enough death to last me an eternity.”
Everyone else nodded.
“Okay. Well, keep it to yourselves for now.” Riley said. “We can’t risk Abe and Rick finding out … and we can surprise Jessica with the news tonight. She wanted all of you to come with us and she’ll be glad to know you’ve agreed to.”
“I need a fucking drink.” Don said striding past Sean, “You scared the crap out of me.”
“Amen.” Stan said and everyone moved back toward the pool house. Corey taking Leah’s hand, Sean taking Sara’s.
Riley, Scott and Jim hung back.
“We did it. They’re coming with us. I can’t believe it.” Scott said, slapping Riley on the shoulder.
“Jess is going to be real happy about this.” Jim added.
“Now we just have to figure out how to get out of the clan without a blood bath.” Riley said taking a step toward the pool house.
Jim exhaled and looked at everyone scattered around the picnic tables. All of those people were with them now. They’re lives were deeply intertwined. That was a lot to digest.
“You look like you need a drink.” Scott said punching Jim in the arm.
“A strong one.” Jim agreed.
“I’m buying, come on.” Scott said and led the way to the bar.
********************************************************
“I wonder where Angus is.” Jessica said when she and Josh closed the comic they’d been reading and sat up.
“It’s his turn huh?” Josh asked. He chuckled when Jessica looked at him clearly perplexed. “When we went to speak with Quinn, Amanda and the others about their situation, Quinn made an observation about you and us.”
“Quinn did?” Jessica asked, surprised.
“Yup. He noticed that you spend equal amounts of time with each of us men … with some internal clock, you just move from one of us to the other and give us equal time. You do …” Josh said when Jessica shook her head.
“I don’t plan anything like that …” Jessica said.
“Well, you may not plan it, but you do do it. Ever since that comment I’ve been watching. Not a one of us can feel shafted for time with you Jess. And you don’t look at a clock or anything. One second you’re happy doing whatever you’re doing with one of us and then like some internal alarm goes off, you look for the next one of us and find a way to go to them. It’s kinda cool.”
Jessica got on her knees on the lawn chair, between Josh’s legs, and lay on top of Josh coming face to face with him.
“Cool?” she asked pecking his lips, “It sounds weird to me.”
“I never said it wasn’t weird.” Josh said and laughed when Jessica glared at him. “Not everyone can say they have a human timer for a wife.” He continued, sliding his hands down her body and resting them on her butt.
“Well, this human timer has to pee and then go look for the next husband in line.” She said pecking Josh’s lips before pushing away from him. She looked at the comic that she’d been clutching in her hands. “Where can I put this so it doesn’t get lost or damaged?”
“In the bedroom in the pool house you’ll find a big pink canvas bag. We’ve been putting your clean clothes and stuff in that. The riding jacket and pants that you’ve already managed to dirty up are in a laundry bag on the floor next to the bed.”
“Thanks.” She said getting up, “See you in a bit.”
“In about an hour, if I don’t miss my guess.” Josh said, flipping his cell phone open to look at the time.
Jessica paused. “Isn’t that kind of predictable?”
“So?”
“Well, isn’t predictable boring?”
“Jessica, you’re so not boring. Trust me …”
“Okay ...” Jessica said before turning to the pool house but she didn’t look convinced.
She decided to walk around the pool house to see if she could see Angus anywhere. Everyone was scattered over several tables and they were speaking quietly but with a lot of intensity. But Angus, Rick and Abe were missing, Jessica suspected that they were in the barn with the bikes. A quick bathroom run and she’d go find them. Jessica rounded the corner of the pool house and saw Justine, Chris and Mark sitting at the picnic table closest to the pool house. Each held a beer in hand. They were leaning against the table, backs to Jessica. They looked so relaxed that Jessica had to smile to herself.
“This really is the life.” Mark was saying. “It just sucks that we have to go back to work … even if it’s just for a short time.”
“Tell me about it.” Chris said, “I could live without going back to the field ever again.”
Jessica had been reaching for the door knob when Chris’ words hit her like a bucket of cold water. She must have made a noise because Justine, Chris and Mark were looking over their shoulders at her.
“Jess …” Justine said.
“Sorry Jess.” Chris said, “The guys wanted to keep the news as a surprise for tonight.”
“The threats gone Jess.” Justine said when Jessica gaped at them in complete bewilderment. “The plan worked. Tom thinks Daryl and his family ran away. We’re free. You’re free …”
“But … the field …” Jessica managed in a strangled voice.
“That’s just until we get out of the clan … um be careful with that info around Rick and Abe.” Mark said, “’K?”
Jessica felt like she’d been punched in the stomach. It seemed like Riley had asked them to leave the clan with them … and apparently they’d agreed. And that was great news … except for the field. They were going back to work. Sean and his clan were going back to killing people.
“That’s great news, isn’t it?” Justine asked, puzzled by how white Jessica had gotten, and how upset she looked. “Jess, are you okay?”
Jessica opened her mouth but nothing came out. She pushed the door to the pool house open, ducked in and slammed it shut, falling against the door once it was closed.
They were going to kill people. Jessica bent over as wave on wave of horror washed over her. She couldn’t let them. It wasn’t acceptable. She had to talk to her men. She spun around, lifted the curtain on the door window and looked out. Justine, Mark and Chris were huddled together, casting intermittent looks at the pool house. Jessica lowered the curtain and looked through a small opening, hoping that Justine, Mark and Chris didn’t notice her. She scanned the area. Josh had moved over to join Riley, Scott, Jim, Quinn, Amanda, Caleb, Stan, Don , Sean, Sara, Corey and Leah. They’d pulled a bunch of lawn chairs together and sat drinking and talking. Still no sign of Angus or Rick and Abe.
She had to get it together, suck it up, and go get the men. They’d do something, they’d stop Sean and his men from going to work. Jessica looked down at the comic in her hand. She looked at the monsters on the front cover and her heart sank. Her men had to know that Sean and the others were going back into the field. They had to know and they must have concluded that there was no way around it. What bigger signal of trouble could there possibly be for Paul then a whole other clan refusing to work in the field?
Intellectually Jessica understood the problem. But emotionally she couldn’t tolerate it. She looked at the door while backing up until she hit a sofa that knocked her feet out from under her causing her to fall onto it. She pulled her knees up and propped her head on them. This was supposed to be a good time. A party. Her birthday party. The men had wanted to save all of this for later, Chris had said so. Sean’s men weren’t going to the field today, or tonight. Chances were they wouldn’t even go tomorrow. Jessica realized that what she should do was go to the bathroom, and then go back out there and pretend like she didn’t know. Enjoy the fun, let everyone enjoy the fun, and then raise this when she was alone with her men that night. But she wasn’t’ capable of it. This information had knocked her so far off balance that she couldn’t even move.
And then she realized that her men wouldn’t want her to pretend like she didn’t know. This upset her so much, and they’d want to know it did. What she should do is find her cell phone. She lifted her face toward the bedroom. Surely it was in with her clothes. In that bag that Josh had told her about. She should get it, call the men into the pool house and tell them that she knew about Tom, and Sean’s men going to work. And tell them how she felt about it.
But, she couldn’t move. She dropped her head to her knees again. It seemed hopeless. If they ran from the clan there would be a blood bath. If they stayed, there would be a blood bath. The simplest thing to do seemed to be to just sit there. So she did.
“Jess …” Jim voice from beside her made her jump. She turned her head and saw Jim squatting next to her. Angus was squatting next to him, Riley, Scott and Josh stood behind them. But they weren’t alone. Everyone was there, packed into the small pool house living room. Including Rick and Abe. And they were all looking at her, worry etched onto their faces.
“Hiding out?” Angus asked, and he looked really upset. He reached his hand out toward her knee but hesitated before making contact.
“No.” Jessica said and she noticed Jim’s hand hovering near hers so she took it. “I couldn’t move.”
“Sorry that we ruined the surprise.” Justine said. Jessica noticed Rick and Abe looking between Justine and her and they looked completely clueless. They had no idea what was going on and that made Jessica’s stress level skyrocket. What could she say around them and what couldn’t she? But the worry on the other’s faces, the despair on her men’s faces led her to determine that it didn’t matter what she said around them. She couldn’t worry about that, she had to worry about correcting whatever beliefs the men had about Jessica’s behavior.
“Jess, it’s great news.” Scott said moving to the foot of the sofa and squatting also. “We can do what we want now. You can do what you want now. Anything.”
“You can go to the bar again.” Riley said. “By yourself even. You like that don’t you?”
“Yes. Yes, of course I do.” She said, “There’s no problem with the surprise. It’s just as nice now as it would have been later.”
“Then why do you look …” Riley began but faltered, “why are you hiding in here?”
“Um.” Jessica said scanning faces in the room. There was no way around involving Rick or Abe. “Chris and Mark were talking about going to … work. In the field.”
“It’s the violence.” Sean said. “Is that what’s bothering you? Us going back in the field?”
Jessica nodded. She had no idea how Sean figured that out.
“Jess, it’s not easy to fix that.” Riley said while wondering why he’d been so stupid as to not realize that this would be an issue. He would have needed time to think of a solution and any time he could have had he’d wasted by not recognizing the problem.
“Sure it is.” Sean said.
“It is?” Riley asked.
“Sure. We just won’t go in the field. It worked for you guys, it’ll work for us.”
There was a moment of silence before everyone began speaking at the same time. Jessica noticed Abe and Rick looking at Sean with disapproval. Everyone else seemed relieved by the suggestion.
“Are you sure you really want to be pissing Paul off right now?” Abe asked Sean, “Especially with that other little issue you’re having right now?”
“What other issue?” Angus asked. “Sean …” he said, standing, “what other issue do you have with Paul?”
Sean exhaled. “Beth.” He said.
“Beth?” Jessica asked her initial alarm escalating when she saw the worry on Corey and Chris’ faces. Everyone else looked as uninformed as Jessica and her men. “Sean, what’s wrong with Beth?”
Jessica swung her legs off the sofa and clutched Jim’s hand so tight that she pulled him down onto the sofa beside her. Scott slid onto the sofa on her other side and slipped his hand into her free one.
“She’s … left the clan.” Sean said quietly.
“She what?” Riley demanded.
“She’s not coming home anymore. She moved in with that guy from the bar.”
“So, she’s in danger?” Jessica asked fairly certain she was interpreting the concern on everyone’s face properly. Jessica stood up, still clutching Scott and Jim’s hands. “No one leaves the clan alive, right?” Jessica asked, her voice going up a couple of octaves. “Is Paul going to hurt her?”
“You need to talk to her.” Abe said when everyone else seemed tongue tied. “Get her to return home. Otherwise, yes, Paul is going to hurt her.”
“Jesus Christ Abe!” Angus thundered, “You can’t put that on Jessica, Christ! Jessica,” he said turning back to her, “this has nothing to do with you. Got it? You have nothing to do.”
Jessica let go of Scott and Jim and moved into Angus’ arms, patting his chest with her hands. “It’s okay Angus … it’s okay. I’ll talk to her. I can get her to come home, I can. But Abe, will Paul let Sean and the others do reconnaissance? Stay out of the field?”
Abe shrugged. “I doubt it.”
“Join our clan.” Jessica said to Sean, breaking the silence that had fallen in the room. She moved to Riley when Sean stared at her. “Riley, if they join our clan then they fall under the agreement we had with Paul. They don’t have to go in the field.”
“I agree that your clan should join our clan … again.” Riley said to Sean, “But Jess,” he said turning back to Jessica, “I don’t think Paul is going to extend the agreement he made with you to include them.”
“Riley’s right.” Rick said, “It won’t cover them.”
“Why not?” Jessica demanded.
“That wasn’t the original deal … and besides, they represent too much fire power. Without Sean’s clan Paul’s strength will diminish … a lot.” Rick said.
Jessica closed her eyes. There had to be a way to make it work. And there was.
“We’ll make a new deal.” Jessica said, her eyes flying open, her face and body vibrating with the excitement that the idea caused her.
“No!” Josh said, half a second before Riley, Jim, Angus and Scott growled the same thing.
“Yes. It’s perfect. We’ll get Beth to come home in exchange for immunity for all of you from the field.” Jessica said looking around at Sean and his clan.
“Jessica!” Riley barked and grabbed her by her upper arms. “You are not dealing with Paul!”
“Riley.” Jessica said in a soft tone. “I said ‘we’ not ‘me’. But what I really meant was you. You men can arrange something, I’m sure of it.”
“Oh.” Riley said, completely disarmed. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have grabbed you like that … did I hurt you?” he added, rubbing her arms where he’d grabbed them.
“No. It’s okay.” She said kissing him.
“Jess …” Scott said quietly from behind her. Jessica turned to find Scott handing her some clothes. “Put then on, please. Trust me.” He added, eyeing her bikini when Jessica looked surprised. She nodded and started with her shirt.
“Beth won’t work.” Corey said while Jessica pulled on her clothes. “We’ve tried everything to get her to come home. She won’t.”
“Besides.” Rick said, “Paul won’t deal for her. Even if she comes home she’ll be facing disciplinary measures. Paul won’t let her out of that. No way.”
“Disciplinary measures? What does that mean?” Jessica asked. “What does it mean?” she demanded when Leah, Justine, Amanda and Sara wouldn’t meet her gaze. “Riley?” Jessica asked. “Josh?” she added when Riley shook his head.
“It can be anything.” Josh said. “Most likely a whipping.”
“No, no, no, no …” Jessica said. “We have to do something.”
“Bringing her home is the best you can do.” Abe said, “But I have to ask. Why are you willing to provoke Paul over this? Don’t tell me you suddenly got squeamish. This is our life, this is who we are, is it worth getting your asses kicked over it?” Abe was looking at Sean, Corey and the others.
Jessica had leant against Riley, and was busy staring at the floor while she scoured her mind for a way to fix everything so she’d only partially paid attention to Abe’s question. Absent mindedly she looked up, still trying to think of all possibilities, when she realized that the room had gotten quiet. Abe was looking at Sean expectantly, and Sean for his part looked at a loss for words.
“Oh, they’re doing it for me.” Jessica said.
“For you …” Rick said.
Jessica nodded while moving from Riley to Angus. She fell back against him and Angus wrapped his arms around her.
“I don’t disagree with the clans beliefs.” Jessica said, “Just their methods. Violence doesn’t solve anything and innocent people get hurt. Sean and the others know how much it upsets me when the clan attacks its enemies. They can contribute to the cause in a peaceful manner Abe. Paul’s just going to have to live with it.”
“If we go in the field, Jessica will hate us.” Sean added when Abe and Rick stared at him, clearly not sold on the explanation. “Before Jessica … we were one clan.” Sean continued, looking to Riley, Angus, Scott, Jim and Josh, “We miss that. I miss that. It appears that all we need to do to go back to the way things were is stop killing people. That’s okay with me.”
Jessica looked at the faces of the members of Sean’s clan, and then her men’s … as did Abe and Rick. It was easy to see that Sean’s words hit home with them all. Jessica wiped a tear from her eye. She’d had no idea how many people had been hurt the day her family had been attacked.
Abe cleared his throat. “Trying to bargain with Paul using Beth just won’t work. But I do have something you may be able to use with Paul to keep you out of the field.” He said to Sean, “But it will involve Jessica.”
“Of course it will.” Angus muttered and pressed his lips on the top of Jessica’s head.
“I’d prefer another option.” Riley said and he seemed to deflate when he looked at Jessica. “But there isn’t one, is there?”
Jessica took his hand and squeezed.
“There has to be.” Scott said, “We just need some time to figure it out.”
“I don’t want to upset you.” Jessica said looking around at her men, “And believe me, Paul is the last person that I want anything to do with. But I think we should hear what Abe has to say. We can evaluate all the possibilities once we know what they are.”
“Okay. What is it?” Josh asked Abe.
Abe exhaled. “It’s Stasia. As you know …” Abe said to Jessica, “and you may not know …” he added, looking around at everyone else, “Stasia’s husband Anthony is a little … controlling. He never lets her out of his sight. Unless, she’s staying with Paul. When she stays with Paul, she goes out dancing with me and Rick. Anthony’s found out that she doesn’t sit at home when she’s at Paul’s like he expects her to.”
“Oh no.” Jessica said.
Jim glanced at Jessica and he looked sick to his stomach, which surprised her. She patted Angus’ arms until he let her go and she went to Jim.
“Are you okay?” she whispered sliding into his arms.
He shook his head. “Anything to do with Paul, Anthony and Stasia can’t be good. Involving you in this can’t be anything but bad.”
Jessica pecked Jim’s lips and then turned her back into him and leaned back. Jim wrapped his arms around her.
“You’re not serious!” Rick said. Everyone looked at him in surprise. His voice had been low and controlled but the expression on his face made it clear that he was furious. “We’re already on Paul’s shit list. Now you’re going to add this to the list of reasons Paul hates us?”
Once again Jessica was surprised at how unmoved Abe was by Rick’s anger. When Abe looked at Rick like a loving parent reasoning with a surly child, Jessica concluded that Abe had the patience of a saint.
“Wait a minute.” Riley said, “You two or on the outs with Paul?”
“He’s a little pissed at us right now.” Abe said.
“A little …” Rick said with a snort.
“Look.” Abe said to Rick, “I’ve thought of a way to help everybody. A way to stop an all out war.”
“A war?” Angus asked. Jessica looked around. If Abe hadn’t had everyone’s attention before, he had it now.
Abe nodded.
“Anthony hasn’t been very … nice … to Stasia since he found out about the dancing.”
Rick groaned, brought his hands to his eyes. He shook his head while pressing the palms of his hands into his eyes.
Abe put a hand on Rick’s shoulder.
“That’s an understatement.” Rick said, lowering his hands. He no longer looked angry, just in pain. He had a haunted look on his face when he raised his eyes to look at Jessica, and then the others.
“While we’ve been gallivanting here … Stasia’s been suffering. Not that we can do anything about it anyway. Paul’s pissed that we allowed Stasia to go out and have fun like she did. He thinks we’ve got her into the situation she’s in now. And I think he’s right.” Rick said. “But …” Rick added when Jessica visibly paled, “gallivanting for your birthday is worthwhile. It was a good party. And you deserved it. I’m just venting.”
“So as you can imagine, Paul is on the verge of war. I think the only thing stopping him right now is Stasia. Anthony has her locked up and it’s fairly certain that the first thing he’ll do at the sign of trouble is kill her.” Abe said. “So …” he added into the ensuing silence, “you’re hopes of staying out of the field are pretty futile. You’ll be thrown into a war whether you like it or not. Once Paul has the opportunity, he’ll kill Anthony. That you can be sure of.”
“Unless I get to him first …” Rick said. Despite the grim expressions on everyone’s faces, surprise registered also. It was clear to Jessica that no one understood the depth of Abe and Rick’s relationship with Stasia.
“So how does any of this help us keep Sean and the others out of the field?” Jim asked, tightening his arms around Jessica, “And how does it involve Jessica?”
Abe and Rick exchanged a look. Rick nodded.
“So, as I said, Anthony found out about Stasia going out dancing with us. So Stasia did the only logical thing to do when Anthony is involved and lied.”
“How did she lie?” Mark asked.
“She told him that she wasn’t going out but dancing with a clan band.”
“Us?” Jim asked.
“That would’ve been too easy.” Abe said and Rick snorted his agreement. “She didn’t want to involve anyone in the clan since no one knew we were going out except her, Rick and me.”
“So, what did she do?” Stan prompted.
“She made up a distant part of the clan that only comes to town every once in a while and said they were the band.” Rick answered for Abe when Abe didn’t answer right away. Abe had seemed weary of giving an answer and once Rick had spoken Jessica realized why.
“She did what?!” Riley thundered while everyone else erupted in curses. Jim went rigid against her, Angus turned red … the vein in his forehead making a reappearance. Even Justine, Amanda, Sara and Leah looked put out. Jessica looked around the room. Josh had brought his hands up behind his head and was staring at the ceiling in obvious discontent. Scott was punching his fist into his hand, pacing and repeating ‘son of a bitch’ under his breath.
Corey and Sean wore the same expressions that had been prominent during the time that they were so angry with one another, Stan, Don, Caleb and Quinn the same expressions they’d had early that day, when they’d been so angry with one another, and Jessica hadn’t had the displeasure of seeing Mark and Chris’ fury before. It wasn’t pretty. It scared her actually. And it brought home the point that her men had been trying to make when she had raced for Paul. Obviously she didn’t understand the clan. How something as simple as Stasia making up a fake band could cause this kind of reaction … Jessica felt completely clueless.
“So we’re going to war.” Mark grumbled.
“What?” Jessica’s squeaked. “Wait …” and when all the hostile faces turned to her she almost backed off. Said ‘never mind’ and quietly faded into the background. But she reminded herself that they weren’t mad at her … even though it felt like it. Jessica patted Jim’s arms until he reluctantly let her go. She stepped away from him and scanned her men. She should have been going to Scott, then Riley, then Josh, and then starting the order again with Angus and then Jim, but they were all so angry. So upset. She turned around, not sure what to do physically. Pulling all her men together would exclude everyone else. Finally she just wrapped her arms around herself and looked at Abe.
“You haven’t explained your plan.”
Several seconds ticked by and Abe didn’t say anything. Jessica took Riley’s hand, and then Angus’. She placed each on her arm, then Scott’s on one side of her waist. Josh’s on her back, Jim’s on the other side of her waist.
The silence continued and it wasn’t until Scott pulled her in for a hug and Riley took her one hand, Jim the other, and Angus and Josh grasped a spot on each arm, rubbing their thumbs back and forth in absent minded circles that Jessica felt strong enough to go on.
“Abe, you said you had a way to get Sean and the other’s out of the field. What is it?” Jessica said again.
“It doesn’t matter.” Scott said. He’d planted his chin on the top of her head but slid it down to the side of her head so his lips were near her ear. “There’s no way Anthony is going to let this slide. Stasia just lost all usefulness as a pawn between Anthony and Paul. There will be a war.”
“Why? Just because of some fake band? We can be a band …” Jessica said intending to sweep her hand and indicate everyone in the room, but her hands were full.
“The deal between Anthony and Paul when Anthony married Stasia, included complete disclosure.” Leah said when everyone else still appeared to be too angry to speak.
“Meaning?” Jessica asked.
“Meaning that Paul had to tell Anthony about everyone in his clan and Anthony had to tell Paul about everyone in his clan.”
“Oh.” Jessica said when the implication became clear to her.
“Yeah, ‘oh’.” Angus grumbled, “Stasia has screwed all of us now.”
“She had no choice!” Rick shouted at Angus and then looked around at everyone. “Who knows what the hell Anthony has done to her! He won’t let Doc anywhere near her. Paul thought Terry may have more luck. Since he’s married to one of Anthony’s second cousins … twice removed, or some shit like that, but it didn’t work. She had to say something or Anthony would have attacked Paul.”
“But he hasn’t …” Jessica jumped in. “Anthony hasn’t attacked Paul.” She added when the looks she received were clearly askance. “How long ago did all of this happen?” she asked, looking between Abe and Rick.
“A few days …” Abe answered.
“So why aren’t we at war already?” Amanda asked. Jessica nodded at Amanda and noticed that Amanda’s men, like her own, had converged around her. And to Jessica’s relief, Amanda wasn’t burrowed in Quinn’s arms. She wasn’t burrowed in anyone’s arms … Stan stood to her right, holding her arm, Don and Caleb, behind her, Quinn to her left. The relief was short lived however when Stan threw a withering look at Quinn. Quinn didn’t notice. No one seemed to notice except Jessica. Jessica didn’t understand why Stan was so mad, but then she noticed that Amanda was clutching Quinn’s hand in both of hers. If looks could kill, Quinn would be dead a hundred times over. But when Amanda looked up at Stan, his face shifted to neutral. A chill ran through Jessica. Something wasn’t right there … but Jessica didn’t have time to deal with it right then. Bigger problems were at hand.
“That’s true, why aren’t we at war?” Chris asked and Jessica knew things were looking better when Scott’s arms loosened around her.
“And …” Riley added when everyone looked back at Rick and Abe, “when the hell were you planning to tell us that all this shit was going on?”
Abe shrugged. “You’re immune.” Abe said to Riley. “I didn’t see the point in telling you … I had no idea that your clans were going to merge again.” He added looking at Sean. “And it’s not my place to give directives to the clans. You would have heard from Paul soon enough.” He added to Sean … who nodded.
“Do you really think Anthony would honor any deal we had with Paul?” Riley demanded and he had an edge to his voice that made it clear that he found Abe and Rick’s apparent naivety to be a sign of either sheer stupidity or betrayal.
Jessica slid from Scott’s arms into Riley’s and hugged him tight. Riley’s arms automatically went around her, tightening in kind.
“I doubt it.” Abe replied, “Honestly Riley, I didn’t even consider that. This has all happened so fast, and you were still under heavy protection.” He nodded at Sean and the others. “I dropped the ball on that … sorry.”
Jessica squeezed Riley tighter, burying her face deeper into his chest. Willing Riley and the other’s to accept Abe’s explanation. This was no time for divisiveness.
“Okay …” Riley said, patting Jessica’s back. “Okay. I can see how that would happen.” Jessica looked up at Riley. He attempted a smile … that didn’t quite work. Jessica pushed herself up onto her tip toes and kissed him.
“Thank you.” She said.
Riley nodded. “Just following your lead Jess. Now what?”
Jessica searched his eyes for a moment. Jim hadn’t been exaggerating when he said that Riley and the others would do anything for her. It was disconcerting. But a relief at the same time. She pecked his lips again before turning to lean against him and look at the others.
Everyone was looking at her, waiting.
She looked at Abe, “So … your idea?”
Abe cleared his throat. “I think we’re not at war yet because Anthony wants to torture Paul some more. Stasia’s made some friend’s among Anthony’s people and through them she managed to get some information out. Anthony had pressed her for specifics about her outings. Still trying to keep the clan out of it, she’d given him details that were so out in left field that no one in the clan could possibly have been involved. And she walked into Anthony’s trap, hook line and sinker. Because after all of this information was given, Anthony demanded to see it. For himself. He caught Paul completely off guard. He knew nothing about any of it. If Stasia hadn’t gotten that info out, Paul would have been walking into a trap. As it is, he’s been desperately trying to find people and a place to have this band play for Anthony and his clan.”
“And that’s where we come in?” Jim asked.
“No. That’s where Jessica comes in.” Abe said locking eyes with Jessica.
“Now wait a minute … “ Angus said. When Jessica had moved to Riley the men had reconfigured themselves so that they were touching some part of Jessica again. Jessica had been clutching Josh and Jim’s hands but when Angus’ let go of her arm and took a step toward Abe Jessica let go of Josh and Jim and grabbed Angus’ arm.
“Angus, please, let him finish.” Jessica pleaded. Angus stopped, and looked at Jessica. It was clear that an inner struggle was going on but finally Angus hung his head and took a step back.
“The make-up of the band is very specific.” Abe said, “No one from Anthony’s clan has ever, ever, ever …” Abe emphasized, “seen any of the members. They’re from somewhere up north … Alaska, northern areas of Canada. So none of you can be members of the band.” Abe scanned the group, “The lead singers are a male and a female, who are married. And they play heavy metal music. I’ve been able to dig up some old friends of mine who are not part of the cause … but like minded …” Abe said, “to be the male members of the band. But we’ve had no luck with the female. Paul is desperate. And I mean desperate …”
“Holy fuck.” Angus said.
“I never considered you.” Abe said still looking at Jessica. “And I never would have except now you’re talking about a way to get Sean’s men off the field. Well, this is it.”
“If he’s so desperate,” Jessica said, “we should be able to get Beth in as part of the deal.”
“Jess …” Josh muttered, Riley and Angus groaned, Scott and Jim were shaking their heads when Jessica looked around at them.
“What?” Jessica said, “If he’s that desperate we should be able to get whatever we want …”
“You sure know how to play hardball …” Abe said with a laugh and shake of his head, “but with Beth it won’t work. Paul is desperate but he’s also pissed. Beth picked a particularly bad time to push Paul Jessica. If you try to push him on Beth, you’ll lose. You’ll even lose what you’re trying to achieve. Take my advice and don’t do it.”
“So those are the details? Unknowns, married lead singers and heavy metal?” Corey asked. Jessica glanced around and couldn’t help but smile at the way everyone cuddled up. Amanda and her men, Corey and Leah, Sean and Sara, and Justine with Caleb … and Mark? That was new … she kind of wished that Abe and Rick would break down and show some affection between them too, but it seemed the most they’d do was Abe’s hand on Rick’s shoulder. One upside to this whole thing was the cementing of relationships. Jessica clung to that positive when despair threatened to overcome her. Despair about Beth.
“There’s more.” Abe said. “The avenue is to be clan owned. Another source of desperation for Paul. He doesn’t own anything that remotely resembles a bar. And Stasia told Anthony that she is personal friends with the band. Knows them well. Real well.”
“So you say that Stasia got these details out …” Caleb said, “How do you know they came from her? What if Anthony leaked those out himself?”
“And heavy metal?” Jim added, “Jess, do you even know heavy metal? We’ve never played that before …”
“Yes …” Jessica said at the same time as Abe said, “I’m positive …”
“Go ahead.” Jessica said to Abe when they both stopped and looked at one another.
“I’m positive it came from Stasia …” Abe said to Caleb, “We have a code and she used it.” Abe sighed when everyone looked at him expectantly, “When she wanted to go dancing she’d work ‘funky chicken’ into the conversation. If she was in trouble she’d say ‘sauce’ … a play on ‘SOS’. The message that came out of Anthony’s clan stated all of these details and then added that Anthony wanted to have a ‘funky chicken dish with special sauce for his dinner’.”
“Ahuh.” Caleb said when no one else said anything.
“Jess … heavy metal?” Jim prompted.
“Oh, yeah, Marcus loved heavy metal. I used to listen to it with him, watch the music videos. I can pick it up with a bit of practice, I’m sure.”
“Marcus?” Sara asked.
“My brother.” Jessica said.
“Oh … oh.” Sara replied and looked sorry she’d asked but Jessica threw her a smile which seemed to offer her some consolation.
“You’re not going to have a lot of time.” Rick said breaking his silence. For the first time in the whole conversation he seemed to have some hope. “The band is to play in two nights. You’d barely have time to meet the band and get acquainted enough to act like you know each other. Especially you and the lead singer …”
“We’d be pretending …” Jessica said when Riley’s arms constricted around her, and the other men’s hand tightened where they touched her, “It’d be like we were in a play or something … you won’t get jealous over an act will you?” Jessica asked looking around at her men.
Angus narrowed his eyes at Jessica but ignored her question, instead looking up at the other’s in the room. “What if Paul agrees to all of this … lets us save his sister’s ass, and then backs out? Letting all of us out of going in the field is a lot. He loses a lot of strength that way.”
“I’ve never known Paul to go back on his word …” Rick began in a defensive tone.
“He’s done everything he promised he would for you …” Abe added.
Jessica tuned out the arguments around her. There had to be a solution to this. To all of this. To Beth, to Stasia, to ensuring Paul kept his word. Angus was right after all, it seemed like a lot to expect Paul to allow. But it was also a lot to solve with one solution. Everyone made it clear that Beth couldn’t be helped by the same solution as Stasia. Fine, fine, those were two separate problems. Two problems, two solutions. But which one to focus on now? They were both serious and urgent as far as Jessica could tell. But maybe Paul was so busy trying to solve the issue of Stasia that he wasn’t focused on Beth. So that made Stasia’s issue of first priority.
It wasn’t until Riley shook her that Jessica registered that her name was being repeated. Looking up she found everyone watching her.
“What are you doing Jess?” Angus demanded.
“Huh?” was all Jessica could muster.
“What … are … you … doing?” Angus repeated very slowly and clearly.
“Other than chewing your lip off …” Josh added, putting a finger under her chin to lift her face. Jessica froze mid chew. She hadn’t even realized she’d been gnawing on her lip or staring at the floor.
“Oh … thinking.” Jessica said.
“You’d better do that out loud.” Riley said, “Please.” He added when Jessica looked surprised by his tone. Which had been forceful, almost angry. “I just don’t want any surprises.” He added in a more gentle voice.
“You have that look on your face Jess.” Jim said by way of explanation, “The same one you had the night before you rode for Paul.”
“When you were apologizing to us all night the night before but we didn’t know why …” Josh added.
“So think out loud.” Angus said.
“Please.” Scott added when Jessica had looked from Riley, to Jim, to Josh and then Angus as if she were being wrongly accused of something and her stunned expression began to turn into a pout.
She was pouting, but she nodded.
“The only way to ensure that Paul doesn’t change his mind on us is to make ourselves, as non-combatants, so important to him that he can’t change his mind.”
But, how? She asked herself.
“Out loud Jess …” Josh said and Jessica realized that she’d lowered her head, began chewing her lip and thinking to herself again.
“It’s actually not that easy to think out loud …” Jessica muttered.
“Pretend we’re not here.” Leah said, “Say everything you think out loud … we won’t interrupt you.”
“Just tell us when you’re done …” Scott said and nodded in encouragement when Jessica looked skeptical.
Jessica shrugged and lowered her head again.
“Paul has a big problem …” Jessica began, “that problem is Anthony. Anthony thinks he can catch Paul in a lie … in order to prove Anthony wrong and protect Stasia, Paul needs to own a bar where this distant clan comes to play. This distant clan can’t be combatant otherwise Paul has lied to Anthony. We don’t want to be combatant … so we have to be like the distant clan. We and the distant clan are the same … the distant clan entertains people … so we entertain people …” Jessica paused. And then it came to her in a flash. “This place!” she said looking up and finding everyone concentrating. They seemed to be trying to follow her logic. “It’s perfect!”
She was so excited she gave a little hop.
“Ah … are you done thinking out loud?” Sean asked, clearly skeptical.
“Yes … no … maybe. Look, Paul needs a place for the band to play. A place that is always used for the band to play. We have a place, here.”
“Here?” Scott asked.
Jessica nodded, “We have to add a stage but otherwise this place is perfect. And the clan is kind of like a business, right?” But she didn’t wait for an answer, “And every business has different departments … accounting, advertising, entertainment … we are the entertainment department of Paul’s clan … oh, and intelligence gathering, of course.” Jessica added when everyone looked disbelieving.
“I’m sorry.” Abe said, “But this thinking out loud thing is actually very confusing. I’m completely lost.”
Jessica looked around the room. Everyone looked lost, even her men.
Jessica sighed. “Anthony has never met me … Stasia’s never met you guys … right? Right?’ Jessica demanded when no one replied.
“I was going to say that Anthony and his people probably got a good look at you at the race.” Jim said.
Jessica shook her head. “I don’t think so. I’ve never met any of them. And during the race I had my helmet on.”
“But when Doc was checking your leg out you had your helmet off.” Josh said, “Anyone could have seen you then.”
“True.” Jessica said, “But that doesn’t matter anyway. I propose that Stasia thought we were all from out of town because she’d never met you … but the lead singers could very easily be Jim and me. The out of towners can be specific to heavy metal, but we have a band so to speak anyway. None of that really matters anyway. The point is … we are Paul’s location, we, with the addition of Abe’s friends, are the heavy metal band.” Jessica’s eyes wander over Sean and the others. “You can be the serving staff … waiters, waitresses, bartenders … if Anthony ever needs to entertain, I’m sure Paul could offer our services.”
... continued in 8e
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