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Jessica learns that there really is evil in the world.
“You’re serious!” Riley said.
“And insane!” Angus added when Jessica nodded.
“Do you honestly want to provide food and entertainment services for Paul and Anthony?” Scott added.
“No, not really.” Jessica said, “But intelligence is our main service to Paul. This is secondary. And it will make us indispensable to him. I mean, how often do Paul or Anthony entertain anyway? They’re too busy killing people …”
“I’m with Jessica on this.” Abe said. “There’s not much better that can be done in these circumstances and in the time we have. Paul is desperate and I think that if you don’t offer him a solution tonight he’ll just go to war.”
“We have him where we want him.” Justine said, sounding somewhat surprised. “To not take advantage of that is insane.”
“Well?” Jessica prompted her men when no one said anything.
“But you’re not just married to Jim, Jess, you’re married to all of us.” Riley said.
Jessica shrugged, “Stasia is not the expert on us. Just because she told Anthony that the lead singers are married doesn’t mean she would necessarily know anything else about them. We can make up whatever we want so long as there’s a place …” she opened her hands to indicating the room, “lead singers … “she indicated herself and Jim, “and a metal band,” she pointed at Abe.
“Okay.” Riley said. He looked at Abe. “You think I have to talk to Paul tonight?”
Abe nodded.
“And then we have twenty-four hours to get ready …” Angus said.
“This will work.” Jessica said, squeezing Angus’ hand.
“So much for the rest of your party …” Josh said.
“It’s not going to take long.” Jessica said, “it’s early still. Get this over with quickly with Paul and then we still have time to finish the party.”
“Assuming Paul goes for it we’ll have a ton to do to get ready.” Jim said.
“And we can do that tomorrow.” Jessica said. “A few hours won’t make much of a difference.”
“Okay. But Jess, I’m going to deal with Paul tonight. You’re going to stay out of it. Understand?” Riley asked.
Jessica nodded. “Perfectly.”
“And Beth …” Riley said, “Jess …” he pulled Jessica out of Scott’s arms and took her by her shoulders. “I know you want to help Beth. But you have to stay away from her. Listen to me …” he said when Jessica was about to protest, “we will find a way to help Beth …” he said nodding his head at the others, “But if Paul gets any indication that you have any relationship with Beth he’s going to consider you his enemy. And any agreements that you had with him will be void. Do you understand?”
“You promise to help her?”
Riley nodded.
“Okay. I won’t talk to her, I promise.” Jessica said.
“Don’t go near her either. No singing together at the bar, nothing. Please Jess. It’s really important.”
Jessica nodded. “I promise.”
“Okay. Well, I guess we better get back.” Riley said looking around.
Everyone looked glum. All that fun earlier seemed to be a distant memory.
Everything got packed quickly but quietly. Jessica helped too despite everyone telling her to leave it to them and just relax.
They returned to the house by six.
“There was so much more planned …” Jim said as they all stood on the front lawn looking despondent. “Dinner, cake, presents, bonfire, singing …”
“It’s only six o’clock.” Jessica said, “I’m not even hungry yet. Riley, call Paul. Let’s get this done and then we can have dinner and finish the party.”
Jessica looked around at all the sad expressions and stomped her foot in frustration. “Will you people snap out of it!” she demanded but her voice couldn’t match the appropriate tone required to convince anyone that she was angry. “I’m still the birthday girl, right?” she tried to demand, “Right?”
“You are Jess.” Scott said but he couldn’t help but smile.
“Well, then …” Jessica said still trying to exude authority but getting confused by the smiles developing on everyone’s faces, “then I demand a party. And you all have to be happy again …” but her voice faded as it became clear that everyone was humoring her.
“So …” Angus said pulling her into his arms, “you were going to act like you were married to another man were you?”
“Well, if it was necessary …” Jessica said, watching the bemused look on Angus’ face.
“And would it have been as convincing as your little attempt to make us believe that you are a spoiled birthday girl and that you want us all to enjoy ourselves for your benefit rather than ours?” Angus continued.
“I don’t know …” Jessica said uncertain whether Angus was insulting or praising her acting abilities but one look at the smiles that split the faces of everyone around her she realized that they hadn’t believed her for a second. But she also realized that they were looking at her with love. Even Abe and Rick. They looked at her like her parents had, like her brothers, her God father, her parents’ friends and colleagues had. A warmth filled her … starting from her stomach and radiating out all over her body. Despite this she couldn’t help but be a little defensive. “I was just warming up, I can be convincing …” she said lifting her chin, her cheeks turning red.
“It’s okay Jess.” Riley said slapping her butt as he walked by her on his way to the house, “I like the fact that you’re so transparent. But it’s cute when you try not to be.” He held up his cell phone and tilted his head toward the house, “I’ll make the deal with the devil inside.”
Jessica watched Riley jog up the stairs and disappear into the house. When she turned back to Angus she was taken off guard by how desperate he looked.
“Honest Angus, this has been the best day ever. And it really isn’t over …” her voice trailed off when Angus lifted his hand to her cheek and stared at her with more intensity.
“Angus?” Jessica asked, worried now.
“Angus?” Scott asked. He , Jim and Josh had been watching and Angus’ expression was so … off, that they moved closer.
“What’s wrong?” Jessica asked, looking from Scott, Jim and Josh to Angus.
“Riley’s right.” Angus said in what could only be described as a broken voice. “You are transparent. Incredibly transparent. You couldn’t lie to save your life. Why couldn’t I see that before? At the beginning … when I thought you were plotting all the time. Trying to escape. When I thought you were lying? I hurt you so much …” he whispered, his voice trailing off.
“Angus … I was trying to escape … at first. Remember?” Jessica said, panic evident in her voice. “Besides, we agreed that the beginning was a different life. We were different people. Please Angus, don’t go back to that … please …” Jessica’s voice was becoming hysterical at the thought that Angus was losing it. “Besides …” she added, unable to help herself, “I can lie just fine, thank you. I convinced Paul to let me ride for him you know!”
Jessica and Angus stared at each other for a moment or two before Angus began to laugh. At first Jessica worried that Angus had completely cracked but then he pulled her to him and he could barely contain his laughter, “Paul knew you from a hole in the ground. And thank God because I’m sure you were anything but convincing to anyone who knew you.” Angus was laughing … not in a mean way but in absolute happiness and pretty soon Scott, Jim and Josh were laughing too. Jessica looked around and everyone else had been listening and they too were chuckling.
“He’s right.” Abe said, “If I’d known you like I know you now, I wouldn’t have believed you then.”
And that brought on more chuckling. Despite Jessica’s relief that Angus hadn’t cracked she couldn’t help but start to feel insulted.
“Well, you’re wrong …” she said, not convincingly, but she did try to push away from Angus.
“Hey, Where do you think you’re going?” he asked and pulled her back against him.
“Somewhere where I won’t be laughed at …” Jessica said but again couldn’t bring the appropriate amount of anger or indignation to her tone.
“We’re laughing with you sweetheart …” Angus said.
“Hmph.” Jessica said, half-heartedly pulling away again.
“Never at you Jess, always with you …” Angus said and pulled her in for a kiss that left her breathless. Angus didn’t let her up until he heard Josh say, “What’s wrong Riley?”
Jessica gasped for breath as she turned to find Riley looking really pissed off.
“It didn’t work?” Jessica whispered.
“I guess we’ll know in about half an hour … Paul refused to discuss it on the phone. Said he was coming over.” Riley said, kicking a rock on the ground, sending it skipping off into the distance.
“Shit.” Scott said.
“Is that a bad sign?” Angus asked Abe and Rick.
“No. If he intended to say no he would have on the phone. Either he’s coming here to kill you, or to negotiate.” Rick said.
“What the fuck?” Riley thundered, “So where does that put you two? Are you going to kill us?”
“No.” Abe said. “We’re with you.”
“You are?” Angus asked in complete surprise.
Rick nodded without hesitation.
“We better get ready then.” Riley said.
“If they don’t come in shooting, he’s here to talk.” Rick said. “It’s not Paul’s style to have a gun fight face to face.”
“I remember.” Riley said, “He refused to have it out in the stands at the race.”
“We’ll finish putting the horses into the barn.” Abe said, and he and Rick moved toward the barn.
“I’ll help.” Corey said.
“When you ask for immunity.” Jessica said to Riley, “Include Abe and Rick.”
Riley nodded. He was beyond being surprised. “What if they don’t want immunity? We haven’t even discussed it with them.”
“They can refuse it if they want to.” Jessica said, “if they don’t it will tell us a lot about them.”
“As if standing with us instead of Paul hasn’t already told us a lot.” Angus said. Everyone nodded.
“I guess it would be too much to hope that you’ll stay tucked away in one of the bedrooms when Paul’s here?” Josh asked Jessica. “I thought so.” When Jessica looked at him like he was insane.
“Should we talk with him out here?” Sean asked indicating the front lawn.
“No, let’s invite him in. If he’s not comfortable he’ll ask us to come out.” Riley said.
“And if he asks out to come out, what does that mean?” Jim asked.
“It means he trusts us as much as we trust him.” Don said.
“Well, I’m going to change.” Jessica said looking down at the t-shirt and shorts that covered her bikini.
“You sure that’s a good idea?” Sean asked, “You in a bikini makes a deadly force. We may need that tonight.”
“Ha, ha, ha.” Jessica said.
“That’s perfect!” Justine said clapping her hands. “I got you a dress for tonight as your present. We all have dresses too. Let’s go change and we’ll do our hair and make-up!”
“Now that’s the spirit!” Jessica said as Justine grabbed her arm and towed her toward the house.
“We’ll look so gorgeous, Paul will be too mesmerized to kill anybody.” Leah muttered as she and the other girls followed Jessica and Justine to the house.
“I wasn’t joking about Jessica and the bikini.” Sean said when the girls disappeared inside.
“I know man,” Scott said clapping a hand on Sean’s back, “But what really is funny is if the girls really think they’ll be done changing and doing their make-up and hair by the time Paul gets here. Besides, Jessica can kick ass no matter what she’s wearing but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”
Sean nodded.
“Let’s get ready.” Riley said. “This better be over quick. Jessica will insist on having the rest of her party after.” Rile added with an incredulous laugh.
A chorus of chuckles ensued while they headed into the house.
Forty five minutes later the girls were dressed, coiffed and made up, and everyone was assembled in the living room watching Paul walk in. That made two surprises. The girls were ready in record time, and Paul apparently trusted them more than they anticipated.
Paul was flanked by two beefy men that no one recognized accepted for Rick and Abe who offered curt nods, and Jessica. She recognized them as two of the men she rode with at the motorcycle race.
“Well, well.” Paul said, his eyes flicking over the women who had been strategically placed near the hallway. Justine, Sara and Amanda sat on chairs. Jessica and Leah stood, leaning against the wall. Obscuring hand guns behind their backs. In contrast with the men who held their guns in plain sight. “You didn’t have to get dressed up on my account.”
“They didn’t.” Angus said in a grumble. Jessica winced. Her men sensed it, knew she would, and it took all the will power they had to not turn and look at her.
Paul ignored Angus and settled his eyes on Jessica.
“Jessica, it’s a pleasure to see you again. And I’m glad to see you that you’re doing so much better after that unfortunate attack by Daryl.”
“Thanks.” Jessica said. She saw her men’s bodies go rigid but she simply couldn’t bring herself to be rude. “And thank you so much for all your help. It was … is, greatly appreciated.”
Paul nodded, “Your earlier message was passed on and appreciated as well.”
“Jessica?” one of the beefy men asked, leaning forward and squinting at Jessica.
“Hi Mason, Oliver.” Jessica said, working hard to ignore the body language of her men, and hoping their patience with her would hold out.
“Jesus Christ … you sure look different.” The other man said, “I never would have recognized you …”
“Can we get on with it.” Angus interrupted and this time his voice had an edge to it that made Jessica realize that she’d definitely overstepped the limits.
“Right.” Paul said an unmistakable edge to his voice also. “You said you had a proposition for me.” He pinned Riley with his gaze.
“Your situation with Stasia and Anthony has come to our attention.” Riley said and Jessica closed her eyes. His tone made it clear that his patience was gone too. It was gone, so he was going to be reckless. Paul wasn’t known for his patience either. Jessica wondered if things could possible go any more wrong. But when she opened her eyes she knew that they could. Paul was glaring at Rick and Abe. “And we believe we have a solution for you.”
That took Paul by surprise.
“What kind of solution?”
“We’ll offer you our pool house, our services in the kitchen, waitering, and Jim and Jessica as the lead singers of that metal band. Anything you need to prove to Anthony that Stasia was telling the truth.”
Paul looked around the room, leaving Jessica for last. He watched her for a few minutes, and she watched him. Finally Riley cleared his throat.
“Paul …”
“In exchange for what?” Paul demanded, suspicious eyes landing back on Riley.
“Immunity from the field for Sean and his clan … including Quinn.” Riley added inclining his head toward Quinn, “and Rick and Abe.”
That caused a stir. For Paul but Rick and Abe too. Rick and Abe lost their composure for a moment, looked at Riley, and then at Jessica.
“Well, you have been making lots of friends here, haven’t you?” Paul asked Rick and Abe and it was clear that whatever anger he’d felt toward them before was now more than doubled.
“Only if you want to …” Jessica said quietly, moving closer to Rick and Abe.
“Be careful Jessica …” Paul said, settling a cold stare on Rick and Abe, “they may get you into all kinds of trouble. Ask Stasia …”
“Just a minute …” Rick started but Abe grabbed his arm and shook his head.
“With all due respect Paul,” Jessica said to the groan of her men. She paused and Paul looked around at the men. He brought his gaze back to Jessica, an eyebrow arched with amusement. Jessica cleared her throat but lifted her chin with resolve. “With all due respect, I believe Stasia was the one calling the shots. I mean Abe and Rick were her bodyguards, right? Not her keepers.”
Paul looked at her for a moment before smiling slightly. It was a tight and forced smile, but a smile nonetheless. “I suppose you’re right Jessica.” Paul said. “So if I agree to these terms, what exactly am I supposed to do with all of these clan members who won’t do what I need them to? They’ll be useless to me.”
“You’re negotiating with me Paul …” Riley said in a slow, controlled voice.
“Oh yeah. I almost forgot.” Paul said in such a scathing tone that Jessica quietly moved back to her place at the wall when what she really wanted to do was throw her arms around Riley and apologize.
Everyone was tense, even Leah, who kept throwing glances at Jessica. Jessica lowered her gaze and wished she could crawl under a rock. She had completely undermined Riley.
“So, you were going to tell me what I was going to do with all these useless people.”
“They won’t be useless.” Riley said. “In fact they’ll gather the best intelligence you’ve ever had.”
“Intelligence. Oh that’s funny. A lot of good intelligence will do me with no one in the field.”
“You have plenty of people to go into the field Paul.”
Paul looked over at Jessica again. She was doing her best to not look at him.
“And you have no intention of trying to save little Beth with this deal?” he asked, a sickeningly sweet tone to his voice. And he smiled when Jessica’s eyes shot up to look at him.
“No.” Riley said. He said it clearly and with a great deal of finality.
“Really?” Paul asked, “What about you Jessica? No desire to save your best friend? I mean she really stood by you.”
Jessica leveled her eyes on Paul and it nearly killed but she said, “You heard Riley. What he says is final.”
Paul smiled. She’d been firm in her delivery, but her voice cracked. Paul turned his eyes back to Riley.
“Good. She could never be part of the deal. As you know, no one leaves the clan. No one.”
A small squeak escaped Jessica and she sagged against the wall. Leah moved closer and slipped her arm around her. And with her squeak there was an imperceptible shift of emotion in the room. Paul perceived a general rise of impatience. Everyone looked like they wanted nothing more than to turn around but something was stopping them. It didn’t take long for him to realize that the something was him.
“Okay.” Paul said. “But if this doesn’t work and something happens to Stasia … you all go in the field. All of you. Sean and his clan, Riley and his clan, Rick, Abe, and … Jessica.”
“No!” Riley and Angus yelled. Everyone raised their guns … except for Paul and Jessica. Paul, Mason and Oliver were greatly outnumbered but Paul didn’t seem the least bit worried. He looked at Jessica … who looked a little ashen.
“Jessica, you would have to be the first to admit that I’m putting a lot into this little deal. My sister’s welfare. My clan’s welfare. I need some kind of compensation should things go wrong. The way I hear it, you took out Daryl and his men single handedly. You would be a great asset in the field. The only thing standing between cushy jobs for you, your husbands, and your friends is this deal. I mean, really, what could go wrong anyway?”
“Maybe you’re deaf.” Corey said, “The answer was no.”
“Okay.” Jessica said.
“What? No!” Jim bellowed, almost lowering his gun and turning around.
There was a general uproar while everyone spoke at once. Paul, Mason and Oliver looked around in bewilderment.
“Listen to me, please.” Jessica kept repeating and finally the arguing died down. “Paul is right. Nothing is going to go wrong. This will be easy, and the payoff will be big. But I can’t expect everyone to take all the risk and not assume any. Besides. If you all have to go in the field then I’ll want to be with you. Trust me.”
“Jessica, that’s insane …” Josh began.
“I seem to be hearing that a lot lately.” Jessica said, “So maybe I am not all there. Okay. I can live with that. Please, just accept the deal and let’s move on.”
“Gentlemen?” Paul asked, “Ladies?”
Riley finally nodded.
“Excellent. I’ll be in touch about the details.” He paused and looked at Rick and Abe. “I take it you’re throwing in with their lot then?” he asked, inclining his head at Riley.
“Yes.” Abe said.
“Fine then. After this whole nightmare with Stasia is over you can come get your belongings. Good night.”
Paul turned, his goons turned, and they disappeared out the front door.
There was a general feeling of relief when Quinn, who was watching from the window, reported that Paul and his men had driven away.
Riley had barely turned around when Jessica threw herself on him. She wrapped her arms around him, buried her face in his chest.
“I am so so so sorry.” She said, and looked up at him, “I don’t know what was wrong with me … I just couldn’t stop talking … sorry.”
“I’d be lying if I said that your issues with rudeness aren’t a nuisance sometimes.” Riley said, but he was smiling while he said it.
“I know … I’ll try to be ruder. Really, I will.” Jessica said, relieved that he wasn’t mad. Surprised when he started to laugh.
“That son of a bitch Paul knows your transparent alright Jess.” Angus added and she was surprised to see him grinning from ear to ear.
“You’re … happy about that?” Jessica asked.
“Damn right. It proved to Paul that we were being straight.” Angus said.
“I was worried about that deal though.” Jim added and he looked at Jessica in awe, “How did you manage to convince him of that?”
“The deal?” Jessica asked.
“Yeah. You know, you going in the field. You knew that would never happen but you fooled Paul … that was really good.” Leah said. “Uh, Jessica,” Leah added when Jessica looked at her like she was completely lost.
“Oh my God!” Sara said, staring at Jessica in horror. “You really meant it. You really meant you’d go in the field if things didn’t …”
Everyone was looking at Jessica like she’d grown two heads.
“Jess …” Scott said dropping onto his knees in front of her. He looked like she’d hurt him somehow. “Don’t you know that if we failed somehow, with Stasia that we’d just …” Suddenly a thought occurred to Scott and he turned to look at Rick and Abe.
“Sorry about just assuming you’d take us.” Abe said.
“That’s not a problem.” Riley said, “You’re welcome here. But you may have a problem with this. Our plan is to leave the clan. Forever. This whole immunity thing is to just to buy us time. So, if you’re with us you go when we go. If you’re not, then you’re free to go. We’re expecting that you won’t tell anyone though. So I guess you have another decision to make.”
Rick and Abe looked at Riley in stunned silence. Finally Abe said, “There’s no problem here.”
“None at all.” Rick added.
Scott turned back to Jessica. “We’d just leave. You’d never have to go in the field.”
Jessica looked surprised. “That’s true.” She said. “Ha!”
“But, you didn’t think of that when you agreed to the deal …” Angus said.
“Well, no.” Jessica said, “But I knew we weren’t going to fail.” But then she looked at Angus like she just realized something. She looked around the room in the same way. “But you all are great at acting! You started yelling, and carrying on like the deal really bothered you. That was fantastic.”
“Yeah. Jess, it did really bother me until the end. I didn’t thinking of leaving as the solution until you’d already agreed.” Josh said with a sheepish look on his face.
“Me neither.” Amanda confessed.
“And how do you know the buffoons Paul has as bodyguards?” Riley asked Jessica, “No offense …” Riley said to Abe and Rick when Jessica was about to protest the comment.
“I rode with them at the race.” Jessica said and then laughed, and threw her arms around Angus’ neck when he scowled at her before cracking into a grin himself. “Okay. Can we get back to the party now?” Jessica asked.
“Yes birthday girl …” Jim said when Angus twirled her out to him. He dipped her, kissed her, and said, “we just have to take care of the animals first.”
“I can change and help you …” Jessica said, “and then change back. I can’t believe I forgot that they needed to be taken care of!”
“Jess, it’s your birthday. Just relax, okay?” Jim said.
“Come on.” Sara said, “You messed up your hair and make-up. We’ll fix it up, and I’ll give you my gift.” She held her hand out to Jessica until Jim let her up.
“There’s one other thing.” Abe said, “before we get back to the party. It’s kind of embarrassing really … we have nowhere to live.”
“No problem.” Riley said, “We have plenty of room here.”
“Thanks.” Abe and Rick both said.
Jessica grinned at them, “Welcome to our family.” She said before Sara dragged her down the hallway to the bathroom.
“We’re a big freakin’family.” Corey mumbled.
“Does she always do that?” Leah asked Jim when Jessica was out of sight. “Put other people ahead of herself like that? I mean, you weren’t kidding about the rudeness. I was half expecting her to invite Paul and his men for tea and crumpets … but Jim, she will obviously do whatever it takes to get us out of the field.”
“That’s her alright.” Angus answered for Jim.
“Protecting her from herself is a full time job.” Scott added.
“In that case.” Leah said, “What are your plans for helping Beth? You promised you’d do that and I’m guessing that if you don’t and soon, Jessica will be unable to keep herself from breaking her promise to you about keeping away from her.”
“Wow.” Josh said. “You’ve figure out in a few weeks what it took us years to understand about Jessica.”
“Pretty impressive.” Jim said. “I’ll go by the bar tomorrow. Have a talk with Beth. She loves Jessica. I’m sure she’d come back for her.”
“For now we’d better get moving on feeding the animals.” Scott said.
“I’ll start dinner.” Abe said. “Rick, give me a hand will you?”
An hour and a half later the animals were cared for, dinner was eaten and everyone was lounging in lawn chairs that the men had set up in the front yard. Patio tables with umbrellas and balloons, like the ones at the pond, sat between every two lawn chairs as well.
Jessica was resting on Jim nursing a glass of wine and opening gifts from Leah and Amanda. Spa and shopping gift cards led to a round of hugs.
“After this thing with Anthony we’ll go to the spa and relax!” Leah said as Jessica settled back against Jim.
“Do you want your cake now or after my gift?” Jim asked, rubbing his hands up and down Jessica’s arms.
“I can’t eat anything else right now.” Jessica said, unable to hide her excitement.
“Mhmm.” Jim said with a laugh. “Maybe we should let you rest for a bit … digest …” the expression on Jessica’s face, a full blown pout while she tried to look non-chalant, had everyone chuckling. “Okay, okay.” Jim said, pushing Jessica forward so he could get up and then pulling her up by her hand, “let’s go impatient birthday girl.”
Jim pulled Jessica behind him into the barn. Everyone else followed behind them. Jessica looked completely bewildered when Jim stopped at the ladder to the hay loft.
“After you …” Jim said sweeping his arm to indicate that Jessica was to go up the ladder.
“When did you put that wall up? And the door?” Jessica asked just then noticing that the entire loft was closed in by a wall. And at the top of the ladder was a door.
“A few days ago.” Jim said.
“But why …”
“Shhh, shhh. All will be revealed when you get your adorable butt up there. Go.” Jim said patting her bum.
Jessica shrugged and began to climb. At the top, in the loft, Jessica stood gaping. Somehow the loft had been transformed. Instead of bales of hay and pitch forks there were sound proofed walls, a stage, instruments, a panel with a million buttons on it, chairs and sofas in front of the stage. And the whole portion of the barn ceiling that was in the loft was now glass instead of wood and tile.
“I don’t know how many more surprises she can take.” Sara said with a giggle.
“Are you okay Jess?” Josh asked coming up behind her and squeezing her arms. Jessica looked up at him.
“How?” she asked and then looked at Jim, “How did you do all of this without me knowing?”
Jim grinned, picked her hand up and kissed it. “We have a lot of good co-conspirators.” And he looked around at everyone.
“Abe and Rick were pretty good at keeping you occupied with your dancing lessons.” Riley said.
Jessica looked at Abe and Rick. Rick shrugged, Abe smiled and winked, “It was a good cause.” He said.
“What’s this for?” Jessica asked going to the panel.
“This is your own recording studio Jess.” Jim said, “This is for recording music, mixing, increasing or decreasing bass, treble …” he continued, pointing at some buttons.
Jessica turned and stared at him.
“I know you’ve never done it before but I kind of thought you may want to try …” he began, but his voice died down when all she did was stare. “I thought it was something we could all do together …” he added, casting his eyes around the others, the other men. He hadn’t made it back to Jessica before she threw herself on him, making that strange squealing noise that drove Riley nuts.
“I love it, I love it, I love it!” she shrieked between the squeals. When she finally pried herself off of Jim she went through all her men, and then everyone else. Hugging, kissing, squealing, clapping her hands, jumping up and down. Intermingling, ‘I love it, I love it’ with ‘thank you for everything.’. By the time she was done everyone was laughing and feeling a great sense of satisfaction.
Jessica eventually moved to the instruments and walked around running her hands over them. They were all new. She’d pick up a guitar, play a few notes, move to the next one. Angus had been shadowing her and it wasn’t until she’d done playing with the drums that she paid close attention to the expression on Angus’ face. He looked … worried. Riley hadn’t followed her but he stood at the edge of the stage watching her. And he looked worried also. For a moment Jessica thought that maybe she’d made too big a deal about the studio and not a big enough deal about their gifts, but looking at them again they didn’t look sad, disappointed or angry. Just worried.
That worried her.
“Angus … Riley …” Jessica moved to Angus and then pulled him with her to Riley. “Is everything okay?”
“It kind of depends …” Riley said.
“Depends? On what?” Jessica asked.
Angus took Jessica by the shoulders and led her to one of the sofas that Sara and Justine already sat on. “On whether you like this or not …” he said before plunking her down between Sara and Justine.
“You’re gonna love it.” Sara said.
“Oh yeah.” Justine agreed.
Jessica watched Angus walk back to Riley. The other men moved onto the stage. Jim picked up the guitar, Scott sat at the drums, Josh stood by the keyboard.
Angus and Riley didn’t look any less worried but they moved behind two microphones. And then it happened. Suddenly Jessica understood why Riley and Angus looked so worried. They weren’t worried, they were nervous. Jim, Josh and Scott started playing “Hero” by Enrique Inglasius and then … then Riley and Angus started to sing. And they were good. So good!
They sang to her, and she cried. When they ended on bended knee in front of her, Jessica threw her arms around both of them.
“We’ll be your heroes Jess.” Angus said.
“Always.” Riley added which threw her into near hysteria. Sara and Justine moved off the sofa and Riley and Angus took their places, Jessica perched where their legs rested against one another, her head in Angus’ shoulder, arm around Riley’s neck.
“She really loved it.” Jim said when he and Scott and Josh put away the instruments and came to the sofa. Jessica started nodding her head.
“Either that or she really hated it.” Riley said with a laugh and Jessica shook her head emphatically, still unable to speak.
“I didn’t think you sang.” Corey said to Riley and Angus.
“Jessica’s been teaching us.” Angus said.
“You were great.” Leah said.
“I was afraid my nerves would ruin it.” Angus said. Again Jessica shook her head in a frenzy.
“It wasn’t obvious that you were nervous.” Josh said.
“Not at all.” Quinn added.
“I think we may have gone too far though.” Riley said, patting Jessica’s arm. “Jess, you’re not supposed to cry on your birthday.”
“Here Jess.” Justine said handing Jessica a handful of tissues. Jessica wiped her face as much as she could but her face was still red and splotchy when she looked up.

“Great, there goes your make-up.” Sara mumbled.

“Shhh.” Leah said smacking Sara’s arm, “Besides, you love making her up … she’s like your personal doll. Now you get to do it again so be happy.”

“Sorry …” Jessica said to Sara and then she sat up and turned to Riley and Angus. Rubbing a hand on each ones chest she looked at them like they really were her heroes. Like they’d never do any wrong, ever again. It seemed like too much.

“Jess …” Angus began.

“You … you said you’d never sing in public …” Jessica said looking between them.

“Yeah, well, never say never, right?” Riley said with a small laugh but she was looking at him with such intensity that it was starting to hurt. Kind of like staring directly at the sun for too long. “Besides,” he added, looking around at everyone in the room, “these guys hardly count as the public.”

Jessica smiled, nodded, and gave him and Angus a momentary reprieve from her intensity by looking around the room too.

“That’s true.” She said. And then she was back.

“And, Jess. I hope you know, we would do anything for you.” Angus said.

“I do.” Jessica said, and then leaning forward she cupped a hand to each one of their cheeks, “You were really brave. They may not be the public, but you still put yourselves out there. You all, singing and playing together …” Jessica said, leaning back and looking at Scott, Jim and Josh, and then back at Riley and Angus, “was the best birthday present ever. Thank you. And now I’m going to cry again …” she whimpered, bringing the tissue to her nose and falling forward, burying her face in Angus’ chest. Riley rubbed her legs, Angus her back. She felt Scott, Jim and Josh kiss the top of her head.
Rick cleared his throat. “Maybe we should get the bonfire going.” He suggested.

“Get the instruments outside for the jam session?” Abe added with a nod.

“Bonfire, right!” Justine said clapping her hands. “She can’t very well wear that dress to a bonfire. Time for a wardrobe change.”

“I’ll fix her make-up …” Sara said.

“I’ve got her hair.” Amanda added.

“Don’t look at us like that!” Sara said to Leah, “You’re just as bad. You have differently accessories for every one of her outfits. Shoes, earrings, necklaces, bracelets … even friggin’ underwear …”

“Okay, okay.” Leah snapped. “Jess, can you make it back to the house honey?”
Jessica nodded while Leah and Amanda pried her off of Riley and Angus’ laps and led her to the door.
“Do you think that’s a good thing?” Mark asked, hitching a thumb in the direction that the girls had disappeared. “Them treating her like she’s a Barbie doll?”
“Yeah, I do. I think she needs the mothering. She misses it … misses her mom …” Silence hung in the air when Riley finished talking.
“If …” Angus said, looking over at the door, “if there was a way I could undo everything. Give her back her family, friends, her life. I would.”
“I guess Leah, Justine, Sara and Amanda make decent surrogate moms.” Sean said. “And for the record, Jessica is happy. Compared to how she looked months ago, when we came with the paperwork for Ebony …” Sean added, looking at Scott, “she’s happy.”
After a few minutes of silence Josh shook his head. “I guess that bonfire isn’t going to build itself.”
“Right ...” Rick said, and everyone headed for the door.
After fifteen minutes of changing, having her hair and makeup done, and being appropriately accessorized Jessica and the girls emerged into a dark living room only to have blazing candles emerge from the kitchen to another round of happy birthday. Once Jessica blew out the candles she stood looking at another beautifully decorated cake. Perfect replicas of guitars, pianos, drums, microphones, musical notes, notebooks, even a dance floor with a disco ball hanging over it, decorated the cake.
“It’s beautiful.” Jessica said. “Who decorated all the cakes?” When no one answered she looked up to find everyone looking uncomfortable.
“Scott?” she asked when he seemed to be the only one willing to look her in the eye.
“It was Beth.” He said, “These were her birthday gifts to you.”
“Beth …” the word whooshed out of Jessica like she’d been punched in the stomach. “She should be here … why isn’t she here celebrating with us?” She looked around and finally noticed how upset Angus looked.
“She didn’t want to be around me.” Angus said. He looked away from Jessica clearly upset with himself.
“Oh Angus, I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking …” Jessica said, going into his arms.
“She never nentioned anything about leaving the clan.” Jim said, “Angus was just a convenient excuse.”
Both Jessica and Angus looked over at Jim, thankful for the attempt at diversion from the truth.
“She’s really good.” Jessica said looking back at the cake. “So talented.”
“Come on Camper Barbie …” Scott said tugging on Jessica’s pony tail and looking over the dark track pants, hoodie, long socks and hiking boots that the girls had dressed Jessica in, “Let’s go sit on the sofa and let Rick and Abe cut up the cake.”
Jessica followed Scott’s eyes as he looked her over but she looked very confused while he led her to the sofa, “Camper Barbie?” she asked.
“You look hot, that’s all you need to know.” Scott said pulling her on to his lap.
“I’ve never heard of a double chocolate carrot cake before.” Josh said handing Jessica a plate with a huge piece of cake on it and sitting on one side of Scott and Jessica.
“Me neither.” Said Jim, handing Scott his cake, “But it’s freakin’ good.” He added after shoveling a forkful into his mouth and dropping on their other side.
Jessica was nodding in agreement while she chewed her first piece when she heard Quinn say, “Caleb, Amanda likes the middle pieces, not the edge. Here, give her this.” From behind her. There was a moment of silence and then Caleb said, “thanks.” Clearly surprised. And then, “Here Manda.”
“Oh thanks! A center piece, my favorite, thanks Caleb!”
Jessica smiled until she looked past Riley and Angus who now stood in front of her, Scott, Jim and Josh, and saw Stan throwing dirty looks at Quinn again. Looking around she was satisfied that everyone was far enough away that she wouldn’t be heard discussing Stan with the men.
She waved Angus and Riley closer.
“What?” Jessica asked in surprise when Riley grinned at her as he and Angus leaned forward. Her attempts at being clandestine combined with the complete change in look Leah and the others had given her worked to make Jessica look adorable. Adorable and he couldn’t wait to have sex with her. That was twisted.
“You are adorable, that’s all.” Riley said.
Jessica looked down at herself and then up at Scott and asked, “Camper Barbie?”
The men chuckled when Scott tugged on her ponytail.
“That is a cute outfit they have you in.” Riley said looking it over again, “And I really can’t wait to get it off you, by the way, but what’s adorable is you. Just you.”
Jessica smiled. “I don’t think adorable is quite the right word for you.” She said, “Any of you …” she added looking them over, “but you’re very, very, appealing.” She cleared her throat. “Um …” she shook her head, “and distracting …” she added.
“I think you were going to whisper something to us.” Angus said with a smile when it was obvious that Jessica was truly flustered by them.
“Oh yes, yes, thanks.” She said beckoning them closer still, “Something isn’t right with Stan. He keeps giving Quinn dirty looks … behind his back. Behind everyone’s back. I just happened to notice though …” she added when the men turned to look at Stan. Stan was back to his neutral expression and when he noticed the men and Jessica looking at him he raised his beer in a salute.
The men responded and turned back to Jessica.
“We’ll keep an eye on him Jess.” Jim said, “I’m sure he’s still just trying to adjust to the situation.”
Jessica nodded, “Thanks.”
“Want more cake?” Scott asked when Jessica finished her last bite. “Want to go jam?” he asked when she shook her head. That resulted in vigorous nodding.
“Let’s go then.” He said scooping her up as he stood.
“And that’s twenty-one.” Josh said while Jessica’s legs jerked but she was too weak to do more than let them. Josh looked up from between her legs, his face glistening. Jessica’s head lolled against Riley’s chest. Riley had her behind the knees hooked by his elbows, spreading her legs, while pulling her nipples with his hands. Angus, Jim and Scott were arrayed around her, observing as Angus poked, pulled, prodded her anus and Josh ate her out.
“You were right Scott, I like the birthday orgasm over the birthday bumps by a long shot.” Josh said, sliding his face back and forth on her stomach in an attempt to dry it.
“I guess having a set of nineteen, then twenty, then twenty-one may reduce the screams to a small whimper in the end.” Angus said with a chuckle as he patted Jessica’s butt. “Hey Jess?”
Jessica nodded, “Mhmmm.”
“And whimper she did.” Riley added, stroking her nipples between thumb and forefinger of each hand.
To please Jessica they’d let her get them off between sets, and they were glad they did because she sure didn’t seem in any shape to do it now.
“Some water Jess?” Jim asked.
“Please …” Jessica said.
Jim grabbed one of the water bottles they’d brought in with them, lifted her head gently and brought the bottle to her lips.
“Slowly, slowly, careful Jess.” He said as he poured water and she swallowed.
“Listen …” Riley said and everyone got quiet. A muffled moaning could be heard from one of the other rooms.
“I guess they weren’t kidding when they said we’d have some competition tonight.” Angus said with a laugh. He flopped onto the floor between Jessica’s legs and kissed her butt cheeks. Scott and Josh stretched out on the floor by Jessica’s hips, Scott kissing one, Josh rubbing the other. Riley lowered her legs and ran his thumb back and forth on her cheeks. When Jessica was done drinking, Jim kissed her breasts, and then lay his cheek on her chest, hugging her torso.
“Who did?” Jessica croaked.
“Oh baby, you need more water.” Jim said reaching for the water bottle.
“Give it to me.” Riley said, “I’ll give her some.”
Jessica drank some more water and then looked around, “Who said we’d have competition?”
“Everyone.” Josh said, “They all needed to spend the night, and they all said they’d be …”
“Fucking.” Angus finished for him.
After several more sips of water Jessica smiled. “Rick and Abe too?”
“I presume so.” Jim said, “Though they seem to be pretty private about their relationship.”
“Which is perfect.” Angus said, earning a narrow eyed glance from Jessica.
“Need anything to eat Jess? Food I mean … any food to eat?” Josh asked to a chorus of snorts from Scott and Angus. “You guys are pigs.” He added.
“Bathroom?” Scott asked when Jessica had refused food. “I got her.” He said when Jessica nodded. Throwing a blanket around her, and pulling on underwear, Scott scooped her up and took her to the bathroom. When they returned, the men had reorganized the bed. Blankets and pillows back in place, they arranged Jessica between them and cuddled.
“You know,” Riley said breaking the silence after a while, “I don’t think I’ll ever see birthdays the same way again.”
Everyone laughed, including Jessica. She slid are arm around his stomach and shifted onto her side, the other men adjusting to the position change again. “Me neither.”
“Jess, are you tired?” Jim asked.
“Of course she’s tired …” Josh said, “Shit Jim, where have you been for the past two hours?”
“I was just wondering if she wanted to do one more little thing.”
“Okay. I’m game.” Jessica said, turning over again and beginning to shimmy under the blankets.
“Oh, no, not that.” Jim said when Jessica grabbed his cock. “I mean … I won’t argue …” he added, “but I’d meant read.”
“Read?” Jessica and the other men all asked at the same time.
“Yeah, the last of Romeo and Juliet. We’re almost done.”
Jessica shimmied back up until her head popped out of the blanket. She looked at Jim. “That I definitely have energy for.”
“Great, here.” Jim said handing her the book. It took five minutes for Jessica to finish the play. And then they sat there in silence for two. Jessica closed the book and looked at the cover.
“That was stupid.” Angus said.
“Yeah. What kind of a love story is that?” Josh demanded.
“It’s a tragedy, not a love story.” Jim said.
“That was pretty tragic.” Riley said, his fingers rubbing circles on Jessica’s hands while they clasped the book.
“I guess it seems kind of extreme.” Jessica said.
“It seems like something you’d do.” Scott said, running his hand up her leg. Jessica raised her eyes to his.
“Scott’s right.” Riley said ignoring Jessica’s statement, “I could totally see you doing something ridiculously extreme to protect us, out of love.” Riley said. “I mean, you already have.”
Jessica looked up at him. “I could see all of us doing something extreme for one another. And that’s what makes it a love story.”
“Jess. Please be careful what you do. For us.” Angus said, pushing on his elbow to look at Jessica, sliding his hand onto her stomach. “We couldn’t go on without you.”
“What are you grinning at?” Scott asked when a smile split Jessica’s face.
“I want to marry you.” Jessica said, looking from one to the other.
“What?” Riley asked. The others sat up.
“I want to marry you. For real. Tonight.”
“You’re serious!” Angus said.
“Extremely.” Jessica said.
“Okay, alright.” Josh said, getting as excited as Jessica was looking.
“We can have Sean marry us tonight. We should be able to get everything ready for the Paul and Anthony thing during the day, we can have a wedding celebration after dinner.” Jim said.
“No, when I said tonight I meant now. Right now. Let’s get Sean to marry us right now.”
“It’s three in the morning Jess. And I don’t think everyone would appreciate being woken up before they’ve barely gone to bed. ” Riley said. “Why don’t we do it first thing in the morning? Have a celebratory breakfast?”
“Okay. A breakfast wedding … excellent!” Jessica squealed, clapping her hands.
“Jess, you do realize that Sean has the authority to marry people so that it’s recognized in society.” Jim said, taking Jessica’s hand in his and tugging gently, “He’s ordained, legally. It would be for real. Your kind of real. Are you okay with that?”
Jessica lifted Jim’s hand and kissed it. “Yes, I want it to be for real. I love all of you, I want you to be my husbands and I want us to grow old together. But how did Sean become an ordained priest?” Jessica asked in an incredulous tone. “He’s not older than you Riley, is he? And he was in the priesthood?”
“Sean is a year older than me.” Riley said, “But he was never in the priesthood.” He added with a chuckle.
“The government was giving the clan grief about illegal marriages. They threatened to take kids from their parents a few times. Said our parents weren’t taking care of us properly.” Scott said. “Sean saw an ad for online ordaining. It’s legal, oddly. So Don got him online and he took it and now he marries everyone in the clan.”
“Wow.” Jessica said with a giggle, “That works out well for us then.” She looked each one of the men in the eye before saying, “I want to be your wife, for real.”
“Oh my God Jess, you’ve made me the happiest man alive.” Josh said and kissed her.
“I’d wager that we’re equally the happiest five men alive.” Angus said, sliding one hand up to one breast, the other down between Jessica’s legs.
“Do you have enough energy for a celebratory wedding fuck?” Scott asked.
Jessica responded by spreading her legs.
“Excellent.” Jim said kissing his way down her leg.
“And I won’t even argue about the hand job.” Riley said as Jessica grasped his cock, and by the way Angus moaned Riley concluded that her other hand had Angus’.
After a marathon round of sex they fell to sleep in a jumbled mess of bodies and limbs. The piercing scream had them all bolt up in complete disorientation.
“Stay here Jess.” Riley said.
“Shit, where’s the gun?” Angus demanded when another scream pierced the silence.
“End table.” Scott said.
“Got it.” Angus said and headed for the door.
When Angus opened the door they could hear Justine yell, “Stop, stop!” from the bedroom down the hall.
“Justine!” Jessica gasped, and wrapping a blanket around herself she came up behind Josh in the hall.
“Listening like always I see.” Josh muttered when she hugged him from behind.
“Stop Chris, stop!” Justine yelled.
“You stay the hell away from me!” Chris bellowed and there was the sound of flesh hitting flesh.
“It’s Justine and Chris!” Jessica said, as if that changed and explained everything.
“Fine… come on.” Josh said pulling her closer and following the other down the hall.
When Angus kicked the door open Justine, completely naked and in absolute terror turned to the men who stood in the doorway and shrieked, “Stop them!”
Angus, Scott and Riley were the only ones who fit in the doorway. Jim, Josh and Jessica waited impatiently in the hallway and they were soon joined by everyone else. Groggy, disoriented, and armed.
“He touched me!” Chris growled. He and Mark were buck naked too. Mark crouched in a defensive position, hands held up, Chris frozen with his fist in the air, hovering over Mark.
“It was a mistake!” Mark mumbled through bloody and swollen lips. He looked like he’d been bashed with a mallet on the face.
“He touched me and kissed me!” Chris bellowed and landed another punch but this one landed on Mark’s head as he lowered it in self-defense.
“Stop him! Why aren’t you stopping him?” Justine demanded when all Angus, Scott and Riley could do was stand and watch him.
“What’s going on?” Caleb asked.
“Don’t know …” Jim said.
Inside the room Scott finally snapped out of his surprise and grabbed Chris’ arm before it could land the next punch.
“I’m going to kill the fucking faggot. I’m going to kill him!” Chris yelled. When Scott moved in, Angus and Riley did too. Jessica took the opportunity to slip by everyone, towing Josh by the hand and go into the bedroom.
“Justine!” she exclaimed in surprise when she saw Justine, naked, trying to cover herself as much as she could with her hands, and crying.
Dropping Josh’s hand Jessica went to the bed, grabbed a blanket and wrapped it around Justine.
“It’s okay …” she murmured. “What happ … oh no!” she exclaimed when she turned to see Scott holding Chris back and Mark still bent on the floor, blood flowing from his badly beaten face.
“What happened?” Sean demanded.
“Tell them!” Chris yelled at Mark, “Tell them how you’re a flaming homo and you tried to rape me!”
Silence filled the room with the exception of a groan from Abe. Jessica looked at him and flashed to earlier in the night. While they were around the campfire. Mark had been talking to Abe. Alone. Mark had been intense, Abe had looked incredibly uncomfortable. He’d kept shaking his head and then he’d looked intense. Now he looked guilty.
Everyone glanced at Abe, including Rick, who looked at him with surprise which quickly turned to dread.
“Justine … Justine …” Sean said to Justine who was leaning against Jessica crying. Sara had made her way in and had her arm wrapped around Justine also. Leah and Amanda standing nearby. “Is that what happened?” he asked when Justine finally looked up with tear filled eyes.
“I don’t know.” She mumbled. “One second we were … and the next Chris was beating Mark up …” and she started crying again.
“What do you know about this?” Sean asked Abe.
Abe groaned again, sighed and looked at Mark.
“Mark came to me for advice. He said he was bisexual … had the hots for both Justine and Chris. But, Chris didn’t know. He wanted to know how to come out to him. I told him it was a bad idea. I told you it was a bad idea!” he growled when Mark looked at him with swollen eyes. “What the fuck Mark!”
“I know … I know …” Mark muttered. “I didn’t intend to do anything … it just happened.” He looked at Chris. “I’m sorry.”
Silence again.
“You’re bisexual?” Justine asked. “What does that mean?” She looked from Mark, to Chris, to Sara, to Jessica.
“It means …” Chris said in a voice filled with fury, “I won’t do anything …” he added when Scott moved to grab him again, “It means that he swings both ways. He likes pussy …” he pointed at Justine, “and he likes dick.” He pointed at his own cock. “But not this dick Mark. You’ll never have this dick! If you come near me again man … I swear I’ll kill you!”
“What about us?” Justine asked Chris, “The three of us? We’re … together …”
“Not anymore we’re not.” Chris said.
“Maybe Mark can join Rick and Abe.” Angus said and it was clear he was uncomfortable because he wouldn’t look at Mark or Rick and Abe.
“Oh no!” Rick thundered.
“What he means is that we’re monogamous. Strictly monogamous.” Abe added.
“I think everyone needs a break.” Jessica said. “This is emotional, it’s late and we barely slept.”
“Mark needs his face fixed up.” Caleb said. “Come on man, I’ll do it in the living room. Put some pants on first though …”
“I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep.” Chris said.
“You know …” Jim said, “You say that the three of you are done. But there is a solution that doesn’t mean you have to be … but you and Mark don’t need to be together in a bedroom.”
“What is it?” Justine asked.
“Well, Justine just alternates nights between the two of you.”
“I don’t know …” Chris said.
“Don’t decide tonight. Justine and you can go to sleep here. Mark on the sofa. You can figure out the details tomorrow.”
“Please Chris, please …” Justine said and went to him. He wrapped his arm around her and she snuggled in.
“Okay. We can talk about it tomorrow. Now, get him out of here.”
Caleb and Mark left the bedroom. Once they were gone everyone looked around at one another.
“I guess Scott is the only one who sleeps in his underwear …” Corey said. All the men were naked, just standing around.
“Yeah, this is awkward … see you in the morning. Dressed.” Stan grumbled and moved out of the room.
“Jess …” Angus motioned to Jessica. She went to him.
“Are you okay?” she asked. He looked gray.
“I don’t know.” He said, took her by the shoulders and led her back to their bedroom.
Everyone climbed back onto the bed, arranged themselves around Jessica, but Angus stood there looking at them.
“What’s wrong?” Jim asked.
“Are any of you bi?” Angus asked.
“What? No!” Josh exclaimed.
“Angus, are you serious?” Riley demanded. “We’ve been together for so long now, if we were bi don’t you think you’d know it?”
“We had no clue about Mark … Abe or Rick either.” Angus said.
“So what? You’re going to sleep by yourself because one of us might be bi?” Scott demanded. “Give me a fucking break!”
“Guys … guys …” Jessica said sitting up. “This was a shock to everyone and Angus was already really sensitive to homosexuality. It’s late … we’re tired, it’s hard to think straight. Angus if you want to sleep apart tonight that’s fine … but tomorrow I want you to think about each of these men. You’re as much in a relationship with them as you are with me. You love them. Would you really turn your back on them … on our current relationship just because of sexual preference? And while you’re at it, think about our oath.” Jessica’s voice had been gentle, like she was talking to a child. “And I’m sorry but I’m just too tired to talk much more now.” She looked around, “Is there a spare blanket for him?”
“It doesn’t matter.” Angus said and moved to the bed. “Nothing can make me sleep anywhere but with you. All of you.”
“Ahhh, we love you Angus …” Scott said in an exaggerated, sweet voice.
“For always …” Jim said making kissing sounds.
“Got enough blanket sweetheart?” Riley added.
“We can cuddle up if he doesn’t …” Josh said.
“Shut up …” Angus grumbled but he was laughing. He intertwined his legs with Jessica’s, and since Riley had his legs also intertwined with hers on the other side their legs were pressed together as well and he had no desire to pull them away. Which surprised him, greatly.

The next morning things were tense.
Mark and Chris avoided each other during breakfast and chores. Justine sat on the sofa crying intermittently.
Everyone had gathered back at the kitchen table to plan the details for the following night but Riley had asked Sean to marry them so he was just looking over the their oath.
He looked up from the paper. “You’re already married.”
“What?” Riley asked.
Sean looked around at everyone. “This oath covers everything and more. There are only two things not explicitly stated in here that we usually appear in society vows. A promise to obey and a commitment to remain together until death. If you don’t want to add that we can back date it, I’ll sign it, and when this ridiculous situation with Anthony is taken care of, we can have the ceremony to celebrate it. It’ll be nice to have a wedding. We’ve never had one … not in our chapter of the clan.”
“Obedience has no place in our marriage.” Angus said, “Not anymore.”
The other men nodded their agreement.
“And ‘until death do us part’,” Riley said, “Only applies to us men. Jess, if you want to leave us, you are free to. But please know that I will always look for you, I’ll never give up unless you tell me that you don’t want me anymore. If that ever happens I’ll want to be dead.”
“Ditto.” Angus and the other men grumbled.
Jessica looked around at the men from her place on Josh’s lap. Tears stung her eyes, “I never want to leave you. And I never, ever, want any of you dead.”
Jessica and the men observed one another in an emotion filled silence. The others watching couldn’t help but smile with affection.
Finally Angus cleared his throat. “I can think of something else to add to the oath. Last night when we asked you to not do anything extreme for us Jess, you never actually promised you wouldn’t.”
“Oh.” Jessica said in surprise. “Okay …” she continued looking around at the men, “Well, I can promise to do what’s necessary. Nothing more, nothing less. But you have to promise the same.”
“Okay Jessica …” Angus said with a laugh, “nothing’s every easy or straightforward with you, is it?”
“What was complicated about that?” Jessica asked and looked so bewildered everyone had to laugh.
“We’ll have to get you a dress …” Justine said, without a tremble or tear for the first time that morning.
“A nice cream color … something simple, she doesn’t need anything complicated.” Leah said.
“Wait a minute.” Scott said, “Weddings are a big thing where Jessica comes from. Jess, we tend to keep things simple in the clan. Low key celebration, an oath, rings. But from what I know from my … research … into women …” this caused a lot of throat clearing and laughing, “Mainstream culture,” he continued ignoring everyone, but enjoying the smile that had developed on Jessica’s face, “makes a way bigger deal out of it. White, fancy dresses, ridiculous amounts of food and drink, and planning. Isn’t that what you want?” he asked her.
“I’m impressed.” Jessica said, smiling even more, “I didn’t think your … research … would include weddings.” Everyone laughed again. “But yes, I guess a white dress, veil. Tuxes …” she said nodding her head at the men. “Would be nice. That’s really sweet of you … thanks.”
“Wedding magazines!” Leah said in excitement. “Don’t worry about a thing Jess, we’ll plan you the perfect wedding!”
An energy ran through the room and even Mark and Chris, who sat at opposite sides of the table, seemed to mellow with it.
“Okay. I’ll add Angus’ addition to the oath, back date it and sign it.” Sean said.
“Thanks.” Riley said, shaking Sean’s hand.
“Sorry to pull us all back to our current situation …” Abe said, “but my band friends will be here any minute.”
“Right.” Riley said. “We have a shitload to do. We’ll work on the pond …” he said motioning to all the men except Jim. “Jim and Jess will practice to be in a heavy metal band …” he said with a shake of his head, still unable to figure out how Stasia came up with her cockeyed story, much less the specifics of a heavy metal band. “You girls need to get all the extra glasses, dishes, cutlery, plan the menu.”
“Jim and I are going to need either leather or jean jackets.” Jessica said to the girls, “Second hand. Actually, you should see some videos so you know what I’m talking about. Don, is there a way to hook the laptop up to the TV? It’d be better to watch some music videos on the bigger screen.”
“Sure, no problem.” Don said and went to get the laptop.
Cars pulled into the driveway.
“They’re here.” Rick said, looking out the window. “They brought equipment.” He added after watching them for a few minutes.
“We may as well practice in my studio …” Jessica said smiling at Jim, “after we watch the videos.”
“I’ll tell them to hold off on unpacking then.” Rick said heading for the door.
In fifteen minutes introductions were made, everyone left to perform their assigned duties, and Jim, Jessica, the girls, and Rick’s friends, Cain, Jake and Sam, were on the sofa watching videos.
“So leather or jean, and dark makeup. Got it.” Leah said after the second video. “See you in a bit.”
Once the girls were gone Jessica picked another video.
“The stage presence is really important.” Jessica said to Jim. “I don’t know how much Anthony will know about heavy metal but you can bet he’ll have someone with him who does know. Look how they move …”she turned to Abe’s friends. “Can you show him?”
“Sure …” Cain said. He looked a little surprised, as did Jake and Sam but they got up, pretended to be holding guitars and began to move as if they were performing.
“What the hell is with the head thing?” Jim asked when they began to thrash their heads back and forth, “Are you trying to give yourselves whiplash?”
“It’s head banging …” Sam said, “it’s core to heavy metal. You really have no clue, do you?”
Jim shook his head.
“There are a few standard stage moves.” Jessica said, “Head banging, guitar smashing, and I guess you’d call them groupings. When two guitarists have a riff off, or play together … like this.” Jessica said going through several examples on the video. “Now let’s practice.”
For the next hour they watched videos and practiced moving on the stage with pretend instruments. The next half hour was spent dragging Cain, Jake and Sam’s equipment up to the studio and setting up. Then the real practicing began.
They practiced a set of thirty songs, deciding that they’d play three sets of ten. Recorded music could be played during their breaks.
“Looking good.” Abe said, appearing in the doorway, a plate of sandwiches in one hand, six pack of beer in the other. “I came back to get food for the guys back at the pond. I figured you could use some too.”
“Thanks man.” Cain said, taking a sandwich and a beer. Everyone sat on the sofa and stuffed their faces.
“See you later.” Abe said and left.
“So you know Abe and Rick how?” Jim asked by way of small talk.
“Let’s just say that we run in the same circles.” Jake said.
Jessica didn’t think that was much of an answer and when she looked to Jim for confirmation it initially looked like she was right. But after looking confused for a moment he snapped from a slouch to sitting ramrod straight and looked the men over. Rather than question them further Jim scarfed down the last bit of his sandwich and beer and suggested that they get back to practicing. Cain, Jake and Sam looked pretty relieved and despite being utterly confused Jessica didn’t say anything.
They worked until dinner. Took a half hour break to eat and then went back to it. By the time Cain, Sam and Jake left, Jessica was quite satisfied that they would be a convincing heavy metal band.
“Jim … it’s midnight. Are you sure we shouldn’t be out there helping?” Jessica said for the hundredth time.
When Cain, Sam and Jake left, she’d asked. When they soaked in the tub for half an hour, she’d asked. In the few minutes they’d been in their bedroom she’d asked a bunch more times and now lying in Jim’s arms in bed she asked again.
Jim sighed and pulled her tighter. “You have a one track mind you know …” he mumbled, “I swear to you that they’re fine. They have their jobs, we have ours. They expect us to do whatever is necessary to get ready for tomorrow night and right now that means getting some rest.”
“They need rest too …” Jessica said.
“They’ll get it, don’t worry. But, to be fair to them, I won’t ravish you tonight. We can do it in the morning when they’re here.”
“You’re right,” Jessica said in a tone that implied there was a great sacrifice being made, “if they’re not having fun, we shouldn’t be either.”
“Jess,” Jim said with a laugh, lifting up onto his elbow and rolling her onto her back so he could see her face, “I didn’t mean we couldn’t have fun. I just thought they should be here for it. If you want me to ravish you …” he said bringing his hand to her belly and then sliding it down between her legs, bringing his lips to hover just above hers, “I’m more than ready and willing. Just say the word.”
“I do want you to ravish me …” Jessica said, sliding her hands up Jim’s chest, “but it wouldn’t be right without the others.”
“Okay.” Jim said pecking her lips and then lying down, pulling her closer again.
“Hopefully they’ll be here soon …” Jessica said.
Jim chuckled as he turned the bedside lamp off. “They’ll wake us when they get in. Good night Jess, love you.”
“Love you to.” Jessica said and cuddled up as close as she could to Jim. “It feels weird.” She said after a few minutes.
“What does?”
“Just the two of us in bed. It feels empty, lonely.”
“I know. I feel it too. Here …” he said getting up and placing a bunch of pillows around Jessica on the other side, up against her. “Pretend these are the men.”
Jessica laughed, snuggled closer and closed her eyes.
“Jim?” she said after a minute.
“What did Cain mean when he said that he, Sam and Jake run in the same circles as Abe and Rick?”
“They’re gay.”
“Oh … oh.”
“Jess …”
“The next time you speak it better be you saying ‘screw waiting for the men,’” he said in an overly high and overly sweet voice. “‘Ravish me now.’”
Jessica giggled. “Sorry, I’m going to sleep. And, I don’t sound like that.”
Jim kissed her forehead and muttered “Yes you do.”.
Jessica hmphed a few times to show her displeasure with the imitation, but in minutes they were asleep.

The men didn’t wake Jessica and Jim when they came to bed, but the next morning they had enough sex to more than make up for that.
When they came out for breakfast everyone was up and eating, and Cain, Sam and Jake were already there. Having some breakfast too.
“There you are.” Justine said when she saw Jessica and Jim. “Try these on. We couldn’t decide between the jean or leather so we bought both.”
Justine helped Jessica try them on, Leah helped Jim.
“I think the leather is better.” Jessica said.
“I agree.” Jim said. “How’s the menu coming?”
“It’s not.” Leah said rolling her eyes. She thrust her chin in Riley’s direction when both Jim and Jessica waited for an explanation.
“Paul texted last night.” Riley said, “Anthony is refusing anything that his cook doesn’t make herself.”
“What?” Jim and Jessica demanded at the same time.
“Yup. They’re bringing their own pots, pans, utensils, ingredients, everything.” Riley said.
“He is one paranoid motherfucker.” Angus said.
“He thinks we’re going to poison him?” Jessica asked.
The general consensus was a shrug.
“Only explanation that makes sense.” Corey said.
“So look.” Leah said, “Everyone is getting here for six. The girls and I will meet you …” she included Jake, Sam and Cain in her gaze, “in here at five so we can get you dressed, and your hair and makeup on. ‘K?”
With that everyone split up again.
In the studio the practicing went on for hours. After a while it became less tense. As it became obvious that they would be convincing, they began to have fun.
“Lose track of time?” Josh asked.
“Shit.” Jim swore, looking up at Josh, Chris and Stan.
“The girls are waiting for you in the house. We’ll get your instruments to the pond and setup.” Chris said.
In the house they all donned jeans, torn t-shirts, biker boots, jean jackets and bullet proof vests. The girls teased their hair, sprayed it in place, and applied black eyeliner and black lipstick.
“You look great!” Leah said, looking the five of them over.
“You look scary.” Sara said.
“Especially you.” Jim said to Jessica, “You look really tough. I wouldn’t want to be stuck in a dark alley with you.”
“Please.” Jessica said with a laugh.
“He’s right.” Sam said, “You’re scaring my socks off.”
“Good. Then maybe Anthony will be scared straight.” Jessica said as they headed out the front door.
“Jess, stop touching the vest.” Jim said grabbing her hands as she rubbed them on her torso.
“I can’t help it, it feels weird.”
“Well, if you keep doing that people are going to figure out you’re wearing one.” Jim said.
“Isn’t everyone going to be wearing one?”
“That’s beside the point.” Jim said, pulling her hands away again, “you’ve gotta leave them guessing. Otherwise they’ll aim for the head and that is not acceptable.”
“You don’t say …” Jessica muttered. “I’ll do my best.” And she had to concentrate on lowering her hands when they went to touch the vest again.
“There won’t be any shooting tonight.” Leah said, “Anthony’s insisted on metal detectors.”
“Humor me anyway …” Jim said catching Jessica’s hands as they went to the vest again, “don’t touch.”
“Wagons?” Jessica asked when Don directed them to a wooden wagon with four rows of seats. Little lights circled the rails, providing light.
“We had to get people out to the pond somehow.” Don explained. “We got a few of them. Anthony and company are here already.” He added.
“Shit … Paul?” Jim asked.
“Not yet. But when he gets here things will be dangerous. Stasia doesn’t look so great.” Don flicked his eyes over Jessica.
“He’s hurt her a lot?” Jessica whispered.
Don nodded. “Rick and Abe almost killed Anthony before the night even began.”
Jessica groaned. As Don started the horses toward the pond Jim took Jessica’s hand. “It’ll be okay.”
Jessica nodded. When they reached the pond Jessica was once again impressed with how great her ‘family’, the word she preferred to ‘clan’, was at transforming places.
A huge stage had appeared as if my magic. All the equipment was setup. Dining tables scattered the space between the pool house and the stage, candles flickering on them. Off in the corners of the clearing stood huge flood lights pointing in all directions. Jessica imagined that the men and the others had used these to enable them to work during the night. They were off now, the area being lit by lines of little lights hanging over the tables and what appeared to be a small dance floor. Looking more carefully, Jessica realized that every few lights were not on.
“Wow, this is great!” Jessica said when Don pulled up near the pool house. Sam, Jake and Cain were looking around also clearly impressed.
“Wine, madame?” Riley asked, dressed in a tuxedo that complimented him almost too well, holding a tray and bending at the waist, holding a glass out to Jessica.
“Riley!” Jessica exclaimed, and then looking around she realized that all her men, and Sean’s men were similarly decked out. Circulating among the tables that already had some people seated and distributing drinks. ”You look … you look …”
“Really?” Riley asked cocking an eyebrow when Jessica was clearly turned on. “So do you … let’s remember to keep these outfits for tonight … I have a few ideas on how to put them to good use.”
Jessica giggled and the girls sighed as they looked at Riley and then scanned the crowd for their men.
“We should go change too.” Leah finally said and she, Sara, Justine and Amanda headed to the pool house.
“There seem to be a lot of people here already.” Jim said.
“Anthony’s folks.” Riley said. “And talk about paranoid. First thing they did when they got here was set up metal detectors. Absolutely no weapons getting in here tonight.”
“That’s good, isn’t it?” Jessica asked.
“Yeah, it is.” Riley said more somberly. “Jess, I don’t know if it’s possible, but you’ve gotta try and prepare yourself for seeing Stasia. I’ve only seen her a few times before, mostly from a distance, but even I can tell she’s not good … not right.”
“Okay.” Jessica said but her voice and expression gave away how afraid she was to actually see such devastation.
“Where is she?” Jim asked, putting his arm around Jessica.
“She’s been in the bathroom. For a while now.”
“Paul’s coming …” Don said, holding his hand up to his ear, “Mark says he’s got a second wagon full of Pauls’ people waiting to come over. I’ll go get them.” Don said.
“Come on.” Riley said motioning Jim, Jessica, Cain, Sam and Jake over toward a metal arch that had two burly men sitting on either side. Riley rubbed Jessica’s back, while they walked, “I think all these studs may set off the detector.” He said as they neared the detector. He chuckled and shook his head while flicking a few of the studs.
But they didn’t and the group passed through the detectors without incident.
“Stay close.” Angus said, coming over to them, also in a tuxedo, also with a tray in hand. “I’m not sure we’ll make it far enough into the night for you to play.”
Jessica smiled when Angus looked at her again and did a double take.
“That’s a … different look for you.” He said.
“You guys look like secret agents.” Jessica said, running a hand on each of their chests.
“That’s ironic.” Angus said, “But I can see that you approve.”
“Duh, yeah.” Jessica replied with a giggle.
“Paul’s here.” Riley interrupted and motioned to the metal detector that was closer to the stage. Paul stopped and glared at the metal detector before finally, grudgingly passing through it. He waited, barely, for his men to come through also, and then he went directly for Anthony’s table.
“You son of a bitch! You have a lot of nerve setting up metal detectors in my place!” Paul thundered.
“Nerve?” Anthony asked with an infuriating calm tone, “Or foresight? In fact I was shocked to find out that you didn’t have metal detectors here as a matter of course. I believe I did you a good turn.”
“And how am I supposed to know if you went through them or not” Paul asked.
“Ask your people … they were here.” He said nodding at Sean who was at the next table, delivering drinks. Sean looked at Paul and nodded.
“So, where is she?” Paul demanded, looking at the surrounding tables, and not finding Stasia, back at Anthony.
“She’s currently indisposed.” Anthony said.
“Make her available. Now.” Paul said.
“Sorry. You know as well as I do how long the gentler sex can take in the bathroom. It’s their nature. Nothing I can do about it.”
“So how do I know that she’s even here?” Paul demanded.
Anthony inclined his head toward Sean again … and Sean nodded.
“I’ll tell you what. Why don’t we start with the entertainment. It appears the band is here …” Anthony said settling his eyes on Jim, Jessica, Cain, Sam and Jake. “Afterall, if the music is less than inspiring, we may be on our way home shortly anyway.”
Anthony settled a smug smile onto his face and stared at Paul. It was easy to see that Paul was fighting to control his temper.
“Fine.” He finally said, looking over his shoulder at ‘the band’ he nodded, and then moved to the table that Sean was directing him to.
“Smug bastard expects us to suck.” Cain said as he picked up one of the guitars
“Just relax and pretend we’re in the studio, okay?” Jim said to Jessica.
Jessica nodded, stroked her guitar, strode up to the microphone and yelled, “one, two, three, four!” and the band blasted into their first song. They acted like they owned the stage, like they’d break the face of the first person who crossed them.
“Holy shit!” Josh said stopping next to Scott.
“I know. I’m convinced and I know they’re fake.” Scott said.
“I think Anthony pissed his pants.” Josh said.
“I know I did.” Scott added and laughed.
The band played their ten songs and stopped for a break. Still no sign of Stasia.
“Do you really think he’s got her in the bathroom?” Jim asked.
“Only one way to find out.” Jessica said and started toward the pool house but Jim caught her hand.
“Do you think that’s a good idea?”
“I don’t know, but I have to pee. I really doubt she’s in there.” She added when Jim hadn’t let her hand go. “It’s kind of an unimaginative place to lock someone up.”
“Okay. I’ll come with you.”
When they got to the pool house, Riley called Jim over. Jim held up his finger, opened the pool house door and looked inside.
“You’re right, she’s not here.” He said when Jessica followed him in. The bathroom door stood open and it was dark and empty. “Go to the bathroom, I’ll be right back.” Jim said.
As Jessica moved to the bathroom she couldn’t help but notice the delicious scent of dinner. Jessica’s stomach growled. She used the bathroom but when she came out, she froze. In the small hallway stood Anthony, an arm pushing Stasia back away from Paul. Paul and Anthony were face to face.
“What did you do to her you motherfucking monster!” Paul growled.
“What are you talking about? She’s fine?” Anthony replied, giving Stasia a little shake. Stasia whimpered and looked like she was going to fall.
“Stasia!” Jessica cried and ran to grab her. She wrapped her arms around her and when Stasia turned to look at her nothing ever could have prepared Jessica for what she saw. And nothing could have prepared her for the fury that overtook her. Gone was the beautiful face and body that had danced with her, Rick and Abe at the bar. In its place was the thin and withered, badly deformed, face of an abused woman. Red and raw lines criss-crossed her face, like someone had taken a whip to it. Her lips hung open swollen and cracked. And the body Jessica clutched, to keep from falling, was nothing but bones.
“What did he do?” Jessica demanded.
“I propose that you keep your cool Paul.” Anthony said dropping any pretense that everything was okay. “Her neck has gotten quite fragile.” He added pulling Stasia out of Jessica’s arms and wrapping an arm around her neck. “This is what’s going to happen. The bitch and I are going to go back to our table. And you’re going to let us. We’ll make it through the rest of this pathetic night undisturbed. And then we’re going to go home. But before we do you’re going to pledge your allegiance to me. Every last man, woman and child under you will be mine.”
“No …” Stasia whimpered.
“Shut up!” he yelled into her face, “And if you don’t or if you interfere with us in any way tonight … I’ll snap her neck and the necks of everyone here that does not belong to me. Now, step out of the way. I said, out of the way!” Anthony growled.
Slowly, Paul moved.
“Go. Now!” Anthony ordered Stasia as he half pushed, half carried her out the pool house door.
Paul stared at the door for a second, and then swung his eyes on Jessica. He was furious. Murderously furious. But so was she. It was a struggle to not run after Anthony and scratch his eyes out.
Paul nodded, grunted, and moved for the door.
“No, wait!” Jessica said, running to catch up to Paul and grabbing his arm. “There has to be something we can do. Something smart, creative, something he won’t see coming.”
“Like what?”
“I … I don’t know.”
Paul turned and pushed his way out the door.
“No wait, wait …” Jessica said running after him. She slid in front of him, blocking his path. “I know you want to kill him. I do too. But if we’re not smart about it it’s going to get Stasia killed, and a whole bunch of other people too.”
“Agreed. But I can’t be creative right now … too busy seeing red, so unless you’ve got something …”
“The food!” Jessica said in desperation. “Anthony brought in his own cook, food, dishes, it’s ridiculous.”
“The man clearly doesn’t want to be poisoned.”
“Poisoned? That’s a little much to avoid a poisoning. For that he’d just have to get everyone to eat what he’s about to eat first. If they didn’t drop dead … it wasn’t poisoned.” Jessica paused and couldn’t help but look at Paul like he was simple or something.
Paul recognized the look and did a double take.
“Okay Miss Brainiac, why do you think he did it?”
“Well obviously whatever he was worried about couldn’t be detected by someone else …” Jessica said, her mind scrambling to come up with the next intelligent thing to say, “so it couldn’t be poison. But maybe it was an … allergy! That’s it, an allergy. Anthony is deathly allergic to peanuts … or something …”
Paul stared at Jessica for a moment.
“He could have found someone with a peanut allergy to eat the food before he did …” Paul said imitating the same demeanor Jessica had when discussing the poison.
“True … but he hasn’t told anyone about the allergy. It makes him too exposed to assassination. So, that’s it. Get to his cook, get her to put some peanut butter in his food, and presto he’s dead, Stasia’s back at home, war averted and Bob’s your uncle.”
Jessica was quickly running through what she’d said in her head. It could work … but before she could pat herself on the back about it, Paul looked around, took her by the arm and hissed, “Dance with me.”
“Dance with me …” he repeated and dragged her out onto the small area where several other people swooned back and forth. Jessica just had time to notice slow music playing over the sound system.
Paul pulled Jessica close enough that his arms rested on her waist, her arms around his neck and they were looking down at one another at a very close and bordering on uncomfortable distance.
“Your husbands and new clan members spotted you and I talking.” Paul said, “They were setting up for an extraction. Hopefully they’ll have the good manners to leave us alone out here. No, don’t look at them.” He said, catching her chin before she could look around. “If I don’t miss my guess, if you make eye contact with them, you’ll have to go. Let’s just put their minds at ease, shall we? Look at me like you’re happy and carefree, and I’m the funniest man in the world.”
“You’re the funniest man in the world?” Jessica asked and laughed for real.
“Ha, ha, ha. Well done. They’ve stopped moving toward us. Now they’re just staring intently. Let’s keep them at ease shall we?”
“Sure, no problem. At ease …”
“You have quite a sarcastic streak don’t you …” Paul said.
“I think that’s just nerves. So where are we going to find some peanut butter?”
“You know Jessica, you met my expectations quite nicely.”
“I did? What? You had expectations?”
Paul chuckled and nodded. “You are resourceful and brave. It turns out that Anthony does have a few sensitivities, but this whole thing he has about his own cook, food and dishes is really just his OCD. However, it was a clever idea, and you were forceful in getting my attention. Believe it or not, not many people would talk to me like you did.”
“And, you’ll exceed my expectations if you make it through tonight alive.”
“You see, I have friends in Anthony’s camp. Strong friends. Friends who don’t like what he’s done to Stasia. Friends who are tired of working for a mental deviant. My friends and I have a plan. And that plan now involves you.”
“Me?” Jessica squeaked.
“You did say you wanted to kill Anthony …”
“True … “
“And I’m short a few gunmen. A couple seemed to have met some unfortunate accidents. I’m going to tell you something now and I need you to stay calm, cool, and keep looking at me and smiling. Okay?”
Jessica nodded her head but she looked anything but calm.
“Anthony and his men have machine guns with them … calm, cool, remember?” Paul said when Jessica gasped and instinctively tried to look for her men.
“But the metal detectors.”
“Useless. These are plastic guns. Lightweight, easy to hide under your dinner jacket, and undetectable by metal detectors.”
“Oh no.”
“But it’s okay, my men and I have some too.”
“Oh good.” Jessica said in relief, “So my men have them too?”
“God no. Your husbands would never have gone along with this. Slip your hand into my coat. Right side.”
Jessica did and gasped … “A gun?”
“Your gun. With bullets. And night goggles. Move closer to me and slide them into your coat.”
“I don’t want a gun.” Jessica said.
“The lives of Stasia, your husbands and your new clan members depends on this. If you don’t defend them they’ll be mowed down by Anthony’s men.”
“No …” Jessica gasped and sagged in Paul’s arms.
“Yes. And you’re going to have to do a lot better at looking calm Jessica. Your clan is moving again. If they make a scene Anthony’s men will attack.”
Jessica pulled herself up, forced herself to smile up at Paul and tried to laugh but couldn’t quite get there.
“Okay. Now be a good girl and take the gun, bullets and night goggles.”
“Now what?” she gasped when after some fumbling she managed to conceal everything in her jacket.
“Now Anthony is going to demand a change in music. He hates heavy metal. When he does, you and I, Oliver and Mason and a few other boys you rode with at the race, will go to the stage. I’ll say something about you and I working on a number together. We turn our back to the audience, but on our night goggles, turn around and open fire.”
“We can’t just shoot into the crowd!” Jessica exclaimed.
“Shhh, shhh, shhh.” Paul said, “Calm down, your clan is on the move again. Laugh, come on.”
Jessica forced herself to laugh.
“That was close.” He said. “We won’t shoot into the crowd, we’ll shoot Anthony’s men.”
“But how will we know …”
“Anthony thought he was buying the guns from some foreign dealers when he was actually buying them from me. I rigged the guns with neon paint that’s invisible to the naked eye. It gets on their skin when they handle them, but more importantly, when they pick them up it sprays paint all over them. In regular lighting it looks like a cloud of dust. And the paint is water proof. The people who are helping us got guns with no paint. When the time is right, one of my men will turn off these lights.” He said indicating the lights above them, “And turn on the black lights that are interspersed with the regular lights. Anyone who is neon yellow, shoot.”
“Wow.” Jessica said , “Wow. You take the prize in creativity, hands down. That is amazing.”
Paul looked at Jessica and smiled. “You know my dear, I hope you do make it through tonight. I find you very refreshing. And a lot like Stasia. No wonder she likes you.”
“What about Stasia? What will stop Anthony from killing her?”
“My insiders will take care of her. Any more questions will have to wait? I just got the signal that Anthony asked for a change in music. Let’s do it my dear. Remember, the lives of everyone that you love depend on you.”
“That didn’t work out too well for my last family …” Jessica mumbled.
“Move quickly, can’t give your clan time to interfere.”
As Paul steered Jessica toward the stage she worked hard to think of a way to warn her men, her friends. Dread filled her. This really was her new family. And because of her, her new family was going to end up like her old one. Why didn’t she think of inventing some kind of code with them before hand? Up on the stage Jessica stood beside Paul and couldn’t help but make eye contact with her men. They were livid.
“Get down Jess, now!” Angus was mouthing as he moved toward the stage.
“Over here, now!” Riley mouthed, also moving toward the stage.
“What are you doing?” from Jim.
“Get away from him.” From Scott.
“You’re killing me Jess, come on.” From Josh. And they were moving closer to the stage. And interspersed between them were Sean, Corey, Chris, Mark, Don, Stan, Caleb, Quinn, Rick, Abe, and Leah, also making their way toward her. Near the pool house she could see Justine, Amanda and Sara gaping at her. At least they had a chance.
As Paul took the microphone and said, “Ladies and gentlemen,” Jessica hung her hands at her sides and flapped her hands as much as she could in an attempt to motion back. Just when she was afraid her motions wouldn’t be noticed, they were. Her men, Sean and the others, slowed down, even stopped. But didn’t back up.
When Paul said, “I’ve been practicing something special for my sister …” Jessica smiled like an idiot and looked around. Sean, Corey, Caleb, Chris, Quinn, Don, Stan, Mark, Leah, Sara, Justine, Amanda, Abe, Rick, her men, were all staring at her. Looking at one another, trying to figure out what was going on. And then she saw Doc. Sitting at one of the tables with Terry and the other physiotherapists. Oh, Doc was not going to like this …
“So sit back, relax, I hope you’re going to like this…” he nodded at Jessica and the others. He and the others turned and reached for their night goggles, but Jessica couldn’t do it without at least trying to warn the ones she loved. She grabbed the microphone.
“Um, um … just a word before we begin …” she stuttered, “Ah … I know you’re all hungry. The kitchen sends it’s apology. That, ah, funky chicken with sauce will be on its way real soon. Ah, there may even be some duck with that. We ah, hope you will get down with us …” now everyone was looking at her like she was crazy but a quick scan of her men and those she cared about made it clear that they got the message.
But instead of moving away from her, they were moving closer. “No!” she shouted into the microphone. And those she now considered to be her family, stopped. “And ah, oh yeah, a doctor’s needed in the back … behind the pool house … yeah, Doc, could you?” she asked when Doc looked around and started to get up. Pretty soon he was moving at a good speed toward the pool house.
“Jessica!” Paul hissed. “Really?” he demanded when she looked over at him. He flicked his head to the back of the stage.
“Right, sorry.” She said replacing the microphone. “Oh, and one more thing … neon yellow is bad for you. Really bad.” She replaced the microphone, turned around, put on her night goggles and with a precision that looked practiced, Jessica, Paul, Mason and Oliver turned simultaneously, the lights went out, people glowed neon yellow, and Jessica, Paul, Mason and Oliver open fired. Several others opened fire with them from the floor, and a second or two later Anthony’s men returned fire. Spurts of gunfire rattled off everywhere. Jessica couldn’t see anyone on the floor, had no idea where her men were … Sean and the other men, or the girls. She figured the best she could do was kill the glowing yellow guys.
“I can’t believe this.” Scott shouted when he, the men, Sean and the others, found one another … crab walking through the bullets and bodies. Looking up at the stage the light from the barrage of bullets from Jessica, Paul, Mason and Oliver’s guns showed them planted in staggered formation, legs planted, and steadily firing. But Jessica kept looking around. She seemed to be trying to find something. They all had a good guess as to what she was looking for but with the bullets flying around they couldn`t flag her down.
The microphone was still on and Paul`s voice carried when he said “They’re running for it. Trying to hide the yellow markings in the woods. Have I got a surprise for them. Turn on the flood lights!” He yelled. “Jessica, you’re with me, flank right. Oliver, Mason go left. They can’t leave here alive!”
The microphone also picked up Jessica said, “No!” while stepping away from Paul and looking into the chaos off stage, “I have to find my family!”
The men looked at one another. All of this had triggered memories of her family … of that day. Dread far beyond the terror that they felt for Jessica’s safety, consumed them.
Paul grabbed Jessica’s arm.
“Anthony’s taken Stasia into the woods. Your family has followed. The only way you can help any of them Jessica is to come in there with me and kill Anthony.”
“Jessica no!” Riley yelled, the other men yelled, Sean and the others yelled, but the gunfire and the screaming drowned them out.
Jessica stared at Paul for a moment.
“How do you know …” Jessica asked, her desperation dutifully transmitted by the microphone.
“I saw them. Let’s go before it’s too late!”
Jessica hesitated for another second, looked around, and then with a small nod, followed Paul off the stage and into the woods.
“We stashed guns in the garage.” Sean yelled nodding to the structure where their motorbikes were housed.
“We don’t have time. We need to take guns and night goggles from here.” Riley said.
They began taking guns and goggles off of Paul’s fallen men, “Don’t take any with yellow paint on them!” Angus shouted.
“Not enough goggles.” Sean said when they all converged at the edge of the forest. “We’ll have to pair up, those with goggles will have to be the eyes for the others.”
And suddenly the dark light came on in the flood lights and yellow popped up everywhere.
“Let’s go.” Riley said and they moved in, shooting every yellow person they could find.
It didn’t take too long before they found Jessica pinned down in a fire fight with Paul, Oliver, Mason, and a few others they didn’t know.
“Jess.” Josh said.
“Are you okay!” she asked, falling into Josh’s arms. Looking around at her men, Sean, Corey, Chris, Mark, Abe, Rick, Don, Stan, Caleb, Quinn and Leah. “Justine, Sara and Amanda?”
“We’re fine.” Scott said, “I think Justine, Sara and Amanda are still at the pool house.”
“Welcome to the party.” Paul yelled at the new comers. “Anthony is in there.”
“They’re going to get stuck at the river.” Riley said. “We have to surround them. Some up the middle, the others on both sides. It’s the only way we’ll trap them. Paul, you and your men take the middle and that side. We’ll go up the left.”
Paul gave a thumbs up and he and his men moved off.
“Take her back Jim.” Riley said motioning Josh to pass Jess to Jim. “We’ll finish this off. Anthony and his men can’t get away. If they do, we’ll always be looking over our shoulders.”
“No, Riley …” Jessica began, grabbing his arm.
“I’m sorry Jess but Anthony came here to kill us. He won’t rest until he does.” Riley said.
“I know. But I want to stay with you. We have to stay together …” she said looking at her men, at the others. “If this all has to end tonight then I’m coming with you. I need to be with you.” Jessica said.
Gunfire ahead didn’t give them time to debate. They moved up the left flank.
In the end it was an hour of intense fighting after which everyone who was glowing yellow was dead.
Jessica handed her gun and night goggles to Mark and walked back to the pool house clutching Jim’s hand in one hand, and Angus’ in the other. Clean-up efforts were already starting.
“You should go home and go to bed.” Angus said.
“I don’t think I could sleep. Besides there’s so much to do here … I’d like to help.”
“But you’re shaking.” Jim said, holding up her hand.
“I think that’s from all the vibrations from the gun.” Jessica said, “I’m fine, honest.”
“You did good kid.” Paul said coming up and putting a hand on Jessica’s shoulder.
“You don’t touch her!” Riley bellowed, shoving Paul. “Was that your plan all along, to use Jess to do your dirty work?”
“What plan?” Paul asked smirking at Riley, at the men. “You know as well as I do that any plan that Jessica was privy to would be written all over her face for all to see. Oh calm down.” He said when the men scowled at Abe and Rick. “There was a time early on when they were on my side. But that was a long time ago. This was just circumstance and luck.”
“Just listen …” Abe said when the men continued to look angry at Abe and Rick, “There’s nothing that would work better for Paul than to make you distrust Rick and me. It’s true that early on we fed some info to him. I mean, why do you think we were there. Not just to help you recover, obviously. But beyond the first week or two we’ve told him nothing. Nothing.”
When everyone but Riley and Angus seemed to believe Abe Jessica went to Riley, pulling Angus with her. “I believe Abe. And I honestly don’t think this could have been planned.” Jessica said gladly snuggling under both Riley and Angus’ arms when they each wrapped an arm around her and pulled her close. “There’s no way Paul could have planned for me to come out of the bathroom at exactly the time that he was fighting with Anthony about Stasia. I mean, unless Paul planned it with Anthony which I think is highly unlikely.” Jessica added, glancing around at the carnage surrounding them.
“As appears to be her custom, your wife is right.” Paul said to Riley, “I knew from the moment she and I began negotiating the bike race that Jessica didn’t have the capacity to lie to save her life … or yours.” He said scanning the men. “But what she did and does have is guts. Imagination and guts. She stopped me from acting on impulse tonight which would have ruined this most ingenious plan. And that assassination by peanut butter idea was fantastic. If I hadn’t already had this lined up, I definitely would have gone with it.” He said with a chuckle. “So, you’re immune. All of you. Enjoy it.”
Paul turned to leave but then he turned back, “Oh and you might want to get some men out to your neighbors … apologize for the fireworks that went off. Wouldn’t want them calling the cops.” Paul said and then stalked off.
“Shit, the neighbors.” Scott said.
“We’ll take care of them.” Corey said looking himself up and down. He was covered in blood. They were all covered in blood. “Let’s get cleaned up.” He said to Sean, Corey and Mark, “and head off the cops.”
“Peanut butter?” Josh asked, eyeing Jessica when Corey, Sean, and Mark walked away.
Jessica could feel her cheeks burning with embarrassment. She ducked her head.
“Allergies can be very deadly you know.”
“Funky chicken sauce … ” Rick said.
“With duck …” Abe added.
“Get down with us …” Leah said.
“That was good thinking.” Angus agreed, “That’s why we’re alive.”
“I think we may need to work on some more elaborate code words … ” Jessica said.
“You mean something that says, ‘psychopaths with plastic guns, run for your lives?’” Don asked with a chuckle.
“Something like that.” Jessica agreed with a laugh.
Jessica looked at her men. Ignoring the fact that they were covered head to toe in blood, they were observing her. Quietly. She couldn’t read their expressions. Wasn’t quite sure if they were mad or maybe even disappointed with her.
“I’m sorry.” She said, “I know I said no violence …” her voice trailed off as she looked around at all the signs of massive violence.
“I think it’s time to take you home.” Riley said, squeezing her shoulder.
“That would be great.” Jessica said, looking around, “But I think Doc needs some help.” She saw Doc kneeling between three people who were moaning on the ground.
“Do you feel up to it Jess?” Jim asked.
Jessica nodded her head.
“Okay. Let’s do it.” Jim said.
“Looks like Doc brought his supplies.” Scott said as they moved toward him.
“Doc always brings his supplies.” Rick said.
“Lass,” Doc said looking up at Jessica as he pulled a bag open with his teeth.
Jessica squatted down and handed him some gauze. “Sorry Doc.”
“Yeah, you better be, saving my life like that.” He said cracking a smile, “Here to help are you?”
Jessica nodded.
“Rick and Abe, you’re with me, we’ll take the ones in the worst conditions. You ladies …” Doc said to Justine, Sara and Amanda who’d just stumbled up to them. “Need to triage for us. Anyone with a superficial wound … something that just needs a bandaid,” he added when Justine’s face went blank, “you move over to the pool house there. Jessica and her men will handle them there. Anyone who’s got anything worse than that, leave them where they are but flag me, Rick, Caleb or Abe, or Terry. Got it?”
The girls nodded and started walking around checking the bodies on the ground.
A gunshot made everyone jump. Looking around Jessica saw a man lifting the nozzle of a gun from the head of a body on the ground.
“No …” Jessica whispered.
“There are going to be some people that we just can’t help.” Doc said rising to stand next to Jessica. “It’s cruel to let them suffer. Okay?”
Jessica nodded but gripped the hand that Jim had slipped into hers even tighter.
“We better help Paul’s people with the clean-up.” Angus said.
Riley nodded and then looked back at Jessica. “Will you be okay if we go for a bit?”
“Be careful.” Jessica said.
Riley smiled but it wasn’t a happy smile. It looked like he was going to say something but then he shook his head, “You too Jess.” He looked around, “Let’s start by making sure there aren’t any guns left around here.”
He stepped in, pecked her on the head, and moved off. Angus did the same. Don and Quinn followed them. Jim, Scott, Josh, and Stan went with Jessica to the pool house where the girls had already started bringing people.
It was half a day later that they finally converged back at the house.
They were barely staying upright, fatigue was so overwhelming, but everyone that could be helped, was. Everyone who couldn’t be was buried in a pit in the field beyond the river. Blood had been washed away. Any sign that indicated that anything other than a party had occurred had been obliterated.
“Come on Jess …” Josh said, picking her up in his arms and turning to the house, “I’ll get you cleaned up.”
“What about everyone else?” Jessica asked looking back at everyone forming a line while pulling their blood soaked clothes off. Riley was pulling the hose toward them.
“We should have cleaned off in the pond.” Riley said shaking his head. “It’s okay Jess, we’ll just hose off, burn our clothes.”
“You’re going to hose them off?” Jessica asked in surprise. “But that water is freezing.”
“We’ll be fine.” Scott said, dropping his pants.
“No, stop.” Jessica told Josh when he turned to the house again. “If they’re getting hosed off then I should be too.”
“Jess, please …” Angus said in an exasperated tone.
“Either that, or everyone showers off.” Jessica said, “If we undress out here we’ll hardly make a mess in the house. We can clean the floors …” her voice trailed off when the men stared at her with that strange expression again.
“And let me guess,” Riley said, “everyone else can go first, and you’ll go last.”
“Um, is that bad?” she asked Josh when the other’s continued to stare at her.
Josh didn’t say anything. Just carried her over to a lawn chair and sat down, cradling her against him.
Jessica watched as naked dirty people went into the house. Riley and Angus started a fire and began throwing clothes onto it.
Eventually Leah came back out, clean, changed, and carrying a housecoat.
“Here Jess. We can burn it after too.”
“Thanks.” Jessica said and looked at Josh who nodded, stood Jessica up and began undressing her behind the housecoat that Leah held up as a cover. Once she was wrapped in the housecoat Josh stripped down and then pulled her back onto his lap.
Jessica leaned against Josh and watched the fire burn. She felt like she should be sleepy but she wasn’t. Tired, bone tired, yes, but not the least bit sleepy. Eventually others came out to tend the fire and Josh was carrying Jessica into the bathroom, followed by her other men.
Josh and Scott took her in the shower. No one said anything while Josh and Scott scrubbed her clean. And she scrubbed them. They still didn’t say anything when Jessica refused to get out of the shower with Josh and Scott and insisted on cleaning Riley and Angus off … and then Jim. By the time everyone was clean Jessica was waterlogged. Waterlogged, but somehow she still felt dirty.
The men took her to the bedroom, threw some pjs on her, tucked her into bed, climbing in with her, all without saying a word.
“What about the floor …”
“Someone will clean it.” Angus said in a gruff tone, “someone other than you. Go to sleep Jessica.”
His tone, the extended silence from the men, brought tears to her eyes.
“I’m sorry …”
Angus sighed.
“We know Jess.” Riley said, “Believe me, we know. You need … we need some rest. Go to sleep and we’ll talk later.”
Jessica sniffled and closed her eyes. But she did anything but sleep. And not from a lack of trying. She had nightmare after nightmare waking her and everyone else in the house with gut wrenching scream after gut wrenching scream. The men held her, rocked her, comforted her. Even the others, who would run to the room on instinct the first dozen times, tried comforting her. The men, stroking her arm, talking gently, the girls climbing into bed with her, hugging her. But nothing seemed to help.
By noon everyone was up and dreading Jessica’s appearance in the living room. She was showering again. The third time since they’d been home. Clearly she’d been damaged by the events of the previous night and everyone feared what that meant for how she felt about them. After all, they’d all, in some way, participated in what amounted to a massacre. Given her feelings about violence, she had to think less of them.
When she finally appeared everyone stood up.
“Hi.” She said quietly and the red that painted her cheeks supported her tone and body language. She was embarrassed. Guilt ridden and embarrassed. How could that be? Everyone looked at one another. “I’m sorry I kept you up … um, and thanks for trying to help.” She clasped and unclasped her hands, furtively keeping eye contact as she looked from one person to the other, “Ah, is there any coffee?”
“Yeah, coffee, got it.” Josh said, pulling a chair at the table and indicating that she should sit in it before moving to the kitchen.
“I’ll get it.” Sara said slipping by him. “Just milk, right?” she asked Jessica.
“Right.” Jessica said and smiled. A real smile. Tired, but real. Everyone relaxed.
“Come sit down Jess.” Josh said going to her, wrapping an arm around her and directing her to the chair.
“Eggs and bacon?” Abe asked also moving to the kitchen.
“And pancakes.” Angus said.
“And pancakes?” Abe asked.
Jessica nodded, “Thanks.” She said to Abe and then Sara when Sara handed her the coffee.
“So … you’re feeling alright?” Caleb asked tilting his head to see her from different angles.
Jessica nodded and tilted her head too, with a laugh. “Is this the newest thing in medicine?” she asked, “the tilt diagnosis?”
“Yeah, I guess.” Caleb said laughing. Everyone laughed. Her men sat in the chairs at the table and even though they looked relieved like everyone else, they still looked at her in a strange way. But when she looked worried they forced smiles, Jim starting and elbowing Josh and Scott on either side of him. Riley and Angus got the picture.
“So …” Jessica said. “The wedding is tonight and I thought …”
“The wedding?” Riley choked out. “You still want to do that?”
“Of course.” Jessica said surprised, and then panicked, “Don’t you?” She looked around at the men suddenly terrified that maybe they were so mad at her that they didn’t want her anymore.
“Of course we do.” Angus said and it was easy to see happiness take over the odd expression he’d been wearing. “But we thought that maybe, under the circumstances, you’d want to wait.”
“For what?” Jessica asked truly stumped about what there could possibly be to wait for.
“Time.” Scott said, “You know, to get over … last night.”
“No. I don’t’ see how one has anything to do with the other.”
“Okay. Then I guess we’re having a wedding tonight.” Jim said, excitement replacing misgivings.
The girls squealed and started talking all at once, about everything that needed to be done, all the shopping, the decorating …
“When you’re done eating we’ve gotta go into town.” Leah finally said to Jessica.
Jessica laughed. Her normal laugh. The men looked at one another in surprise. She really was alright.
“That’s what I was thinking about. I think we did enough work last night. I want this to be as stress free and fun as possible. So I thought, let’s not bother decorating the pond and pool house. It’s great the way it is. And for clothes, I’d prefer if everyone wore their favorite item. You know, rather than a wedding dress I’d like to wear the dress you got me Angus.” She said looking at Angus but that expression was back. All her men had it back, and the others looked uncomfortable. Nerves had her rushing on, “The one for our first date night. It’s my favorite. And my maids of honor,” she said turning to the girls, “should wear their favorite dresses. And the men … it doesn’t have to be formal. If you have a favorite Hawaiian shirt, wear it. How … how does that sound?”
She looked around when no one said anything.
Abe came over and deposited a plate filled with food in front of her.
“You have a favorite shirt don’t you?” she asked, looking up at him.
“Sure Jess.” He said, “I have a Hawaiian shirt or two.” He looked around at everyone and then squeezed her shoulder, “Eat up.”
“I can’t.” Jessica said, looking around too, “Until someone says something. You’re worrying me. Is something going on that I don’t know about?”
A series of emotions played across Angus’ face as he started and stopped saying something two or three times. Finally he looked to Riley for help.
“Why don’t we have the wedding here, at the house.” Riley asked.
“Why?” Jessica asked, “It’s nice here, but the pool house is nicer.”
“After everything that happened there, it seems better to do it here.” Scott said.
Jessica paled. “But we cleaned up … everything from last night is gone, right?”
“Yes, it’s gone.” Scott confirmed, “But wouldn’t it be better to avoid going there for a while?”
“No.” Jessica said shaking her head. “It’s my favorite place … even with what happened. That was all last night, in the dark. If we get married during the day it’ll be like a different place. Please.” She said when it was clear the men were not in agreement. “We can’t let last night ruin that place for us. You built it for me. I love it. Paul and Anthony can’t take that away from us.”
The men looked at one another, and then at the others. Everyone seemed unsure.
“Are you sure about this?” Josh asked. “I’d hate for our happiest day to be ruined by … Anthony and Paul.”
“I’m sure.” Jessica said with a huge smile, “Nothing is going to ruin this, we won’t let it.”
“Okay …” Angus said. “Okay. I can see it working, if Jessica’s sure.”
The other men nodded and Jessica clapped her hands and squealed.
“Eat.” Riley said, pointing at her. He shook his head while Jessica shoveled food into her mouth. He looked at the other men and shrugged.
“So, Jess.” Riley said after she’d eaten for a few minutes but now sat playing with her food, “You’re really okay?” he asked when she looked up at him.
Jessica nodded, “I honestly don’t know what those nightmares were about. I feel fine. You’re all alive, Anthony is dead, Doc says Stasia will be okay … Paul took her home. I know …” Jessica’s voice faltered. She looked at her plate but then she forced herself to look up at everyone. “I know it’s pretty hypocritical of me. To say I don’t want any of you to be involved in violence … and then do what I did last night. I don’t have much of a defense except to say that last night felt like self-defense to me. Just like with Daryl. I was afraid that you’d get hurt if I didn’t … I’m sorry. I hope you can forgive me … and understand that I still don’t want any violence.”
“Forgive you?” Sean asked. “You’re asking us to forgive you …”
Jessica nodded her head. “Can you?”
... continued in 8f
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