Totlandia Book 8 Excerpt

Twosies Book 8 Summer - VellumLAUNCHES DECEMBER 8, 2017
$2.99 Digital / $12.99 Trade PaperbackSignal Press
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(Launches same date in Amazon; Sorry, no pre-order there.)

CHAPTER 1

Monday, 25 May / 10:oo a.m.

It was Bettina Connaught (formerly Cross')s hope that holding her deceased ex-husband's graveside funeral service in on a Monday would deter mourners.

Alas, it did not.

The next best thing would have been a torrential downpour—albeit, a rare occurrence in May in San Francisco, California. Instead, the funeral, held at San Francisco National Cemetery, took place on a day that was graced with crystalline vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin Headlands, and San Francisco Bay, dashing all hope of poor attendance. The few hundred of those who had been flimflammed by the deceased were there to assure themselves that he was as dead as their chances to recover their money.

Kelly Overton, who had taken Bettina's place as the Chief Executive Mom of the Pacific Heights Moms & Tots Group after ousting her from the position, was also in attendance. In a voice loud enough for the bulk of the mourners to hear, she declared, “What a disgrace! Why, Art Cross wasn't even a veteran! He was a Federal fugitive! What gives him the right to be buried among these heroes?”

The few family members in attendance winced. The others—reporters and those who'd been ripped off, along with the idle curious—grumbled in agreement. For more than forty years, no plots had been available for sale in this picturesque national cemetery.

As much as Bettina agreed with her arch nemesis' assessment about her ex's deadbeat status, she resented Kelly's right to declare it publicly, especially in front of Art's almost six-year-old daughter, Lily.

Lily's response was to eye Kelly coolly and declare, “This plot was paid for decades ago, by my grandfather, who was a war hero.” Bettina's pride swelled for the little girl—until Lily added, “And since the Connaughts wouldn't allow him to be buried in our family plot, this is certainly better than planting him in my grandmother's backyard.”

Hearing this, Bettina's brother, Matthew Connaught, groaned, then bit his tongue.

Bettina lowered her dark glasses in order to glower at him. Lily was only repeating his flippant comment, made during the limo drive on the way over to the cemetery.

To avoid eye contact with his sister, Matt looked into the double pram in front of him. At least the mumbled comments of the gathered hadn't awakened his infant twins, Nicholas and Nora, from their sound sleep.

Matt's wife, Lorna, shifted their toddler son, Dante, from one hips to another as she whispered, “Matthew Harrison Connaught, that will teach you to watch your mouth in front of the children.”

“I can't blame Lily for speaking up. Kelly is a bitch,” he muttered.

Just a foot away, Matt’s friend, Reggie Pudberry, murmured, “Amen.”

His wife, Jade, stifled a startled gasp by covering her mouth with the hand that wasn't rocking the stroller holding her sleeping son, Oliver.

Their friend, Jillian Fredrick, pinched the arm of her fiancé, Caleb Martin, for snickering too.

Juggling Jillian's twin toddler girls, Amelia and Addison, in both arms, Caleb hissed back, “Cut it out! You don't want me to drop the girls, do you?”

Lorna elbowed Matt and murmured, “Thank goodness you didn't say that in front of Lily too!… And, apparently, Bettina agrees with me. If looks could kill, they'd be planting you here alongside Art.”

Matthew glanced over at his sister. At his tepid wave, her scowl only deepened.

To stop other forthcoming unseemly comments, the family matriarch, Eleanor Morrow Connaught, nudged the minister to start his eulogy.

* * *

You'd think Matt and his pals would know how to behave at a funeral, Bettina thought. They act worse than their toddlers!

At least it was a diversion from the minister's soft monotone drone, which was just barely less annoying than the stares she’d received from Art's so-called mourners. Whereas Bettina’s large dark glasses hid the fact that she wasn't crying let alone glassy-eyed like Lily, there were other visible signs that she was taking Art's passing in stride. She wasn't sobbing or sniffling. Her lips didn't quiver in despair.

Considering the pain and suffering Art had caused everyone he'd known—Bettina in particular—she felt she had a right to stay dry-eyed. She'd survived his very public carnage. And if she had her way, she'd thrive despite everyone's attempts to make sure she failed.

Including Kelly Overton.

Bettina's dark glasses allowed her to scrutinize others she knew in the crowd. Two of women clustered around Kelly, the ill-tempered Mallory Wickham and the mealy-mouthed Sally Dunder, were also “Top Moms”—leaders of PHM&T's governing board. A third in their group, the arrogant Joanna Blunt, was a former board member whose savings had been pilfered by Art. Her retaliation was to ensure that Lily's legacy slot in the Pacific Heights Country Day School was withdrawn.

As if acknowledging Bettina's glare, Joanna dropped her gaze.

Good. She should be ashamed after what she did to my poor little girl.

Emboldened, Bettina scanned the crowd for other traitors. One, in particular, eluded her: Kimberley Savitch.

I'm surprised that turncoat, isn't standing with the rest of Kelly’s entourage, Bettina thought.

With just a slight tilt of her head, she realized she was wrong. Kimberley was there, all right; but she was standing far enough behind Kelly's peripheral vision to hide the fact that she was standing next to Andy Hepburn, Kelly's former lover.

“Chicken mérde,” Bettina growled.

Andy had been Bettina's lover too, once.

In fact, he was the father of her infant son, Nathaniel.

But of course, Kimberley and Andy would be there—if for no other reason than guilt. They'd witnessed Art's fatal fall off Eleanor's balcony. He'd been holding Bettina, Kimberley, and Andy hostage until he could take the safety deposit box key he'd left with Bettina. To ensure their silence, he planned on holding baby Nathaniel hostage.

Bettina shuddered at the thought of that horrible Mother's Day. In the course of an hour, too many chickens had come to roost.

As far as she was concerned, the most significant and stickiest egg laid that afternoon wasn't even Art's untimely demise. Bettina was more upset that his pursuer no longer pursued her as well. The extraordinarily handsome and utterly incorruptible Department of Justice prosecutor, Daniel Warwick, had discovered her more duplicitous side. He'd walked with a gift for her—a statue of a horse, confiscated along with the rest of her felonious husband's belongings—just as Art was making his getaway. When Daniel grabbed Nathaniel out of Art's arms, he barely had time to turn his back before Art shot at him with Kimberley's gun.

Art missed because of Bettina's Tibetan mastiff, Prince Vsevolod Ivanovich, leapted onto him. Dog and master fell over the second-story railing onto the hard concrete terrace surrounding the pool below.

The dog landed on Art and survived the fall.

Art did not.

Unbeknownst to Daniel, the hollowed-out base of the horse statue held files containing dark and dirty secrets on each of the Top Moms—including Lorna, who had shared the duties of co-Chief Executive Mom with Bettina.

Kimberley knew the statue's secrets and was able to grab the files—including her own. But in the tussle for them with Bettina, the files were flung into the pool below the terrace. Bettina's power over the other women dissolved along with the soggy papers.

So did Daniel's care and concern for Bettina.

She now scanned the crowd of mourners, haters, and the curious in the hope that Daniel might have forgiven her and shown up, but she didn't see him.

It's for the best, she reasoned. The sooner I forget him, the better. I can move on with a clean slate.

It was the realization that Daniel was no longer a part of her life that finally moved her to tears. As she sniffled uncontrollably, Lily put her arm around her mother's waist.

Suddenly, Bettina realized the crowd would think she was crying over Art. With all her might she tried to stifle her tears, to no avail.

The minister was already at a loss for kind things to say about Art. Taken aback by her sobs, he stuttered to a stop.

Eleanor’s pleading stare willed him to find his voice again. Hastily, he coaxed the crowd to “Join me, please, in the Lord's prayer.”

As the rest of the mourners lowered their heads and murmured the familiar benediction, Bettina faced forward again, but held her head high—

Only to find Kelly looking straight at her.

Her nemesis’ bright white teeth were revealed in a supreme smile.

To stop herself from raising her fist at Kelly with the middle finger extended, Bettina clenched little Nathaniel’s stroller with both hands.

To hell with all of them, she thought. It’s better that they not know the truth:

That the man I truly love despises me.

At this realization, Bettina sobbed even louder.

* * *

“My God! I don't think I've ever seen Bettina cry!” Jade whispered to Reggie.

“Truly a miracle,” he murmured back. “But I doubt it's over Art.”

Turning to Jade's ex-husband, Brady Pierce, he muttered, “So, what do you think brought on the waterworks?”

Brady shrugged. “I guess that she's mourning the passage of Daniel Warwick from her life.”

“It's a shame. He was a good influence on her,” Jillian Fredrick acknowledged. “She smiled whenever he was around.”

“Bettina smiled before, too,” her fiancé, Caleb Martin reminded her. “Usually, though, it was while she tormented one of the women in your moms-and-tots club.”

“It's no longer ‘our' club,” Lorna reminded him. “And for that matter, it's no longer Bettina's either, now that Kelly succeeded in getting her voted out.”

“Hey, at least it gave you—and Jillian, Lorna, and Ally—the opportunity to walk out in solidarity with her,” Reggie pointed out.

“We didn't see it as ‘an opportunity,'” Jade insisted. “We did it based on principle.”

Reggie rolled his eyes skyward. “A rose by any other name. Sweetheart, admit it. Leaving the club was the best thing that ever happened to you. As strict as Bettina was, no doubt Kelly Overton's rule will be draconian in comparison.” He looked  around. “Where is Ally, anyway?”

At his question, Jillian frowned.

Jade knew why. Recently—in fact,  just a few days before her wedding—she’d learned of the dissolution of the two women’s friendship.

To change the subject, Jade hastily declared, “I hate to be a party poop, but we should skip the reception if we're going to catch our honeymoon flight to Maui.”

“Not to worry,” Matt murmured. “A reception is the last thing Mother or Bettina had in mind for today. They’re hoping all memories of Art are laid to rest here, with him.”

Hoping to keep the topic off Ally, Jillian quickly added, “Jade, you’re so lucky! A week in Hana, doing nothing but eating mangos, drinking mojitos out of coconut shells, and making love in a tiki hut—how romantic!”

“It was so kind of you to postpone your flight until after the funeral,” Lorna said. “Poor Bettina needs all the moral support she could get today.”

“I’ll bet Bettina wishes she could go with you,” Caleb added slyly.

Reggie slapped his face in mock horror. “What a revolting thought!”

At first, Oliver, Addison, and Amelia gasped at his antics. Next, they copied him, giggling all the while.

On the other hand, Dante reached down to take a swipe at Nora.

Lorna moved him away just in time. “No, no, Dante, honey! She's your baby sister,” she cautioned gently. “Remember, always gentle.”

She looked up to find Bettina scowling at them.

The others saw it too. All chuckles came to an immediate halt.

Matt nodded adamantly to his sister as if to say, Okay, we get it. We’ll shut up.

She signaled back by pressing her middle finger to her sunglasses.

Matt couldn’t help himself. He laughed out loud.

This time it was his mother who lowered her sunglasses, piercing him with a horrified stare.

* * *

After declaring the final “Amen,” the minister reached down to the ground and scooped up a handful of the softened earth that rimmed the open grave. He placed one clump in Lily’s palm and the other in Bettina’s.

Just at that moment, Nathaniel started to cry.

Bettina froze. What she should do: comfort her son, or follow protocol? If she bowed to her motherly instinct, it would only prolong this living hell. If she didn’t, she’d be giving the odious onlookers yet another reason to call her an ice queen.

Eleanor reached into the stroller. Cradling her grandson, she calmly whispered, “I’ve got him, Bettina dear. Our little man is fine. We will all be fine.”

As if by magic, Nathaniel fell asleep in his grandmother’s arms.

Eleanor is right. The nightmare is over. We survived.

Bettina stared down at her hand. Tossing it on Art's casket was the final act of ridding herself of him forever.

She threw it as hard as she could.

* * *

“Finally! This accursed sideshow is over,” Matt muttered.

“We have to go to poor Bettina,” Lorna insisted. “Oh my God! Those vultures, Kelly and Mallory, are shoving people aside to get at her!”

“I know just the thing that will have Bettina grinning from ear to ear,” Brady promised.

Just that morning Brady received a call from a venture capital company interested in the mobile app he was currently brokering for Bettina. The timing couldn’t have been better. Another investment firm had just bowed out, using Art’s appearance at Bettina’s home and his and bizarre death as its excuse.

“So, why are you hanging with us?” Matt chided him. “Go to her before she murders someone in front of all of these witnesses.”

“After your witty aside in the limo, you'd be at the top of her list,” Lorna retorted.

The others snickered until Lorna shushed them yet again, nodding toward Bettina and Eleanor.

Brady was the only one who wasn't laughing. In fact, he was frowning.

Lorna followed his gaze to the back of the crowd, just beyond Bettina. Brady's ex-fiancee, Ally Thornton, stood there with Daniel Warwick.

They were deep in conversation, although Ally seemed to be doing most of the talking. Daniel nodded intently, but then his lips broke into a sly grin. Whatever he said next moved Ally enough to kiss him on the cheek.

Lorna looked back at Brady. She'd never seen him so dejected.

She handed the squirming Dante to Matt in order to walk Brady beyond the hearing distance of the others. “You still love Ally. And God knows she still loves you!” she hissed. “What happened between you two?”

He shrugged. “Even if that were true, Ally has already made her choice. I've got to face up to that fact and move on.” As Brady shifted his startling blue eyes to her, Lorna felt as if her heart was being shattered into tiny shards.

No, not my heart but his, she realized. “Lost her…to Daniel?”

It was his turn to laugh, but there was no joy in his chuckle. “What?… Wait—Jillian hasn't told you?”

Surprised, Lorna shook her head. “No…I mean…” Suddenly, she felt guilty. “Between the twins and Dante, I haven't had time to get together to anyone—”

“Maybe I should just keep my big yap shut.” He put his hand on her shoulder. “I'm sure one of them will mention it soon enough. In the meantime, Lorna, please pretend I didn't say anything. But, yes, as far as Ally and I are concerned…it's over.” To dodge her concerned gaze, he nodded toward Bettina, who was now cornered by Kelly and the other club mothers. “I'd better save her from the wolves.”

A Few Moments Before…

Bettina waited only a second after Lily tossed a tiny clump of dirt on her father's grave before grabbing her daughter with one hand. Taking Nathaniel from Eleanor, she laid him back into his stroller and turned to leave—

But then she saw him: Daniel.

He's here because he's worried about me, she thought jubilantly.

But no: he was comforting someone else:

Ally Thornton.

Daniel smiled down at Ally.

In turn, she kissed his cheek.

Why…the nerve of her! And there I was at Jade’s wedding, counseling her on how to make up with Brady!

Bettina was too angry to notice that she was now surrounded by Kelly and the club’s other Top Moms.

“This is quite a turnout for a guy who took everyone for a ride,” Mallory declared bluntly.

“Why did you show up, Mallory?” Bettina retorted. “To see if I'd be sporting a red A on my breast?”

Mallory shrugged. “Sure, why not? From what Kelly tells us about you and Andy Hepburn, it would have certainly been appropriate.”

Bettina glowered at Kelly. “How dare you! Considering the way you and Kimberley have been tag-teaming him—”

“Wait! I don't get it!” Sally frowned, confused. ” Would the ‘A’ stand for Andy? And why would it be red? Aren't we supposed to wear only black to funerals?”

Joanna sighed. “Don't be such an idiot, Sally! Bettina was referencing Hester Prynne!”

“You mean that Threesies mother whose little boy is always chasing the girls?” Sally asked. “Why her? Is she having an affair with Andy, too?”

“No, you dunce! That is Heather Prinn,” Kelly growled. “Hester is the heroine in The Scarlett Letter.”

Sally shook her head. “No. That was Demi Moore, silly!”

For the first time all morning, Bettina had something to laugh about. “One of the many things I do not miss about PHM&T is Sally's cluelessness.”

“I bet you miss being the mistress of the club you created,” Kelly smirked.

“Frankly, she doesn't have time to miss it.” All heads turned to Brady, who now stood directly behind Bettina. “Ladies, now that you've shared your heartfelt condolences, I hope you'll excuse us. I have some important business to discuss with Ms. Connaught.”

Kelly's eyes swept over Brady. “I see you've moved on to better prey, Bettina,” she simpered. “Well done.”

“We're just business partners,” Bettina and Brady assured her in unison.

They then turned to glare at each other.

Is he implying that he couldn't find me attractive—and to Kelly Overton, no less? Why the nerve of him!

“Such a shame,” Kelly taunted them, “since it looks as if your hunky Federal agent has his sights set on Ally Thornton.”

Instinctively, Brady and Bettina followed her gaze. Daniel and Ally were walking over, arm-in-arm.

Kelly and her entourage left before either could think of a retort.

Also a Few Moments Prior…

Ally Thornton's late arrival to the funeral could not be avoided. Now that Garrett Hartley was the primary investor in two of her companies—Foot Fetish as well as Life of Pie, the retail bakery she and Jillian had started—she was at Garrett's beck and call for daily teleconferences.

Today's call had run on for so long that the only way she felt she could end it was to feign a doctor's appointment.

Garrett guffawed at her declaration. Knowing his reputation with women, she could imagine his leer when he asked, “Some woman's issue?”

“Thank you for your fatherly concern,” she purred. “In fact, I'm seeing my dentist.”

“You're perfect, Ally,” he assured her. “Nothing could improve that pretty little mouth of yours.”

Disgusting pig, she thought. Why do you have to be my father?

She'd discovered this fact only recently.

Really, the revelation was Brady’s doing. He felt the trust issues keeping her from accepting his marriage proposals were grounded in her feelings of abandonment from the father she'd never known.

Learning she was Garrett's daughter—and that Garrett had been following her business successes without ever reaching out—should have made his investment offer easy to turn down. Instead, Ally saw it as a conquest.

She had a hard time convincing Brady of this. His personal history with Garrett had made him a billionaire. It had also cost him his tech company.

Having already brokered a financing deal for Life of Pie with another investment firm, his advice to Ally was to get as far away from Garrett as possible—before Garrett screwed her over too.

Garrett's ploy was much worse: he convinced Ally that buying out Jillian would be the best thing for her as well the company they'd jointly founded.

Even the five-million-dollar golden parachute Ally had negotiated for Jillian wasn’t enough to save their friendship.

Brady also took a buy-out—and said goodbye to Ally.

In the meantime, Jade informed Ally of Garrett's propensity for buying strippers for sex. If they got knocked up, he'd arrange for their abortions. Ally realized this was his way of assuring no other woman could claim to have had his child.

As it turns out, Ally’s arrival at Art’s gravesite coincided with Daniel Warwick's. And, like him, she stood at the outer edge of the crowd behind Bettina, Lily, Eleanor, and Lorna's mother, Hera Harmony.

Although Ally wasn't facing the Connaughts, from the way Bettina's head shook, it was obvious that Bettina was grieving.

“Poor Bettina,” Ally murmured.

“She'll survive,” Daniel muttered back.

Ally turned to face him. “I thought you cared about her! Was that just some act to get information on Art?”

No!” Daniel insisted. Disheartened, he shrugged. “But I'd be a fool to admit the truth to Bettina, wouldn't I? She'd probably laugh at the thought. Or worse yet, use it against me.”

“Love makes us do foolish things,” she insisted. “Usually, it's some stupid thing we say.” Ally teared up. “Or some act we later regret. If you truly care about Bettina, ask her if she has any regrets.”

“You sound as if you're speaking from experience.”

Ally nodded. “I ruined two great friendships. I was in business with my best friend—until I supported our investor’s request that she take a buy-out. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time, either: she’d just lost custody of her ex-husband’s infant son. Her mother-in-law, Rona, will probably never let her see him again.” She frowned. “My role as a modern-day Judas also torpedoed my future with the best man I’ve ever known.”

“Of course—Brady. You guys were kind enough to invite me to your home for Thanksgiving.”

The memory of that day brought tears to her eyes.

“I’m sorry, Ally. You make—made—quite a couple. Watching you together, I thought nothing could tear the two of you apart.” Daniel grimaced. “Why is ‘I’m sorry’ always the hardest thing to say?”

The knot in Ally’s throat made it too hard to answer him.

“If you truly feel that way about Brady, my God, Ally—tell him! If he's smart, he won't let his pride stand in the way of forgiving you.”

Ally nodded. Shyly, she asked, “Are you saying you're open to giving Bettina a second chance?”

“More like a fifteenth chance!” Daniel laughed. “I never met anyone who works so hard to be disliked.”

“I don't see it that way at all. I think Bettina is trying too hard to be loved. She just has lousy instincts about how to go about it.” Ally looked him in the eye. “Daniel, Bettina is a different person when you're around. Not exactly sweet or anything…okay, maybe she'll never be sweet—but she smiles more. And she does her best to curb her worst instincts…” Ally frowned. “I’m making a lousy case for why you’re the best thing that ever happened to her, let alone why she'll work hard to prove that she’s the best thing that ever happened to you.”

He thought for a moment. “I guess it doesn’t help that her parents always expected her to be perfect. Or that, unlike her, Matt makes friends so easily.”

Or that she ended up with a guy who married her for her money, and then used her connections to screw everyone over—including Bettina,” Ally replied.

Daniel smiled sadly. “You’re truly insightful, Ally Thornton. Brady must miss you terribly.”

Impulsively, Ally kissed his cheek. “Thanks, Daniel. Your pep talk gives me the courage I needed to tell him how I feel.” She sighed. “No time like the present.”

“You mean, he’s here too?” Daniel looked around.

“In fact, he’s walking over to Bettina right now.” She tucked her arm through Daniel’s. “They say there's safety in numbers. Shall we?”

* * *

Brady did his best to keep his face devoid of any emotion. The last thing he wanted Ally to realize was that he was heartbroken to learn she’d moved on.

He now knew Bettina well enough to recognize the icy glare that precipitated the wince-worthy tongue-lashing due to follow.

As far as he was concerned, if it was to be aimed at Ally, well then, all the better.

He marveled at Bettina’s ability to stay silent until one of the interlopers spoke first—but unfortunately, it was Daniel. After kissing Lily’s forehead and gently patting Nathaniel’s chubby cheek, he said, “Bettina, I can’t say I’m sorry for your loss. I only hope that the rest of your life is less traumatic and more…satisfying.”

Really?” purred Bettina. That single word was drenched in so much toxic sarcasm that Brady felt the need to wipe his forehead.

Ally must have felt the same way because her eyes opened large with concern. When they shifted to Brady, he stared right through her until she dropped her gaze to the ground.

Good, doll—you should be ashamed of yourself. Poor Daniel! And he thought Bettina was a handful? Ha!

With Bettina’s next retort, she proved it. “Daniel, please don’t pretend you have any concern for me—or for that matter, Lily. Your attempt to hang me along with Art was all the proof I needed that our affiliation wasn’t anything more than surveillance at best, and at worst”—her cheeks warmed as she glanced down at Lily—“a sordid diversion.”

She then turned to Ally. “As for any platitudes of sympathy you may have cobbled together, don’t waste your breath. You never really cared for me, and you certainly had no respect for the club. You proved that when you threatened to sue me for kicking you out of it—although I had good cause! Your application was rife with lies.” She nodded in Daniel’s direction and added, “You two deserve each other.”

What? But…but I…” Ally was too shocked to do anything but stammer.

She was interrupted by Daniel, who solemnly murmured, “I hear you loud and clear, Bettina. Good-bye.”

As he walked away, Lily whispered, “Does he mean forever?”

Bettina didn’t answer. Instead, head held high, she walked to the limousine waiting to take the family home.

Lily ran after her, leaving Ally and Brady staring at each other.

Also Around That Time…

By standing far behind Kelly, Kimberley and Andy were able to stay undetected by her and the other Top Moms.

‘Thank goodness, Kelly only has eyes for Bettina,” Kimberley murmured.

Although her declaration was cloaked by those mumbling the Lord’s Prayer with the minister, it was still loud enough for Andy to hear her.

But instead of acknowledging her, he stayed silent.

Why? she wondered.

Because he had yet to take his eyes off Bettina.

I’m losing him again, she thought sadly. Not to Kelly this time, but to Bettina.

She realized she was wrong when Nathaniel began whimpering. Andy’s eyes followed as his son was lifted by the child’s grandmother. A longing smile rose on his lips when the child’s cries fell silent.

“You’d be a great father,” she whispered.

This time he heard her.

This time his smile was for her.

Kimberley knew Andy wanted to go up to Bettina—really to his son. But, like her, he knew it best to wait until after Kelly and her entourage had their say.

When Brady came up to Bettina, Kimberley held Andy’s arm. “Don’t worry. He’ll leave soon,” she counseled.

In truth, she’d have a hard time facing Jade, Lorna, and Jillian, who were also making their way over.

Ally and Daniel got there first.

They didn’t say much, but whatever it was made Bettina so angry that she stalked off with Nathaniel and Lily, to Eleanor’s limousine.

As they drove off, sadness darkened Andy’s eyes.

Kimberley did not know what to say other than “I’ll take you home.”

* * *

“Brady, do you hate me too?” It was all Ally could think to say.

No, he thought.  I love you. I just want you to come to your senses.

But that’s not what he said. Instead, he muttered, “Since when does it matter to you what I think? I told you to stay away from Garrett! Instead, you chose him over me. And then you let him talk you into selling out Jillian—”

“Don’t worry, Brady. I can speak for myself.”

At the sound of Jillian’s voice, Brady hesitated. Not that he wanted to. He had so much more to say to Ally.

He wanted to tell her that he missed her terribly, and that he loved her with all his heart, and that he wanted them to be together again—

But only if she was ready, willing, and able to get out from under Garrett’s spell.

Then again, maybe Garrett wasn’t the issue anymore. Maybe she’d transferred her confounding daddy issues to Daniel.

The thought of that rendered him mute.

Still, he stared at Ally, as if willing her to prove him wrong.

Finally, she stuttered, “Brady, I lo—”

“No!” Jillian growled. “It’s now my turn to speak.”

* * *

This is a nightmare, Ally thought.

She flinched at Jillian’s opening statement: how it had taken her much too long to collect her thoughts, but now that they were all together, she wanted everyone to know the truth—

That she and Ally were no longer friends;

That San Francisco was big enough for both of them, reducing the odds of running into each other. But, should they do so, they could now quit pretending any semblance of friendship in front of others.

Although Jillian’s mouth kept moving, at some point it occurred to Ally that her mind now refused to take in the harsh torrent of words.

No matter. The gist of Jillian’s message was easily read on the faces of the others. Lorna looked on in shock, whereas Matt, Jade, and Reggie were distressed, dismayed, and saddened.

Caleb’s eyes were filled with pity.

Brady's glare seemed to dare Ally to deny Jillian’s accusations.

Instead, she left.

* * *

For a while, no one said a word.

Finally, Lorna exclaimed, “I…never knew.” Her eyes scanned the others. “Did you?”

Matt sighed. “Brady…mentioned it.”

Brady frowned.

“Or…maybe it was Bettina,” Matt stuttered. “I forget.”

Jaded blushed as she nodded. “I ran into Ally right before the wedding. She told me. Still, I wanted her at the wedding.” She glanced over at Jillian to gauge her reaction.

Jillian just shrugged.

Lorna nodded slowly, as if to say, So everyone knew but me.

In the sapphire bay below them, cargo ships bellowed while a flock of San Francisco’s wild parrots screeched overhead.

In the sapphire bay below them, cargo ships bellowed while a flock of San Francisco’s wild parrots screeched overhead.

In their parent's arms, the toddlers squirmed and chattered gibberish sprinkled with a few legible pleas for bottles or crackers or naps.

Brady took Oliver from Jade before kissing her cheek. “Safe journey,” he muttered to Reggie as he walked away.

Their brood in tow, Matt and Lorna followed him down the cemetery’s steep curving drive.

Jade kissed Jillian, but she and Reggie didn’t linger either.

* * *

“Ally was going to apologize,” Caleb stated matter-of-factly.

“Maybe.” Jillian shrugged. “Well, it's too late for that.”

“Really?” Caleb looked at her as if seeing her for the first time. “No second chances?”

To break his gaze, Jillian reached down to tuck the twins’ blankets into the folds of their double stroller. “For her, no. For us, yes—now that I have the money we need to make my family whole again.”

“Don't you mean ‘our family?” Caleb asked warily.

“Of course! Yours, mine, Addison’s, Amelia’s”—anger flushed Jillian’s cheeks—“and Scotty’s, now that we have a war chest.” Darkly, she added, “Rona won’t know what hit her.”

(c) 2017 Josie Brown.  All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher, Signal Press (info@signaleditorial.com)