Coming Home
Part 2
by Lois Cloarec Hart

Disclaimers - See Part 1 for disclaimers.

Chapter Six

Terry pulled her car into a tight parking spot three blocks away from the bar where the team was meeting tonight. She was grateful that she'd managed to get even this close, as parking around 17th Ave was always hard to find. Oly's, the pub she was heading for, had a small parking lot, but it was always filled.

Officially named Oleanders, but always called by the diminutive, the pub was on a side street away from the main hustle and bustle of the many restaurants, bars and shops on 17th. It was owned by two sisters, Jean Simmons, who had recently celebrated her silver anniversary with her husband at a wild party at Oly's, and the other, Megan Larson, whom Terry had briefly dated several years ago.

Oly's wasn't strictly a gay bar, but welcomed a wide diversity of clientele. Oly's sponsored Terry's team, which she thought very appropriate considering the team was composed almost evenly of lesbians and straight women.

Terry stepped out of her car, patting the hood appreciatively. She'd been pleased with the job Jordy had done on the old Tin Can. Nothing would ever make it look like new again, but he'd done his best at washing and polishing it. When he delivered it to her this evening, he'd pointed out that now she could at least see the back seat.

Terry smiled as she remembered her little brother's sarcasm about the varmints he'd found living under the piles of junk which forever cluttered her car. She'd had to cuff him about the ears for his impertinence of course, but she had to admit, he had a point. At least now, if she offered anyone a ride home tonight, she wouldn't be embarrassed to let them in her car.

As Terry walked down the street towards the bar, she was surprised to see Lisa and Robyn lounging outside Oly's. She thought they'd all meet up inside, but was glad to see her friends as they came forward to greet her.

"Hi, guys," Terry smiled at the two women. "All ready for a good party?"

Lisa and Robyn had the same sandy brown hair and pale blue eyes, but there the similarities ended. Lisa barely topped five feet and probably only made it to one hundred pounds when she was soaking wet--while wearing a winter parka. She was a bundle of kinetic energy and often reminded Terry of a bird, with her abrupt movements and bobbing about. It made her an excellent shortstop, as she never stayed still on the infield, but it could be disconcerting when she was in one place one second, and gone the next instant.

Terry had privately nicknamed Lisa's partner of five years 'the gentle giant'. Robyn could be intimidating to those who didn't know her, as she loomed over most men and women. With her bulk, tattoos, and short, spiky haircut, Robyn looked as if she wouldn't be out of place wearing the leathers of a motorcycle gang.

Terry had been friends with Robyn since childhood however, and knew that her large friend was one of the kindest, most softhearted people around. She was the one who cooked, cleaned and cared for the couple's cats. While Lisa threw herself into community causes and political activities, Robyn was happiest puttering around their home and coaxing marvelous music out of her old upright piano. Robyn could be depended on never to forget a birthday or a special occasion, and her extravagant cakes had come to be a highlight of gatherings amongst their friends.

As the two women flanked her, and reversed their path to walk back towards the entrance with her, Terry looked curiously at them.

"What's up, guys? Why the escort?"

Lisa and Robyn exchanged glances, then Lisa said, "It's possible...maybe...not for sure but likely..."

Terry was getting a little uneasy. It wasn't like her usually blunt friend to prevaricate. "What?" she demanded. "What's going on?"

Robyn took up the cause. "We really wanted you to be at the party tonight, Terry. After all, you were a big part of the team until you wrecked your shoulder."

"And...?" said Terry, highly suspicious of her friends' actions by now.

"Well, as I was saying," Lisa went on, "It's entirely possible that Marikamightbeheretonight." She finished in a rush, and then she and Robyn each grabbed an arm as Terry dug in her heels and dragged them to a stop.

"What!?" Terry squawked. "You didn't tell me that before!"

"Obviously," Lisa said knowingly, "or you would have canceled out on us." She and Robyn tried pulling Terry forward to the front entrance but Terry hung back stubbornly.

"How'd she get in on this anyway? She doesn't play ball. God knows she wouldn't want to risk breaking a fingernail or anything," Terry complained.

Lisa was exasperated now. "You know Terry, the whole world doesn't revolve around you. Marika being here tonight has absolutely nothing to do with you."

"Sure it doesn't!" Terry snorted. "And winter doesn't bring the snow."

"Well it doesn't if you live in Florida," the diminutive woman answered quite reasonably. "Besides, she's here with Val tonight, and I'm sure she couldn't care less whether you're here or not."

"With Val? Our Val? First baseman extraordinaire? That Val?" sputtered Terry incredulously.

"That would be the Val in question, yes," Lisa grinned at her befuddled friend. "So you see, you're perfectly safe, and besides, Robyn will keep you safe from any predatory blondes."

"But not too safe," Robyn piped up, knowing their friend's long-standing predilections.

Terry glared up at her large companion, but reluctantly started moving forward again. "So when did this happen? I thought Val was going out with Liz."

"Nah, that's old news, Terry. You really have to get out with us more and stop hanging around that old house so much. You're in severe danger of dropping out of the loop, you know," Lisa scolded as she reached out and pulled the door open.

Terry grinned at her. "I'll never be out of the loop when I've got you to keep me up to date, Lis. You're better than CNN any day."

The three friends, tension broken, continued into the cool interior of the bar. Oly's had a large, inviting common room, and two smaller rooms at the back for private parties. It was an unpretentious pub, painted in soft earth tones, with old wooden tables and chairs, and a long oaken bar that ran the length of one side of the room. It wasn't fancy and there wasn't a fern in sight, but it was convivial and clean, and had stood the test of time, having lasted fifteen years already in the hot competition of 17th Ave. It had a loyal core of customers and a solid reputation in both the gay and straight communities.

The women made their way through the light Wednesday crowd to one of the rear rooms, hearing their teammates long before they saw them. The team had spread out over two tables, and finding two chairs together at the first one, they dragged another chair over and sat down. Half-empty pitchers of beer, well-used glasses, and scattered pretzels, peanuts and popcorn all testified that the party had been underway for a while.

As the three women settled in and anted up for their share of the beer, Terry looked around surreptitiously to see where her nemesis was. She saw Marika at the second table sitting close to their dark-haired first baseman. She felt relieved, if still skeptical that Marika had finally moved on. She'd been a little flattered at first when Marika had been so persistent, but the woman's unrelenting attentions had quickly become burdensome. She was glad that it was apparently over, but as she began to turn her attention back to her own tablemates, she saw Marika raise her head and look intently into Terry's eyes.

Terry ducked her head, unwilling to even make eye contact with the woman. She eased back so Robyn's bulk on her right blocked Marika's view of her then turned to the woman on her left who'd stepped into her spot in the line-up when she'd been injured.

"Hey Gale, I hear I'm going to have some stiff competition for third base next year."

Gale shook her head laughing. "Not a chance, Terry. It's all yours. I'm going back out to right field where I can listen to the dandelions grow in peace. Now I know why they call it the hot corner, and I don't want any part of it."

"Aw Gale, you did a helluva job while I was out. Are you sure you want to go back out to Sleepy Hollow again next year?" Terry poured herself a draft, waiting for the amiable outfielder to answer.

Gale drained her own glass and held it out for Terry to refill. "Yup, I'm not the least bit interested in standing in the way of way of women rounding my base headed for home. Do you know one idiot even came in at me with her spikes flying and I had to dive out of the way just to avoid a mortal wound?"

"I remember that play," Robin chimed in from Terry's right. "Not to worry though, Gale. I got her good in the next inning. Didn't you see her take a header when I blasted one right over her head?"

"Oh yeah, I sure did," Gale grinned. "And I loved every second of watching her pick the gravel out of her teeth. Knew I could depend on you to uphold the team's honour, Robyn."

A nod went around the table, as the women were well aware that their normally mild-mannered catcher took exception to any dirty tricks directed at her team, and was quick to retaliate, though always within the rules. Robyn had a knack for sending screaming line drives directly back at anyone who offended her or her mates.

Robyn turned to Terry and with a conspiratorial air said, "We finally found one, Terry."

Terry was briefly in the dark, and then realized that her friend was referring to the couples' long search for a house to buy. They'd been renting a duplex for several years, but wanted to establish their own home where Robyn would be free to decorate and renovate to her heart's content.

"That's great, Robyn! Where'd you find one? What's it like? When do you move in?" Terry enthusiastically rattled off.

"It's up in Ranchlands. It's only a two bedroom right now, but the basement has a lot of potential for development, and the yard is terrific. We take possession on the 30th. We're planning on doing the move that weekend." Robyn looked at Terry hopefully. Terry grinned, knowing what her friend wanted but making her work for it

When Terry didn't volunteer, Robyn sighed and said, "Um, I don't suppose you could lend us a hand moving, could you?"

Terry chuckled. "Not only will I help, I'll recruit my brothers and roommates to pitch in. With all of us, we should have you moved in a day. But pizza and beer are on you," she warned.

"Of course," Robyn said, insulted that Terry would even think otherwise. Then lowering her voice again, she went on, "Once we're in the house, we're going to go ahead with that 'other' project too." She blushed and looked over at Lisa who was deep in an argument with their manager, Patrick, about next year's schedule.

Terry put her arm around her friend's large shoulders, and hugged her tightly. Softly she said, "That's great, Robyn. You two are going to make the best parents I know, other than my own I mean."

The two women beamed at each other, happy at the thought of what the future would bring. They picked up their glasses and clinked them together, an unspoken toast to dreams made real.

Terry listened to the pleasant buzz of conversation as her friends drained several more pitchers and ordered a round of shooters. She smiled at the thought of aching heads that would be in evidence tomorrow morning. She was still nursing her first beer, knowing that she had to be up early for work, and unwilling to repeat last year's performance when she'd gotten so drunk at the year end party, she'd woken up in a stranger's bed, uncertain how she'd even gotten there. She couldn't even remember the woman's name, and after a close encounter with the toilet, had made a rapid and graceless exit. To this day, she hadn't seen the woman again, and had no idea who she was.

Terry had been drifting mentally, when she realized that her table was quiet and looking up, she saw that all eyes were focused on her. Lisa reached behind Robyn's back and punched Terry's shoulder lightly.

"Hey, where'd you go, lady? You completely missed the punch line!"

"Punch line, what punch line?" Terry said in puzzlement. "What are you talking about?"

As the women at her table broke out laughing, she turned to Robyn. "What did I miss?"

Robyn snickered, then as the others returned to their conversations, took pity on her friend. "Leslie's been telling postal jokes and they've gone right over your head. What are you thinking of anyway, Terry? You seem like you're a million miles away and it's not like you to ignore a slight to your fine occupation."

"Oh, nothing much, Robyn. Just a few things on my mind tonight. I think I'll make it an early evening this time." Terry shook her head, trying to dislodge the cobwebs. In truth, she'd been thinking of her encounter at the Spencer's house that morning. On Monday, after their brunch the day before, Jan had met her at the door and they'd chatted for a few moments, before Terry moved on with her route. Tuesday, the drapes had been uncharacteristically drawn, and there had been no sign of the redhead. Wednesday, Jan was again at the front door, but Terry was shocked to see how exhausted she'd looked.

Concerned, Terry asked, "Jan, are you okay? Is everything alright with Rob?" She was distressed at the drawn look on the older woman's face, the weary eyes shadowed by dark circles, and the pall of exhaustion reflected by slumping shoulders.

Jan looked at Terry, unable to even summon a smile for her friend. "No, Rob's having a bit of a tough time right now. He came down with another infection and it's hit him harder than usual."

"But he seemed fine on Sunday," Terry protested. "How'd this happen so fast?"

Jan hesitated and Terry wondered if the woman could even summon the energy to answer. "His immune system is very weak, Terry. He doesn't have the strength to fight these things off so they come on fast and knock him down flat."

Sighing, she rubbed her reddened eyes. "It started Monday afternoon, and it's just got to run its course now. It's nothing we haven't handled before and he's already on the medication he needs so now it's a matter of waiting it out." Jan shook her head despondently, even her usually lustrous hair hanging limply.

Terry reached out and lightly took her hand. Intently, she looked into Jan's tired eyes and said, "You know if you need me for anything, and I do mean anything, you just call me, right? I'm serious, Jan. You don't have to do this alone, okay? Even if it's just to bring you some take-out so you don't have to cook, I don't mind a bit."

Terry saw uncertainty in Jan's eyes, as if she wasn't sure how to respond to Terry's offer. She went on, "Can I see him, just for a moment to say hi? Or is he sleeping right now?"

Jan drew her hand out of Terry's and stepped back from the door. "He sleeps off and on, but I think he's awake right now. I'm sure he'd like to say hi. Come on in."

Terry set her bags down and stepped over the threshold. She'd expected to see Rob in his customary spot in the easy chair, and was momentarily startled to see him stretched out on the couch, eyes closed and covered with a light blanket. He looked as drained as Jan did, and his breathing sounded harsh as it rattled in the quiet, darkened room. She stepped over to him lightly, kneeling at his side and laying a hand on his arm.

"Hey, big guy. What are you doing just laying around all day?" she teased him gently.

Rob's eyes fluttered open. Far from their customary humour and brightness, Terry saw that they were glazed and bleary. Moving her hand to his cheek, she could feel the fever wracking his body. He tried to smile when he saw who was beside him, but it barely touched his lips. When he struggled to say something, Terry laid her fingers over his mouth to stop him.

"Shhh, it's okay. I just wanted to say hi, and check to see how you were doing. You go back to sleep now, and I'll stop by again tomorrow. I'll be expected substantial improvement by then, Major Marshmallow, or I'll know the reason why!" Terry mock-threatened in a soft tone.

Rob did smile at that, then closed his eyes and drifted back to sleep. Standing, Terry turned to Jan who was watching her husband with clear worry on her face. Taking Jan's arm, Terry guided her into the kitchen so they could speak without bothering Rob.

Without thinking, Terry blurted out, "Is he alright staying at home, Jan? Shouldn't he be in the hospital or something? He sure felt hot to me."

Jan pulled back slightly at Terry's words, and a flash of resentment crossed her features. "This isn't the first time we've been through this, Terry. I know what I'm doing and how to handle it."

She lowered her voice and half turned her back to Terry. "Rob hates going into the hospital and it would just make things worse for him. Besides, they'd never care for him as well as I can, and I have him on the usual antibiotics to beat this."

Terry groaned internally but refused to let the foot now firmly planted in her mouth prevent her from correcting matters between them. Gently she laid her hand on the older woman's arm and tugged her back to face her. "Jan, I'm not questioning you. I was just surprised to see him like this and I guess I overreacted. You're the expert here, and I know you know what you're doing."

Jan nodded stiffly, still visibly upset at her implication. Rushing on she said, "I'm also worried about you, Jan. You don't look like you've slept a wink in days, and this has to be hard on you. Do you want me to come back after work and pull a relief shift so you can catch up on some sleep?"

Terry's unexpected offer appeared to startle Jan out of her resentment, and she seemed at a loss for words. "I, uh, no, thanks but...we'll be okay."

"Are you sure, because I wouldn't mind a bit and I could wake you up immediately if he seemed to be in any distress." Terry didn't know how else to offer to help, but she dearly did want to help these two out. They seemed so vulnerable right now, and she found herself aching to protect them.

Jan shook her head, more strongly this time, and mustering a weak but genuine smile said, "I really appreciate the offer, Terry, but we'll be okay. We've handled these infections many times and you'll see, by the weekend, he'll be almost back to normal. I don't want to impose on you."

Terry looked at her seriously, "It's not an imposition, Jan. Not in the least." She didn't want to leave matters on the sour note she'd inadvertently struck and thought quickly. "Look, how about I give you a call towards the end of the week, and if Rob's up to it, I'll bring Chinese and some videos over on Saturday night."

"I'd like that," Jan said softly. "But I'll have to see how he's doing, okay?"

Terry nodded her agreement. "Well, I guess I'd better get back to work before the postal cops catch me slacking off."

Impulsively, Terry reached out and pulled Jan into a light hug. "You take care of yourself too, you hear me?" she said insistently to the smaller woman.

Releasing her, she stepped back and watched as Jan's face warmed with the first real smile she'd seen from her today. Terry had left then, still concerned about her friends, but glad that tentative plans had at least been made for her to see them again soon.

Robyn nodded, accepting her friend's distraction as an excuse to end the evening early. "I can't say I blame you. Gale and Natalie have been making ominous comments about firing up the karaoke machine."

Both women chortled at the thought. Gale and Natalie had a well-earned reputation for getting up and singing when they'd been into the suds. Neither could carry a tune in a bucket, but that never seemed to deter them. Their friends usually indulged them for one song, and then hurled assorted loose snacks at them until they ceased and desisted. Robyn, with her perfect pitch, found it particularly painful to endure their crooning, and she looked jealously at her friend as Terry stood to make her good-byes.

After a chorus of protests at her early exit, all brushed off with a laugh and vague excuses, Terry headed for the front door, only to find her path blocked by a tall, slender woman. Marika was standing between her and the exit.

Terry groaned audibly and frowned at the blonde as she said stiffly, "Excuse me!"

"Please," the other woman said quietly, holding up one hand in supplication. "May I talk to you for a moment?"

Terry exploded. "Jesus Christ, woman! What the hell does it take to get through to you!? We're over, got it!? I don't want to see you! I don't want to talk to you! And I sure as hell don't want to sleep with you! In fact, I'd let a goddamned porcupine into my bed before I'd let you in! Now leave me the hell alone!"

Ignoring the shock in the pained gray eyes staring at her, she brushed furiously by the frozen woman and stomped out of the bar. Walking back to her car, she began to cool down, uncomfortably aware that everyone in the bar had been staring at them, and that she'd embarrassed herself as well as humiliating Marika.

Trying to find a silver lining, she consoled herself that Marika would doubtlessly keep her distance from now on, but with a sneaking regret, she knew she could have handled it much better. Sighing, she got into her car. It was too late now.

Chapter Seven

Terry sat on the back steps of her house, idly noting that Michael's Pathfinder was absent from the communal parking spot. She hadn't wanted to go inside, preferring to sit and watch the long summer evening fade into darkness.

She'd been there for twenty minutes when she heard the sound of the screen door behind her open and close again. A tall form silently sat down beside her and Claire asked, "Do you mind the company?"

Smiling at her quiet roommate, Terry answered, "Not at all."

The two women sat without saying anything, absorbing the warmth of the air, and the sounds of the oncoming night. Finally Terry, knowing her companion could sit for hours in perfect stillness, asked, "What have you been up to?"

Claire held out an envelope that had been lying beside her. "I was just writing Maman, to let her know that I'm still alive in this den of Anglo iniquity."

Her smile took any sting out of her words. Terry enjoyed the soft Quebecois accent that still graced the woman's words, even after two years in Calgary.

Terry tilted her head curiously at her friend. "Did you ever tell your mother about Michael and me, you know, who you're living with and all?"

Claire smiled, understanding what she was being asked. "I've told her many things about my friends, but no, not that. I think it's better to let some things go, yes?"

Terry sighed. "She really wouldn't understand, would she?"

"No, Terry. You have to understand. My mother is a very good woman, but the Church and her family, these are her two loves. She is a little provincial, I know, but that is how she's lived her life."

Terry nodded. She knew that Claire came from a very large family in the Eastern Townships, and that she was the first one to travel beyond Quebec's borders, let alone go to school in an English environment. Claire was driven to excel in her courses so that she could go on to a lucrative career, preferably in Montreal's business district, and be in a position to help out her younger siblings. Terry had deep respect for how hard the woman worked and how far she'd pushed herself from her impoverished background.

"Do you still have a problem with us?" Terry asked curiously. She knew that when Claire had first moved in, she'd had strong reservations about Michael and her being gay, but the two had overcome her caution and, for the most part, had won Claire over.

Claire considered Terry's question gravely before answering. "You know that I consider you both my very dear friends?" she asked, confirming Terry's assessment. "Mais non, in the beginning I didn't know if I would stay here long. I did not even unpack all my suitcases for the first month. I'd never met people like you before, and I only knew what the Church taught me. Now, I know that you are good people, even if I don't quite understand your ways. Maman though, she hasn't seen how Michael sneaks extra money into the grocery kitty and thinks I don't know. Or how you 'miraculously' found a friend who was selling exactly the textbooks I needed for half the going price last semester, so she would not understand."

"Um, you knew about that?" mumbled Terry, who'd been certain their altruism had gone undetected.

Claire laughed merrily. "And what kind of a business major would I be, if you two slipped money matters like that by me?" Smiling at her abashed friend, Claire went on, "I know you two were trying to protect my pride, but I accept your generosity in the spirit in which it was given. Thank you, Terry. Someday, I'll have other means to show my gratitude, but for now, thank you."

"You're welcome, Claire. It really was our pleasure to help, you know."

"Oui, I know this," said Claire softly. The two women sat quietly for several more minutes, then Claire spoke again. "Wasn't your team party tonight? Why are you sitting out here in our backyard instead of at Oly's?"

Terry didn't respond immediately, but Claire waited patiently for her answer. Finally Terry started to talk.

"I've been thinking of a friend of mine. Actually, two friends of mine. I kind of stuck my foot in it this morning, and I'm hoping I didn't do anything too stupid."

She went on to tell Claire about the incident at the Spencer's this morning. "I mean where did I get off telling Jan how to look after Rob, for crying out loud! I've known them for two weeks and she's been caring for him for years." She shook her head at her own presumption.

Claire patted her forearm comfortingly. "I'm sure she knows you were just concerned for his well-being. You must have been startled to see how ill he was."

Terry turned fully to look at Claire. "That's it exactly. I was shocked at how they both looked. I never thought of Rob as really sick before, ya know. I mean, I know that sounds dumb when the guy's a quadriplegic and all, but he's always so cheerful and funny that I didn't see it. I realized that I really don't know a damned thing about MS, or what he's going through. I wish I did."

Claire nodded thoughtfully. "It shouldn't be that difficult to find out about it. Mon Oncle Jean-Guy had it, I know. But he wasn't badly afflicted and only walked with a cane for many years."

"I don't even know if it eventually kills people," Terry said in a hushed voice, alarmed by this new thought.

"It may not be the most scientific way," Claire began her suggestion. "But when I was at the video store last weekend, I was looking at a movie called Hilary and Jackie. It was about two sisters, both musicians, and one who had MS became very famous. It looked very interesting but my friend wanted to rent Shakespeare in Love so I didn't get it. Why don't we walk down there and see if it's available? I have to mail my letter anyway, and the box is en route."

Terry felt unaccountably cheered, just to be taking action, any action. It was a place to start, and maybe by the time she next saw the Spencers, she would have a clearer picture of their life. Standing up, she extended a hand to Claire, pulling her to her feet. Walking down the path to the alley, the two women set out on their mission.


Michael clattered down the stairs to his basement domain, stopping abruptly as two sets of watery eyes met his over the back of the couch in the party room. Bouncing over to lean on the back of the couch, he asked his roommates, "Whatcha watching? Some weepy chick flick?"

Terry and Claire, moving with one mind, each grabbed an arm and pulled Michael abruptly over the back of the couch, dropping him in a sprawl at their feet, and knocking the large, half-empty bowl of popcorn off the coffee table in the process.

Avoiding their indignant glares, he looked up at the TV screen to see a slender, dark-haired woman walking away from the open door of a car, along the side of a country road. She stumbled, tears rolling down her face, and Michael looked back up at his friends, who were once again intent on the film.

"Um, I said the wrong thing?" he inquired sheepishly.

As the credits began to roll, Michael pulled himself up from the floor, brushing off stray kernels of popcorn, and plopped down between the two women. "What were you watching?"

As Terry stopped the video and started it rewinding, Claire answered him. "Hilary and Jackie".

"Oh yeah, I've heard about that one. Wasn't there some kind of kinky thing going on between the sisters, or something like that?" He then flinched, as he once again became the target of female displeasure. "Ow!" he said, rubbing his pummeled shoulders.

"Did anyone ever tell you that you have the sensitivity of a rhino?" Terry huffed.

"What!? What'd I say?" Michael protested, full of wounded innocence. "I'm just going by the reviews I remember when it first came out. So what was it about then?"

"Well, actually," Claire started. "There was a sort of strange relationship between the two sisters." She stopped, not quite sure how to explain it.

"Boy, you got that right!" Terry snorted. "Made me glad I only have brothers. That's taking sibling sharing just a little too far if you ask me."

"Uh huh! So I was right!" Michael crowed, then wilted as he came in for aggrieved stares again.

"That was only a small part," Claire explained. "Really, it was a very moving show about the bonds of sisterhood and the demands of the artistic temperament. Jackie was a very complex person. Besides, we were watching mostly for research purposes."

Michael looked at her in puzzlement. "Research of what? The mating habits of mad Englishwomen?"

Claire looked across him at Terry, who had subsided into a contemplative silence. "We wanted to find out more about MS, and thought this might be a good first step."

Terry glanced up at her with a somber expression. "It was very sad at the end, don't you think. She seemed so terribly alone, once she couldn't play the cello anymore. It was like that was her whole identity, and with it gone, she was hollow. Even her beloved sister wasn't with her at the end."

Claire leaned across Michael, and took Terry's hand. "Terry, Rob isn't alone. You know that, and from what you've told me, he's not nearly as bad as Hilary was. Just because she died doesn't mean that he will too." She waited for Terry to nod her reluctant agreement, then released her hand and sat back.

Michael's eyes were going from woman to woman, conscious that he'd intruded on something more than just watching a new video. Hesitantly, he offered, "If you guys want to learn about MS, why don't you hop on the Net and see what information you can find there?"

Terry shook her wryly. "You know, Michael? Every so often you come up with a decent idea." As Michael preened, she stood up, shaking a few kernels off her lap. Turning to Claire she said, "I think Michael should have to clean up the mess, don't you? After all, he caused it."

"Oh, absolument!" Claire agreed, as the two women left the room to the accompaniment of Michael's protests.

As they mounted the staircase to the main floor, their mood somewhat lightened by Michael's indignant squawking, Claire looked at Terry ruefully. "That really wasn't very nice of us, you know."

Terry laughed. "I know, but you know as well as I do that we'll probably find every bit of popcorn in the same place in the morning. Michael will 'conveniently' forget where the vacuum is stored. Besides, it's my turn to clean the basement, so I'll get to it after work tomorrow. Right now, I want to see what I can find on the Net."

Reaching the landing, the two women paused for a moment. Terry looked at her quiet friend, and said seriously, "Thanks, Claire. It was a good idea, even if it did scare me a bit."

Claire nodded. "Just remember Terry, it doesn't necessarily mean that the same thing is going to happen in Rob's case, okay?"

"Yeah, I know. You coming upstairs?"

"Non, I think a midnight snack is in order tonight. I'm going to raid the fridge first. Did you want anything?"

"No thanks, Claire. I'm not really hungry right now. I'll see you in the morning, okay?"

As Claire headed for the kitchen, Terry climbed the flights of stairs to her garret. It was late, but she wanted to see what information she could dig up on her computer before she shut it down for the night. The movie had left her unsettled, and she hoped to find solid facts to counter what she'd just seen.

An hour later, Terry leaned back in her chair and thought about what she'd turned up. MS appeared to be such an odd, unpredictable disease in that no two victims necessarily had identical symptoms. She thought of Claire's uncle, and the difference between his MS and that of Rob or Jackie DuPre. The latter two appeared to be in the small minority with secondary progressive MS, while she assumed Claire's uncle had the more common relapsing-remitting variety.

There was such a diversity of experiences, ranging from mild motor impairment to complete paralysis; from double vision to blindness; and from slight memory loss to severe cognitive difficulties. Fatigue seemed to be a constant at any stage of the disease but the number of other potential problems appeared to be endless.

Terry felt somewhat more enlightened after her search, but not particularly reassured. She couldn't get the vision of Jackie's condition at the end of the movie out of her mind, and she wondered how Rob and Jan dealt with the potential of his disease for all these years.

Sighing, she pushed away from her desk, and made ready for bed, but it would be many hours before her mind let her sleep.


Late Saturday afternoon, Terry leaned back in her chair, staring at her screen. She'd woken that morning, driven by the need to write, and hadn't even stopped to shower first. Dressed in a tattered pair of shorts and a t-shirt that had seen better days, she'd been hunched over her desk, pecking away at her computer for hours. Reluctant to break away from her work and go down to the kitchen for real food, she'd been nibbling on a bag of Pirate cookies all day. Now, satisfied with the two new chapters she'd roughed out, she looked over at her bedside clock to see what time it was.

Startled to see that it was already four thirty, she hastily saved her work and exited her file. Shutting down her laptop, she decided she had to take the time to shower before setting out to pick up videos and Chinese food to take to Jan and Rob's place for the evening.

Jan had phoned her last night to let her know that Rob was doing much better, and that they'd enjoy seeing her Saturday if she still wanted to come over. Jan had suggested that they order in, but Terry insisted that since it was her idea, she'd bring the food.

An hour later, her hair still slightly damp but her clothes considerably more presentable, Terry stood in front of shelves of videos, wishing she'd asked Jan for some ideas on what they might like. She knew Jan and Rob had different tastes in reading, so assumed they had problems agreeing on movies too. She suspected Rob went in for the Bruce Willis/Jean-Claude Van Damme type of film, but couldn't see Jan being too interested in that genre.

Spying the last available copy of Enemy of the State, she decided that was a good compromise. Having listened to Michael rave about it only a few weeks ago, she thought it was probably a little more cerebral than Universal Soldier and should hopefully please both of them.

With that out of the way, she walked towards the checkout scanning the shelves as she went. Stopping in front of Patch Adams she contemplated substituting her videos. Comedies were usually acceptable to everyone, and although she knew it wasn't his best work, she really did enjoy Robin Williams.

Deciding that she'd take both and offer them a choice, she paid for her selections and returned to her car. Swinging by her favourite Chinese take-out place, she was pleased to see that her order was ready. By six o'clock, she pulled up in front of the Spencers and saw Jan coming down the walk toward her.

Getting out and waiting for the approaching woman, Terry worried that Rob might have had a set-back and the evening would have to be canceled.

"Is everything alright?" she asked Jan, as the woman reached her.

"Oh yes, everything's fine. I just thought you might need a hand." Jan smiled at Terry as she held out her hand to take one of the bags of food.

Terry found herself grinning broadly as she followed the redhead back up the walk. As she entered their living room, she was delighted to see Rob back in his customary spot, reclining in his easy chair and smiling at Terry's arrival.

Jan took the other bag from Terry, and nudged her in Rob's direction. "Why don't you say hi, and I'll get this all set out in the kitchen."

Walking over to where the man sat, Terry squatted beside him and looked intently into his face. "I'm glad to see you doing so much better, big guy," she said, relieved that his eyes were bright and clear again.

"Me too," Rob replied. "It was a bit rough there for a couple of days."

"But you weren't going to let some little old bug beat you, were you?" Terry said as she patted his forearm affectionately.

"Not likely!" snorted Rob. Changing the subject, he looked at the videos she carried and asked, "So what did you bring us to watch tonight?"

As Terry showed him what she'd chosen, she heard Jan in the kitchen, opening cupboards and setting out dishes. She was no stranger to domesticity, having gone from the loving atmosphere of her parent's house to the camaraderie of the shared quarters she now lived in, but she found herself drawn to the ambience of this home and the warmth of these two people.

The three settled into a comfortable companionship, their familiar banter creating a cocoon of intimacy as they demolished the Chinese food. Several hours later, as the first movie drew to a close, Terry looked up from where she was lounging on the couch, to see Rob sound asleep in his chair.

"He can sleep through this?" she asked Jan, amazed that Rob hadn't been woken by the noise of all the gunfire. She'd been so intent on the movie that she felt like she was diving for cover right along side the hero.

"He's still easily tired," Jan said softly, looking at her husband fondly. "It will take a week or so before he's back to normal again."

Reluctantly Terry sat up, unwilling to see the evening end but not wanting to intrude. "I'd better go then and let you two get some sleep."

"You don't have to do that, Terry," Jan shook her head at the younger woman. "He's quite comfortable there and he'll probably wake up after he has a short nap. Why don't we put the other movie in?" She hesitated, and then added, "Unless you have to get going yourself?"

"You're sure?" Terry asked her, hoping she wasn't just being polite.

"Positive," Jan replied. "I just don't want to cut in if you have a hot date tonight or something. You know, you don't have to spend your Saturday night with a pair of old fogies, even if we do enjoy your company immensely."

"Hey, I happen to like old fogies, " Terry joked. "I really can't think of any place I'd rather be at the moment. Besides, believe me. There's a distinct deficit of hot dates in the vicinity right now."

"Aw, poor Terry," Jan teased her as she went to change the videos. "Has Calgary run out of tall, blonde beauties then? Does this mean you're going to have to move on to fresh hunting grounds in Vancouver or Toronto?"

Terry threw a small cushion at her, grinning as Jan picked it up and tossed it back at her. "I think you've gotten entirely the wrong idea of my love life," she insisted.

"Really?" Jan drawled. "So Aaron was just making all that stuff up last Sunday, was he?"

Terry groaned, and buried her head in the couch. "I'm never going to live that down, am I?" she mumbled with great embarrassment to her delighted friend.

"No, I'm pretty sure you never will," Jan laughed at the tall woman's discomfort. Then letting her off the hook, she started the next movie.

Chapter Eight

Jamming hard on her brakes, Jan shook her head in exasperation as yet another oblivious pedestrian walked across her path. She didn't enjoy battling downtown traffic at the best of times, and noon hours were the worst as all the office workers left their hives and wandered the streets, obstructing any vehicles unlucky enough to get in the way of their destinations.

When she finally found a parking spot, she seized on it with a sigh of relief. Glancing at her watch, she confirmed she was in plenty of time to meet her sister for lunch. Despite the problems with coming downtown, she really did enjoy her monthly lunches with her sister Kate as they caught up on each other's lives.

Locking the van, Jan headed to Kate's office. She knew there was no real hurry. Kate was inevitably tied up with a client and she always had to wait for her, but as she had the whole afternoon free, she wasn't concerned about delays.

Blending with the noon-hour crowds, she ambled down the busy street, smiling inwardly when she too stepped out with her fellow pedestrians into the path of oncoming traffic. She found it amusing how quickly her perspective changed, depending on her mode of conveyance.

Arriving at Kate's looming office tower, Jan entered the double glass doors, nodding at the security guard who recognized her and waved her back towards Kate's ground floor office. After checking in with the receptionist and receiving the expected announcement of a slight delay, she settled comfortably in a padded chair to wait for her sister.

Eying the dark wood and lush burgundy carpet, she reflected that Kate had done well for herself. Her sister had started many years ago in the accounting section of a local oil company and had worked herself up to a position as senior vice-president of the company's financial branch.

Jan had never been completely clear on what exactly Kate did, as financial matters held little interest for her. She knew that she and Rob had more than enough to meet their modest needs and indulge her passion for books, and that was all that concerned her.

She and Kate's husband, John, usually listened quietly while Rob and Kate analyzed market trends and the state of the Canadian economy. John actually understood what they were saying, as he'd started out in accounting too, but he was a passive man and content to let the two more dynamic personalities dominate all such discussions.

Deciding that she probably had time for some reading while she waited, Jan took an ever-present novel out of her purse. Surprisingly, she'd barely begun when she heard Kate's voice coming down the hall toward her. She looked up to see her sister walking a well-dressed man to the exit. She watched as the taller, heavier, older version of herself shook the client's hand and held the door open for him.

Jan stood as Kate came toward her smiling. "Just give me a minute to grab my purse, and we'll be on our way, okay?" Kate said, hugging her sister quickly. Not waiting for Jan's acknowledgment, she returned to her office and re-emerged, with a large purse slung over her shoulder. Taking Jan's arm, she led them out of the building.

"I thought the Green Apple today, if that's alright with you?" queried Kate as she steered them in that direction. Jan nodded her agreement as they navigated around the crowds. She had to increase her stride to keep up with her sister's longer, more rapid pace. Kate never ambled anywhere that Jan could recall. Even when they'd been children, Kate always walked determinedly. She'd been a forceful child, and she was a compelling woman.

Jan knew that some considered her a bully, but she believed Kate simply had so much self-confidence that those who didn't know her easily interpreted it as arrogance. Jan had long ago learned how to handle her domineering sister. She would listen to Kate's advice, and then do exactly what she wanted to regardless of her sister's opinions. She had exasperated her sister repeatedly over the years, but there was a deep core of love between them and Kate never held a grudge over her kid sister's aggravating independence. Truthfully, she respected Jan for standing up to her, and in her more candid thoughts wished her husband had the same backbone.

For her part, Jan never forgot how Kate protected her shy, smaller sister from schoolyard bullies who thought the quiet child was ripe for picking on. Nor had she forgotten how Kate had stood up to their mother when the woman had been virulently opposed to Jan and Rob marrying because of Rob's disability. Kate had faced their mother down in a screaming match that was still legendary in the McLeod family. Their mother hadn't come to the wedding, but Kate was right there, standing beside Jan as her family.

The women reached the restaurant, and entering, gave Kate's name to the hostess. She guided them up a curving flight of stairs to a glassed in dining room overlooking an inner-city park. The first time Kate had brought Jan here for lunch, she'd been amazed that this park existed. It was completely hidden from the busy city streets on either side of it, and a favourite of brown baggers from surrounding office towers.

Settling into their chairs, the two asked for coffees, then scanned their menus for a moment until they simultaneously looked up at each other, grinning.

"Why do we even bother?" chortled Kate. "We always get exactly the same thing."

"Yup," said Jan cheerfully, "You're going to get that rabbit food."

"And you're going to get red meat dripping in calories and cholesterol!" finished Kate mournfully. "Why couldn't I have gotten Dad's metabolism too?"

The sisters though of their short, leanly muscled father who'd died several years before. "Hey, at least we both got his hair," Jan pointed out.

"Yeah, we could have ended up with Mom's." Both sisters shuddered at the thought of their mother's thin, wiry tresses, and were grateful to have gotten their father's thick, wavy auburn hair.

Having placed their order, with Kate's audible groans at Jan's request for a bacon cheeseburger with fries, the women sat back to sip their coffees and catch up on gossip. Kate filled Jan in on what her twelve-year-old son, Kevin, had been up to in school, then looked down, and fiddled nervously with her napkin.

Jan watched her sister, knowing that Kate had something on her mind. Finally, leaning across the table, she stilled Kate's hands and waited for her to look up.
"Okay, 'fess up. What's going on in that devious brain of yours?" Jan said curiously.

Kate sighed, then set the napkin aside and looked directly at her sister. "Have you heard from Mom lately?"

Jan shook her head. She wrote her mother the occasional letter but they rarely talked on the phone. Kate was the one who usually kept Jan up to date on how things were with her. "No, why? Is everything alright?" she answered.

"Everything's fine," Kate hastened to assure her. She hesitated, and then went on. "I just thought she might have told you that she's coming out next month for a visit." Their mother lived in Kingston and made the trip from Ontario two or three times a year.

Jan smiled gently at her sister. She knew that Kate felt terrible over the way their mother favoured her and her family over Jan and Rob. "Let me guess," she teased. "She's decided to stay with you guys this time."

It was an easy guess, as their mother had never once stayed with Jan and Rob in all the years that they'd lived in Calgary. Seeing her sister's discomfort, Jan went on, "It's alright, Katie. After all, she wants to see her only grandson so it's natural that she wants to stay with you. Besides, we'll arrange to get together sometime while she's here. Maybe you can come up for dinner one night."

Both women knew that seeing Kevin was only part of why their mother stayed with Kate, and that the main reason was to avoid Rob, whom she held responsible for 'ruining' her youngest daughter's life.

Kate accepted the offered escape gratefully however, and nodding her agreement with their tentative plans, changed the topic. "Speaking of dinner together, how about you and Rob joining us for Sunday dinner this week? That is, as long as he's up to it. I'm assuming he's much better since you took your respite day this week."

"Yeah, he's almost completely back to normal now, and he was looking forward to seeing Donny today. But we're going to have to take a rain check on your invitation as we've already got plans for this Sunday. We've been invited to a friend's place for a barbeque."

Kate's eyes widened. Jan could tell that she'd surprised her sister since she and Rob didn't know very many people and only really saw Kate and John socially. She smiled to herself, waiting for the inevitable interrogation. Kate did not disappoint her.

"Where are you going? What friends are these? Where did you meet them?" Kate rattled off in quick order, looking expectantly at Jan.

Just at that moment, the waiter returned with their orders, and Jan took a perverse pleasure in making her sister wait for answers while he set out their plates. Taking her cheeseburger in her hands, Jan took a big bite, giving an appreciative little sound while her dark green eyes twinkled mischievously over the bun at her impatient sister. Taking her time chewing and swallowing, Jan decided she'd tried Kate's patience long enough when her sister started stabbing viciously at her salad.

Grinning, she said, "It's a birthday party for Terry Sanderson. Remember the woman I told you about who helped me out the day Rob and I ended up on the floor? The barbeque is over at her parent's place in Varsity Estates."

Kate stopped munching her salad, still puzzled. "She invited you over after just one meeting?" she asked.

"No, actually we've gone out with her a couple of times. Well at least I have, and Rob and I went to brunch last Sunday with her and her brother. They're great people, Kate. I know you'd like them. On Saturday, she brought Chinese food and videos over and we had a fun night together. She and Rob have really hit it off."

Jan smiled, thinking of the young woman who had eased so naturally into their lives. She had truly enjoyed Saturday night and was looking forward to the barbeque on Sunday, eager to meet all the family members that Terry had been telling stories on.

"I'm really glad you've met new friends, Jannie. I worry about you two being so alone sometimes. It's not healthy," Kate asserted firmly. "Don't you worry about dinner at our place. We'll just make it for the Sunday after, alright?"

"That's sound fine," Jan laughed. "Rob and I are becoming quite the social butterflies here. If this keeps up, I may have to start keeping an engagement calendar."

She'd never admit it to her overprotective sister, but she did sometimes feel very isolated from people, and she worried more for Rob's sake than hers. She was accustomed to a fairly solitary life, but he had always been the life of the party with a large group of friends hovering around. She knew that people had their own lives to live, but regretted seeing friends drift away as Rob became progressively more disabled.

He never said anything to her, but she sensed his sadness at the memory of days gone by when buddies and beer were plentiful, and parties would often last for days, usually at his house. The move to Calgary, while made for sound reasons, had further isolated them from old friends left behind, and until now at least, they hadn't replaced old friends with new. Terry was beginning to look more and more like a godsend to both of them.

The next half hour passed pleasantly as the sisters talked and ate. Jan was forced to slap Kate's fingers for too frequent thefts of her French fries, but Kate didn't seem in the least discouraged and snuck back for more at every opportunity. After finishing their meal and paying the check, the two women stood up reluctantly, sad that the lunch hour had passed so quickly.

As they walked back towards Kate's office, the older woman asked, "Where are you off to now?"

Jan replied, "Well, Rob needs a couple of new fall shirts, and then I thought I'd stop in at the bookstore."

"Oh now there's a surprise," Kate said dryly. "I'd never have guessed that one."

Jan chuckled at how predictable she was. They'd reached the doors to Kate's office tower, so they stopped, turning to each other.

"That was great, Katie. I really enjoy our lunches, even if a certain sibling steals all my fries. I don't know why you just don't order some for yourself."

Kate grinned unrepentantly. "They taste better that way, and besides, I have it on good authority that if they come from someone else's plate, they leave their calories there."

Both sisters laughed at the nonsense, then hugged each other as Kate turned back to reenter the business world, and Jan headed off to the nearest bookstore.

An hour later, Jan had bought three new shirts for Rob and five books for herself. Counting it an afternoon well spent, she returned to her van. Unlocking the door and tossing her purchases on the passenger's seat, she considered her watch for a minute. It was only three o'clock and she still had Donny for three more hours. Sliding in behind the wheel she considered her options. She could go to the park or the library, but then another option occurred to her.

Opening her purse she took out the cell phone, which Rob insisted she carry at all times. Finding a number in her address book, she flipped the phone open and started to dial but before she finished, she hastily closed it up again. Shaking her head at her foolishness, she opened it up and ignoring how her heartbeat unaccountably sped up and her fingers trembled, she dialed the number again, this time waiting with a dry mouth for someone to pick up.

As a familiar voice came on the line, Jan smiled. What was I nervous for? "Hi Terry," she said. "It's Jan."

"Hey Jan, whatcha up to?" asked Terry, obvious pleasure in her voice at the unexpected call.

"Um, I was wondering...well, I'm on my afternoon off, and I thought you might be finished work by now..." Jan stumbled, still shy with her new friend.

"I am," came Terry's ready response. "Why don't you drop over for coffee or something, and I'll show you around the homestead? I should warn you though that I haven't quite gotten to the house cleaning yet. Have you got a pencil? I'll give you the address."

Jan cradled the phone on her shoulder and grabbing a pen from her purse, opened her address book again. "Go ahead, Terry."

"Okay, you know where Charleswood is? We're in that area, closer to the University but still on the opposite side of Crowchild. The address is 2917 Chisholm Drive. Got that?"

"Yes, I've got that. I have a city map in the van, so there shouldn't be any problems finding it. I'll see you in about twenty minutes then?"

"Sounds great," Terry responded eagerly. "I'll be looking forward to it."

Thirty minutes later, after one wrong turn, one cul-de-sac and one lengthy backtrack, Jan found herself on a lovely, tree-lined street of older homes. Driving slowly as she checked addresses, she soon saw Terry sitting on the steps of a tall, narrow, brick house. As she pulled up in front of the place, Terry jumped to her feet, a big grin spreading over her face as she waved a welcome. Jan was reassured by Terry's obvious pleasure in her visit, and quickly stepped out of the van as the younger woman came towards her.

"Hi," Terry called. "Did you have any problems finding the place?"

"Not a one," Jan fibbed. "So this is where you hang your hat, is it? What a nice neighbourhood!"

"Thanks, we like it. Come on in and I'll give you the nickel tour." Terry tugged lightly on Jan's arm, urging her into the yard and up the wooden flight of stairs to the front door.

The two women entered the arched doorway to find themselves in a dark, narrow hall. Another flight of stairs ran up the right side of the hallway, and wide French doors opened into a spacious room on the left. Terry guided Jan into that room, saying, "We might as well start at the beginning. This is our living room. Uncle Lou always calls it the drawing room, but I don't think our furniture is classy enough to call it that."

Jan laughed as she looked at the eclectic assortment of furniture littering the room. In truth, the oddly coloured and motley collection did little to accent the high ceiling, solid wood paneling and luxurious old crown moldings, but it suited the woman beside her.

Terry grinned at Jan's amusement. "We call it the College School of Decorating."

Jan turned to her tour guide and asked, "Who's Uncle Lou?"

"Oh, he's the owner and our landlord. He's my mother's brother and he's been letting me live here for six years for a very reasonable rent. I just had to promise not to let my roommates destroy the place, and so far, I've been really lucky with the people who've lived here with me."

Terry turned and indicated that Jan should follow her through the door on the far side of the long room. Leaving the room, they entered a small dining room that opened into a large, messy kitchen. Pots were piled on an old gas stove, worn wooden cupboards hung open haphazardly and several cereal boxes lay on crowded counters. Dishes were stacked in the sink and left on the table. A varied assortment of crumbs and unidentified small objects littered the floor. A fridge that appeared to have seen better days was covered with notes, pictures and bus schedules.

The room itself was a cheerful if faded yellow, with a large window over the sink overlooking a wide porch and unkempt lawn. Uncle Lou obviously didn't believe in replacing appliances if they still had some life in them, as the only modern thing in the room was a small microwave oven in one corner. Even the table was an old Formica model which wouldn't have been out of place in June Cleaver's kitchen. Glancing at the mess, Terry said ruefully, "Well, I did warn you that I hadn't gotten to my cleaning duties yet."

Jan laughed. She'd never been to college herself, but this was exactly what she imagined a student residence would look like—cluttered, messy, and well lived in. She nudged her chagrined hostess and said, "That's okay. There are days my kitchen doesn't look much better."

Terry raised a doubtful eyebrow. "Why do I have problems believing that?" Then she grinned at her friend and said, "C'mon, since you didn't flinch at this, it'll be safe to take you down to the party room.

Jan followed Terry out of the kitchen and back down the hall to a door set in under the stairwell. She watched as Terry flipped on a light switch then opened the door to reveal a narrow set of steps descending to the basement. Nodding as Terry cautioned her to watch her step, she walked closely behind the younger woman, ducking her head under an overhanging beam as she went.

As they got to the bottom of the stairs, Terry pointed off to an enclosed area to their left. "That's Michael's apartment and the laundry room is off in that corner." She gestured behind them, and then led Jan forward into a large room that ran the width of the basement and was outfitted with a big-screen TV, an impressive stereo array, several couches, a large easy chair, and a fridge that was decades younger than the kitchen model. "This is the most popular room in the house," she told Jan.

Jan looked around, impressed with the layout and startled at the contrast between the expensive electronic array, the comfortable, quality furniture and what she'd seen in the upstairs living room. She could feel Terry watching her and when she glanced up, the younger woman answered her unspoken question.

"It's all Michael's equipment, and mostly his furniture too. He wanted a nice place to have friends over, and we all benefit from his generosity."

"Michael is well-off then?" Jan questioned, not wanting to pry but curious how a university student could afford this set-up.

"Very," Terry affirmed. "But he doesn't like to talk about it, and he's not one to flaunt it either. He just likes to be comfortable and saw no reason why he shouldn't be. We've had some great times down here. One party last winter to celebrate the end of the semester, I think we must have had over a hundred people in here. It took us almost two days to clean up afterwards, but it was worth it. C'mon, I'll show you the upstairs now."

Terry lightly laid her hand on Jan's back, indicating she should go up the stairs and out into the hallway. Taking the lead as they mounted the next flight of stairs, she spoke back over her shoulder to Jan, "The second floor is Claire's apartment. She has a bedroom and sitting room, and we share the main bathroom."

As they passed the second floor landing and Terry continued upwards, Jan became grateful that she lived in a bungalow and didn't have to climb all these stairs every day. However, looking at Terry's legs a couple of steps ahead of her, she couldn't help admiring the clearly defined muscles on those long limbs, and she found herself musing that maybe there were benefits to living on the top floor after all. Lost in that thought, she ran into Terry's back when the younger woman stopped at the next landing.

Blushing slightly, she apologized to Terry, who simply smiled and said, "No problem. You're just not used to hiking Mount Everest every day to get to your room."

Moving down the short hall to a half-open door, she continued her guided tour. "This used to be the attic, but Uncle Lou turned it into a garret room just for me. I really like having the top of the house, though it has its drawbacks temperature wise."

She pushed open the door and stood back for Jan to get by her. Jan entered Terry's bedroom, curious about what she'd find. She saw a spacious room under an angular and wide-beamed ceiling. It was painted in a pale cream trimmed with maple woodwork, giving an airy feel to the garret. There were three windows in the room, one over a large bed in the corner, a bay with a padded window seat by an old but sturdy wooden desk upon which sat a laptop and printer, and the third in the far corner obscured by a noisily humming air conditioner. A thick cinnamon coloured carpet covered the floor.

The walls were surprisingly bare, with only a large muted watercolour seascape on one side of the room. It was a peaceful and inviting room, albeit fairly untidy with stacks of books and piles of clothes strewn about. Jan grinned as she caught Terry out of the corner of her eye, furtively kicking something under her bed.

Turning to her friend, who was now hastily trying to stuff some clothes that had been tossed over a large, well-stuffed armchair into a neglected laundry basket, she couldn't help teasing her. "I guess the maid didn't quite make it up here either, eh?"

Abashed, Terry stopped her efforts to cover up her sloppy housekeeping. Grinning sheepishly, she said, "Well, actually we're all responsible for our own rooms, so this mess is all mine. I was going to clean up tonight...really!"

Jan raised her eyebrow, then laughed as Terry threw up her hands in surrender, and sank down amidst the stack of laundry still covering the chair. "Next time you come over, you'll have to give me more warning so I can swamp this pigpen out a bit first."

Jan found herself warmed at the assumption that she would be returning, and she smiled as she walked over to the desk. Looking at the pile of printouts on the corner of the desk, she asked, "Are you working on something right now?"

Hearing nothing from the younger woman, she turned around to see an odd expression on Terry's face. "Terry, is something wrong?" Jan asked with concern.

"No, it's just..." Terry trailed off, obviously wrestling with something.

Jan waited patiently for her to speak, studying the younger woman's face for clues to what was bothering her. Finally Terry's face cleared, as if she'd made up her mind about something, and Jan listened closely as the other woman's clear dark eyes focused intently on her own, and she began to speak.

"I haven't told anyone but Jordy about this. I guess I don't want to jinx it, or maybe I just don't want to get anyone's expectations up or be laughed at."

Terry hesitated again, but seemed to draw confidence from Jan's quiet, expectant expression. "What I want...what I've wanted for a long time to be a writer. I always wrote articles for school papers and stuff like that, but I've had this idea for a couple of years and I finally decided to try turning it into a novel."

She glanced up at Jan, who nodded for her to go on. "That's why I took the post office job when I graduated, but I didn't want to tell my parents in case it didn't work out, so I just let them think I was tired of school and wanted to take some time off."

Jan walked over to Terry's side, and kneeling, laid a hand on hers as it twitched nervously on the arm of the chair. "Terry, I think that's a wonderful ambition, and I'm so proud of you for following your dream rather than finding all sorts of reasons why you shouldn't even try."

She smiled warmly at the younger woman, squeezing her hand in encouragement. "I won't say anything to anyone if you don't want me to, but I'm honoured that you trusted me enough to tell me."

Jan could see the relief in Terry's eyes, and she wondered at the woman's apparent insecurity over this issue. Terry struck her as a competent, confident young woman, but this was obviously a sensitive area for her. She felt Terry's hand turn over under hers and grasp it tightly.

"Thanks," Terry said. Then looking at Jan shyly, she continued, "Would you like to read it sometime? It's not ready yet, but I'd really value your opinion when the time came, and heaven knows, you know one end of a book from the other!"

Both women smiled at that, and Jan said softly, "I'd like that. Whenever you're ready for me to read it, just let me know." She enjoyed the look of pleasure her words brought to her friend's face.

Terry stood, casually letting go of Jan's hand. "Hey, you want something to drink? We can grab something downstairs and go out to the backyard for a bit."

Jan nodded her head. "Sounds good. I'd love some iced tea, if you have it."

The intensity of the moment had passed, and Jan followed Terry out of her room, as the two women clattered down the flights of stairs towards the kitchen. Close behind her friend, Jan could still feel the warmth in her fingers, and a part of her mind mused at how good it had felt as her smaller hand rested in the younger woman's grip.

Taking a pitcher out of the fridge, Terry poured the amber liquid over several ice cubes in a tall glass and handed it to Jan. Grabbing a beer and twisting the top off, she opened the back door and led the way out of the kitchen onto a wide porch. She gestured at the scattered lawn chairs on the porch and the lawn, saying, "Take your pick."

Jan immediately headed for a double swing chair at the end of the porch. Sitting down, she smiled as Terry joined her, propping long legs up on the banister and pushing lightly to move the chair gently back and forth. The two women sat quietly for several minutes enjoying the light breeze, cool drinks and amiable company.

Finally Jan broke the comfortable silence. "Haven't any of your roommates noticed you working on your book?"

Terry shook her head. "No, everyone pretty much respects everyone else's space, especially once school starts again. Ever since Claire threw a book at Michael's head when he interrupted her studying for an exam, people generally respect closed doors."

"But you're finished studying now. Do you still get the solitude you need to write?" Jan said, then watched curiously as Terry turned a bright red.

"Uh, they don't...well, they know I, they never necessarily thought I was studying if my door was closed," Terry fumbled.

Jan studied the embarrassed woman for a moment, and then realized what Terry was getting at. She broke into a merry laugh, enjoying her young friend's chagrin. When she could finally get the words out, she asked, "What happened to hanging a necktie on the doorknob when you're 'entertaining' company?"

Terry ducked her head further, bringing the sweating beer bottle in her hands up to cool her flushed cheeks. "You know, it's not that I have people over all that often," she muttered to her friend's continued amusement.

"Really," drawled Jan, still chuckling. "Well, I'll certainly believe you on that." Her twinkling eyes watched as Terry leaned toward her and cuffed her lightly on the shoulder. "Hey, can I help it if your reputation precedes you?" she protested.

"Lies, all lies...well, mostly lies anyway," Terry grinned, regaining some aplomb. Then, sobering a little, she said, "The big problem is actually that I'm easily distracted by everything that goes on. When Michael has friends over, I have a bad habit of joining them in the backyard or party room rather than working on my book." She shook her head in disapproval at her own lack of self-discipline. "At the rate I'm going, it'll be five years before I get this thing done."

An idea occurred to Jan then, but she decided to talk it over with Rob first, before laying it out for Terry. Leaning back in the swing, she listened to Terry talk, enjoying the growing rapport between them. She'd been content for so long with Rob and her books that she'd forgotten the pleasure of making a new friend, of being interested in another's life and having that interest reciprocated.

She couldn't deny that isolation had its compensations, but she hadn't realized how much she'd missed the simple joy of talking to a friend. Jan found herself taking great delight in teasing her funny, good-natured young companion, and she was flattered by Terry's apparent interest in her own life.

She had also been warmed by Terry's trust in her. They'd only known each other for such a short while, but they'd connected so easily. Their mutual love of books had eased the early stages, but Jan knew they'd already gone beyond that foundation.

Naturally reticent, Jan had never been one for confidants, too used to keeping her own counsel, or at most discussing things with Rob or Kate. In recent years, she'd striven even harder to keep her concerns to herself, as she didn't want Rob to be burdened with her fears on top of his own as his health declined. Now however, she had a growing sense that this young woman had the empathy and strength to listen to her if she chose to open up. She wasn't ready to do that yet, to accept the gift that Terry seemed so freely to offer, but instinctively she knew that when she was, Terry would be there for her.


Jan tucked Rob's coffee cup into his hand, and ringed it with towels to hold it in place as it balanced on his chest. After ensuring he could reach the straw, she took his dinner tray away. Returning from the kitchen, she sat down in his wheelchair, which stood at the side of his easy chair, idly pushing it back and forth a few inches. She saw Rob smile at her as he asked, "What's on your mind?"

"How do you know something's on my mind?" she grinned at him. They knew each other so well after all these years that neither could get anything past the other.

"Because you always do that to the chair when you want to talk about something. What's up?"

Jan thought a moment. She was pretty sure Rob would agree to her idea, but she wanted to lay it out logically for him. Rob always responded best to clearly set out propositions.

"You know how I was telling you about Terry's problem with finding quiet time to work on her writing?"

He nodded. She'd told him the whole story of her afternoon when she'd gotten home an hour ago.

"Well, I was thinking that we might be in a position to help her out, if you think it's a good idea."

Rob listened intently as Jan laid out her idea, then said, "Sure, why not? Why don't you give her a call and ask her to drop over?"

Jan leaned out of the wheelchair, wrapped her arm around his shoulders and said, "You really are the sweetest man, you know."

"Shhh," he whispered, darting his eyes around the room. "Don't tell anyone or you'll ruin my reputation."

Jan laughed and ran her hand over his soft hair. "Yeah, right. I gotta remember you're my toughie!" She walked over to the phone and dialed Terry's number. When a man's voice answered, she asked for Terry, then grinned as she heard him yell, "Yo, Terry, a conquest awaits!"

She heard the clatter of footsteps, then Terry's voice cautiously saying, "Hello?"

"Hi, Terry. Sorry to disappoint you, but its just Jan."

She smiled at the change in Terry's tone, as her friend answered cheerfully, "Hey, Jan. No, I'm glad it's you. Michael was just being his usual swinish self. Don't mind him."

"Oh no, I don't. I know you have a reputation to uphold after all," she joked. "Listen, Rob and I were wondering if you had a few minutes to spare sometime, if you could drop by."

"Of course," Terry said. "Is everything okay? Do you need help with anything?"

"No, no, everything's fine. But we had a little something we thought you might be interested in. There's no hurry or anything. Whenever it's convenient for you is fine with us."

Her voice curious, Terry answered, "I'm free right now. Why don't I come around in a half an hour or so?"

"That would be great, " Jan said. "We'll see you then." She hung up, and turned to her husband who'd been listening to half the conversation. "She'll be over in half an hour. I think I'll just go check and make sure everything's tidy."


Twenty minutes later, Terry pulled up in front of the Spencer house. Since Jan's enigmatic phone call, she'd been trying to figure out what Jan and Rob were up to, but had given up for lack of information. Trotting up the walkway, she decided that whatever it was, it was probably a good thing since Jan had sounded upbeat. As the older woman met her at the door, she grinned and said, "We have to stop meeting like this."

"You're right," Jan laughed. "Whatever will the neighbours say? C'mon in. Would you like a cup of coffee?" She motioned Terry to have a seat, as she went over to perch on the arm of Rob's chair.

"No thanks, Jan. Okay you two, time to 'fess up," Terry said, staring at the couple. "What are you up to, and why are you looking like a pair of Cheshire cats?"

Jan and Rob looked at each other, and then focused gleeful grins on Terry. "Who us?" asked Rob. "Would we be up to something?"

"Definitely," Terry growled. Picking up one of couch pillows, she shook it at the amused couple, saying, "C'mon, guys. What's going on? Are you going to make me beat it out of you?"

Taking pity on their friend, Jan started to explain. "I was thinking about something you said this afternoon, and we think we may have a solution to your problem."

"Um, what problem is that?" a clearly puzzled Terry asked.

"Well, I hope you don't mind, but I told Rob what you were working on, and that you had problems with too many distractions in your house." Terry nodded her understanding, and Jan continued. "This might be easier if I just showed you. Will you excuse us a moment, Rob?"

Rob nodded, as Jan stood and motioned Terry to follow her. They walked through the kitchen, down a short hall, to arrive at the top of stairs Terry hadn't noticed before.

Jan turned to her friend and said, "I should have given you the nickel tour myself when you were here last weekend, but I didn't think of it. Come downstairs, and you'll see what Rob and I are talking about."

She led the younger woman down a carpeted flight of stairs and through a small alcove that opened up into a large room. As Terry walked through, she saw a long room, with a thick gray carpet and light blue walls with burgundy trim. Rays from the evening sun were streaming in two small, narrow windows set high on the wall. A comfortable looking couch and La-Z-Boy sat at one end of the room, grouped around a gas fireplace. Further down the room, there was a compact kitchen with a table, two chairs, a modern stove and fridge An open set of shelves held basic cooking and dining implements, as well as a small microwave. Three doors opened off the far end of the room.

Terry heard Jan say, "Go ahead, and look around if you like." She walked to the back of the main living area and peered in the other rooms. Two fully furnished bedrooms, done in complementary colours of blue, gray and white faced her, and each with pretty patchwork quilts covering large beds. A small functional shower room separated the bedrooms.

Turning back to Jan, who was watching her explore with a slight smile on her face, Terry spread her arms to encompass the living area, "What...I don't understand?"

Jan looked at her affectionately. "You need a writer's retreat. We have the space for you. Terry, Rob and I would like you to feel free to come over here whenever you need some peace and quiet to write. We're not a noisy pair, and while I do use that fridge to store extra groceries, I'm only usually down here to do laundry which is on the far side of the basement, so I'd try not to bother you at all."

Terry stood unmoving while her brain raced to comprehend what she'd just been offered. She was sure her jaw had taken up residence on the floor. Fumbling, she could only respond to the last thing she'd heard. "You'd never be a bother," Terry said fervently. "Are you...I mean, do you! Are you sure you want to do this?"

She was sure she was babbling, but she was overwhelmed by the generosity of the offer. She doubted that Jan even fully understood what she'd just given her. These two wonderful people were offering her a writer's retreat, a quiet place to fulfill her ambition, undistracted by the outside world. They barely even knew her, yet they'd accepted her on her terms, believing in dreams she couldn't even bring herself to tell her beloved family of.

Jan dug in her pocket, then walked over to Terry and took her hand. Pressing a key firmly into her palm, she closed Terry's fingers over it. "Yes, we're very sure. You've helped us out, Terry, and been a good friend. If we can return the favour, we'd like to. Besides, it'll be nice to have someone else around the place even if we only see you coming and going."

Terry just stared at the key in her hand. This was such an unexpected gesture of trust and friendship, that she was overwhelmed. She shook her head, not in rejection but in disbelief at what these two were doing for her. She was so accustomed to keeping her dreams close to her chest, that the unconditional support they extended her was dumbfounding.

Eyes glistening, she looked up at the woman standing expectantly in front of her. Reaching out with her empty hand, she touched Jan's arm and said the only thing she could think to say, "Thank you. You have no idea what this means to me."

Jan smiled softly at her, closing her own hand around Terry's where it rested on her arm. "Yes, I do. C'mon, let's go tell Rob there's a new, part-time tenant moving in."

Terry followed Jan back upstairs, still staring at the key. Then as they reached the living room, she stuffed it in her pocket, and walked over to Rob, who was grinning at her. She stopped in front of him, shaking her head. "You two are too much, you know that?"

As Rob chuckled delightedly, she leaned over and gave him a quick hug. Then addressing both of her benefactors, she said, "If I'm ever in the way, you have to promise to let me know right away, okay?"

Rob scoffed, "You won't be in the way. Heck, we'll probably barely know you're there."

Jan added, "And Terry, you can use it at any time. We don't go out that much, but if we do, you can still come over whenever you want to. We want you to consider the basement yours as long as you want it, alright?"

Still somewhat stunned, Terry nodded. She felt like a kid on Christmas who'd been given exactly what she wanted, without even having told Santa her wish. She'd never be able to adequately thank these two, but wanting to do something, anything to let them know what a gift they'd given her, she said, "This calls for a celebration. How about I go get ice cream for all of us?"

Both Jan and Terry laughed as Rob's eyes brightened. "Oh lady, do you ever have the right idea! If you're going to Bertie's, I'll have a double chocolate, toffee crunch."

"Sure, I can go to Bertie's. They've got the best ice cream in town anyway. And what can I bring you, madam?" Terry asked Jan.

"I'll have what he's having," Jan answered. "If he's going to be so decadent, I can't let him do it alone."

"What a wife!" Rob teased. "You make such tough sacrifices for me."

"And don't you forget it, buddy!" Jan shot at him laughingly as she walked Terry to the door.

Terry's cheeks were starting to ache from the wide smile that just wouldn't go away. Impulsively she turned and hugged Jan. Pulling back from her friend, and seeing the warmth in those gentle eyes, Terry felt like she'd won a lottery. Jumping for sheer joy over the single step at the entrance, she bounded down the walkway to the sounds of Jan's soft laughter.

"Back in half an hour," she flung back over her shoulder.

Getting into her car, Terry couldn't help pulling the key out of her pocket again. Studying it for a moment, she grinned, then twisting open her key ring, she added it to her others. Pulling away from the curb on a mission to retrieve ice cream, she felt a deep sense of happiness filling her. Her birthday was still several days away, but she felt like she'd been given the best gift she could have asked for, not just in the basement retreat, but in what the offer meant coming from those two special people.

Chapter Nine

Emily's critical gaze roamed over her large backyard. She'd been preparing for her daughter's birthday party for two days, and was intent on ensuring that nothing had been overlooked. Gordon was hovering over one barbeque, checking the chickens that had been slow-roasting for the last hour.

Duncan and Karen had brought over their barbeque the day before to cook the steaks, which were even now marinating in her secret recipe. Alex was busy setting up his large, folding picnic table while Diane kept a close watch on two active babies. Jordy had tied a multitude of large blue and silver balloons to the trees and bushes, adding a festive air to the yard.

Emily was expecting almost twenty people if Matt showed up. She was never certain if her troubled middle child would come to family gatherings, especially with this being Terry's birthday celebration.

Sadly, she pondered how Matt had never considered the anniversary of Terry's arrival in the family a cause for celebration, then pushed those thoughts away, determined not to let anything ruin the day. Matt had promised his mother he'd be here, and even asked if he could bring a date to which she'd readily acquiesced. Her children's friends were always welcome at her home. She would just take him at his word and set a place for him.

"Gord, if you keep staring at them, you'll let all the heat out," she chastised her husband who guiltily slammed the lid down. "Why don't you go mix up your punch now, and tell Jordy he can start bringing out everything that's piled on the kitchen table."

Content that her husband was now set on a constructive path; Emily started unfolding lawn chairs and setting them around the two long picnic table. As Alex joined her and started to set one at the end of the wooden table, she shook her head. "No, son. Leave that open for the wheelchair."

"Okay, Mom." Alex moved to the opposite side and continued setting chairs out. "Have you met these new friends of Terry's yet? What are their names again?"

"Rob and Jan Spencer, and no, I haven't met them yet, but Terry seems very eager to have us all meet. She even asked me to make sure I had Bertie's double chocolate toffee crunch ice cream on hand to go with her cake because it's their favourite. I swear, I haven't seen Terry this excited about making new friends since she was in kindergarten."

Alex laughed, and looking at her son, Emily knew exactly what he was thinking of. Terry had attended the same school as Alex, Duncan and Matt, but after the relatively tame Sanderson brothers, the teachers had been completely unprepared for the little, curly-haired whirlwind that descended on them next.

Being the oldest, Alex had often been pressed into emergency babysitting as his exasperated parents were summoned to yet another parent-teacher meeting. Emily could still remember Gordon grumbling as they left the house about how one tiny girl could be so much more of a handful than three of her big brothers.

Emily and her eldest son grinned at each other as Alex said, "How did you and Dad ever survive her childhood, let alone go on and have another?"

Sighing dramatically, Emily replied, "I have no idea, but just be glad she wasn't the first-born because then she'd probably have been an only child!"

Laughing, Alex walked over to where his wife was swinging gently on an old playground set, holding a twin in each arm. Emily watched them for a moment; then reminding herself that the guests would soon arrive, she turned to go back into the house.

Entering the kitchen, she saw Jordy trying to balance a large stack of plates and glasses. "Jordy, set some of those down! You don't have to do it all in one trip, you know."

"Sorry, Mom," her youngest piped up, as he gingerly set some of his load back on the table.

Emily shook her head as he trotted off, and then turned to cleaning and slicing the raw vegetables for the salad. She glanced out her window, watching as Gordon emerged from the basement walkout, carefully carrying a large covered punch bowl.

She smiled fondly at the sight. Gordon's punch was traditional at family dinners, but he never revealed exactly what he put in it. She was content to leave the making of it in his hands as it took one more item off her to-do list.

Swiftly washing and slicing tomatoes, she thought of Terry's new friends. She hadn't been exaggerating when she'd told Alex that she hadn't seen Terry this excited in a long time, and she was curious to meet these people. Somehow, whenever she was talking to Terry lately, their names cropped up in the conversation.

Several days before, Terry had swung by the house late in the evening, practically glowing with excitement. All she'd say was that she'd been over at the Spencers, and then she'd given her ice cream request to her surprised mother. Terry rarely took any interest in what Emily was planning for a celebration, content to leave the food decisions in her mother's far more capable hands.

"Curiouser and curiouser," muttered Emily to herself, contemplating her daughter's unusual behavior of late. Through her open window, she heard a vehicle pull up behind the yard, and Jordy's shouts of greeting. Looking up, she saw Michael's Pathfinder with three people including her daughter piling out. They'd barely gotten out, when Lisa and Robyn's pick-up pulled in behind them. Emily smiled; the party was about to begin. Drying her hands on the dishtowel over her shoulder, she went outside to meet her guests.

Terry and her friends came through the back gate, all talking at once. Jordy and Alex mobbed their sister, giving her bear hugs and hollering birthday greetings at her. Gordon waded into the fray, swinging his laughing daughter in a circle and planting a big kiss on her cheek. Emily approached and Terry turned to her with open arms.

Reaching up to hug her tall daughter, Emily whispered, "Happy Birthday, little one."

Terry grinned, looking down into her mother's warm eyes. "Not much little about me anymore, Mom."

Emily stepped away, snapping her daughter on the hip with her ever-present dishtowel. "You'll always be little to me, Terry, now go make sure everyone has something to drink. Beer and pop are in the fridge. Your father's made his punch. You know where everything is."

Terry ambled away to follow her mother's directions, but then looked up as a van pulled in beside the Pathfinder and the pick-up. Emily saw her daughter's face light up and knew without asking that her new friends had just arrived. As Terry hurried to meet them, Emily followed at a slower pace, curious to meet the couple. Leaning against the gatepost, she watched as the rear of the van opened and a woman hopped out of the driver's seat and came around to the back.

Emily studied her daughter's new friend. She was a head shorter than Terry, with a sturdy, compact build. Her large, dark eyes and straight, freckled nose were framed by auburn hair cut slightly above shoulder length, and as she turned to greet Terry, Emily saw a few silver strands highlighting the front and sweeping back over her ears. She thought the woman somewhat plain until a smile, directed at Terry's approach, transformed her face and Emily saw the elusive charm hidden there.

"Hi Jan," Terry called as she approached the woman. "Hi Rob," she directed into the back of the van.

Emily heard a muffled response come from the inside of the van, and watched as her daughter hugged the shorter woman, who was smiling warmly at her.

Jan unsnapped the wheelchair restraints and smoothly backed the chair down the ramp, pulling it around so Rob could face Terry. She then reached in the back and pulled out a bag, laying it on Rob's lap. Taking a gift-wrapped parcel out, she handed it to Terry. "Happy Birthday, Terry."

Rob piped up, "Yeah, Happy Birthday, Terry. I'd give you a birthday kiss, but you're gonna have to help out here."

Laughing, Terry bent down and offered her cheek to Rob, who promptly kissed it enthusiastically. "You guys didn't have to bring me anything," Terry said, even as she began to unwrap her present.

"We know," said Jan. "We just wanted to get you a little something. I ran across this last week and thought you'd enjoy it. I know I did very much."

Terry tore the wrapping, grinning at Jan as she uncovered a book. "Hmm, 'Stevenson' eh? I don't think I know his work."

"Actually it's her work, and it's her debut novel. It's been getting excellent reviews and I picked it up for myself on my afternoon off. I couldn't put it down once I started and I read it right through until two in the morning. It's a historical romance, set in medieval England. It's already started to climb the best-seller list and I wouldn't be surprised to see it reach the top."

Terry flipped the cover to read an inscription. Looking up, she smiled at Jan and Emily wondered what it had said to bring such a soft, appreciative look to her daughter's eyes. She watched as an unspoken communication seemed to fly between the two women, and then Terry turned to her and said, "C'mere, Mom. I want you to meet my friends. This is Jan and this handsome hound dog is Rob. Guys, this is my Mom, Emily Sanderson."

Emily walked over to the three and extended her hand to Jan, who took it, smiling shyly at her friend's mother. "It's nice to meet you, Jan, and you too, Rob." She laid her hand on Rob's arm, feeling the emaciated limb under her fingers. "I've heard so much about you both, and I'm glad you could make it today."

"We've been looking forward to it, Emily," Rob replied. "Thank you for inviting us."

Emily was struck with the vitality of the man. Despite his weak, shrunken, unmoving limbs and a head canted continually to one side, as if he lacked the strength to hold it upright, his bright, blue eyes shone with intelligence and humour. His thick brown hair threatened to fall over his eyes, and she noticed Jan absently push it back as if she'd done that a thousand times. Long legs slumping to the right gave an indication of his height, and she guessed he'd be as tall as Gord if he could stand. As he grinned engagingly at her, she could see how her daughter was so taken with him.

Motioning them ahead of her, she suggested, "Why don't we join the others? Terry, grab the gate for them."

As they entered the yard, Emily saw Duncan and Karen coming around the house from the front, and Terry was quickly drawn into introducing Jan and Rob to all her friends and family. Matt was the only one missing now, but Emily knew he would arrive, or not, in his own time. Emily watched bemused as her daughter hovered protectively over her newest friends, pulling up a chair for Jan to sit beside Rob, and then ensuring they both had punch before dragging up her own chair to sit close to them.

With a quick glance over the noisy assembly, Emily noted that everyone appeared to have settled in, with drink in hand and five different conversations going on at once. She decided to return to her final preparations in the kitchen. Starting back up the lawn to the house, she heard Terry call her name.

"Mom, if you're going in, would you put this on top of the fridge so I don't lose it, and I'll get it later?" Terry handed her mother the book she'd been given then returned to her seat beside Jan.

Taking the book, Emily walked through the back door. Debating for a moment, she yielded to her curiosity and opened the book to read the inscription. It read, Dreams do come true, and was signed Love, Rob and Jan. Puzzled, Emily wondered what the reference was to. It had obviously meant something to her daughter, but it might as well have been Greek to her. She reminded herself it really wasn't any of her business anyway, and closing it, placed the book on top of the fridge.

A short time later, busy at the counter, she was surprised to hear a soft voice come from behind her. "Can I give you a hand with anything?" Turning, she saw Jan standing tentatively in the doorway.

"Oh, hi Jan. Sure, if you want to grab the steaks out of the fridge and take them out to Gordon. Tell him I'll have everything ready in twenty minutes, so he can plan from there depending on how people want their steaks."

Jan nodded, then walked across the kitchen to the fridge. Just as she pulled the door open, Emily remembered the interior of her fridge and squawked, "Wait!"

Too late, Emily winced as a bowl of precariously balanced potato salad began to topple out of the over laden fridge to the floor. Amazed, she watched as Jan deftly snatched it out of the air, only to have two bottles of salad dressing come crashing down, followed in quick succession by a large tomato, a block of cheese and a plastic container of noodles. Emily couldn't help laughing as the startled woman stood in the centre of runaway groceries looking up at her sheepishly.

"I'm sorry," Jan stammered, trying to push things back into the fridge.

Emily shook her head. "Don't worry about it. It wasn't your fault. I should have warned you my fridge is a danger zone. Everyone always approaches it with extreme caution." Looking at the mess, Emily laughed, "With obvious reason!"

Kneeling, she helped the flustered redhead pick up the escapees and tuck them back. Then pulling out a large container from the lowest shelf, she handed it to Jan. "Here's the steaks, and if you wouldn't mind, tell Gord to move the potatoes to the upper rack now."

She smiled as Jan gratefully took the steaks and left the kitchen. Glancing out the window, she saw her daughter jump up as Jan approached to take the steaks from her. She could see Jan was telling Terry what had happened, as her daughter started to laugh then nudged the redhead to sit while she took the steaks to her father.

Emily smiled wryly to herself. She hoped the incident wouldn't bother the shy woman. Heaven knows, she'd certainly done that herself more than once, and Gord still hadn't let her live down the time she dropped a whole bowl of spaghetti sauce on the floor, turning parts of it permanently pink.

Finishing her tasks, Emily started back out to the yard, then stopped short as she saw her middle son coming around the corner of the house with a thin, blonde woman on his arm and a smirk on his face. Taking a breath, she breathed a short prayer that for once Matt and Terry would get along as she hurried to intercept him.

The man approaching her had once had the same rangy build and curly, dark hair of his two older brothers, but the edges of his once lean, athletic body had blurred from the past few years of self-indulgence. His features had coarsened, and he was prematurely acquiring his father's burliness. Where Alex and Duncan were cheerful, amiable men, Matt's sharp features and light brown eyes seemed perpetually overlaid with sullen resentment. Still, he smiled genuinely at his mother's approach and for a moment, Emily saw the boy her
son once was.

"Hi, Mom," Matt said. "I want you to meet a friend of mine. This is Jenna. Jenna, this is my Mom."

The slight blonde held out her hand saying, "Pleased ta meetcha."

Emily nodded and shook her hand. She was distantly polite, having learned many years ago that there was no point in getting to know Matt's girlfriends, as he never kept them around long enough for her to distinguish one from the other. Turning to her son, she looked at him sternly and said, "Matt, no fights today, got it?"

She wasn't reassured by her son's cocky grin as he replied, "Of course not, Mom," and tugged his date over to the tables. Sighing, she followed in his wake, hoping that at least Terry's good mood would prevent any hostilities from breaking out. To her surprise, Terry, who normally reacted instantly to Matt's presence with raised hackles, barely glanced up at the newcomers before returning her attention to Rob who was telling the enthralled Lisa and Robyn a story.

She noticed the frown on Matt's face as he failed to elicit any reaction from his sister. Jenna trailing behind him on an invisible leash, he strode around the table to plant himself in front of Terry. Groaning internally, she heard him say harshly, "Hey little sister, are you going to introduce me to your friends?"

Terry looked up calmly, and then turned to Jan who was watching the exchange closely. "Jan, Rob, this is my brother Matt and his friend...?"

Matt pulled the compliant Jenna closer and smirking at his sister said, "This is Jenna. So you alone today, Terry?"

Terry raised an eyebrow at him. "Hardly. Look around, Matt." Then ignoring her brother's triumphant smile, she urged Rob to go on with his story. Matt shifted uneasily and Emily glanced at Alex, who picking up on his mother's signals, pulled his brother off to the side and drew him into a conversation.

Emily dropped into a lawn chair beside Gord who had been listening intently to Rob spin his story. At her husband's sympathetic glance, she leaned towards him and said quietly, "Sometimes I feel like Switzerland between those two."

Gord wrapped his arm around her shoulders and gave a gentle squeeze. "Well, at least she's not giving him a rise today." Then changing the subject, he nodded his head towards Rob, "You should listen to this guy. He's got a million stories from his flying days." He handed Emily a glass of punch. "Here, relax for a few minutes. I'm not putting the steaks on until I hear what happens."

Emily took the punch gratefully, glad that the initial encounter between her two battling children hadn't resulted in any blood loss, and settled back to listen.

Rob, picking up where he left off, turned to his captive audience. "So there we are, a bunch of young pilots out on a Parisian night, and we've had maybe one or two." At this Jan coughed, and Rob turned to her grinning. "Whose story is this, love? Okay, so maybe that's three or four. Let's just say, we were feeling no pain."

The four young pilots piled out of the restaurant where they'd spent the last two hours enjoying French wine and French food. Now they were intent on enjoying French women and they stumbled towards a line of waiting cabs, anxious to get to Piqualle as quickly as possible.

Three of them pushed into the backseat while Eric sat in the front, only to notice that their driver was absent. Looking back, he noticed that their driver was leaning against the cab behind them, deep in conversation with a fellow driver and in no apparent hurry to join his fares.

His buddies were getting impatient, when Rob leaned drunkenly over the seat and blurted out, "You can drive, can't you, Eric?"

Never one to shirk a challenge, especially in front of his buddies, Eric slid over behind the wheel and started up the cab. Wheeling out of line, he roared down the street.

Without any coherent idea of where he was going, he felt he was making fine time, and was annoyed when another cab pulled up beside him and started honking its horn. Looking over, he saw an irate Frenchman leaning out of the passenger window, screaming at him to pull over and waving his arms. Belatedly, their driver had joined them.

Reluctantly, but sure he could explain everything away, Eric pulled over to the side of the street, only to have the other cab wheel in front of him so he couldn't move. "Hey guys," he said, turning to the back seat. "I think we're in trouble."

Startled, he realized he was addressing an empty seat, and that his buddies had bailed out and run as soon as he got the cab stopped. An angry cabdriver yanked open his door and hauled him out, slamming him against the side of the car. Luckily, the gendarmes arrived at that moment, and Eric was spared any further expressions of Gallic outrage.

After assessing the situation, the gendarmes took Eric, and the two cabbies to the nearest gendarmerie. Having checked his ID and judging Eric to be a basically harmless drunk, the gendarmes ignored him while they tried to sort out the situation with two screaming cabbies.

Left to his own devices, Eric started to meander around the station. Noticing that the station also served as an interim pound for lost dogs, Eric decided to pet the nice puppies and went along opening up the cages so he could reach the dogs. The next thing Eric knew, dogs were running all over the station house, and now the gendarmes as well as the cabbies were screaming at him.

Eric's French was not very fluent, but he had little trouble understanding the nuances of the various adjectives attached to 'pilote Canadienne'.

Rob's audience was roaring with laughter at the mental image of Eric, irate Frenchmen and a station house full of freed puppies. Emily wiped at the tears in her eyes, picturing a scene right out the Keystone Kops. Jan raised a glass to Rob's lips so he could drink, and he picked up the story.

"Well, as you can imagine, the Royal Canadian Air Force had done little that night to cover itself with glory, and when they called the base duty officer to come pick Eric up, he was not happy with him to say the least." Rob paused to take another drink.

"But you know, when they took Eric back to base and questioned him on who he'd been with, he never ratted us out, even though he ended up getting six months extra duties for it. Coincidentally, it was shortly after that that DeGaulle kicked NATO out of France, and our squadron moved to Germany. Now, I'm not saying it was all Eric's fault that international relations broke down, but we were always suspicious about the timing."

Jordy, who'd been listening closely, broke in, "Is that the same Eric that we're going to see at the air show on Labour Day?"

Rob nodded. "The very same, Jordy. Mind you, he's settled down a lot and he hasn't caused an international incident in years now, though he was on the Canada-Europe run in late '89 when the Iron Curtain started to crumble, so maybe our government's been using him as a secret weapon." He grinned at the young man, who was drinking in every word.

Emily stopped laughing long enough to nudge Gord towards the abandoned steaks, indicating it was time to get them started. He did as she asked, but she noticed he turned the grill so he could watch and listen to any further stories.

Emily then tapped Karen on the shoulder and said, "Would you mind giving me a hand to bring out the rest of the stuff? I'm giving Terry the day off since it's her birthday."

Karen grinned and stood up to follow her soon to be mother-in-law to the house. "He's really got some stories, doesn't he?"

"That he does. Jordy told me he was quite the storyteller, and he was right. Personally, I think Jordy's developing a severe case of hero worship." Emily looked back over her shoulder to where her youngest son was practically hanging on the arm of Rob's wheelchair.

"I think you might just be right about that," Karen laughed. "He certainly knows how to keep a party lively. Even Matt's behaving himself tonight. Uh, I mean..."

"It's okay, Karen. I know what you mean, and yes, he is being more restrained than usual."

"Who's the whippet dipped in peroxide he has on his arm this time?"

Emily stopped for a moment, and cocked her head as she tried to recall. "Was it Jeannie?" she pondered, then shook her head. "No, that doesn't sound right. I can't remember, Karen."

"That's okay. We'd just have to forget when the next one came along anyway." The two women snickered in unison. "Actually, I'm a bit surprised Terry doesn't have one of those adornments with her tonight. It's not like her to let Matt have the upper hand uncontested."

Emily had begun carefully extracting things from her fridge and passing them to her assistant, but she paused to answer her. "I think Terry was more interested in introducing her new friends and making sure they had a good time, than competing with her brother." She then added a heartfelt, "Thank God!"

Karen glanced out the window to where the party was in full swing. "Yeah, she is sticking pretty close to them. Hey, does this mean we're not going to have the traditional Sanderson grudge match this year? And I had such fun nursing Duncan's bloody nose afterwards last year."

Emily sighed. Terry's 24th birthday had ended in a virtual free for all, precipitated by a quarrel between she and Matt with everyone else trying to pull them apart. She'd been in the kitchen when it started and didn't know what it had been all about though with Matt and Terry's eternal conflict, it could have been an argument about the price of coffee that set them off.

When she'd run out of the house to see her two bruised and bloodied middle children being held apart by Gord and Alex, while Karen leaned over a prone Duncan who'd gotten caught in the middle while trying to break them up, she launched into the fiercest tongue lashing the two combatants had ever heard. She then angrily kicked them both out of the yard, dates and all. It wasn't one of her proudest memories.

"No, no fights this year, and bless the Spencers for that. Besides, after last year, I threatened to banish both of them from all future family dinners if they pulled that stunt again."

Karen's eyes widened. "Wow, that would do it! You might as well have threatened to exile them to Siberia."

Emily smiled wryly. "That was next up."

The two women gathered their load and returned to the backyard, making several trips before everything was laid out to Emily's satisfaction. With Gord serving up steaks done to order and Alex carving the chickens, everyone soon dug into the feast.

Once dinner was done, and the dishes cleared, Emily brought out a three-layer cake, with 25 candles blazing among silver and blue roses. Setting it down in front of a smiling Terry and wincing while her mostly tone-deaf progeny bellowed the traditional song, she urged her daughter to make a wish.

She watched as Terry glanced up, caught Jan's eye and smiled before blowing out a big gust of air. All but one candle went out, bringing the expected ripostes from her brothers, roommates and friends. Terry just grinned and pinched out the last stubborn candle.

As Terry started slicing and handing around pieces, she licked a stray piece of icing off, and looked at Robyn. "This looks like one of your masterpieces, Robbie."

The large woman nodded shyly and ducked her head. "Your mom asked me if I'd make one," she mumbled, blushing as the other guests complimented her on her work.

Emily looked at her fondly. Robyn had such unexpected talents, but she was always uncomfortable when people took note of them. She saw Lisa's hand curl around her partner's, supporting her bashful mate as she always did.

Long after the cake, ice cream and coffee were gone, the guests sat around the tables arguing, gossiping, and generally having a great time. Emily surveyed her family and guests, completely content with life at the moment. Even Matt had behaved well, appearing to take his cue from Terry's relaxed behavior.

Emily didn't fool herself that it was more than a cautious and probably temporary detente between the two of them, but she was determined to enjoy it while it lasted.

Continued in Part 3

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