“Becca, I wanted to ask you about something.” Mrs. Haydenshire turned the attention back on the newlyweds. “I don’t know if you know this or if you’ve ever heard from most of the Realm that loves to talk about me behind my back or right to my face, depending on their mood, but several of our children were born kind of close together.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Becca took a momentary break from giving Jeff longing gazes and grinned. “I might’ve heard that a time or two.”
“Well, due to their closeness, we have four cribs in the back barn. If you might be in need of one, you are welcome to any of them you’d like. As soon as Adeline said the word girl, Stephen went out and bought a new one.”
The Governor scooped up the baby. “Abby Hope likes her crib don’t you. Cause you are Daddy’s girl,” he cooed.
Dan tried not to chuckle at the Crown Governor of the American Realm speaking baby talk to his seven month old daughter.
“I thought I was Daddy’s girl,” Emily goaded.
“You’re Rainer’s girl.” Rainer winked at her.
“You began informing me that you were Rainer’s when you were four,” the Governor chided. “I’m hanging onto your sister as long as she’ll let me.”
“Thank you so much for everything, Mrs. Haydenshire,” Becca offered up another one of her forceful hugs.
“How about if we all pitch in this weekend and see if we can’t get the Strentons moved in their new place?” Dan urged the assembled crowd. “We’ve got tons of stuff in our storage unit.”
The Sapman’s nodded hesitantly. “Becca, dear, I have that heirloom china dish set that belonged to Nana that I was saving for when you got married, but I suppose you just got married,” Mrs. Sapman still seemed stunned her little girl was now a married woman.
“Thanks, Mom.” Becca offered the next hug to her mother. But a moment later, she pulled away, and in a gesture that spoke several thousand words, she moved back to the table beside Jeff. He wrapped his arm around her.
“Say your new name. I said Emily Haydenshire Lawson like a hundred times on the way to the Keyes. It was so fun” Emily commanded Becca.
Becca was overjoyed with the very idea. “Sarah Rebecca Sapman Strenton. tThat’s a lot of S’s. I like Becca Strenton better.”
Jeff’s grin expanded the width of his face. Governor Sapman, however, looked like she’d just backhanded him.
Governor Haydenshire offered him a discreet slap on the back. “That’s the way it works, George.”
Aida laid her head against Dan’s stomach. Grinning, he lifted her up to his chest. She nestled her face against his neck with a deep yawn. “I think it’s time for us to head home.”
“Did you want us to take anything with us? We can put it in your room until Saturday.” Fionna asked Becca sweetly.
‘Hey, Em, do you have the card?” Rainer reminded.
Emily pulled a card out of her purse and handed it to Jeff. “We wanted to get you something.”
“Does this have what I think it has in it? Because I can’t take your money, man,” Jeff quizzed Rainer.
“Open it later tonight,” Rainer commanded.
“You didn’t have to do this.”
With that, Fionna, Mrs. Haydenshire, and Ms. Harrickson all produced cards from their purses.
“Ms. Harrickson, no,” Becca demanded.
“I wanted to get you something,” Jeff’s mother pled. “He’s my little boy, even if he is all grown up. I wish I could do more.”
“Takes a good bit to set up a household, sweetheart,” Mrs. Haydenshire guided. “None of us did anything more than what we wanted to do. Let people help you.”
“If you’d had the full Senate wedding, we would have gotten you a gift,” Governor Haydenshire reminded them.
“I have to work the breakfast shift Saturday morning, but I’ll be right over to help after that okay?” Ms. Harrickson gazed at Jeff.
“Thanks, Mom,” Jeff wrapped his mother up in his arms.
“Well, if we’re doing gifts now, your mother and I have paid for the two of you to stay at the Ritz tonight, in the honeymoon suite,” Governor Sapman huffed.
“Wow, Daddy, thank you!” Becca at least was thrilled.
“Patrick will be back from the beach house Friday. I’ll have him draw up the rental agreement and you two can sign it Saturday morning.” Governor Haydenshire explained.
“Yes, sir.” Jeff seemed to prefer their new home over a suite at the Ritz.
“Why don’t we go put baby girl in her pink flower seat and help Jeff load Becca’s things into our car,” Fionna soothed. Aida lifted her head, her eyes barely at half-mast. “Thank you for letting me come play with Keaton, and Henry, and baby Abigail, and for letting me be the flower-er carrier, and for the chocolate cake. I had a very nice time,” she managed before her head fell back on Dan’s shoulder.
“Come on, baby,” Dan soothed.
“We still on for lunch tomorrow, Mentor Vindico?” the Governor quizzed.
“I’ll be there.”
The Sapman’s had indeed packed Becca’s hope chest. Mrs. Haydenshire had seen to that. They’d also haphazardly loaded a few suitcases with her clothes and shoes. Dan and Jeff loaded everything into the back of the Mercedes while Fionna covered Aida in a quilt she kept in the car for just such occasions.
“You can get the rest Saturday, I suppose,” Mrs. Sapman choked.
“Thank you for this,” Becca vowed. “I know this isn’t how you saw my life going, but I’m really happy. Scared but happy.”
“Thank you, too, Daddy,” Becca hugged her father.
“You’re welcome.” He kissed her cheek. She pulled away as Jeff extended his hand.
“You better take care of her, son, or so help me.”
“George,” Governor Haydenshire shook his head as Dan narrowed his eyes.
“I will, sir. I promise,” Jeff wasn’t as offended by the threat as Dan was. Logan and Rainer joined in Dan’s glare.
“He’s a great guy, Governor Sapman,” Rainer vowed. “She chose well.” Rainer declared. Logan nodded his adamant agreement.
Closing Becca safely in the passenger side of her Accord, Jeff slid into the driver’s seat. As he drove off of Haydenshire farm, he offered her a sweet smile. “You okay, Mrs. Strenton?”
Becca giggled. Her energy rolled in placid waves of elation. The effect had Jeff able to breathe and think clearer than he’d been able in the past two weeks.
“So, your dad really hates me,” he stated wryly, impressed with his tone. Every time he’d spoken in the last two weeks, he’d sounded distant and frightened even to himself.
“No, he doesn’t,” Becca’s tell-tale blush glowed in her cheeks. It happened every time she lied. The effect this time had Jeff reeling as he tried to remember that he was driving and needed to keep the car on the road.
“Have you ever stayed at the Ritz?”
Trying not to laugh outright at his wife, Jeff shook his head. “I fixed their air conditioning systems last summer, remember? But I’ve never stayed there.”
Becca laced her fingers through his right hand as he steered with his left. “I’ve never stayed at the one here, either. I’ve stayed at them in other places. They’re really fancy.”
Jeff knew that the other places were probably European vacation locales where her parents often took her. If I just work really hard and I climb the ranks at Iodex, I can afford to do stuff like that for her. Fire ignited deep within his gut. he same flame that had him working tirelessly to be the top of his class and to have just a little money to take her out for burgers, or pizza, and to a movie after he helped his mom with rent and groceries.
When they’d first started dating exclusively, she would offer to pay, but she could tell that it hurt his feelings when she offered, so after the first few weeks she’d stopped.
“I’m glad they’re nice, though. You deserve really nice. You deserve the best.”
“I have the best.” She stared up at him, determination set in her eyes.
Jeff lifted her hand kissing it before taking the Arlington exit to the Vindico’s home.
Discomfort filled Jeff’s energy as he helped Becca grab the things they’d need for their wedding night. It was distinctly odd to be packing from someone else’s home for your quick honeymoon before you showed up in class the next day
Becca’s pregnant with your baby. She was sick this morning. She may be tired or not feeling well. She said she has a test in the morning. Jeff began listing all of the reasons why she might not be in the mood for them to have a customary wedding night.
It’s your fault that everything is the way it is so just suck it up, Strenton.
Mentor Vindico carried Aida to bed and then stopped back by the guest room. “You need anything before you head out?” he offered kindly though he seemed unsure of himself. It wasn’t something Jeff ever thought Dan Vindico felt. It was somehow reassuring that his hero wasn’t always as self-assured and full of bravoado as he appeared.
“No, sir. We’re good. Thank you.”
“I should probably say don’t be late for class tomorrow, but I will try very hard not to notice if you are.”
“Thanks for that, too.” Jeff lamented the fact that his honeymoon was going to consist of a few brief hours before school.
Thoughts of the photographs in the newspapers of Rainer and Emily on a private island in the Keyes from their honeymoon had Jeff reeling momentarily.
“You can be late for class, but sure as hell don’t be late for your interview with Portwood.” Mentor Vindico remembered suddenly.
“Never. I’ll be there early.”
“I’m having lunch with Governor Haydenshire tomorrow. After that I thought I’d see if Portwood might be amenable to letting me work out with a few of the guys at the Iodex gym. You’re welcome to come with. Leave Becca the Honda, and you can ride with me up to the Senate.”
Thrill lit through Jeff. There were no classes after one o’clock on Fridays. He’d set up his schedule with the desperate prayer that he would be chosen for the Iodex internship, so he would be finished before noon the next day.
“Fi was actually hoping Becca might want to hang out with she and Chloe and Emily tomorrow.”
“You mean like Chloe Sawyer, Captain of the Arlington Angels?” Becca gasped.
Jeff noted Vindico’s eye roll. “The one and only, thank God. I think they want to take you shopping. Truthfully you never really know which Angels might make an appearance. Then Logan and Adeline are coming over, remember?”
“Yes, sir, I remember,” Becca assured him. “And if the Angels want me to shop with them, I am there. But I promise I won’t buy anything,” she vowed to Jeff. Another round of self-hatred filled his soul.
“Hey, Jeff, would you come with me a minute?” Vindico urged.
Feeling his heart race uncomfortably, Jeff tried to figure out what he’d done wrong. Maybe he’s upset we’re going to the Ritz. Jeff raced down the stairs as quietly as he was able.
Mrs. Vindico was curled up on the couch sipping tea. She beamed at Jeff as he followed Mentor Vindico in the kitchen.
Mentor Vindico drew a deep breath and Jeff’s stomach churned uncomfortably.
“You want a beer or something?”
“Uh,” Jeff was certain he wouldn’t have offered if he’d been thinking clearly. “I know I’m old enough to drink in the Realm, but I’m not to the Non-Gifted cops. Plus I would never drink, even just a beer, and then drive Becca somewhere.”
“Sorry.” Mentor Vindico looked deeply impressed. “Just forget how old you are, I guess. Here.” He handed Jeff a Dr. Pepper that he chilled with his hands. He lowered the temperature until ice crystals just began forming in the drink. Jeff smiled that was his preference as well. “Sit down for just a second,” he gestured to the wrought iron chairs at the bar.
“I know you’ve had kind of a hell of a week or two,” he began.
Swallowing down the soda hoping to calm his stomach, Jeff nodded his agreement.
“I don’t know why I’m being so formal,” he seemed to chastise himself.
“Did I do something wrong, sir?” Jeff was desperate to know what it was so he could fix it. “I won’t miss class tomorrow. I swear.”
“You haven’t done anything wrong.”
Feeling his chest unfetter, Jeff was able to concentrate again.
“I just wanted to say to try to loosen up and have a little fun tonight. You’ve got quite a year ahead of you. And Governor Sapman gave you a bunch of shit to deal with, but, your wedding night’s a big deal.”
“I know that, sir.”
“You don’t know, yet. Mine shocked the hell out of me. I thought I knew it all,” Mentor Vindico huffed cryptically under his breath. “I just wanted to say to try and relax. Enjoy this because what you’re about to do, taking on Iodex as a Senior, training with Portwood, graduating, marriage, having a baby, none of its going to be easy.
“Iodex wants you but you have to keep your grades up, and perform well when you’re at work. You and Becca have never lived together and that’s going to take some adjustment. I moved in with my first fiancée when I was just a couple of months older than you.”
Jeff knew the story of Amelia, and how she’d been killed, but didn’t think he should interrupt.
“She wasn’t pregnant, and we’d finished school, and both had jobs. But it was tough. We fought a lot.” Regret ate as his admission. “It gets tense, and you have even more to deal with than we did.”
“I’m going to make this work. You’ll see,” Jeff vowed.
“If you need my help, ask,” he commanded.
Wondering how anyone ever told the man no, Jeff nodded again.
“You need to make Elite in June, and I can make that happen if you’re willing to put in the extra time, and let me train you on top of what you’ll be doing with Portwood.”
“You’d really train me?” Making the Elite Iodex team would not only be Jeff’s dreams come true but it would be substantially more money each year. To be trained by Dan Vindico was more than he could ever have hoped for.
When the story had broken after the takedown at the Gentlemen’s club by the airport that Vindico had killed Dominic Wretchkinsides and that his girlfriend, Fionna Styler, had been shot and subsequently lost his baby Jeff had been more stunned than the rest of the Realm.
But the next day when the papers began reporting that Dan Vindico, youngest, and most esteemed Chief of Iodex had resigned, he had been crushed. He refused to allow himself to believe the reports that Vindico had summoned black energy to kill Wretchkinsides. He’d wanted to be trained by the best and Dan Vindico was certainly the best.
“That sound like something you’d be interested in?” Mentor Vindico urged.
“Are you kidding me? That would be awesome,” Jeff gushed.
“Then we’ll start tomorrow afternoon. But tonight,” he edged. “Just try to let it all go. The baby, Iodex, the duplex, everything.” Pain etched Vindico’s features though he tried to hide it. “Try to just take tonight because you may need to hold on to it when times get tougher.”
“Yes, sir. I will.”
“Just give yourself a break. This isn’t all your fault, and I believe in you.”
The fact that Dan Vindico believed in him did more for Jeff’s psyche than anything ever had. “Just have a little fun tonight. Don’t take it all so serious.”
This had Jeff chuckling. He recalled a press conference Vindico had given right after Christmas that Jeff had watched on repeat. He’d just taken down Adderand, a top level, brutal hit man for the Interfeci. Jeff recalled wondering if Dan Vindico ever smiled and here he was seated in the man’s kitchen being told not to take it all so seriously.
“You didn’t go to Vegas because you knew Adderand was going to be there,” he gasped as he recalled the circumstances of the arrest. “You went with her.”
Mentor Vindico laughed. “Not sure where that came from, but yeah I did.”
Mrs. Vindico eased into the kitchen. Her face was pale save for the fevered pink glow in her cheeks. All traces of laughter instantly left her husband’s face.
“What’s wrong, baby?” He held out both of his hands so she could draw from him.
“I’m okay. I think.”
Jeff wondered if he should leave, but they were blocking the entry to the kitchen.
“I’m just having those Braxton Hicks contraction things again.”
Jeff knew if he saw the fear in her eyes then her husband certainly did.
“I’m calling Adeline,” Mentor Vindico ordered.
“If you want Bec and I to stay with Aida, we can. We don’t have to go tonight if you need to take her to the hospital,” Jeff joined in his mentor’s obvious panic.
Mrs. Vindico shook her head. “Dan, I’m okay. I was just wondering if you’d.” She gestured her head to the living room. She wanted to be casted, Jeff realized.
“We’ll get out of here.”
“It scares me to think about how badly the real ones must hurt if these are just practice.”
Jeff had no idea what she was talking about but he tried to blend into the kitchen counter.
“Fi?” Mentor Vindico pled.
“I promise I’m fine
“Yeah,” Mentor Vindico seemed to decide that she was okay. Jeff wondered if he’d locked onto her energy long enough to read the baby’s. “Go lay down for me.”
“You and Becca have fun tonight.”
“Yes, ma’am. We will. Thank you.” Jeff watched her tense and then try to ease herself onto the couch.
“You sure you don’t want us to stay?”
“No, you go on. If she needs to go to the hospital, I’ll take care of everything.”
“If you change your mind, we can come right back.”
“You ready, Bec?” They needed to get out of the Vindico’s home so that Mentor Vindico could take care of his wife. If she wanted to be casted beyond holding his hands, or him shielding her, clothes would be coming off.
“Yep.” Becca leapt up off of the bed like she’d been doing something wrong. She threw a book and binder in her backpack and grabbed her make-up bag.
Wondering what she was up to Jeff nodded studying her intently. Escorting her down the stairs quickly, Jeff offered a hesitant smile to the Vindicos. “Thanks again for everything. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
Mrs. Vindico was lying in her husband’s lap under a large quilt. Mentor Vindico’s hands weren’t visible. Jeff assumed they were on her stomach as her eyes were closed and she was clearly drawing from him deeply.
“No, problem,” Mentor Vindico sounded just as uncomfortable as Jeff felt.
They climbed in the Accord anxious to get out of the Vindico’s hair.
“What’s wrong with Fionna?” Becca demanded.
“She said something about practice contractions or something.”
“Oh.” Relief eased through Becca’s rhythms.
“Is that normal?”
“Yeah, I read about them in my Gifted Fetal Development book. It’s sort of like your body getting ready to give birth, but they’re pretty painful. Not as bad as the real kind though.”
Jeff squeezed her hand. “I’ll be there for everything, Bec. I promise. It looked like once he casted her she felt better.”
“Yeah, that’s what the book said. He can drown some of the pain in his energy.”
“I’ll do that.”
“I know you will.” She drew from his hand. Desire to drown himself in her, shot through him. He wanted so badly to be with her, to let it all go just like Mentor Vindico had urged him to. He wanted to wrap himself up in her and pretend that the night would go on forever. That the sun would leave them in quiet darkness in the peaceful serenity of the bed where he longed to make Becca Sapman his wife.
Needing to change the subject lest he start ripping her clothes off before they even checked in, he drew a deep breath. “So, who’s giving you a test the first week of school? I thought Vindico was going to be the toughest Senior teacher this year.”
“Guess not.” Becca’s cheeks flushed once again.
“Bec, what’s going on? We just got married and this isn’t going to work if you keep things from me. We have to do everything together.”
“I wasn’t trying to keep things from you. I just didn’t want to worry you anymore. You’ve been really stressed out since I just blurted out that I thought I was pregnant while you were playing X-box, rightfully so.”
This brought a genuine laugh from Jeff as he recalled that moment. “Little taken off guard.”
She brought her thumb nail to her mouth and began chewing.
“I just sort of thought if I could test out of a few classes then I could work more hours and then we’d have more money.”
“Bec you don’t have to get a job.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m getting a job. Anyway, I asked Mentor Hannon if I could test out of her class, but you know how much of a bitch she is. She said I could, but I have to take the entire semester exam … tomorrow. And whatever I make tomorrow counts as my exam grade even if I have to stay in the class all year. I don’t get a chance to retake the final.”