19,542
07.03.2019

THE DAY OF DODY'S PARTY dawned clear and bright with not a cloud in the sky. It was a picture-perfect summer day in western Michigan. The decorations were up, along with a big white canopy and a makeshift dance floor made from painted plywood. Everything looked sparkly and elegant, as it should.

Jasper, putting the finishing touches on a tray of delectable goodies, said, "Sadie, could you please take the dogs over to Mrs. Schmidt's house? She said we could keep them there until after the party so they don't eat all our food. Fatso! Get down from there!"

The dog gave Jasper a doleful look and thumped down from the counter.

"Sure." I was glad for something to do. The fact that Mrs. Schmidt's house was next to the Pullmans' didn't bother me either. In fact, it was the perfect excuse to peek in the windows again to see if Des's boxes were gone. I still couldn't believe he hadn't returned my call. It wasn't like him to be so ruthless. But then again, maybe I hadn't known him as well as I thought.

Once outside with Lazyboy and Fatso, I recalled why I hated walking them. They were eighty-pound moving obstacles, jumping around in front of me as if I were a giant squirrel. Lazyboy dragged his head along my leg, leaving a trail of drool.

I could not get to Mrs. Schmidt's door fast enough. She opened it, wearing a peach housecoat and curlers in her hair.

"Oh, hello, Sadie. Do come in. How is Dody feeling?" For a moment I thought she'd found out about the cancer, but quickly realized she was just being cordial. The dogs bounded in, making themselves right at home. I heard a cat hiss in the other room.

"Dody is wonderful. Thanks for asking. She's very excited about the party, of course. Thank you so much for keeping the dogs."

"Oh, it's no bother. I'm like Dr. Doolittle these days," she responded. "With your doggies, and Phantom from next door."

As if on cue, Bitchy the cat jumped up on the counter and hissed at me. God! I hated that cat.

"Phantom? Is that her name? Why is she here?" I realized then I'd never asked Des anything about her. Maybe that's why he broke up with me.

Mrs. Schmidt nodded. "Yes, Dr. McKnight asked me to keep her while he's on his boat race."

Wait.

What?

"His boat race?" My voice came out in a strangled mumble.

"Yes. Didn't he mention it? I thought you two were quite an item." She wiggled her eyebrows, making the curlers twitch.

I shifted from one foot to the other. "Um, we're not. But what boat race are you talking about?"

"That big one from Chicago up to Mackinaw Island. He wasn't very excited about it, from what I could tell. But he said his friend called and insisted. Then he's going to visit his mother. What a dear boy."

The race? He went on the race? Could that be why he hadn't tried to call? Not that it changed anything, but still, it was an interesting morsel of information. At the very least, it could mean he hadn't officially moved yet. Could there still be a chance?

I tried to scratch Bitchy/Phantom behind the ears as if we were the best of pals. She bit me. "When will he get back?" I asked casually.

Mrs. Schmidt patted her heart. "Not an item, you say? But you'd like to be, right? Ahh…" She sighed and cast a dreamy gaze toward the ceiling. "Can't say I blame you. If I was thirty years younger and twenty pounds lighter, I'd be after him myself. Lucky for you I'm old and fat." Her eyes came back to mine. "I'm not sure when he'll be back. Sometime next week, I think."

"Well, thanks Mrs. Schmidt, for taking the dogs. I should get back home now. There's still a lot to do before the party."

"Of course. See you tonight."

I scurried back home as fast as I could, bursting in through the door.

Fontaine was slicing lemons at the island.

"He's on a boat!" I exclaimed.

"Who's on a boat?"

"Des is on a boat! Mrs. Schmidt just told me he's on the Chi-Mack race in the middle of fucking Lake Michigan! Do you think that's why he hasn't called?"

By now the entire family knew all the gory details of Des's abrupt departure. I hadn't been able to keep it a secret after all.

Fontaine raised his dark brows. "Maybe."

"Maybe?" My voice was unflatteringly shrill.

"I don't know, baby girl."

I clenched my fists, looking at Fontaine imploringly.

Come on! Couldn't he do better than that? I needed reassurance! I needed hope. If Des hadn't gotten my message, maybe there was time to tell him how I felt. Maybe it would make a difference in him moving away. Maybe it would make all the difference.

That was a lot of maybes.

And what if he never made it back? What if his boat capsized and they all drowned? I'd end up like the girl from that old seventies song in love with the sailor who told her she was a fine girl and what a good wife she would be. What the hell was the name of that song? Brittney? Bethany? Betty?

"Brandy!" I shouted, clenching my fists.

"What?" Fontaine's eyes went big.

"What if he drowns? I'll end up just like Brandy."

"The singer?"

"No, stupid, the tavern girl. From the song."

Fontaine set down the paring knife, slowly easing toward me with hands outstretched, as if I had my finger on the trigger of a loaded gun.

"Love bug, you have rounded the bend."

I giggled hysterically. He was right. The stress was making me nuts. What difference did it make if Des was on a boat, or the space shuttle or a hot air balloon? He was still moving to Seattle. Even if he did return my call, what could I possibly say to make him change his mind? Absolutely nothing. My momentary hope sank faster than the Titanic. Either way, I'd end up just like Brandy, standing alone on a windswept shore, waiting for a man who was out of my reach. Stupid sailors.

The birthday extravaganza was about to begin. Fontaine flitted around like a hummingbird on crack, spastically fluffing tulle bows and rearranging the floral arrangements. He had insisted Dody stay in the house all afternoon so she could have the Big Reveal moment. He'd even instructed all the guests to wear white so everyone would match our sparkly elegant palette.

Fontaine, Jasper, Beth, Paige, Jordan, and I were gathered on the deck when Kyle led Dody out from the house.

She gasped with pleasure. "Oh, look, it's delightful! Simply delightful. Oh, you children, you've done too much. It's so lovely. See the flowers and the bows and the lights. Oh, Jasper, the food looks divine. Oh, it's perfection." She hugged and kissed each one of us at least twice. My kids quickly tired of the attention not being on them and slipped away to run circles on the dance floor.

"That's a lovely dress, Dody," Beth told her.

Dody curtsied. "Thank you, darling. It's from the Marie Osmond Collection. I thought my silk might be a little too warm. And don't you look lovely too! Oh, my!" She gasped again, suddenly realizing we were all dressed in white. "You all look like angels. I'm not dead already, am I? Is this heaven?"

Fontaine shook his head. "That's nice, Mom! I go to all this trouble and all you can say is, 'I see dead people'?"

She giggled. "I'm sorry, darling. I'm teasing. It looks beautiful, really. Utterly fabulous."

"Thank you. Now let's get you a little wine spritzer, shall we?" Fontaine stepped over to the corner of the deck, where we'd set up an extensive bar.

Kyle came and stood next to me and leaned against the tulle-covered railing.

"It does look great, doesn't it?" He slung his arm around my shoulders. "Maybe we should add party planning extraordinaire to our list of services."

"We should. Thanks for all your help." I felt an overwhelming surge of goodwill toward Kyle. He'd been so kind and generous, stepping up to help us through this time of need. He'd become a true friend to me. I couldn't resist hugging him. "You're the best. I adore you."

"This must be Dezzzzzzzz."

Oh. God. You have got to be kidding me.

Richard's sarcastic drawl singed my eardrums like burning cinders. My head snapped around, and there he stood! I gripped Kyle so tightly he gave a little squeak.

"What are you doing here, Richard?"

Everyone turned in unison to stare. A silicone-enhanced Jersey Shore reject hung on his arm. She might have been twenty in real time but appeared older in skanky ho years. I'd had pimples that covered more surface area than the itty-bitty dress she was (almost) wearing.

Richard held up an envelope. "I have papers for you to sign, Sadie. House papers. Thought we should make this legal before your jackal of a lawyer tried to complicate things." He grinned at everyone around the deck and chuckled. "You guys having a party? Why wasn't I invited?"

Who had flipped over that big rock and let Richard crawl out? And how dare he? How dare he show up unannounced and start waving papers in my face? It was too much! And he brought a date? What kind of man brought a date to the figurative screwing of his ex-wife? I was speechless on the outside, but only because the screaming inside my head would burn my lips if those choice words came out.

"Richard, this really isn't the time," Dody said. "Why don't you come back tomorrow?"

Everyone's eyes darted between Richard and me.

Richard's smiled broadened, as if this were some chitchatty visit with old friends. "Sorry. No can do, Doodoo. We are on our way out of town, but I want these papers signed before I leave since I can't step a foot over the threshold until Miss Ice Princess signs it over. So what do you say, Sadie? Sign the papers and I'll be on my way."

I could hardly breathe. "Richard, I'm not signing anything tonight. I'll sign it tomorrow, after I've had a chance to talk to my lawyer."

Richard shook his head. "Uh, uh, uh. I want these papers filed before next week. Don't make this hard. You agreed, so don't try and fight about it now."

"I'm not making this hard. You're being unreasonable. We are in the middle of a party, Richard. I'll read the papers first thing in the morning."

"Now would be better. Oh, by the way, this is Barbie. Barbie, Sadie."

Barbie smiled. I nearly expected teeth to be missing, she was so young.

Richard's drawl continued. "And aren't you going to introduce me to your friend, Dezzzzz?"

He gave Kyle a smug once-over. Damn it! Richard was so awful, so infuriating! That's what made me do it! That's why my mouth started talking independently of my brain.

I hugged Kyle tighter still. "Yes, Richard, this is Des. And we'd both like you to leave."

I heard the jaws of my family audibly dropping.

Fontaine whimpered in distress.

Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod! Did I say that out loud? I stole a glance at Kyle.

He was wide-eyed with surprise.

Yes, it seems I did say that out loud.

After a lifetime, Kyle extended his hand. "Richard."

A collective exhale from my relatives followed.

Richard shook his hand. "I thought you were Scottish. Where's the skirt?"

Kyle, my brave hero, did not miss a beat. "At the cleaners. You'll have to chase somebody else's tonight."

Jasper laughed.

Fontaine whimpered again.

"All right, you've had your introduction. Now will you leave?" I snapped.

"Baby, I drove all the way from Glenville. And I'm not leaving without your signature.

"Richard, is that you?"

Un. Be. Lievable. My mother marched onto the deck, her dark hair perfectly sleek despite wind and humidity. Penny and Jeff were right behind her.

I gripped the back of Kyle's shirt so tightly I thought it might shred. He squeezed my shoulder.

"Helene," Dody called out, pushing Richard aside to welcome my mother.

Helene embraced her stiffly.

"Don't you look lovely," Dody said.

"White wasn't my choice, but the invitation was very specific," Mother responded. "Happy birthday, by the way."

Everyone milled around, greeting my mother, sister, and brother-in-law. I stayed glued to the deck rail and would not let go of Kyle's shirt.

Penny caught my eye and mouthed the word, "Cute!" She had no idea this Des was an imposter.

I started to shake my head, but it was already spinning so fast I didn't dare.

When Mother's gaze came my way, she lifted a cosmetically arched brow.

"Hello, Sadie. Who's this?"

She gave Kyle the barest flicker of a glance before directing her laser-beam stare back at me.

Richard snorted. "So you haven't met Sadie's new boyfriend yet either, Helene? This is Dezzz."

God, I really hated Richard.

"It's lovely to meet you, Mrs….uh…" Kyle faltered.

"Harper."

"Mrs. Harper. I'm…" he stuttered slightly. "I'm D…Des."

"Penny's pregnant," Fontaine blurted out.

Exclamations of congratulations erupted, and suddenly everyone was milling around again, hugging my sister and her husband. Penny managed to embrace each one of them while casting livid daggers my way. So much for keeping that little secret.

In the chaos, Fontaine jumped to my side, grabbing my wrist and Kyle's and dragging us inside.

"What the hell are you doing?" I hissed. "Penny didn't want anyone to know yet."

"What the hell am I doing? What the hell are you doing? Why did you say Kyle was Des? That's idiotic."

"I don't know! Richard shocked me, I guess, showing up here with that Pussycat Doll. It slipped out."

"What are we supposed to do now?" Fontaine demanded.

"Guys, guys, relax. It's not a big deal. I can be Des for a little while," Kyle whispered.

"You can?" I asked.

"You can't!" Fontaine answered.

"Sure I can. It'll be fun. I haven't pretended to be straight in ages. Here, watch my straight-guy walk." Kyle lurched awkwardly across the living room.

"You look like John Wayne with hemorrhoids," Fontaine sputtered. "This is not going to work."

Kyle laughed. "Come on, I'm kidding. I'll be fine. It's only until Richard leaves."

"But he could be here all night. I'm not signing those papers until my lawyer reads them. Plus you'd have to be Des until my mother leaves too. I am not explaining this charade to her."

"Oh." He thought about that for a second. "OK. Whatever. I can still do it. You guys are always saying what an asshole this Richard is, so let's mess with him a little. Besides, how would we undo it now anyway?"

He was right. Without confessing to both Richard and my mother, there was no other solution.

Fontaine looked at Kyle with new admiration. "I had no idea you were so sneaky. It's very sexy."

Kyle preened. "Why, thank you."

"Wait, what about my kids?" I exclaimed.

Fontaine bit his thumbnail. "Oh, yeah."

"What the hell, bigmouth!" my sister shouted, coming inside from the deck. Her cheeks were flushed pink.

I held my hands up in self-defense. "I'm so sorry, Penn. Really, but let me fill you in."

Our little Axis of Evil huddled in the kitchen, whispering details to Penny. She forgave me instantly, if for no other reason than she couldn't wait to see what happened next. She offered to run interference with my kids. I hated dragging my innocent children into my tawdry business, but it would provide interesting fodder for their future therapists.

And so Operation Desmond Storm was launched.

"Sadie, just sign the fucking papers so I can get out of here," Richard snapped as soon as I went back outside.

"I just called my lawyer, Richard. She got a copy this afternoon and she's reading it now. As soon as she calls and says it's OK, you'll have your stupid papers. Until then, stay out of my way and don't be rude to my family. Now, I have party guests to attend to and you're not one of them."

"Can I at least get a drink and see my kids?"

I gave him the finger and went on down the deck steps to the beach.

The party was picking up steam as more friends and relatives arrived. Fontaine scuttled like a sand crab, greeting everyone and ushering them over to Dody, who sat in a tulle-draped chair. She looked like she was floating in meringue. My mother sat next to her, her posture as impeccable as her manicure. Two sisters could not be more dissimilar.

Paige and Jordan said a brief, and well-monitored, hello to their father before Penny tugged them away. Now my kids were running around on the beach with a dozen of their cousins. That would keep them occupied for a bit, at least long enough to get Richard out of here before they gave away my diabolical secret.

Kyle played the role of solicitous boyfriend to the hilt, keeping his arm around me and patting my butt so often I finally told him to stop.

"Sorry," he whispered. "Isn't that what straight guys do?"

"Yes, but that doesn't mean straight women like it."

He shrugged and took a sip from his glass.

As the sun sank low on the horizon and copious amounts of alcohol diluted old family grudges and made strangers into friends, the party grew boisterous. The age range on the makeshift dance floor expanded to include the very young to the very young at heart. Harry had arrived, and I watched as Dody tried teaching him to tango with a carnation in her teeth.

Off to the side of the crowd, Jasper, Fontaine, Kyle, and I stood congratulating one another on a party well planned.

"I think we're a success," Jasper said, raising his glass.

"I agree. Dody looks so happy," I added.

We clinked glasses.

"And thanks to the new Des, we've even managed to pull off quite a little caper," Fontaine added, smiling at Kyle.

"Pulled off a cape, huh? Are you wearing a cape these days, Timmy?" Richard said, coming up behind us. He was like death, so silent and feared.

"Where's Bambi?" Fontaine responded.

Richard snickered, gulping from his drink. "Barbie. She's in the house watching TV. Sadie, hasn't that fucking lawyer of yours called back yet?"

"Not yet, Richard. Why can't you just leave? You're getting what you want. Do you have to ruin this party for me?" If I sounded petulant, it's because Richard reduced me to it.

"Believe me, nobody wants to blow this Hicksville party more than me, but I didn't drive all the way from Glenville to leave without the keys to my house." He took another drink, sucking an ice cube into his mouth. He nodded at Kyle. "You're a doctor, huh?"

Kyle glanced around before realizing Richard was talking to him. "Oh, um, yeah."

"Podiatrist or chiropractor or something?"

"Emergency medicine?" Kyle looked at me furtively, like "That's right, isn't it?"

I started to perspire. I didn't want Richard chatting up my fake boyfriend. If he caught on to our ploy, I'd never hear the end of it.

"Richard, shouldn't you be sitting inside with Bambi?" I asked.

"Barbie. And I'm trying to be sociable with your new friend here. Remember, I care who my kids are around."

I could not miss the thinly veiled threat. If I didn't sign those papers soon, he'd start mouthing off about being offended by Fontaine. Oh, the irony.

Richard turned back to Kyle. "You're from Scotland, right? Why no weird accent?"

Oh. We'd forgotten that little detail! Kyle had a distinctly Midwestern monotone.

"I've lived in the States most of my life. But speaking of weird accents, you've got quite the hillbilly twang there yourself, Dick," Kyle said.

I smiled with relief. Nice response, fake Des. Kyle was the best phony boyfriend I'd ever had.

Sensing an inevitable loss in this verbal duel, Richard turned to Jasper. "You still flipping burgers?"

"Yep."

This was getting tedious. I needed Jeanette to call so Richard would go away! I surveyed the crowd. Wasn't there some dislikable and unsuspecting relative I could foist him off on? Looking toward the beach, I noticed a lone figure walking our way. He was tall and broad and distinct. My heart stopped. It didn't just skip a beat. It came to a full-on, tires-screeching, pull-your-children-out-of-the-way dead stop.

It was Des.

He was back in Bell Harbor.

No, better than that, he was here! He was coming to Dody's party! He looked tan and magnificent, with his white shirt untucked and billowing in the breeze. He was even more devastatingly handsome than I remembered. How was that possible? The urge to run over and cover him with kisses overwhelmed me.

"Des," I breathed his name involuntarily. He was too far away to hear it, but Kyle was right next to me.

"What?" Kyle asked.

I looked up at him, startled.

Wait.

What?

Oh, shit. Shit.

Kyle!

And Richard!

And Des! The real Des.

What was I going to do now?

"Des," I said again, my voice strangled. I tipped my head ever so slightly so Richard wouldn't notice.

Kyle and Fontaine caught my cue. Following my gaze, Fontaine stifled a gasp and Kyle's eyes darted from Des to Richard to me and back to Richard again.

Jasper noticed our silent panic too, and turned to look. He made a noise with his tongue like the sound Fatso makes with peanut butter in his mouth. He abruptly turned to Richard, blocking his view of the beach. "So who do you like in the Mayweather fight?"

Thank you, Jasper! Thank you! Talking about his most revered boxer would keep Richard occupied. But only for so long.

What was I going to do? Des was twenty feet away and approaching fast. There was no way out. I was doomed, destined to be exposed. I suddenly understood how a wolf could chew off its own paw to be freed from a trap.

Well, no. I didn't really, because that was completely bizarre. But at least now I understood the wolf's perspective. I wanted to be free of this trap. A trap created by me, out of pride and stubbornness. And, quite possibly, stupidity.

What should I do?

What could I do?

I was going to have to tell the truth, fast, before Des could hear.

"Richard, I have to tell – "

But my words were drowned out by Fontaine's screech. "Darling!" he sang, flinging wide his arms and running toward Des. "What took you so long? I thought you'd never get here."

Des halted in his tracks, eyes widening at the sight of Fontaine bearing down on him like an attacking swan.

It was like watching a car crash in slow motion, as Fontaine leaped into the air and collided with full frontal contact against Des. Then he wrapped his arms around Des's shoulders and kissed him hard, right on the lips.

Des took a giant step back, as much from the force of Fontaine's momentum as from his own shock. If the moment hadn't been so brutally painful to me on so very many levels, it would have been the funniest thing I ever saw.

"What the fuck, Fontaine?" Des exclaimed.

My heart gave one last, convulsive thump and I reconsidered chewing off my own paw.

"You're naughty to keep me waiting here without a date, baby boy," Fontaine giggled, pulling a bemused Des toward the cluster of onlookers. "But lucky for you I've had people to talk to. See? Sadie is here with her new boyfriend."

"Her new boy – "

"His name is Des," Fontaine said emphatically.

"What?"

"Look." Fontaine grabbed Des by the jaw and manually turned his face toward us.

Des saw Kyle's arm clutching me possessively.

Des pointed. "That's Ky – "

"Kind. Yes, it's so kind of him to be here, but of course it's Dody's birthday and we all want her to be happy. Now, you know Jasper and Beth, of course. Oh, and that's Richard. He was Sadie's husband until she realized he's an asshole. He wasn't invited to this party. He just showed up."

Fontaine could not have been more obvious in his explanation, his delivery so flamboyantly outlandish, I couldn't believe none of us started laughing. We were all too dazed. Meanwhile Richard remained oblivious to the drama unfolding totally for his benefit. He was too intent on sucking a poppy seed from his teeth to pay attention. Since he considered Fontaine beneath his notice, he certainly wasn't going to feign interest in meeting one of his paramours.

Des's gaze skittered around the group, finally locking with mine.

Oh, what a feeling, to be gazing into those beautiful green eyes again.

What a moment.

What a pleasure.

What a fucking disaster.

This was absurd. This needed to end. "Richard," I said again, but Fontaine would have none of that.

"Sadie, Sadie, let me finish introductions. Richard, this is…uh, Gerard. Gerard, this is…everybody."

Des blinked, like an alien waking up in a laboratory on another planet. He stared down at Fontaine, bewilderment in every line of his face.

Fontaine shrugged and rolled his eyes.

Des sighed and turned his head away for the briefest moment.

This wasn't going to work. He wouldn't go along with it. And why should he? He'd had a taste of the carnival freak show that was my life and had decided he wanted no part of it. At the moment, I could hardly blame him. I was so not worth the bother.

Then Des looked back at me and nodded almost imperceptibly.

My heart resumed beating, but barely.

"Seems like I've got some catching up to do," he said.

"Who are you?" Richard asked, as if noticing this newcomer for the first time.

Fontaine clung to his arm. "He's my fabulous new lover."

Des's face went remarkably void of expression, as if struck by sudden-onset amnesia. He extended his hand to Richard, who reluctantly responded with a perfunctory, testosterone-laden, he-man one-pump.

"Dick," Real Des said.

"Uh, it's Richard, actually."

Des shrugged. "And I'm Gerard. Apparently."

"You Scottish too?" Richard asked.

Des glanced at Fontaine.

"Yes!" Fontaine answered emphatically. "What a coincidence."

I pressed my face into Kyle's arm, not sure whether to laugh or confess or just observe as my own horrendous judgment ran its course. Either Des was the best sport ever or he was so confused he didn't know what else to do.

Richard sneered, "He's a little macho for you, isn't he, Fontaine?"

"Jealous?" Fontaine hissed.

Richard gave his most condescending smile, the one that always made me think of Hitler. "Yeah, whatever. Sadie, how much longer do I have to stick around for this gay-pride parade?"

Des slipped his arm around Fontaine. "Dude, that's uncalled for, don't you think?"

Richard stared as if they were cockroaches at the bottom of his drink.

"Uncalled for? Listen, dude. What's uncalled for is guys like you hanging around my kids."

"Des! You're here!" It was Dody, trotting over from the dance floor, her full skirt swirling around her.

Des took a step, then turned and looked at Kyle.

"Oh!" Kyle gasped. He strode toward her, cutting her off at the pass. "Yes, Dody. I'm here for you." He steered her back to the dance floor whispering into her ear while she looked over her shoulder. They began to dance, watching us all the while.

I didn't dare look at Des, or Richard either. I stared into my drink, wondering how it had emptied so fast. Was there a hole in my glass? I held it up but could not find one.

After a long, silent moment, Des cleared his throat. "Well, I think I'll cut in. I'd like to say hello to the birthday girl."

He walked over, he and his proxy exchanged a few words, then Des took Dody by the hand, leading her away to sit down in some empty chairs. Kyle sauntered halfway toward us before remembering he was straight. Squaring his shoulders, he walked the rest of the way to rejoin our group.

"I need a drink," Richard huffed. He headed toward the deck, calling over his shoulder, "Unless she can't read, Sadie, your lawyer should be done by now."

"Well! That went about as good as it could have, considering," Jasper chuckled once Richard was out of earshot.

"What is Des doing here?" I asked. "He's supposed to be on a boat race. He's supposed to be visiting his mother or on his way to Seattle. Why is he here?"

"Maybe he stopped by to wish Dody a happy birthday," Fontaine said. "Or, more than likely, he's here to make up with you."

I trembled, hoping beyond hope that my cousin was right.

Penny came up beside me and tipped her head toward the chairs near the dance floor. "Who's that with Dody?"

"Des," I sighed.

"The real Des? Wow."

"Hey, I resent that," said Kyle.

I slipped my arm around his waist and gave a squeeze. "You're every bit as wow, Kyle. In fact, tonight, you are my hero."

He hugged me back. "You're my first girlfriend. Real or fake."

I watched Des and Dody chatting like old friends. He laughed at something she said. She reached over and patted his knee. I considered interrupting, but honestly, if she was pleading a case on my behalf, I was OK with that. Paige and Jordan skipped over to them and climbed into Des's lap as natural as could be. Paige kissed his cheek. It made my heart sore. They adored him. They'd be hurt too when he said his last good-bye. I guess I should have thought of that three months ago.

I heard a familiar ring tone, and Kyle pulled my phone from his pocket and handed it to me. I'd asked him to carry it since I was waiting to hear from my lawyer and had no pockets of my own.

I glanced at the screen. "It's Jeanette. Thank God." I walked a few yards down the beach to get away from the music.

"Hi, Jeanette."

"Hi, Sadie. Just wanted to let you know the paperwork looks fine. I made sure it included a provision stating if he doesn't come up with your share of the money within ninety days, possession reverts back to you. That way he can't move in and never pay you. I also added a clause stating you can live anywhere in Michigan without him using that as foundation for future custody challenges."

"What if I move to Seattle?"

"What?"

I shook my head. "I'm kidding. I'm not moving to anyplace but Bell Harbor."

"OK. But you still don't have to sign this, you know. You could keep the house. This abandonment ploy of his would never hold up in court."

I could keep the house. I could pack up my sandals and beach towels and kids and go back to Glenville, to my big, expensive house in the ritzy neighborhood. I could lunch at restaurants with stiff cloth napkins and valet parking with so-called friends who hadn't contacted me in months. I could drink my coffee in peace and quiet every morning, without Fontaine and Dody buzzing something ridiculous in my ear. I'd have my own bathroom.

No thanks.

"Thank you, Jeanette. He can have the house. I'm actually very excited about moving here. I think it'll be fun."

I hung up the phone and pressed it to my heart. Fun, yes. I could use a little fun right about now.

Everyone seemed to be on the dance floor in mixed-up couples. My mother was dancing with Jeff, Penny with Des, Fontaine with Beth, Jasper with Paige, and Kyle with Anita Parker. Even Richard and Barbie were dancing.

I went past them all and on up to the house, where the papers were sitting on the dining room table. I took a pen and scrawled my name on the dotted line, again.

I waited for a feeling of remorse to descend, for sadness to flood my heart, but it didn't. Waves of relief washed over me instead. That house, and Glenville, were my past. My future was here. Here in Bell Harbor, where the sun rose over the lake and each day was filled with possibility.

I skipped back down the deck steps. I found Fontaine and Kyle standing with Penny and Jeff. Jasper was climbing up on the makeshift stage, in front of the band.

When the crowd quieted, Jasper said, "Thank you all for coming. We are here tonight to celebrate the most magnificent woman. A simply delightful woman."

Faint laughter rippled through the group.

"My mom has so many wonderful qualities, I can't list them all – although I'm sure she'd like me to try. But let me just say that every day, in a million little ways, she has taught me to live my life with honesty, with purpose, and most of all, with a sense of adventure. I love you, Mom. Happy Birthday!"

Feet stomped, hands clapped, and voices sang the birthday song while Jasper helped Dody up onto the stage next to him. She blotted at her eyes with the sleeve of her Marie Osmond dress. Des caught my eye from several feet away. The expression on his face made me tremble with hope. He made his way through the cluster of people to stand right next to me. We exchanged tentative smiles before returning our attention to the stage.

"Thank you all so very much," Dody said. Her voice trembled with emotion. "It means the world to me that you came, especially on such short notice. You all look so lovely, just delightful, really. I'd like to thank my darling children, Jasper and Fontaine, who put so much work into this party. And my niece, Sadie, and our dear friends Kyle and Beth, and Des too. I love you all so much. You've all made this a very happy birthday! Now, as that great lady Eleanor Roosevelt once said, let them eat cake."

More cheering, clapping, and stomping occurred as Jasper helped her down. Then he held up his hands to quiet us again. "Beth, would you join me up here? If everyone could wait one more minute on that cake, I have something else I'd like to say."

Beth stepped up, blushing bright pink and looking a little bewildered.

He took her hand. "Most of you have met my girlfriend, Beth. For those who haven't, everybody, this is Beth." She blushed even deeper. "She's been my girlfriend for a year now. She's also my best friend, my partner in crime, and the love of my life. I don't want to spend a single day without her." He dropped down on his knee and pulled a velvet box from his pocket. "Beth, I love you. Will you marry me?"

Her eyes went wide, her hands pressed against her cheeks.

A surprised hush descended over the group. You could have heard a pin drop, even in the sand.

"Holy matrimony, Batman!" Fontaine gasped in my ear. "I didn't know he was going to do that. Did you?"

I shook my head, not wanting to look away.

Her answer came out as a tiny squeak, but was accompanied by vigorous nodding, and Jasper jumped to his feet to hug her. The family erupted with cheers and whistles. Dody sprang back on the stage like a kangaroo to kiss them both.

"Isn't that the sweetest thing?" Richard drawled sarcastically behind me.

"They're much too young. It will never last," my mother said.

I hadn't realized either one of them was behind me. Amazingly, I was feeling so good, the sound of their voices hardly made me flinch at all. I turned around to face them. "It is sweet, Richard. And it will last, Mother, because they love each other. Honestly, what's the matter with you two? I'm tired of all your negativity. Take your doom and gloom and sell it someplace else. And, Richard, the house is yours. I signed the papers. I'm moving to Bell Harbor. So take Bambi and go away now, and don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out."

My mother's brows crashed together. She tossed her shoulders and pointed at Kyle. "For him, Sadie? You're uprooting your children and moving here for a man you hardly know?"

My smile was genuine. "No, Mother, I'm moving to Bell Harbor for me, because my children and I love it here, and it'll be good for us." I patted Kyle's arm. "And anyway, this isn't really my boyfriend. He's sort of my boss. Although he'd make a great boyfriend. For Fontaine."

Kyle blushed and stole a glance at my cousin.

My mother's eyes narrowed. "Are you trying to make a fool of me?"

"No, Mother, I'm not," I said, not sounding the least bit remorseful. Because I wasn't. "We were playing a joke on Richard, and you sort of got caught in the middle."

"What?" Richard spat.

I shrugged. "Yep. Sorry."

Fontaine, Kyle, Penny, and Des leaned in close, cocooning me in safety.

My mother's face flushed. "Sadie Turner, that is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard! Playing a trick like that. Shame on you. Why that's…that's the most totally Dody antic I've ever heard of!"

I smiled. "Yes, I guess it is. And that's about the nicest compliment you've ever given me."

Mother harrumphed like Miss Piggy with PMS and flounced away.

Richard was still glowering. He jerked a thumb toward Kyle. "That's not Dezzzzz?"

I smirked and leaned against Des. "Nope. This is."

Des put his arm around my waist and my heart swelled with gladness.

Richard scowled. "What the fuck, Sadie? You owe me an explanation!"

Now I laughed right out loud. "No, Richard. I don't. I don't owe you anything. Now please take Bambi out of here before I rip up your precious house papers."

"It's Bar…oh, whatever." He spun around and stomped away.

We watched my mother and ex-husband fade away into the crowd.

"Wow, Sade. That was awesome!" Penny laughed from behind me. "You shut them both up. Good job."

Fontaine gazed at me with the pride of a parent watching a baby's first step. I think I may have seen a little tear in the corner of his eye.

Des's arm tightened wonderfully around me, sending a warm, shimmery glow through to my bones. I still didn't know what his being here meant. But I was glad for his presence, no matter how long it lasted.

The band had started up again, playing something slow and romantic.

I tugged Des by the hand. "Will you dance with me?"

He smiled. "I'm pretty good, you know."

"So am I."

Sliding into his arms felt like Christmas morning. We had lots of things we needed to talk about, but not just yet. I wanted to enjoy this moment without worrying what it meant. Or what it didn't mean. Des was mine for the next few minutes, and that was good enough. We danced for a song, and then another, swaying cheek to cheek.

Dody caught my eye and gave me two thumbs up. I giggled at her, feeling precious and girly.

"What's funny?" Des asked.

"Dody's glad you're here."

Our swaying slowed. He looked into my eyes.

"And what about you? Are you glad I'm here?"

"I'm glad you're here for the party. But I'm also kind of wondering when you'll leave again. It was really shitty of you to run out of town without a word. I think I deserve a proper good-bye, don't you?"

"No."

We stopped dancing. My heart tumbled over his single word. That wasn't true. I did deserve a proper good-bye. I deserved respect. The respect paid to a friend if nothing more.

His face relaxed and he smiled as he pulled me from the dance floor. We moved away from the crowd, until we stood in the sand, under the moonlight.

"Sadie, I don't want to say good-bye."

"Well, good for you, Des, but I could use a little closure."

He chuckled and shook his head. "No. I mean I didn't take the job in Seattle."

Wait.

What?

"You didn't? Why?"

He pulled me close. "Why do you think?"

I racked my brain for a logical answer. Because his parole officer said he couldn't leave the state? Because he'd been nominated for surgeon general? Because his Argentinean girlfriend was taking him to Bora Bora? Try as I might, I could only come up with one good reason. Because he was crazy about me and couldn't bear to leave my side.

Just to be on the safe side, I said, "Why don't you tell me?"

He sighed and brushed the wind-whipped hair away from my face. "I just wasted five days of my life on a sailboat with a bunch of guys. We spent the first couple of hours thumping our chests and talking about how great it was to be us, to be men out on the open water. But honestly, Sadie, by the second day all anyone talked about was their wives and their kids. It made me realize what I had back here in Bell Harbor."

That was hardly the declaration of love I was hoping for. "In other words, you got lonely out at sea and now you want some company?"

He chuckled at my dissatisfaction. "No, Sadie. Not just any company. Your company. I want you. I want to make a life here, with you." He squeezed my hands, stirring up a flock of butterflies deep inside my belly.

"I'm sorry I left without telling you," he said. "I guess I panicked a little. I'm not very proud of that, but it's been a long time since I needed somebody. I need you, and it makes me…flustered. You know what that means, right?"

He was teasing, but I didn't mind.

"Yes, I am familiar with flustration."

He smiled. "You do realize that's not a word, right?"

"It is in my world."

"All right. Well, I like your world." He pulled me closer." I like all the stuff in it. I like all the people in it too." He gazed down, as if searching my face for his answer. "God, Sadie. I missed you. I missed you like crazy."

I breathed in the smell of the water and the cooling sand, the smell that always brought happy memories. And here was a brand new memory in the making.

"I missed you a little bit too," I said.

"Just a little bit?"

"Mm, maybe a lot. I can't remember. I was pretty busy with the party."

Des laughed and pulled me tightly into his wonderful arms. I smiled up at him and at the stars, and at last we shared a glorious and much-needed kiss. And then another and another. The moment was sublime, like lying on white sand beaches near blue Caribbean waters, with a pina on one side and Des pressed up against me on the other.

My heart went pop, pop, sparkle, sparkle, shimmer, shimmer, sigh…

The party momentum slowed until at last only a few of us remained. We gathered down by the water's edge, sitting on beach blankets and listening to the waves. Penny and Jeff snuggled together with Jordan snoozing between them. Dody sat next to Harry with a fluffy new barrette in her hair. It was his birthday gift to her, purchased from the Audubon Society and made entirely from goose feathers. Beth and Jasper were there too. Every few minutes she would hold out her left hand and watch her engagement ring sparkle in the moonlight.

Off to the side, Des and I shared another spot, leaning against each other with Paige curled up and resting her sleepy head on my leg.

Fontaine brought down a tray of drinks and passed them all around. Then he plopped down next to Kyle.

"Sadie says you make a pretty fierce boyfriend," I heard him say quietly.

Kyle smiled. "Yeah, but she dumped me. Looks like I'm available again," he murmured back.

Fontaine shook his head. "Not if I have anything to say about it."

They tapped their glasses together and drank. Love might be inconvenient, but it was also persistent.

Dody sighed happily. "Thank you again, darlings. I don't imagine a party at the Taj Mahal could have been any more magnificent. What a simply delightful evening. Jasper, you coy, romantic devil, I had no idea you were going to pop the question. And I'm usually so astute about these things. Beth, did you know he was going to do that?"

Beth wiped the corner of one eye. "No. But I'm sure glad he did."

Jasper leaned over and kissed her cheek while she looked at her ring again. He'd gotten the one he wanted, and it suited her perfectly. Joy for them fluttered over me. They'd be happy. I could see it. And how nice that Richard's gift, which had lost all its luster to me, could be recycled into a brand new future.

"I knew I could trust Madame Margaret," Dody added. "She said this night would be beyond compare."

"Madame Margaret? Is that the psychic you went to?" Des asked.

I nodded. "Dody made me."

He chuckled. "Dody is very persuasive. So what did this psychic tell you about your future?"

I wove my arm through his and snuggled closer. "She told me I'd meet a tall, dark, handsome doctor and my future looked simply delightful."

"Did she really say that?"

"Maybe I'm paraphrasing."

He smiled at me, his dimples shadowed in the moonlight.

I smiled back, thinking how the life before me looked full of wondrous possibilities.

The moon was high, the night was dark, but deep inside, I was the sunshiniest girl around.

THE END

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