Author's Note/Disclaimer: I have to say before you read this that at first I was a little leery about writing a fan fiction on a movie that was based on real people. I don't pretend to know what happened in the real person's life, and I don't want to imply that this actually happened to any of the people in the story.

Dedication: The motivation of this story came from my mother, who graduated from high school in 1971. The main character is meant to be based on her, but the similarities end at the name and the heart of gold.

I DISAPPEAR

CHAPTER 1

On September 4th, I woke up with a splitting headache.

"This is not a good way to start senior year," I mumbled as I climbed out of bed and started preparing for the day.

I was just pulling my long, sandy brown hair into a ponytail when my brother called up the stairs. "Susan! If you are not down here in two minutes, I'm leaving without you!"

"Ok, ok. I'm coming!" I hollered back, sending severe surge of pain through my already throbbing head. "This is not going to be a good day."

"It's about time," my brother remarked when I appeared downstairs.

I rolled my eyes and walked passed him. "Good morning to you, too."

"You be careful today," he commanded as he guided his Charger through the streets of Alexandria.

"Careful of what?" I asked coldly.

He locked his jaw as he pulled into an empty stall in front of T.C. Williams High. "Those black boys can be-"

"Save it Ray," I snapped, reaching for the door handle. "I'm not in the mood for this argument today."

Without another word, I climbed out of the car and sifted my away through the crowds that had gathered in front of the building. Once safely inside, I searched the hallways until I finally found my locker.

"Hey Susie Q," a cheery voice called as I spun the combination.

I whirled around to see Ray's friend Gerry standing a few yards down the hall. A smile pulled at my lips for the fist time that morning as he pulled me into a brotherly hug.

Only when he released me did I notice a tall, handsome, black boy standing beside us. I extended my hand. "Hi, I'm Susie."

He looked at me in shock for a moment before shaking my hand lightly.

"Susie, meet Julius Campbell, best strong side linebacker in Virginia," Gerry cut in quickly.

I smiled at his enthusiasm. "Well it's nice to meet you, Julius. You must be pretty good if Gerry here is bragging about you."

"I try," Julius replied with a shy smile.

The first bell rang, barring any conversation as the three of us trotted in different directions to get to class.

"Alright everyone, quiet down," Mrs. Cain called over the drone of the classroom. "It is time to get started. Please take a seat as I call your name. Michael Anderson."

One by one, she called out names and pointed to a lab station.

"Susan Budds," she said and directed me to an empty table.

Before she read off another name, there was a knock at the door. The principal entered the room followed by a tall blonde that I didn't recognize.

A whistle came from across the room. "Nice hair, hippie boy."

The boy rolled his eyes as the principal turned to Mrs. Cain and whispered something before exiting.

"Class," she said, stopping all conversations, "we have a new student joining us this year. This is Ronald Bass."

"Yes well," the teacher continued absently after a long moment of silence. She turned back to her class list. "Now where was I? Ah yes. You are right on time Mr. Bass. This is Susan, your lab partner for the year."

I fought to keep my jaw from dropping as she directed him to the chair beside me.

"Don't mind Mrs. Cain," I whispered as she moved on with the rest of the class. "She spends too much time smelling chemicals. You'll get used to it."

He cracked a smile that put a sparkle in his blue eyes. "I'll keep that in mind. I'm Ronnie."

"Susie," I replied, shaking his extended hand. "So where are you from?"

"Huntington Beach," he answered, a look of longing flashed across his features.

"California? I'd love to go to California. What's it like?"

He sighed. "Nothing like this place."

"Exactly," I commented just as Mrs. Cain took her spot at the front of the room.

By the time that lunch arrived, I was exhausted and my head was splitting. The crowded cafeteria was not exactly where I wanted to spend my only free hour of the day, so I made my way out into the courtyard where a few other students sat at tables and on the grass eating lunch.

I found a nice quiet spot, leaning against a tree and pulled out my sketchbook. After flipping to an empty page, I scanned the area for something to draw. A smile curled on my lips when I saw Ronnie standing not far off in a clearing, with the sunshine lighting up his blonde hair. By the time that the bell rang, signifying the end of lunch, I had completed a fairly decent sketch of Ronnie holding a martial arts position. I quickly gathered my things and headed off to my afternoon classes.

I breathed a sigh of relief when the final bell rang. Quickly, I returned my books to my locker and set out to find Ray.

After ten minutes of searching, I finally caught up with him outside the locker room. "Ray, are you taking me home or what?"

"I've got practice," he snapped before vanishing through the door.

Cursing under my breath, I spun around angrily and found myself face to face with Ronnie.

"Don't be offended," he said offhandedly. "He's like that to everyone."

"Believe me, I know," I murmured.

"You going to introduce me to this fine young lady or what?" someone spoke up beside Ronnie.

"Susie, this is Petey," Ronnie motioned to the boy standing next to him. "He'll tell you all about himself."

Petey shot his friend a dirty look. "You'd better watch it, Sunshine."

I raised an eyebrow at him. "Sunshine?"

Before he could respond, Gerry and Julius approached the group.

"Susie? What are you doing here?"

"Trying to get Ray to bring me home," I replied coldly. "But he ignored me."

Gerry nodded. "Figures. Here, take my camaro."

I grabbed the keys that he held out to me. "You sure?"

"Sure. I'll pick it up later," he replied with a smile. "Just don't wreck it."

Petey looked at his watch. "Guys we gotta go or coach'll have us runnin all night."

The others nodded and they took off through the door, leaving me alone in the hallway holding Gerry's keys. I watched Ronnie vanish as the door closed behind him. "A football player?"

CHAPTER 2

"Mama! I'm home!" I called as I walked into the house.

"In here!" My mother's voice carried through the house from the kitchen.

"Hey sweety," she said with a smile, offering me a cup of iced tea. "How was your first day?"

"Strange," I replied simply. "Very strange."

She smiled and returned to preparing dinner. "Did you make any new friends?"

"A few." I grabbed an apple and bit into it.

She hesitated a moment before speaking again. "Are any of them. black?"

She nearly whispered the last word. I raised my eyebrows in shock. "Would that matter?"

"Well," she began, grasping for words.

"You've been spending too much time with Ray, Mama," I said, ending the argument before it began. "I'm going up to my room."

"I don't want you spending time with Ronnie or that running back," Raid said coldly as we drove to school the next morning.

"Petey?" He nodded. I shot him a glare. "That's really none of your business."

Just before the bell rang, Ronnie stalked into the room and took his seat beside me.

"Good morning," I said as he set his books on the table.

He rested his head on the chemistry book. "That is a matter of opinion."

"What happened to you?" I chuckled slightly at his condition.

"Have you ever run seven miles in one night?" I shook my head and he continued. "Trust me; it's not fun, especially when you only warm the bench."

I gave him a sympathetic smile. "Aw, poor Sunshine."

He shot me a playful glare as Mrs. Cain called the class to order.

When the lunch bell rang, I grabbed my sketch book and once again headed outside. As my eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight, I glanced around for something to draw. The courtyard was busier than it had been the day before, so I had my choice of subjects. I decided to concentrate on a couple sitting at a nearby table, sharing a hushed conversation.

Just before I made the first mark on the page, something caught my attention. Nor far beyond the couple, a group of Titans sat around a table laughing and singing. I turned my attention to them and began sketching rapidly. As I finished the last stroke, a shadow was cast over the page. I jumped when I saw Gerry standing over me.

"Do I really look that goofy when I smile?"

"Artistic license," I teased.

"Why don't you come eat with us?" Gerry suggested. "We don't bit, I promise."

He turned and started toward the table. Quickly gathering my things, I followed him.

"Alright y'all make some space," he motioned for me to sit in the empty space between Petey and Julius. "Everyone, this is Susie."

There was a chorus of greetings from each of them.

"So what were you doing over there all by your lonesome?" Petey asked, taking a bite of his sandwich.

I could feel the color rising in my cheeks. "Just sketching."

"Us?" one of the others asked with peaked interest. "Can we check it out?"

I bit my lip and glanced down at the closed sketchbook that rested atop my books.

'Blue, leave the poor girl alone," Ronnie defended as I sat in silence. "She doesn't have to show us if she doesn't want to."

Blue was about to apologize when I smiled at him and flipped through the pages until I found the most recent drawing. "It's ok, really, but I can't guarantee that it is any good."

Blue took the book that I offered him. "Will ya look at that? I gotta say fellas, we look good."

The book was passed around the table, each of them making a comment that only made me blush more.

"Well, well, well, if it isn't my sister the traitor." Ray leaned against a nearby tree, assessing his teammates.

All conversation at the table promptly ceased and every set of eyes turned to face me.

"What did I tell you about hanging out with these lowlifes?" Ray continued, moving so that he stood directly behind me.

I grabbed my pile of books and stood to face him. "I thought I told you that who I associate with is none of your business."

I tried to push passed him, but his hand gripped my upper arm tightly. "I'm serious, Susan."

My gaze shifted from Ray's eyes to his hand and back. "If you know what id good for you, you'll let me go."

Ray loosened his grip and held up his hands in defeat as I stalked into the building.

"Susie wait up!" I tried to ignore Ronnie calling me down the hallway, but he was surprisingly persistent. Before I knew it, he stood beside me, holding out my sketchbook. "You forgot something."

"Thanks," I said softly, adding it to my pile of books.

"So, Ray Budds is your brother?" he asked out of the blue.

"Well, yes and no," I replied as we reached my locker.

Ronnie leaned against the locker beside me in confusion. "You lost me."

"Ray's my step-brother," I explained. "My mother married his father six years ago, and then he adopted me."

"Like the Brady Bunch?"

I laughed lightly. "Sort of, but with a lot more yelling and no housekeeper."

Ronnie laughed heartedly. "I can tell that you two don't exactly see eye to eye on certain things."

"We don't see eye to eye on anything."

The bell rang and Ronnie motioned for us to head down the hallway. "I'm sure that Ray has some redeeming qualities."

"Yeah, he can walk upright," I quipped as we approached Ronnie's classroom.

"By the way, that picture is great." He pointed to my sketchbook, which was open to the drawing of him from the day before.

When I looked up to reply, Ronnie had already vanished into the classroom. Grinning, I shook my head and continued down the hallway.

That night, I sat between my mother and Ray's father in the stands watching the Titan's first game.

"It's about time they took out that damn black running back," my stepfather said as Petey was taken off the field.

I rolled my eyes. "Like Ray is blocking any better."

He shot me a dirty look before returning his attention to the game. Shaking my head, I scanned the sidelines. After a few seconds, I spotted Ronnie talking with Petey on the bench. I smiled as the clock wound down to zero and the Titans began to cheer.

After the Titan's victory, I followed my parents down to the locker room. While my stepfather and Ray talked about the win, I watched absently as the Titans filed out the locker room door.

Suddenly, a pair of arms wound around my shoulders. I turned to see a smiling Petey proudly displaying the game ball.

"Great job Petey." I congratulated him with a quick hug.

"What, no hug for me?" Ronnie had emerged from the locker room and was approaching us with an excited smile.

Without giving it too much thought, I wrapped my arms around his waist. My heart skipped a beat as he tightened his arms around my shoulders. I smiled at him as we separated. "Congratulations."

"Hey Susie," Gerry called as he came toward us with Alan not far behind. "Why don't you come celebrate with us?"

"Yeah, come on sister," Blue encouraged as he joined the group.

"Susan," my stepfather scolded from a few feet off. "We're leaving. Come on."

I gave the boys an apologetic smile and then turned to follow my parents into the parking lot.

A few hours later, I sat on my bed, sketching my cat who lay sleeping at my feet. A car door closing in front of my house caught my attention. Ray didn't usually return home until long after midnight on game nights, and it was only nine o'clock. Curious, I walked to the window and pulled back the curtains. Ronnie stood in front of the house, pacing on the sidewalk.

I lifted the glass and leaned out the window. "Ronnie? What are you doing here?"

He looked up at me and gave me a sad smile, but said nothing.

"Wait there, I'll be right down."

I approached him hesitantly, reaching out to touch his arm. "Are you alright?"

He took a deep breath and stared at the cement. "Petey and I had a fight."

"Come on." I lead him around the house to the back porch.

We sat on the grass under the stars as he explained the events of the evening and Petey's reaction to the incident at the restaurant.

"How could I have been so naïve?" he finished, lying back onto the grass.

I lay down beside him, a few feet away. "Give him time. He'll understand."

For a long time, we lay in silence, staring up at the night sky. Ronnie reached across the space that separated us and wordlessly took my hand. After what seemed like hours of comfortable silence, the sound of a car door rang out in the darkness. Sunshine looked at his watch. "I have to go."

He stood and helped be to my feet, never releasing my hand. I followed him to his car, which was parked in the street in front of the house.

"Thank you, Susie," he said hoarsely, releasing my hand.

I smiled lightly. "You're welcome, Sunshine."

He slowly leaned forward and planted a soft kiss on my forehead. "Goodnight."

I stood at the curb until he turned the corner at the end of the street. I turned to go back into the house, but found Ray blocking the door. "You want to tell me what that was all about?"

"No," I responded simply, pushing passed him into the house.

He followed me toward the stairs. "What was Sunshine doing here?"

"Goodnight Ray." I closed my bedroom door in his face.

CHAPTER 3

The next two weeks passed in a blur. Ronnie and I spoke every morning and at lunch, but neither of us ever mentioned that Friday night again. There was no need for discussion.

Although Ronnie and Petey had reconciled their problems, the ties of the Titans were quickly being torn apart. With a riff separating Gerry and Julius, and fights breaking out everywhere, the atmosphere at school seemed to only be getting worse.

The stands buzzed on Friday night as we anxiously awaited the Titan's game against Groveton. With all the hype behind the game, every seat in the stands was filled.

After an astonishing victory, thanks in large part to Ronnie, the parking lot in front of the locker room was unusually full of fans. I weaved my way through the crowd toward the door. Eventually, I made my way to a group of Titans standing near the building.

"How you doing, Rev?" I asked, examining his wrapped wrist.

The quarterback smiled. "I'll be fine as long as Louis leaves me alone."

"I said that I was sorry," Louis said, cowering beside Rev.

I scanned the group that stood around me. "Where's Sunshine?"

"He'll be out in a minute," Gerry answered, approaching us with a grim frown pulling at his lips.

"You ok?" I asked, pulling him into a congratulatory hug.

He pulled away and smiled slightly. "I'll be fine."

A loud roar erupted from the crowd as Ronnie exited the locker room. He was immediately swarmed by parents and students lining up to congratulate him.

Eventually, the crowd began to thin out and only the Titans and a few fans lingered. Ronnie had been so swamped with fans that he hadn't been able to join us. I stood hesitantly behind him as he concluded his conversation with the last set of giggling girls.

"How does it feel to be a football star?" I asked while his back was still turned to me.

Ronnie spun around to face me with a broad smile on his face. Before I knew what was happening, he pulled me to him and covered my lips with his. I became vaguely aware of cheers from the other Titans, but I soon blocked them out. I reached my arms up around his neck and ran my hands through his damp, blonde hair. When my head finally stopped spinning, I pulled back hesitantly and stared into his eyes in shock.

He leaned forward and whispered in my ear. "Great."

"Well that answers my question," Petey pointed out, breaking the silence that otherwise filled the parking lot.

"Come on fellas," Blue called when the chuckles subsided. "It's time to party."

"You two lovebirds coming?" Petey asked, approaching us.

"We'll catch up with you bro," Ronnie replied, exchanging a low five with Petey before he took off to follow the others.

Ronnie sat on the curb and motioned for me to join him. "I. Was that out of line?"

I stared at the pavement in front of me for a long moment. "I had never considered the possibility of-"

"I'm sorry," he interrupted, running a hand through his hair. "I shouldn't have done this, especially not in front of everyone. It was a silly impulse."

Grabbing his hand before he could return it to his jacket pocket, I forced him to look at me. "Just because I hadn't considered it, doesn't mean that I didn't want it to happen."

I leaned up and kissed him softly.

When the kiss came to a natural end, it was his turn to be shocked. "Does this mean."

"Yes Sunshine," I answered with a smile. Standing, I offered him my hand. "Come on, Mr. Football Star, let's go celebrate."

His look of shock was replaced by an expression on pure joy as he grabbed my hand tightly.

"What question was Petey talking about?"

Ronnie's face reddened as he laughed. "Trust me, you don't want to know."

We walked out of the empty parking lot hand in hand to join the rest of the Titans.

Later that week, I lay in my bed reading when I heard something hitting my window. I got up and pulled back the curtains. Ronnie stood in the front yard, poised to throw another pebble at the window. When he saw me, his hand dropped and a smile lit up his face.

I lifted the glass and leaned on the window frame. "Can't you just use the door like a normal person?"

Ronnie shrugged. "Not my style."

"What do you want, Sunshine?"

"Will you go to homecoming with me?" he asked quickly.

"Of course," I replied.

He let out a deep sigh. "Good."

"Were you worried that I'd say no?"

"You never know," he answered seriously. "Just making sure. I gotta go. See you tomorrow."

"Goodnight." I closed the window and leaned against the wall with a goofy smile on my face.

As the doorbell rang out in the house, I straightened my dress, ruffling the taffeta.

"Susan!" my stepfather called up the stairs. "There is a young man here for you."

I turned to the mirror and scanned my reflection. The dress that my mother and I had picked out hung a few inches above my ankles and was a powdery blue that nearly matched the color of my eyes. My silky brown hair hung in loose curls around my shoulders.

"Susan!" My stepfather was growing impatient.

I grabbed the shall that was draped over the end of my bed and headed for the stairs.

Taking only a few steps out of my bedroom, I could hear Ronnie being interrogated. "Susan's curfew is eleven o'clock. Do you intend to have her home on time?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good," my stepfather replied. "And do you intend to be spending any time in mixed company tonight?"

After a moment of silence, Ronnie responded, "I'm sorry, sir, I'm not sure that I understand."

"Blacks, son," he corrected.

Before Ronnie could reply, I descended the stairs. He sat numbly on the couch beside my mother, looking particularly handsome in his white tuxedo. All the eyes in the room turned toward me as I entered.

"Susan, good to see that you finally decided to join us," Ray's father commented coldly.

"Sorry that it took so long," I apologized, giving Ronnie a sad smile. "We should probably be going, right Ronnie?"

He jumped to his feet. "Yes, we need to hurry to keep our dinner reservations. It was nice to meet you, sir."

My father shook his outstretched hand. "Keep up the good work out there on the field, son."

"I'll try, sir." He nodded to my mother. "Goodnight, ma'am."

"You kids have fun," my mother called, closing the door behind us.

"Well, aren't you the gentleman tonight?" I teased, taking his hand as we walked toward the car.

He groaned and ran his free hand through his hair. "Well at least now I know where Ray gets the attitude from."

"Good evening everyone," the principal began, leaning into the microphone, "and welcome to the first Titan homecoming in history."

A great roar came up from the crowd, thanks, in part, to the excited football players that surrounded me.

"And now, without further ado," he continued when the crowd died down. "It is my pleasure to announce your homecoming king and queen. The 1971 king is, Gerry Bertier."

The gym erupted in applause as Gerry moved from his spot beside me and made his way onto the stage.

"And his queen, Emma Hoyt."

There was an awkward pause as Emma began to move toward the stage. Eventually, Julius began clapping and was slowly joined by the rest of the students.

After the pair was crowned, a slow melody filled the gym and the crowd coupled off for the dance. Ronnie wordlessly took my hand and pulled me onto the dance floor.

"Have I told you how beautiful you look tonight?" he whispered. When I shook my head, he smiled. "Well, you do."

"Thank you," I replied, laying my head on his shoulder.

He cleared his throat and whispered huskily, "I think that I've fallen in live with you, Susie."

I stopped dancing and looked at him in shock.

"Say something," he pleaded, fear flashing in his eyes.

I squeezed his hand reassuringly. "I think that I love you, too."

A broad smile lit up his face and he wrapped his arms around my waist, spinning me in a circle.

"Sunshine," I said between giggles, "put me down."

He lowered me to the floor. "Sorry."

I captured his lips in a soft kiss before we continued dancing.

The week after homecoming, I barely saw Ronnie outside of school. With the regional game on Saturday, Coach Boone kept the boys busy until late in the night.

Since Ray's extraction from the team, my parents no longer attended the games, so I sat with a group of friends. Sheryl Yost paced before us, animatedly expressing how we all felt about the call of the umpires.

I waited with the other fans in the parking lot as the Titan's bus pulled up.

"Hey Petey,' I called as he walked toward me. Instead of stopping to talk, he pushed passed me. Ronnie came up beside me. "What was that all about?"

"Coach took him out of the game," he replied.

The tone of Ronnie's voice told me that a quick change of subject was in order. "So where are we hanging out tonight?"

"I'm not really in the mood to be around everyone tonight," he said, taking my hand. "How about we find somewhere to watch the stars?"

I nodded in agreement and we took off to find his car. After about half an hour of driving, he pulled the car to the side of the road and put it in park. Pulling a few blankets from the trunk, he grabbed my hand and dragged me down a small path that weaved among the trees.

I followed hesitantly, being careful of my footing. "Sunshine, where are you taking me?"

"You'll see." He turned just long enough to flash me that bright smile before continuing down the path.

We walked for a few more minutes before coming to a stop in a beautiful clearing of trees turning the bright colors of a Virginia autumn. A small pond, surrounded by plush grass, reflected the hazy harvest moon that shone overhead.

"It's beautiful," I called back to Ronnie, who was spreading out a blanket on the grass.

"You're beautiful," he whispered, wrapping his arms around my waist from behind.

Blushing, I turned and began to kiss him gently. I one fluid motion, he softly lowered us onto the blanket.

The next thing that I knew, I lay on Ronnie's bare chest, covered with a blanket.

"You ok?" he asked gently, running a hand softly down my arm.

I nodded silently and cuddled closer to him.

A few moments passé before he held up his wrist to check his watch. "Oh no. We have to go or you'll miss curfew."

We dressed quickly and hurried back to the car. As we pulled up to my house, the clock in Ronnie's car read 10:58.

"Let me walk you to the door," he said, unbuckling his seat belt.

"It's ok." I rested my hand on his forearm. "You don't have to."

He leaned forward and gave me a kiss. "Please."

We walked up the sidewalk hand in hand. As we neared the porch, I made out the shadow of a figure sitting on the steps in the darkness. "Ray?"

My stepbrother looked up at us but said nothing.

"Ray," I pressed, "What's wrong?"

He took a deep breath. "Gerry had an accident."

I tightened my grip on Ronnie's hand. "How bad?"

"He's in the hospital," Ray replied, not shifting his gaze from the sidewalk in front of him.

"Come on," Ronnie said quickly, pulling me back toward the car. He stopped before he opened his door. "You coming Budds?"

Ray looked up in shock before jogging to join us.

We all sat sprawled around the waiting room at the hospital. Sunshine, Ray and I had only been there for a few minutes when Julius came barreling through the glass doors. Watching the linebacker break down in tears was too much for me to handle. Quietly, I slipped out the door and sat on the curb in front of the hospital.

"Susie," Ronnie asked softly, taking a seat beside me. "Are you alright?"

"It's been an eventful night," I replied dryly.

"About what happened earlier," he started slowly. "Susie, I didn't plan for that to happen."

I gave him a sad smile. "I know."

He rested his hand around my shoulders and pulled me toward him. "I promise that it won't happen again, not until we're both ready."

"We can't see him tonight." Petey joined us on the curb. "Coach says to go home and get some sleep.

A few days after the state championship, Sunshine and I sat in his living room studying chemistry.

"I don't get it." He leaned his head back onto the cushions of the sofa. "I just don't get it."

I giggled as he squirmed in discomfort. "It's easy. Here-"

Just as I held my book toward him, the telephone began to ring on the wall. "Hold that thought."

Ronnie's eyes grew wide as he listened to the voice on the other end of the line. Before hanging up, he mumbled, "Than you, sir."

"What was that all about?" I asked as he returned to the couch, a shocked look still frozen on his face.

"That was the University of South Carolina," he replied numbly. "They want me to play football for them next year, on a full scholarship."

I enthusiastically wrapped my arms around his neck. After a moment of hesitation, he returned the hug.

"Come on," I said quickly after we separated. "If you're going to go to college, you have to pass chemistry."

Sunshine groaned and picked up his book.

CHAPTER 4

Two months later, the doctors allowed Gerry to return home.

I stood on his doorsteps of the Bertier's house, my hands shaking.

Gerry's mother came to the door and held it open for me. "Why Susan, it is good to see you. Have you come to see Gerry?"

"Yes, ma'am," I replied, removing my jacket.

"Gerry you have a visitor!"

The linebacker in question rolled in from the kitchen. "Hey Susie Q!"

I smiled, the corners of my eyes beginning to blur as tears collected. "Hi."

"Gerry dear, I have to run to the store. Will you be alright?" his mother asked buttoning her jacket.

Gerry smiled. "Yes mom, I'll be fine."

"I'll be back soon." She opened the door and let herself out into the cold January air.

"What's the matter, Susie?" Gerry asked when the door closed.

"What makes you think that something-"

He held up a hand to stop my protest. "Susie, I've known you since we were kids. I know better. Out with it."

"Gerry, I need your help."

His teasing grin was immediately replaced by a look of concern. He led me to the living room, motioning for me to sit on the couch opposite him. "What is it?"

I explained to him what happened the night of the regional game. Trying as best I could to keep the details to a minimum.

"Are you telling me that you and Sunshine." Gerry trailed off, obviously unsure of how to continue.

"Yes, Sunshine and I." I suddenly became too embarrassed to finish the sentence.

"Well," Gerry began hesitantly, "it is the seventies. These things happen. It's not a big-"

"Gerry, I'm pregnant."

He froze, his mouth still open staring at me in shock. After a long silence, Gerry finally regained his composure. "Does Sunshine know?"

I shook my head. "And he can't. With his scholarship. Look, he just can't know. It will ruin everything for him."

"What about you Susie? What are you going to do?"

I swallowed the lump that had formed in my throat. "I was hoping that you could tell me."

"I can't," he replied.

I nodded and closed my eyes tightly. A single tear rolled down my cheek, leaving a warm, wet trail.

When I opened my eyes, Gerry had moved directly in front of me. Taking my hands in his, he smiled reassuringly. "I'll ask around, see if there's anything that we can do."

"Thank you," I mumbled, trying to return his smile.

"No crying," Gerry commanded with a grin, wiping my cheek. "I'll take care of you. I promise."

Sunshine and Petey walked happily beside me in the hallway the next afternoon.

"No offense, man," Sunshine teased, "but Virginia's boring without football."

"Watch it, hippie boy," Petey retorted. "You're one of us now."

My stomach flip-flopped and I stopped walking.

"Hey, are you ok?" Sunshine came up beside me.

"Yeah, sweety," Petey chimed in. "You don't look so good."

I took a deep breath. "I'm fine."

"Hey guys," Gerry called, rolling up behind us. "Can I steal Susie for a minute?"

Sunshine checked that I was alright once more before finally being dragged away by Petey.

"Can you excuse me for one second?" I asked, holding my stomach. Before Gerry could respond, I darted into a nearby ladies room.

Gerry was waiting for me outside the door. "Are you ok, Susie?"

Checking to make sure that the hall was empty, I moved behind him and began pushing him down the corridor. "Morning sickness is every bit as horrible as everyone makes it out to be."

Gerry started chuckling and I playfully slapped him on the back of the head.

"Sorry," he replied. "I know that it's not funny."

"Did you need something?"

"Here." He handed me a slip of paper.

"The Birch Center?" I scanned it quickly. "What's this?"

"A group home," Gerry answered softly, "for girls with babies and nowhere to go."

"In California?"

He nodded. "What are you going to do Susie?"

"Disappear," I said with a shaking voice. "It'll be better for everyone this way. Please don't tell them."

That night, I packed my bags and bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. On the way to the bus station, I slipped a letter into the Bass's mailbox. While it was only a few lines long, it took me nearly an hour to write. The words still burned in my mind.

Ronnie,
I have to go away for reasons that
I can't explain. Please understand. Don't
forget me. I love you.
Susie

A similar note had been left on the kitchen table of my house, where it was sure to be found. That was it, no explanations. No looking back.

CHAPTER 5

1976

"Sue, I need a final copy of this layout before you leave tonight."

"Done." I held up a sheet of paper for my boss, Tony, to grab.

He scanned it quickly. "Wonderful as always, Sue. I don't suppose that you want to stay and finish John's layout."

"Don't even think about it," I replied, pulling my purse out of the left hand drawer of my desk. "I have to get home to make dinner."

"Sue." My secretary, Karen, met me in the doorway. "Phone call, line one."

"Take a message. I'm done for the day."

She shrugged. "I tried to tell him. He wouldn't take no for an answer."

Reluctantly, I held the receiver to my ear. "LA Sun, how can I help you?''

"Susie?"

The voice on the other end of the line made my knees go weak. "Gerry?"

"I can't believe that I finally found you," he continued in a choked voice.

"So what's," I stammered after a moment of silence. "What's been happening?"

I leaned back in my char and listened as he told me stories of his Olympic training.

"And me and Julius," he continued, "Man, we are having the best time."

As Gerry spoke, my eyes shifted to the clock that sat on my desk. "Oh, no."

"What's wrong?"

I gathered my things as I sat at the desk. "I have to go."

"Please don't disappear again," he mumbled softly.

"I'm not going to disappear," I reassured. "I just have to get home to make dinner."

"Will you call me later?"

We quickly exchanged numbers and I darted to my car.

Later that night, I sat on a lounge chair on the balcony of my apartment. Staring out at the L.A. skyline. The telephone sat on a glass table beside me. I ran the paper with Gerry's number on it through my fingers. Just as I reached for the receiver, I heard soft footsteps behind me in the apartment.

"Mommy, I'm thirsty."

Getting up from my place on the balcony, I picked up my son and carried him into the kitchen.

"Let's see what we've got, huh?" I set him on the counter and opened the refrigerator door. I held up two cartons. "Alright, apple or orange?"

"That one!" he exclaimed, pointing to the apple juice.

I poured him a glass and we headed back out onto the balcony. When he finished his juice, he climbed up onto my lap and cuddled against me, quickly falling asleep. I carefully picked him up and carried him to his bedroom. Placing a soft kiss on his forehead, I pulled the blankets over his shoulders. "Goodnight, Willie."

Returning to my place on the balcony, I picked up the phone and dialed Gerry's number before I could change my mind.

"Hello?" Gerry answered in a groggy voice.

"Oh my gosh." I sat down on the chair. "I totally forgot about the time difference. It must be so late there. I'm sorry, Gerry. I'll call back tomorrow."

"Susie, it's ok, really," he mumbled, still waking up.

"How is my family?" I asked after a moment.

"Ray got drafted," he started slowly, "not long after graduation."

I swallowed hard. "So I heard."

"Susie, he." he stammered.

"I know Gerry," I replied softly. "We checked the lists everyday at the center. Lots of those babies had daddies fighting."

He cleared his throat. "How is your baby?"

I glanced over my shoulder at Willie's darkened bedroom. "Not a baby anymore. He's almost five."

"A boy? What did you name him?"

"Willie." I took a deep breath and corrected myself. "William. William Ronald."

"Good name," Gerry commented. There were a few more moments of silence before Gerry spoke again. "Susie, will you come home?"

"I can't Gerry," I replied sadly. "I have a life here now, I can't just pick up and-"

"You can't hide forever," he calmly interrupted.

"I can try."

"Please Susie, at least come to visit. To tell your mama that you are alright."

My eyes welled up with tears at the thought of seeing my mother again. "I just can't."

"Well, if you change your mind, all of the guys are coming back next week. Boone's retiring and we wanna be there for his last homecoming."

"Gerry I-"

"Just think about it. Goodnight, Susie Q."

"Goodnight."

CHAPTER 6

"Sue are you hearing me?"

I tried to shake myself back to reality. "Sorry, what?"

"Is everything alright?" Tony asked in silent concern.

"Tony, I need a few weeks off."

"I'm sorry Sue," he replied. "But you're my best layout designer. Short of an emergency I just can't-"

"Please Tony, I need to go back east for awhile."

"Fine," he conceded. "Never say that I didn't do anything for you. You've got two weeks."

I threw my arms around his neck. "Thank you, Tony."

After packing a few things for myself and Willie, I picked him up at daycare, got on the freeway headed east and didn't stop. Four days of driving and three nights in horrible hotels with a four year old later, I was steering my car through the familiar streets of Alexandria.

Driving passed the high school, I saw Coach Boone preparing the current team for their homecoming game the next afternoon.

"Mommy, I have to go potty," Willie whined from the back seat.

I turned around, smiling at him. "Ok, honey. Hang on one minute."

Following the directions that Gerry had given me over the phone, I pulled up in front of a house on the outskirts of the burgh.

"I can't believe my eyes." Gerry rolled out onto the porch. "Susie, is that really you?"

I helped Willie out of the back seat and we walked hand in hand up the ramp to the porch.

"Good to see you Gerry." I threw my free arm around his shoulders.

"Mommy," Willie whined beside me. I glanced down to see him crossing his legs in desperation.

"Oh, right." I turned back to Gerry. "Bathroom?"

He smiled. "Down the hall, first door on your right."

"We'll be right back." I led Willie to the bathroom.

An hour later, we were unpacked and moved into a Gerry's spare rooms.

"Out like a light." Gerry rolled onto the porch to join me, two glasses of lemonade resting on a tray in his lap. "He's beautiful Susie."

I glanced through the open doorway at Willie's sleeping form on the couch. "He's my life."

"Hey Gerry," someone called, coming up the walk. My heart leapt into my throat when a familiar blonde head came into view. "I just got in and I thought-"

Sunshine stopped dead in his tracks when he saw me sitting on the porch beside Gerry. His eyes grew as wide as saucers and he wordlessly took off down the street.

"Well, apparently not everyone missed me as much as you did," I remarked, taking a sip of lemonade.

He reached out a hand to touch my shoulder. "Give him time."

Later that afternoon, I followed Gerry up the walk to my childhood home with Willie holding my hand.

"Mrs. Budds, I have a surprise for you," Gerry told my mother when she opened the door.

I lifted Willie onto my hip and stepped onto the porch. "Hi, Mama."

"Oh, my baby!" She wrapped her arms around me. "I never thought that I'd see you again."

"I'm so sorry Mama." I choked back tears.

She flashed me a supportive smile. "Alright now, none of that. What do you say that we leave the past in the past?"

I nodded and wiped a tear that had escaped from the corner of my eye.

"Alright." She turned toward Willie who was beginning to fall asleep on my shoulder. "Now it is time to introduce me to this little guy."

"Mama, this is Willie. My son."

"Well, hello Willie. I'm your Grandma." She shifted her attention to me again. "Come on in. I was just making dinner."

"That would be my cue to leave," Gerry said, backing down the sidewalk.

My mother smiled. "Nonsense Gerry, you come inside and have dinner with us."

"Yes ma'am," he replied happily. "You don't have to ask me twice."

As we walked into the house, something didn't feel right. "Mama, where's-"

"He left," she interrupted simply, "soon after we found out about Ray."

"I'm so sorry."

She smiled sadly. "It's alright dear. I think that it was for the best."

"Well," Gerry sighed, setting down his napkin. "Wonderful meal, Mrs. Budds. Now, if you ladies will excuse me, I promised that I would meet the guys downtown."

"You have fun," my mother commanded, opening the door for him.

"But not too much fun," I teased.

He flashed me his usual grin. "I'll leave the door open for you."

"Goodnight, Mommy." Willie wrapped his arms around my neck as I closed the book that I had finished reading him.

"Sweet dreams, honey." I pulled the covers over his shoulders and exited the room.

Gerry sat at the kitchen table with a steaming cup sitting in front of him. "Coco?"

"Sure," I replied, taking a seat across from him. "I didn't hear you come in."

"I'm quiet." He smiled. "Sunshine was asking about you tonight."

I nearly spit out the sip of coco in my mouth. "What did you tell him?"

"Nothing. I said that you would explain everything to him tomorrow." I bit my lip and Gerry narrowed his eyes at me. "You do plan on telling him, don't you?"

"Well." I shrugged.

"Susan!" he spat in a harsh whisper.

"I know, I know," I conceded. "I'll tell him."

"Well, lets get some sleep." He moved to the sink and rinsed his cup. "We've got a long day ahead of us tomorrow."

"Goodnight, Gerry," I said as he started toward his room. "And thank you - for everything."

He shot me a quick grin before disappearing into his bedroom.

"Good morning, sleepyhead," Gerry called as I walked into the kitchen the next morning.

I groaned. "Please tell me that you have coffee."

"On the counter." Gerry pointed to the coffee pot next to the sink.

I filled a cup and began sipping it as I moved to the doorframe that separated the kitchen and the living room. "How long has he been up?"

"About an hour."

I watched as Willie feverishly pushed trucks around on the carpet. "I'm sorry, Gerry. I know that he can be a handful sometimes."

"No problem at all." Gerry set a plate of eggs on the counter beside me. "He's a lot like his dad, you know."

I smiled sadly. "More than I care to admit sometimes."

"I have to meet the guys," he said, placing the frying pan in the sink. "I'll see you at the game."

"Hey sweety." I sat down on the floor next to Willie. "What do you say you and I go to the park for the day?"

His eyes widened. "Really?"

"Sure. Just give Mommy five minutes to get ready ok?"

"Ok," he beamed. "Hurry Mommy."

While Willie sat in the sandbox, moving piles of sand with his trucks, I pulled my sketchbook out of the bag on my shoulder. Flipping to an empty page, I couldn't help smiling at Willie's face on every page. Since the day that he was born, he had become my permanent subject.

Finally finding a blank page, I began to sketch Willie, face down, blonde hair hanging in his eyes.

"Good to see that you haven't lost your gift."

I turned to see my mother standing behind me, holding something toward me. "I found this when I was going through some of your things."

I quickly flipped through my old sketchbook, stopping at the sketch of the Titans eating lunch.

"I was always fond of that one," Mama said, taking a seat beside me in the grass. She draped an arm around my shoulders. "So what are you working on there"

I angled the book so that she could see the sketch of Willie. "He's beautiful, Susan. You have done well."

"Thank you, Mama."

She nodded, sitting in silence for a moment. "When do you plan on telling Ronnie?"

My head snapped up, meeting her eyes. "How did you-"

She tapped here temple. "Mother's intuition. We know everything."

"I'm so scared that he will hate me, Mama."

She squeezed my shoulders tightly. "That might be the case Susie, but he deserves to know the truth."

"I know."

"Good." She nodded. "Now, you two better get going if you want to make it to the game tonight."

"I almost forgot." I began packing my bag. "Willie, come over here!"

"Do we have to go home?" he asked sadly.

With a smile, I began to brush the excess sand off of his body. "We're not going home."

"Where are we going, Mommy?"

I picked up his trucks and added them to the contents of the bag. "We're going to a football game. What do you think about that?"

While he jumped up and down in excitement, I turned to say goodbye to Mama.

"Good luck tonight," she whispered as she hugged me.

Willie grabbed my hand and began pulling me toward the road. "Come on, Mommy. Football."

"See you tomorrow, Mama," I called as he dragged me away.

"Bye, Grandma!" Willie shouted over his shoulder.

Mama stood waving. "Have fun Willie."

CHAPTER 8

As soon as we entered Titan Stadium, I spotted Gerry, Julius and a few of the others gathered near the fence.

"Mommy, I'm hungry." Willy pulled at my hand.

I smiled down at him. "Well, let's find some food, huh?"

While Willie wolfed down a hotdog from the concession stand, I scanned the crowd. I recognized a few sets of parents from when I was in high school, although they had aged significantly. I turned my attention back to my son, who had finished his hotdog and was now searching the table for something to play with. "Let's go watch the game kiddo."

He nodded enthusiastically and took off toward my high school friends. "Gerry!"

Smiling, I followed him, standing unnoticed in the fringes of the group.

"Hey Gerry, who's the squirt?" Sunshine asked playfully.

Gerry grinned. "Why don't you ask him?"

"Alright." Sunshine squatted down at Willie's level. "Hey, little dude, I'm Sunshine. What's your name?"

"Willie," he responded shyly.

"Good to meet you." Sunshine held out his hand and Willie slapped it energetically. "How old are you, little bro?"

"This many." He held up four little fingers. "And a half."

"Cute kid," Sunshine commented to Gerry as he stood up.

Meanwhile, Willie came over to me and pulled me toward the rest of the group.

"Susie?" Sunshine asked softly.

I smiled at him hesitantly and was about to speak when Willie pulled at my hand. "This is Sunshine, Mommy."

Everyone around us stared, mouths gaping, as I knelt down beside my son and picked him up. "I know sweety."

"You wanna explain this, Susie?"

I bit my lip and took a deep breath, shifting my gaze from Ronnie to Willie and then back.

"Rev," Petey piped up from beside Sunshine, "What do you say we take Willie here to play a little catch?"

Rev nodded and rounded up the other Titans while Petey took Willie from my arms. Suddenly, Ronnie and I stood alone beside the fence.

"So that's why you left." He leaned on the fence, refusing to look at me. When I didn't respond, he finally turned to face me. "And in five years, you couldn't have picked up the phone once to tell me that I had a son!"

Without another word, he stalked away from me toward the parking lot.

"Special delivery for you, Susie." I turned, wiping my eyes, to find Petey behind me with Willie in his arms. "This little guy is exhausted."

I took my son from him, flashing him a weak smile. "It's been a long day. I think that I'll take him home."

"Goodnight," Petey said, giving me a quick squeeze, "It's good to see you, girl."

"I'll see you all later," I said with a soft smile, turning to leave. There was a chorus of goodbyes from the Titans as I started toward the car.

When Willie was safely tucked into his bed at Gerry's house, I grabbed a glass of iced tea and sat on the porch. The warm October air blew through the leaves in the trees above me.

I closed my eyes, trying to analyze the events of the day. When I opened them again, Sunshine was standing at the bottom of the porch steps. "We need to talk."

I simply nodded, still too shocked at his presence to voice a response.

"Why didn't you tell me, Susie?" He slowly walked up the stairs and took a seat beside me.

I took a deep breath. "I thought that it would be easier this way. I couldn't have asked you to ruin your life."

"You really didn't give me a choice, did you?" he asked flatly.

"I'm sorry, Ronnie," I responded softly. "I thought that it was best for everyone."

"So you hid from me the face that I had a son!"

"I didn't hide him from you," I defended.

He locked his jaw. "No. You didn't stay around long enough to hide it. You just disappeared."

I could see the anger clouding over his eyes. Biting my lip, I tried to think of an explanation.

"Mommy," a groggy voice called from behind me.

Turning, I saw Willie standing in the open doorway in his pajamas, his teddy bear hanging limply from his hand. "Hey, what are you doing up?"

"I had a bad dream, Mommy." He ran the few feet from the door to my chair, throwing his arms around me tightly.

"Let's go get you some juice, huh?" I picked him up, holding him to my side tightly.

Sunshine leaned over to pick up the bear that Willie dropped in his hurry. "I think that you lost something, little man."

I smiled lightly at him over Willie's shoulder. "Can I get you anything?"

"Nah, I'm fine."

I got Willie a glass of juice and carried him onto his room. Halfway through Green Eggs and Ham, his eyes began to fall closed. By the time that the book was over, he was in a deep sleep. I closed the book and set it on the stand beside the bed. Leaning over, I placed a kiss on his forehead. "Sweet dreams, kiddo."

Silently, I crawled out from under the covers, repositioning them around him. When I glanced up at the doorway, I saw sunshine standing silhouetted by the light from the living room. He opened his mouth to speak, but I held an index finger to my lips to silence him. Exiting the room, I closed the door gently behind me.

"You're great with him," Sunshine whispered as we made our way back onto the porch.

I smiled and sat cross-legged in the chair. "I have had a lot of practice."

"Why now?" He took a seat in the chair across from me. "Why tell me now, after five years? So you need something?"

"No," I assured, "we have everything that we need, I promise."

He nodded and scanned the empty street before turning back to face me. "What do you expect from me, Susie?"

"Nothing. You can be as involved in Willie's life as much or little as you choose to be. It's all up to you."

Sunshine took a deep breath, running his hands through his hair. "Does he know about me?"

I shook my head. "I thought that it would be easier for you this way. No pressure."

"I have to think about it."

"That's ok," I said softly, touching his arm. "We'll be here for a few more days."

He nodded and flashed me a weak smile. "Goodnight, Susie."

"Goodnight." I watched him disappear down the street before walking back into the house.

CHAPTER 9

"Mommy!" I woke up just as Willie took a flying leap onto my bed. "Mommy, Sunshine's here."

I sat up and wiped my blurry eyes. "What?"

"He wants to take us to the park. Can we go Mommy, please?"

Stretching my arms and back, I stared down at his smiling face. "Alright. Go get dressed."

"Yeah!" Willie went screaming down the hallway to his room.

I dressed quickly, pulling my hair into a ponytail as I walked into the living room. Sunshine sat on the couch, talking to Gerry. As quietly as possible, I sneaked into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee. Standing in the doorframe that separated the living room and the kitchen, I watched as the boys talked.

"Oh, hey. You're up." Sunshine's eyes lit us as he glanced up.

I smiled down at him, holding up my cup of coffee in salute. "I am now."

"I'm really sorry about that," he said with a chuckle. "I didn't think that he was going to wake you up. I just thought that we could spend the day together."

"I'm ready." Willie trotted down the hallway and into the living room.

The three of us cracked up as the boy came into view. He was in a total state of disarray, complete with two different shoes, each on the wrong foot.

"I don't think so, sweety." I walked across the room and took his hand. "How about you and I try again?"

"Anything I can do to help?" Sunshine asked, regaining his composure.

I smiled. "I got it."

Ten minutes later, Willie and I emerged from the hallway, fully dressed and ready for the day. While Gerry and Sunshine said their goodbyes, I packed a quick bag for Willie, complete with toys, juice and sun block.

The three of us made our way to the park, Willie trotting a few feet ahead of us. As soon as we arrived, Willie begged for his trucks. After I finally turned them over, he grabbed Ronnie's hand and pulled him toward the sandbox. "Come on, Sunshine."

I flashed Ronnie an apologetic smile as he was dragged away. He winked before turning back to follow the four-year-old toward the awaiting sand. After a few moments of hesitation, I dropped onto a soft place on the grass and pulled out my sketchbook.

My hand moved feverishly over the page as if it had a mind of its own. After I finished the final stroke, I set the pad down before me on the grass to assess the final product. Really looking at the whole picture for the first time took my breath away. The image of both of them pushing around trucks, blonde hair hanging in their eyes and wearing the same playful smile was almost too overwhelming. I bit my bottom lip, a nervous habit that I had retained from my teenage years, and peered back up at the boys. I couldn't help cracking a smile as Ronnie tried to pry himself away from Willie.

Eventually, he succeeded and collapsed in a heap beside me. "Man, has that boy got a lot of energy."

"Yeah," I teased. "I couldn't imagine where he got that from."

He held up his hands defensively. "Hey, I was never that bad."

I shot him a questioning glance. "He definitely didn't get it from me."

Ronnie picked up a clover and began pulling off the pedals. "Was that the official change of subject?"

"It can be if you want it to be," I replied gently. I expected him to initiate conversation, but he seemed engrossed with the clover stem that he rolled between his thumb and forefinger.

"Mommy?" Willie running up to me made me jump slightly. "Mommy, can I go on the slide?"

"Sure, sweety. Just stay where I can see you."

He giggled with glee as he trotted toward the slide, not far off. When I was sure that he was safe, I turned my attention back to Ronnie. He hadn't moved.

"I want him to know who I am," he blurted out suddenly, not removing his eyes from the clover stem. "I owe him at least that much."

I inwardly screamed with joy, but kept my voice as calm as possible. "I'm glad."

"And as for the rest," he continued softly. When he finally met my gaze, I could see clouds forming in his once sparkling blue eyes. "I can't do it Susie. I just can't."

Swallowing the lump that had formed in m throat, I shifted my eyes to Willie contently tossing rocks onto the surface of the slide. "Because of what I did?"

My voice was so timid that I wasn't even sure that I had spoken them aloud. Ronnie's sigh assured that I had. "You don't want me to answer that."

"You already did," I said, a bit more harshly than I would have liked. Before I continued, I took a calming breath. "Do you want to be there when I tell him?"

"Sure."

"Come on kiddo, it's time to go." I tried to smile slightly as I collected Willie's things. Hoisting the bag onto my shoulder, I turned back to Ronnie. "Meet me at Gerry's tomorrow morning. I'll tell him before we leave."

Willie lay beside me on the couch watching cartoons later that night. His eyes began to slowly droop as Scooby Doo ran across the screen.

As soon as his eyes finally closed, there was a soft knock on the door. Checking to see that Willie was still asleep, I slipped off the couch and made my way quietly across the room. My eyes widened in shock when I saw Ronnie standing expectantly on the other side of the screen door.

"You left this," he offered, holding out my sketchbook. "Can we talk?"

I nodded, motioning to the chairs on the porch. "He's asleep inside."

He immediately lowered his voice to a whisper. "Please let me explain- "

"I get it, Sunshine. I really do. I know that what I did was unforgivable, but I had hoped that we could put the past behind us."

He sighed. "It's not that easy, Susie. I loved you and you just vanished.

My stomach sank. "I'm sorry-"

"Please let me finish," he interrupted gently. "When you left, my world fell apart, and it took me almost five years to get my life back in order. Then you showed up and. I can't go through it again."

I tried in desperation to blink back tears. "I really am sorry, Ronnie. I never meant to hurt you."

He swallowed hard before responding hoarsely, "I know."

There was a moment of silence, both of us listening to the soft chirp of nearby crickets as we tried to find something to say.

"So, where does that leave us?" I asked, staring out into the hazy night.

Shifting to face me, Ronnie took a deep breath. "I have a good life in Carolina. I can't afford to jeopardize it."

I nodded silently, unsure of how to respond.

After a moment of silence, he continued. "But I can't just pretend that this week didn't happen. I want to help you any way that I can."

"Like I told you before, Sunshine, I didn't come here to ask you for money."

"I know," he assured softly. "Willie is as much my responsibility as he is yours. It's time for me to step up and do something for him. For both of you."

"Ronnie, we're ok. Really-"

"Mommy?" Willie was walking toward the open door, running his hand through his disheveled blonde hair. "Will you read me a story?"

I bit my lip and gazed back up at Ronnie. "I'll only be a few minutes."

He flashed me a bright smile. "I should probably be going anyway. I'll see you in the morning." He turned to Willie, ruffling his hair. "Sweet dreams, little bro."

Sighing, I watched Sunshine disappear around the corner. I turned back to Willie with a soft smile. "So, what should we read?"

"Dr. Seuss!" he exclaimed, trotting down the hall toward his room.

CHAPTER 10

"You got everything?" Gerry asked, rolling down the sidewalk toward my car with a bag of Willie's toys on his lap.

I took the bag from him and shoved it into the trunk before closing it. "I sure hope so."

"Susie. I think that you forgot something," Sunshine called, emerging from the house with Willie slung over his shoulder.

I leaned against the car, watching Ronnie and Willie wrestle around on the grass. "Hey now, don't get him all riled up. We've got a long drive ahead of us."

"Alright, alright." Ronnie trotted up to me, grabbing a wrapped box from the roof of the car. "Hey Willie, some here a second."

My son obligingly ran over, stopping in front of Ronnie.

"Here you go, little dude, this is for you." Kneeling, he handed the package to Willie.

Willie ripped through the bright colored paper, triumphantly pulling a football from the box.

"What do you say, Willie?" I prompted, watching his smiling face.

He turned to Sunshine and threw his arms around him. "Thank you, Sunshine."

Ronnie stood, pulling Willie close to him. "You're welcome."

"Can we go play catch, Mommy?"

I locked eyes with Ronnie, who nodded. "Not now, sweety. Sunshine and I need to talk to you."

Willie looked confusedly between us as Sunshine set him on the trunk of the car.

"You're mom and I-" Ronnie started awkwardly. "I mean, when we were in high school we-"

I watched the confusion grow on Willie's face as Sunshine struggled to explain the past in a way that a five year old could understand.

"Sweety," I interrupted softly, "Sunshine is you Daddy."

Anger flashed in Willie's eyes and he threw the football at Sunshine before squirming off the trunk of the car. "I hate you!"

As Willie took off down the street, Ronnie started after him, but I lightly held him back. "Let me go."

I caught up with Willie halfway down the block. "Willie-"

"Go away, he grumbled, shrugging off the hand that I placed on his shoulder.

"William Ronald Budds," I scolded, "You know better than to talk to me like that. Now, do you want to tell me what that was all about back there?"

Willie frowned up at me. "No."

I sat down on the sidewalk and motioned for him to sit on my lap. "Come here, kiddo. You and I need to have a little talk."

He reluctantly sat down.

"Now why did you say that to your daddy?"

He turned toward me and furrowed his brow. "He's not my daddy."

I took a calming breath before responding. "Yes, he is. Nothing is going to change that. I suppose that you could hate him, but I wish that you wouldn't. He's a good guy, sweety. Give him a chance, ok?"

"Ok," he whispered after a moment.

"Why don't you go play a little catch with you dad?"

A flash of excitement came over his features and he took off down the street toward Ronnie.

"Kids have a strange way of changing their minds, huh?" I smiled as Gerry wheeled up to me on the sidewalk.

"Do you think that he's going to be alright?"

"Look at his, Susie Q."

I watched as Ronnie easily caught thee off-balance toss that Willie lofted in his direction. He burst into peals of laughter as Sunshine dropped the ball and playfully tackled him.

"He's going to be just fine," Gerry assured. "Come on."

"Come play, Mommy!" Willie screamed between giggles as Gerry and I approached.

I held up my hands in protest. "I don't think so."

Sunshine tossed the ball from hand to hand, walking up behind Willie. "Aw, come on, Mommy. We'll go easy on you."

I narrowed my eyes at him for a moment. "Alright, but only if I can be on Willie's team."

"Tell you what; I'll even let you have the ball first." Ronnie winked at me and threw the ball to me lightly. "You'd better watch it now. You're playing the Titan's star quarterback."

"Ooh, I'm shaking now," I teased. In a single moment, I caught a glimpse of the same playful and charismatic Sunshine that I had fallen in love with. The Sunshine that I missed. Shaking off the thought, I turned to Willie. "Ready Kiddo?"

Willie lightly snapped the ball to me before taking off down the yard. I was concentrating so hard on tossing the ball so that Willie could catch it, that I didn't even notice Sunshine charging at me. As soon as the ball was out of my hand, he tackled me to the ground.

"Hey, unnecessary roughness."

He smiled, shifting his weight off of me, but not getting up. "Not on the quarterback, sweetheart."

I felt butterflies rise up in my stomach as I realized how close we actually were. I suddenly felt like I was seventeen again; an innocent schoolgirl with an innocent crush. Ronnie's eyes locked with mine and time seemed to stand still. I suddenly became aware of his mouth moving closer to mine.

"Mommy! I scored a touchdown!"

I could tell by the change in his features that Ronnie registered Willie's voice at the same time that I did. He quickly moved off of me and ran to congratulate Willie.

After nearly an hour of football, Willie was completely worn out. He and Sunshine sat with Gerry on the porch, drinking lemonade.

"Come on, sweety, we need to get going," I called from the car, where I was adjusting the luggage to make room for Willie in the back seat. "We have a long drive."

Willie gave me a sad frown. "Please Mommy; can we stay for one more day?"

Sunshine joined him on the step, his expression mirroring his son's. "Please, Mommy."

"Hey, no ganging up on me," I said as seriously as I could with Ronnie flashing me a sad puppy-dog face. "I have to get back to work. Go say goodbye to Gerry, sweety."

While Willie said his goodbyes, I reached through the passenger's window and pulled my sketchbook out of a bag that sat on the seat. Quickly flipping through the pages, I found the sketch of Willie and Sunshine in the sandbox. Without a moment's hesitation, I tore the page gently from the binding. I pulled out a pen and scrawled a short message on the back.

Sunshine approached the car carrying Willie at his side. Gerry was not far behind them. I leaned down to hug him tightly. "Take care, Gerry."

"Don't be a stranger, ok?"

I smiled brightly, despite the tears that I felt forming in the corners of my eyes. "You got it."

Ronnie set Willie on the sidewalk, kneeling before him. "You be good and take care of your mommy now, you hear?"

Willie nodded. Sunshine quickly pulled him into a tight hug. "I love you Willie. Don't ever forget that."

"I love you too, Daddy," he whispered as Ronnie buckled him into the backseat. "Please don't go away."

Ronnie closed his eyes tightly, using the back of his hand to wipe away the tears that escaped. He picked up the football and handed it through the open window. "You keep practicing so that we can play catch next time that I see you."

Willie began to cry harder in the back seat as Ronnie turned to face me. He no longer tried to hide the tears streaming from his eyes. Instinctively, I wrapped my arms around his shoulders to comfort him. As we pulled apart, I handed him the drawing in my hand. "I want you to have this."

"Susie, please-"

With a shaky finger, I stopped him from continuing. "Goodbye, Sunshine."

Without another word, I climbed into the car and took off, refusing to look back as Sunshine read the message on the back of the sketch. I never stopped loving you.

Willie cried in the backseat until we reached Kentucky when he finally fell asleep.

CHAPTER 11

I spent the next two weeks in a kind of a haze, doing what needed to be done; going through the motions.

I sat at my desk, staring blankly at the layout that sat before me.

"Sue?" Tony knocked gently on the door before letting himself in. "Are you alright?"

I nodded quickly and gave the standard "I'm fine" response.

"What happened out east, Sue?" he asked, the concern thick in his voice.

"Nothing," I replied with a slight smile. "Really. Everything is fine."

Karen burst into the room. "Sorry to interrupt, but the day care called-"

My eyes shot to the clock on the wall. "Oh no, I'm almost an hour late."

Pulling my things together, I darted to my car. After picking up Willie, we headed home for dinner. We ate our food quickly before heading down to the yard to play catch with the football that Sunshine had given him.

"Daddy!" Willie cried out as we made our way outside.

He darted into the yard as I followed slowly behind. "Oh, no sweety. Daddy's in South Carolina."

The last word came out as no more than a whisper as my eyes focused on Ronnie leaning against the light post. "Ronnie? How did you-"

"You're mom told me where I could find you."

He squeezed Willie tightly. "What do you say you go play and let your mommy and I talk?"

"Can we play catch, Daddy?" he asked with a hopeful smile.

"In a minute, ok?"

Contented with the answer, Willie trotted off to a corner of the yard where there was a small swing set.

Sunshine took a tentative step toward me. "I went back home, but all that I could think about was you. You and Willie."

"Ronnie-"

He pulled a paper from his pocket and unfolded it. I soon recognized it as the sketch that I had given him when we last saw each other. He flipped it over. Is this true?"

I nodded, unable to find the words to explain what I was thinking.

"I can't get you out of my head."

"What are you saying, Sunshine?"

He took a deep breath and shoved his hands in his pockets. "I love you, Susie. I always have. And I think that it's about time for us to be a family. All of us."

"Ronnie, what are you doing?" I asked as he dropped to one knee.

"Something that I should have done five years ago," he replied, pulling something out of his pocket. "Will you marry me?"

I swallowed hard. "But what about our lives. We can't just-"

"None of that matters anymore." He stood up quickly. "I would give anything to be with you. and our son. Anything. Please, Susie."

Unable to control myself any longer, I threw my arms around his neck.

"Is that a yes?" he asked, wrapping his arms tightly around my waist. I nodded feverishly. He ran a soft finger over my cheek, pulling me toward him slowly. We both became lost in the kiss that followed. So lost that neither of us heard Willie running up to us.

I didn't realize that he was there until he pulled at the hem of my shirt. "What are you doing, Mommy?"

"You're Mommy and I are getting married, little bro."

Willie smiled up at us. "Can I have a little brother?"

My mouth dropped open and Sunshine burst out laughing.

"We'll see." Ronnie winked at me. "Would you settle for a game of catch for now?"