Knight-Errant 8(B): Overdue Conversations

"So, I saw Chelsea leaving. How did you like the halftime show, buddy? Pretty awesome surprise, right?" Seth grinned through the French doors toward the poolhouse, even though Ryan was nowhere in sight.

"It wasn't a show. It was a visit. From a friend."

"Uh-huh. Riiiight. A very sexy, very skilled, baton-twirling friend. You know what a baton is like, Ryan? A baton is a lot like a--"

"Seth!" Ryan strode to the poolhouse door, phone cupped to his ear. In response to his thunderous glare, Seth wagged his fingers gleefully. "Do not finish that sentence. And why are you calling me anyway?"

Seth's face fell into an injured pout. "I said I would," he explained. "Dinner's in fifteen minutes. Be sure to let us know if you'll be late, all right? I mean if you have any unfinished business you need to take care of or anything. You know, like maybe polishing your ba--"

He recoiled, chuckling, as the line abruptly went dead. Then he turned to inspect the table, which was set exactly the way it had been the night before. Seth straightened a napkin, nudged a fork one-quarter inch to the right, pulled a half-dead leaf off the centerpiece, and finally stepped back to observe his handiwork.

"Perfection again!" he announced, twisting so he could pat himself on the back. Then he frowned at the empty room. "Aaaand, once again, there's nobody here to acknowledge my wonderfulness. Where is my adoring public anyway? Mom! Dad!"

From down the hall, he heard a muffled "Coming, son."

"Okay, they're coming. And Ryan's coming. But right now I'm all alone and talking to myself. Where's Captain Oats when I need him?" With a long-suffering sigh, Seth sat down at the table, folding his hands in front of him like a schoolboy. Almost at once he bounced back up again. "Lemons!" he exclaimed. "All right, minor demerit. I forgot the lemons."

Wrenching the refrigerator door open, he removed a bowl of the fruit. He was about to turn away when he froze suddenly. His brow furrowed, Seth stared into the bright depths of the refrigerator. One fist tapped his chin restively.

Behind him, Sandy strolled into the kitchen. He flipped through a sheaf of legal-looking papers, jotting a note as he headed automatically for the coffee maker. Then he paused, bemused, when he noticed Seth planted in front of the fridge's open door.

"Problem, son?" he asked mildly. "Did we run out of food?"

Seth's face creased in a scowl. "Actually, there's too much food. All the stuff I ordered for last night." He pointed an accusing finger at half a dozen white take-out containers. "It's all still there. Untouched."

Sandy peered over his son's shoulder. His eyebrows quirked upward in agreement. "Yep. Sure is. Forgot all about that. We're going to be eating leftovers for a week since I called in a new order for dinner tonight. But, hey, after everything that's happened? Might as well start fresh today, right?"

"Start fresh. Ah yes, as in fresh food and a fresh start for the Cohen clan. Points for the subtle pun, and also, very wise of you, dad." With a nod, Seth closed the refrigerator door and leaned against it.

"I try." Sandy smiled absently over his mug, sipping his coffee as he scribbled something else on the document he held.

Seth's gaze followed the movement, and immediately his entire demeanor changed. His body stiffened and his face set in hard, despondent lines. "The proverbial day late and dollar short, of course," he muttered. "But still, a nice symbolic touch. Dad." Crossing his arms, he glowered at his father reproachfully.


Confused, Sandy reached out to clasp his son's shoulder, but Seth shrugged away from his touch. He marched over to the counter, plucked a lemon from the bowl, and cut it viciously into quarters. For a moment, Sandy just watched, his brows thickly bristled in thought, as the knife snapped down into the cutting board. At last he ventured carefully, "I thought we cleared the air yesterday, son. But I take it that we're still not okay."

"Well, I don't know, Dad." Seth whacked another lemon in half with particular violence. "It all depends on how you define okay. For example, it could mean everything is fine now, or it could mean same-old, same-old status . . . Ow! Ow! Shit!" Dropping the knife, he grabbed a napkin and began to dab his eye, hopping in place the whole time.

Sandy hissed with empathy. "The citrus strikes back, huh?" he observed as he dampened a cloth with cold water. "Yeah, lemons can be vindictive fruit, can't they? C'mere, son."

Seth grimaced, but he shuffled forward reluctantly.

"Ow, ow, ow! And by the way, did I mention 'Ow!'?" He flailed at his father's hand, cringing away from Sandy's ministrations, just as his mother entered. "Okay, really not helping here, Dad!"

"Well, you've got to open your eye, son."

"Right, only I can't if you keep stabbing it!"

Kirsten hurried over, her face creased with concern. "Seth? Sandy? What happened?"

"Ah, what happened?" Seth echoed. "That's the $64,000 question, isn't it, Mom?" Pushing the cloth out of the way, he peered blearily out of one red, half-open slit.

Kirsten shook her head in confusion. "Sandy?" she prompted.

"He got lemon juice in his eye," Sandy explained. Dropping the cloth into the sink, he leaned back to study his son's belligerent expression. "But I think Seth is really talking about the big picture in the Cohen household. As in, what happened to us as a family? Am I right, son?"

Seth squinted at his parents. "Yeah," he mumbled grudgingly.

"Oh, sweetie," Kirsten sighed. She rubbed his arm, brushing his hair off his wet forehead at the same time. "Last night was horrible for all of us but you've got to remember, Ryan will be fine--"

"That's not the point!" Seth retorted, pulling away. "I mean, it is, but it's not the whole point. We were so busy rescuing Ryan who was so busy rescuing Chelsea that we never got the chance to--"

He broke off abruptly, seething in frustration, as Kirsten's cell phone began to ring. She glanced down at it, distracted, and then held up one finger.

"I'll just be a minute," she promised, slipping out of the kitchen, the phone already open and clasped to her ear.

"A minute," Seth mocked. "By Mars time, maybe. You know, I thought the Stepford 'rents had moved out last night, but I guess I was wrong."

"Stop it right there, Seth." A faint edge of irritation cut through what remained of Sandy's sympathy. "Your mother and I understand that we've been . . . preoccupied lately. Not as involved as we should have been with you boys this year. But that's going to change."

Seth jerked his chin pointedly to the folder of papers that Sandy had dropped on the counter. "Yeah," he scoffed. "I can see that."

"What? You're upset about this?" Startled, Sandy glanced at the document. "Son, these are just some papers I wanted to finalize before dinner, that's all. They're important--"

"Uh-huh. Important business papers. Because we all know that's what matters to Sanford Cohen, mover and shaker, illustrious head of the illustrious Newport Group. Sure you can spare time for dinner with us, Dad?"

Sandy took a deep, measured breath. "If you would just listen for one minute, Seth--"

"Listen to what?" Kirsten asked as she came back into the kitchen.

"To more excuses," Seth declared. With feigned nonchalance, he carried the quartered lemons to the table and lobbed a piece in each glass, heedless of the resultant splashes. Then he wheeled around to confront his parents again. "But hey, why not? Go ahead. Dad? Mom? Who wants to go first? I know you're both missing important stuff, like, hmm . . . what would that be for you, Mom? Oh right, a stimulating conversation with Julie about how to find some Botoxed divorcée her dream date."

Kirsten's mouth tightened. "Seth Ezekiel," she chided.

Seth shrugged, unmoved. "What? Talking business with Julie is pretty much all you've done for months. It's almost like you never came home from Suriak. We don't see you any more than we did last summer. And stuff happened last summer you know. Important stuff."

"That is enough, son," Sandy warned.

"What? Enough truthiness?" Seth countered. "You know I'm right, Dad. Or you would, if you weren't spending all of your time trying to recreate the Newport Group in the image of the new, not-so-improved Sanford Cohen."

"I am not--" Sandy began, but his son raged on, oblivious.

"Meanwhile, Ryan is trying to deal with all the shit Trey left behind. And, okay, it's not like I have anything that major to handle, but hello? College applications? Moving? Do you guys even care that I'm going to be living clear across the country next year?" Seth plopped onto a stool, exhausted. "All alone," he added morosely. "'Cause Brown will only accept one Harbor student, so if I get in, Summer won't. That means, no Summer, no Ryan, no--" His gaze flickered up and he sighed. "Anybody."

"Oh, Seth! Honey!" Slipping onto the stool next to her son, Kirsten covered his hand with her own. "Of course your father and I care that you'll be leaving home. We'll miss you terribly. But we want you to do what's best for you. And since you want to go to Brown—You do want to go there, don't you?"

"Of course I do! But you know, I also, kind of . . ." His mouth twisting, Seth pushed some errant lemon seeds into a pile. "Don't want to leave home. And, you know, everybody. It's called having mixed feelings. Didn't you guys ever take Psych 101? You've heard of it, right?"

Sandy patted his son's shoulder. "Of course we have. We just didn't realize that you were experiencing any."

"He has been though." Ryan's voice startled them, and all three Cohens swiveled to face the French doors.

"Sweetie." Looking slightly abashed, Kirsten got up to greet him with a quick kiss on the cheek. At the same time, she darted a warning glance at her husband and son. "It's so good to see you up finally. How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine."

"You're sure? You're not in any pain?"

Ryan shook his head. "No. I'm okay, Kirsten, I promise." Tilting his head curiously, he studied the tense faces of the three Cohens. "What about you guys?"

"If you're okay, we're okay, kid," Sandy claimed. "So . . . did you have a good visit with Chelsea? She seems very . . . "

"Sweet," Kirsten concluded.

"Yeah," Ryan affirmed shortly. "She is." His gaze darted around the counter, his eyes narrowing as they rested on Seth's hunched shoulders. "Looks like I missed something, though. What's going on here?"

Kirsten flushed. "Nothing. We were just--"

"Having a discussion," Sandy inserted swiftly.

"Or, like, a fight," Seth countered.

Kirsten's jaw tightened. "A discussion," she maintained.

"Right. About, you know, the weather and absentee parents and bizarre career choices and--"

"Actually, son," Sandy injected. "As I recall, we were talking about you." Turning to Ryan, he slid a mug across the counter, his expressive brows wagging a coded message: Help me defuse this, kid. "Seth was just explaining to us that his feelings about going away to college are—complicated."

"Ah." Ryan took the cup, poured himself some coffee and leaned against the counter. Beneath his lowered lashes, laughter danced in his eyes. "Got it. Right. Well, you know, Seth is a complex kind of guy. He tells me that all the time."

Seth jerked upright. "Whoa! Dude!" he protested, bristling. "We're supposed to be a team here. You know, the two amigos. United, we're unstoppable? Whose side are you on anyway?"

Ryan set down his drink, his reflective gaze sweeping slowly from one Cohen to the next. "Ours," he replied at last. "All of ours, I mean."

"Good answer, kid," Sandy murmured. Draping an arm around Ryan, he gestured toward the table. "Why don't we all sit down?" he suggested. "Clear the air before the food gets here. Seth? Honey?"

Seth's mouth twisted. "All of ours, huh? Okay," he conceded grudgingly. "I suppose that makes sense. So . . . yeah, me too." Kirsten took his elbow, propelling him to his feet, and he followed her to the dining area. "But if we're going to talk, all cell phones off," he warned. "And nobody touches any business papers."

"Ah! Papers! Thanks for reminding me, son." Sandy made an abrupt u-turn to grab his folder from the counter. "Actually," he announced, as he sat down, "I wanted to share these with you boys."

With a groan, Seth buried his face in his hands, while Ryan frowned, perplexed.

"Your mother already knows about this. This is a document amending my terms of service and relinquishing most of my responsibilities at the Newport Group," Sandy explained. "I'm still going to work there, but . . . well, just not 24/7. And only as legal counsel." He glanced at Seth, then at Ryan, eyes dark with an unspoken apology. "This should give me time to be a dad again. And who knows? Maybe I could fit in some pro bono work for the P.D.'s office." Tapping the papers together, he flipped them over decisively. "So, guys?" he prompted. "What do you say?"

Ryan's face lit with a slow, gratified smile. "It sounds great, Sandy."

"Glad you think so, kid." Sandy looked pointedly at his son. "Seth?"

"Me? Oh. Um . . . Oh," Seth stammered, squirming. He flashed a weak, abashed grin at his father. "So that's the deal with the business papers today. Yeah, well, see I thought . . . Okay, I guess you know what I thought. Which was apparently kind of, um, wrong. But this? It's cool, Dad. More you, you know? I mean, hey, after all, you are a pretty good lawyer."

"The best," Ryan corrected. "But Sandy, if you're stepping down, who's going to pick up the slack at the Newport Group?"

"I am," Kirsten declared. Both boys turned to her, eyes wide with surprise and she smiled serenely.

"You, Mom?" Seth swallowed, a glimmer of embarrassed comprehension flickering across his face. "But what about NewMatch? All those poor, lonely singles out there?"

"I just informed Julie that we are no longer partners. From now on the dating service—and all those poor, lonely singles—are all hers."

With a wince, Seth slumped in his chair. "Ah. Then before, when you were . . ." He mimed holding a telephone. "That was--"

"Exactly. The call you were so upset about," Sandy concluded. He fixed a laser-like stare on his cringing son. "Is there something you'd like to say to your mother, young man?"

"Um . . . sorry, Mom?" Seth ventured. Hastily plucking a lily from the centerpiece, he handed it to his mother, offering her his best puppy-dog face at the same time.

Kirsten promptly returned the flower to the vase. "And your father?" she prompted with mock-severity.

Sighing heavily, Seth addressed his dinner plate. "Sorry, sorry, sorry," he chanted. "I may have, kind of, jumped to conclusions about you guys tonight. Although in my defense, you have to admit that the way you've been acting lately, I, I . . ." Under the pressure of his parents' twin glares, Seth wilted completely. "A little help here, dude?" he muttered, nudging Ryan's elbow.

Ignoring him, Ryan turned to Kirsten. "But I thought you hated the Newport Group," he observed, bewildered. "Why would you want to go back?"

Kirsten inclined her head as she considered the question. "I finally realized . . . it wasn't the work that I hated. It was the way I worked when . . ." Unconsciously, she pulled her napkin to her lap, pleating it between her fingers as she spoke. "When I was trying so desperately to please my father. This time . . . I'm going to please myself. The Newport Group may not make as much money as it did before, but we'll do the kind of projects that might actually help the community. And--" Kirsten paused for a moment, reaching over to take Ryan's hand. She smiled warmly, but her voice sounded hesitant, almost timid. "I would love it if you would work with me, Ryan. That is, if you still want to intern at the Newport Group."

Ryan caught his breath, dazzled. "Really?" he replied eagerly. "You mean I'd report to you? Not to Matt? That would be . . . it would be great."

"Sure you won't mind the change, kid?" Sandy teased. "It pretty much guarantees no more visits to strip clubs on company time."

"There will be no visits to strip clubs, period," Kirsten amended sternly. Her gaze switched from Ryan to Seth. "Not for either of you."

Seth bobbed his head obediently. "Right," he agreed. "Absolutely. No trips to strip clubs until we're legal." Leaning over, he whispered to Ryan, "But maybe some private shows in the poolhouse, right?—Hey, buddy!" He grabbed his side, scowling. "That hurt!"

"It did?" Ryan blinked innocently. "Sorry. My elbow slipped. Must have been a muscle spasm."

"A muscle spasm? That is so totally—No, no, you know what? Considering everything, I am going to let that one pass, bro—even though it was a blatant, gignormous lie." His face wreathed in a magnanimous smile, Seth tapped a knife against his water glass. "All right, family, I think it's obvious that last night turned out to be an educational experience for everyone. The question is, what exactly have we learned? Mr. Atwood, we'll start with you." Folding his hands on the table, Seth gave a professorial nod.

At first Ryan looked startled, and then amused, but finally he lapsed into a reflective silence. After a long moment he answered, "I suppose . . . um, I learned that I should always call when my plans change and you guys are expecting me. And, well." He took a deep breath. With visible embarrassment he added reluctantly, "Chelsea said . . . I shouldn't rush into dangerous situations alone."

"Miss Chelsea is very wise for a stripper," Seth declared with approval. Catching his mother's glare, he amended hastily, "Or a dancer. Or even, I mean . . . she's just very wise, that's all."

"Yes, she is," Kirsten agreed. She squeezed Ryan's hand, her eyes clouded with residual fear, and her tone became grave. "I hope you listen to her, Ryan. We're very proud of your compassion and courage, and we love that your first instinct is always to help other people. But that can get you into serious trouble, and sometimes . . ."

"Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor," Sandy concluded. "Think you can remember that, kid?"

Ryan touched his side ruefully. "I'll try," he promised.

"Excellent!" Seth proclaimed. He made a check mark on an invisible blackboard. "So Mr. Atwood has learned that a cell phone is his friend, and that he needs to curb his inner Kid Chino. Anything else, Mr. Atwood?"

Ducking his head, Ryan peered up at Sandy and Kirsten. "Yeah," he murmured, almost shyly. "I guess I learned . . . I can always count on you. I mean, I already knew that, really, but you showing up that way last night? Worrying enough to come after me? It was just . . . I mean, thanks."

"You're welcome," Kirsten replied tenderly. "And you can always count on us. But, sweetie, parents can't always be right there when their child gets in trouble. We were lucky last night, all of us. But there will be times . . ."

"No, I get that," Ryan assured her. "It's just good to know--" He flushed slightly. "That you, you know, worry. And care."

"Very touching, Mr. Atwood," Seth observed. "Actually veering towards the maudlin, but I'll let it slide this time, since you're clearly still recovering from your night of derring-do." Ryan shot him a death-glare and he smirked happily. "Moving on, then! Mr. Cohen, you're up."

Sandy tossed his folder of papers onto the sideboard, leaving the table clear. "You already know what I learned," he replied. "I learned that I'm not a businessman, and that trying to be one now won't change what Caleb thought of me. It certainly can't bring him back to life--"

"Sandy!" Stunned, Kirsten covered her mouth. "You mean all this time . . . Is that why--?"

Raking back his hair, Sandy sighed heavily. "I don't know, sweetheart," he admitted. "It's just that you missed your father so much. And he was the Newport Group. I guess I thought if I could salvage the company, somehow it would keep him alive, and I don't know . . . prove something to you both. Pretty stupid, right?"

"Not stupid," Kirsten murmured. She blinked back tears, her lips trembling. "It's sweet. Only . . . Sandy, I never wanted you to be like my father. I loved him in spite of his character. But I love you for having character, and I adore the fact that you've always been your own man. That Sandy Cohen, though? To be honest, I've missed him these last few months. All of us did."

"I know." Sandy shook his head grimly. "Once I got involved in the company, it just took over my life somehow. I lost track of everything that really matters. Like I said—stupid. But, Professor Cohen, I did learn my lesson. Family first. Always." His expression softened, and he smiled warmly and deliberately first at Seth, then at Ryan, and finally at Kirsten. "I love you all of you."

"Awww," Seth simpered. "Again with the sweet. And also with the saccharine. But thank you for your presentation, Mr. Cohen." Making another air-check on his invisible blackboard, Seth turned to his mother. "All right, Mrs. Cohen, it's your turn. Do you have anything to add to this bathetic display?"

Ryan leaned over, frowning. "You mean pathetic?" he whispered.

"No. I mean bathetic," Seth hissed. "As in, super-sentimental. Schmaltzy. You really need to work on your vocabulary skills, Mr. Atwood. But right now, I believe Mrs. Cohen has the floor."

Taking a deep breath, Kirsten smoothed her wrinkled napkin and returned it to her plate. "All right," she said slowly. "I learned that I can't hide from my problems or my family's problems—not with alcohol, or cooking projects or silly business ventures with supposed friends who, who--" Her voice caught and she stopped, forcing herself to face Ryan. "I didn't know," she concluded brokenly. "What Julie did to you—trying to frame you, having you arrested—I didn't know. If I had, I would never--"

Ryan's eyes flashed with shocked concern. He glanced at Seth and then at Sandy in confusion.

"We told her last night, kid," Sandy confessed.

Seth nodded bleakly. "It was about time that Mom knew."

"I am so, so sorry, Ryan," Kirsten whispered. "It's bad enough that I was gone when you—when you all—needed me. But to work with Julie, to welcome her into our home--"

"Kirsten, please," Ryan urged, his voice ragged with desperation. "It's okay." He touched her wrist hesitantly, at the same time looking to Seth and Sandy for support. "Julie was just trying to protect Marissa. I get that. And I don't think she was thinking clearly--"

He broke off as Seth covered his mouth, choking, and Sandy crimped his lips together, his brows lifted significantly.

"Anyway, it's over," Ryan continued. "I know Julie is sorry--" As though on cue, Seth and Sandy repeated their display, interrupting him. "Stop that," Ryan hissed, kicking Seth's shin for emphasis. "You two are not helping."

"Sorry, kid," Sandy grinned. "But Julie Cooper thinking clearly?"

"And being sorry?" Seth added, rolling his eyes. "Oh, and also Ryan? Ow."

Ignoring him, Ryan focused on Kirsten, his pleading blue eyes searching her contrite ones. "The point is, we got past it," he insisted earnestly. "You can still be Julie's friend. It's all right with me, I promise."

Kirsten shook her head helplessly. "I don't know . . ." she demurred. "After what she did--?"

"She was being a mom." Ryan shrugged, and just for a moment, his expression shuttered. Then he roused, biting his lip and smiling wryly at Kirsten. "But maybe," he suggested, a faint playfulness creeping into his voice, "you could give her lessons in how to be a good one."

Kirsten's lips trembled. Then, abruptly, she dissolved into laughter, her eyes glistening as she tried to stifle her giggles. "Thank you, sweetie," she gasped between breaths.

"What's this? Mrs. Cohen!" Seth protested, in a tone of pompous bluster. "Stop that outburst immediately! I demand order in the classroom."

Sandy frowned. "I thought the expression was 'order in the court'," he whispered to Ryan.

"Court, classroom, whatever. Anyway, I guess we're finished with tonight's What Have I Learned Testimonials." Seth raised his water glass. "So I would like to propose a toast to myself, Seth Ezekiel Cohen, for getting this family back on track--"

"Whoa!" Ryan objected. Snatching the tumbler out of Seth's hand, he returned it to the table. "Aren't you forgetting something?"

"Well, yeah, the food, but it should be here any minute. Or like, fifteen minutes ago, actually."

Sandy shook his head. "Not the food. You, son. You haven't told us what you learned."

"Me?" Seth retorted, swelling with righteous indignation. "I was the teacher here—the rabbi, the guru, the shaman, if you will--"

"Seth," Kirsten interjected. "What have you learned?"

Seth heaved a dramatic sigh. "Fine, Mom," he grumbled. "I'll humor you. What have I learned? What? Have I? Learned?" Staring at the ceiling, he tapped his chin portentously as the others waited. Then he shrugged and his dimples flashed in a self-effacing grin. "All right, well, I suppose I learned that I've kind of taken you guys for granted. Because, hey, turns out I actually missed all that parental hovering and prying and Dad's sorry attempts at using slang."

"What sorry attempts? I'm still cool! Hip? Rad? Phat? Gnarly?" Sandy turned to Kirsten with a beseeching smile. "Sweetheart, tell me I'm not over the hill."

Kirsten stroked his cheek, her eyes twinkling. "Of course you're not," she assured him. "You're just . . . on your way up, that's all."

"Hey, hey, hey!" Seth shuddered, covering his eyes as they started to kiss. "No PDAs in my classroom, thank you! Anyway, this is my time." He cleared his throat officiously. "So what was I saying? Oh right. I learned that I—okay, sappiness alert here—I need you guys. I mean, all of you. And I don't like it when you kind of disappear."

"Hmm. Disappear," Sandy mused. "You mean, like sailing away and living in Portland for an entire summer, ducking phone calls and threatening never to come home?"

"Dad! Come on!" Seth yelped, his veneer of authority completely gone. "That's ancient history! I was young! Well, a year and a half younger anyway. Anyway, it was a gesture of teenage angst and rebellion. What was your excuse?"

Immediately, Sandy sobered. "Fair question, son. Let me think about that for a minute . . . No, you know what? I have no excuses. I screwed up, but I do not intend to make the same mistake again. You guys are stuck with me. Sandy Cohen, charismatic rebel lawyer, devoted family man and bagel master, is back in the house. Honey?

"No excuses here either," Kirsten declared. She patted Seth's hand, her eyes twinkling mischievously. "And sweetie, I promise I'll go back to hovering and prying and being over-protective until I completely drive you crazy." Turning to Ryan, she included him in her beatific smile. "That goes for you too," she warned. "And by the way, sweetie, did you take your pills before you came inside? Because I can run out and get them--"

"Took them already," Ryan assured her hastily. Stifling a chuckle, he whispered to Seth, "See what you've done?"

Seth nodded happily. "My mission is accomplished."

"Yes, it is. In fact," Sandy announced, getting to his feet. "I think it's time for that toast you mentioned." He waited while Kirsten and Ryan raised their glasses. Placing a hand over his heart, Seth began to bow modestly, but his father tapped his shoulder and nodded toward the remaining tumbler. "Uh-uh. You too, son."

"Me?" Seth complained. "I thought I was the toastee . . . or toasted . . . toastmaster . . . or, you know, whatever. The person being honored."

"Seth. Glass. Now," Kirsten ordered.

With a heavy, hurt sigh, Seth lifted his glass to meet the others.

"A toast," Sandy proclaimed. "To valuable lessons learned. And to the Cohen family—all four of us."

"To all four of us," Kirsten echoed.

She and Sandy beamed around the table as they sipped their drinks, but almost instantly Seth began to splutter.

"Swallowed lemon. Pit!" he gasped, his face reddening as he flailed his arms. "Need . . . Heimlich! Ryan--"

"If you can talk, you aren't choking," Ryan smirked, draining his own glass. "Just breathe, Seth."

"Just breathe, the man says. Just . . . huh, what do you know? That seems to be working." Patting his mouth delicately with his napkin, Seth settled back in his seat. "Okay, no need to panic, people. Crisis averted," he declared. He looked at his parents' amused faces and Ryan's tired, contented one. "So . . . what do we do now?" he asked.

Before anyone could reply, the front doorbell rang.

"Now?" Sandy grinned. "Now, family—we eat."