A/N: Just as a reminder, I wanted to tell you that this is the last chapter of this story. Soon, a new fic will replace it. I'm hoping to have the first chapter of his new story up by the end of the weekend. If you all remember the options offered a couple of weeks ago, this new fic is the second one. Thanks and enjoy this final chapter!


Chapter Ten

Everything in her life was upside down, backwards, and disorganized, and, for the first time in Marissa's adult life, she knew what it was like to truly live and enjoy every moment of every day. They had been back in school a week since winter break had ended, but, unlike her usual behavior, she had let her work slide. There were piles of ungraded papers placed haphazardly around her desk; at any moment, with just a few more tests, any one of the heaps could go crashing to the ground, but she didn't care. Improvements on the house had come to a screeching halt. Instead of putting it on the market like she wanted to after the first of the year, she still had two spare bedrooms to refinish, one bathroom to completely gut and rebuild, and the exterior to paint and re-shingle. At her current pace, she would be lucky if the house was finished before the end of the school year. However, despite not getting anything productive accomplished, she knew that she wouldn't change a single aspect about her life.

She and Ryan were focusing upon their family and letting everything else in their lives fall to the wayside. They spent all their free time with J in an attempt to reassure the eight year old that nothing was going to split the three of them up, and, in the few spare moments they had free to spend alone with each other, they were enjoying the pleasures of being newly married. Yes, they still had issues – or rather one large one that came in the tiny shape of a potential baby – to work their way through, but, generally, they were happy together.

It was Friday afternoon, her students were at recess, and she was sitting at her desk staring into space while contemplating the various arguments for and against having a child with her husband. She knew that the words he said made sense, that they were logical, but, despite their rational nature, they still could not convince her to embrace the idea of motherhood. Sure, she was a good teacher and her students liked her, but she doubted her ability to raise and guide an infant into a healthy, content, and functioning adult. Taking care of Joaquin was one thing because he already had a mother as dysfunctional and unreliable as Theresa was, but the little boy did not consider her as his parent, so there was no way he had opened his heart enough to let her in deep enough to hurt him the way her own mom had hurt her.

"Miss Cooper," Dorothy, the school's secretary's voice suddenly filled the room, surrounding her. Marissa could tell by just those two words that the older woman was feeling put out at having to page her. "You need to report to the playground immediately. There's something wrong with one of your students."

She didn't need to hear another word. Without a second's thought, Marissa bolted from the classroom, running down the halls as fast as her long, lithe limbs could carry her. She hit the pavement, still sprinting, unaware of the fact that she had left her hastily discarded heels underneath her desk and not feeling the pain of a hundred tiny rocks piercing the soles of her feet. With hair streaming behind her, clothes rumbled and askew from hours of sitting, standing, and bending over students' desks to help them, she looked like the epitome of a distracted teacher, but, in her mind, there was only one thought and that was to reach the side of her injured student as quickly as possible.

There was a small crowd of adults gathered around what she assumed was the hurt little boy or girl, and curious students were starting to converge around the group, eager to witness what was wrong with one of their classmates. Various, concerned voices spoke at once, their confusion and inability to make a decision making it obvious to Marissa that a level head was needed to help the situation. Finally, out of the throng of questions and comments, one voice and its words stood out and she was able to hear what the person said.

"You need to calm down. We can't understand what you're saying." It was Mrs. Tate, the phys-ed teacher. "Now, take a deep breath and repeat what you just said."

The crowd became hush, but, from her position still several long strides away from them, she couldn't hear what the injured student said.

"Your Mom," the same teacher questioned. Marissa could hear the surprise in the other woman's voice. "But she left years ago. What about your Dad though? I'm sure we'd be able to get in touch with him."

"You don't understand," the child who was in pain said. Marissa could now tell that it was a boy, and, if she didn't know better, she would swear that the child's voice sounded like Joaquin's, but surely…of course…there was no possible way…right? "I don't want Theresa." She froze in place just outside the inner circle of adults, too frightened to peer over their shoulders at the wounded little boy. "I want my Mom," the child sobbed. "Please, get my Mom," he pleaded, the pain evident in his small, terrified voice.

Marissa watched as the other teachers looked at each other, their bewilderment written plainly on their anxious faces, and, when they turned to stare at each other in question, she was able to see over their shoulders towards the hurt eight year old laying immobile on the gravel of the playground with his arm clutched closely to his trembling chest.

He whimpered, the tears of agony rolling down his injury paled face, and she couldn't stand there any longer. The fear she felt for the child she loved with all her heart disappeared, and her instincts to protect those she cared for kicked in, making her act. Pushing her way through the crowd, Marissa knelt down beside the little boy, taking him in her arms, and immediately started to comfort him.

"Hey, I'm here, I'm here," she reassured her stepson, smoothing his tousled hair away from his brow before leaning down and pressing a sweet, motherly kiss against it, "and I'm not going anywhere." Lifting her face to look at her coworkers, she addressed them, the harshness of an irrationally angry parent perceptible in her tone. "What happened?"

"He fell off the monkey bars." This time it was Shawn Turner who spoke up. "And he must have landed awkwardly on his arm. I think it's broken." The greasy teacher paused momentarily to look at her, his inquisitiveness written plainly across his rather homely face. "Why does J seem to think that you're his Mom?"

"Because I am," she snapped, glaring at the fifth grade teacher. Carefully, she stood up, somehow maintaining to keep Joaquin in her arms. "You're going to have to find someone to watch over my class for the rest of the afternoon, because we're going to the hospital."

"You're not authorized to take him off school grounds," Mrs. Tate attempted to stop her. "We have to call Mr. Atwood and wait for him to either come and get J or give us permission to send him to the hospital in an ambulance."

"You can report me to the principle, you can hold an emergency board meeting and fill them in on my insubordination, hell, you can even try and take my teaching license away from me, but don't you dare think you're going to keep me away from my son. I am taking him to the hospital," Marissa declared, daring any one person to even attempt to stop her, "and there's nothing you can say or do about it."

"Well, it's definitely broken," the doctor announced after looking at the x-rays he had taken of J's arm, "but it's going to take a while before the swelling goes down enough for us to put it in a cast. Just stay in the room and relax for a few hours, and then I'll be back to check on you."

After the doctor had left the room, Marissa turned back to her stepson to find him already drifting off to sleep, the day's events catching up to the little boy and making him feel exhausted. She sat with him for several more minutes until she knew he was sound asleep, calmly, soothingly letting her thumb caress the lines of fear and stress from his eight year old brow. Standing up, she stretched everything from her neck and shoulders to her toes which were now encased in a pair of complimentary hospital slippers. The nurse who had helped them in the emergency room had laughed when she noticed the younger woman's bare feet, reassuring her that she had seen stranger things during her career.

Without waking J, she slipped from the hospital room, boarded the elevator, and made her way down to the entrance so that she could go outside and call Ryan. On their way to the hospital, she had called her husband, told him what had happened, and they had decided that he would wait to hear from them before leaving work. Once he was with her, Joaquin had calmed down enough that he said his Dad could stay at the country club, reassuring both of his parents that he would be fine. Although she didn't say anything at the time, Marissa suspected that her stepson wanted to appear tough and manly in his father's eyes, his male ego kicking in even at the tender age of eight. She thought the reaction was ridiculous but, at the same time, nothing boys did surprised her after twenty four years of life.

After dialing her husband's number, she stood just outside the hospital doors, impatiently tapping her foot as she waited for him to answer. Despite wanting to reassure Ryan that J was going to be alright, that he only had a broken arm that would heal in six to eight weeks and be, once again, just like new, she wanted to return to the little boy's bedside as quickly as she could. He had already been scared enough for one day; he didn't need to wake up without her by his side in a strange, unfamiliar place.

"How is he?"

Ryan's eager voice snapped her out of her silent revelry. "He's going to be fine," Marissa reassured him. "His arm is broken, but the doctor said it's a clean break and that it'll be like he never hurt it in a couple of months."

Wanting more information, her husband pressed, "did he have to get a cast put on it? Can I talk to him?"

"The doctor's waiting for the swelling to go down before casting it, so we'll be here for a few more hours. As for J, he's out cold up in his room. I snuck downstairs and came outside just long enough to call you and give you an update."

"So you're going to be there for a few more hours?"

"Yeah," the young teacher answered. "It'll probably be too late for either of us to cook dinner tonight, so I thought I'd call ahead and place an order with Margie at Wired. Besides, with the way news travel around this town, she'll probably already know that J was injured and want details."

"Alright, that sounds good," Ryan agreed with her. "I'll be there in a couple of hours as soon as I'm done for the day…unless you need me to come earlier."

"No, we'll be fine," she assured him. "Joaquin will, in all likelihood, still be asleep by the time you get here."

"Alright then," he agreed, "I'll see you soon. Love you."

"Love you, too," Marissa returned before flipping her phone shut.

As soon as their call ended, she made her way back into the hospital, passing by a sign with descriptions of each floor on it. For some reason, her eyes were automatically drawn to the fourth floor: obstetrics and maternity. Shaking her head to dispel of any thoughts pertaining to or related to babies, she climbed onto the awaiting elevator and watched as its doors closed. For some reason, her hand hesitated, and, before she could analyze her actions, she saw her own finger press the button for the fourth floor. Orthopedics and her stepson were not located there, but, perhaps, her future was.

Operating under instinct alone, she waited for the elevator to arrive at her chosen floor, stepped off the lift, and proceeded to walk towards the nurses' desk. Standing there, she waited several seconds before someone noticed her and asked if they could help.

"I know this is unconventional," Marissa started, suddenly embarrassed and fidgeting with her fingers below the edge of the desk where the nurse couldn't see them, "but I was wondering if there might be an opening available this afternoon."

"Are you pregnant? Do you think that there's something wrong with your baby?"

"No, I'm not expecting," she corrected the medical professional, "but I think I might want to be." Marissa waited for an answer, hope sparkling in her sapphire eyes, but the nurse only regarded her with confusion. "You see, I wasn't sure if I ever wanted to be a mother," she explained, "but I realized today that I can put a child before my own needs, that I can take care of a child selflessly, that, while I'm still scared of the idea of having a baby, I will be able to love a child the way it deserves to be loved, but, before I tell my husband, I want to make sure that I'm capable of having children…you know, get the all systems clear signal from a doctor."

Confusion was replaced with comprehension and then compassion on the older woman's face and then finally she replied. "Wait here," the nurse instructed her. "I'll be right back. I just need to go speak to one of the doctors, but, don't worry, no matter what, I'll get you an appointment."

And, just like that, Marissa Cooper Atwood was firmly on the path to becoming a mother…for the second time. That afternoon when her stepson had called out for her, begging for his mom and meaning her, she had experienced motherhood for the first time, and, because of that experience, he made her realize that she wanted to go through the joys of parenthood from start to finish with her husband, that she wanted to have a baby.

"Something's changed," Margie announced as soon as Marissa walked through the door late that evening. Denying the younger woman the food she had been holding out before she had looked upon her friend's face, she continued. "And you're not getting your dinner until you tell me exactly what happened."

"J broke his arm at recess today."

"Okay," the café owner drawled out, eyeing the blonde standing across the bar from her. "Where is my friend, Joan Crawford, and have you done to turn her into Mommie Dearest?"

Laughing, Marissa questioned, "what are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about you looking happy at the idea of your stepson breaking his arm. That's a little sick and twisted, if you ask me," the brunette declared, "so either there's more to the story or you've taken parental advice from the wrong Hollyweird starlet of the past."

"He called me his mom," the younger woman shared, smiling softly, smiling maternally. "And, when he was hurt and crying, he didn't call out for Ryan, he called out for me."

Margie relaxed her stance and returned her friend's grin. "That's wonderful, but I'm sensing there's more to this story than getting the final seal of approval from an eight year old little boy we both already knew was crazy about you because of the fact that you're practically glowing."

"You should have seen me," Marissa stated. "At first, granted, I was frozen in place, but, as soon as I realized that it was J who was hurt and that he wanted me to hold him, I was no longer scared of not being good enough for him. Sure, I was still afraid for him, afraid of how badly he was injured, but I knew that, no matter what, I had to take care of him to the best of my ability. I held him in my arms while he cried, I carried him to the car, and I sat by his beside and held his hand until he fell asleep."

Interrupting her, the older woman inquired, "but you left him once he was zonked out?" The disapproval was evident in her tone.

"Only temporarily, to call Ryan," the teacher responded, "but then I was on my way back up to orthopedics when I saw the words obstetrics and maternity and, before I realized what I was doing, I was there getting an exam."

"An OBG-YN exam?" Marissa nodded, making the café owner gape at her. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"

"I know that Ryan came to you the night we had our…disagreement about having a baby together," the blonde acknowledged, "so I don't have to go into too much detail, but what I can tell you is that as soon as I heard Joaquin call me his mom, as soon as he showed me how much he trusted my love for him, all my fears about motherhood really seemed trivial. My own mother never was able to calm me down when I was upset, but I did that just by holding that little boy in my arms and offering him a few words of reassurance. There's nothing like the feeling of knowing a child has faith in you to take care of them."

"I've had that experience," Margie shared. "The very first time I held Sarah and looked into her eyes, I realized that even though I was responsible for her becoming a functioning part of society, in that moment, I was no longer scared of turning her into a female version of Charles Manson or the next Zsa Zsa Gabor."

"There's definitely no one like you for telling an uplifting story," the blonde teased her best friend, laughing. "But does what I'm saying make sense?"

"Of course it does," the older woman guaranteed her. "People can tell you something until they're blue in the face, but you're not going to believe them until you see proof of it for yourself. Today, you saw your proof." Quirking her eyebrows at her friend, the mother of three asked, "have you told Ryan about this revelation yet?"

"No," Marissa shared, despite herself blushing. "I'm waiting until later, when we're alone. After the day we've both had, he'll need some good news."

"Plus, he'll probably want to start practicing if not actually trying for real tonight, and having a needy, eight year old kid around with a broken arm would probably crimp his style."

The younger woman simply rolled her eyes, not even dignifying the brunette's statement with a verbal response even though they both knew Margie was right. "So, really quickly before I leave, do you have any advice for me?"

"Missionary," the café owner stated confidently. "I know it's nothing exciting, but you don't have to go experimental to conceive a baby. If I remember correctly and sex is definitely something one should remember, Rob and I conceived all three of our kids using the missionary position."

"Ugh," the blonde groaned, reaching up to cover her ears and wincing. "That was something I never needed to know."

"Well, you asked for advice."

"What I meant was advice on being a mother, not sex advice, Doctor Ruth."

"You know," Margie mused to herself, "that randy pervert is pretty senile. She's bound to kick the bucket soon, and it would be a pretty fun job to take over. Maybe I should submit my application now for replacing her."

"Oddly enough, I think your creepy quota might be on par with Dr. Ruth's, and you'd be able to fill her tiny, deficient sized, tan, old lady pumps."

"The job would look good on my resume," the older woman decided. "I'll look into it, but, for now, I still need to give you some advice. From one mother to another, really there are only three things you need to remember. One, love your children as much as you possible can. That's truly all they need and want from you. Two, spend as much time with them as possible, because, before you know it, they're all grown up and ready to become parents themselves, and, three, make sure you always have a clean diaper immediately handy when changing a little boy. It'll save you many loads of laundry and a lot of embarrassment."

Confused, Marissa questioned her, "what?"

"Just trust me. You'll thank me later."

"Alright then," the younger woman returned, eyeing her friend carefully. "I should probably get going though, so do you want to," she motioned towards the bag of food the mother of three was still holding out of her grasp.

"Oh, yeah," Margie realized, handing over the dinner. "And don't you dare try to pay me for that. Family help each other out on days like you had today. Just tell J we're all thinking about him and that we'll be by sometime this weekend to sign his cast and tell horror stories about how bad skin smells after a cast is removed."

"He'll be looking forward to it, I'm sure."

"I'm going to want details about this evening, too," the brunette warned her blonde counterpart. "Lots and lots and lots of sappy, romantic, carnal details!"

The only response she received was the front door of the café slamming shut, but she wasn't worried. She'd get the information she wanted…one way or another.

It was six and half months later, and everything was different. As August whirled in, the Atwood family, currently weighing in at three and half members of the human variety and four of the animal, was preparing to leave Southern California for another sunny clime – that of Southern Florida. After the truth had come out about their relationship, Ryan and Marissa had faced numerous, affronting assaults from their neighbors and the parents of J's fellow classmates, and, although the school board and her bosses could legally do nothing to strip her of her job due to the teachers' union she belonged to, they still made her life while at Chino Elementary a living hell. Things had only gotten worse when they had announced that they were expecting.

Margie's prediction that Ryan would want to immediately start for a child once Marissa told him her good news had proved to be true, and, just like everything else they had done together in their relationship, things had gone quickly, and they were practically pregnant before they even tried. Not only did the proud parents have to face the wrath of the other townspeople, but, as soon as the Coopers had learned of the news, Julie had been harassing them day and night, insisting that they move to Newport so she could be closer to her heir. How else would she be able to groom him or her into the heartless mogul she longed for? So, wanting a fresh start in a town where no one would know their past and where they could be far away from Julie, as soon as the school year had ended, Ryan and Marissa had both started looking for new jobs. She had found one first seeing as how teachers were always needed in urban areas, and, soon afterwards, Ryan he had been hired at a prestigious golf course where not only would he manage the grounds but he would also have say in the future changes and improvements brought to the course.

As they walked into Wired that afternoon on their last day in Chino for the baby shower Margie was throwing in their and their still unborn baby girl, Lourdes' honor, a content Ryan, a six months pregnant Marissa, and a recently turned nine year old Joaquin all had smiles upon their tanned and happy faces.

"So I got a call from this firebrand here about three months ago," a very familiar voice, a voice the three of them had never thought they would hear again, was explaining as they made their way inside out of the sun and into the air conditioned interior of the café/bar, "and she had the most wonderful idea. She wanted us to go into business together, she as the silent partner and me as the figurehead or mouth, so to speak, go figure. Anyway, her plan was to extend Wired and make it a chain. While she and the headquarters would remain here in Southern California, I would be running its offshoot Wired, Too in Palm Beach. Now that was a deal my second-in-command and I couldn't pass up without having our heads shrunk by a shrink, so we signed on the pink dotted line and started planning. In just a few short weeks, Wired, Too will be up and running, catering towards a more…. unique audience. We'll have a special menu designed by yours truly, anything and everything graphic novel related, and sailing excursions for our more high-rolling clientele. The best part is though that none of this would have been possible without our guests of honor. It's because of our mutual friends that Margie and I met in the first place, and now look at us, we're in bed together as partners in business and crime, not to mention compadres as well." The memorable man paused for a moment and took a deep breath. "And, now that I've finished with my speech, I'd like to read the one my mini-me prepared for today's announcement as well."

Marissa could see that her husband was about to explode, and she had to stifle a small laugh at his red face and indignant expression. Their baby shower was about to become truly unforgettable. "What the hell is going on around here," he practically screamed.

"Ryan," the geeky, brown haired man called out in greeting, "you didn't forget your buddies Seth and Chester did you? I mean, how could you? I was practically your best man at your wedding to your lovely and yet slightly swollen wife. Forget about carrying a watermelon to a party; Mrs. Atwood over there went and swallowed the whole thing. Baby would be embarrassed for you. However, I guess that means there will be more pudding for the rest of us to eat, right?"

"Margie," Ryan began turning towards his older friend and glaring. "What the hell have you done?"

"Oh, nothing much," the mother of three evaded his question before smirking triumphantly to herself. "This is just something I like to call Peggy's Plan for Payback."