Still Love's Fool

Chapter One

Forty-four year old Marissa Atwood regarded her face closely as she looked into the mirror. It was the same mirror she had been using for the past sixteen years, but, despite the fact that friends and family told her she had barely aged in that time, she could very easily see the differences. Granted, because of good genes, a naturally hectic lifestyle – four kids between the ages of twenty-five and twelve would do that for a woman – and a husband still as sexually insatiable as he had been when they first met, her countenance and body appeared younger than her age, but it was the events taking place in her life that made her feel old.

The first event that made her feel as if she wasn't as young as she once was had occurred six years before. Q had suddenly passed away from old age, and, though a year later they had gone out as a family and adopted a new pet, she still missed the golden retriever that had, in her own way, brought her closer to her husband, and the dog's passing was a reminder to the mother of four that life can surprise you at any moment, that it is fragile and temperamental, that things really can happen on a whim.

Three years after that, her next shock had happened when Garrett had graduated from college. Legally, he had been an adult at that point for four years, but it was seeing her oldest child walk across the stage and receive his diploma that had cemented the fact that her little boy had grown into a responsible, handsome young man, a man who really did not need her any longer. Garrett's absence in her life as he forged his own path had only been compounded that summer when Cooper had moved out of the house and into an apartment he had shared with a bunch of friends.

And, now, it was three years later again, and Marissa could barely recognize her life. If she closed her eyes and blocked the rest of the world from her mind, she could practically still hear her four children playing in the backyard – Garrett and Cooper arguing over a sports call, Loren jumping on the trampoline and practicing on the balance beam her dad had installed for her behind the garage, and Aristan quietly occupying himself by drawing on the sidewalk or talking secretly with Bagel, their pet beagle. Instead though, reality brought with it a son who was newly engaged, a son who was wandering aimlessly through his life, still attempting at the age of twenty-four to break into the world of professional baseball, a daughter who was dating – dating – and another son who would be a teenager in a month, and all she wanted to do was rewind the clock and go back to live the past sixteen years of her life all over again. Unfortunately, Bill Gates hadn't yet invented such a machine, but Marissa had faith that he someday would. Until then though, she would have to sit by, patiently wait, and enjoy the small joys her marriage and being a mother brought her.

"You look beautiful," Ryan compliment as he slid up behind her to stand and watch appreciatively. So lost in thought, she had missed him entering the room, but, with a delicate kiss to her bare shoulder blade and a hand that always seemed to find a way to caress her intimately whenever they were alone, her husband quickly and promisingly brought her back to the present. "What would I have to do to get you to wear that tonight to the party?"

Looking at her body which was only hidden from his hunger gaze by a thin, silk robe, Marissa answered, "promise me that my wearing this will drive Susan off for good."

"Garrett would be devastated, and I think we both know that you don't want that."

"In time, he'd get over it," the mother of four argued, "and, eventually, he'd meet someone else and fall in love again."

The still sandy blonde haired man looking back at her through the vanity mirror quirked his brow at her in question. "Is that what you would do if something happened to me, mourn for a little while and then start dating again?"

"That's not funny, Ryan. Don't even joke about something like that."

"I'm serious," he persisted. "If you wouldn't be able to get past losing me, what makes you think Garrett would be able to get past losing the woman he loves?"

"It's not that I don't trust his feelings for her," Marissa defended herself. "I'm just not too sure about Susan's for him. If she hurts my baby boy…"

"He's a grown man, honey; he can take care of himself. He's twenty-five, a successful architect, and he has a rational, level head on his shoulders. You should just be glad it's not Cooper getting married," the construction worker advised humorously. "Then we'd have some real trouble on our hands."

"I'm convinced he's going to be a serial bachelor," the mother of four stated confidently. "I mean, could you imagine anyone putting up with his odd jobs, pigsty habits, and happy-go-lucky behavior. Don't get me wrong, I love my son more than life itself, but he's truly one of a kind, and it'll take a strong willed woman to tame him."

"And I'm sure you're quite pleased with this development." She merely rolled her eyes in response. "However, if you keep the kids from marrying, chances are there will be no grandchildren."

"We're still in our mid-forties," the nurse swiftly turned around on her stool to glare at her husband. "There better not be any grandchildren for, at least, another decade. I'm not ready to be a grandma."

"That's sweet," he teased her. "Maybe you should have that printed on Garrett and Susan's wedding card, you know, customize it."

"You're not helping me get through this evening at all," Marissa snapped testily. "You're supposed to be distracting me and not bringing up even scarier ideas than the engagement party we're throwing tonight for our oldest child."

"If you want distracted, I can do that."

"Lower the libido, Loverboy. We don't have time for…that."

He tilted his head at a hopeful angle. "Does that mean you're open to being seduced tonight after everyone leaves?"

"If you can find me underneath the giant pile of Kleenexes I'm going to be buried under and are still foolish enough to find me attractive then, more power to you," she quipped. "But, really, I'm going to be a mess before we're even an hour into this disaster."

"Don't worry," he kissed her brow as he moved past her into their ensuite bathroom. "I'll make sure you're alright. It's what I do; I take care of you. Now, tell me about your day. Did you get some rest like you promised me you would?"

"I tried." Her response earned her a disgruntled glare from her husband. "Honestly, I did, but, twenty minutes after you left, I got an emergency call and had to go see a patient."

"What was wrong?"

"She was a first time mother pregnant with twins who thought she was having Braxton Hicks contractions, but, by the time I got there, her water had broke, she was fully dilated, and her body needed to push." Marissa stood up from her vanity table and followed the father of her children into their bathroom. He was getting undressed so he could shower, so she perched herself on the counter so she could continue talking to him. "There was no time to get her to a hospital or to call for a doctor, so I had to deliver the babies myself with no help. To make matters worse, they were both breach."

Interested in her story, he pressed for more information. "Were they all alright, the mom and her babies? And where was her husband when all this was going on?"

"Mother and daughters are resting comfortably at the hospital as we speak. They were both on the petite side, one weighing in at four pounds, two ounces and the other at three pounds, fifteen ounces, but they were both perfectly healthy. As for the husband, he was away on a business trip."

"When his very pregnant wife was home alone expecting his first child…children? The guy doesn't deserve them." Although it went unsaid, they both were aware of the underlying hatred her patient's husband invoked in Ryan, for the absentee father could only remind him of one person: her ex-husband - who had done the very same thing to her many years before.

"Not all men are as wonderful with their families as you are," Marissa complimented the man she loved. After giving birth to their youngest child, she had left the hospital to work in private care, paying house visits to expecting and new mothers to check up on or examine them when needed. Not only did it allow her the chance to spend more time with her family, but it was also more lucrative. "However, despite the day ending on a high note, – one of the little girls getting named after me – I still didn't get home until four this afternoon after jumping through all the bureaucratic hoops at the hospital, so I'm going to be dead on my feet tonight after all the guests go home."

He paused from inside the shower, opened the door, and stuck his head out to observe her. "That means you're running on less than three hours of sleep. Why didn't you call me and tell me to come home early so you could rest while I finished up all the last minute preparations?"

"Because I knew today was your meeting with your boss," she answered. "Did you get all the papers signed so you can take over the business?"

"Yep," Ryan responded from back inside the glass shower. "And they were delivered to the court house, too, so now we just have to wait for everything to be processed. What about the kids," he wanted to know. "The house seems too quiet for both Loren and Aristan to be home."

"Don't remind me of how empty it is," she chided him, the depth of her sadness even surprising the mother of four herself. "Loren refused to cancel her lesson at the gym, so she's going to shower and change for the party there, and Cooper promised to swing by and pick her up on his way here. Aristan's in his room though. He's finishing up the last touches on the mixes he made for tonight."

"Your bad habit of giving him anything and everything he ever wanted finally paid off," the construction worker realized, slightly teasing his wife. "At least his CD collection was large and varied enough that we didn't have to hire a dj for tonight."

"See, I knew what I was doing all along. Just imagine how big his collection will be by the time Loren gets married. He'll be able to help us out then, too."

Finished with his shower, Ryan stepped out of the stall and stood on the bathroom mat as he waited for her to hand him his towel. As he dried off, he corrected her. "She's not getting married, so you can just forget that idea."

The nurse smirked. "Now who's being overprotective? Whatever happened to letting them fall in love so they could leave us and have lots and lots of babies."

"No one is getting my little girl pregnant," he stated without room for argument. "So just forget that idea."

She watched as he stalked his way out of the ensuite, suddenly just as distracted and melancholic about their children growing up as she was. They really were perfect for each other, Marissa realized in that moment. Best of all though, they were as much in love as they had been years before when they had first admitted their feelings for one another. It was with him by her side that she would be able to hurdle the changes occurring in her life, just as she would always be by his side to help him get past the hard times in his life as well. After all, that's what a married couple did; they were each others rock, each others solace, each others everything at all times.

The engagement party was in full swing, the evening in everyone's opinion but hers had been a wonderful success, and the champagne was flowing…straight into her glass. Liquid comfort was acting as Marissa's saving grace that night. Already that evening, she had drank more alcohol than she had over the past several years, but it wasn't every day that a mother had to host her oldest child's engagement party and pretend to like her future daughter-in-law. To make matters worse, Ryan had been distracted away from her side by his boss, and, after the older gentleman had signed over his entire business to his employee that very day, they had agreed to cater to the older man's every need, the kids were off doing various things – Garrett dancing with his fiancé, Cooper playing basketball in the driveway with some of his older brother's single friends, Loren hiding out in a dark corner of the party so she could talk on her cell the whole time, and Aristan obsessing over the music – and she had been cornered by Susan's mother who wanted to discuss wedding preparations. So, in response, Marissa sat down with her, she smiled when such a gesture was necessary or appropriate, she sipped flute after flute of champagne, and she silently imagined various way of getting rid of the pain in her side that was her eldest son's bride-to-be.

"So, Susie wants a winter wedding, but, thankfully, I talked her out of a holiday themed one. Christmas and New Years are crazy enough without adding a wedding to the mix, so we've decided on early February for the date. Will that be alright with you and your husband?"

The nurse looked away from her spouse whom she had been following with her eyes for several minutes in a vain attempt to capture his pity and make him want to come to her rescue and observed the older woman sitting across from her. Susan Eleanor Thompson was the only daughter of a stay at home mother and an investment banker. She had taken after her father and had developed a love for numbers, going on to major in accounting in college and, after graduation, work for Ryan's boss. That's how Garrett had met her – at a Christmas party for the construction company, its employees and valued customers, and their families. Marissa hated her future daughter-in-law's mother with a passion, partly due to the fact that the woman looked down upon her and disapproved of a woman working and partly because she had given birth to the girl that was trying to steal Garrett away from her.

"It doesn't matter what Ryan and I want," she finally answered Mrs. Thompson. "It's not our wedding; it's Garrett and Susan's, so, if they want to be married at the beginning of February, then that's when they will be married. End of story."

"But your families aren't from this area," the other woman, Katherine, argued. "Won't you need to make sure your relatives will be able to travel up for the festivities?"

"There's no one to tell."

"Oh," the older woman frowned, pretending to be distressed on Marissa's behalf. "Are they all dead?"

"To us they are." Standing up, the mother of four pushed her chair back and took a deep breath before continuing. "Listen, we'll do whatever we can to help, but I'm not going to step in and steal Susan's thunder. I've already had my perfect wedding, and now it's her turn to plan her own. Whatever she and Garrett decide, Ryan and I will support, but we're not going to make their decisions for them. If they're old enough to get married, then they're old enough to plan a wedding. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go and check on my daughter to see if her phone needs to be surgically removed from her ear."

However, before Marissa could make her getaway and join Loren in the darkest corner of the party, the aforementioned bride-to-be was at her side, lacing their arms together, and pulling her towards the gazebo. "Come on, Mom," Susan urged her, not noticing the older woman's cringe at the fact that she was referring to her so intimately. "I want to get some pictures of the whole family. I already sent Garrett to round up his siblings and Mr. Atwood." The nurse furrowed her brow at the accountant's last comment. Why was she Mom and Ryan was still Mr. Atwood? "We're supposed to meet them in the gazebo."

"Who's taking this picture?"

"We're actually taking two," the younger woman shared. "The first one I want to get just your immediately family, but, in the second one, I'm going to set my camera and pose with you. I figured you would want a copy of the first one, and the second one is for our scrapbook?"

"Your scrapbook?"

"Yeah, Garrett and I are making one together to chronicle our wedding. It was actually his idea," the bride-to-be gushed about her fiancé. "Wasn't that sweet of him?"

"Adorable," Marissa returned blandly. Tuning out her future daughter-in-law, she thought silently to herself. No doubt it was Loren's idea to make a scrapbook. Her oldest son must have gotten himself in trouble with his girlfriend and turned to his younger sister for advice. Obviously, he was wise to her anti-Susan feelings, and, though the mother of four felt slightly bad for not being there for her son when he potentially might have needed her, her animosity towards the younger woman was just too strong to ignore. She knew she was wrong, that she was being unreasonable and petty, but she couldn't help it, and she really didn't want to. The sight of her husband walking towards her though was enough, in that moment, to put a temporary smile on her cheerless face.

"Just a few more hours," he reassured her with both his words and a gentle, discreet hug. "And I have good news, too." Perking up, she watched him anxiously as she waited to hear his agreeable information. "Cooper wants Aristan to spend the night with him at his apartment so that he can burn a bunch of CD's off of him, and one of Loren's girlfriends asked her to spend the night, so you and me, Mrs. Atwood, are going to have the house to ourselves."

"You mean you, me, and Bagel?"

"Close enough," the construction worker joked. "It's not like that lazy pile of flesh is going to get up off his doggy bed anytime soon. He's probably out for the night."

She laughed and went to comment back, but, before she could say anything, their enjoyable moment was ruined by Susan interrupting them. "That's enough whispering you two," she chastised her future parents-in-law. "If you can't say whatever it is you're saying in front of all of us, you should just wait until you're alone."

Garrett must have been able to sense that his Mother was about to erupt, so he stepped in to alleviate the tension hanging over their small group. "Susie, why don't you just take the picture and quit teasing my Mom? She's pretty exhausted after only getting a few hours of sleep last night."

"Really, why," the younger woman wanted to know, ignoring her fiancé's looks of warning.

"I was up until four working on your party," Marissa answered tersely, leveling the accountant with an expression that was definitely not friendly, "and then I had an emergency with one of my patients to attend to all morning and afternoon."

"Mom delivered breach, premature twins all on her own today," Aristan spoke up, proud of his parent. "Isn't that pretty amazing?"

"Let's just hope she washed her hands afterwards," Susan joked. No one laughed.

"Just take the picture," Marissa heard her oldest son direct the younger woman. "Please?"

As their future daughter-in-law focused her camera, Ryan leaned into her and whispered comforting words in her ear. "Just take a deep breath. I'm right here, and I'm not going anywhere. In fact, I think I'm going to kidnap you away from Mrs. Thompson and make you come with me to keep my ex-boss entertained."

"Is that a promise?"

He laughed before pressing a chaste kiss onto the gentle curve of her graceful neck. "No, but this is," her husband guaranteed before slipping his hand down her back to mischievously pat her still firm and round derrière. His gesture made her smile, and, luckily for all of them, the grin came just as Susan was snapping the picture, so the younger woman was content with the shot and forged ahead to take the second one with her in the photo with them.

Repeating the words under her breath that Ryan had used to comfort her mere minutes before, the mother of four patiently waited for the moment when they could all go their separate ways and she could forget Garrett's fiancé for at least a few seconds. Just a few more hours had suddenly become her new mantra.

"Hey, quit that," Ryan playfully scolded her later that night after all the guests had left. Removing the dirty dishes from her hands, he set them back down on the table and took her into his arms. "There will be no cleaning up tonight by you. The kids promised me they'd all be by tomorrow morning to help us, so we're going to wait for them."

"But we can't leave everything out all night," she argued, motioning towards the destruction which had been wrecked upon their once picture perfect, idyllic backyard. "What if a storm comes in?"

"It's July in California. There's no such thing as a sudden storm, and there is nothing predicted. And, if it does happen to rain," he teased her, "Mother Nature will take care of all the washing for us, free of charge."

"You're incorrigible."

"And, yet, you love me anyway," the construction worked joked, wrapping his right arm around her waist and walking her with him towards the temporary dance floor they had set up outside. One of Aristan's CD's was still playing, and the soft, melodic sounds of some obscure, artistic band soothingly washed over them. "Come on, you still owe me a dance."

"But you hate dancing," she questioned him, surprised by his sudden, unexpected romantic gesture.

"Sometimes we all have to do things we don't want to do," Ryan answered. "Like you tonight with this party. Besides," he added with a cheeky smile, "it's one thing to dance in public, but it's something completely different to have you all to myself in private when we dance."

Marissa laughed. "So this is where your efforts to seduce me come into play."

"Nope," he returned, shaking his head to reiterate his response, "because I won't have to seduce you. I never do. You always match me desire for desire, passion for passion."

"Perhaps it's the champagne talking, but you're sounding really romantic right now."

"It's the champagne," her husband reassured her before delicately placing a warm, inviting, loving kiss upon her lips. Pulling her body closer to his, they continued to sway to the music in perfect rhythm with each other.

As the moments passed and the night wore on, the songs continued and their movements became so infinitesimal, so private and sensual that it was difficult to tell if they were even still dancing. Her head was cuddled into his shoulder, and, every now and again, she would nuzzle his chin with her nose, letting the stubble on his face rasp against her silken skin as she dropped wet, open mouthed kisses upon his throat; his fingers possessive roamed her back, caressing the bare skin of her shoulders and drawling up the length of her knee skimming gown with every motion of his hand upon her curvaceous hip.

Before either of them were cognizant of what they were doing, Ryan was backing them up to the hammock, and they were falling onto it together, their clothes disappearing as quickly as their efforts would allow. With the privacy of the night surrounding them, the happily married couple made beautiful, passionate, frenzied love long into the night, finally falling asleep content in each others vulnerable, exposed embrace. The night might not have been perfect, but, together, they had made the most of it.

"Do you think Mom and Dad are still asleep," Loren asked her older brother the next morning as they made their way from his car to the backyard. The tone of her voice was skeptical. "The house still looks closed up from last night."

"They're old," Garrett responded impertinently with a wide smile on his handsome face. "Unlike us, they can't recover as quickly from a party."

"And it was such wild kegger, too," the fifteen year old said sarcastically, rolling her eyes. "What time did Cooper and Aristan say they were going to meet us here?"

"Knowing those two, it's going to be just us cleaning up for a few hours."

"So then we should leave the really miserable tasks for them, right," the younger of the two siblings suggested. "What do you think: dishes or trash pick up?"

"Why not both," Garrett proposed. "It'll take us a few hours, at least, to get all the decorations down, especially if Mom wants us to save all those Chinese lanterns. If they couldn't get their lazy asses out of bed in time to get here when we did, then tough shit."

"Does Susie kiss that mouth," the high school student teased her older brother. His only response was to cuff her upside the back of the head. "Anyway, no matter what, I have to be out of here and at cheerleading practice by one o'clock, so, if this place isn't done by then, you're going to have to call that fiancé of yours and wake her pampered butt up to come and help."

"You're too much like Mom for your own good, do you know that? What do the two of you have against Susan?"

"She's just too…everything. I mean, did you hear her last night? She called our mother Mom, like she was already an accepted member of this family, and then she went and taunted Mom and Dad for talking to each other. I thought Mom was going to go for her jugular there for a minute."

"You and me both," the twenty-five year old agreed. "Why do you think I stepped in?" She nodded in recognition of his words, and they continued to make their way out back. "I just wish you guys would give her a chance. Really, you'd like her if you did."

"You're probably right, but we're not all going to instantly become BFF's, Garrett."

Exasperated, he pointed out, "we've been dating for a year and a half now! How much time do you want?"

"Give us a decade or so and we should be good to go."

"Mom's impossible, and you're a spoiled brat."

"Why thank you, big brother," Loren teased, brushing her lips across her older sibling's cheek. "You really do give the best…"

Suddenly she froze, and the architect watched her curiously. "What the hell's the matter with you? Are you sick? You're not going to toss your cookies are you?"

"A barf bucket might be a good idea. Just…whatever you do, do not look in the direction of the hammock. If you do, you'll be scarred for life."

"What," Garrett asked, ignoring his sister's advice and glancing in the ill-advised direction. "Oh my god, I think I just burned my retinas," he bemoaned, hurrying to reach up and cover his eyes as if the gesture would block the display he had just witnessed. "Do other people have parents who do this kind of stuff, or are we just the doomed ones? Don't they realize they're not supposed to have sex anymore? Once you hit forty, that's it, the sex life is supposed to shrivel up and die forever."

"I'll remember to remind you of that when you turn the big four-zero."

"Seriously, Loren, why didn't you warn me?"

"What part of don't look in the direction of the hammock didn't you understand, genius," the fifteen year old taunted her brother. "Come on," she motioned for him to follow her. "Let's go inside and wait for them to get up. I think, if nothing else, this is a perfect excuse to watch Saturday morning cartoons instead of cleaning up."

"You read my mind." As they climbed the back steps that led to the deck and eventually the patio doors off the family room, she started giggling uncontrollably. "What? What's so funny?"

"I was just thinking about what would have happened if Susan would have come with you," the gymnastics enthusiast confided while struggling to take a deep breath because she was laughing so hard. "Talk about your initiation into the family."

It took several moments, but, eventually, Garrett joined in her mirth. "That would be pretty priceless, wouldn't it?"

As the two siblings disappeared into the house, they never noticed their parents very much awake and watching them. After sharing a knowing smirk and cuddling closer together to combat the chill of the early summer morning, they closed their eyes, determined to sleep in - anything to feel young again.