A/N: With this post, this story is now complete. Just to let you know, the next fic I have planned is very angsty. I mean we're talking graphic, so if this is not your cup of tea, you might not want to read. Because I found another story online that had a similar plot line, the Egypt fic will not be written. To all of you who were looking forward to it, I'm sorry, but I don't want to endeavor to do something that has already basically been done. In my estimation, the new fic should be up within a week's time. As for this story, enjoy the final chapter, and thanks for sticking with me and reading it. Charlynn
It was a stalemate. Sitting across the dining room table as they worked together to fold laundry, Loren stared down her sister-in-law, glaring at the older woman. For a week, they had been cohabitating together while her parents went on their much-deserved but postponed trip to England, and, after more than a year, the teenager realized they had come to some form of understanding. While they would never be best friends, they could put aside their differences to work together when necessary – ganging up on the guys, organizing family dinners, and protecting their own. Plus, Loren had to admit that talking to the accountant about certain things had its advantages.
For instance, a discussion about her current boyfriend and their relationship was much more pleasant with Susan than it was with her parents. There were none of the awkward moments or the seemingly unavoidable over shares when you were talking with an Atwood. The accountant was, surprisingly, a constant vein of support when it came to her gymnastics. She would drag Garrett along and they would bring Tommy to watch her competitions, and, no matter what, Loren could always hear her sister-in-law cheering her on from the stands. But, the teenager's favorite thing about the older woman was her capacity to scheme. Granted, when it was directed towards her, it wasn't nearly as fun, but, when they worked together and schemed against someone else, they were a formidable team.
Narrowing her gaze, Loren confided, "I have some ideas, but I want to hear yours first. What have you thought of so far?"
Without answering, Susan stood up from her chair and made her way into the living room to check on the two sleeping babies. Satisfied that they were both out for at least another half hour, she returned to the dining room, reclaimed her seat, and smiled mischievously. "Actually, I don't think we'll have to do too much. You know that Garrett talked to your Dad last night, don't you?"
Her parents would be returning back from their trip the next afternoon. Cooper was to pick them up from the airport, and, while her oldest brother was still at work, she and Aristan would go straight home from school in order to help their sister-in-law prepare dinner. It would be the first time since Tommy had been born that every Atwood would be under the same roof. Although it had been strange to go three months without some form of get-together, life had been hectic for everyone. Summer had ended, meaning she and her youngest brother had gone back to school, their Mom had gone back to work part-time, and the two infants in the family required so much attention, it felt as if no one had gotten a decent night's sleep in weeks. However, life was starting to settle back down, they were finding a new routine and working together to make sure the days went by smoothly, and there was a new cause to bring the Atwoods together.
"Well, from what Garrett told me, which, albeit wasn't much, he seems to think that your parents are pretty much back to their old selves."
"They're so in love," Susan explained, rolling her eyes in a display of mock frustration, "that I'd be shocked to find out that they even left their hotel room one time this entire week."
Grinning conspiratorially, the gymnast realized, "so they're going to be very affectionate tomorrow night."
"And distracted," her sister-in-law supplied, "so wrapped up in each other, they'll barely manage to notice that anyone else is in the room."
"Including a stranger," Loren suggested rhetorically. "So that means not only will they ignore the tenth person in the room, but they just might embarrass a certain someone as well."
"And their utter lack of interest in what's going on around them will leave us with the perfect opportunity to twist the knife in a little deeper."
"But the question becomes," the teenager continued to speak in code, perhaps just in case someone was lurking around the house and listening to their conversation, "how are we going to get said opportunity?"
"Oh, that's easy," Susan declared, waving off the younger woman's concerns. "We'll pull the classic, timeless excuse; we'll separate the sexes, send the boys to do something outside, claiming we need some peace and quiet and can only achieve that if they're out of our hair. And you know your brothers. If you send them outside…"
"Then they'll inevitably start some kind of sports game and leave us alone," she finished.
"And once we get the guest alone, we'll be able to work our magic."
"We'll have them attempt to take care of both Tyler and Tommy at the same time," the wife and mother of the two women suggested, "ask them to change their diapers and get them ready for bed while we clean up the kitchen."
"And I've been working with Bagel," Loren admitted, "teaching him to harass strangers."
The accountant nodded her head in approval. "Finally, the finishing touch will be me. I'll talk about how everyone treated me when I first got engaged to Garrett. There's nothing more frightening than a first hand account of mental torture."
"Oh, please, you had it easy," the teenager defended both herself and her family. "Compared to what we have planned for tomorrow night, you were treated with kid gloves."
"But there weren't children in the family then," Susan pointed out. "We have to be extra vigilant now, because those two babies," she gestured towards the sleeping infants in the family room, "cannot grow attached to someone only to have them disappear from their lives a year later."
Clearing his throat, Aristan startled to the two conniving women. "Should I go and then come back in so we can try this again," he questioned them, smirking in amusement, "because this sure as hell feels like I've walked into some kind of alternative reality. You two are getting along… voluntarily." Narrowing his gaze, he leveled his glare on his sister's face. "What exactly are you up to?"
Without hesitation or compunction, Loren admitted, "no good." Adding some levity into her voice and wiggling her finely sculpted brows in a wicked manner, she queried, "want to help?"
"Of course," the musician agreed, immediately reaching for and pulling out a chair to sit down. "What can I do?"
After sharing a scheming look with her sister-in-law, the sixteen year old finally answered her brother's question. "How are your hacking skills?"
"I can finally see the silver lining."
Half asleep, disoriented, and thoroughly exhausted, Ryan wasn't exactly sure what his wife was talking about. All he wanted to do was sit out on their balcony and hold her in his lap during their final night in London, and, apparently, she was in the mood to talk. However, after the months of silence that had existed between them after their daughter's birth, he would never again turn her conversations away.
"Is that an obscure landmark or something," he asked. Although a part of his mind realized he made little to no sense, the clouds had finally lifted that afternoon, and, for the first time since their plane touched down in England, the sky was clear, so it was actually feasible to see across the sprawling city that evening. "Point it out to me," he requested.
"You're cute when you're being ridiculous."
"Hey, I found some grey hair when I showered this morning," the father of five teased. "I'll take what I can get, even cute."
Ignoring him, Marissa explained. "I was talking about my health issues. After all this time, I can finally see the silver lining."
This revelation piqued his interest. Sitting up straighter but keeping his arms wrapped firmly around his wife's hips, he asked, "what do you mean?"
"Well, not everything that came from what happened was bad. Admittedly, I would have preferred to have some warning before getting a hysterectomy so I could have prepared myself, and I definitely could have done without the Post Partum Depression and the Hepatitis, but I lived, right? My depression isn't debilitating anymore, and I'm getting help for it, and, according to Pat, my body seems to be responding well to the medication, so I might test clean for Hepatitis before the end of the year. Plus, and more importantly, there was absolutely nothing wrong with Tyler. She's perfect, and I'd rather suffer through years of physical and emotional illness than have our daughter sick for a single day."
Kissing her brow, Ryan whispered in her ear, "that's because you're a wonderful mother, the best our children could ask for."
"And you're an amazing husband and father," his wife complimented him. "I don't know how I would have gotten through these past six months without you."
"Likewise," he agreed with her. "I guess it's a good thing that you're stuck with me then, isn't it, because I'm never going anywhere."
"Promises, promises," the mother of his children teased, but, despite her doubtful words, he could see the faith and trust she had in him glowing in the depths of her sapphire eyes.
As a form of playful punishment, he took her lips in his, silencing her for several seconds while he tasted her mouth and memorized her essence once again. It didn't matter how old they were or how long they had been married, he would always crave the woman he loved. Finally, after releasing her mouth, he wondered out loud, "now what is all this about the silver lining, and do I benefit from it?"
"Oh, you most certainly do," Marissa shared, giggling as she snuggled even deeper into his embrace. "Just think about it," she insisted. "We never have to worry about me getting pregnant again, so that means no birth control pills, no condoms,…"
"No limitations," he finished for her, grinning widely.
"We can be as carefree and promiscuous as we went."
"And you tell me this now, the night before we leave to go home," Ryan lightheartedly chastised her. "If I would have known you felt like this, I would have tried to seduce you all over this city."
"I think you just answered your own question." Stripping the humor from her voice with a single action, the business owner took his wife for surprise when he slipped his hands underneath her nightgown, only to be pleasantly surprised to find her naked underneath. "What… what are you doing," she asked, breathless.
"I'm going to make love to my very beautiful and aroused wife."
He nearly laughed at how wide her gaze became. "Are you serious? Out here?"
"Well, for now," he admitted, "but, afterwards, we're going back into the room and to bed. However, I don't plan on allowing you to sleep all that much tonight."
"But you're tired," she protested halfheartedly. "You were irrational not even five minutes ago."
"Things change," Ryan shrugged his shoulders dismissively. "I got a second wind."
When she went to object again, he simply cut off what she was going to say by trailing hot, moist kisses down her exposed neck, ending his travels when his lips found the mounds of her still pert breasts. His hips bucked when he felt Marissa's nails spear through his hair and scratch his scalp, her simplest touch driving him to the brink of physical insanity.
"If this is what being a middle aged grandmother means," the mother of his children gasped, "I could get used to this."
He certainly hoped so.
Melanie Ackerman was nervous. For the first time in her life, she was about to meet her boyfriend's parents. While she could never be considered a slut, she was most certainly not a virgin. However, her relationships in the past never seemed to last long enough for the inevitable meet and greet with the people who could potentially be her future in-laws, and here she was about to experience the ageless ritual, and, just her luck, she just had to go and pick a guy whose family was close and, according to her boyfriend, hesitant to welcome in new members. She was going to be tested, he had explained, put through the gauntlet so to speak, and, if she didn't survive the trials his family subjected her to, their relationship would never last, no matter how much he loved her. And he did.
He loved her, and she loved him. Although they had only been dating for two and half months, the graphic design major knew that this was the man for her. She wanted to marry him, grow old with him, and have babies with him… many years down the road, and she had a feeling he wanted the same things with her. All she would have to do to get her happily ever after was find a way to fit into the Atwood family, no easy task according to her boyfriend, but she was up to the challenge and determined, two very important qualities Cooper had told her, especially if she wanted to go up against the women in his family and come out on top… which she most certainly did.
He had agreed with her that the tests of character and personality weren't fair, that she shouldn't have to fit into the mold his mother, sister, and sister-in-law felt she should, but it didn't matter what was right or wrong. He loved his family, they were a part of him, and, if she couldn't find a way to coexist with the Atwoods, then their relationship would never work. It sucked, Cooper had said, and, as she waited for his parents to eventually find their way into the airport's lounge where they were waiting for them, the memory of his oh-so-eloquent choice of words made her smile. After all, if Cooper was so wonderful, if she could love him so much, surely his family would be able to endear themselves in her heart as well. Right?
"Would you relax," she begged of her boyfriend. He was pacing a few steps ahead of where she was sitting patiently, fidgeting the entire time. She knew he was nervous, that he wanted his parents to immediately like her, but his inability to sit still was only going to result in aggravating his still tender knee. "You're parents are probably just getting settled, finding their luggage and going to the bathroom," she suggested.
"There are bathrooms on the plane."
"Yes, there are," Melanie agreed with him, speaking slowly and using what she hoped was a calming and not patronizing tone of voice, "but they're cramped, and they're uncomfortable. Your Mom and Dad know that you're picking them up and then taking them home for a family dinner. If I were them, I'd want to freshen up first, check my appearance, and maybe change clothes. London to San Francisco is quite the long flight, and then there's also the weather difference to consider."
"You're right, I know you're right," Cooper allowed. Despite his words though, he kept pacing. "But their flight landed half an hour ago. Unless the airport allows passengers to use the staff locker rooms so they can shower, I don't see where they could be."
"Maybe they stopped to grab a coffee at Starbucks, or maybe they needed something from one of the stores. They'll be here," she promised, reaching out to grasp his hand and pull him towards her. "Just relax, please."
Grudgingly, he took a seat beside her, but, when he went to pull his hand free, she kept a hold of it, refusing to let go. Soothingly, she caressed the back of his knuckles, weaving a sense of tranquility over the man beside her with the gentle sideways sweep of her thumb. Eventually, she felt Cooper relax beside her, his form become lax and loose as he slumped in his chair and pulled her closer to him. The minutes passed by, stretching until the point where they had been waiting for his parents for three quarters of an hour, but still she kept him composed. Just as she was about to get worried herself, she saw a couple walking towards them that she immediately recognized from the various pictures her boyfriend had showed her of his family.
"See, what did I tell you," she good-naturedly taunted him. "You should listen to me more often."
"Don't get smug too quickly. Look at their clothes."
Doing as he asked, Melanie observed Ryan and Marissa Atwood. The attractive couple was obviously lost in each other, talking softly and holding each other tight as they made their way through the airport terminals, but she had expected that. After all, they had just returned from a week abroad, away from their five children. Of course they had spent the majority of their time intimately alone together; that's what she would have done if she and Cooper had gone to London with only each other for company. But, on closer inspection, she noticed that her boyfriend's parents' clothes were wrinkled and mussed, their hair could most definitely use a good brushing, and they looked guilty and mischievous – just like what she had looked like after her parents caught her going to third base with Adam Rausch during her junior year of high school.
"No," she quickly denied the thought that directly flashed through her mind. "Your parents… they wouldn't do that, right? I mean," she stumbled to find the right thing to say so she could express her discomfort with the situation, "really? In an airport bathroom? That's… that's kind of disgusting."
"No, that's kind of my parents," he corrected her. "They're known for pulling stunts like this. Last year, my sister and older brother walked in on them on the hammock one morning in our backyard, and, just three months ago, they made use of a supply closet at the hospital when my sister-in-law gave birth."
Embarrassed for having caught her boyfriend's parents in such a compromising position and hating that their first conversation would undoubtedly be laced with sexual innuendo, the young college student felt herself blush. "How red is my face right now?"
"You know those little boxer shorts you like to wear to bed at night," he prompted her, referring to the pajamas he had seen her where when he had slept over that past week. "Well, your cheeks currently match them."
She wanted to groan in horror, run away and hide someplace safe where his parents could not see or find her, but it was too late; they were already there standing in front of them.
"Mom, Dad," Cooper greeted the recently returned Atwoods. "I'd like you to meet Melanie Ackerman – my girlfriend."
Standing back in the shadows, Marissa watched as her family interacted, savoring the feeling of being back in her home surrounded by all the people she loved. Yes, she had enjoyed her trip to England with Ryan, and the alone time they had spent together was both needed and cherished, but there was nothing like the few fleeting moments in life when all the pain was washed away and she was left with just simple, unadulterated pleasure, and, watching her children playfully bicker back and forth over the dining room table and sensing the presence of her beloved husband hovering a few steps behind her, she had never felt so at peace.
What she had confessed in London still stood, too. She no longer feared growing old, of watching her children leave home, fall in love, and make families of their own. After all, it was a natural process of life, and she loved being a grandmother. Although she would never regret having Tyler, it was nice to spoil her grandson and then send him home at night with Garrett and Susan. She was looking forward to more and more quiet time with her husband as the years progressed, and, realizing that, she also became aware of the fact that she was only as old as she felt. Sure, her birth certificate said that she was currently forty-six, but, at night, when she lay ensconced in Ryan's strong and supportive arms, his soft breathing mellowing to match her own, she realized she felt as young as she had been the first day she met the love of her life, and, with him at her side, she would never mature beyond the very youthful age of twenty-nine. It was just another reason why her life wouldn't be complete without her husband.
"What are you doing," the father of her children asked as he came up and slipped his arms around her waist, pulling her back to rest against his chest. He had just returned from checking on a slumbering Tyler in the nursery.
"I'm savoring my family." Smiling knowingly, she confessed, "I think the games are about to begin."
"Are they going outside to play football?"
"The boys are," Marissa admitted, "but the games I'm really talking about are the ones Susan and Loren have planned. It appears as if the torture torch has been passed down to the younger generation. However, I think they've been trained well enough to handle it."
Her husband chuckled softly. "I see. So then am I to assume that the real initiation into the Atwood family is about to begin for Melanie?"
"Any second now?"
"Do you know what they have planned?"
Shaking her head no, she answered his question. "Ssh," she asked of him. "Just listen."
As soon as they fell quiet, the sounds of their family's voices floated over them. Aristan was the first to speak.
"I'm really sorry about this, Mel. Who would have known that you were highly allergic to milk? I just feel terrible though," the fourteen year old lamented dryly. Although the guest didn't pick up on his insincerity, his parents did. "You see, I was the one who requested macaroni and cheese for dinner and ice cream for dessert."
"It's okay," Cooper's girlfriend dismissed his apologies. "There was no way you could have known, and I wasn't that hungry anyway." The young woman mistook the bright smile the musician offered her as an acceptance of her reassurance and not for the self-satisfied smirk that it was.
"Well, come on, Melanie," their daughter-in-law requested, standing up from the table. Her movements seemed to trigger Loren's. "While the guys go outside to play football, we're going to clean up the kitchen and get to know one another a little bit better."
"But what about Tommy," their sixteen year old prompted. "I think I just heard him on the monitor, and you know he's going to need changed."
"I'll get him," Garrett offered only to be denied access to his son.
"No, that's okay," his wife reassured him. "Go out and have some fun. You've been working too hard lately. I'm sure Melanie can handle it for me. After all, she's going to have to start practicing with babies sooner or later, right?"
Marissa had to stifle a laugh as she watched the woman in question blanch considerably, but the college student nodded and agreed anyway. Without further argument, Garrett and Aristan practically ran outside, and, just as Cooper was attempting to escape as well, his girlfriend's hand shot out to stop him.
"Don't leave me in here… with them," she pleaded, her eyes wide with fright.
"It'll be okay," Cooper attempted to placate her, kissing her cheek affectionately. "This is your chance to beat them at their own game, and, even if you do put off the tests for now, they'll just keep coming after you until you give in and play."
"But look at them," Melanie insisted. "Your sister is gorgeous, and she's smart and talented, and Susan is practically a Stepford wife. She had that kid three months ago, and she's already in better shape than I am, and I've never even contemplated growing something in my uterus."
"I happen to like your shape just the way it is."
"Oh, he's good," Ryan whispered in her ear, laughing at their son's antics. "I wonder where he gets it."
She ignored him and continued to watch the scene unfold before them. Cooper fled the room, joining his brothers, and Susan and Loren came back into the dining room to pick up more dishes. Surprising them, Melanie stood up and started to talk to them.
"Did Cooper say anything about what happened this afternoon at the airport with his parents?"
"Oh, you mean the whole not-so-quickie in the bathroom," their daughter-in-law prompted. "He told Garrett who told me. Why?"
"Well," the younger woman blushed. "They're not normally like this are they, because it's kind of weird."
"My parents have always been very affectionate," Loren stated unapologetically. If she didn't know better, Marissa would have sworn she heard a note of pride in her daughter's voice. "Just consider yourself lucky that they had all their clothes on when you saw them."
"But I don't get it."
"There's nothing to get," the sixteen year old continued. "They're crazy about each other, fools in love."
"And if your relationship with Cooper lasts," Susan advised Melanie, "then you're going to end up just like them."
Turning around, the mother of five tuned out everything else the three women had to say to each other, took her husband's hand in hers, and led him upstairs to the bedroom they shared. What her daughter-in-law had said was true. When it came to her relationship with Ryan, they really were still love's fools, and, if she had anything to say about it, and she did, that was never going to change.