All good things come to an end folks...I've got exams in three weeks anyway (Got to get to Uni...yes I am that young.) As you know, I title the chapters very personally or I don't at all. Like Chapter 15 of "Untitled" I'll explain it at the bottom. Enjoy reading.
When Jess heard the familiar voice chatting away with a large group of male agents in the cafeteria she was relieved that at least one part of her life had returned to normal. Getting married had widened the gap between her and Colin; so much so that he didn't even spar with her anymore. The custody agreement seemed to have twisted the knife.
Colin stared at the document on the table. Despite leaning make to appear unaffected, his eyes flickered as he read the conditions of the custody agreement.
"It amounts to every second weekend and half of all holidays. When she starts school that'll mean a lot more, seeing as the school year has holidays of its own. For now it's just national."
He ordered an espresso to follow the cappuccino he was sipping at an irritatingly slow rate. "What's all this about calling first?"
"You can't just show up; unless it's an emergency."
"I want to meet her nanny."
"I'll introduce you the next time you pick her up."
"I can't take leave like this. I'm undercover."
"You mean you won't. I thought you had a permanent job."
"I thought we'd come to an understanding."
She grabbed the ballpoint pen, the custody agreement and her bag. "This is all a game to you."
"I'm not signing. You said you'd never bring up the adoption that's never going to happen, just so we're clear, so put that in writing."
"I'll do that after you call your imaginary lawyer and tell them I'm nuts. I give up."
"Do it. If you want her so bad, win her the right way because I'm sick of giving in to you while you continue to hurt me."
"You've replaced me in my daughter's eyes and you're the one who's hurting? I chose that house."
"I made it a home."
"I gave you a baby."
"I'm raising her."
"I gave you all of me."
"Just the pieces you could afford to lose; including Michelina."
"You have no idea how I feel about my daughter."
"You dangle her in front of me to give you control."
"I'm not like that."
"You are. One day you'll see this crusade of yours and the sabotage that comes along with it wasn't for our daughter's sake; it was designed for you to destroy me and you can't. So sign the fucking papers and put us all out of our misery."
"You mean make your life easier. I won't disappear for you to live happily ever after and let her forget about me."
"I won't do that. I promise."
"You broke every promise you ever made to me. I don't trust you anymore." For some reason, that hurt her more than any insult and she didn't know why. "Can I look at it?" He took the paper without the pen.
She heard he was seeing someone but never followed up on it, all she saw of him was when he came to pick up or drop off their daughter. As strange as it was, she embraced the difference and moved on.
Nicole showed Jess to her new office which was bigger than her previous one. "How did Pollock get you back?"
"He said something I needed to hear, plus I was getting on Antonio's last nerve rearranging everything. He drew the line when I alphabetized his stash; that's grounds for divorce in his eyes."
"No. So here I am. Where are the pictures?"
"They're still being developed. Jumeirah Beach is paradise."
"Not that you saw that much of it." Jess' giggle was enough of a response. "So the clouds have cleared on the home front?"
"For the time being. Colin sent me a custody agreement, which I signed."
"Wow. That must've been hard."
"The less time we have to rehash the past the better, for both of us. He's taking her to New Hampshire this weekend."
"That's fascinating Mastriani." Pollock's silicone soles didn't fail him. "Welcome back, blah, blah, blah; you're needed in Preston, Maryland. Marcus Miller was reported missing by his brother and business partner Ryan when he missed, and I quote, 'the most important meeting of our lives'. Their records are so clean you could eat off them and they're both active in the community."
"So who would want to hurt Mr. Nice Guy?" Jess asked.
"I pay you to find out."
"Any ideas?" She asked Nicole who was daydreaming.
"Oh, there's only so much records can tell us."
"Yeah right. Spill."
"Promise you won't say anything."
"Cross my heart."
"Kelly hasn't returned my calls and I'm worried. Ethan called to say he was leaving and she didn't come to the phone."
"Maybe she wasn't there."
"She was. He's a terrible liar."
"Don't think the worst; there are a million reasons why, good reasons."
"I hope so. Let's track his movement for the past few days, see if anything comes up."
A woman in her late fifties lifted the foccacia out of the stone bake oven and greeted the elderly man who was waiting. "Here Joe, take it while it's warm." She folded the box and let the steam flow upwards before closing it.
"What'll it be Betsy?"
"I'll settle for a kiss." She said coquettishly and he reached across the counter and kissed her cheek.
Jess watched him leave before initiating a conversation. "Elizabeth Garret?"
"It's Betsy. That name's older than I am."
"I came to ask about Marcus Miller."
"Is he in trouble?" Betsy asked, staring at Jess' badge.
"No, we're trying to find him, should he be?"
"I've known those boys since before they were born and butter wouldn't melt. Charlotte craved my flatbread so she came here three times a week, come rain or shine, even after the pregnancy. You know, just to say hello. Marcus came in here last week; he ordered a basket of muffins to that fancy advertising firm. All to impress that girl."
"Do you know her name?"
"I handwrite the cards myself; Graciela. I suppose it worked because I haven't seen him since."
"Graciela Simões?" Nicole walked beside the woman whose heals clicked against the floor with a fast beat she was walking to.
"I don't have time to stop."
"Marcus Miller, does that name ring a bell?"
"You spent the night with him at the Forrester Hotel in St. Marys City, then sped out of there in a Red Corvette at five a.m. Why?"
Graciela stopped walking. "Can we go to my office?"
"No. We're going to mine."
"Please, I can't leave; we have a huge account and I already lost hours, precious hours, with Marcus."
"Why did you run?"
"We got carried away. I see him everyday at the Coffee Shop; my apartment is above their office. I never had time for him. Always on the go. Then he sent me those muffins with a card that said, 'Make life a little sweeter'. It meant a lot to me."
"Where is he now?"
"I don't know. I had to get back to work so I left without saying anything. When you find him, let me know."
"I think I love him."
"We've got nothing." Nicole stated the obvious. A fax fed through the machine.
"We do now, local PD found just found a deserted car in Mechanicsville. They've identified Marcus. He's unconscious. There's no sign of blunt force trauma or damage to the car."
"So he either fell asleep behind the wheel or fainted."
"Are the medical records still around?"
"Make life a little sweeter. That was written on the card."
"It's also the slogan of the Miller brothers' catering company."
"I think he's diabetic."
"That would explain the fainting; a drop in his blood sugar levels could have caused that."
Nina whistled the Staple Sisters' "Let's do it again" with the bliss that came from the peace of not telling Nicole about the engagement. The truth was; she got engaged to be engaged with no concrete thoughts of marriage in sight. Her desire to go back to that old ball and chain, as she called it, was as great her want to drink paint and the only marriage she was interested in was her daughter's.
"I didn't know I had an audience." She said to Antonio who was waiting in the doorway.
"I didn't know you had a ring."
"This old thing?" She said unconvincingly. "Think nothing of it. Why are you being so secretive about your plans?"
"I thought you believed in facts."
"My life hasn't followed a plan for a long time."
"Would that time date back to meeting Nicole?"
"Life's never predictable with her around. She gave me these rings and I want to know why."
On seeing them Nina asked, "Do you mind if I smoke?"
"A lot but it's your office."
"Those rings belonged to me and Ray."
"Oh. What does it mean for us?"
"She wants you to bear her past while she deals with the present. It's a sign; she's shed a skin to build something that lasts forever because we didn't."
"Hold my hand." Nicole's arm reached up to the top bunk bed. Kelly's hand reached down and linked with hers. "Close your eyes."
"This is weird."
"Just do it."
"Where are we?"
"In a palace with our initials on the gates. There's two of everything, even the four-post beds and dessert trays, and you never have to ask for anything. No-one ever says no."
"Where is it?"
"Anywhere but here." Kelly's hand became looser as she fell asleep. Nicole took her arm back and felt around in the dark for where the wound was and wondered when the bleeding would stop.
The steam from the pot rose and curled in the air. "It's Lemon tea; grown folks' lemonade." Kelly recognised her effort to cheer her up but couldn't force herself to smile. "Why didn't you tell me Benny came to see you?"
"I had to face him sometime, by myself. I can't have you fighting my battles for me; you never could protect me anyway."
"I didn't say it to be mean and I'm not angry, it's just a fact. Can you help me fix this place up? Ethan gets back to school at 10pm."
"Sure." They each took an end of the blanket and threw it over the sofa.
"We both want the same things for Ethan but we have different ways of going about it. Like how you've always needed school or work to keep you grounded; I need Ethan. I wish you'd respect that."
"I think you're a great mother."
"You don't respect me as Kelly, not just Ethan's mom." Silence cascaded on the room and Nicole had no idea how to defend herself.
"I admit it was easier to look away, to walk away, when you were at your worst, but I always loved you and I thought that was all you needed from me."
"I needed to know that if you had met me in high school or college or buying shoes at mall, you would've been my friend, even if you weren't my sister first."
"We can't take back what bound us Kell, for better or worse, but if we could; I'd hope so because it wasn't just school or work; I never wanted to mess up because of you. I needed you to look up to me, to feel worthy." Nicole was the first to cry. "I love you." She said, wiping her tears.
"Nothing can break my sister, she's strong as stone. Whenever I am with her,"
"I never feel alone." Nicole recited the words that dated back so long ago. "She'd never believe she's the best I've ever known, so I wrote this poem now it's written, heard and known. You remembered?"
"I'll never forget." It was Kelly's turn to cry.
Jess resisted the urge to pick up Michelina who at age two was having a diva-fit and embodied the 'it's my party and I'll cry if I want to' philosophy. When she saw Colin she couldn't hide her bump or the uneasy expression on her face, so she didn't try to avoid him. She remembered that it wasn't always this way and their relationship would keep on changing though one fact wouldn't. In all his anger and hurt he still held a special albeit strange love for her that was conscious of its contradictions and didn't cause him pain anymore. He stopped feeding off the energy she expended in fighting with him and going in circles that left them both infuriated. There was calm between them, a calm marked by the few words they exchanged and passion they shared about their daughter, but when that calm wouldn't suffice they had people to turn to; people who reminded them of love at its best and most fulfilling. For her, that person was Jack and her heart wouldn't let her forget it.
Whenever a case ran into the night and going home or going out weren't options, Nicole would go to Georgetown and watch Antonio work passionately on things her mind couldn't comprehend at the university. She wasn't as interested as she said she was whenever he showed her something in a microscope or tried to put his research in explicable terms; she lived to see him driven by something within, something as inexplicable as it was meaningful; purpose. They shared times when he loved her as though she didn't have a past and she loved him without rationale or fear; it had a healing effect on them both, and their marriage. That painkiller was enough to fill each day they had gone without each other before with a love that bound like superglue and sealed the cracks. It made them whole.
Kelly justified every lie she ever told Ethan because she was protecting him until he was strong enough to face it and decide for himself and took comfort in knowing she wasn't alone; one person would know where she was coming from and at least try to understand. The scars they wore fought to bleed out the poison and they hurt less and less with time.
I named this chapter Painkillers because that's the power we all have and what we can all be to each other. I believe just one in life (if you've got more you're fortunate) is all we need to survive whatever we've experienced in the past or are still going through. Their effects are powerful and long-lasting. Just my take. Peace.