Author's Note: So a little more about the family and Mercedes' relationship with them is revealed in this chapter. It's a little different from the previous ones, but I hope it puts everything in better perspective. –DMH
It took two hours to snake their long line of mourning through the city and up a mountain so they could bury Mercedes' grandfather.
Sam hadn't even realized that there had been so many people in the church. The funeral procession seemed to be gaining cars as if people had realized who the man in the hearse was and decided to deter grocery shopping for another day. So much family, so many friends. Granddaddy was well-loved. Sam said this aloud to Mercedes, as a kind of assurance, but it only came out as softly spoken, empty words in the end. In response, she merely nodded and fiddled with the hand of his she had taken away from the gear stick.
But she clung to his side when the casket was lowered into the ground. She cried into his shoulder, afterwards, as she sat with her feet hanging out of their car's passenger door and while he kneeled in the dirt in front of her.
"It's okay," he tried to tell her, but she wasn't having it.
"It's not. I was horrible!" she sobbed, growing hysterical in a way that frightened him. "My granddaddy! I can't –"
A wild scream – hollow and dry, like it had been left in the sun all day – tore out of her throat, so he pulled her to the ground with him, cradled her in his lap, whispered to her about how much her grandfather loved her. And despite all her protests to the latter, she calmed in his arms and let him wipe her wet cheeks dry.
"I'm sorry." She reached up to wipe his tears away, but he took her hand with his and brought it to his lips. "Sam, I love you."
"I love you, too, honey. I love you so much." He kissed the tip of her nose before nuzzling it with his. "Let's get up before your family thinks I'm crazy or not taking care of you right."
"Look what you did to your slacks! Sam," she chided, reaching down to dust his knees off as soon as they straightened.
"Everything alright over there?" Sam turned to see Mercedes' parents – both red-eyed from their own tears and wearing concerned expressions – and he gave a short nod to the doctor.
"Everything's just fine, sir."
"It is not! Look at your pants!" Isaiah smiled as his daughter fussed over her fiancé and gave the other man a nod before steering his wife to their own car.
"Baby! Mercy baby!" This time, Mamma was calling the attention of the pair as a few of the Jones men attempted to help her into the passenger seat of an old station wagon. She shooed them away and beckoned Mercedes to her. Unsure of what to do, Sam just stood awkwardly beside the rental as he watched her gather Mercedes into her arms again and whisper a few things into her ear. Before long, the women had exchanged kisses on the cheek and Mercedes helped her grandmother into the car with a bright smile. A smile that stayed on her face even as she returned to Sam and snuggled into his arms.
"Mamma insists that we come over for dinner tonight. Everyone will be there, so they can all get to know you."
His brows lifted in surprise at her sudden eagerness for family bonding. "You sure?"
"Yup. It's time for you to get to know my family… and for me to get reacquainted with them."
Somehow, after dinner, three of Mercedes' cousins – Ant, Morgan and Aldis – had convinced him to join a game of Spades. Just a friendly game the three had assured him as they grinned like sharks. Mercedes knew he was intimidated by the other men, but she pushed him in their direction with a kiss and a pat on the butt. And, in less than an hour, he had a cigar hanging out the side of his mouth, a beer sloshing around in the hand not holding cards and was yelling at the top of his lungs at Aldis – another of Uncle Early's kids who had the same chocolate complexion of his sister and looked like a younger, thinner version of Mercedes' father – who also happened to be his partner.
"How did we lose all those books? You said you had a bullet!"
Aldis tossed his hands up defensively. "Hey. I said I had a bullet. A bullet. As in one. I thought you were the one making the high bids 'n shit."
"I can't even believe you," sighed Sam as a cackling Morgan and Ant took the last of the tricks. "Who the hell says 'bullet' if you can't do a damn thing with it? Your vernacular is killing me."
"Says the dude whose accent fucks up the word 'vernacular'," Aldis countered and Sam threw his head back and laughed.
Before he could respond, familiar warm arms wrapped around his neck from behind and a soft kiss landed on his forehead. He opened his eyes to find Mercedes smiling down at him, ever the angel. "See, I told you that you'd have fun."
He scrunched up his nose at her. "Did you bring me another beer, woman?"
She tapped his chest with the cold Heineken in her hand before letting go of him and walking around his seat. He took the beer while she plopped down in his lap and stuck her tongue out at her cousins. "Who's winning?"
"Certainly not your man," Ant sniggered and Mercedes had the nerve to join him in laughter. Laughter than ended abruptly in a squeak when Sam pinched Mercedes' behind. The woman jumped out of his lap, smacked him on the arm playfully and scoffed at him, her face jokingly offended, as she left the room.
"Thank you for the beer, baby!" Sam called after her, smiling as the other men laughed at him. All except Morgan.
Morgan, of the many, many cousins, siblings, nieces and nephews, looked the most like Mamma. His skin was the color of golden summer wheat and he even had the same cinnamon freckles Sam had noticed on Mamma's cheek when he last kissed it. But Morgan's eyes were not at all like Mamma's nor Mercedes'. They were a light hazel that could hold a sharpness in them, but as Sam met the other man's gaze, he felt no urge to back away from the challenge those eyes offered.
"What's up, man? Speak your mind," he invited after a sip from his bottle and Morgan gave him a slow, accessing look up and down before plastering a smile on his face.
"I was just wondering about you and Mercy."
"What about me and Mercy?" Sam asked, trying his best to keep his tone light, but one glance across the table at the apprehension on Aldis' face was enough to let him know that he failed.
"Are you with her because she's black?"
"Aww, Jesus," Ant sighed, tossing his cards on the table and crossing his arms. "Seriously, Morgan?"
"Look, that's my little cousin. I gotta ask these things. You know white dudes is weird with that shit – always fetishsizing our women's bodies." Morgan glared at Sam as if daring him to defy his words.
"Oh God," came the collective groan of Ant and Aldis, but Sam only shook his head and smiled warmly at the two. Then he turned to Morgan and was extra careful not to let his smile to grind into a grimace.
"Do I like that Mercedes is black? Yes. I like everything about Mercedes, I love everything that makes her Mercedes," he said, staring into those cool, sharp eyes with a coolness of his own. "But I'm not with her because she's black just like she's not with me because I'm white. We don't fetishsize each other – we may share a few fetishes, but that's not one of them. And I don't think you want me to get into specifics about that." He downed the rest of his beer, put his cigar out and rose from the table as the other three men sat in different stages of silence; Aldis and Ant were attempting to keep in their laughter while Morgan seemed to be holding back an outburst of whatever emotion was turning his face so red. "Welp, I'm done. Fun game, but I think I'll go find my fiancé now."
He found her in a room filled mostly with her female cousins, curled up in a cushioned seat in a bay window and sipping a glass of sweet tea. She looked surprised to see him when he cuddled next to her. "What about your game?"
"I'm just being a sore loser." She seemed to accept his brush off and turned back to the rather animated conversation her cousin Cookie was having with an older gentleman Sam hadn't met. As usual, Mercedes distracted him by just sitting there quietly and being beautiful, so Sam just had to lower his face to the crook of her neck. "Mmm, you smell like honeysuckle."
"What are you, a bloodhound?" she giggled, tilting her head so he could better nuzzle her soft skin.
"I was sitting out by the honeysuckle for like ten minutes and you can smell it on me with your bloodhound nose."
He chuckled with her and wrapped his arms around her soft middle. "I bet I can taste it on you, too."
"What are you two lovebirds doing in the corner over there?" someone shouted suddenly and Mercedes buried her face in Sam's chest to shield her embarrassment. Sam only smiled at everyone looking in their direction.
"I was just telling her how much I love being around the wonderful Jones family."
"Right!" Aldis laughed as he entered the room, Ant, Morgan, Alexus and Uncle Early following close behind him. "Look at y'all all cuddled up."
"Making a show of it?" Alexus asked, her voice as saccharine as the sweetener in Mercedes' cup.
His fiancé glared at her, but Sam said, just as sweetly, "I'm sure you wouldn't notice if you weren't always looking over here." His smile widened when hers fell.
Swooping her long dark hair over one of her shoulders, Alexus started, "I'm always looking –" but was interrupted by her brother.
"Don't do it," Aldis warned, directing his sister to a seat with a gentle hand on her arm. "He already got Morgan. I don't need to feel anymore secondhand embarrassment."
Mercedes looked up at Sam quizzically, but he only shook his head and murmured, "Nothing to worry about. Morgan just had an opinion about my motives for dating his black cousin. Guess he was feeling some type of way about it."
"Oh, I'm so sorry, baby. That's like when Cookie asked me why I was with a white boy twenty minutes ago."
Cookie flushed and held her hands up. "Everyone was wondering!"
"Yeah," Lexus chimed in, crossing her skinny legs. "Did you have to give up on black men or something?"
Mercedes shrugged out of Sam's arms and looked two seconds from pouncing on the other woman. She growled, "Alexus…"
"You know I'm just playing, cuz. I luh you, girl."
"Izzy and Early Jones' two girls back together again!" the booming voice of Uncle Early laughed, already heavily-laden with beer. He waved his bottle in the air as if to announce to anyone who was unaware of his state. "Mercy and Lexus, back together again! The perfect ten!"
A few chuckles rang out in the room, mostly from male cousins and Early of course, but the loudest laugh came from a rather smug looking Alexus, which made Sam frown heavily.
He turned to his fiancé and his scowl deepened when he saw the look of discomfort on her face. He opened his mouth to say something, but Mercedes was already up out of her seat and hurrying out of the room. He made his excuses and shot out of the room after her.
She was just in the hall that led to the open front door, leaning her shoulder against the wall. Her arms were wrapped around her middle and, as he approached her, he could hear the gentle inhale and exhale of the calming breaths she took.
"Talk to me, honey."
"You wanna go back to the hotel?"
"What time is it?" His watch told them that it was a little after midnight, so she nodded and took his hand to lead him into another room. It was a small sitting room where Mamma and a few of the other older relatives sat, watching or falling asleep in front of an old television set. They said their goodbyes – Sam said it several times because Mamma was still charmed by his accent – and after planting a kiss on each of the matriarch's cheeks, the couple left.
In the car, Mercedes sang along to an old country song, one Sam had taught her and he smiled at the memory. A soft tug on his ear caught his attention, "What?"
"What are you thinking about? Smiling like that?" she asked.
Once back at the hotel, Sam yanked all his clothes off, flopped facedown onto the bed and waited for his woman to join him. Twenty minutes later, he was awoken by a peppering of kisses along and between his shoulder blades. He gave a shudder of pleasure and turned over so that those kisses could be placed on his chest. Using a finger to trace along the silk of her headscarf, he asked, "What are you doing?"
"Waking you up."
"I see, but why?"
Mercedes laid her cheek against his chest with a sigh. "You know what your mother says about truth being like the sun?"
"'You can shut it out for a time, but it ain't going away,'" he replied with a nod. "You wanna talk to me about something?"
"Yes," she whispered and his heart ached at how broken, tired it sounded. "I've been… trying all day. Did you notice?"
"Trying to talk to me?"
"Trying to be open with you."
"And I noticed that you haven't…"
"Been badgering you all day?"
She laughed and hid her face in his chest. Her smile was pressed against his heart and he could feel the warmth of it seeping into his skin and collecting there. "Your words, not mine."
"Whatever." He wanted to hold onto his own smile, but he could already feel it slipping away. The subject of their conversation weighed more than the soft cheek rubbing the skin over his heart. Mercedes was right – they needed to get this off of their chests. With a sigh, he prodded, "So we've both been trying?"
"Yeah… and I'm sure you're wondering about what happened at Mamma's house. I'm grateful that you didn't ask about it, but not talking about it is not going to make it go away." She took a deep breath as her eyes began to water. Sam hurriedly sat up and pulled her up with him, into his lap, so he could continue to cuddle her against his chest. She wrapped her arms tight around his middle and cuddled him back before admitting, "I don't know how to begin."
"How about with what Early said to upset you?"
"Um… That 'perfect ten' comment, it just really brought me back." He slid a hand under her nightshirt and massaged the skin of her lower back with his thumb as he waited for her to continue. "Me and Lexus were very tight when we were little. Whenever we saw each other, we were inseparable, mostly because everyone said we look like twins. We were the same height, size… everything when we were seven. But then we started to grow – her up and me out and… that's when they started calling us the Perfect Ten. It was just a mean little joke, just teasing from the family and I usually can ignore that kinda thing, but I haven't heard it in so long." There were tears in her voice, overwhelming it, so she had to pause and take a few deep breaths before continuing. "And it kinda just hit me, you know, with Alexus sitting there, being everything that I'm not."
"A bitch?" It just slipped out and she giggled, so he was glad.
"Sam… I meant tall and thin. Like all the other Joneses. I know you've noticed that I don't look like them. I take after my mother's side of the family."
"Mercedes," he began, but she interrupted him with a shake of her head.
"I know what you're going to say and I know I'm beautiful, but the acceptance of that beauty took years for me grow into. I'm good at looking confident, but sometimes it just gets me, you know?" He nodded and she smiled a secret at him, a secret of kindred spirits, before kissing his lips tenderly. "I know you know. And I know you hate feeling like an oddball. That's what I feel like around them… Well, it's what I felt like. I'm much more comfortable around them now." Suddenly, her eyes watered and a hiccup of a cry left her throat. He gathered her closer and rocked them slowly back and forth.
"I just… I feel bad." Squeezing her eyes shut, she went on, "I spent years just… drifting away from them and resenting them for making me feel ugly – and I knew they didn't mean to make me feel that way. I knew they love me no matter what jokes were made, but I just hated feeling like their tongues were always wagging about me behind my back and it was so frustrating because I couldn't say anything! It's family! My elder relatives – you gotta respect them, you know? And your cousins that you just go along with because you know that despite all the horrible little things they say, they still love you, too."
Sobbing into his chest, she looked like a little girl, like she was seven all over again and someone had just pushed her down in the mud. "Look at me," he instructed her and when she turned those big eyes on him, he wanted nothing more than to be her protector. He couldn't help but want to pull her away from the big, bad world and kiss all her wrongs right and he was so grateful to be able to be the man she had chosen to marry, chosen to take care of her and guard her heart. He was so grateful that she trusted him. So thankful that she loved him. "I understand family drama and what it's like to… to love someone just because you're blood, but not like them. It happens all the time – especially in a family as big as yours. And that's nothing to feel guilty about, baby."
The tears that had stalled during his short speech began to well up again as she shook her head back and forth. "No. That doesn't give me the right to cut them off from my life!"
"But you didn't," Sam told her, his fingers swiping her tears away as quickly as they appeared. "They're in your life now. You're with them now."
"Only because Granddaddy is dead!" she croaked before she hid her face in his chest again. "I only showed my face because that man is dead."
Sam let out a heavy sigh. Then he closed his arms around her tight and hummed made up lullabies into her hair until she was breathing halfway decent again. Every breath she exhaled still came out in a huff, but she sounded nowhere near hyperventilating as she had a moment before.
"Granddaddy was so good to me," she said softly, absently. Like a leftover thought, as if she just remembered she had the ability to voice it. "He always remembered everything, I swear… And he called me Gumdrop and he always smelled like shoe polish and leather because he was always shining his shoes. Always." She lifted her head again and smiled sadly into her fiancé's eyes. "Sam… I don't remember what his voice sounds like. Cookie told me t-that he stopped shining his shoes years ago because he had arth-arthritis. Last year, I called him to wish him Merry Christmas and someone answered the phone and said he was sleeping, so I said I would call back later." She shook her head, sniffled as pain clouded her expression. "I didn't. I forgot. I forgot!"
"No, baby! No… Don't do that to yourself," Sam whispered as he pressed his forehead to hers and closed his eyes. Without meaning to and before he could stop himself, familiar words – words that had been sitting on his heart for years – flowed out of his mouth. "He loved you and he knew that you loved him, too. You know, in your heart, that if you wronged him, he'd forgive you… Please forgive yourself, baby. Please."
Mercedes inhaled sharply, a shuttering hiss, and nodded as his words – her words from years and years ago when his father had died and Sam had spent a day and a night in her lap wishing and regretting and wanting – broke through to her. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay, baby."
"Please forgive me, Granddaddy," she whispered, a rush of tension leaving her body as she collapsed again Sam.
Later, when her cheeks had dried and her voice had grown raspy and quiet, she asked Sam if he would hold her until she fell asleep. "Like you always do? Please?"
And Sam had to laugh at this because he never intended to ever let her go.
A/N: Oh goodness! It hurt writing this! Anyway, this is going to be a four-shot and then I'm done. For real this time. Next chapter – last chapter – whenever. –DMH