Take twelve. Literally. I've rewritten this epilogue at least twelve times trying to get everything just right. Apparently all I needed to do was finish the best darn book I've read this year and then sit at my computer trying to fill the gaping hole it left in my chest. Because that's exactly how the majority of this chapter happened. I finished an amazing book and felt utterly empty, so now I'm trying to fill that space with words.
"Babe," Carlos's voice drifted through the thick fog of sleep that had shrouded me from the moment I collapsed on the bed the previous evening. "Are you coming?"
A grin spread across my face as I stretched my arms above my head, eyes squinched tightly shut in one last ditch effort to deny the waking world. "I thought you always knew when I was cumming," I teased.
I might have been mistaken, but I was pretty sure a small, barely there chuckled had thought about escaping my husband's control just for a moment. "Believe me, I know, Babe," he assured me. "I meant are you coming running with me?"
"You're insane," I groaned, dragging the pillow over my face and holding it there. Why on earth would I want to go running? The only time I'd ever voluntarily run anywhere was when being chased by a crazed psychopath.
"You promised Bobby you'd run with me at least once a week," Carlos informed me.
"That doesn't sound like something I'd do," I said warily, inching the pillow down so I could stare blearily up at the man I loved. "You must be mistaken."
"Babe," he said, which I took to mean, "When have I ever been mistaken?" or possibly, "Must we have this conversation every week?"
Since I'd regained full controlled use of my legs two years ago, Bobby had maintained a diligent eye on my exercise regime. It included such things as weights training, self defence, some kind of aerobic exercises that make me feel like an idiot in the gym in front of the men, aaand of course, the dreaded running. I could do anything he threw at me, but ask me to run and my first thought was, why don't we skip the thirty to sixty minutes of torture and you just punch my in the windpipe right now? Because that's what it felt like by the end. No matter how often I did it, I just could not maintain a sufficient level of lung function throughout. I just wasn't built for running.
Blissfully, Bobby and Carlos – and by extension, the rest of the Merry Men – had allowed me to tone it down to a mere walk during my pregnancy, but the moment I was cleared for physical activity they were back to hounding me about the marathon I'd supposedly promised to run. Fat chance.
Now, here we were, six months later and Carlos and I were still having the same old 'I don't want to run' argument every other morning. And what makes it worse right now? We're on vacation.
Carlos brushed a few wayward curls off my face, waiting patiently for my next line.
"I'm just saying," I sighed. "I should have to commit to torture while on vacation as well. Isn't this supposed to be a time for rest and relaxation?"
"Your entire family is with us," he said flatly. "How can we rest and relax when we have to deal with all that crazy stuffed into one beach house?"
"It's a pretty big beach house," I offered. And it really was; at least twice the size of our home back in the states. But with all the bodies crammed inside it didn't really feel any bigger at all. Fifteen people divided amongst six bedrooms had been a logistical nightmare to organise. So much so that on more than one occasion Carlos had offered to just rent an additional beach house so that we could be done with the discussions. But we'd eventually managed to sort it out reasonably well.
In bedroom number one, also known as the master bedroom, containing a double bed, was Carlos and I, plus little Eloise in a portable cot. The next double bedroom was Val and Albert. Mom, Dad and Grandma were in the next room with a double and a single. Dad was far from happy about sharing a room with his mother in law, but it was either that or we put her in with Mat, Edi and Lesley who were in the room with two sets of bunk beds, and I just wasn't going to subject the kids to seeing their great grandmother asleep. The image creeps me out. It would likely give them nightmares. That left Angie and Mary Alice sharing a double bed in the fifth room, while Lisa occupied the trundle bed, and Brodie in a double bed all on his own.
"Not big enough," Carlos replied, just as a loud snore came from the next room where Val and Albert were. He had assumed, the previous evening, that the snoring had been Albert, but I knew otherwise. Val had always had a snoring problem. She's part of the reason I could pretty much sleep through anything. Growing up with Valerie sleeping under the same roof was like sleeping right next to the railway tracks with constant freight trains passing.
"True," I said. "But that doesn't change the fact that I don't like running."
"What if we just jog along the beach this morning?" Carlos suggested. He'd lured me in with such offers in the past. He said we'd just jog, but once we got out there, he'd sneakily pick up the pace after about ten minutes and I'd end up running just to keep his buns in view. They were my only motivation, really.
A sigh left my lips as Carlos pulled me into a seated position on the side of the bed. "Fine," I agreed. "But I want actual jogging. Not that fast jogging shit you pulled last time."
In reply, Carlos merely handed me my running shorts and sports bra, dropping a kiss to the top of my head. Apparently no more words were needed. While I was getting changed, Carlos wheeled the portable cot containing eight month old Eloise out of the room and down the hall to her grandparents' room. They'd offered open-endedly to look after her at any time over the three week vacation. Who was I to argue?
When we returned from our jog the kids were up and feeding themselves high-sugar cereal as they watched cartoons on the massive flat screen in the living room. They greeted us enthusiastically as we crossed behind the couch on our way to the kitchen for a well earned water break. Heaven only knew what they were doing up so early. I thought arriving so late after the extended travel period would ensure that they would sleep for at least ten hours. Instead, they'd managed a meagre seven. That was always the way, though, especially on family vacation. It was like a three week long sleep over, and we all knew what kids were like at sleep overs.
While Carlos continued on to our bedroom en suite to shower and dress for the day, I grabbed my own bowl of sugary breakfast and joined Lesley and Angie on the sofa.
No one said anything to anyone for a long moment. All that existed was the laugh track and the continual bowl to mouth flight path of our spoons until the end credits of that particular cartoon began rolling and Mat and Edi set down their bowls, eagerly turning to face me on the floor cushions, identical expectant expressions covering their faces. "Can we go down to the beach now?" they asked in their perfect, unrehearsed unison. It was like their brains were connected by a thin, unperceivable cable the clicked into place whenever they were both on the same wavelength. Honestly, sometimes it was a little creepy, but mostly it just added to how much I loved them.
"Yeah!" ten year old Lisa agreed. "Can we?"
"You said we could go after breakfast," Mary Alice reminded me of the conversation we'd had upon arrival at the beach front home. The kids had all raced out onto the patio, staring longingly down at the crashing waves, illuminated by the moonlight. I'd followed them out, drawn to the waves the same way I was always drawn to Point Pleasant. It was soothing. I could almost imagine the waves washing away all my cares just by being in their presence. The kids, on the other hand, were more inclined to race down and frolic in the water that instant. It had taken all my tired thinking skills to convince them that it was too dark to go play on the beach at that hour, finally agreeing that they could check it out after breakfast.
Little did I know that breakfast would be so early in the morning. I'd been envisioning ten o'clock, maybe even eleven. But here we were at seven, the children and teens staring at me expectantly.
"I haven't finished my breakfast," I pointed out.
"Lesley can take us!" Edi exclaimed. "She's an adult!"
I gave them the sternest look I could must at this hour of the morning after an utterly exhausting start to the day, which wasn't very stern at all, all things considered. "What is this?" I prompted, gesturing vaguely around in the hopes that they would understand exactly what I meant.
"The living room?" Angie said uncertainly.
"Noooo," I drawled. "Why are we all together in a beach house in Australia?"
"Family vacation," Lesley replied, holding out her hand for the younger kids to pass up their bowls to her.
"Exactly," I said, slurping down another spoonful of milky, sugary goodness. "And since it's family vacation, shouldn't we spend time as a family?"
The Lisa, Mary Alice and Angie all groaned, but Mat, Edi and Lesley were all too happy to agree with me. I couldn't blame the girls. Last family vacation they'd been publically humiliated when Albert had attempted a Caber Toss, unable to even lift one end of the massive log, when a man almost twice his age had managed it easily. They'd been happy to cling to Brodie for the rest of the festival, all but ignoring their father's existence. Family gatherings were rarely easy for my nieces.
"I know it's a trial," I agreed with them. "But if I can put up with my mother being here, you can put up with your parents being here as well."
"Don' let Mam hear ye say that," Brodie warned as he appeared in the room, my beautiful little girl on his hip. She'd clearly just woken and was not happy about being awake. Unlike her brothers and father, who were awake the moment their eyes were open, Maria Eloise Manoso took a bit to join the world of the living. She got that from me.
"I wouldn't even dare to utter the words if I wasn't sure she was fast asleep down the hall," I assured him, setting my now empty bowl on the coffee table and standing to embrace my daughter. "How did you sleep?" I asked Brodie.
"Like a log," he assured me. "I'd still be under if it weren't for the racket being made out here."
"They're impatient to get down to the beach," I explained, brushing a curl off Eloise's forehead. "I told them they had to wait until everyone was up and breakfasted."
"Wheesht," Brodie uttered, screwing up his face almost comically. "What we'll do is, Carlos and I will have breakfast while Lesley feeds Eloise and you shower and dress. We'll make sure all the kids are sun screened and we'll leave a note saying that we're at the beach. The others will join us when they're ready."
And that, my friends, is why Brodie was the favourite uncle. They liked Carlos and all, but Brodie had a away about him that just seemed to draw them in whenever he was around. Which was a lot more often recently. Since Lesley had finished school he'd been free to travel as he pleased, not tied down to her school schedule. And since Lesley was considering transferring to an American university next semester – to be further away from her controlling mother, she'd light heartedly explained – Brodie was very intrigued by Carlos's offer of a place at Rangeman. Mom was far from pleased by the prospects of me – not Carlos, me, because clearly I was behind every hair brained scheme she didn't like – drawing my brother into such work, but was looking forward to having her son around a lot more.
In the last two years she'd spent much of her time getting to know Brodie – as had the rest of us – and had mellowed her meddling way considerably, but there's only so much she could deal with. Brodie joining the life risking career was one straw too many, it seems, as she'd gone ballistic at the pair of us when she'd found out. While I'd readied my lungs to scream back at her, as was my usual response, Brodie had simply crossed his arms over his chest and informed her that she had no right to make decisions for either of us. We were grown adults and could handle ourselves in a great deal of situations. He'd then driven his point home by saying that if he joined the Rangeman team there'd be one more person to look out for my ass.
I'd glared at him for that jab at my bad karma, but the heat left me when Mom seemed to lose her anger over the situation at his remark. She may appear scathing toward me at times, but in her heart she just wanted me to not get hurt, and apparently Brodie promising to watch my back made her a little more accepting of the idea. Arguments like that day made me wonder anew what it would have been like to grow up with an older brother. Would we have ganged up against Mom's tirades? Would he have faced down my bullies? Or would it have been like my friends with older brothers told me it was like; their brothers pushing them away at every opportunity, annoyed by the presence of their younger sister.
It didn't matter to me. The fact that we'd missed out on a childhood together seemed to make our bond stronger now that we knew about each other. Even Valerie had joined in on our exploits a time or two, and we all knew what a kill joy she usually was.
I smiled up at my brother, grateful to have him in my life, and handed my daughter off to his to go get ready. In the hallway I came face to chest with my husband. Leaning up to kiss him on the lips, I uttered, "I love my family."
Carlos grinned down at me, tugging on one of my curls. "I never thought I'd hear those words leave your mouth," he teased before wrapping his arms around me and lifting me off the ground.
We were half way down the hall, heading for our bedroom when I managed to squeak out, "Carlos, I can walk!"
"I know," he assured me as he kicked open the en suite door and began fiddling with the shower taps. "And I'm forever grateful for that fact."
"You need to have breakfast so we can take the kids to the beach," I pointed out as he began removing the clothes from my body. I have to admit, it was a weak protest, and my body did nothing to stop his actions.
"I'll grab a granola bar and take it with us," he said, removing his own clothes – the ones that he'd just put on after his own shower. "I've got something more important to do right now."
The next moment I was pushed flush against the cold tiles of the shower stall, his body covering mine completely as he nuzzled my neck. "Maybe we should let Brodie and the kids know to go on without us," I managed to breathe.
"Good idea," Carlos said and in the next moment I was completely alone in the stall, my knees knocking together in the wake of the sensations my husband had caused. Carlos took a second to grin wolfishly at me before wrapping a towel around his waist and disappearing through the bedroom and out into the hall once more. "Steph's legs are feeling a little weak," I heard him inform Brodie. "I'm gonna help her with her shower, you go on ahead with the kids."
"Oh, aye," I heard my brother snicker. "I'll be sure to ferry them away quick smart."
There was no doubt in my mind that Brodie knew exactly what Carlos intended to help me with. God damned smart asses, the pair of them. But I loved them both.
Thanks as always to those who have stuck with me from the very beginning, especially those who have reviewed and seen straight through my plot, prompting me to throw in new twists and turns to try throw you off the scent. And especially Shreek, without whom I would still be staring at chapter six thinking, how the hell am I going to give this story the justice it deserves?