Here's a little futuretake that was originally written for the Babies at the Border compilation. Special thanks to Consuelo and Jeannie, the authors who contributed work, and to every single person who donated. We raised over $13,000 to aid families separated at the border. That's amazing, fandom.
Title: He's Mine (A Down Home Futuretake)
Banner: Mina Rivera
Summary: The July days are still long in Mississippi. The youngins are all grown up. Almost. And Tucker Cullen? Well, he's a bit of a pistol... just like his daddy.
"Looks like it's just you and me tonight, Dolly." I flash the note in my hand at the beagle parked next to my boot. "Tucker's catching a bite to eat with his buddies."
She cocks her head and watches me walk across the kitchen to the fridge. Momma cooked for me and the boy every night this week and sent home enough leftovers to feed a small army. She and Dad are meeting Bella for dinner in Jackson tonight, then catching a show and staying at a hotel for their anniversary. They'll be back tomorrow afternoon in time for the party we have planned to celebrate their 50th and welcome Hope back to Quitman to kick off her two-week vacation from her real life across the country. Gracie's ending her multi-week visit with her big sister and flying back tomorrow, too. Bella's been gone almost a week, testifying in front of the Mississippi House of Representatives and reporting the findings of a study she and her team recently completed.
And damn, I've missed her.
"Tomorrow, I'll have all my girls under the same roof again, Dolly." The faithful dog grunts and sniffs her empty bowl. "All right. You first."
I stick a plate of roast and potatoes in the microwave and set to work on Dolly's dinner: a cup of Science Diet's finest. We eat together, go for a quick walk around the house and tree line, and fall asleep on the couch shortly after the Braves tie the Cardinals in the sixth inning of a competitive game.
It's pitch-dark when Dolly wakes me with a low growl.
The low woop-woop of a police siren chirps from the yard, and blue lights flash for a few seconds before abruptly stopping.
"What the hell…?"
Dolly jumps to the floor and barks, howling at the front door before a heavy fist pounds it. I yawn and cross the room.
Mike Newton looks up from studying the welcome mat and grins. "Nappin'?"
"Busted," I say as we shake hands. "Gracie's out of town for another twelve hours. So, to what do I owe this little late-night visit?"
He glances back at the Explorer sitting a few feet away on the gravel drive. "Got your boy in there."
I crane my neck, but the windows are blacked out, so it doesn't do any good. My arms cross, and I take a deep breath and exhale. "What did he do?"
"He and Harold Owings' boy, Warren, mixed it up in the Save A Lot parking lot."
Chief nods. "Saw it with my own two eyes."
"What did the kid do?"
Newton glances back at the Explorer again. "Tucker threw the first punch, Edward."
"The Owings boy ran a cart into your boy's truck. He swears up and down it was an accident, but there were witnesses that said otherwise."
"Is he going to press charges?" I ask.
"Nah, and his parents didn't seem inclined to when I dropped him off at home and spoke to them a few minutes ago." He holds out a familiar set of keys and drops them in my open palm when I reach for them. "The truck's still at the store. You can get it sometime tomorrow."
"Will do." I nod and reach out to shake his hand after pocketing the keys. "Thanks for bringin' him home."
"At least he didn't try to run," he says, shaking his head with a wry grin and turning to go. "I'm gettin' too old for that. Have a good night, Edward."
He stops at the Explorer and opens the door. Tucker's white Stetson comes into view first, followed by a swollen cheek and busted lip.
Bella's gonna love this.
Tucker stops at the bottom of the porch steps, takes his hat off, and stares at the ground in front of him.
Chief circles the treehouse, and I wait for his taillights to disappear before ending this battle of wills.
"Busy night, huh?"
He looks up. "Dad, I—"
"Go inside," I say. "We'll talk about this in the morning."
His shoulders sink, and he nods. "Yes, sir."
"Let Dolly out for me."
He nods again, and the beagle joins me under the stars. She sniffs the bushes, barks at something moving across the field, and finally does her business so we can retire for the evening.
"Come on, girl." She follows me into the house and sits patiently while I lock up for the night. "Looks like we're getting up early," I tell her.
We pause outside Tucker's closed bedroom door, but it's dead silent on the other side of it. No music, no television, nothing.
There's nothing worse than thinking about what you've done. That was my momma's favorite form of punishment.
And it was effective.
Dolly follows me to mine and Bella's bedroom and whines at Bella's side of the bed.
"Tell me about it," I say. "Three nights is three too many."
The dog gives up, walks over to her gigantic plaid pillow, and plops down in the center of it. I set an alarm for 5:00 and climb into bed.
As always, my nightly prayers are for my family, the ones here and the ones out of sight. They're also for the patience to deal with that hard-headed boy down the hall.
Dolly barks when my phone blares a few hours later. She gives me the stink-eye as I move around the room to get dressed.
"You don't have to come," I say. "You can stay here and sleep." She yawns, stands, and stretches with her tail high in the air. "Well, come on, then."
I pound once on Tucker's door, then open it and flip the light switch.
"Rise and shine," I say.
"What…?" He looks around, reaches for his phone, and groans. "It's Saturday. And summertime…"
"Get dressed. Now."
"Be ready in ten minutes."
It gives me enough time to let Dolly out, make coffee, and throw some of Renee's muffins in a tin lunchbox with a couple of fresh plums and some yogurt. Tucker takes his time and shows up between minutes nine and ten.
His hands are shoved in the pockets of his shorts, and an Ole Miss cap is pulled low to cover his eyes.
I don't have to tell him to follow me out the front door. Dolly meets us on the porch and waits patiently for me to lock up.
We pass Gracie's Wrangler on the way to my truck, and Tucker pats his leg so Dolly will follow him to the passenger side. He helps her up and waits for her to settle in the center of the bench seat.
It's a short ride across the highway to the lake. Dad's acquired a fleet since he retired, so we have our choice of vessels. I pick the bass boat since our gear is still on it from a few days ago.
"Um, are we goin' fishin'?" Tucker asks.
He grins, climbs aboard, and extends a plank for Dolly. She settles between my boots. At my signal, Tucker chokes it and starts the engine. He waits for the idle to smooth before giving it gas.
I sip coffee from a Yeti and catch glimpses of the shoreline as it blurs by.
It takes him a good while to find a spot he likes and kill the engine. We reach for our poles and the tube of crickets.
"On a scale of one to ten…" he says, faltering around the word ten and trailing off without finishing.
"Gracie and Presley are the reasons your Pawpaw retired. Wait until he hears about this," I say.
He focuses on the squirming insect and hook in his hands. "He already has. Chief called him last night during the ride to our house."
I laugh, and it pisses him off, as expected. "I reckon he'll be by sometime later today to give you an earful."
"Isn't that what this is?" He looks up at me, chin in the air and ready to take it.
I take my time and cast my line across ripples and into a spot shaded from the trees along the shoreline. "You want to tell me what possessed you to punch Warren Owings?"
"All right." I lean back in my seat and watch him flick his wrist. The line whirs, plops, and settles. Tucker pulls the bill of his hat down to cover his face and sighs.
"He pushed a grocery cart into the back of my truck at Save A Lot."
"Your ten-year-old truck with scrapes and marks all over it?"
"On purpose, Dad. He did it on purpose."
"So you punched him?"
"Alec left me that truck."
I pause to take a deep breath and watch the sun creep its way above the tree line in the distance. "That's still not a good reason to take a swing at someone."
He rubs his fingers across his forehead, but the frustration still bubbles over in his voice. "It's not just the cart. I've been lookin' for a reason to whoop him for months."
"Maybe you should explain that."
"The girl you had a crush on in second grade?"
He tilts his head back to eye me.
"Have a crush on," I correct myself. "Obviously."
He nods. "They started going out a few months ago."
"Did you ever ask her?"
"Once, back in sixth."
"She said no?"
"Not exactly." He grimaces. "I got so nervous, I threw up on the boots her grandma had given her for Christmas. She cried. I wanted to. It was awful."
"You popped a boy in the mouth over a girl you haven't talked to since sixth grade?" I ask.
"No," he says. "We've talked. We're friends. I mean, not like best friends or hang-out friends, but we're cordial. She was my lab partner in biology last year."
"You sat by her every day for a whole school year and never asked her out."
"You have no idea what it's like."
It's my turn to sigh, because I do know.
I know exactly what it's like.
"I've loved your momma all my life, in some way or another, but she hasn't always been mine, you know. She dated Tyler Crowley all throughout high school."
"The Tyler Crowley? King of Chevrolets?"
"All of high school," he echoes.
"Probably the longest three years of my life."
"What did you do?"
"Nothing," I say. "Part of lovin' someone is respectin' their choices, even if you don't like them."
He stares at the busted skin of his knuckle. "Darcy was cryin'." He shrugs. "After the fight, when Chief put us in the back of his truck."
"How'd that make you feel?"
"Honestly?" I nod, and he finally looks up at me. "It felt like shit."
"Like you'd rather die than hurt her?" I ask.
"Something like that."
"Fighting with her boyfriend is never going to make her happy."
His shoulders slump, and he nods.
We sit in silence for a while.
"How did you finally get Momma?" he asks after a while.
"I'm still not sure," I say. "Part of it was timin'. It's like fishin', son." He looks over at me. "It won't matter if you catch the prettiest, most perfect fish in the world if you do it too soon and have to turn her loose."
He's quiet. "But you liked her."
"Yes, but we probably needed that time to grow up a little. Have some fun. You know…"
"Ew. No, I don't want to know."
"Give me the rules," I say.
He rolls his eyes. "Fine," he says, holding his free hand in the air between us with his pointer finger in the air. "Be a gentleman." His middle finger lifts to join the first. "Be clear in your intentions." Ring finger goes in the air. "Tell the truth." Next, pinky. "Apologize when necessary." Thumb. "Don't do anything you can't take back."
"You broke the first rule," I say. "Your name is everything, son."
"You broke the last one, too."
"I know." His head hangs in shame.
"Do you?" I ask.
"If you're still planning to follow in Charlie's footsteps, you can't afford the luxury of having a temper."
"All right, then," I say. "Should I expect a doctor bill?"
"No, sir. We each got a couple of decent shots in, but then our friends pulled us apart. We hollered back and forth. It was sheer bad luck that Chief was across the street at Sonic when it happened."
"Sometimes, it works out that way."
"Momma's gonna kill me," he says.
There's the regret I'm looking for. We tried with Gracie to no avail. She's as wild as the day is long. But there are enough careless men in the world. Being the father of two beautiful girls has opened that door a time or two.
"Maybe." I shrug. He looks up in alarm, and I laugh. "You know better. Gracie survived, didn't she?"
"Yeah, but she was grounded for forever."
"We also had to bail her out of jail and go to court. She ended up with the same damn judge that had me collecting trash when I was your age." He laughs, finally, and stiffens when his line goes taught. "Easy," I say, watching him set the reel. "You got off with a warning, so you're probably lookin' at a couple of weeks. Maybe a month."
"Ugh. That's most of my summer." He gives a quick yank and starts reeling in his prize.
I reach for the net and move to the side of the boat. "Well, you should've thought of that."
He wrestles the pole, and the crappie jumps and splashes but doesn't stand a chance. Tucker could fish before he could walk. He brings the fish in and steadies the line while I unhook the catch.
"I think that's a three-pounder, son."
"Felt like it," he says.
"I am sorry."
And he is. "I know." I put a hand on his shoulder and squeeze.
We spend the rest of our morning laughing, snacking, and racking up enough fish between us to feed the family, even with both girls home.
"That's the third time you've checked your watch in the past hour," he says.
"They should be home by now." Bella and Gracie… and Hope. I haven't seen my oldest little girl since Christmas. It's July.
First, it was marine science at the University of Hawaii Hilo. Four years on an island. Then six months in Alaska. Now she tracks orcas, and Washington is the place she calls home… in a rented loft with two of my grandcats I've never met and a boyfriend who came here with her in December.
Bella let him sleep in her room. With her.
Told me not to be that dad.
She was right, as usual.
It was a nice visit, and he's a good enough guy, but I'm not sad he's staying across the country this time. Not at all.
And it'll be nice to have Gracie back, too, even though she hasn't been gone nearly as long. It seems like her summer breaks get shorter and shorter every year. We'll be taking her back to Starkville in the blink of an eye so she can finish up the undergrad in Architecture she's been working so hard for. She wants to be my partner in a couple of years and eventually take over the business.
Tucker's not far behind them. Ole Miss has an excellent criminal justice program. This time next year, we'll be getting him ready for a new life in Oxford.
Then it'll just be me and Bella again. As much as I love these youngins, I'm looking forward to that. We had almost four months of newlywed bliss before Hope made us a party of three. I wouldn't trade a moment of it. Not one single moment.
This will be a whole new chapter—hopefully one that involves walking around the house naked again. I've missed that view.
"We should head back," I say.
He nods and takes the helm.
It takes longer to get back, since the town's awake and moving now. It's not even noon, but it's already hotter than Hades, and this lake is a nice, cool summertime reprieve. Tucker takes the helm and waves at friends on our way back to Momma and Dad's.
"Told you so," I say, when their dock comes into view.
Bella and the girls are waiting on the swing at the bank's edge. Catering staff is setting up long tables in the yard behind them.
"Tucker Alec Cullen," Bella calls out the second he cuts the engine. She walks to the end of the dock and plants her fists on her hips.
"Shit," he whispers.
"You're in trouble now," I say. "She middle-named you."
Hope and Gracie stand a few behind Bella. Gracie mimics her momma's stance and laughs silently. Hope's enjoying this just as much. Her grin is subtle, and her arms are crossed loosely in front of her.
Tucker eases the boat into its stall at the dock. Dolly barks and howls, her tail spinning like a windmill at the sight of her girls. Gracie uses both of her hands to clutch her throat like someone's choking her and then points at Bella's back.
Tucker groans again.
"Gracie, you stop that right now," Bella says without bothering to glance behind her.
Gracie's arms drop to her sides, and she finally releases the laughter she's been holding in. "Nice shiner, Rocky!" She points to Tucker's face.
He helps Dolly out of the boat and follows when she makes a beeline for Bella. He stops a foot away from his momma, takes off his ball cap, and frowns.
"I'm sorry, Momma," he says.
"You could have been arrested if that boy's parents had seen fit."
"We're both minors…"
"That's hardly the point," Bella says.
Hope walks down to meet me at the dock, takes the cooler from me, and hugs me the second my feet hit solid ground. Her hair still smells like strawberry shampoo, and her freckles are more pronounced from her work outdoors. "You cut your hair," I say. It's shoulder-length and wispier. "It looks good."
"Thanks, Daddy." Her voice is muffled against my chest.
"I'm glad you're here."
She takes a step back and smiles. "Me, too. I've missed y'all."
Gracie hits me next with a tackle hug from out of nowhere. My little tornado.
"Hey, Daddy," she says.
"How was your trip?"
"It was amazing. Hope took me with her to work, so we went on all these boats. We drove to Portland last weekend. Then they took me to Hoh Rain Forest. It was so cool." She glances over at Tucker. "And I behaved the entire time."
"Oh, shut it, jailbird," Tucker grumbles. "There's a first for everything."
"So salty," Gracie says. "Did Chief handcuff you?"
"Gracie," Bella says. "That's enough."
Our middle child sticks out her tongue playfully and leads her siblings away so I can finally say hello to my wife.
Bella walks into my arms and kisses my neck. "I missed you," she says.
"I missed you, too, pretty girl. How did it go?"
"Ugh," she says. "Let's not talk about that right now."
"All right, then. I'm just happy you're back."
"I called Momma while I was waiting for the girls' plane to land, and she told me about Tucker."
"I'm going to take him to pick up his truck," I say.
"We're going to talk about this." Bella's chin is set to business.
"Until we're blue in the face, I'm sure. There's something he needs to take care of first." I kiss her temple and breathe her in. "Trust me."
Her palm covers my heart. "All right. I just…" Her eyes water, and she shrugs. "Part of me wants to hug him, and the other part wants to ask what the hell he was thinkin'."
"Go home." I catch her hand and kiss the tip of her thumb. "Get ready for the party. We'll be right behind you. I promise."
"Girls!" she calls out. "Y'all ride with me."
Tucker's laugh dies on his lips, and he takes his time joining me at my truck. He waves to his sisters. Hope waves back, and Gracie uses her finger to make a slashing gesture at her throat. He groans a little under his breath.
She laughs and climbs into Bella's Jeep with Dolly in her arms.
"Let's go," I say.
The boy doesn't say a word during the ride to Save A Lot. His truck is parked near the main exit of the lot, and there isn't an open spot in sight. I stop the truck and leave it running. "The keys are in the glovebox," I say. He hesitates and then opens the latch. "There's a stop you need to make on your way home."
He swallows, turns to look out the window to hide the way his lips purse, and nods. "Yes, sir."
I drive home alone. Bella's waiting on the porch swing when I get there.
"Why didn't you call me?" she asks, head tilted. "Daddy knew first thing this morning."
"Honey." I take the seat next to her, rest my hand on her thigh, and push us with my heel. "Your Daddy knew before I did."
"It's not like Tucker, Edward. He's like you, a lover not a fighter."
"Makes sense, since there's a girl involved."
"Oh," she says.
"Well, that's a name I haven't heard in a while." She exhales. "I don't care how cute she is. He can't just go around punchin' people."
"I know," I say. "That's why I took him out this mornin', to remind him."
"Why isn't he back yet?" She cranes her neck to look down the drive, toward the highway.
"He's makin' a stop at the Owings' house on his way home. I think there's something he wants to say to them."
She nods. "That's good. He should."
"He thinks you're going to ground him indefinitely," I say.
"I just might."
"I think, maybe, he should come to work with me and Gracie for the rest of the summer. It'll keep him busy and give him a chance to earn some pocket money."
"That's not really punishment."
"It's not meant to be. On some level, this is about Alec, too. Tucker hasn't come to a single site since Alec… since we lost him. Maybe it'll help. He'll still be grounded from the good stuff. No buddies or parties for a while. We can take his phone and gaming equipment."
"Well, it's a start."
I kiss her cheek. "I'm going to take a quick shower and wash the lake off. Want to join me?"
"Hmmm." Her eyes narrow. "I'm weighing whether or not it's worth it, considering I'll have to dry and straighten my hair again."
"God sent me you to keep this big ol' head of mine in check." A grin plays on her lips. "Well?"
"It is. Of course it is."
The girls are holed up in the room we added for Gracie when they hit their teens. A mix of their voices and music carry down the hall behind us.
Bella kicks our bedroom door closed behind us and reaches for the hem of my shirt. "It's been a long week, husband."
"Tell me about it."
She goes to work on my jeans and has both of us stark naked in no time. We stumble into the bathroom together, kissing and giggling and making up for lost time. She uses her hands to make me feel good, then her mouth, but that's no way to end things, so I pull her onto my lap on our trusty shower bench and help her ride us both into oblivion.
"Mmm," she says. "Definitely worth it."
We take our time washing each other. Once we step out of the shower, I'll have to share her with the kids and our folks and lots of people we love for the next few hours. Sounds easy enough, but I've missed her.
We dress, side by side, watching each other in the mirror.
"Oh, to heck with it," she says, twisting her long hair and using a clip to hold it in a loose twist. "It's going to be muggy as all get-out, so why bother?"
I nod in solidarity.
The front door closes with a bang that echoes through the house, and Dolly barks until Tucker's voice calms her. Bella kisses my chin on her way out of our room. I follow her.
"That took a while," she says to Tucker.
"Everything okay?" I ask.
He nods. "We shook hands. I apologized. It's done."
"Good," I say.
He passes us and heads for his room.
"Where do you think you're going?" Bella asks.
"To listen to crappy music, game, and feel sorry for myself," he says.
"Oh no, you're not. We have a party to attend."
"Momma, have you looked at my face?" He points to his mouth. "I can't go around Grandma and Mamaw lookin' like this."
"Yes, you can, and you will. Your grandparents are celebrating fifty years of marriage. That's not something that happens every day, you know. We'll just crop you out of all the pictures." Bella lifts her chin, points at the bathroom door, and says, "Now get cleaned up."
He glances from her to me and back again. "Yes, ma'am."
Bella shakes her head when the bathroom door clicks shut behind him. The corner of her mouth turns up. "That's your son."
I ran away to Arkansas the summer Bella started dating Crowley and spent the whole summer chasing skirts and working on my grandparents' farm. Four hundred miles isn't far enough to outrun a broken heart. The first day of junior year taught me that.
"Yeah," I say. "He is."
It takes Tucker the longest to get ready. The girls leave without us and steal the golf cart from the garage instead of hiking across the highway. Bella insists on waiting for the boy, so we park ourselves on the porch swing and listen to car doors slamming and muffled greetings from across the highway.
When he finally shows up, he pulls his navy Ole Miss cap down in an effort to hide the bruising. It doesn't work. He pats Dolly, tells her goodbye, and closes the front door behind him. He takes off down the stairs without a word and waits for us at the edge of the yard. He's either deep in thought or deliberately giving us the silent treatment.
Sometimes, it's hard to tell with Tucker.
There's a good crowd already gathered on the expanse of lawn between the house and the lake. Our girls are standing together, next to my parents, greeting neighbors and church members. Hope lets them fawn over her and ask questions. She smiles and nods, shakes hands, and waves when she spots us.
Gracie breaks off mid-sentence to rush across the yard when the McCartys arrive. She launches herself into Abe's arms. He catches her and spins them, and I deliberately turn around to miss their reunion. They've been attached at the hip since preschool. Public affection is their forte.
It's gotten them in trouble a time or two and helped earn them both a juvy record.
Thankfully, Reverend McCarty and Rosalie consider them equal conspirators and love Gracie almost as much as their son does. It's finally warmed him to me, and he seems all right with having outlaws as in-laws.
Tucker finally makes an appearance after a few of his buddies arrive with their folks. He avoids his grandparents and Abe's family by starting up a game of horseshoes down by the boathouse.
Charlie wanders down to watch them but keeps his distance. Renee and Tanya steal Bella away to catch her up on all the town news she missed while she was away.
Reverend McCarty catches me alone and nods down the hill at Tucker and his friends. "Everything okay?" he asks.
"I think so," I say. "Just a rough patch." I glance at Abe and Gracie on the porch swing a few feet away. Her shoes have disappeared, and her legs are crossed and draped over his. "Teenage crush stuff."
He nods. "He'll figure it out."
Our wives save us seats across from each other at one of the tables. Charlie and Renee join us after a while, and Hope, Gracie, and Tucker are at three different tables, each surrounded by friends and cousins. The sun dips slowly across the lake, painting the surface every color of the rainbow on its way down.
Servers light candles in mason jars and place them on the tables between arrangements of daisies and chamomile. Fireflies blink and dance in the air around us. Twinkle lights glow in the trees lining the yard.
Bella sips sweet tea and lemonade, holds my hand on the table between our plates, and fans herself with a napkin. Sweat glistens on her exposed neck and shoulders. "Have I mentioned how pretty you look?" I ask. "I like this dress."
"It's new," she says. "I went shopping to blow off some steam while I was in Jackson."
"It didn't go well?" Rosalie asks.
Bella shakes her head. "Not really. We've only had about a decade since the fracking started over in Hayden. To them, the increase of toxins in Archusa doesn't look like much, considering the length of the study."
"They don't live here, so they don't care," Renee says. "I'm glad you do." She pats Bella's hand on the table.
"My family swims in that lake," Bella says. "We go fishing together on that lake. I don't want to worry about what's in the food on my table."
"You should run for office," Charlie says to Bella.
"When Hell freezes over," she says. "I'm a scientist."
"Exactly." Her father nods and turns to watch the teenagers and young adults milling at the water's edge. "I told Gracie they could take the pontoon out tonight. That all right with you?"
"It's your boat, Daddy," Bella says. "But surely you remember what happened the last time Gracie and Abe took one of your boats out."
He grunts. "Hope is going, too, and so are some of the youth group kids."
Bella relaxes. "All right, then."
Dinner is served in courses. Dad and I spared no expense. Momma deserves it. She's the star of the night and the butt of all kinds of teasing for being saint to my heathen. She cries when I give the toast and again when she and Dad cut their cake. Bella gets a little teary, too, and squeezes my hand.
Tucker walks past our table balancing two slices of cake on two cups of punch, one in each hand. He crosses the lawn and slides into the white folding chair next to Bree Tanner. Her long, dark hair is a stark contrast to Tucker's blonde when he takes his cap off and sets it on the table. He grins and offers her the refreshments.
He does, too.
And Bella sighs next to me. "I guess he'll live, after all."
"Looks like it."
The last bit of purple sky fades to pure darkness when the music starts, and couples take to the lawn for a twirl.
"Come on, husband," Bella says, pulling me to my feet. "This is a good song."
She clings to me, and we talk there under the stars until the DJ plays "Watermelon Crawl." She tries to escape, but I win in the end.
After that, we take a much needed break to cool off.
The younger crowd deserts the dance floor and heads for the dock. Our children are the exception.
"Here they come," Bella says.
"Tucker's bringin' up the rear. They're up to no good, for sure."
"We're gonna take the pontoon out for a bit," Gracie says on approach, nodding at the lake. "Meet some friends and maybe swim for a bit."
"Be careful," I say.
They turn in perfect sync, and Bella stops them in their tracks. "Where do you think you're goin', son?"
"Momma, pleeeease let him come," Gracie says. "We won't let him have any fun. We promise."
Bree Tanner waits near the pontoon, watching our family meeting. "We haven't had a chance to discuss last night, so he's technically not grounded yet," I say.
Bella's eyes narrow. "Can you behave yourself?" she asks Tucker.
He nods, looks her in the eye, and says, "Yes, ma'am." He glances at Bree Tanner long enough to give her a small nod. "I promise."
"No drinking, girls." Bella points at Hope first, then Gracie. "He's still a minor."
Gracie lifts a hand to cover her heart. "That hurts, Momma. Like I would ever contribute to the delinquency of a minor."
"Oh, you don't fool me for a second," Bella says, pulling her in for a hug. "But one visit from Chief Newton is enough for a weekend."
Gracie grins and squeezes Bella. "Hope's comin'. We're in good hands."
"Y'all say goodbye to your grandparents before you go," I say. "Wish them a happy anniversary."
"Don't wait up," Hope says.
"You know we will," I answer.
She grins. "I know."
Tucker stops in front of Bella. "Thanks for lettin' me go."
"You're still in trouble," she says. "We're makin' an exception because it's your sister's first night home. We'll iron out the details tomorrow after church. Don't make plans."
He glances at Bree Tanner again and frowns. "Okay."
Bella stares up at Tucker and reaches out to touch his cheek with the pads of her fingers and run her thumb below his busted, scabbed lip. "Be good."
"Yes, ma'am," he says.
They make the rounds together, kissing cheeks and saying goodbye to their grandparents. Charlie pulls Hope a few feet away to give her a quick talk. Not that she needs it. That girl was born a mama bear, and she's the only one of our little immediate family that's never been in the back of a squad car, if you count Bella's run-in with the law back in the day.
We watch them walk down to the lake together. Hope is still Bella's twin. Gracie's got my curls and coloring and, according to her momma, so much piss and vinegar. Tucker's between them, his resemblance to his namesake uncanny.
"They'll be fine," I say to Bella, sneaking an arm around her waist from behind. "The girls promised not to let him have any fun."
"Oh, please," she says, leaning against me and snuggling in. "Those two have always spoiled him, especially Gracie. They're thicker than thieves."
"You wouldn't have them any other way."
"No, I wouldn't." Her hands cover mine. "I have to admit I'm glad his lip is busted."
"I sit next to Mrs. Tanner in the choir every Sunday. I doubt Tucker will go kissin' all over her daughter with a busted lip."
I laugh. "You still have a lot to learn about teenage boys."
"He's yours," she says. "Through and through."
Thanks to Iris for being the best beta, to Mina for a perfect banner, and to M, Nic, and Rhonda for pre-reading.
Thank you for reading. I wish y'all joy and peace, this and every season.