Chapter 7 – Xibalba

I open my eyes to see the dark light of early dawn cast shadows onto Bette’s sitting figure as she scrubs her face and lethargically gets to her feet. The fussing sounds coming from the baby monitor having woke us both. I roll over and look at the clock as I throw my legs over the bed in a stupor. It’s eight am and it’s only been three hours. I feel as if I’ve only just fell asleep. This is going to be a rough stretch of time for sure.

My body is heavy as I pull up and follow behind Bette. We walk into Angie’s room and Bette switches on the lamp as I take some sanitizer and clean my hands. Bette does the same as I retrieve Angie. “Shh… it’s okay sweetheart.” I cradle her against me and her face turns from angry to frustrated as she tries to latch onto my breast. I chuckle at my very hungry baby and check her diaper to find it soiled. I look up at Bette and we make our way to the changing table.

I take the fun half while Bette tries to soothe her and retrieves the items I need. “Shh… it’s okay babycakes.” I smile at Bette’s term of endearment as she leans in coos in Angie’s ear while she fidgets. It’s so her… almost reminiscent of her Philadelphia roots. I can almost hear the eastern accent she hides so well when she says it. I chuckle as Angie clocks Bette good in the face and she glares at me before yawning. I smile and we make quick work of changing the diaper and again sanitize our hands before settling in for what I’m sure will be a common routine.

The baby latches right on and we both kiss her as she chews my nipple harshly, my little savage. I smile and sigh as I lay my head on Bette’s shoulder. She lays her head on mine and I almost fall asleep when I feel Bette take the baby to burp her. It takes a little longer than normal, but she hands her back to me with a smile and another wide yawn. I smile knowingly at her as I switch Angie to the other side and resume my relaxed position on Bette’s shoulder.

This time Bette falls asleep and I offer my own shoulder as I burp Angie on the other. Once Angie’s done she decides to stay awake for a little bit and I smile at her wide eyes as she takes in her new world unfolding in the ever growing light of a new day. Her expression is so like Bette’s that my heart constricts and tears gather in my eyes. I love them both so much. I lean in and kiss Angie and she yawns widely as well, showing a row of soft pink gums. I smile and kiss Bette’s head and she stirs. She smiles apologetically at me and says, “Sorry.”

I gaze at her adoringly. “That’s okay.” We both look down on our daughter to see her thick, dark lashes flutter as she looks over at Bette. “I love you Angie…”

Bette corrects me saying, “We love you.”

I smile and reiterate, “We love you, my little savage.” Bette furrows her brows at me and I chuckle. “Ask me later when you’re helping me apply some of that all-purpose nipple ointment.” She cringes and I chuckle. “I think I might start using it after each feeding just to prevent damage. She’s rough when we’re not fast enough.”

She grins lasciviously at me and says, “It would be my pleasure to help you with that.” I chuckle as she winks at me, and I can’t help but lean in for a sweet kiss to those luscious lips. I pull back and sigh and we both stand. She smiles at me. “I think it’s time for her first bath.” She kisses Angie’s head and meets my eyes.

I grin back at her and lay her down on the changing table to start undressing her. “I’ll go get the water ready so she doesn’t get cold.” I smile at her already retreating back and hear the water start in the other room just as I finish undressing the baby. I wrap her in a soft blanket and walk to the bathroom to find Bette leaned over the tub with the hypoallergenic baby soap, soft cloth, and a cup sitting in the tub.

I crouch down next to her and she holds her hands out as I place Angie in the safe valley of her strong forearms. She supports the tiny neck with her hands, and I pick up the cup to fill it from the running faucet. I pour the perfectly warm water over Angie’s belly, being careful to keep her umbilical cord dry, and watch with a laugh as her almond eyes with green flecks go round and then flutter in delight. We both chuckle and I wet her thick curls. Once she’s wet, I pick up the soap and soft cloth, lathering it up, and running it tenderly over her tiny chest and legs, taking extra care around the site of her healing belly button and under her chin and arms.

She further relaxes and I marvel at her. She’s really been very easy to please, just cover the basic needs. Bette turns her carefully and I take care of her back rinsing her before she’s turned back over. I lather some soap in my hands and play in the sweet curls on her head. They stick straight up and we both chuckle. I look to Bette. “Hold on for just a minute.” She eyes me curiously and nods her head as I quickly run down stairs to retrieve the camera from my purse.

Just as I’m about to run back up to them, there’s a quiet knock at the door and I lift the blinds to see Kit’s face in the window. I quickly unlock the door and smile as I urge her inside. “Come on. You’ve got to see this.”

She smiles back at me and sets the food and her purse down on the table before she follows me up the stairs. She laughs and joins Bette by the tub as I get several shots of all of them. Kit comes to me and takes the camera. “Get over there. You need some with your girls too.” I smile gratefully and crouch down again to play with my happy, doe-eyed daughter and wife. I tickle her tiny foot and she kicks at Bette, getting her wet. Kit and I laugh as Bette glares at us, and Kit gets a perfect picture of her gorgeous, incredulous face.

I rinse Angie’s hair and tickle her again, and she smiles a strange gummy smile. It’s a little awkward but it’s adorable, and I do it again so Kit can get a good picture. I can’t wait to look at them and add them to her baby book later. I gently clean her face and she smiles again as I rinse under her chin. “Kit, I’m so glad you’re here for this. These pictures will be priceless.” I smile at Bette and realize she’s on the same wavelength.

Kit chuckles. “I’m just glad I got to see this. It’s just so crazy how much she looks like you, Bette.” Bette beams and Kit snaps a picture of her face, a picture I’m sure will be one of my favorites. It captured both of them, my wife and my daughter, with matching innocent and awe-like expressions, and I feel my heart constrict.

Once Angie’s clean, I grab a tiny towel that looks like a duck and wrap her up in it as Bette stands and cradles her to her chest. The three of us go into the nursery and she starts to fall asleep as we finish dressing her. Bette let’s Kit rock her before we place her back in her crib and grab the monitor, leaving the door to the room open and making our way downstairs.

Kit grabs the food and Bette sets up the computer at the table, the baby monitor right next to it, and pushes all of the gifts we need to put away to the far end. We all sit down together with our coffees and food. “So what’s going on with you two today?”

I look to Bette questioningly. I’m not sure if she wants anyone to know. She answers my question with a subtle look and I start to explain. “Well, between the three of us…” Kit takes a sip of her coffee and nods her head in understanding, “…Bette noticed some money missing on the gallery’s monthly statement while I was…recovering.” A heavy sadness settles over Bette’s features for a moment and I squeeze her thigh under the table before taking a sip of my coffee and giving Kit a knowing look. She owns the Planet. She’ll understand.

She takes another sip of her coffee and says, “Mm hmm. So, you goin’ through the ledger to find it?”

Bette nods her head as she stares intently at the spreadsheets on the screen, locating a line and highlighting it. “It’s right here under the title, ‘cash discount.’”

I furrow my brows. “Does the gallery offer cash payment discounts?”

She meets my gaze and says, “No. No gallery would do that, and even if they did, it wouldn’t be ten thousand dollars.”

Kit gawps at her. “Ten thou?”

I nod my head and Bette starts to click around in the ledger, going back to when she first hired Leo and doing a search for ‘cash discount.’ There are fields for every sale for small amounts that add up for yearly totals in the tens of thousands. My eyes go round as I see the two year total of one hundred and twenty thousand dollars. Bette sits back in her chair and I can see her demeanor morph in to angry incredulity. “That greasy fucker has been embezzling money right out from under my nose on each sale. It was so small on each that I didn’t notice.” She furrows her brows. “But why be so obvious about it now?”

Kit snorts and takes another sip of her coffee. “Well, maybe he pushed it while Tina was sick because he thought you’d be too distracted to notice.”

I furrow my brows. “Wait. How do you know it’s Leo? How many people make entries for the gallery?” She scrolls over on the spreadsheet and points to show the entry was made by LH, Leo Herrera. I sigh.

“I think maybe you’re right Kit. It would have been the perfect time.” She sighs and takes a sip of her coffee.

I take her hand and she looks to me. “Maybe you should start going to work…”

She shakes her head and cuts me off saying, “No, absolutely not. I need to be here with you and Angie.”

I stroke her face. “I wouldn’t mind if you never left my side again. I love having you with me and so focused on us.” I smile warmly at her. “I feel so safe with you here, like nothing, not even death, can touch us.” Tears gather in her almond eyes. “But Bette, even if I had…” Her face becomes a stony mask and I stroke it to soften her, “…you wouldn’t have been able to avoid the responsibility forever. Life would have gone on, and I’d have wanted you to live it.”

Kit touches Bette’s shoulder and she turns her hurt gaze to her sister. “She’s right, baby sis…”

She looks down at her hands before meeting my gaze. “You want me to go to work?”

I kiss her hand and meet her gaze. “No, but I can’t fix this because I have to be here. As much as I want you here, I don’t want us to get robbed or put the gallery at risk. We’ve burned through a lot of your money…”

“Our money…”

I smile at her. “Right… our money, in the last year with the house and medical bills. I know we’re not hurting yet, but the gallery is still important. Besides…” I stroke the haphazard curls from her face. “The gallery is something you’re going to want to leave for Angie when we’re old and grey.” She smiles a watery, sad smile and blows out a frustrated breath. “Bette, if you can’t or just really don’t want to go back to take care of this, then don’t. We’ll figure something else out. Whatever the outcome with the gallery, I don’t want you to do something that you’ll regret.”

She kisses my hand and I can tell she’s grateful for that response, but I can literally see the anxious fear in the almond orbs as they meet my own. “I’m just… worried, T.”

I smile sadly at her. “I know…” A thought occurs to me and I smile brightly at her. “How about you go back part time? I mean, you’re really only going back to work through this issue. You don’t need eight hours or more a day to do that.”

She smiles at me and releases a breath. She just doesn’t want to leave us. I get it, I really do, and I don’t want her to go, but the gallery is more important than being scared or insecure. “We have to get back to normal. The longer we put it off…”

“The harder it will become…” She smiles at me and leans in to kiss me chastely. She leans back in her chair with a sigh. “Okay, I’ll go back part time to keep an eye on things, and I’ll bring Malcolm in on it. I want him to wire Leo’s work computer and phone so I can get confirmation, as well as keep an eye on things while I’m not there. I’ll also try to locate who or what he’s cutting the checks to.” She clicks over to the internet and starts looking up auditors in the gay and lesbian yellow pages. “I’m going to turn the last three years of records over to a third party auditor and have them run the numbers. Once I get all the data back, I’ll take it to the police.”

I raise an incredulous eyebrow at her. She’s strong, decisive, gorgeous, and I want her… badly… this very moment. I look over to Kit to see her smiling coyly with a knowing expression on her face. I chuckle and blush with chagrin and she giggles at me. Bette looks at us both with furrowed brows, shakes her head, and turns back to the screen. She takes a sip of her coffee and pulls up one of the companies with a five star rating.

I lean back and grab the cell phone on the nearby counter and hand it to her with a smile. She dials the number and there’s a short conversation as me and Kit listen. She opens her email and puts in an address before saying, “Thank you,” and ending the call. She sets the phone down on the table and says, “Well, that’s taken care of. I guess I’ll start bright and early tomorrow.” She looks to me with worried but serious eyes. “I don’t like it, but it’s the right thing to do.”

I stroke her hair and she smiles as she faces the computer to start attaching the files for the auditor. Just as she hits, ‘Send,’ we hear the baby on the monitor and we both look to each other. Kit stands, “Well, I better get back to the Planet. You both look tired, so get some rest.” She points to us seriously as she gathers her purse.

We both stand and Bette makes her way up the stairs calling out, “Thanks Kit.” She’s gone quickly and I look to Kit with a smile.

Kit smirks and opens the door. “Mm hmm, she’s going to be like a bulldog protecting that baby.” She looks to me seriously after she steps through to the porch. “Don’t let her lose focus on you or herself, okay?”

I lean in and hug Kit. “I’ll try but she’s so scared, Kit. I’m nervous, but I didn’t endure hell for a week not knowing if she was going to live.” No, I endured my own hell. I don’t know which of us went through more.

She squeezes me back. “I know. That was hard on everyone, but my baby sis…” She leans back. “I got her to go home and shower once.”

I close my eyes against the pain of it. I feel Kit stroke my arm and meet her gaze. “But you came home. She’ll start to trust again eventually. You might just have to push her a little bit.”

I smile at her. “I heard you… talking to me.” She tilts her head in confusion. “When I was asleep, I heard what you said.”

Her eyes widen and I smile at her. “You were awake?”

I furrow my brows. “Yes… and no. It’s a lot to explain and I haven’t even talked to Bette about it. She knows that I heard things, but… it’s crazy, Kit.” I sigh. It really is just too crazy to take seriously. “It’s not really important, what’s important is that I heard the people I love, and that’s what kept me going. Thank you.”

She squeezes my shoulder and smiles. “T…? The baby’s hungry.”

I turn to see Bette holding a cranky baby and smile. “Go on. Take care at that child. I’ll see you both tomorrow.”

Bette smiles and hands me the baby so she can hug Kit. “Thanks, Kit.”

She waves and walks to her car, and Bette shuts the door. I lift my tank and give Angie access. She grunts in approval and we both laugh at her. “I see what you mean. She is a little savage.”

I smile and lean down to kiss her forehead. “Was she dirty when you found her?” Bette’s face widens with comical distaste and I laugh again. She comes forward and kisses our daughters cheek and I kiss her hair before she’s done. She grins at me as I say, “When she’s done, what do you say to a nap?” We smile at each other and head upstairs to feed the savage and get some rest.


 

I flutter open my eyes as the knock on the door sounds again. I groan as I roll off of Bette’s shoulder and put my feet on the floor. She stirs behind me and I look at the clock to see it’s only eleven o’clock. One and a half hours…

I get to my feet. “What’s wrong?” The knock sounds again and this time Bette hears it. “You’ve got to be kidding me…”

I walk to the door and Bette follows with Angie’s monitor. We hold hands and groggily weave our way to the front door. I peer through the windows to see Carmen start to walk back down the steps. I open the door and call out, “Carmen?” She turns and looks at me with a nervous but relieved expression as she comes back up to the door and we step aside to let her in. “What’s going on?”

She blows out a frustrated breath and looks us over. Her shoulders slump as she says, “I’m so sorry, you guys. I didn’t know you were sleeping. This was a stupid idea anyway…”

She starts for the door but Bette stops her. “We’re already up and the baby will be soon anyway.” She looks to me. “I’ll make us some coffee.”

I hold onto her hand until the last moment and sigh as I turn back to Carmen. I smile and jerk my head toward the sectional and say, “So I assume it’s Shane,” as we sit.

She blows out a breath and chuckles nervously as she rolls her eyes. “Well, yes and no.” Come on Carmen. I’m so exhausted. Let’s just get through this. “And…?”

She gazes at me with eyes so sad it’s like a stray puppy begging for food. “I guess I’m just tired of being exiled when I didn’t do anything wrong. I mean, you guys are my friends too now…” I nod my head and she smiles sadly, “…well, why do I have to stay away?”

I furrow my brows. “Did Shane or anyone else tell you that you needed to?” She shakes her head. “Then why are you staying away?”

She sighs in frustration. “Because you were all Shane’s friends first. Isn’t that sort of how it works?”

I smirk at her. “If that’s how you want it to work or are willing to let it work, then I guess it is. I’d just do what I want and forget all the other drama as much as possible.”

She seems to consider this for a moment and then smiles brightly as the reality of it sets in. Bette comes in with a tray of coffees and I pick one up with a grateful smile before she’s even set them down. I yawn before I take a sip. “You know, you’re right.”

Bette picks up a mug and sits next to me. She looks to Carmen and says, “Don’t tell her that. It goes straight to her head,” before taking a long sip.

I glare at both of them and smirk to hid my own chuckle and look to Carmen. “Listen, if you feel you need to stay away, that’s one thing, but if you’re staying away because you feel obligated, then don’t.”

She downs her coffee and smiles brightly as she stands abruptly. We gaze up at her shocked. This was too easy. “I need to get back to the studio. Will I see you guys at the Planet in the morning?”

She grins at me with a gleam in her eyes and I smile back at her. “Unfortunately, not. We have to keep Angie away from large groups. We’ll see how she does at her appointment this weekend and then go from there. But…” I smile sadly at Bette and squeeze her hand. “…Bette is returning to work on tomorrow. She’ll probably stop in on her way for coffee so you should see her there.” Bette takes another sip of her coffee. She’s brooding over it a bit, but she’s resolved that it has to be done.

I link our fingers in comfort and Carmen grins at us sadly before saying, “I wish things had worked out differently with Shane, but I’m glad I don’t have to stay away anymore.” We set our coffee mugs down and follow her to the front door. “Thank you both…” We smile at her and wave as she walks down the front steps.

Bette grabs the baby monitor and just as we start the climb up to the bedroom the door opens again and in walks Tom. He smiles at us. “Hey! How’s my favorite niece?” As if on cue the monitor lights with the sounds of our little savage and we both yawn.

We start again for the stairs. “Well, Tom, why don’t you come see her for yourself?” He smiles brightly and follows us up the stairs to the nursery. Bette sanitizes her hands and picks her up, cooing at her as she checks her diaper. She meets my eyes and says, “All clear.” Tom chuckles from the doorway and I smile as I sanitize my hands as well, take Angie, and settle into the rocker.

Bette drapes a blanket over me and I look up at her gratefully as I lift my tank and feel Angie latch on immediately. I look to Tom. “Sorry, she needs to eat but you can see her after.” Bette settles in next to me and I rest my head on her shoulder.

Tom rests against the doorframe and looks at me. “Actually, there’s something I wanted to talk to you about.” I furrow my brows at him and pick my head up. “I spoke to Greg this morning and I think I want to move to LA.” My eyes grow round and Bette mirrors my expression as we gaze at him for long moments. He smiles with chagrin. “I mean, that’s if… you’d like me to be close…”

It takes me a moment to get my bearings. I really don’t know him that well yet, but I want to. Everything’s been so hectic since I woke up. But living in San Francisco will make getting to know him difficult. I finally stutter out, “Well, yes… of course, but what did Greg say?”

His smile turns sad. “We’ve only been dating a couple months. He doesn’t want to move.”

Bette finally pitches in. “Are you sure you want to do that, Tom?”

He looks me right in the eye. “I want to be close to my sister and my niece. I only went to San Francisco when I moved because it’s the gay mecca of the United States. I didn’t really have anywhere else to go. I didn’t really have time to put down roots there. I don’t even have a job and my apartment is month to month. I have a reason to be here, several of them.” He looks to the small mass under the blanket that has stopped suckling and I carefully cover myself as I hand her to Bette.

She stands and walks over to Tom while pointing at the sanitizer. He smiles brightly as he sanitizes his hands and puts the burping rag on his shoulder. Bette helps him settle her and tears gather in his eyes as he pats and strokes her back. “So I figure, if you want me close, I’ll go back, get my stuff, and be up here within a couple weeks.” Angie lets out a crude burp that makes Tom jump a little bit before laughing. “She has excellent acoustics.”

We laugh with him and Bette brings her back to me for round two. We again settle her under the blanket and I wince as she latches on roughly. My nipples are going to be raw at this rate. Bette strokes my hair as she settles in next to me with a tired sigh and I look to Tom. “We’d love to have you close if you’re sure that’s what you want. We can help you find a place here. Did you ever finish medical school?”

He smiles boyishly, “I finished my masters about a year ago, but I haven’t worked outside of the residency.”

Ah, daddy took care of everything, even the tuition and fees. I smile at him, trying to keep the bitterness at bay. I’ve forgiven him, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still hurt. “Well then, we’ll help you locate an office and you can put an ad in the gay and lesbian yellow pages to build your clientele. Until you find a place, you can continue to stay here.”

Bette looks between us. “What type of practice?”

He smiles at her ironically. “Psychiatry.” Bette grins incredulously. “I know. I can diagnose, and treat others all day, but I’ve only just now learned how to follow my own advice.” He sighs. “Honestly, I’d like to work at one of the LGBT crisis centers. It would be nice to help people who are struggling the same way I was. Maybe if I’d have had that sort of assistance it wouldn’t have taken me as long.”

Bette smirks at him. “Everyone has their own timing, but someone to talk to who knows what you’re going through can be invaluable.” She frowns as a thought occurs to her. “Actually…” She looks to me. “Doesn’t Alice know the director of children, youth and family services at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center?”

My eyes light up and I lean forward a bit. “Oh yeah… what was her name…?”

Bette snaps her fingers. “J… J… Janey… Jasmine…”

It’s on the tip of my tongue. “Jamie!”

Bette slaps her hands on her thighs and looks back to Tom. “Jamie. You should have Alice talk to her friend Jamie.”

Tom leans up from the doorframe with a brilliant gleam in his eyes. “That sounds perfect. I’ll call her before I leave.” He looks down at his watch before looking back up at us. “Speaking of which, I should probably get going if I want to be in San Francisco at a decent hour.”

I peer under the blanket to see that Angie is falling asleep so I hand her to Bette who again offers her to Tom. He smiles gratefully as he settles her on the rag still hanging over his shoulder and pats her back. He rests his grizzled cheek against the springy curls of her hair and breaths deeply as he closes his eyes. “They always smell so wonderful. Part of me believes it’s their innocence.”

Bette smiles warmly at me and the baby starts to squirm and grunt as the crude noise comes from somewhere decidedly lower than her mouth. I cover my mouth against the chuckles as Tom’s eyes go round and he hands her to Bette. “I think that’s my cue.” He strokes Angie’s hair and gives Bette a half-hug before approaching me and taking me in his arms tightly, his rugged face prickling my own. “Thank you, Chris.”

I smile at the nickname no one but he could get away with, and say as much, “You’re the only one who gets away with calling me that.” He chuckles as he pulls back and there are tears in his eyes. “You’re welcome, Tom.” He clears his throat and walks to the door. “I’ll see you both in a couple weeks.”

Bette starts to change the baby and smiles at me encouragingly. I grin back in gratitude and walk quietly with him out to his rental car. “Be safe and call when you get there, okay?”

He smiles boyishly and chucks me on the arm as he says, “I will. Take care of yourself and those girls until I get back.” I smile and nod my head as he makes his way to his car, gets in, and pulls away. I watch the blue sedan disappear up Harper and sigh with satisfaction, grateful that he wants to be close, knowing that we will be closer and closer as time goes by.


 

“Anybody home?!” I feel Bette stir against me and open my eyes feeling slightly more recharged. Bette’s warmth leaves me and I sigh at the loss. I roll onto my back and turn to look at the clock on the nightstand. Seven pm, much better. I feel my stomach rumble and get up to follow Bette. We check on Angie in her crib to see her resting just fine and head down the stairs.

We find Malcolm raiding the refrigerator and Bette smiles mischievously as she sneaks up behind him and leans in close to his unsuspecting ear before quietly yelling, “What do you want?!” She ducks back quick as he jumps and falls on his ass, sending the can of Perrier to the floor with a clank. We both laugh as he gets up and dusts himself off, trying to regain a little bit of the dignity he left on the floor.

I can’t help but be reminded of that night at the Broadbeach House when Bette scared the hell out of me the same way with almost the same results. At least she learned to duck and weave out of the way this time. She looks to me and winks and I can’t help but marvel at the gorgeous creature that chose me of her own freewill. Malcolm glares at her before pointing to the bag of take-away from Mandarette on the counter behind him.

I sigh. “Malcolm, you are officially my favorite person.”

He smiles brightly and puts his arm around me, gazing at Bette smugly. She looks at me pointedly and sighs as she says, “I should have known you’d sell me out for food…” We all chuckle as she gets plates, I get silverware, and Malcolm grabs two more cans out of the fridge before retrieving the one he dropped.

I start passing around the silverware and say, “Not just food, Chinese food.”

We sit down at the table and start loading up our plates. Bette looks at her own with hungry eyes and says, “I can see the distinction.”

Malcolm goes to open the can he just dropped and I have to hurry to get the rest of the noodles in my mouth as I shake my head and point at it with my fork. It’s mostly clear as I mumble, “Don’t open that yet,” around the food in my mouth.

Bette takes a bite of chicken and sighs at me disappointedly. “You’re no fun…”

I chuckle and Malcolm glares at her again as he takes a bite of noodles. I look to Bette and think on that day at the Planet that she braved public humiliation just to open me up and draw me out of my pride induced coma. We’ve come so very far from that day, and I smile adoringly at her as she takes another bite of chicken. She is my wife, mine, and that thought not only constricts my heart with happiness, it fills me with a hopeful joy and a primal lust.

I reach out and move the curls off her neck so I can see her so more fully and she looks at me curiously before smiling and returning to her food completely oblivious to what my thoughts inspire me to do to her just now. We get through our dinner with playful banter before Malcolm takes a sip of his Perrier and addresses Bette. “Um, Bette…” She leans back with her fortune cookie and opens it, humming at him in question as she reads. She snorts and sets the slip down as she puts part of the cookie in her mouth and gives Malcolm her full attention. I read the slip as well. ‘You’re about to receive some bad news.’ I shake my head and put it back down as Malcolm continues. “…I have some bad news.”

We both look to Malcolm and he furrows his brows. “I think.” Bette leans forward and he sighs. “Today, I was coming back from a delivery that didn’t take nearly as long as it was supposed to, and I could swear I saw Kelly Wentworth leaving the gallery in a limo. I called out to her and she turned to me, but once she realized who I was, she got in and the limo sped away. When I brought the keys to the moving truck back to Leo, I asked him. He got nervous and twitchy. He claims it wasn’t her and coached me for contradicting him, but something’s… off… with him, more off than usual.”

Bette leans back and sighs, and I reach out to take her hand and link our fingers as I watch the play of emotions race across her face to land on a realization. She looks to me and her gaze is hard. “Is she working with Leo?”

I furrow my brow. “Why would she want to embezzle money from you? She has a ton of it.”

She sighs. “She was blackmailing me so I recorded our last conversation just in case…”

Malcolm nervously drinks from his cup and I eye her questioningly. “In case…?”

Her eyes are honest and open as she says, “In case you didn’t believe she was lying.”

I close my eyes and sigh at this before squeezing her hand and again meeting her gaze. “Okay, so she’s pissed that you stopped her?”

She furrows her brow. “I think that may be a little of it, but mostly, I think she’s pissed that I not only rejected her, but stopped her, and had her embarrassingly escorted off the property. Then there’s the fact that I told her, ‘no.’ She doesn’t handle that well…”

I absorb this information and watch her proud, gorgeous face as her brilliant mind makes a decisive move that settles on her shoulders. She’s alpha right now, and she’s a force to be marveled at and reckoned with. She looks to Malcolm. “Malcolm, I believe that Leo is embezzling money from the gallery.” Malcolm’s eyes go wide and he sits forward, gawping at her. “I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that, while I’m gone, Kelly shows up and he hits the ledger for a large, noticeable sum.”

He shakes his head to clear the shock. “Bloody hell…”

A grin splits Bette’s gorgeous face as she addresses Malcolm again. “Malc, I’m going to need your help.” A knowing gleam lights prematurely in his eyes as she continues. “I’ll tell him that I’m having you install some upgrades for everyone’s computers, but in reality, I want you to grant me remote access to his machine where I can monitor him without his knowledge, and put a plant in his phone. Do it for his assistant as well.”

I rub Bette’s thigh and she meets my gaze. “Is that illegal?”

Malcolm smiles at me. “No, she’s putting surveillance equipment in property she owns. It would only be illegal if she did it to someone else’s property.”

Bette smiles at Malcolm and I frown. “Babe, how does this really help anything? You already know that he’s responsible for the missing money.”

Her grin drips with an animal magnetism that makes me want to both flee, and tackle her to the table at the same time. My heart constricts and I feel a rush of warmth decided southward. “I can confirm that he’s in collusion with Kelly and I can hopefully get information on where the money is going. All of which, I will turn into the police when the third party auditors get back to me.”

She’s gorgeous. There’s no denying that. And her physical presence pulls the air out of a room, even in a tank top and drawstring pants and sleep mussed hair, but when her mind is working so effortlessly and decisively, especially in collusion with these other factors, I’m lost. She gazes into my eyes and a knowing fire sparks to life in them as she reads my very thoughts. Malcolm clears his throat and we look back to him to see him blush with chagrin. “I’ll be coming in to work part-time starting tomorrow. We’ll do it then.”

He nods his head and stands. “Well… um… it’s late. I’ll see you later.”

His walk is brisk as he makes his getaway and I don’t hesitate a moment to stand in front of  Bette, lifting my legs and straddling her, pinning her in her chair. I gaze longingly into her eyes and lock my elbows around her neck as I lean in close to her mouth and say, “Do you have any idea how much your body…” I stroke her broad, firm shoulders. “…your heart…” I pull my caress to the area above her breast. “…and your mind…” I tangle the fingers of my other hand in her hair and pull her head back a little bit. “…turn me on?” Her gaze locks onto my own and burns me with its intensity. “What you do to me?”

Her hands grip my waist and grind me into her as we crush our mouths together deeply, tangling my other hand in her thick, dark curls. Her tongue tastes sweet and spicy, a dichotomy entirely true to the tincture of her essence as they mingle. I caress her tongue with my own in open, hungry, and fluid touches. She runs her hands under my tank, leaving a hot trail of goose bumps before she gently hefts my breasts. I whimper as I release her mouth to kiss down her jaw and starkly muscled neck, pulling her hair to give me better access to her heaving chest.

A low, dulcet groan escapes her throat as I lick back up the smooth, bronze expanse of it, nipping at the quickening pulse point, and settling my lips against her chiseled ear. “I need you here…” I take her hand from the underside of my breast and push it beneath my pants and underwear to the hot core of my center. We both gasp. She leans forward and I lean back as she starts to delicately stroke through the smooth moisture with her long, slender fingers.

My hips begin to jerk in time with her and I attack her mouth anxiously, pouring love and lust into her only to pull it back out and repeat the process all over again. A cry sounds through the room and we stop abruptly. She pulls her hand away and helps me stand as she goes to the sink to clean her hands. I stand there in a state of shock for a moment before realizing what’s happening and follow her to the sink to wash my hands as well.

I have no problem putting Angie’s needs first, it’s a given. It doesn’t mean her timing isn’t terrible. Bette grabs the monitor from the table and I follow her up the stairs. Most of the frustration drains away as I see the crinkled face of my daughter, my hungry little savage, and take her lovingly in my arms to feed her, secure in the knowledge that this is only for a time. Things will even out, my hormones will even out, eventually.


Continued in Chapter 8 – I’m not afraid anymore, T.

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