They all trooped into the house, minus Nyssa, who went out to wait for the police with Eve. Ali got mugs out for everyone while Hope went into the fridge and removed Dakota’s glass and note. She grinned and held them both up for DK to see. “This first, then coffee.” The blue-eyed goalkeeper reminded her.
“And here just a few minutes ago, I was thinking you were such a good friend.” Dakota stuck her tongue out and took the glass. She went to the sink and looked out the window for a minute, watching the three women waiting near the end of the drive, studying the one she had helped twist through cruelty.
Ali came to stand on her left side, and Ash on her right. Her fiance laid her hand lightly on Dakota’s. “It’s over now.”
“Not for her.” Dakota inclined her head toward Rena. “And not for me, not really. I owe her for the part I played. I’ll owe for that decision forever.”
“Don’t you think you paid enough?” Ali asked gently.
“No...I always had the choice to tell Wendy to go fuck herself back then. I could have been brave and stood up to her, but I didn’t. I’ve been blaming her for a long time. I’ve been a coward, and today, someone died, and Chris nearly did as well. Now Rena will serve time for murdering that young man out there, and for kidnapping Chris, and if what she said can be believed, the others who were involved. That’s on her...but to a degree, that’s on me as well.” Dakota said quietly.
As the first police car pulled into the driveway, DK raised the glass and downed the contents in one shot, clenching her jaw to keep the noxious mix down. Ali and Ash both watched her eyes squeeze shut and a shudder rip through her body.
At long last, with breakfast eaten, their statements given to the police and the young man’s body removed from the beach, they all sat around the table, cups in hand, silent until Christian struggled to his feet and raised his mug. “Here’s to strangers who become friends,” He raised his mug toward Hope. “And friends who become family.” A tip of the mug to Dakota. “And to the enormous love and humanity you have all shown me. Thank you for one of the most interesting weeks I’ve had in a very long time. May the rest of our lives be boring in comparison.”
“Here, here.” Was murmured around the table.
Dakota rose from the table first and limped outside. The sun danced on the water under a clear blue sky, and she knew she should have been happy. In many aspects, it was over. If what Rena had said was true, there would be no need to look over her shoulder any longer.
She sensed movement on her left and turned her head to see Ashlyn standing beside her.
“Now what, Ash? What am I supposed to do now?” Dakota asked quietly as she wrapped an arm around her girlfriend’s waist.
“Love me, and your family in there.” Ash motioned with her head toward the house. “Write your book. Get a tan. Get married. You can do whatever you want now, sweetheart. Except drink, I wouldn’t recommend that.”
Dakota sighed deeply.
“You said she stomped you...you okay?”
“It hurts like a sonofabitch, but I’ll heal.”
“You know what I want to do right now?” Ash turned to her with a wide smile.
“What?” Dakota couldn’t help but smile back.
“Surf!” Ashlyn leaned forward and kissed Dakota fiercely before releasing her, and turning back to the house, shouting through the open door, “Who wants to go surfing?”
Dakota had been laying on the towel, face down, for some time when a voice above her spoke. “You should turn soon.”
She rolled over and smiled up at Chris. “Really taking this brother thing seriously, aren’t you?”
“Bloody right.” He held out her sunglasses.
“Pull up a towel, there’s something I wanted to talk to you about.”
"I'm all ears. What's on your mind? Unless it's about the liver cleanse drink. The answer is yes, you still have to drink it everyday after I go back to England."
Dakota rolled her eyes at him as she got comfortable on her back. She was hoping for a knock-out tan. “I know traditionally, the father gave the bride away at her wedding. Our wedding is going to be anything but traditional, and I won’t be given away like property, but I was wondering if you would consider escorting me from one chapter of my life to the next.”
Chris was dumbfounded and his mouth was agape.
"Are you sure? I mean, I always figured it would be one of Ash's friends or Hope or someone like that. I wasn't even sure I was going to be invited to the wedding and now you're asking me to walk you down the aisle. Wow."
He choked back a couple of tears. "Damn salt air is playing hell with my eyes," he said with a smile, knowing Dakota could see through his facade. "If you don't mind looking like a dwarf standing next to me, I would be honored."
DK side-eyed him and smiled. “I’ll be the happiest dwarf there.”
"One more thing, what is the color scheme?"
“We’ve decided on red and white. Ash has said she wants to wear a white suit with the cuffs of her pants rolled up, barefoot so she can wriggle her toes in the sand as she says her vows. I know no one but the bride is supposed to wear white on that day, but to hell with tradition. I’d love to see the wedding party all in white with red accents.”
"Hmm... Don't be surprised at all if you see red streaks in my hair in your honor."
“That’s a good idea, maybe I’ll get my tips done red too!” She laughed. “I’m not sure what I’ll wear that day. I want it to be something comfortable, something casual, and white.”
“I’m sure you will look wonderful in anything you choose,” Chris said, barely looking up from his tablet. “Not to ruin the mood here, but, um. You know I have to leave for London early tomorrow. Are you sure you’ll make it without me?” He grinned, knowing he was teasing Dakota.
She looked over at him, as serious as a heart attack. “Honestly, I don’t know how, but I suppose I’ll have to.”
“You wake up. You breathe one breath at a time. You put one foot in front of the other. You lean on people when you need to and be strong when the moment calls for it. If you get knocked down seven times, you get up eight.”
“You know...for a time, I really considered killing her. You know what stopped me though?”
“My hand on the barrel would have made me an accessory?” he said in his normal sarcastic way, but knowing she was serious.
“Any lawyer worth their salt would have squashed the charge.” She scoffed. “What you said, about how I had a life, and love and a career. I wanted all those things when I was a kid...and for the first time in my life, I can honestly say this is the most free I’ve ever felt. I’m not completely free, I take ownership of what I did to Rena, but this is the most free I’ve ever been. So in many ways, you saved my life, as certainly as Hope did on that curb.”
“If there is one thing I have learned in this life, our decisions follow us, but we choose whether it DEFINES us. What happened in the past is not who you are. You’ve grown and although that choice was made, when you lowered the gun, you made sure you came up with your OWN definition of who you want to be.”
“They say that our Karma, well, all but the lowest form of it anyway, is always influenced by our choices...our free will. That resonates with me, so, what you told me made sense. But damn, she was egging me on, wasn’t she?”
“She was definitely pushing the right buttons, but no matter what, I wouldn’t have let you kill her, I would have done it first before I let you. That is the honest truth.”
“Be damned if I’m coming to visit my writing partner in prison. Speaking of...I was thinking about Lura’s new home. The Muse is speaking to me again.”
“That’s progress. Maybe my liver cleanse is working faster than we thought.” He scrunched his face up while looking at his tablet. “And the news of my resignation has already made it to my students, apparently they are planning a protest. That should actually be calm compared to the last week I have spent here.”
Dakota laughed. “Hell, yes!” She stopped for a second to listen to Ash’s laughter ring out over the water as Ali took a header into a wave.
“That right there...that is what you would have sacrificed if you pulled the trigger.”
She nodded, glad she hadn’t killed Rena. “I want to be selfish and hope you decide to settle in Florida, you know.”
“I really don’t know what I am going to do. I have family here in Florida, both biological and otherwise. I suppose I could just buy a beach house and lay in the sun all day, but what fun would that be? There are other factors I have to consider as well.”
Dakota chuckled. “I’m not sure she’s ready to leave Seattle just yet.”
“A little quick on the trigger, aren’t we?” he said with an arched eyebrow. “She still terrifies me, you know. I don’t see her out here, though. Maybe she actually is reading in bed all day. I suppose I’ll have to pay for eavesdropping on your conversation with her at some point, but maybe I can avoid it until I leave for London.”
“Sometimes getting out of bed terrifies me, but I still do it. She’s worth the risk...if you decide to chase it. But you need to go into anything, even friendship with her, with your eyes open. She is volatile, passionate about her causes,and her family. She has a quick temper and she’s sarcastic as hell. But she has a good heart, and that outshines all of the prickly parts.”
“I go into everything with my eyes open. I always try to see the best parts of people. I just have a very hard time letting anyone in and I have always kept women at an arm’s length since college. I cannot believe I told her what happened to me at UCF, it just all sort of tumbled out. 195 IQ and I cannot control what comes out of my mouth most of the time.”
She chuckled. “So don’t date. Hang out. Go to bookstores or libraries. Go for coffee. Hell, show up at her games and practises. Play it cool. She isn’t the ‘chase me’ type anyway. But if you two decide to just be friends, that’s good too.”
“I guess we will have to see if my absence from her will make both our hearts grow fonder. God, I can’t believe I just said that. I’m such a wanker. I think your stunning blonde is beckoning you from the ocean. Go enjoy your first taste of true freedom with her.”
Dakota looked out to where Ash and Ali had paddled in, and she had to smile. She passed Chris her sunglasses as she stood and said. “I think a swim would feel pretty good.” Then she stepped toward the surf, diving in when the water got deep enough.
“You’ve earned it. Tenfold,” Chris said to no one in particular and went back to his tablet to attempt to quell an Oxford Literature Department uprising.
After much debate about dinner, in the end, they all decided to order pizza. Those that had spent the day on the beach were tired, and no one really felt like cooking. They all sat around the table eating, carrying on separate conversations, when DK leaned toward Ashlyn and asked, “So, do you think we could pull off planning our wedding in just under a year?”
Ash chewed and swallowed. “You thinking November?”
“Well, the NWSL season would be over, less chances of a hurricane ruining our day and increased chances of our friends and family being able to make it.”
All conversation at the table stopped.
“I um, changed my mind a little though.”
“I asked Chris to walk with me down the aisle.”
No one was surprised.
“Speaking of...what time do you need to be at the airport tomorrow, Christian?”Ash asked.
“My flight leaves at six twenty AM.”
“So, we’ll need to have you there...an hour before?” Eve asked.
Christian sighed heavily. “Two hours for international flights, so I would need to be there around four.. I was planning on calling a car service so I wouldn’t inconvenience anyone or cut into much-needed rest.”
Hope scoffed. “Did you just meet these people, or what? You really think they’ll let you do that? Do you think I would let you go without saying goodbye properly?”
“I never like to be an imposition on anyone. It was hard enough accepting the invite to come here. Everyone has done more than enough and been more than hospitable. I just figured we would do all of the ‘see you next time’s’ tonight.”
“So I’ll set my alarm for two thirty.” Dakota said. “We may need a couple of cars.”
“I’m going too.” Ash added. “When we get back, I’ll whip up something to eat.”
Eve nodded and started making notes in the small notebook she always kept in her back pocket. “So we’ll need Miranda, Nyssa and myself…”
Nyssa cleared her throat. “I have a bit of news that I thought now would be a good time to share.”
Everyone looked her way and waited.
“I’ll be tendering my resignation from Blackstone Security in a couple of weeks. I’ve been offered a position as head of security for the Washington Spirit.”
Ali put her slice down and turned to face her. “Really? I didn’t even know they were looking for a head!”
Nyssa nodded. “I was rooting around their website one night and saw the call for resumes. I sent them mine thinking it would be a nice change. I didn’t ask how you felt about it because I wanted to surprise you...but if I’d be cramping your style…” Nyssa’s explanation trailed off into uncertainty.
Ali scooted closer, reached out, took Nyssa’s chin and turned her face toward her. “You want to know how I feel about it?” She crashed her lips into the bodyguard’s and kissed her hard enough to erase all doubt.
“I think it’s safe to say the only cramping done there, will be their lips.” Dakota observed before taking another bite.
Other than a few chuckles, no one ruined the moment.
When they finally needed breath, Ali pulled back. “Does that tell you how I feel?”
Nyssa nodded, mutely.
Dakota finished her slice, her second really, and leaned back in her chair, eyeing the Detective across the table. “So, Eve, what are you losing by being down here with us in the land of fun and sun?”
Eve shook her head and gave a half-shrug. “Nothing. I think I’ve gained a bit of a tan though.”
“No family back in Toronto to miss you?” Ash asked.
“Nope. I’ve always given everything to the job.”
“Want to make your tan better?” DK asked.
“Well, apparently there’ll be an opening in my security detail in a couple of weeks…Come be the head of security. Even though Rena will be behind bars for a good long time, and if she’s to be believed, we won’t have to worry about Wendy, but there’ll always be those who need reminding that we enjoy our privacy.”
“You know I can’t do it myself…”
“So handpick your team.”
Eve looked down the table at Miranda, busy reaching for her third piece, then over to Nyssa.
The co-founder of Blackstone Security smiled and nodded.
“Miss Morse, do you have anything keeping you in Toronto?” Eve asked.
Miranda froze like a deer in headlights. “Me? No. My family is all out in Manitoba.”
“I think you show a lot of potential. Want to come and be my right hand and keep these two safe?”
“I’d be honored, Ma’am.”
“Good. We’ll work out details later.” Eve rose from the table. “I have a couple of phone calls to make, and then paperwork to make my move official. I’ll have the vehicles ready no later than quarter past three for anyone who wants to go to the airport.” She had been making her way around the table as she had spoke, but stopped beside Dakota’s chair. “Thank you, Ma’am.”
Dakota looked up and shook her head. “There is one thing, Eve. In private, and at home, you use my given name, clear?”
“Crystal.” Eve smiled. But as she left the room, they all heard her add, “Ma’am.”
It wasn’t too many hours later when Ali approached Christian in the great room. “Thought I’d say goodbye now. I won’t be going to the airport tomorrow morning, and I’m not sure I’ll be here when you come back this way. I have some promotional obligations to fulfill.”
“I understand, you have endorsement contracts. We are all going to have a few things to figure out in the coming days and weeks, I suppose.”
Ali smiled. “I want to be able to go on vacation with Nyssa before the Spirit season starts, too.” Ali reached out to take Christian’s hand. “You have been a godsend for Dakota, and by extension, Ash. I’ve very glad I can count you as a friend.”
"I just do what I can, Ali. I have been in that same darkness before, maybe not with all of the other outside factors Dakota had, but I couldn't let someone else fall." He stared down at her hand quizzically and pulled her in for a hug, which caught her off-guard due to her assumptions about most Brits being a little emotionally detached. "I'm glad you consider me a friend, as I do with all of you. You and Nyssa take care of each other, okay?"
After the goodbye with Ali, Christian walked outside and looked over the ocean, attempting to take stock of the last week of his life. It had finally hit him, he had no job to return to. He shook his head and had to laugh a little bit at his impulsiveness. He didn't regret what he did, though. It was the right thing to do and he would always put family first. He thought of the new friends he had made and if he was honest with himself, he also thought that strange. He didn't have many friends in the UK, he had spent most of his adult life studying or designing some complicated engine. He never really had time for friends. He could only assume this week was his wake up call that life is happening and he had missed enough of it living in his scholastic bubble. The house was quiet when he walked back in, no doubt everyone had retired to their respective bedrooms for the evening as most would be waking up very early to go to the airport with him. He went to his room and laid down on the bed, trying to get what little sleep would be available to him. Every time he closed his eyes, though, he could see that crazed face of the woman who drugged him and how he did nothing except yell obscenities at her while she was being led away. If this is what he was seeing after the events of the day, he could only imagine the nightmares his friend saw on a nightly basis. He finally and restlessly fell asleep as the clocked rolled over to midnight.
No matter which position Dakota chose, she couldn't get comfortable. The knee that Rena had stomped just wouldn't stop throbbing. After eventually curling into Ash, ear close to the goalkeepers heart, Dakota finally drifted off. But her rest was short-lived. No sooner did her conscious mind shut off than her subconscious served up a rerun of the beating she and the others had dealt Rena. Barely asleep, Dakota jerked awake again. She eased out of bed without waking an obviously exhausted Ashlyn, slipped on thick socks and Ash's hoodie over her pyjamas, and went to the veranda to listen to the surf.
Christian tossed and turned as the smell of the fumes that knocked him out kept flashing through his restless dreams. He sat straight up in bed, covered in sweat. He decided sleep would be an elusive creature and with only about 90 minutes until he was supposed to leave, he decided it was a pointless venture to continue to try. He scooped up his tablet and threw on a t-shirt and walked out to the veranda to look over more of his students' compositions while listening to the waves, hoping it would calm his mind.
When he slowly opened the door, he saw the back of a familiar head staring out to the ocean.
"For some reason, I thought I might find you out here," he said quietly.
Dakota turned her head and watched Christian take a seat beside her. "I thought you'd be fast asleep. You had a tiring day."
"I can't get any of it out of my head. From Oxford to what happened today, it's all swimming in there. You want to know what the worst part of being me is? When something like today happens or really anything in my life, the way I’m wired, I think about it over and over again both logically AND analytically. Drives me mad."
"I can only imagine. I suppose we'll both have some changes to make." Dakota reached out and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Are you all right, though? Really?"
"No, no, I'm not. For the first time in a long time, I don't know what I'm going to do. I don't feel like I have complete control and I hate it. I also feel weakened in a way because I didn't do anything when Rena snuck up on me. I didn't defend myself or anything. I guess I’m just overwhelmed."
"It stands to reason. But think about it, you were attacked without warning, you don't have the training to know how to react, so why would you expect to know how to defend yourself?" DK asked sadly. "The only reason I know how to street fight is because of the fights the guards set up in prison. No one expected you to know how to fight off a mad-woman. But maybe there's a way to work through what you're feeling...whenever, wherever you decide to settle after you've wrapped things up at Oxford...maybe some self-defence classes will help?"
"That's a possibility. Luckily I kept a pretty minimalist office at Oxford, won't take much to move out of it. Then I guess I wait to see where the wind blows me. I'll keep my home in London, but maybe I will settle here in the states, maybe I'll continue in Europe. My literary agent practically begs me to move to New York, but I don't think I would like it there. I don't know. It's a lot to process and I am not sure I can right now."
“Whatever you decide to do, you have family here you can take shelter with when the winds blow too hard.”
Dakota listened to the waves hiss in over the sand. “I think I’m going to develop a loose schedule of working out with Hope until she returns to Seattle, and working on Artemia. I have some ideas for it that I think could be expanded on. Maybe there’s a series there. Tammye emailed me earlier today, reminding me that when things settled down I still had a career to work on. Although she didn’t exactly word it that way. She did send along anthology sales statistics for the last week though.”
Chris turned his head and studied her in the light spilling out from the patio door.
“Apparently Two Miles Through Hell has crept up from fifth to second best seller. I have to admit, I’m surprised by that. Pleased...but surprised.”
Anything further she might have said was interrupted by another light being turned on inside and Ashlyn stepping over the threshold to join them in the darkness. “Is this a private party for the cool kids only?”
Dakota held her hand out. “Hey, sweetheart. You were sleeping pretty hard when I tiptoed out. I thought you’d be sleeping for a while yet.”
“Nah. Didn’t want to miss Christian’s send-off. I guess my brain woke up early. Who wants coffee?” Ash kissed DK softly before taking a step back.
“Coffeeeeeee.” Dakota moaned. “There isn’t enough in this state for me today.”
“Isn’t there a beverage you should drink beforehand, though?” Chris teased without looking up from his tablet, knowing the look he would get for suggesting it.
Dakota groaned again, but for a different reason.
“Ashlyn, I’ll join you in the kitchen so I can show you how to prepare this delicious beverage for your fiance.” Chris said, moving to avoid the sisterly punch that Dakota threw at him.
“Brat.” She said.
As Chris and Ash made the drink they had all come to think of as shitinaglass, DK shook her head slightly. She couldn’t be too mad at him, all too soon he would be boarding a plane.
They made quite a sight trooping through the airport, and all too soon, they were gathered in the waiting area beside the gate.
Christian had checked in with the airline employee behind the computer terminal and ensured everything was on schedule before setting his bag down. As his eyes lifted from the floor, the first person his gaze settled on was Hope.
“Well,” her blue eyes were steady. “I’d tell you to keep in touch, but I haven’t given you my email. So…” she passed him a slip of paper. “Email and cell number. If you ever want to call.”
Chris went immediately into awkward teenager mode, unable to properly respond.
“If you ever need anyone to talk to, you know.” Hope was floundering conversationally.
Dakota sat in one of the plastic chairs and watched the awkward exchange with a bit of amusement. As much as she wanted to play Cupid, she knew she couldn’t. Each of them had things to deal with before either of them was ready to open their hearts that much.
Christian finally nodded. “Thank you, I’ll send you an email during my layover in New York or later when I get home, so you’ll have mine.” He then hesitantly hugged her tight, hoping she wouldn’t break his arm off at the shoulder for doing such a thing.
Hope was shocked that anyone she’d known less than a month would take such liberties, but she knew she already had a soft spot for him. She wrapped her arms around him and returned the hug. Tightly, in case he got the idea she was going soft. “Stay out of trouble. Let someone know when you’ve arrived home, okay?”
Chris nodded and turned to face the others. “Well, I guess this is it for now. You all look exhausted, so I’m not going to make you wait around any longer. I would like to say that it has been fun, but I am not sure that would be the proper description.” He let out a small laugh.
He hugged Ashlyn goodbye and whispered in her ear, “Take care of our girl”, which brought a nod from the keeper.
“I will, but you know what a handful she is.”
He shook the hands of the security personnel as they were still on duty and then turned to the seated Dakota.
She rose from her seat and he looked down and shook his head.
“You know, my other sister is not nearly as much trouble as you are, but I don’t think I would have it any other way, Ms. Undomiel.”
“I have something for you, but you aren’t allowed to open it until you are back in the car, okay?”
He handed her an envelope and hugged her close. “I hope I see you soon. Remember, you aren’t what you did in your past. You’re better than that.”
Dakota closed her eyes, trying to control the floodgates that threatened. “No matter what happens across that ocean, we’ll be here for you. Even if I do think you’re trying to poison me with shitinaglass. Stay in touch, please? I don’t want to have to send Eve to find you when it’s time for the wedding.”
He pulled away and nodded with a couple of tears in his eyes which made him chuckle. He turned and walked towards the gate with a smile on his face.
Ash wrapped one arm around Dakota. Hope stood with her hands in her back pockets, confused why she already felt sad when the professor wasn’t even on the plane yet. He was so different from Jerramy...She scoffed and turned away, confused and crestfallen.
Dakota watched Christian’s back until he disappeared from sight, and only then turned away. Hope stood a few feet away looking out the large window at the plane that would carry Chris home. Dakota went to stand on one side of the brunette and Ash on the other. No one seemed willing to move until Christian’s plane taxied toward the runway, and eventually took off. They watched the spot in the sky where the plane had disappeared for a minute more until Ashlyn cleared her throat. “So, who’s up for breakfast?”
Back in the SUV, Dakota opened the envelope Chris had given her. His tight script was challenging to read, but legible. It was the addition to the envelope that made DK gasp.
Understand my responsibility to walk you down the aisle is not something I take lightly. I am honored that you are allowing me the privilege of doing so.
In return, I ask only one thing. Allow me the honor of making sure yours and Ash’s day is as special as it can be.
Enclosed you will find a check that should cover all of the wedding expenses. Whatever you do not use is my wedding gift to the both of you. Take care and I will see you soon.
Dr. Christian Jones
“Babe?” Ash put a hand on DK’s arm. “What’s wrong?”
Dakota passed her fiancee the note and waited until she had read it, then explained the rest. “He’s included a check for seventy five thousand...”
“No way…” Ash chuckled, thinking Dakota was joking.
But a glance at the check proved that DK hadn’t made it up. Ash passed it to Hope, who studied it silently before returning it.
“Well, he is full of surprises,” Hope said.
“He is, at that.” Dakota agreed quietly.
“You okay there, Undomiel?” Hope asked after a minute.
“Yeah, it just feels...like when you’ve finished a book that you’ve been absorbed in, and then it’s just...over. And you’re left with that ‘now what?’ feeling. You know?”
Hope nodded. “Yeah, I know.”
“Now we write our next chapters.” Ash said. “All of us.”