"Hey," Kelsey called out as she hung her purse on a hook near the front door and set her laptop bag on the floor beside the couch. "I'm home."
Avery's fair head appeared out of the kitchen. "Hey, yourself. Dinner'll be ready in ten."
Kelsey kept her bedroom door open so she could chat with Avery while she changed into a pair of shorts and an old Astros t-shirt. Venting about annoying coworkers and other frustrations was part of their daily routine. Avery's main complaint was about her spineless assistant principal and his reluctance to mete out anything harsher than an after-school detention.
"I don't want him to expel anyone, but this is ridiculous. I write Patrick up every other day, it seems, and the kid doesn't care because he knows all he'll get is detention." Avery switched off the stove and untied the strings of her apron. "At this point, though, I'm just glad that next year he'll be someone else's problem. Fifteen days to go."
"I thought you were teaching summer school."
"I am. But Mr. Yamato is my principal during summer school, and he doesn't put up with any crap."
After three years of cohabitation, they'd perfected their kitchen dance. Kelsey retrieved plates from the cabinet while Avery snagged forks from the drawer by the sink. A few minutes later, both women carried plates of steaming, mouthwateringly fragrant chicken marsala to the round oak dining table.
"Jess is making chocolate chunk cookies for Sunday, so I told her we'd pick up a gallon of Blue Bell," Kelsey said.
Every Sunday, the family that resided in the area congregated at Avery's parents' house for lunch and an afternoon spent in fierce competition. If the weather was nice, they played horseshoes or washers or volleyball. If they were forced inside, there were plenty of board and card games in Patty Monahan Welter's linen closet.
"How is Miss Jess? I texted her about going to that play with me, but she never responded."
"She lost her phone. Again. Remind me to give you her new number."
The chatter continued throughout dinner. Though she'd had to adjust to having a roommate when Avery moved in, Kelsey didn't regret suggesting the arrangement. She hadn't grown up with Avery like she had with Katie or Tracy, so she was glad they'd had the chance to become friends and not just cousins.
As Kelsey finished off her glass of iced tea, Avery tapped the tines of her fork against her empty plate. Kelsey's eyes narrowed at the nervous gesture. Nothing good ever came from nervous gestures.
"I invited David to lunch on Sunday. Mom and Dad want to meet him since I skipped out last week to spend time with him." Avery creased the edge of her napkin and dropped her eyes to the hands. "I really, really like him."
Something was off. Kelsey wasn't buying the explanation. "You don't have to justify anything to me, kiddo. From what I've seen, he's nothing like your usual buffoons."
Avery flushed but didn't protest. "So you'll help make sure the family's on its best behavior?"
Kelsey laughed as she collected their plates and carried them to the sink. "Not a chance in hell. Before you get too serious, we need to know if he can handle the Monahan family in all its glory."
Avery groaned and slumped in her chair. "But it's supposed to be gorgeous outside, and you know how Dad and Uncle Steve get about washers."
"Yep. Just tell David not to be on any team but yours or mine." Kelsey loaded the plates in the dishwasher and quickly washed the cookware. They traded cooking and cleaning duties, though it wasn't always a fair trade. Cooking was too much of an artistic challenge for Kelsey. She preferred recipes she could follow that were backed by science she understood.
"So," Avery started, looking as worried as Kelsey had ever seen her, "since David's going to be there, don't you think you should invite Micah?"
Kelsey nearly dropped her travel coffee mug. Invite Micah to the family lunch? The family that was boisterous and teasing and fiercely competitive but so genuinely caring? Could she subject him to her aunts' blatant inquisition or her uncles' more subtle 'manly' approach? And the cousins. Dear God, the cousins.
"I'm not sure we're at that point yet. We've only had one date. We are spending Saturday together. I don't want to monopolize his entire weekend."
"He knows David's going. Don't you think he'll get the wrong idea if you don't ask him?"
Kelsey's eyebrows shot up. "Don't you think he'll get the wrong idea if I do ask him?"
Before Avery could retort, the unmistakable call of seagulls sounded in the living room. Relief washed down Kelsey's spine. Saved by Skype.
With Avery hot on her heels, Kelsey hurried to the corner of the living room that she'd turned into a makeshift office. Little more than a three-shelf bookcase and a small desk, it was where Kelsey worked when she exercised her option to work from home and where she did most of her schoolwork.
She plopped onto the soft, upholstered chair and brought up her Skype window. Avery settled onto the padded ottoman next to Kelsey. Seconds later, the grinning, tanned face of their cousin Katie Monahan filled the screen.
"Hello, darlings," Katie greeted with a laugh. She raked back a handful of short, sun-streaked blonde curls when the wind blew them in her face. Behind Katie, the brilliant colors of the sunset blended with the sparkling blue-green of the Laguna Madre.
An answering grin spread across Kelsey's face. Katie was older by only two months and had grown up four houses down from Kelsey. They had been best friends their entire lives. Katie was the only one who knew all of Kelsey's secrets and fears.
"How's my favorite beach bum?" Kelsey tipped the screen so that the webcam would pick up Avery.
"I am absolutely fantastic. Aunt Sheila and I watched the new guy move in to 102. He's built like a linebacker and he took his shirt off. I nearly needed resuscitation." Katie playfully fanned her face. "It's a good thing Aunt Sheila's so devoted to Aunt Emma or I'd have had to gouge her eyes out. I have a feeling that lovely piece of perfection will be my date for the Memorial Day picnic."
Kelsey didn't doubt the prediction for a second. If Katie set her mind to something, whether it was starting her own engineering firm or wheedling her father and Kelsey's parents into letting the girls spend Spring Break in Cozumel, she was usually successful. Kelsey almost pitied Mr. 102.
"Happy hunting," Kelsey said.
"Thank you. So, what's new in the land of traffic jams?"
"Not much," Kelsey demurred. She wanted to talk about Micah, about how the four texts he'd sent that day had made her feel like she was walking on air, but she wanted to do it in private. As close as she'd grown to Avery, there were just some things she could only share with Katie.
"Kelso won't introduce her new hunka-hunka burnin' love to the fam on Sunday," Avery blurted.
Kelsey promptly drove her elbow into her cousin's side. She could feel the heat in her cheeks and was certain she was blushing. "It's not that I'm ashamed of him or of the family. Though…," she trailed off as she glared at an unrepentant Avery, "there are one or two I'd like to disown. It's just that whatever we are is new."
Katie was silent for a long moment. She took a slurp from a plastic tumbler. Stared at Kelsey. Blinked and took another slurp. Kelsey felt her stomach turning to stone.
"You should take him," was Katie's pronouncement.
"Well, you said he might be going back home soon, and that you were considering giving the long-distance thing a shot. Do you really want to waste that much time and energy making long-distance work only to find that he doesn't mesh with the family?" Katie contemplated the contents of her tumbler. "I should have refilled my margarita before I called you."
"If we're following that logic, he and I need to have a few really serious conversations before he leaves," Kelsey said, wishing she'd thought to pour a glass of wine. She'd honestly thought that Katie would take her side.
Panic swelled as Kelsey considered the things they needed to discuss. They had to talk about finances. She didn't give a damn about whatever trust funds or high-dollar money market accounts he had. She was happy with her somewhat-more-than-modest salary. She wasn't drowning in debt, and she could afford to impulse shop every now and then. They needed to talk about religious and political viewpoints, though it seemed they were on the same wavelength. They could always talk about holiday celebrations and families.
Kelsey's lungs seized. The stone in her stomach leapt to her throat. Her fingers went numb and her eyes burned. "Children. He'll want children."
Katie frowned. "Has he said that he does?"
"Have you asked him about kids?"
"Then what the hell, Kels?"
Kelsey shifted restlessly. "His family is old. Like Mayflower old. They're big on their heritage and all that. People like him want kids. They have to have kids. Someone to continue the legacy."
"Oh yes," Avery cut in bitingly. "If he doesn't produce a legitimate heir, the dukedom will fall into the hands of a dissolute distant cousin with a gambling addiction."
Kelsey stared at Avery, mouth open and eyes wide. On the screen, Katie was doubled over with laughter. Avery merely arched an eyebrow.
"This is what happens when you binge read historical romances late at night," Avery said.
"It was a series! I had to finish it," Kelsey protested, ears still ringing and anxiety still clawing at her back.
Avery crossed her arms and raised her chin. "You always say that. How many series are there?"
"Oh, you'd be surprised," Katie said. "Was it the one with the twin brothers who were separated at birth and ended up marrying the twin sisters with the uncle who put the 'ew' in screwy?"
"No. It was the one with the friends who went to a finishing school that was actually a spy academy, and one of them was murdered at a reunion that was disguised as a house party. It's really -," Kelsey said. She could feel some of the panic start to fade.
"Hey! You can squee over Fabio or whatever later. Let's get back to solving Kelsey's attack of the crazies," Avery interrupted.
"I'll have to tell him," Kelsey said with a sigh. "Is there a good way to bring it up on the second date? Do you just say, 'Hey, by the way I can't have kids. Could you pass the bread basket?'"
"Explain it to him," Katie advised. "If he's as awesome as you say, then he'll understand. It was a choice between your health and the possibility of someday, maybe, having children. He'll get that. Besides, adoption is always an option if it's something you both want to do."
Kelsey nodded, grateful for her cousin's level head. Her periods had always been abnormal. After her twenty-seventh birthday, they'd grown dangerously heavy and lasted for weeks. Medication hadn't worked, and they'd started infringing on Kelsey's daily life. She couldn't stray far from a bathroom or wear anything but black pants during her cycle. Three months after her thirty-first birthday, she'd been hospitalized with anemia so severe it required a blood transfusion. When her gynecologist had suggested endometrial ablation, Kelsey had considered the long-term impact but agreed to have the procedure done.
It was the first time she'd regretted the decision.
But Katie was right, wasn't she? Micah was smart and not stuck in the 1800s. He'd understand the decision she'd made long before he entered her life. Adoption was something she'd pondered; she'd even thought about going solo once she finished school and settled further into her career.
"He is pretty awesome."
"Oh, look at that face," Katie laughed. "Are those actual stars I see in your eyes?"
"You should see her after he texts or emails her!" Avery said, bumping Kelsey's shoulder with her own. "I swear you could drop a nuclear bomb in the room and she wouldn't notice."
"Oh?" Kelsey gave her cousin a small shove. "And like you're much better when David calls? It's all bluebirds floating around your head and daffodils springing up in your wake. Your head stays in the clouds."
"It does not!"
"You walked into the wall last night!"
"Over what? Your tongue?"
"Shut up." Avery tried to pull Kelsey into a headlock, but the older woman ducked out of reach. "You are such a liar."
A sharp whistle brought both girls' attention to the laptop screen. "God, I miss you guys," Katie said, hand propped on her fist. Wistfulness shone in her dark blue eyes. "The aunts are great and all, but sometimes I need a little cousin time."
Kelsey missed her cousin, too, but she refused to feel sorry for the woman who lived in a condo on South Padre Island, ran her own business from said condo, and spent her lunch hour on a fishing boat or in the pool. "Come visit."
"Next month. I have to visit a customer in Houma. I'll spend a weekend or so with you degenerates on my way home," Kelsey promised. "Now, are you going to call your awesome honey bunny and invite him to Sunday Funday?"
"Good." Katie blew kisses at the screen. "Gotta cut this short. Aunt Sheila and I are meeting Aunt Emma and Aunt Lisa at the brew pub."
"Tell Mom and the aunts I said hello," Kelsey said, fighting down a spark of resentment. She adored Aunt Polly and Aunt Jill but envied Katie's closeness to Kelsey's mother. It was a ridiculous thing to be jealous of since she and Katie were practically sisters. Katie's mother had run off before the girls had started first grade, and all of the aunts treated Katie like a daughter.
"Will do. Call me tomorrow."
"Will do," Kelsey echoed.
Avery didn't move from the ottoman even after Kelsey closed her laptop lid. Kelsey rolled her chair away from the desk, eyed her textbook, and resolutely averted her eyes. She'd studied like a fiend the night before; she deserved a night of television.
"Well?" Avery prompted, bouncing like a hyperactive child.
"Not with you hovering over me." Kelsey snatched her cell phone off the corner of the desk. There was no point in putting it off. If she waited, she'd likely lose her nerve. It was just lunch, but it was lunch with her family. Her nosy, gossipy, no-such-thing-as-personal-boundaries family. The family she utterly cherished.
She slammed her bedroom door in Avery's face, and bit back a smile when her cousin started pounding on the door. Perched on the end of her bed, she stared at the phone for several minutes before huffing at herself disgustedly. Micah's number was first on her call log because he'd called her on her way home from work. The brief chat had done wonders for her stress level.
The hand that held the phone to her ear trembled slightly. She prayed her voice remained steady. If she was lucky, very lucky, the call would go to voice mail. Lunch invitations could be made through voice mail, couldn't they?
He picked up on the second ring.
Heart once again in her throat, Kelsey responded to his warm greeting. Before the silence could swell, she sucked in a bracing breath. "There's this lunch thing with my family. It's a weekly thing. It's just barbecue or sandwiches and then we play games. Everyone who lives up here is there."
"Sounds like fun," Micah said, voice tentative.
"Would you like to come?"
"I'd love it."
Kelsey flopped back on her bed, a giggle slipping from her lips. "I'd love it, too."