Bette sees more...

Bette and Mark started to get up out of bed. She sat on the side of the bed, leaned over, grabbed her panties off the floor and whipped her head up. "Oh! Head rush." She wobbled where she sat then fell back playfully. She looked at him standing there pulling on his underwear; from her perspective, he was upside-down. "I haven't seen such a handsome sight in so long, I don't know if I can pull myself together enough to get to brunch."

Mark leaned over, planting a hand on either side of her head. "If I don't eat something other than you, I'm going to starve," He said with a smile before kissing her. Bette beamed up at his upside-down face. "Take your time coming downstairs. I'll make coffee. We're not in any rush, right?"

Bette laughed. "I don't know how to answer that given the last few months and the last hour. What's rushing to us?" She sat up and put on her panties.

He put on his t-shirt and sweatshirt. "Fourteen. Eighteen. Thirty-five." He sighed. "It seems like it's always been waiting just to rush."

"I don't turn thirty-five until next month. I don't want to rush that." She got up and grabbed her leggings.

Mark opened a dresser drawer and pulled out a pair of workout pants instead of putting his jeans back on. "The 25th. I remember."

Bette sighed a laugh. "It was the first time either of us got to second base. It's pretty hard to forget." She sat on the bed holding the leggings and thinking of the memory. Her body was warm and there was a hum lingering in her groin; most likely from the sex, but the thought of her sexual awakening and with Mark then and now made her feel even better. She sighed, but didn't realize how loud she was.

"You remember it that well?" Mark asked.

Bette snapped out of her daze. He was standing right in front of her. "What? Oh. Yeah. I do. You always were a good kisser. Even when we didn't really know what we were doing. It was messy and fun. I met your expectations, didn't I?"

Mark ran his hands up her arms then one through her hair. "No pedestal. No wishes. Just you." He leaned over and kissed her softly. "I loved you then. I love you now. I would love to make you coffee. And when you're ready, I would love to try the food you brought." He kissed her again and walked out of the room.

Bette warmed even more from the inside out. This was Mark Hall: her first boyfriend, her great sacrifice, the love she let go twice. Not again. She fell back on the bed again. She grabbed his pillow and gave it a deep inhale. She could smell the combination of laundry soap and his shampoo on it and she was entranced by it. Don't ruin it. She sat up and put on her leggings. She got off the bed and grabbed her t-shirt and skirt and put them back on. She saw her slippers. Where did my socks end up? She didn't worry about it. She put the slippers on her bare feet and exited the room. When she got into the hallway, she heard the commotion downstairs, the house door opening and someone coming in.

"This isn't a good time," said Mark.

"We'll only be a minute. Ellie just needs to get her book," said the other woman's voice.

"Then I'll get it. Where did she put it?" He offered.

Bette heard fast footsteps come towards the stairs and she moved back into the bedroom and stood behind the wall next to the door, still listening. She could tell Mark and the other voice talk low, but she couldn't make out what they were saying. She couldn't hear them clearly over the quick moving footsteps of Mark's daughter Ellie. Bette's stomach churned behind the door. This is not how I want to meet her. This is not the moment. She bounded down the stairs. "I got it, Mom. Dad, can I have a cinnamon roll?"

"Yes, Tiger-meat. Put it in a container, grab a couple napkins, and one for your brother too."

Bette could hear Mark and the woman speak a few more unclear, hushed words before the door closed and they left. She waited until she heard the car pull out of the gravel driveway before going downstairs. When she got to the base of the stairs, her cardigan that she had shed while they kissed and danced was not on the floor where she dropped it. She smelled the brewed coffee and went to the kitchen. Mark sat on one of the stools with his head in his hand and his other hand wrapped around the coffee cup. He looks as good as can be expected considering whatever that was. "Is everything okay?" Bette asked.

He dropped his hand and looked at her. He tried to give her a smile. That's a forced smile if I ever saw one. "It's fine. Ellie needed one of her books for school. Independent reading assignment. Apparently, Shannon texted me to leave the book outside so Ellie could grab it. I didn't see it. She saw your car. And, well-how do you explain something to someone you owe no explanation to, but when it comes to the safety bubble of your children, nothing is off limits?" Mark looked embarrassed and annoyed. His tone didn't hide it.

"Oh." Bette rubbed her chilling bare arms. Her feet were sweating inside her slippers without her socks. She found it hard to look at him, he was looking at his coffee. "Maybe I should go-"

Mark shot off the stool. "No!"

Bette took half a step back to his reaction. "You made it sound like I shouldn't be here."

"Shannon's the one who has no reason to be here! This isn't her house. My personal life isn't her business. What I'm upset about is that she thinks I would endanger my children by bringing someone into my home that would be unsafe. I would never do that!"

Bette gulped hard and still couldn't look at him. "And yet you still haven't let me meet them, even over the phone," she said softly. The thought had been on her mind for weeks.

"I didn't know where this was going. I still don't. Look at all the hoops we jumped through today just to get together, now imagine adding how Ellie and JJ might feel."

Bette's mind raced. She glanced around the kitchen. Don't ruin it. Don't be selfish. You'll never come first. You'll never win. "I can't say I understand completely, but I remember being a kid and having friend's parents divorce. I have friends with children who have separated and moved on. I see stuff. I've learned."

"Like what?"

Bette grabbed a clean coffee cup off the rack and filled it with water from the sink and drank it. "When your parents divorced, I remember you being pretty resilient when we were kids. And pretty observant."

"It's still a messed-up thing to go through at that age."

"Mark, I don't want to intrude on your life-"

"You're not intruding, Bette. But you didn't introduce yourself either."

She lost all composure, becoming sarcastic and annoyed too. "Yeah, that would have gone well. 'Hi, I just fucked your ex-husband in your family bubble. But it's okay, I'm COVID negative, I can show you my test results. Oh! Is this Ellie? Your Dad goes on and on about you but specifically tells you nothing about me." She took a breath. "Yeah. That would have gone great." She said coarsely.

"It wouldn't have gone like that and you know it." He said.

"We don't know that now, do we? Because I happened." She said curtly. Words Mark once said to her in anger, she never forgot how much they hurt.

Mark got a withdrawn, shocked look on his face. "Oh God." He whispered to himself, "It's all happening again." He stepped up to her, and took her hands, "Bette, you did nothing wrong. We've done nothing wrong."

"You could have fooled me."

"It's like you said upstairs. What's rushing to us?"

"It's been three months since we started talking again and we said 'I love you' in the middle of sex. Neither of us have been with anyone in years, and we're living through a pandemic. I don't know what a new relationship is anymore."

He let go of her hands and hugged her, she wrapped her arms around him too. God, he smells good.

"It's been 24 years since I first laid eyes on you. My children are 10 and 8. I've been divorced six years. And I fell back in love with you the moment you sent me the pictures of you in your headset working." He opened their embrace and looked at her with a tear in his eye. "I don't want to hurt you. I don't want to upset Ellie and JJ. And I have no idea what it would take to bring my worlds together, especially when the world has COVID."

He's not ashamed; he's anxious. I know that feeling. She took a breath. "Four months ago, I thought I'd never speak to you again. It's been a long time, and on so many levels." She let out a little laugh in awkwardness. "I think what happened upstairs proves that." She let go of him and went to the fridge and took out the egg bake she brought. "I know Ellie and JJ come first for you, and always will. You didn't need to tell me that, I already knew. It was clear from the beginning." She took the lid off the egg bake. "But from the beginning, our beginning, we said we weren't going to lie to each other. I've never been with a man who had children. That's scary for me too."

"The scariest thing about them is that they might ask you blunt questions."

"You know it's more than that," she said sympathetically.

He mushed his mouth and nodded.

"But it doesn't have to be." She heard his stomach growl again. She laughed a little. "Where are your plates?"

Mark smiled, retrieved plates, a spatula, forks, and a fresh cup of coffee for both of them. They sat at the kitchen island and ate the reheated egg bake and split another cinnamon roll with big smiles. They talked more about Ellie and JJ and his arrangements with Shannon. He's bringing me in. She told him more about how hard it had been losing her father and her femininity with her double mastectomy and hysterectomy. How she expected to be alone for a long, long time. They talked until they finished the carafe of coffee.

Bette rubbed her bare arms. "Where did you put my sweater?"

"Oh, shoot." Mark got up and went in the other room. "I tucked it onto a chair." He handed it to her and she put it back on.

"I get it." she smiled. She rubbed her arms over her sleeves and looked out the kitchen window. The sun shown and the wind blew. She saw the flapping laundry. "You wanna see if the laundry's ready to come down?"

"Yeah."

Bette kicked off her slippers and started to put on her boots.

"Where are your socks?" Mark asked.

"You tell me!" She said with a laugh. "I couldn't find them when I was getting dressed." She grabbed the bag of clothespins and he held the standing folding basket for the clothes.

He got right up behind her as she reached for the doorknob, wrapping his arm around her and whispered in her ear. "Another reason to go back upstairs." He gave the side of her head a kiss and let go of her.

She beamed while opening the door. She didn't look back at him. The warm autumn breeze gust against them and her hair whipped into her face. "Is it me, or is it warmer outside than it was inside?"

Mark took a deep breath, looked at the thermometer mounted on the wall of the house, and up into the sunny sky. "I think you're right. Feels like...late August, almost." He set up the basket and they started unpinning linens.

They folded pillow cases and towels. They got to the big queen sheets and folded them together, stepping close together and apart like a dance. When they folded the last big sheet, he wrapped his hands around hers and looked her in the eye. I know that look: pictures, when we were young. I missed it then, I won't miss it now. "I love you, Mark. After everything. I want you to know, I see what this is going to mean, and it's not going to be easy, but it's going to be worth it."

Mark's knowing smile pierced Bette. He took the folded sheet and plopped it on the clean pile of linens. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and looked down at it with a smile. He unlocked it and held it up in front of him, Bette could not see the screen, but she could hear the familiar trilling of ringing of a video call request then a voice answer. "Hey M, I'm sorry about earlier. I shouldn't-"

"It's okay, Shan. Don't worry about it. You and the kids got a couple minutes? There's someone I want you to meet."