∞ Chapter One ∞
Moonlight glistened on the tranquil sea as the taxi cab steadily cruised down A1A in Boca Raton. The weary traveler sprawled out on the back seat smiled as he took in the familiar, comforting sight; it felt as if he’d been gone forever, banished indefinitely to the frigid climes of the Great White North, without the benefit of having his most beloved companion by his side. This had been their longest stint apart since their marriage, and he’d hated every minute of it, in spite of the promise of an incredibly lucrative business deal.
“Turn right here driver,” Ken instructed, excitement welling within at the thought of his impending reunion with Madeline. Her passionate protests notwithstanding, he had insisted on taking a cab home from the airport, rather than drag her away from her lounge-singing duties at 34 East. While not entirely thrilled by the arrangement, he respected her desire to contribute to their financial well-being by employing her vocal talents to help draw Happy Hour revelers and late-night Friday traffic to the upscale establishment. Once a thriving business, 34 East had become yet another enterprise struggling to succeed in the midst of the current recession.
Maddy herself had been laid-off from her position as a content manager for a formerly prosperous internet marketing firm that catered to the cruise and travel industry. As creative as she was beautiful, she’d quickly set herself up in business as a freelance writer, editor, ghostwriter and social media consultant, expertly networking her skills at various local chamber of commerce and civic functions. In just a few short months, her efforts had led to an impressive, multi-faceted client list that included a romance novelist, a political action committee and a women’s health and wellness expert.
And while her income was steadily increasing thanks to these and various other projects, including her new internet talk radio program, Madeline jumped at the chance to sing professionally again when approached by the lounge-owner at a Delray Beach event. Although her marriage to Ken was blissful, as expected his ex-wife Erin was proving herself a relentless trouble-maker. From the moment the newlyweds returned from their joyful honeymoon in Italy—only to encounter two very hostile children who’d previously been accepting of their union—they’d realized the full extent to which their relationship would be tested. Singing was one way for Maddy to maintain her sanity by channeling her emotions into something productive.
Not content to simply hurt her own children in order to punish her ex, Erin had recently taken to playing the role of victim with the wealthy Boca matrons who comprised her favorite monthly business-leads organization, many of whom urged her to redress her grievances to a Palm Beach County judge. Taking them up on their ill-founded advice, she’d hauled Ken back into court on a few occasions to demand more child support.
As a result, Maddy became more determined than ever to pull her own weight and ease her new husband’s burden, eagerly accepting the offer to sing once a week at the club, with the option to add more appearances should she desire to do so. But her solo decision had led to their first disagreement as husband and wife. Though Kenny genuinely appreciated her enthusiastic willingness to add to their financial well-being, he’d hated the idea of work intruding on their weekends. It was bad enough he had to travel so much during the week—robbing them of even the simplest of pleasures like nightly dinner together—but having to share Madeline with an audience, and thus lose even more precious time with her was downright depressing.
“Teddy Bear come on, it’s not forever,” she’d pleaded with him one evening. “Look, times are already tough and with Erin making them even tougher, we have to do something. And I want to help you—I want to help us. I am your wife after all, and I am here to support you. The place still draws some wealthy tourists; between my performance fee and tips, I can make some decent money.”
They’d been curled up together on a lounge chair on the balcony off of their bedroom, gazing at the Intracoastal Waterway. As Maddy had made her case, she’d shifted her body on top of his, the better to look deeply into his piercing blue eyes. She knew she’d wear him down eventually with a blend of gentle persuasion and irresistible chemistry.
“Ok, you win again Madeline Rose,” he’d sighed, addressing her by her maiden name as a tribute to their courtship days. “But only on Friday nights. I want you all to myself on Saturday and Sunday.” His hands roamed through her silky, auburn hair as he spoke. Then gently bringing her face closer to his, he whispered, “Promise?”
“I promise sweetheart, only on Friday nights,” she’d replied softly before his lips met hers for another passionate interlude.
“Thank you!” Ken smiled as he offered his driver the required cab fare, plus a healthy tip. The man had been so courteous and efficient he wanted to tangibly express his gratitude for the good service. In these difficult times, it was even more important than usual. Of course, given the facts it was also 3 a.m., jet-lag had left him exhausted and all he wanted was to curl up under the covers again with Maddy, he was feeling even more generous now that he was finally standing in his own driveway.
Kenny rolled his suitcase behind him as he approached the massive double-doors just beyond the Roman columns of the front entrance. It was hard to believe that nearly a year had passed since he’d made this proud purchase, an impressive home that represented the culmination of a long-ago dream. Sharing the residence with Madeline as his wife made it even sweeter; he only wished his children could join them full-time, and not just when custody arrangements allowed. Every time Bonnie and Brian returned from another stay with their mother, it seemed Maddy was forced to re-establish their relationship, Erin having successfully eliminated all shreds of progress made during the previous visit.
He loved her all the more for patiently enduring his ex-wife’s machinations, but he was quickly tiring of Erin’s endless meddling. She had her millionaire Sugar Daddy, all the designer shoes, handbags and jewelry one woman could possibly use in a lifetime, and carte blanche to undergo any cosmetic procedure she desired. Why did she have to constantly undermine Madeline’s genuine efforts to be a good stepmother and role-model? Worse, why couldn’t she see the potentially irreversible damage she was inflicting upon her own children?
As Ken locked the door behind him and programmed the alarm, he reminded himself that at least for now, his kids were safe and happy. He’d spoken to them at length before boarding the Red Eye flight from Seattle, where they’d excitedly apprised him of all of the latest happenings in their lives, from baseball practice and ballet classes, to summer camp plans. He did cringe for a moment when they recounted all of the recent purchases their mother’s boyfriend had made for them, including diamond-stud earrings and Batters Box MVP tickets to the upcoming Marlins versus Phillies series.
While Kenny fervently desired a good life for his children, free from the obstacles that he himself had to confront, he also wanted them to appreciate the value of striving for a goal, and to experience the kind of character-building that naturally results from learning how to win and lose graciously. Now that his job demanded so much more travel, he feared somehow losing his ability to positively guide them at such a critical juncture in their lives, yet at the same time, he knew he must also provide for their material needs. And in a struggling economy, there was no way he could replace his current income with a comparable position that didn’t require flying to Vancouver three out of every four weeks per month. At least until this telecomm deal was signed, sealed and delivered, he was stuck.
Striding quietly into the kitchen, Ken pushed a glass against the refrigerator, filling it with cold, filtered water and crushed ice. Bringing it to his mouth, he took a good, long sip, thankful for the pure refreshment. Long plane rides always left him feeling dehydrated, but this flight had been particularly difficult, mostly because he dreaded sharing his latest business developments with Maddy. He silently prayed she’d be receptive to what he had to tell her.
Setting the glass in the sink, he returned to the foyer and grabbing a hold of the suitcase handle, lifted it over his shoulder as he made his way up the curving staircase. A moment later, he gingerly opened one of the white doors of the Master bedroom, his heartbeat quickening in response to the angelic sight before him.
Madeline was fast asleep; her auburn hair sprawled out across the cream-colored pillowcase and her petite hands tucked under her chin in typical fashion. She’d obviously been blogging again, if the telltale laptop occupying Ken’s usual place in the bed was any indication. Fanned out on the floor was Mark Levin’s latest book Liberty and Tyranny, and local a.m. talk radio star Talon Grant’s debut novel, The Neo-Traditionalist’s Tale, the contents of both she’d eagerly shared with him during their last phone conversation.
Kenny smiled as it occurred to him that this newfound life still felt like a dream, though they’d been married for six months already. And while it was true that Erin took perverse pleasure in every attempt to undermine their happiness, they were boldly facing each challenge as a united and very-much-in-love couple. The only things that slightly concerned him were Madeline’s recent complaints of fatigue, which she’d attributed to her busy project schedule and weekly performances at 34 East.
However, in her usual stubborn way, she’d vehemently rebuffed his suggestions to give something up as a means of remedying the situation. Ken of course knew better than to fight with her, notwithstanding his genuine regard for her health, but made a mental note to keep a close eye on the situation. Perhaps his latest professional development would turn out to be God’s method of forcing Maddy to take a break—at least he hoped she’d welcome it in that light.
He parked his luggage into a remote corner and sat down on the bed beside her, gazing at her quietly for a moment while she remained oblivious to his presence. When unable to resist any longer, he softly caressed her face as he leaned in and planted a sweet kiss on her cheek. Slowly, she began to stir.
“Mm, baby you’re home,” she whispered sleepily, a big grin spreading across her face. In the early morning light, her luminescent skin offered a striking contrast to her warm, brown eyes. She was a vision of silk and lace, arrayed in one of his very favorite pale-pink negligees; for a few minutes all he could do was stare at her appreciatively.
Then as if suddenly coming to her senses, she shot up in bed and threw her arms around him, intoxicated by the warmth of his body and the familiar scent of his cologne. “Oh Kenny, I am so glad you’re back; I missed you so much!”
“I missed you sweetheart,” he replied. “You didn’t think I’d stay away for long, did you? I couldn’t wait to get home and back into your arms again!” His voice was muffled between affectionate kisses along her neck, ear and temple while his hands roamed up and down her back, and through her satiny hair. Maddy lost herself in the moment, relishing the exquisite joy of another reunion.
“You feel so good,” she cooed, “God, it’s like you’ve been away for a month instead of two weeks. How’d it go?”
“It was interesting, to put it mildly,” he admitted. “And there is something very important I have to discuss with you Madeline.” His tone was suddenly serious, prompting her to break away to face him directly, her hands settled firmly on his chest.
“What is it? Is everything ok? You didn’t lose your job, did you?”
Ever since her own lay-off she’d feared the worst, in spite of all of her prosperity training. Though she’d been diligently self-employed as a freelancer ever since, she worried about Kenny’s ability to make the same transition in his line of work. True, Maddy’s blog and accompanying weekly internet radio show were also steadily gaining in popularity, but it would most likely take time before she could parlay these efforts into actual income. For now, they were strictly a labor of love, given the dire straits the country found itself in; adding Kenny’s valuable insights as her co-host in the not-too-distant future would be a fantastic turn of events, once the monetary rewards began to materialize.
Although things were admittedly a bit tougher now financially than when they first got married, they were managing; thanks to a demanding, self-centered Erin, Maddy was ever-increasingly determined to contribute as much as possible to the marriage. But the thought of Kenny losing his executive sales position was more than she could bear. He was such a diligent worker and talented producer there was no way the company could get along without him—unless of course they too were going under, like so many of the retail corporations that once enjoyed thriving businesses in the local malls and shopping centers.
“Shh, no baby it’s nothing like that don’t worry,” he soothed, gazing into her expressive, hypnotic eyes.
“Thank God,” she sighed, holding his face in her hands and tracing the contours of his cheeks. “What is it then?”
Kenny started to answer, but as he feasted upon her ultra-feminine form and reacquainted himself with her alluring presence—a phenomenon that still elicited an intense, palpable longing from deep within—work was the farthest thing from his mind. Noting that one of her negligee’s spaghetti straps had slipped partially down her shoulder, he slid it off completely, before tantalizingly trailing his fingers, lips and tongue over her exposed breast, initiating a flood of familiar sensation throughout her body.
“First things first sweetheart,” he finally whispered huskily in her ear, their passion escalating. Maddy let out a joyful laugh as he assertively guided her body back down into the plush pillows.
In the stillness of the early morning, Ken gathered Madeline close to him as she rested her head on his chest. No matter how many times they were together like this, it always made her feel so alive and invigorated, as if nothing and no one could ever come between them again, not even his ex-wife, in spite of her best efforts. Maddy knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Kenny loved her dearly, and that he harbored no regrets after his first marriage ended—a strange, long-suffering union that had been practically over from the time it began.
Still, she couldn’t help but worry that the inevitably and understandably rough transition period they were all undertaking—particularly with respect to her topsy-turvy relationship with Bonnie and Brian—could somehow deal a fatal blow to their fledgling, blended family. Most frustrating for Maddy was the constant necessity of having to start over with every new stay: just when she’d think she was making significant progress, the kids would return from Erin’s custody re-poisoned against her. Not too long ago, Bonnie had even accused her new stepmother of being the cause of her parents’ failed marriage.
Madeline had been standing at the counter preparing a nice tossed salad to accompany their dinner of steak and baked potatoes while Ken was busily working the grill alongside a chatty Brian. Alone with a preoccupied Bonnie, who’d just finished grudgingly setting the table at her request, Maddy sensed yet another forthcoming altercation, precipitated by the child’s refusal to utter anything but one-word answers in response to her genuine questions about school, friends and ballet classes. Having sufficiently taken enough abuse, a frustrated but patient Madeline placed the salad bowl in the refrigerator, then ushered Bonnie into the rec room, where she sat her down on the sofa.
“Bonnie, honey, it’s obvious to me that something is really bothering you. Why don’t you tell me what it is so we can talk about it?” she’d gently but firmly implored. A shiver ran up and down Maddy’s spine as she noted Erin’s icy glare in Bonnie’s expression; the girl continued to focus her steely gaze at Madeline, reflecting an undeniable and deep-seeded hostility.
“You’re the reason my parents broke up aren’t you?” she’d defiantly demanded. Maddy’s heart sank; how could she possibly explain the tumultuous events of the previous sixteen years to a child? In many ways, she herself was still mystified by it.
Madeline took a deep breath as she fought to control her conflicted emotions. Before uttering another word, she’d calmly reminded herself that her justifiable anger was best directed at the real culprit—Erin, not the confused, tormented little girl who was being so expertly manipulated by her own mother. Actually, when it came to Kenny’s daughter, sadness and a lingering degree of guilt superceded all else.
“Honey, why do you feel that way?” she’d gently inquired. Bonnie had remained stubbornly silent, her arms folded securely across her chest. For a few moments, no one spoke until the young girl finally blurted out, “Well aren’t you? My daddy left my mom to marry you! What else am I supposed to think?”
“Bonnie—no, that’s not how it happened,” Madeline replied softly, placing a hand on her shoulder. She winced when the girl immediately shrugged it off, but maintained her composure.
Determinedly looking into her eyes, Maddy continued.
“Sweetheart as your dad explained to you, your mom and him just weren’t getting along anymore. And that’s no one’s fault; sometimes grown-ups aren’t able to stay together no matter how hard they try to work things out. It was really hard for both of them to finally make the decision to get divorced, but it was their choice. No one else is to blame—not you, not Brian and not me. That doesn’t mean they don’t love you or your brother just as much as they did before; in fact, you and Brian mean the entire world to them. That will never change.”
The child had remained unconvinced, but before Maddy could say anything further, she’d heard the screen door open and in the next second, the ebullient sounds of Brian’s six year-old voice enthusiastically announcing the arrival of dinner. And when Ken entered into the kitchen a moment later carrying a tray of perfectly seasoned, well-done meat, Bonnie considered herself saved by the bell, immediately springing up off of the couch and running to the dinner table—but not before shooting a victorious smirk in her stepmother’s direction.
Temporarily defeated, a dejected Maddy had decided to keep the incident to herself, though it was difficult to maintain a happy façade throughout the course of their meal that night. The only saving grace had been Brian’s apparent eagerness to engage her in conversation, which Madeline surmised had been the result of Ken’s efforts during their father-son bonding time outside.
Later that evening, she had been surprised when Kenny returned from upstairs and announced he’d just had a heart-to-heart talk with his daughter before tucking her into bed. She’d been lost in thought in their heated swimming pool, holding onto the ladder and gazing out at the starry sky, unaware that he’d joined her. He swam over to the deep end and encircled her with his big, powerful arms, abruptly interrupting her musings and nearly causing her to scream out loud.
“Don’t worry sweetheart,” he’d comforted in his deep baritone, “Bonnie will come around—because I will not tolerate this kind of disrespect from her or her mother anymore.”
“You know,” Maddy observed sadly, “the thing that upsets me the most is how a mother could be so cruel to her own child. Yes, it hurts me deeply that Bonnie seems to hate me no matter what I do, but I am an adult. I can handle it. What I don’t understand is Erin’s callousness towards her own child; she’s the one who’s really suffering here.”
“Madeline that is one of the things I love most about you; your sensitivity towards others and your ability to see things from their perspective,” he’d whispered sincerely.
She turned around in his embrace to gaze into his eyes, which reflected his genuine appreciation.
“I love you Maddy; and we will get through this, I promise. Remember that morning at the Boca Resort when I promised I would always stand by you?” She nodded her head, remembering that milestone weekend when he’d asked for her hand in marriage.
“Well I meant it. We can conquer any problem that comes our way as long as we stay together.”
“Kenny when you talk like that, I really believe everything’s going to work out,” she’d softly replied.
“Hey, the very fact that we’re married right now is a miracle in itself. We will get through this; just keep the faith.”
Back in the exquisite sanctuary of their marital bed, Maddy snuggled in closer to her husband, comforted by his warmth and masculinity. Although she still retained an air of independence, managing quite well for herself during his absences, it was always such a welcome relief to feel him next to her again upon his return.
But just as she was about to drift off into a restful sleep, securely in his arms, she suddenly recalled his attempt to break some important news to her before relentless passion had prevented him from doing so.
Her curiosity piqued once more, she asked, “So what was it you wanted to tell me before we got so distracted?” her laughter punctuated her words, as her hand slowly traced his chest. Beneath her ear, his heart was beating rapidly. He caught her hand and brought it to his lip for a quick kiss while his other arm held her close against his body.
“There’s no easy way to break this to you, so I’m just gonna have to say it.”
“Ok, now I am really worried,” she replied, shifting in bed to face him. He stroked her hair as he studied her expression for a moment. “Kenny, please just tell me; this is torture!”
“Alright, I’m sorry; don’t mean to keep you in suspense. You know that I’ve been working really hard to secure this telecomm merger with the Vancouver company right?”
“Well, the Board of Directors has asked me to spend about six months up there—actually, asked isn’t really the right word. The board won’t even consider approving the deal until I spend about six months up there overseeing their operations, spending time with management, making recommendations…” His voice trailed off while he attempted to gauge her reaction. She stared at him in shocked disbelief for a moment, just trying to absorb all of the implications.
“S-six months?” she finally blurted out. “You have to be away from home for that long? What about the kids? What about us?”
He let out a nervous laugh before responding.
“No sweetheart, you and the kids would come with me. They’re going to put us all up in a beautiful downtown Penthouse, with a gorgeous view of the ocean. It’s right in the middle of everything so you, Bonnie and Brian can go sightseeing, shopping, take a cruise out of the harbor…it’ll be fun.” He was offering his very best sales pitch but Madeline remained skeptical.
“Kenny, you know I support you one hundred percent and I want you to close this deal, but my God—six months? There’s no way Erin will go for that! Look at how much trouble we have now with local custody arrangements. And Vancouver is so far away! My parents and Louis are supposed to visit us this summer, and remember we were planning to spend some time at the Jersey Shore with everyone? I haven’t seen my siblings, or my nieces and nephews since the wedding, and—”
Maddy suddenly stopped herself, taking a moment to reconsider. Kenny just stared at her silently, simultaneously understanding her point of view, yet soberly aware of the reality of the situation. Under normal circumstances, he might have the latitude to refuse such a proposition, but God knew they were living in extraordinary times. Regardless, he was the man of the house and as such, he was going to do whatever was necessary to provide for his family.
“I’m sorry,” she confessed softly. “I know how difficult this is for you and I will not add to your stress. You are finally my husband, which means I am standing by your side no matter what.” Her face brightened with each new positive thought.
“Hey, at least summer is coming up, right? It’ll give us a chance to ease into a cooler climate. I never did get a chance to travel up there when I worked for the bank. I remember how many of the managers would hop a flight from Portland after our conferences were over. They raved about how beautiful Vancouver was, just like you always do. So now I’ll get to see it for myself.” She smiled at him reassuringly.
“I love you so much, Madeline Rose,” Kenny whispered, obviously choked up. “Thank you for understanding.” With that he pulled her close to him and smothered her with kisses as the early morning sun streaked through the vertical blinds.
“So are you guys all packed?” Paula Lockheart asked as she arranged the final place-setting on the outdoor dining table. It was another beautiful South Florida evening, and the family had gathered for a farewell barbeque at Ken and Maddy’s home.
“Pretty much Mom,” Madeline replied, placing some condiments on a nearby buffet table. She looked up and smiled at her husband’s mother with a sense of wonder—this amazingly supportive woman had been a complete stranger to her not so very long ago. Now, here they were, bonded in real affection for both Kenny and each other, the respectful title “mom” effortlessly falling from Maddy’s lips in casual conversation.
Ken and his father were busily preparing burgers, hot dogs and chicken on the grill as Ken apprised him of the latest phase of his impending business deal. Patrick and Danielle had just phoned to announce they were running a few minutes late, but would be there soon. Maddy’s parents had been unable to fly down for the farewell dinner, but had made arrangements to spend Thanksgiving week in Boca Raton, when Ken and Madeline would be back from Vancouver for good.
“Maddy, thank you for being so supportive of my son. I know this is difficult for you,” Paula offered sincerely. “And I know it hasn’t been easy with the kids, either. My former daughter-in-law has proven herself to be quite vindictive. I must confess I never did like that girl, although I made it my practice never to meddle in my sons’ lives. I want you to know I am doing my best to get through to my grandchildren. What their mother is doing to them and to you is so infuriating!”
“Thanks, Mom,” Maddy smiled, “You have no idea how much your support means to me. And I think we’re slowly making progress.
“Actually I am shocked that Erin even agreed to let them spend two months with us in Vancouver. As soon as school is over, she and Bennett are going to fly out with them. After that, Kenny and I will have to go back and forth a few times until we’re finally home for good. Ugh! You know how much I hate flying—not looking forward to almost ten hours each way in a plane, but at least Ken will be with me.”
“I think it’ll be good for you to get away honey,” Paula continued. “You’ve been working so hard yourself, and I can see it has taken its toll on you. You’ve been looking a little pale lately. Are you feeling alright?”
Striding back into the kitchen with her mother-in-law close behind, Maddy opened the refrigerator door and pulled out a tray of sliced tomatoes, pickles and red onions.
“Me? Yeah, I’m fine; just a little tired from juggling so many different projects. You know how tough it’s been since my lay-off, trying to at least match the income I made with my old company with my freelance work. It’s going well, but it takes constant effort to keep the pipeline full and keep up with the clients I already have.
“And I’ll admit, given everything that’s going on in our country, I am also feeling a bit worn out from the fight—just when you think it couldn’t possibly get any worse, every single day this administration inflicts some other freedom-killing legislation upon us, all designed to wear us down—but I will never give in. There are just too many other good people all across the country fighting the good fight, and I know we shall prevail. I am also determined to create a career for myself in the new media; hoping my blog and internet radio show will attract the interest of Talon Grant, so I can actually make decent money at it. And who knows? Maybe Kenny can eventually be my co-host? That would be so fantastic!”
Setting the tray down on the counter, she glanced outside at her husband and his dad, obviously engrossed in jovial conversation no doubt centering on golf scores and Major League Baseball standings. A contented smile formed on Madeline’s face as she turned back to her mother-in-law.
“I never get tired of seeing them that way,” she sighed, remembering the father-son duo’s tumultuous history and ultimate reconciliation.
“Nor do I,” Paula agreed happily. “And you, my dear, are a big part of the reason why they do have such a good relationship now,” she added with sincere appreciation.
Although she cherished Paula’s words, Maddy felt her cheeks blush at the elder Mrs. Lockheart’s suggestion that she’d played such a pivotal role in this much-desired outcome.
“Oh, I think you’re giving me way too much credit,” she softly responded. “They would’ve worked things out eventually, with or without me.”
“No, I don’t see it that way,” Paula countered firmly, placing a hand on Maddy’s shoulder. “I remember Kenny telling me way back when how inspired he was by your family’s closeness, and how much he wanted that in his own relationship with his dad. Being around all of you, even for that short time really made an impact on him. And it’s obvious what a wonderful job your folks did with you. You are an incredible young woman. Don’t ever forget it.”
Maddy spontaneously reacted by embracing her mother-in-law with genuine affection.
“You’re the best, do you know that?” she whispered. “Thank you.”
“I mean every word, Madeline. I am so thrilled my son finally has a truly supportive spouse who really cares about his best interests, and the well-being of his children.”
She paused to look Maddy directly in the eye.
“And that is precisely why I don’t want you wearing yourself out by taking on too much. I worry about you too, you know.” Paula’s blue eyes reflected warmth and concern.
“I know,” Madeline replied softly. “And I really appreciate that. It’s true, between juggling my client projects, singing at 32 East and hosting internet radio shows, it does start to feel like overload sometimes, not to mention all the rallies I’ve been attending.
“At least I got to meet Talon Grant briefly at the last tea party protest I went to; he was so gracious when I told him how much I loved his book. You can borrow it if you’d like; one thing about Kenny traveling so much is it gives me time to read.”
“I’d like that,” Paula confirmed, just as the doorbell rang.
“Must be Erin dropping off the kids,” Maddy surmised, before heading in the direction of the foyer. She opened the door to find Ken’s heavily made-up ex dressed to the nines in a clingy, purple low-cut blouse showing off her artificial cleavage and a white, spandex mini-skirt. Her blonde hair was caught up in a French twist, with fringy bangs framing her angular face. She held an arm around each of her children, who seemed disappointed that it was their stepmother who’d answered the door.
“Hi guys!” she’d greeted them brightly. “We’ve all been waiting for you!” Ignoring her welcome, Bonnie and Brian rushed past her to hug their grandmother, who’d partially made her way towards the entrance. Once the kids had moved on to the Lanier, Paula continued to observe the scene at the front door.
“Thank you for bringing them over Erin,” Maddy stated politely. “I know this wasn’t technically our weekend, but we wanted to say goodbye in person since we won’t see them for three more weeks.”
“Just have them at school by eight tomorrow morning,” she retorted sarcastically before turning on her heel and striding back to her waiting silver Mercedes, which was idling in the driveway. As Madeline closed the door, she was surprised to find Paula standing beside her. “She is a piece of work isn’t she?” Kenny’s mother noted.
“In more ways than one!” Maddy giggled, suddenly finding the humor in the whole dilemma. “I wonder how much her latest procedure cost her rich boyfriend; sure hope it’s worth it, having to put up with her sour personality!”
Paula laughed and placing an arm around her daughter-in-law, walked arm-in-arm with her back into the kitchen, both of them oblivious to the stares of a spiteful Erin, who’d jealously witnessed their affectionate exchange from just beyond the bay window as the car pulled out to the curb.
The soft melodies of Maddy’s favorite love songs emanated through the speakers as she made her way down the staircase clad in her favorite navy blue bikini, a plush pool towel strewn over one shoulder. The kids were fast asleep, exhausted from an active evening of swimming and boating with the family; she’d just peered into each of their bedrooms to ensure all was well. Gazing at their peaceful forms bathed in the moonlight, she’d noted how angelic they appeared; if only they could find the same sort of harmony in conscious life.
One way or another, she was determined to create a healthy relationship with them, in spite of their mother. Right now, she was looking forward to some alone time with her husband.
Kenny had taken them all out on the speedboat after dinner for a fun cruise down the Intracoastal, while Maddy had insisted on staying behind. It wasn’t like her to turn down such an opportunity, but fatigue had overcome her and she’d secretly used the time to take a nap, reluctant to raise any of their concerns. Ken had enough to deal with already, and she certainly didn’t want her in-laws worrying about her either. But when he pulled her aside after their guests had departed, suggesting a private interlude in the pool, she’d happily accepted.
Striding through the darkened kitchen, she smiled as she looked out onto the screen porch, which had been transformed into a romantic getaway by a multitude of glowing candles and several arrangements of her favorite red and pink roses. Ken stood there smiling at her, dressed in red swim trunks, holding two glasses of bubbling Asti in his hands.
“Happy six-month anniversary sweetheart,” he greeted her, his trademark smile lighting up his face. Overcome with emotion, she accepted the champagne flute with one hand, and rested the other against his bare chest.
Gazing up at him, she noted, “You are the most wonderful husband any woman could ever ask for Kenny. I love you so much!”
“And I love you, Madeline Lockheart. I know how difficult the past several months have been, not to mention the prospect of our upcoming stay in Canada. It’s not what either of us expected and I know it won’t be easy for you being so far away from everyone. I just want you to know how much I appreciate your understanding and support. I finally know what a real marriage feels like. For that, I thank you baby.”
Temporarily unable to speak, Maddy just wrapped her free arm tightly around him and snuggled into his body. He leaned down and kissed the top of her head, slowly caressing her back and setting his champagne glass back down on the bar beside them. After doing the same with hers, he lifted her up into his strong arms and briskly strode down the steps of the shallow end, splashing his way into the pool until they were both submerged in the warm water.
“Kenny!” she laughed, “You’re gonna wake up the kids with all this noise!”
Unfazed, he simply drew her into a powerful, hungry kiss as he leaned against the wall, raising her up until her legs were wrapped securely around his waist. She ran her fingers through his thick blond hair, while she savored the sensual comfort of his embrace and the feel of his hands kneading their way up and down her back. In the next moment, she felt the strings around her neck loosening as he expertly undid the bow that helped hold her bikini top in place before releasing the clasp behind her back. Slowly, he peeled the wet material off of her and she shivered for a moment as her firm breasts were exposed to the cooler air.
But a second later, his warm lips and tongue captured one of her sensitive nipples while his tantalizing fingers expertly teased the other. Engulfed by the warmth of the explosive sensations overtaking her, Maddy sighed as he reached up and worked his magic, still holding her in place slightly above him with one arm.
Just when she thought she couldn’t stand it anymore, Kenny pulled her back down his body, until they were both standing in the shallow water. She slipped her hands beneath the waistband of his swim trunks, teasing him with her touch until he guided her to the part of him that ached for her exquisite caresses. Maddy smiled as he moaned in pleasure and simultaneously reached out for each of her thighs. Nearly dizzy with desire, he managed to slide his thumbs beneath the elastic of her bikini bottom, skimming over the most delicate, sensitive parts of her until—emboldened by her reaction, he gently probed his way deeper.
She cried out in pleasure, having temporarily forgotten her insecurities about making such noise when the children were around. He whispered over and over again in her ear how much he loved and wanted her, all the while increasing the intensity of his activity. Losing patience with constrictions of her bathing suit, he stopped only long enough to scoop her into his arms and situate her on one of the steps, where at last he pulled away the final barrier to full enjoyment. Maddy reveled in the indescribable sensation of the balmy water bathing her, leaning back against her elbows while Kenny knelt before her. Slowly raising one of her legs to his shoulder, he kissed his way back up her thigh, gauging her reaction by the urgency and frequency of her moans.
Mindful of her needs, he licked his way up her stomach, torso and breasts until they were face-to-face once more.
“Do you want to move to the chaise lounge baby?” he whispered.
She nodded her reply as he then lifted her off of her feet and out of the pool. Wrapping a thick towel around her, he dried off the excess water and chased away her shivers. In the next moment, she suddenly encircled his waist and just held him close to her.
“Kenny, do you promise me it’ll always be this way between us, no matter what?” she whispered.
“Yes, of course I do, sweetheart. You know that,” he soothed, enfolding her in his arms. “I’ll never let anything come between us, ever. I know you’re scared about spending so much time in a foreign place, but I’ll be right there with you.
“Just think, instead of being far apart for weeks at a time, I’ll just be going to an office for several hours a day, and then coming back to you.
“It’ll be so much better than what we’ve been dealing with. And you can still do your work and write your blog. Think of it as a new adventure.”
Maddy closed her eyes and did her best to envision a blissful, temporary life in Canada. She didn’t know why she was experiencing such an overpowering sense of foreboding, but even in the midst of these beautiful, intimate moments, she couldn’t quite shake the idea that something awful was about to happen. She tightened her arms around him, unable to get close enough until her felt her shiver again.
“Ok, I think it’s about time I warm you up again Madeline,” he announced in his deep, masculine voice.
He carried her to the chaise lounge, her form still wrapped securely in the plush pool towel. He lowered her carefully onto the cushion, where she watched with passionate eyes as he removed his red swim trunks. A moment later she giggled as he covered her body with his and began planting kisses over every inch of her. And by the time they joined as one in the romantic glow of moonlight, all worries had melted away, powerless against the force of genuine love and endless desire.
The Florida sun began its ascent above the horizon, streaking through the lush, tropical foliage and filtering through the vertical blinds of the bedroom, where the two intertwined figures slowly and somewhat reluctantly awakened to the new day. Ken rubbed his eyes before blinking them open to the sight of Maddy sprawled across his chest in typical fashion. He smiled as he stroked her hair, remembering the events of the previous evening out by the pool and later behind the closed doors of their room. Knowing she wholeheartedly supported him in spite of her fears, and had so willingly given herself to him in body, mind and spirit just made him fall in love with her all over again.
He prayed that in the end, their six-month excursion to Canada would result in a signed contract between the two telecomm companies. Actually from a business standpoint, things were looking very favorable; it was the US government that could prove to be the spoiler. Based on many heated conversations he’d had with his Canadian colleagues, he knew if Congress didn’t pass the FISA Act when it came up for renewal in a few months, it could spell disaster for both this lucrative deal and—much more importantly—the security of his country.
Sadly, there were scant few statesmen left in office, only power-hungry career politicians who would say and do anything to placate their kook-fringe base. Then of course there was the negative influence of a highly biased media that was all too eager to do their bidding by feeding into the electorate’s fears of losing their privacy. After 9/11, it was exceedingly frustrating that so many Americans casually dismissed the urgent need to intercept communications coming into the country from dangerous, foreign terror cells, as permitted by the FISA Act. Recently, Talon Grant had even noted the urgency of the situation on his program, now that there was a President in the Oval Office who was not only sympathetic to Muslim extremists, but hell-bent and determined to disarm the United States as plainly evidenced by his rhetoric abroad.
Ken sighed as he wondered for a moment what his life would’ve been like had he chosen to make a career out of the Navy. There was a part of him that still wished he could defend his country in that capacity, as so many of his shipmates had gone on to do. Some had even paid the ultimate price for their patriotic devotion, a fact that haunted him nearly every day of his life. Then again, had he made a different decision all those years ago, he might not have ever met Madeline, or become a father to Bonnie and Brian. Still, he knew that he would once again contribute to the preservation of freedom in one capacity or another. He cared too much about his country and the perilous threats it was currently facing than to do otherwise. Momentarily, he had to focus almost exclusively on business but that was all going to change in the not-too-distant future.
“Mm, baby what time is it?” Maddy asked groggily, interrupting his thoughts.
“I think it’s about 6 a.m. sweetheart,” he whispered, kissing the top of her head. “We don’t have to get up just yet.”
“Oh good,” she sighed, “I am still so sleepy.”
“Well, we both had a very active night,” he teased, running a hand up and down her back.
“Yes we did,” she purred. Then with another thought, she soberly observed, “This’ll be the last morning we’ll wake up in South Florida for a while.”
“Yes it is, but look at it this way sweetheart: we’ll be waking up in a gorgeous Penthouse suite overlooking the Pacific Ocean for the next several months. Seriously Maddy, you’re going to love Vancouver. It really is beautiful.”
“I just hope you have some time to show me around while we’re there; I know how hard you work,” she observed.
“Don’t you worry baby, for you, I will make the time,” he promised. “You have no idea how much I appreciate your acceptance of all of this. And I am going to do my very best to make it as enjoyable as possible.”
“I know Kenny,” she assured him, as she placed a few soft kisses on his chest. “Speaking of which, why don’t you go wake the kids up so they can get ready for school and I’ll go downstairs and make a special breakfast. You should spend a little one-on-one time since it’ll be a few weeks before you see them again.”
With that, she sat up and, reaching for her pink satin robe, tied it securely around her waist. He winced when she drew back the verticals, ushering in a flood of bright sunlight.
“Hey, take it easy!” he cried out in mock horror.
“Oh come on now sailor, you’ve dealt a lot worse than a 6 a.m. wake-up call,” she teased with a wink in his direction, before heading to the bathroom.
“It’s a good thing we’re on a tight schedule sweetheart; otherwise you’d be in big trouble!” he called out with a laugh before throwing on some clothes and heading down the hallway to greet his kids.
“I hate pancakes!” Bonnie announced as she entered the kitchen, dressed for school in a floral print sundress, her long blonde hair partially caught back at the crown with a matching pink headband.
The enticing aroma of percolating coffee filled the air as Maddy busied herself at the stove. She poured out the remaining chocolate-chip batter and it sizzled on contact with the warm surface of the frying pan. Expertly, she flipped the half-done pancakes over to finish cooking and piled the completed ones onto a waiting platter.
Unfazed by Bonnie’s comment, she simply replied, “Now that’s funny; I could’ve sworn I heard you telling your grandma how much you loved them! In fact, if I recall, she told me you ordered chocolate chip pancakes every time she and your grandfather took you and your brother to IHOP.”
“Yeah, well that was when I was younger,” the little girl clarified.
“Ah, I see,” Madeline mused. “Well then I guess it’s a good thing I am also making scrambled eggs and toast.”
“Whatever,” Bonnie retorted sarcastically just as her father entered the room with a freshly bathed Brian, looking adorable in a pair of khaki shorts and a pale-blue polo top.
“Have a seat at the table son; I want to have a private talk with your sister,” Ken directed him, exchanging serious glances with his concerned wife. Maddy certainly respected the boundaries in terms of Ken’s right to discipline his children as he saw fit; she simply wished she’d had the opportunity to remind him that the child was feeling especially vulnerable, knowing it was going to be a while before she saw her daddy again. Three weeks to a little kid was an eternity. Madeline’s eyes followed them as Kenny put an arm about her and ushered her into the private dining room.
“Is Bonnie in trouble?” Brian asked with all of the excited curiosity of a boy his age.
“Don’t you mind other people’s business young man,” she scolded him with a hint of playfulness. “Drink your orange juice and I’ll bring you some pancakes in a minute.”
“Aunt Maddy?” he addressed her by the term they’d all agreed to when it had been decided that “mom” wasn’t entirely appropriate.
“I love chocolate-chip pancakes. Thank you for making them for me!”
“You’re very welcome,” she replied, thrilled by his refreshing change of attitude.
A few minutes later, after Maddy had set a plate before Brian and poured some maple syrup for him, Ken and Bonnie returned from their summit.
“Madeline, Bonnie has something she would like to say to you,” her husband announced. The young girl’s eyes were still glistening with moisture; Maddy’s heart went out to her, though she maintained a calm, dispassionate façade.
“I’m sorry,” she finally squeaked out.
“Tell her why you’re sorry Bonnie,” her dad pressed her.
“I’m sorry because you went to the trouble of making my favorite breakfast, and I was rude to you,” she offered somewhat robotically.
Maddy crouched down to look her in the eye. Placing a hand on each of her shoulders, she assured her stepdaughter, “Apology accepted.”
She desperately wanted to give the girl a hug, but settled for stroking her cheek instead.
“So are you ready for breakfast now?” Bonnie nodded her head as Maddy led her back to the table. Their morning meal continued uneventfully until it was time for Ken to drive the kids to school, leaving Maddy to clean up the dishes and get ready for their new adventure.
“Is this the last bag?” the kindly older driver inquired of Ken as he watched him hoist a large, black expandable suitcase into the trunk of the white Lincoln Town Car.
“Yes sir, that’ll do it,” the young executive replied with a smile. “I’m amazed my wife managed to pack so lightly, given how long we’ll be gone. Of course, neither one of us owns many heavy fall or winter clothes, so I may have to twist her arm to go shopping in Vancouver once the summer is over,” Kenny winked at the man who chuckled at his remarks.
“If I may say so, your wife is such a beautiful, delightful woman it must be a pleasure for you to spoil her with a nice wardrobe.”
Kenny glanced over to the front entrance, where Maddy stood chatting on her cell phone with her best girlfriend Elyse. He could barely catch his breath as he took in the sight of her, dressed in a chic black pantsuit—a blend of comfortable cotton and Lycra—with a cropped, long-sleeved jacket and form fitting pants that perfectly skimmed her shapely curves. With her auburn tresses pulled back neatly into ponytail held in place with a rhinestone band; her rhinestone-encrusted fuchsia blouse and high-heeled black sandals, she looked like an ad for Vogue. Fashionable Brighton sunglasses completed her look.
“I am the luckiest man alive,” Ken smiled at their driver before walking away to retrieve his wife. Slipping an arm around her waist, he whispered it was time to go. She nodded her agreement as he ushered her in the direction of the waiting car.
“Ok, Leese, take good care of yourself,” Maddy urged into her cell phone, “And please, I know you detest technology, but jump on your computer every once in a while so we can stay in touch by email or instant messenger!”
Amused by their conversation, Kenny chuckled as she snapped the phone shut.
“What?” she asked, feigning indignation.
“Nothing,” he replied teasingly, “You’re just incredibly adorable, that’s all.”
He planted a kiss on her cheek as the Lincoln pulled out of the driveway, bound for Fort Lauderdale International Airport.
The 737 soared through the white, puffy clouds, steadily moving in a northwesterly direction toward Seattle, the only brief stopover on their diagonal course across the United States and into Vancouver, Canada. Nearly seven hours had already passed since leaving South Florida, and thankfully, most of the flight had been incredibly smooth once they’d reached cruising altitude. Ken was a bit concerned that Madeline had spent the majority of the journey sleeping—highly unusual, given her fear of flying. He recalled her inability to stop talking, reading or doing crossword puzzles on their roundtrip honeymoon flight to Italy, in a successful attempt to distract herself. Yet inexplicably, this time she’d dozed off into a deep slumber before they’d even made it out of Florida airspace.
If this keeps up, she’s going to a doctor in Canada, he thought to himself. I wish I’d insisted on it before we left home. He glanced over at her petite form curled up against the window, his grey raincoat tucked in around her as a makeshift blanket. On an impulse, he reached out to touch her forehead, quickly determining the absence of a fever; her face however, was noticeably pale. Sensitive to his touch, she began to stir.
“Are we there yet baby?” she asked in a barely coherent voice.
“We’re getting pretty close to Seattle; should be landing there in less than an hour sweetheart,” he softly replied.
“I’m sorry I’ve been lousy company; I don’t know why I’m so tired. How could I be jet-lagged already?”
“All I know Madeline is that we’re scheduling an appointment with a doctor as soon as we get settled in Vancouver. I’ll ask my business colleagues for a recommendation, so you won’t have to wait an eternity to see someone.
“I just wish I’d listened to my better judgment and driven you to the Internist myself when we were back in Boca. We could’ve had a diagnosis and a remedy by now. You’ve been complaining of fatigue for weeks and I want to get to the bottom of it.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing serious, don’t worry,” she assured him, still somewhat groggy.
“Until we know for certain what the problem is, I’m sure as hell gonna worry about it,” he informed her softly, reaching out to stroke her hair. “It’s my job now to take care of you.”
She smiled as she drifted off to sleep again, just as the jet began its initial descent into Seattle.