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AWLL 1 - Book 8 - Stephie

Michael Loucks



For Birgit


Chicago, Illinois

Melanie and I arrived at my house in Hyde Park that I'd owned with my dad for years. My wife, kids, and a couple of very close friends were waiting in the great room when we walked in. My wife jumped up from the couch and hugged me, gave me a quick kiss and then she and Melanie exchanged a hug.

"I already turned on the sauna, Steve," my wife said. "And Father Basil called."

"I'll call Father later. A sauna is EXACTLY what I need. Join us, Melanie?" I asked.

She smiled, "As much as I'd like to, Pete and I haven't had much time together in the past few weeks. He's waiting at home for me. I suspect he's got the sauna turned on there as well!"

Melanie hugged me again and gave me a surprisingly chaste peck on the lips. After she left, my wife, kids, friends, and I all went to the sauna that was in the basement. The house was perfect to entertain year-round - the sauna, a sunroom with lots of windows, a huge fireplace in the great room, a finished attic and basement, and a nice back yard with a bricked patio and large brick grill gave me plenty of options. The only thing I missed was a swimming pool, but I'd balked at the crazy permitting process in the city of Chicago not to mention the insane cost of doing it.

"Dad," Birgit said, "Mom said we might be moving."

"That's true. Nothing's decided yet - we have to have a family meeting to discuss it and decide what to do. But honestly, I think your Mom and I may have finally had enough of the Chicago area."

"You're going to move while I'm in Östersund?" Ashley asked, worried.

"Probably, but I promise to tell you our new address!" I grinned. "I can't lose my favorite youngest daughter!"

"I'm your only youngest daughter, Dad!" she giggled.

"Which makes you my favorite one!" I chuckled.

"Don't you two EVER get tired of that joke?" Kurt asked.

My wife smirked, "You've known Steve for about 25 years, Kurt. Do you expect him to change now?"

Kurt laughed, "No, I guess not. Steve has changed in some ways, but in others, no he never really changed. Of course, he also kept some important stuff hidden from all of us over the years."

"Yes, he did," Kathy said. "And to think it all started back in Milford. I would never have guessed. But a lot has changed since we left Ohio, that's for sure."

"Including you developing a nasty habit of shaving your pubic hair, Kathy!" I grumped.

"Kurt likes it that way, Steve! But you still get to see me naked pretty often!"

"True, and you look damn good for being in your forties!" I said with a smile. "And after having three kids!"

"Thanks!" she said with a big smile. "By the way, Katherine will turn fourteen and wants to join us for these get togethers. Though I guess if you end up moving they'll stop."

I chuckled, "She's welcome; you know that. Our kids have been with us like this since they were old enough to be in a sauna. But with Katherine, you're just piling on! She looks just like you did Sophomore year in High School. That would be pure torture!"

"She's old enough to make her own decisions about THAT, Steve Adams!" Kathy smirked. "And you may meet your match with her! It'll be interesting to watch!"

"I think I'm going to regret that comment I made in your apartment all those years ago!" Kurt said with a grin.

"Some things just never change!" my wife said with a knowing smile.

I shook my head, leaned back and let the steam work its magic. I looked at my family and friends and smiled. I'd hate to leave my friends, but I was pretty sure we'd be moving away and moving on.

I. Lost and Found

December, 1982, Chicago, Illinois

'If you end up with a boring, miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television telling you how to do your shit, then you deserve it.' -Frank Zappa

I arrived in Chicago just before 3:00am on Christmas Day, under light rain that matched the tears occasionally rolling down my cheeks. Surprisingly, there was a spot near the door to the apartment building so I parked, grabbed my bags, and hurried inside. I kicked off my shoes as I let the apartment door shut the world out, walked down the hall, and simply collapsed on my bed, not even bothering to get undressed. My last conscious thought was that I'd made it to Chicago in one piece before my exhaustion - mental, emotional, and physical - claimed me, and I fell asleep.

I was jarred awake by the ringing of the phone. I blinked several times and looked at the alarm clock - 6:00am. I unplugged the phone by the bed but could still hear the ringing of the other extension, then the click of the answering machine. I couldn't hear the message being left, and I simply didn't care. I pulled Stephie's pillow, or what had been her pillow before I broke up with her, over my head and fell back asleep.

I was again jarred awake, this time by pounding on the door, which I heard even through the pillow covering my head. I squinted at the alarm clock and saw it was 9:30am. I shook my head, trying to clear the cobwebs.

"Mr. Adams? Are you in there?" a deep voice said, followed by more knocking.

I dragged myself out of bed and walked towards the door.

"Mr. Adams? Chicago Police officers. Please open the door if you're in there."

Shit. The police. My car was out front so they knew I was here. I had no idea what they wanted, but whatever it was, it couldn't be good.

"Coming!" I hollered and trudged the last few steps towards the door.

I opened the door to see two uniformed police officers and someone I recognized from the rental office who had a ring of keys.

"Mr. Adams?" the taller of the two officers asked.

"Yeah," I said, still groggy and out of sorts.

"We were called to make a well-check on you. It seems your family is concerned that you might have tried to harm yourself."

That had to have been my dad or my little sister. Probably both. I wondered who had called my house, and figured it had to have been either Melanie or Trudy.

"I'm fine officer. I got in about 3:00am and went right to bed. I didn't even take off my clothes."

"You don't mind if we come in for a moment, do you?" the shorter, heavier cop asked.

"I'm fine, officers. Honestly. My girlfriend in Ohio broke up with me and I came home. That's all there is to it. I'm upset, and I really just need to be alone right now."

"Do you have your ID?" the taller cop asked. "Just so we can be sure we're talking to the right guy?"

I fished my wallet from my pocket and handed over my Illinois driving license. The cops looked at it, looked at me, and handed it back to me.

"OK, Sir. Because you're telling us you're fine and you look fine, that's all," the tall one said.

"Call your family kid," the other cop said. "They're worried."

I nodded, thanked them and shut the door. I turned on the stove to heat the kettle and prepared the teapot. I looked over at the answering machine and saw the light blink six times. I sighed and walked over to it, turned up the volume and pushed the button to play the messages.

Steve! This is Melanie. I called your house, Kara's house, and Bethany's house to try to find you! I found the ring in the trash can. When I called Kara's, she wouldn't talk to me! Please, call me!

The machine beeped indicating the end of the message.

Son, this is your father. If you're there, please call me back as soon as you can, no matter what time.

Another beep.

Steve, this is Nancy Blanchard, please call me as soon as possible. Obviously something happened and Kara won't tell me anything other than that she broke up with you! Please call!

Another beep. I heard my little sister's voice, and she sounded frantic.

Steve, you have me totally scared! Please, please call me! I'm freaking out and I need to hear that you're OK! Call me! Please!

Another beep.

Steve, this is Bethany. I'm here to talk if you want. Call me soon, please. And call your sister right now! She's beside herself with fear!

Another beep.

Steve, this is Jennifer. Bethany and Melanie both called me in the middle of the night. I'm worried. Please call me. And please call your dad and sister. They're frantic!

Another beep.

Yankee, quit bein' a durn fool and call your sister and your dad! I know you's upset and all, but you gotta call. Then call me. Please!

A final double beep indicated the end of the messages. I hit the button to erase the recordings, unplugged the phone and went to take a hot shower. I spent quite a bit of time under the hot water, trying to chase away the cobwebs and trying to make sense of what had happened just twelve hours earlier. Eventually I turned off the water and decided to go for a run since despite it being December 25th, the weather was warm, in the low 60s.

I turned the heat under the kettle to low, then went outside. I followed my usual route that took me to Washington Park and ran along the paths under the trees that were barren like my soul. I felt empty, confused, and totally defeated. I had been prepared to give Kara exactly what she'd wanted from the moment we first met - an engagement ring. But then, just a minute or so before I would have done it, everything went straight to hell. Fate had screwed me over one more time.

Everything had gone straight to hell because I hadn't been smart enough to see the damned warning signs and I'd been too confident in Kara's abilities to set her own limits. It had gone to hell because of Joyce Abbadelli, who should have known better. It had gone to hell because of years of what I was now sure was brainwashing by Alan Blanchard and Kent van der Meer. It had gone to hell because I couldn't commit.

I wondered if things with Kara could be salvaged. I wondered if the relationship, like the legendary Phoenix, could rise from the ashes. Everything would depend on Kara, and that would mean overcoming her disgust with herself over the encounter with Joyce, and coming to terms with having been a 'fornicator' for nearly two years. I sighed deeply at that thought, because it was a hell of a lot to overcome.

I knew I should call home, but I wasn't emotionally ready to do that. I needed to talk to someone, but there was nobody that really lived close enough to talk to face-to-face. Jackie was the closest, but she wasn't really someone I felt I could talk to about what was going on. Cindi lived in Madison which was even further away, and again, not someone I thought I could talk to about this. Everyone else was home in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia, or some other far-flung state. I had a crisis and nobody near me to turn to.

As I made my way back towards the apartment, I realized that I had two important calls to make - my Christmas call to Karin, and a call to Tatyana, to honor my promise of letting her know when major things happened in my life - even if I didn't feel like doing that. I thought about it a bit more, and realized exactly who I could call for advice. In fact, two names popped into my head - Sofia Katsaros and Jennie Sanders.

Once back in the apartment, I quickly showered, dressed, and went to the kitchen. I realized that I'd need to shop, but it was Christmas Day. I rummaged in the cupboards and found Elyse's emergency supply of Pop-Tarts and toasted and ate a couple of them and drank some tea. When I finished, I plugged in the phone. It immediately started ringing, but I didn't answer. After about fifteen rings it stopped, and I picked up the receiver and dialed Karin's number.

"«God Jul!»" I said as cheerily as I could to Lars Andersson.

"«God Jul, Steve,»" He replied, very subdued. "I suppose you want to speak to Karin."

"Yes, please."

Karin came to the phone and we wished each other Merry Christmas. She sounded subdued, just as Lars had.

"I guess I can tell you my decision now," Karin said.

"Actually, before you do, let me tell you what happened last night. To be fully honest, I was prepared to ask Kara to marry me last night, but before I could do it, she broke up with me. I drove back to Chicago last night after that happened and that's where I'm calling from now."

"Oh my! Are you OK?" she asked with genuine concern in her voice.

"I'm numb, I guess. I really didn't feel like talking to anyone or seeing anyone when I got up this morning, but after I ran, I realized that I couldn't miss my call with you."

"I'm not sure how to say this, and I don't want to sound mean, but does this mean you two are really finished?"

"In all honesty, I don't know. All I can do now is wait and see if it's salvageable at all. I can't really say one way or the other."

She was quiet for a bit, "Then I'm going to visit in six weeks. I had decided not to, but I think we need to be together. I'll tell my dad and we'll book the tickets. My original plan was to come on February 6th and stay for one week. Is that OK?"

"Yes," I said. "That's fine. I'm looking forward to it. It will be good to see you."

"You do realize that if you and Kara fix things, I may decide not to come?" she said.

"I do. I promise that I'll tell you if anything changes."

"Maybe it's wrong to say, but I love you, Steve Adams, always and forever."

"I love you too, Karin Andersson!" I said.

I promised to call her again in a few days and then we hung up. It was still a bit early on Christmas Day to call Jennie, and I didn't know for sure what Tatyana and her family would be doing, so I called Sofia.

"Oh my God! Steve! I'm so happy you called! How are you?"

"Not too good. I need some advice from my best friend in Sweden," I sighed.

"What's wrong, «älskling»?" ("sweetheart")

I explained what had happened, including every detail and important fact that I could think of. I bared my soul and my relationship to the girl who had briefly been my lover, then my long-term confidant, and then, again briefly, my lover. She listened quietly, interrupting only once to ask a question. When I finished she was quiet for a minute or so.

"Please, please don't take this the wrong way, but you could get the ring back and have it resized to fit me!" she said, then giggled.

I couldn't help but chuckle, "I'm not surprised that you would say that. I hope you don't mind if we stick to advice for now."

"I'm sorry, I couldn't help it," Sofia said. "I guess, in reality, all you can do is try to talk to her. That's the first step. If she's really upset about the thing with her girlfriend, then I'm not sure what you can do except be patient and love Kara and hope she can come to terms with it. If she can't, well, I'm afraid that probably means that it's over between you two.

"If she can come to terms with it, then maybe, just maybe, she can get past the whole issue with sin and accept the ring from you. My advice if that happens is that you not have sex with her until you get married. That might be hard on the two of you, but I think it's important. Of course that means you would get married soon, because I know you pretty well," she said, laughing softly.

"Yeah," I sighed. "But that assumes she'll talk to me. She was pretty agitated last night."

"Think about what must have been going through her mind when you were making love. And how she must have felt - dirty, sinful, and wicked. Give her a little time to calm down then try to talk to her."

"You've always given me good advice, Sofia, and today has been no different. Thanks."

"Well, my real advice is that you drive to the Chicago airport, get on the first available plane to Sweden, and move in with us! You could go to Chalmers to finish university."

I chuckled, "Well, I'd need a residence permit for that, and it takes a few months to get one!"

"I was teasing, but you know it's not a bad option, really. Chalmers is a good school."

"It's certainly something to think about. Please greet your parents for me, and I'll see you in June."

"That's confirmed?" she asked.

"I should get my tickets from Katt's parents any day now."

"Great! Please call and write. Often!" she said.

"I promise that I will. Thanks again."

I hung up the phone and unplugged it again. I decided I didn't need to call Jennie because she'd likely give me the same advice that Sofia had, and I wasn't ready to talk to anyone at all in Milford at this point. I poured myself another cup of tea and decided to start a load of laundry. Unsurprisingly, all of the machines were available and I could run all three loads simultaneously. I went back upstairs and started working on a grocery list. It dawned on me that Tatyana and I were supposed to celebrate Russian Christmas when she was here, so I added some things to the list, including a small artificial tree.

That thought caused a wave of emotion to run through my body. I picked up my cup, left the list on the table and went to sit in the bay window. I sipped my tea and stared out into the street, lost in my thoughts. I finished the cup of tea and put on the kettle to make more. I noticed the clock and realized that I should move my wash to the dryer. I went to the laundry room and did that, then came back upstairs and put the tea in to steep. I picked up my grocery list and finished writing it out, adding a few additional items to the list of Christmas decorations.

When I finished, I went downstairs to get the two weeks of mail that had accumulated in the box. There was a note from the Post Office to come pick up two packages that wouldn't fit in the box, but I couldn't do that on Christmas day. There was a note from Theo that said I should come by to see him when I got back, and that I shouldn't use the phone to call him or Frank.

I sorted through the mail, found an envelope that obviously contained airline tickets, opened it and reviewed the itinerary, then continued sorting the mail, setting aside the bills for later. There was a letter and Christmas card from Tina Hoff, and cards from several other friends in Sweden - Pia, Torbjörn, Suzanne, the Anderbergs, Elizabeth, and, surprisingly, Annie. There were also cards from Pam, Katt, Ivan Voronin in his official capacity, and Tatyana, with a note saying she was sending the card for my Christmas.

I'd sent all of them cards, so there wasn't anything to do except read them and put them aside. I read Tina's letter but didn't feel like answering it just yet, so I set it aside as well. I looked at the note from Theo and wondered what had happened that I shouldn't be using the phone, but figured Christmas day wasn't the time to contact him. Finally, I opened the bills and wrote out the checks that were due.

By the time I'd finished that, my laundry was dry and I retrieved it, then folded everything and put it away. I set aside a few shirts that needed to be ironed, but I planned to do that later. It was lunch time, so I got out some knäckebröd, butter, and cheese and made myself several open-faced, Swedish-style sandwiches, and washed them down with a Dr Pepper. For dinner I'd thaw one of the last three pieces of the chicken I had in the freezer, but I'd have to shop first thing in the morning if I wanted a substantial meal.

When I finished lunch I took a cup of tea and sat in the bay window to contemplate what I should do next. I knew I'd have to call home at some point, but I really didn't want to do it yet. I was sure that the Chicago Police had called the Milford Police or Clermont County Sheriff, whoever my dad had called, to report back that I was safe, and for the moment, that was enough. I needed to call Katt and let her know that I'd received the tickets, though once again I wasn't happy with having to talk to anyone. I finished the cup of tea, then plugged in the phone, lifted the receiver, and dialed Colorado.

Inger answered the phone and greeted me warmly. I thanked her for the tickets, wished her a Merry Christmas and asked to speak to Katt. After we wished each other '«God Jul»', I told her what had happened the night before.

"Oh my God!" Katt exclaimed. "Are you doing OK? Do you need me to come to Chicago? I'll come today if you want!" she said.

"No, please, stay with your family and most importantly, stay with Mikael. Right now I just need to be alone."

"That's not true and you know it! You need comforting and I can comfort you. Mikael will understand."

I chuckled, "I know he would, but right now I honestly need to be by myself. I'll be OK. I promise. If you want to call and check up on me, that's fine, just wait a few days, please."

"So what will you do now?" Katt asked.

"Try to talk to her. That's all I can do. I'll give her a little time to calm down first, but then I have to see if there is any way to fix things."

"Let me know if I can help," she said.

We talked for a couple of minutes about the wedding plans then said our goodbyes. I hung up the phone and unplugged it, then got out the ironing board and iron, and ironed the three shirts that I'd set aside and went to hang them in my closet. I stopped, my hand halfway to placing the shirt on the bar; the closet I had planned to share with Kara starting in May, but which now, most likely, I'd share with Stephie. Or would I?

That wasn't a sure thing, because I'd broken things off with her early, which might well have ended things between us permanently. I didn't think so, but at this point, I wasn't going to count on anything. Fate had dealt me another staggering blow, and at least so far seemed to be winning, though I felt that I was gearing up for a fight with that fickle bitch. It was, really, just a matter of getting my mind clear and being calm enough to talk to Kara when she calmed down. Whether it would do any good was anyone's guess, but I had to give it a try.

I sat down at the Apple computer and looked over the list of things I needed to do for the various programs I was writing and supporting for Frank and Richie. A couple of the things on the list were fairly simple, so I started working on them to take my mind off of the situation with Kara. Programming was rapidly becoming a way to clear my mind, because when I got into 'the zone', as Dave called it, I tuned out everything and could turn out excellent code faster than anyone in the entire CS department.

When I looked up, it was nearly 4:00pm. Three hours had gone by and I'd accomplished quite a bit. I shut everything down and poured myself some tea and sat on the couch with the latest Creative Computing magazine. I noticed an ad for the new Apple IIe, that would take more memory, was faster, and was about the same price as my now four-year-old Apple ][. I decided that I would use some of the proceeds from the sale of the business to upgrade. I could let Elyse have the old machine for her room, because it would handle her VisiCalc needs quite easily.

While I was reading an article on the new ColecoVision game system, the buzzer rang three times in quick succession. I got up and pushed the button, figuring that whoever it was wouldn't go away until I answered. I waited at the door and was surprised to see Cindi Spanos and Jackie Phelan walking down the hall from the stairs.

"Hi," I said flatly. "Do people not realize I just want to be by myself?"

"Maybe if you answered your damned phone or returned their calls when they left messages they would," Jackie said. "Right now, I think half the world is trying to get a hold of you!"

"I know. I just want to be alone! Can't people just let it go and leave me be?"

Without responding, the girls pushed past me into the apartment. I sighed and shut the door.

"Elyse called Dave," Cindi said. "There aren't too many people with his last name in North College Hill, so she just called both listed numbers in the phone book and got him the second time. He called me. I talked to my parents and they were OK with me leaving home on Christmas Day to come check on you. I called Jackie and picked her up on the way down from Madison. What the hell happened? And why don't you at least call your dad?"

"I'll answer the second one first - I'm not in the mood to talk to anyone today. I talked to two people, both of them in Sweden, one because I felt obligated to, the other because I needed advice. Otherwise, I just don't want to talk about it right now, OK?"

"Dave only got the story after it passed through Elyse, who got it from your friend Bethany, I think, who got it from the girl whose house you stay at. Something happened with you and Kara?"

I sighed, "Yes. She broke up with me."

"Dave said something about you getting engaged?" Cindi said. "You never said anything about that, so I'm guessing it got garbled in translation."

"Do we have to do this?" I asked, frustrated that I couldn't just be alone.

"Yes. First off, you are going to plug in your phone, or whatever, and call your dad. Then, we're going to talk about this. You promised to tell me your story and this seems like a good God damned time to do it!" Cindi said, forcefully.

"Just lay off!" I said, exasperated.

"No, we won't, you jackass!" Jackie responded fiercely. "Your friends are trying to help you and you're behaving like a damned two-year-old having a temper tantrum!"

"This is a temper tantrum?" I said, distractedly. "Who knew?"

"Not every tantrum involves getting on the floor, kicking your feet, and screaming, Steve," Jackie said. "Giving your family and friends the silent treatment sure as hell qualifies."

"Fine. Whatever. Either way, I just don't feel like talking about it right now."

"That's just too damned bad," Cindi said, pulling me to the couch and pushing me down.

Jackie plugged in the phone, stretched the cord across the room and handed me the receiver, "Dial your dad! Right now! I am NOT taking no for an answer."

They both stood with their arms crossed and clearly were not going to let me refuse. I stabbed the buttons on the phone hard, dialing my dad's number rather than Stephanie's. He answered on the second ring.

"Hi Dad," I sighed.

"It's good to hear your voice, Steve. Are you OK?" he asked.

"No, I'm pretty fucking far from OK, Dad," I said. "Physically, I'm just a little tired. Mentally I'm very tired. Emotionally, while I'm not suicidal or homicidal, I'm not doing so well."

"You really should have called earlier, but I can understand. I'm sorry I called the Sheriff, but your sister was frantic and wouldn't leave me alone until I did it. Will you talk to her?"

"Not right now. I'm not really up for talking to anyone at the moment. Just let me have a couple of days to decompress and then I'll talk to everyone."

"I have the ring back in the safe - Melanie brought it to me. Mrs. Blanchard called, she's pretty upset. I don't know what happened for sure, but it sounds like Kara had some kind of meltdown. Nancy told me that you had let her know you were going to propose and when Kara came home early, and wasn't showing off the ring, Mrs. Blanchard knew something bad had happened. Kara wouldn't talk to her, so she called here. I called Melanie's house just as she was about to call me. She found your gifts and the ring in the trash and the room unmade, which she said is not like you at all. She was pretty worried. That set off a fairly frantic chain reaction, as you can imagine."

"I'm sorry. I just needed to get away, and the place to get away to was here, in my apartment. I had a bunch of phone messages besides the one from you. Just let everyone know I'm OK and I'll call them in a few days."

"I don't think your sister will accept that. You should talk to her," Dad said.

"Not today, please? Just tell her I love her," I said.

"OK, Son. Call me tomorrow evening, or sooner if you need anything."

"I will. Thanks, Dad."

I hung up the phone, and glared at Jackie and Cindi, "Happy now?"

"No. That was just part one. Now you get to tell us what happened, and I want to know it all, Steve," Cindi said. "After all, you promised me."

"Does it have to be right now? Can't I just be alone?"

"Hell no! You are not wallowing in sorrow, Steve Adams. Start talking right the fuck now!" Cindi demanded.

I sighed, "Fine. I intended to ask Kara to marry me. I had the ring, and everything was ready. I was maybe a minute away from asking her when she had a meltdown and walked out on me, saying that it was over."

"Jesus," Jackie said. "Was it because of Stephie?"

"No, not at all," I said. "It's a long story, but the short version is that she decided we were sinning."

"Tell the long version," Cindi said. "We have the time. We both brought overnight bags just in case. Do you have food in the apartment?"

"Yeah, there's some chicken breasts in the freezer I was going to thaw just before you got here, plus some frozen vegetables in there as well."

"Jackie, do you want to cook or should I?" Cindi said.

"I'll do it," I said. "It's relaxing. I can talk while I cook. Besides, it'll take the chicken an hour to thaw in the sink before I can even start."

Cindi nodded and I got up and got the chicken from the freezer. I unwrapped the aluminum foil and put them into a large plastic bag that I tied tightly shut with a couple of twist-ties and then put it into the sink which I had filled with cold water. While I did that, Jackie made some tea and Cindi called Dave to let him know that they were here and that I was OK. I went back to sit on the couch, with one girl on either side of me and began to tell the story.

I told my story, leaving out details about Stephanie as well as specific names of some people and any details about sex. By then, an hour had passed, and the chicken had thawed. I went to the kitchen to begin preparing our dinner. The phone had rung a few times, but I wouldn't answer it and didn't let the girls answer it, nor did I let them force me into answering it.

"Wow, Steve," Jackie said, "You've had some pretty traumatic events in your life for someone your age. I'm actually surprised at how well adjusted you are. I mean, with your first love dying tragically; a girl trying to trap you by getting pregnant and then getting an abortion despite saying she wouldn't; your girlfriend hiding important things from you and then suddenly moving across the country AND deciding to go to a different school without telling you; a close friend trying to kill herself; Kara's dad dying; and now her breaking up with you, more or less out of the blue, it's surprising that you get straight A's, have a successful business, are putting yourself through college and have all the other nice stuff. It's amazing that you aren't a complete and total wreck."

"That story explains a hell of a lot, Steve," Cindi said, with a twinkle in her eye, "And I'm damn sure you're going to be my 'bachelorette fling' now!"

"Huh?" Jackie asked.

I chuckled, even though I wasn't particularly in a good mood, "Our friend here has an agreement with her close girlfriends that before they get married, they each have to do something totally crazy and have a wild, one-day fling with a guy they otherwise wouldn't be with. Cindi is attracted to me, but we're not particularly compatible in her estimation, so I'm the guy she wants to have mind-blowing, earth-shattering sex with for twenty-four hours straight."

Jackie laughed, "My turn to tell a secret. He IS that damned good."

"You?" Cindi gasped. "No way!"

"Yes way!" Jackie said brightly. "I'd do it again. Hell, if he needs comforting, I'll do it right now!"

"Jackie," I sighed, "I'm not really in the mood today. Talk to me in a week or two, and if things with Kara aren't patched up, you can probably have your wish."

"Hot damn!" she said with a huge smile. "I'm going to hold you to that!"

"Jesus!" Cindi exclaimed. "Is he THAT good?"

"Better!" Jackie giggled.

"I might have to re-evaluate," Cindi laughed. "Of course, 'Truth or Dare' would be pretty boring now!"

"Yeah," I chuckled. "You know all my secrets. Or most of them, anyway. Jackie, how are things with your budding lawyer?"

"OK. I saw him last week just before Christmas. He's a nice guy, but he's so busy with studying that it makes it hard to have anything serious right now. We see each other occasionally. We'll see how it goes."

It didn't take me long to finish turning the thawed, boneless chicken breasts into lemon chicken, though I used ReaLemon bottled juice because I didn't have any fresh lemons. I steamed the frozen broccoli and when it was done, the three of us sat down to eat. I opened a bottle of white wine and poured some for each of us.

"How the hell can you make something this good in two hours with no fresh ingredients?" Jackie asked.

"I love to cook. It would be better if I'd had the actual lemons, instead of the bottled stuff, and if I'd had fresh cracked pepper instead of the ground stuff from the shaker."

"Did you ever consider being a chef?" Cindi asked. "You might have missed your true calling!"

"Nah, it's fun when I do it because I want to. It wouldn't be fun if it was work. I'm afraid programming might turn out to be like that, but I sure hope not."

We finished dinner and the girls helped with the dishes, then I refilled our wine glasses and we went to sit in the living room with soft music playing from the stereo.

"What do you plan to do for the next couple of weeks before school starts?" Jackie asked.

"Well, I'm just going to relax for the next week or so. Then on the 3rd my friend Tatyana is coming to visit. She'll be here about a week and then school will start again. I'll be fine, honestly. Give me a few days and I'll call everyone. Right now I just don't have the energy to repeat the story over and over."

"You should at least call Kara's mom tonight," Cindi said.

I sighed, "You're probably right. And I need to call Tatyana, because I promised to call her when important things happened in my life."

"Is she a candidate?" Cindi asked.

I chuckled, "What is this, The Price is Right?"

"More like Truth or Consequences," she said, "but they both had Bob Barker. So answer the question."

"There are no candidates except Kara," I said. "If Kara and I are done, I'm not going to have a steady girlfriend for some time. I just can't handle losing another one."

"From your story, I'd guess that Karin, Tatyana, Stephie, Jennifer, Bethany, and that one girl in Sweden who keeps writing you all the time, are the main candidates, so to speak," Jackie said.

"Those are all girls I could be comfortable with, yes," I said. "And if that's the question, then Elyse, Kathy, Sofia, Suzanne, and you would be on the list, though Kathy seems to be taken."

"Me?" Jackie said, shocked.

"He said comfortable with, Jackie," Cindi said. "Don't you two spend a lot of time together as friends?"

"Yes, but I never really thought that he saw me that way," Jackie said with a flush.

"Steve sees you as a friend, was willing to spill his life story in front of you, and I'm guessing that he thinks you're at least an acceptable lay, so yeah," Cindi smirked.

"Acceptable? You bitch!" Jackie said, laughing hard.

"She was more than acceptable, Cindi," I allowed, "though I can't comment on YOUR skills."

"No, you can't. Someday, I'll show you, but on my timetable, not yours. You just keep your pants on for now!" she said.

"Spoilsport!" Jackie giggled.

"Like I said, not tonight or even in the next few days," I said. "Let me get my life sorted out and we'll see. Deal?"

"Deal!" Jackie said.

"You've both been drinking so I think you should stay the night," I said.

"Two glasses of wine in two hours, and also having eaten dinner, isn't drinking," Cindi said.

"In my book it is. If you drink, you don't drive. Period. That's the law in Sweden and I think it's a good law. I follow it on my own."

"How long do you wait, Steve?" Jackie asked.

"Three or four hours, plus an hour for every drink."

"Wow. So a glass of wine at dinner and you won't drive that evening?"

"That's what I aim for. You haven't been out to dinner with me when I'm driving. I don't drink. Because the drinking age is 21 here, I don't get much opportunity outside the apartment, so it's usually not an issue. The only times I've pushed the limits of my rule are when I'm visiting my boss. He'd be offended if I didn't drink Sambuca with him. But one glass, and then waiting at least two hours makes me more comfortable, but that's really not how I like to handle it."

"Maybe he's just trying to get us to stay the night," Jackie said. "You know, reverse psychology. He says he doesn't want to fool around, but he really does!"

"No reverse psych here, girls. Elyse's bed is available, and the sofa bed is here. I'm using mine. Alone."

In the end, they decided to stay, with Cindi taking the sofa bed and Jackie in Elyse's room. On Sunday morning, we walked to a nearby bakery and got fresh doughnuts and coffee for breakfast, then went back to the apartment and straightened up. I took all the sheets and put them in the washing machine and when I went back upstairs the girls were ready to head home.

"Thanks for coming," I said. "And thanks for caring. I'm sorry I was such a jackass at first."

"Don't worry about it, Steve. We're your friends. We understand. But call Kara's house. Call your other friends. We all want to help. And I think you should call Stephie before she does something because she thinks that you aren't available anymore!" Jackie said.

"She already knows, she was one of the ones who left a message yesterday!" I chuckled. "And Cindi, you still owe me. I get to hear all of your secrets!"

"Someday!" she grinned. "And someday, you'll get a whole lot more."

We all laughed and I gave each of the girls a hug and a kiss on the cheek and got a kiss on the cheek back from each of them. When they drove away, I got into my car and did my grocery shopping at Jewel and stopped at Venture to get the things I needed for my Russian Christmas celebration with Tanya. After I got home and put away the groceries, I folded the paper bags and put them under the sink. For some reason, the freshly stocked kitchen re-energized me and I felt much better than I had the day before.

II. That's What Friends Are For, Part I

December, 1982, Chicago, Illinois

It was Boxing Day, the traditional day in England when the masters acted like servants and the servants like masters. I didn't have anyone to switch places with, but I always thought it was a cool tradition. After the girls left and I arrived home from the store, I read the newspaper, ate my lunch, then walked over to Theo's place.

"Frank Sr. is worried that the Feds are listening to his phone calls. He's told Frank Jr. to use messengers at least for a while. It's OK for you to call your girl, but messages to you and her will come either from me or Richie. Let her know that Richie will stop by and make arrangements to communicate with her. We've thought about these new mobile phones, but they seem to work like radios, so Richie thinks the cops could listen in."

"I suspect so," I said. "They can tap the regular phone lines pretty easily, though tracing the call takes some time with the current switching systems. You have to be careful because they're replacing the old mechanical switches with computers and that's going to make tracing calls even easier."

"How do you know this, kid?"

"I read stuff. There's a bunch of people who try to break into the phone network and make free calls and stuff. I know one guy who does that. He knows a ton of stuff about AT&T's phone network. He might actually be able to help you with avoiding getting caught."

"Does he live in Chicago?" Theo asked.

"Out in the western suburbs somewhere," I said. "I can talk to him."

"Not yet, kid. Let me clear that with Frank. You and me will still communicate face to face and with the notes I put in your box. Nobody's watching me as far as I can tell and you're squeaky clean. All you do is install computers for a business. You don't know nuthin'."

"Very, very true," I nodded.

After getting my envelope from him, I headed back to the apartment. I plugged in the phone that I had unplugged before dinner, and dialed Tatyana's number in Washington.

"Stepa! How are you?" Tanya asked when she came to the phone.

"Not very good, Tatyana Ivanovna. Kara and I broke up."

"Oh! Is not good news for you, I know, and you must be very sad. But you must realize how I would think, yes?"

I smiled, though she couldn't see that through the phone, "Yes, Tanya, I know how you would think."

"You can tell me details now if you wish, or wait until I am with you in Chicago in one week."

"Let's talk when you're here," I said. "I'm looking forward to seeing you."

"As am I. I am glad you remembered to call me when something important happened. Is good sign for me."

We talked for a few more minutes and she gave me her flight details, then we hung up. As usual, Tanya was dispassionate about things that happened, concerned only with the fact that I told her about them. She was very stoic, and also very calm and practical, no matter what seemed to happen. She was, in many ways, the opposite of me.

That had been an easy call to make. The next one was going to be much tougher. I dialed Kara's number and Nancy answered on the third ring.

"Steve! I wish you had called sooner. I was worried sick. Your dad called me yesterday to say that you were OK, but I'm so glad to hear your voice."

"Mrs. Blanchard, I'm not sure what Kara told you, or even what's going on for sure, but she had a meltdown on Christmas Eve and walked out on me before I could even propose."

"I know. She came home much earlier than I was expecting, but I assumed it was to show me the ring. When you weren't with her and she went straight to her room, I knew something terrible had happened. I tried to get her to talk to me, but she wouldn't. I called over to Melanie's house and she told me what she'd found and that she'd talked to your dad. I called him and that's when he got very worried."

"I know. I spoke to him. Mrs. Blanchard, does Kara know I intended to propose to her?" I asked.

"Yes. I'm sorry but when she was being so obstinate I told her that whatever it was that was bothering her, it had better have been important enough to throw away her dream because you were about to propose to her and even had the ring."

"I wish you hadn't done that, but I understand. I don't want that to influence her behavior."

"I'm sorry Steve, but I was so flustered I didn't really know what else to say."

"Don't worry about it now. How is she?"

"She won't talk to me. She stays in her room except to eat or use the bathroom, though she did go to church this morning. Can you tell me what happened?"

I really couldn't violate Kara's privacy that way, nor Joyce's, for that matter.

"I can't really say, but the bottom line is that Kara has come to the conclusion that she's been living a terribly sinful life, that she can't go to heaven because of it, and she has to stop doing it, believe it was all wrong, and repent to have any chance of being accepted by God."

There was silence on the other end of the line for a moment. Nancy Blanchard sighed deeply, "Oh dear. Oh my!"

"Yeah. I tried to talk to her, but she simply ignored me and walked out of the Spencers' house. At that point, I just didn't want to be anywhere near Milford, so I came back to Chicago."

"I tried to get her to call you, but she refused. Shall I see if she'll talk to you now?"

I took a deep breath and let it out, "I suppose that's the right thing to do, yes."

She put the receiver down and I could hear her walk away and start up the stairs. I didn't hear anything for a moment then I faintly heard a raised voice in the distance. A moment later, I heard the receiver being picked up.

"She says that she won't talk to you," Mrs. Blanchard said. "I wonder if a face-to-face conversation would work."

"Probably about as well as when Mr. Blanchard tried to get her together with Lucas," I said flatly.

"I hate to say it, but I think you might be right. What are you going to do now, Steve? I hope you haven't given up on Kara."

"I haven't, but there's little I can do unless she talks to me, and unless she either changes her mind about us or at least makes peace with God about it."

"Please keep in touch with me and please don't give up on her. You two had a beautiful relationship and a bright future ahead of you. Maybe a bit of time will make her come to her senses."

"Maybe. I'll be here, Mrs. Blanchard. I still love Kara and I want to talk to her when she's ready."

"I'm going to tell her that, even if she doesn't want to hear it. Thanks, Steve."

"You're welcome," I said, hanging up the phone.

I was pretty sure that meant things were over. If Kara had at least come to the phone, I'd have held out some hope. But the fact that she knew I was ready to propose, and that I had the ring, and still refused to talk to me didn't bode well at all. No, I wouldn't give up, but I sure wouldn't expect what would have to be a miracle at this point. I didn't believe in miracles.

The next call I had to make could go either way. I dialed the number and waited nervously as the phone rang. On the fifth ring, a breathless Stephie answered.

"Hi Peaches," I said sheepishly.

"You durned fool! You had every person you know turning over every rock lookin' for you. They even called the danged Sheriff! What in tarnation were you thinkin'?"

"I wasn't thinking, obviously. I assume you know what happened?"

"I do. Your sister called me. How she tracked me down, I don't know, but she did."

I chuckled, "How many Grants are there in Dawsonville, Georgia, Peaches?"

She laughed, "You got me there, Yankee. Not to dance on nobody's grave or nuthin', but can I move in with you in two weeks?"

I should have been prepared for that question, but I wasn't. I didn't know how to answer that for sure. If things were going to change with Kara, it was going to take time, and, in the end, she knew about Stephie. And honestly, I'd gotten quite used to having Stephie in my bed.

"Stephie, I don't know what the situation is just yet. What I do know is that I am not going to commit to anyone in the near term, not even Kara, assuming she ever speaks to me again."

"Wow, it was that bad?" Stephie asked. "I'm really sorry, Steve. I shouldn't have asked you that question."

"It's not an unreasonable question. I'm tempted to say 'yes', but there are a couple of things you would have to know before you decide."

"Go on, I can probably guess, but tell me."

"First, Tatyana is coming to visit in a week. She'll be gone when you get here, but we're spending the week together. Second, Karin is coming to visit in February. I wasn't sure that was going to happen, but once things blew up with Kara, Karin said she wanted to come. Third, no commitments and no promise to be exclusive. If you can accept that, then yes, you can move in."

"Yes!" she said and I could almost hear the fist pump over the phone. "When Karin is here, I'll sleep back at the dorm. It's not like I can get that money back now, anyway. What about next year?"

"One thing at a time, Peaches. OK? I know you see your chance, but take it slowly, please. I'm not ready for anything complicated just now. I promise an answer before you have to reserve your room."

"Thanks. And I'm sorry. Forget about all that now. Do you want to talk about what happened now or when I get back?"

"When you get back, Peaches. I assume you're still flying in on the 8th like you planned?"

"Yes. My flight gets in around 3:00pm. See you then?"

That was about an hour after Tatyana's flight would be leaving, so it worked out quite well.

"Yes, I'll be there," I said.

"I'm happy for me, but sad for you, Yankee. I hope you understand."

"I do, Peaches, I really do."

"Good. Now call the rest of your friends and quit actin' like a durned fool!"

I chuckled, "I will."

I hung up and went to use the bathroom. When I finished I got a Dr Pepper from the fridge and picked up the phone to call Stephanie. The buzzer rang repeatedly. I wondered who it was because the only people even close had already visited. I set the phone back in the cradle and pushed the button to open the door. I hoped whoever this was wouldn't stay long or would let me make a long phone call before we talked. I opened the door and waited.

A blur of strawberry blond hair rushed down the hallway and threw itself at me. Behind that blur, moving a bit more sedately, was a cute former cheerleader I knew quite well. The girl in my arms was wracked by sobs but the cheerleader was all smiles.

"Hi Steve," Bethany said.

"Hi, Sweetheart. I guess I'm not surprised to see you."

"You scared the hell out of all of us, especially your little sister," Bethany said.

Stephanie was still sobbing and hugging me as if her life depended on it. I gently moved us into the apartment and Bethany shut the door. It took a couple of minutes for Stephanie to calm down, but eventually she composed herself. When she did, I almost wished she hadn't. She started beating her fists on my chest, and not softly. I let her, since I'd been beating myself up for a couple of days, and she needed to get it out of her system.

"You fucking, self-centered asshole! You let me think the worst for a full day! You're lucky I don't beat you senseless right now for doing that! What the hell were you thinking? I don't care WHAT happened, you can't run away and not let me know that you're OK!" she growled, then started crying again.

"I guess I deserved that," I said.

"Yes, you did," Bethany said. "She's been crying for nearly two days straight, worried out of her mind. I get that you might not want to talk to the rest of us, but Jesus, Steve, doing that to Stephanie? Please don't tell me that you've regressed."

"No," I said. "It was thoughtless and heartless," I said. "I was upset and didn't want to talk to anyone, but I should have called Stephanie. How did you convince my mom to let her come with you?"

"Would YOU have tried to stop her?" Bethany asked.

I chuckled, "Point taken. Does my dad know she's with you?"

"Yes. I picked her up at your house and she hugged your dad goodbye before she got into the car."

"What happened to the party you planned for today?" I asked.

"I cancelled it. I asked Melanie to make all the calls for me."

I nodded. I noticed the gold band on Stephanie's right hand and knew exactly what I had to do, and it had to be right now. There really was only one thing I COULD do. I looked at Bethany and she nodded, the corners of her mouth upturned in a slight smile. I reached down and scooped my little sister in my arms and carried her to my room. I kicked the door shut and then I laid her on the bed

Stephanie smiled at me through teary eyes and watched as I took off my clothes, and then carefully removed hers. I got into bed, between her legs. She was dripping wet and I was rock hard, so I slowly slid into her, lodging myself fully in her tight, silky pussy with one long stroke. Stephanie sighed contentedly when I was all the way in.

"Yesss! THIS is where you belong," she said softly, as we kissed deeply.

I began moving in her and she matched my movements with practiced ease as our bodies worked in perfect harmony. It didn't take long before my little sister had her first of what would be seven orgasms, each one stronger than the last. When I finally couldn't hold back, I pushed in deeply and came more than I ever had in my entire life, the orgasm nearly causing me to pass out from sheer pleasure.

"I love you, Squirt," I said.

"I love you, big brother," she gasped. "We waited way too long to do this."

"I know," I agreed.

"I want the same as that first time, Steve. All of it. Before we leave this room."

I smirked, "Well, then it has to be a blowjob next because there's nothing to clean up with!"

"69, big brother, as soon as you're ready."

With my gorgeous, naked, little sister next to me, it didn't take long before she engulfed my rock hard shaft and I was sucking hard on her clit. The feel of her lips and tongue, and the gentle sucking brought me quickly to release and she greedily swallowed every drop of cum that I spurted into her mouth. She turned to lie on top of me, and we French kissed deeply, sharing our tastes with each other.

We kissed off and on for twenty minutes, Stephanie resting her head on my chest and sighing contentedly between the deep, loving kisses. When I felt I was ready, I reached over to the nightstand and got the cherry lube. Stephanie took the tube from me and covered my dick in it, giving me a quick lick to get the cherry taste, then spread plenty on her rear entrance. She positioned herself over me and used her hand to hold me steady against her while she pressed down, taking half my shaft in a single push. She rose up a bit and sunk down further. A third time was enough to fully embed me in her butt.

Using her muscles and motions she gently rode me while I strummed her clit with my thumb. After her second orgasm she squeezed as tight as she could, applying maximum pressure as she moved up and down on me. She groaned as her orgasm crashed over her and a minute later, mine took my breath away. We stayed connected for a minute or so before Stephanie lifted off me and lay next to me. I pulled her tight to cuddle.

"That," Stephanie gasped, "was the best sex we've had since the very first time. Better than that marathon we had here in Chicago. Do you know why?"

"Because this was a pure expression of love," I said.

"Yeah," she sighed. "As if we were husband and wife."

"I saw the ring on your finger Squirt, that's what made it clear what I had to do."

"Thanks, big brother. I hope we never stop this. Ever."

"Me too, Squirt, me too," I said, kissing her softly again. "Now let's shower and check on Bethany."

We got out of bed and I went to grab my robe but Stephanie grinned and took my hand, leading me naked across the hall. I smelled something cooking but I allowed myself to be pulled in to the shower. Stephanie adjusted the water and picked up my Irish Spring and gently and carefully washed me. I took Stephie's rose-scented soap that she had left in the tub and washed Stephanie the same way. We dried each other then went to my room and dressed.

"While you two were working up an appetite, I decided to make some pork chops. I hope that's OK, Steve."

"Yeah, that's fine," I said.

"Could you and Stephanie get our bags? For some reason," she smiled, "it seems that she was in such a rush that we forgot them in the car."

"Sure, Sweetheart," I said, smiling. "And then we'll talk."

"You have some explaining to do, Steve. And then you owe me something. Assuming I can get you away from your little sister for a few hours," she smirked.

Stephanie and I went down to the car and got the bags and brought them up to the apartment. Bethany had dinner ready so we sat down to eat the pork chops, apple sauce, steamed corn, and fresh bread.

"I called your house, Stephanie. I told your dad we arrived safely and that you were busy beating the crap out of your brother so I made the call. Your dad laughed, said he'd assumed that was going to happen, and said you should call before you go to bed tonight."

Stephanie smiled, "Thanks Bethany. You're a pal. But you know I'm not letting him out of my sight for one second. If you want him, you'll have to do it with me there."

I groaned and shook my head, "Come on, Squirt, cut her some slack, please!"

"Not a chance@" Stephanie said fiercely. "You are not getting out of my sight. Period. I'll share, or she can have you while I'm in the room, but wild horses won't drag me from you!"

I chuckled, "I suspect this is why my dad didn't stand in her way when she decided to come with you, Bethany?"

"Correct!" she giggled. "We'll work it out. We're planning on staying until Saturday, if that's OK."

"That's fine," I replied. "Stay as long as you like, but Tatyana will be here on the 3rd and she does not know about me and Stephanie, and she never can."

"Well, that answers THAT question," Bethany said with a grin.

"Maybe," I said, looking directly at Stephanie. "There are a few girls that if I were to be with, I'd have to be fully exclusive. And Stephanie might end up with a guy who can't handle what she and I have together. Don't discount any outcome, Bethany, I sure as hell haven't."

"I guess you couldn't, could you, big brother? Every time you seem to have it figured out something happens to upend it all. I don't want it to end, but I want you to be happy more than anything. So if it ends up being Tatyana or Karin, I understand."

"How are things with Ed?" I asked.

"The same. I'm happy. He's satisfied. He's a boy, what more does he want?!" she smirked.

"We're a bit more complicated than that, Stephanie," I chuckled.

"Oh please! Give them an orgasm, especially with your mouth, and then you can lead them around like puppy dogs."

"That didn't ever work on your brother, Stephanie!" Bethany smirked. "Orgasms were never enough for him."

"He's looking for True Love, with a capital T and a capital L," Stephanie said. "Birgit's responsible for that and I don't think anything is ever going to change it. But most guys aren't that complicated."

"How the hell did you get so smart at fifteen, Squirt?" I chuckled.

"I've watched you forever. You're different. And not just because you're my brother. Ask Bethany. There's something really special about you. I don't have a lot of experience, but the difference between you and Ed is like night and day. Oh, he makes me cum, but it's like he's not paying attention, I guess."

"I do NOT need to hear this!" Bethany grumped. "But I think she's right. Gene could make me cum, too, but it was just different. When you and I made love it was like you looked into my soul for what I needed and gave it to me."

When we finished dinner, we quickly cleaned up the kitchen and went for a walk to the ice cream shop. Each girl held one hand on the way there, and then again on the way back to the apartment. I offered to stop to get a video but neither of the girls wanted to watch a movie that evening.

When we got back to the apartment, Stephanie called home. My mom answered and Stephanie spent several minutes trying to get my dad to the phone. My mom finally relented, Dad came on the line and Stephanie had a quick chat with him, then handed me the phone.

"Steve, make sure she stays safe. I trust Bethany, but your mother is beside herself that I let Stephanie come see you."

"I won't let her out of my sight, I promise!" I said, winking at my little sister.

"Thanks, Son. Your sister was so worried about you. I'd suggest not doing that to her again. I was worried but she was downright frantic."

"I know, Dad. I messed up. I already apologized to her and we made up."

"Good. Have a good night. I hope you'll visit soon. I assume you want me to hang on to the ring?"

"I guess that makes sense for now," I replied. "I should probably return it, but I want to wait a bit. The receipt said that I have sixty days to return it and get 90% of my money back."

"OK. Let me know if you need me to take it back and I'll deposit the money back into your account for you."

"Thanks, Dad."

We hung up and immediately the two girls doubled over laughing.

"We made up?" Bethany said, trying to hold in the laughter. "I won't let her out of my sight? If only he knew!"

"We'd both be dead," I said.

"I'm going to take a rain check on the full day, Steve," Bethany said, "Will you make love with me tonight?"

"You know I can't commit to you, or to anyone, and I'm not even going to think about the long term. If we do this, it might be only this time; it might be only this week. I can't promise. I did tell Stephie she could move in when she comes back from school, but that I can't promise anything exclusive nor long-term."

"I know, Steve," Bethany replied. "I want to do this. I'm not pretending that we're getting back together, or anything like that. I just want to make love with you."

"As long as you can handle Stephanie being there, then sure. I don't think she's going to change her mind on being with me the whole time."

"It's a bit odd, but I can deal with it," Bethany said. "It won't be the first time another girl's been in the room!"

Stephanie laughed, "You do know that I read Steve's journal for years, right Bethany?"

"Shit!" she giggled. "I forgot about that! My secrets are safe with you, I'm sure."

"You know, Squirt, I might let you read them again. Let me think about it."

"Did you write about Kara yet?" she asked

"No. I was numb. I'm sure I'll write before the end of the week. What do you know about what happened?"

"Not a lot, really. Just that she walked out on you and then you threw all the gifts and her ring in the trash. I have your stuff from her if you want it, otherwise I'll give it to Goodwill. Dad was going to drop her sweaters and purse at her house tomorrow, I guess. Anyway, Melanie came home and found all the stuff, including the ring, and knew something really bad had happened. She called Kara's first, but Kara wouldn't talk to her and Kara's mom didn't know what had happened.

"Mrs. Blanchard called and she and Dad talked, and she tried to get Kara to talk to Dad but she refused. She also tried to get Kara to tell her what happened, but Kara simply said she had nothing to say to 'that man' ever again. After they hung up, Dad called Melanie to find out what he could."

"Kara meant me?" I asked.

"Yeah, big brother. I'm sorry, but that's what she apparently screamed at her mom. Anyway, we called around and couldn't find you. We called here and got your machine. I guess Dad told you I was out of my mind, crying, worried that you had done something really dumb or gotten into a car accident or who knows what. I wouldn't stop bugging him until he called the Sheriff and reported you missing and said that you might try to hurt yourself. They called the Chicago Police who came to check on you. They called the Sheriff back and told him you were OK, and he called Dad."

"Stephanie called me," Bethany said, "so I left that message for you. I guess you got it. When nobody could find you, I planned on coming here today, because I couldn't think of anyplace else you would even think of going. When your dad told Stephanie that the police said you were OK, she called me and we talked. When I told her I'd been planning to drive here, she told me in no uncertain terms that she was coming with me and I told her that I needed your dad or your mom to say OK."

"I told Dad I was going," Stephanie said, "and that nothing was going to stop me. Period. He saw how frantic I was and how determined I was and told me OK. Mom flipped out, of course. She said we should just let you fail so that you could see how bad you were and eventually admit you were wrong. I told her off, Steve. Dad tried to get me to stop, but I went off on her for like ten minutes."

"Not good, Squirt," I said.

"I don't give a damn, Steve. She's a stupid old bitch who is only happy when she makes other people miserable. As soon as I graduate, I'm moving out. I'll probably come to Chicago if you're still here. Dad will make sure I have enough money for college and stuff."

"He will. You have two and half more years, though. You don't want them to be hell on earth like I had at home."

"I'll tell her I'm sorry, go to church, go to confession, and pretend that I'm her perfect little angel. It'll work."

"Do you play everyone like a violin, Stephanie?" I chuckled.

"Yeah, except you. If I could play you that way, you'd have made love to me months and months ago. Heck, you never would have stopped, even for Kara. But you're immune for some reason."

"I'll tell you a secret. I'm not immune. Do you know how tempting it was all those times you flirted with me and pushed things? It was sheer determination and willpower that prevented it from happening. And that was because of my commitment to Kara."

"You've always been pretty good at completing things you set out to do, Steve," Bethany said. "Sometimes you set goals and standards that are pretty damned high, but you usually seem to meet them. I don't think you ever missed an assignment or turned one in late, or got anything less than a B since I've known you."

"Spanish in Junior High was a problem until Melanie tutored me. She saved my butt from Miss Piggy," I said.

Bethany laughed, "I had her for French and she hated all the boys in that class, too. Don't feel like she picked on you."

"I was happy to be done with her. She has to be the worst teacher in the school district," I said.

"Anything else, Squirt?" I asked.

"Not really. So what happened?"

"Without going into the very private details, Kara decided that everything she'd done for the past couple of years was sinful and that she was going to hell if she didn't stop doing it and repent of ever doing it. She told me specifically that she shouldn't have done a bunch of things, including having sex with me. She told me I should never have taken her virginity because it was sinful."

"That's a load of bull, Steve," Bethany said. "She asked you to do it! Hell, you teased her a bit and then she pursued you with single-minded purpose to have sex."

"That doesn't change her view of it, Bethany. In a sense, you could argue that it's no different from Annie. That Kara's hormones drove her to do something she should never have done because I knew how to make her want to do it."

"OK, I see your point, but we're not talking an issue of consent here," Bethany allowed. "She knowingly and willingly had sex with you. She set it up! Didn't you tell me she got birth control pills and was on them long enough before you made love for them to be effective?"

"Yes. I'm not saying that she didn't consent, I'm saying that she shouldn't have consented."

"That's her issue, then, Steve," Bethany said. "Not yours. Don't blame yourself for that."

"I think the bottom line is that I knew she had issues with setting limits and I didn't step up to help her set them. She crossed a big line and it shook her to her core. I had the chance to set the limits and I failed her. In that way, I do have some responsibility for the entire debacle."

"We've all made mistakes, Steve," Bethany said. "And we've made some pretty big ones. But throwing away what looked to all of us to be a perfect future because she made one bad decision? Does she know you were going to propose?"

"Her mom told her. It didn't seem to make any difference."

"Well, lucky for you that you didn't propose, because you and I would have had a major problem, Mister. Just when were you going to tell me that you weren't going to keep your promise to me? Hmm?" Bethany asked, crossing her arms.

"Once I'd proposed and she'd accepted. Bethany, Sweetheart, for once, just once, I was going to do what was absolutely the best for me, without worrying about anyone else except Kara. You know that I've tried so hard to find solutions that maximize happiness, well, this time I only cared about Kara's and mine. I'm sorry, but it had to be that way."

There was a moment of silence, then Bethany nodded, "Believe it or not, I understand. I would have been very, very disappointed, but I can see why you felt the way you did and why you did what you did. But now, I just want you to make love to me, Steve. Like we used to."

"Bethany, I know you told me that you understand the situation, but I'm concerned about you and what this will mean to you. Can you really, truly make love with me without it making you believe that we'll be a couple?"

Bethany sighed, "I can't promise you that. I wish I could, but I can't."

III. That's What Friends Are For, Part II

December, 1982, Chicago, Illinois

"I'm concerned about you Sweetheart. You and I can't just screw. We've never, ever just screwed. I thought we did that first time, but it turned out that you were in love with me. You told me it would only ever be that one time, but I don't know that you really intended that. You're still in love with me and I'm very, very concerned about how you'll react to this. I can't make any commitments to anyone, Bethany."

"I know," she said softly. "The only person you could even think about really committing to has a gold ring on her RIGHT hand because it can never be like you both want. Please, Steve, just make love to me."

I looked at Stephanie who nodded her approval. I took Bethany's hand and led her down the hall. Stephanie followed us to my room and to my surprise, went to sit in the bay window. From the way she sat, it appeared that she wasn't even going to watch, she just needed to be in the same room with me. I chuckled when I thought about going to the bathroom, but it wouldn't surprise me if she followed me there. In fact, I was sure that she would.

Like we had that very first time, Bethany and I kissed, then I undressed her and she undressed me. Unlike that first night, we didn't need a condom and we both knew each other's' bodies well enough that our lovemaking was like a virtuoso concert performance - each movement having a proper place and time and a proper relationship with every other movement. Our bodies moved in perfect unison, moving inexorably to the crescendo of a joint orgasm that shook us to our cores, pouring out a year of unfulfilled desire. Our hearts beat as one; our breathing was as one; we were as one.

I stayed on top of Bethany who had her legs and arms wrapped tightly around me, and we kissed softly for a few minutes.

"Jesus, big brother," Stephanie breathed. "That was like watching a work of art being created!"

"It was perfect, Steve," Bethany sighed. "The most perfect lovemaking we've ever had."

"It was wonderful, Sweetheart," I said.

"Bethany, if you want to sleep in Steve's bed with us, you can. In fact, I think you should," Stephanie said softly.

"I'd like that," Bethany said softly.

I moved next to Bethany and she scooted over slightly. I put my arm around her and she turned on her side and pressed against me. Stephanie undressed and got into bed on my right side and did the same thing. I put my arms around the two girls who had come to help me and we quickly fell asleep.

In the morning, I woke first and Stephanie woke a few minutes after I did. Stephanie looked at Bethany who was still asleep, then moved up just enough so that she could kiss me. We kissed softly a few times and Stephanie slid her hand down to my dick and began gently stroking me. It didn't take long before I was hard. Stephanie looked up, smirked then slid down and took me fully into her mouth.

Bethany woke up a moment later, saw Stephanie and smirked, then whispered "I'll leave you two alone."

Stephanie released me and said, "Stay Bethany, it's OK. Really."

She engulfed me again and Bethany put her head on my chest. I glanced down and saw that Bethany was watching Stephanie which somewhat surprised me, but also somehow made the blowjob more exciting. I adjusted my arm that was around Bethany so that I could gently caress her breast. She looked up and I smiled. She moved to kiss me and our tongues tangled while my sister's tongue worked its magic on my rock-hard erection. My kissing with Bethany became more intense as Stephanie brought me closer and closer to release. When I came, I groaned into Bethany's mouth as I filled Stephanie's with spurt after spurt of cum.

Stephanie released me and moved up close to my face. Bethany broke the kiss with me and looked at my sister who had her mouth open, showing what she'd collected. To my surprise, Bethany started to lean towards my sister and Stephanie leaned towards her. Just as their lips were about to touch, they stopped. Stephanie closed her mouth and backed off a bit, just as Bethany moved back and shook her head. It was as if some kind of invisible barrier prevented them from actually kissing.

"I can't," Bethany said. "Not from your sister, it's a line I just can't cross."

Stephanie visibly swallowed, then sighed and kissed me.

"I understand," I said, kissing Bethany and then pulling both girls close to cuddle them.

We lay together about twenty minutes then all three of us went to the bathroom to shower. Bethany got in first and when I went to step into the tub, Stephanie held me back. She got into the shower with Bethany, who had a puzzled look on her face. Without a word, Stephanie tenderly washed Bethany's body and then Bethany did the same for her.

Having washed each other, they looked at me and smiled, each girl taking a hand as I stepped into the tub. They stood on either side of me and took turns using my soap to wash me. When they finished Stephanie and Bethany dried each other, then they dried me. We dressed for the day and then I made breakfast while the girls set the table and made some coffee. It was going to be a tight fit at the table, but we'd manage.

"I'm sorry," Bethany said. "You and Steve are special together, but the taboo is just too much for me to do that. The shower was a nice touch, though."

"It's fine, Bethany," Stephanie said. "I shouldn't have even thought about it. I should apologize to you."

"Girls, it's fine, we all recognize the limits. And they're good ones. I don't need another bad situation, especially between my Sweetheart and my sister!"

Bethany and Stephanie both smiled.

"I was wrong about you two initially, and wrong again when I told you to stop," Bethany said slowly. "Honestly, in a just world, that ring would be on your left hand, Stephanie."

"I know. We were made for each other. We fit perfectly together, love each other perfectly, and complete each other perfectly. But you're right, it just can't be."

I got the food onto the table and we all ate heartily, having worked up a tremendous appetite the night before and this morning. When we finished eating the girls did the dishes and I changed the sheets on the bed. I gathered them up and took them to the washing machine, then went back to the apartment.

"You left without me being with you!" my sister said, standing in the doorway with her arms crossed as I came back upstairs.

"Sorry, but I was doing laundry. I didn't think about it."

"Don't do it again, Steve!" she growled.

"Stephanie, you're going to go home on Saturday, we'll be apart then."

"I know," she said softly, "but please don't do that again."

"OK," I said.

We relaxed with coffee until the washer was done, and Stephanie and I moved the sheets and pillowcases to the dryer. As we were about to leave the laundry room, Stephanie stopped me.

"Steve, I should never have even thought about that. It's just being around you gets me so excited that sometimes I don't think. I don't EVER want to be with another girl except Jennifer."

"I understand, Squirt. I promise I'm not going to make the same mistake I made with Kara again. I'll help you keep your limits."

"Thanks, big brother," she said, hugging me tight.

We went back upstairs and the three of us went shopping because I'd only really planned on food for myself for this week. When we got back from the store, Bethany went down to the laundry room to get the sheets and folded them and put them away in the linen closet. I made us lunch and after we ate we took a walk. The temperature was in the mid-40s, which was mild for Chicago in late December. We stopped at the video store but we didn't find anything that the girls really wanted to watch, so we walked back to the apartment.

When we turned the corner I saw a familiar girl, sitting on the steps that led up to the door to the building. I smiled and shook my head.

"Did you know she was coming, Squirt?"

"Yes; I called her. Her parents told her to book a plane ticket, no matter what it cost. It seems that they think you're worth it."

Bethany laughed, "He is, you know. And despite what Stephie thinks, or even what Steve thinks, that girl has the inside track now."

I walked the half-block to the apartment, held out my arms and said, "Hi, Jen."

Jennifer Block stepped up to me and we hugged tightly. She gave me a quick kiss on the cheek and then we went inside, with Bethany carrying Jennifer's bag. I stopped to get the mail from the mailbox before we went up the stairs to my apartment. I reminded myself that I needed to answer Tina's last letter, which was still sitting on my desk. Once inside, I made tea and the four of us sat in the living room - the three girls on the couch and me on the loveseat.

"Your flight must have cost a fortune, Jen. Last minute flights aren't cheap."

"My parents didn't care. When I told them what had happened, they insisted I come see you. I'm sure you know why, too."

"They see this as a chance for us to get back together, or at least get on a path to getting back together."

"Yes! I tried to tell Mom that there were still all kinds of obstacles, but she kept saying that if I didn't come to Chicago, I had zero chance, so why not come here and see what happened."

"That sounds like your mom. Did she also tell you to fuck me within an inch of my life so I remembered how good we were together?"

Jennifer laughed, "She didn't have to! But she certainly implied I should! Something along the lines of doing whatever it took."

"No promises right now Jen, not even that. You don't even know the story."

"Because you didn't answer your damned phone when I called you! Stephanie called me and told me that something had happened between you and Kara, something really big. She also mentioned something about an engagement ring which I don't recall hearing about, Mister!"

"I didn't either, Jennifer," Bethany said. "And the prick had promised me a final fling before he got engaged. He didn't even tell Stephanie until the last moment! "

"I decided after Thanksgiving. Elyse knew something was up and pushed me to tell her. I had to tell Stephie because I was moving up the end date of our relationship. In a sense, I'm glad I didn't spread it around."

"Yeah, but it got out anyway because of what happened. All your friends know," Jennifer said.

"I know," I sighed. "The ring is in my dad's safe, and it's staying there until he returns it to the jeweler, which I guess is likely to be next week, since Kara doesn't even want to talk to me."

"What happened?" Jennifer asked.

"Stephanie, I need to break your rule and talk to Jennifer in private. There's something I need to talk to her about that I can only tell her."

"I warned you, big brother," Stephanie said with a glare, but her face softened after a stern look from Jennifer. "Uhm, OK," she said sheepishly.

I led Jennifer to Elyse's room, to prevent any misunderstandings. Jennifer sat cross-legged on the bed and I sat in the bay window on the throw pillows. I told Jennifer everything that had happened with Kara, including the incident with Joyce. Jennifer asked a few questions but mostly let me talk through the situation.

"Oh man," she said when I finished talking. "It's worse than I thought. You know what this sounds like?"

"Yeah, you in seventh grade. Or the situation with you and Melanie."

"You don't think she's suicidal, do you?"

"No. That would be a ticket straight to hell in her book, and that's what she thinks she's avoiding."

"You do realize, given what you've just told me, that there's little chance of her coming back to you, right?"

"I know," I sighed. "That's why the ring's going back to the jewelry store in a week or so. I'll hang onto it for that long just in case she snaps out of it, but I don't think that's going to happen."

"What are you going to do?"

"What can I do except live my life? I have to learn from what happened and move on. Seriously, what else can I do?"

"That sounds eerily familiar," she grinned. "And Stephie?"

"She's moving in, but we're neither exclusive nor committed. I'm not making any commitments for quite some time. Tatyana will be here on the 3rd, and Karin's coming in February. Stephie knows about them and knows I'll be sharing a bed with them."

"And me?" Jennifer asked, cocking her head at an angle and smiling cutely.

"One step at a time. We still have a lot of ground to cover and you and I both know we won't get a third chance."

She nodded slowly, "Yeah, that's true. I guess I'd rather take it slowly than blow whatever small chance I have."

"According to Bethany, you have the inside track," I said with a smile.

"She said that? Really?"

"Yes, as we turned the corner and I saw you."

"Then I better not blow it," she said, then laughed, "unless you want me to!"

"Cute, Jen. Cute. But there's something a bit more important right now. Just stay right there."

I got up and went out to the living room and took Stephanie's hand and pulled her up from the couch.

"Go on. I'll be right here. I promise not to leave the apartment."

"Really?" she said excitedly.

"Yes. Go love her. I could see it in your eyes the minute we saw her."

She kissed me softly on the lips, "You're the best, big brother."

That was a preview of AWLL 1 - Book 8 - Stephie. To read the rest purchase the book.

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