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So this was what all the secrecy, giggling and whispers had been about.
Micah Muldare sat on the sofa, looking at the gift his sons had quite literally surprised him with. A gift he wasn't expecting, commemorating a day that he'd never thought applied to him. He'd just unwrapped the gift and it was now sitting on the coffee table, a source of mystification, at least for him.
His boys, four-year-old Greg and five-year-old Gary, sator more accurately perchedon either side of him like energized bookends, unable to remain still for more than several seconds at a time. Blond, blue-eyed and small boned, his sons looked like little carbon copies of each other.
They looked like Ella.
Micah shut the thought away. It had been two years, but his heart still wasn't ready for that kind of comparison.
Maybe someday, just not yet.
"Do you like it, Daddy?" Gary, the more animated of the two, asked eagerly. The boy was fairly beaming as he put the question to him. His bright blue eyes took in every tiny movement.
Micah eyed at the mug on the coffee table. "I can honestly say I wasn't expecting anything like this," Micah told his son. "Actually, I wasn't expecting anything at all today."
It was Mother's Day. Granted he'd been doing double duty for the past two years, being both mother and father to his two sons, but he hadn't expected any sort of acknowledgment from the boys on Mother's Day. On Father's Day, yes, but definitely not on this holiday.
The mug had been wrapped in what seemed like an entire roll of wrapping paper. Gary had proclaimed proudly that he had done most of the wrapping.
"But I put the tape on," Greg was quick to tell him.
Micah praised their teamwork.
The mug had World's Greatest Mom written on it in pink-and-yellow ceramic flowers. Looking at it now, Micah could only grin and shake his head. Well, at least their hearts were in the right place.
"Um, I think you guys are a little confused about the concept," he confided.
Gary's face scrunched up in apparent confusion.
"What's a con-cept?"
"It's an idea, a way of"
Micah abruptly stopped himself. As a reliability engineer who worked in the top secret missile defense systems department of Donovan Defense, a large national company, he had a tendency to get rather involved in his explanations. Given his sons' tender ages, he decided that a brief and simple explanation was the best way to go.
So he tried again. "It's a way of understanding something. The point is, I'm very touched, guys, but you do understand that I'm not your mom, right? I'm your dad." He looked from Gary to Greg to see if they had any lingering questions or doubts.
"We know that," Gary told him as if he thought it was silly to ever confuse the two roles. "But sometimes you do mom things," he reminded his father.
"Yeah, like make cookies when I'm sick," Greg piped up.
Which was more often than he was happy about, Micah couldn't help thinking. Greg, smaller for his age than even Gary, was his little survivor. Born prematurely, his younger son had had a number of complicating conditions that had him in and out of hospitals until he was almost two years old.
Because of all the different medications he'd been forced to take, the little boy's immune system was somewhat compromised. As an unfortunate by-product of that, Greg was more prone to getting sick than his brother.
And every time he did get sick, Micah watched him carefully, afraid the boy would come down with another bout of pneumonia. The last time, a year and a half ago, Greg had almost died. The thought haunted him for months.
Clearing his throat, Micah squared his shoulders. His late mother, Diane, had taught him to accept all gifts gracefully.
"Well, then, thank you very much," he told his sons with a wide smile that was instantly mirrored by each of the boys.
"Aunt Sheila helped us," Gary told him, knowing that he couldn't accept all of the credit for the gift.
"Yeah, she drove us to the store," Greg chimed in. "But me and Gary picked it out. And we used our own money, too," he added as a postscript.
"'Gary and I,'" Micah automatically corrected Greg.
The little boy shook his head so hard, his straight blond hair appeared airborne for a moment, flying to and fro about his head.
"No, not you, Daddy, me," Greg insisted. "Me and Gary."
There was time enough to correct his grammar when he was a little older, Micah thought fondly.
Out loud he marveled, "Imagine that," for his sons' benefit. A touch of melancholy drifted over him. "You two are growing up way too fast," he told them. "Before you know it, you're going to be getting married and starting families of your own."
"Married?" Greg echoed, frowning as deeply as if his father had just told him that he was having liver for dinner for the next year.
"To a girl?" Gary asked incredulously, very obviously horrified by the mere suggestion that he be forced to marry a female. Everyone knew girls were ickyexcept for Aunt Sheila, of course, but she didn't count.
"That's more or less what I had in mind, yes," Micah told his sons, doing his very best not to laugh at their facial expressions.
Covering his face, Gary declared, "Yuck!" with a great deal of feeling.
"Yeah," Greg cried, mimicking his brother, "double yuck!"
Micah slipped an arm around each little boy's very slim shoulders and pulled them to him. He would miss this when the boys were older, miss these moments when his sons made him feel as if he was the center of their universe.
"Come back and tell me that in another, oh, ten, fifteen years," he teased.
"Okay," Gary promised very solemnly. "We will, Daddy."
"Yeah, we will!" Greg echoed, not to be outdone.
Micah's aunt, Sheila Barrett, stood in the living room doorway, observing the scene between her nephew and her grandnephews. Her mouth curved in a wide smile. While she lived not too far from Micah, it felt as if this was more her home than the place where she received her mail. She took care of the boys when her nephew was at work, which, unless one of his sons was sick, was most of the time.
"They picked that mug out themselves," she told Micah, in case he thought that this was her idea. "They absolutely refused to look at anything else after they saw that mug. They thought it was perfect for you."
"And of course you tried to talk them out of it," Micah said, tongue in cheek. His amusement was there, in his eyes.
Sheila shrugged nonchalantly. "The way I see it, Micah, little men in the making should be as free to exercise their shopping gene as their little female counterparts."
"Very democratic of you," Micah commented, the corners of his mouth curving. Aunt Sheila had always had a bit of an unorthodox streak. He learned to think outside the box because of her. He sincerely doubted that he would be where he was today if not for her. "Well, just for that, I'm taking all of you out for lunch."
"Aunt Sheila, too?" Greg asked, not wanting to exclude her.
"Aunt Sheila most especially," Micah told his younger son. There was deep affection in his voice. "After all, Aunt Sheila is the real mom around here," he emphasized pointedly.
Clearly confused, Greg turned to look at the woman who came by every morning to take him to preschool and his brother to kindergarten. Every afternoon she'd pick them both up and then stayed with them until their father came home. Some nights, Aunt Sheila stayed really, really late.
"Aunt Sheila has kids?" Greg asked his father, surprised.
Sheila smiled, answering for Micah. "I have your dad," told the boy.
They had a special bond, she and her sister's son. When the world came crashing in on him when his parents were killed in a car accident while on vacation, Micah had been twelve years old. Injured in the accident, too, he'd been all alone at that San Jose hospital. She'd lost no time driving up the coast to get to him. She'd stayed by his side until he was well enough to leave and then she took him home with her. There was no looking back. She'd raised him as her own.
Greg was staring at her, wide-eyed, his small face stamped with disbelief. "Dad was a kid?"
"Your dad was a kid," she assured him, biting her tongue so as not to laugh at the expression of wonder on the little boy's face. "And a pretty wild one at that."
"She's making that part up," Micah told his sons. "I was a perfect angel."
"When you were asleep, you looked just like one," Sheila agreed, then added, "Awake, not so much."
"Can you tell us stories about when Daddy was a kid?" Gary asked eagerly.
Sheila's smile was so wide, her eyes almost disappeared. "I sure can."
"But she won't," Micah interjected with a note of finality. "She's going to save those for when you're older."
Gary's forehead crinkled beneath his blond bangs.
"I'll tell you that when you're older, too," Micah promised him. Changing the subject, he asked, "Now, who's hungry for pizza?"
The words were no sooner out of his mouth than a chorus of "We are!" rose up. It was hard to believe that two little boys could project so much volume when they wanted to.
Micah gazed at his aunt who'd made herself comfortable in the love seat opposite Micah and the boys. "I thought we'd go to that little Italian restaurant you like so much. Giuseppe's." The boys bounced up to their feet. His aunt rose to hers, as well. "Luckily for me, it's kid-friendly."
"As it happens," his aunt said, placing a hand on each boy's shoulder in order to usher them out the front door, "so am I."
"You know there's no one here to impress, right?" Kate Manetti Wainwright said to her friend, Tracy Ryan, as she stuck her head into the latter's office.
It was Sunday and the law firm was closed. Or should have been. The sound of typing must have drawn Kate to Tracy's small office, which meant an interruption.
Tracy looked up from the brief she was working on. "You're here," she pointed out.
"But I'm not supposed to be." And neither was anyone else, she added silently. "I just stopped by to grab the sweater I left here on Friday." She held up the powder-blue article of clothing as exhibit A. "And besides, I don't count."
"You do to me," Tracy told her, flashing a quick, fleeting smile at her friend. "And for your information, I'm not trying to impress anyone, I'm just trying to catch up on my workload."
Kate rolled her eyes. "You already work twice as hard as anyone here," she pointed out. "How much catching up do you possibly have to do?"
Tracy's slender shoulders rose and fell in an ab-sentminded shrug. "Enough," she said evasively, then, cocking her head, she leveled a piercing gaze at the woman who had been her friend all through law school. They'd been each other's support group through the bad times, and each other's cheering section through the good ones. "Don't you have somewhere to be?" she asked. After all, today was Mother's Day and, unlike her, Kate was lucky enough to still have one.
Kate feigned innocence. "As a matter of fact, I doand you're coming with me," she declared as if she'd just thought of it.
Instead of automatically demurring, Tracy felt she needed to arm herself with information first so that she could come up with a good reason to say no. Kate didn't take "no" easily. "And just where is it that I'm supposed to be going, too?"
"Giuseppe's. Lilli and I are taking my mother out for Mother's Day," she said, referring to her brother Kullen's wife.
Tracy shook her head. "That's okay, I'll just stay here and finish this brief."
"I'm not taking no for an answer, Trace," she informed her friend.
"It's Mother's Day," Tracy said out loud, taking care not to lace her protest with emotion. "I'm sure your mother doesn't want you dragging a stray along on her afternoon out."
"Then you definitely don't know my motherand you're not a stray," she tagged on as an afterthought. "You're more like family." She smiled at her. "Like the sister my mother never got around to giving me," she told Tracy.
Tracy suppressed a sigh. Mother's Day was particularly difficult for her on two counts. The mother she adored was no longer part of her life. She hadn't been for close to three years now. Moreover, added to that was the numbing fact that her blink-and-you've-missed-it marriage that came and went four years ago had left her pregnant and hopeful. Tracy had always loved children and the idea of being a mother herself was thrilling. But the thrill became tragedy when her baby came into the world prematurelyand stillborn.
That, more than the painfully short marriage she'd endured, had left her with the feeling that she was one of those people who was meant to go through life alone. She faced that the same way she faced everything else she found overwhelming: she threw herself into her work. Buried herself in a hundred and one details. Anything so that she didn't have any time to think, to dwell on her own situationor lack of one.
When the loneliness came at her full force, as it did sometimes, Tracy just worked a little harder until she was able to make herself numb again.