Kayla met them at Steven's house the next morning. Her mother happily dropped her off for an 'overnight shopping trip to Dallas'. They loaded into the car, Steven driving and Mark and the girls in back, and were on their way by 7 a.m..
The mood in the car was odd. Kayla was quiet, subdued, and Kristen radiated nervousness. Steven was also quiet, seemingly lost deep in thought. The longer the silence went on, the more nervous Kristen became, until Mark couldn't help but start to feel a bit nervous himself.
Steven took a different exit from last time and headed into downtown Dallas, stopping at the Galleria. He handed Kristen a cellphone and credit card. "Honey, you girls go have some fun. Buy yourself something pretty. I want to talk to Mark a little bit before we go on to Judge Aiken's house."
Kristen looked at him worriedly. "Um...okay, Daddy. Everything's okay, right?"
"Of course, sweetheart. Just a few things I want to talk about. Nothing to worry about at all."
She bit her lip and nodded hesitantly. Giving Mark a quick kiss, she slid out of the car with Kayla. Mark got out as well, to move to the passenger seat up front. Once the girls were out and Steven started the car again, he said quietly, "I promise I'll take care of her, Steven."
Steven watched the girls walk away, his eyes sad. "I know. Coffee?" Without waiting for an answer, he drove around the parking lot to a little sidewalk coffee shop.
They acquired coffee . . . espresso for Steven, and a cappuccino for Mark . . . and sat down at one of the little wicker tables. Steven was silent for a long while, turning his cup around and around in his hands.
Mark sipped his coffee and let him think, not rushing him, and tried to control his own nervousness.
Finally Steven sighed and looked up. "I'm not sure about this. I should have said something before, but she's been so happy that I just couldn't."
Mark's throat tightened and he stopped breathing for a moment. "Why aren't you?"
"Because it means losing her, son. And she's my baby. My only reason for getting out of bed in the mornings for the past fourteen years."
"You aren't losing her, Steven. She's still your baby. And she still loves you."
"You're a good man, Mark. A very good man. But it's damned hard to trust someone else to protect her."
"I know." He met Steven's eyes, all of his commitment plain in his own. "But I will. With my life, if need be."
Steven looked at him intently, "From herself, too? From doing things that she can't live with?"
Mark nodded. "If I can. I can't protect her from everything, Steven, or she won't be able to grow up. And I love her too much for that." He sipped his cappuccino. "Is there something in particular that you are worried about?"
"She loves you. She'll do anything she thinks will make you happy."
"I know. That's why I'm trying very hard to be careful what I say." Mark smiled, just a little. "Though you do realize the reverse is true, as well?""
"Yes. But you realize that doing something you don't want to just to please her would not make her happy. And I don't think the reverse of that is true."
"Hmmm. You might be right."
Steven sighed again. "She's my daughter. She's brilliant. But she is fourteen. If she was . . . normal . . . there's no way I'd agree to this, no matter how much she loved you or you her. Not at fourteen."
Mark nodded. "I know."
"She needs more guidance . . . more thought . . . than an older woman would from her husband. She cannot be an equal partner, not yet. Do you understand, have you thought of these things?" Steven asked.
Mark took a deep breath. "I have. I've also . . . " He looked for the right words. "I try not to tell her what to do; instead, I try to ask her questions that lead her to the answer, so that she understands why. Does that make sense? But sometimes . . . well, like last weekend, when I carried her downstairs. If it comes down to it . . . I'll make the decision."
"And are you going to be able to stop making the decisions once she's old enough to make her own? Or will you always be part lover, part father to her?"
"I think I'll be able to. That's my goal, to have her an equal partner." He met Steven's eyes. "I don't want to stay a father figure to her forever, if that's what you are worried about."
Steven nodded. "It would be very, very easy for you to mold her into the perfect little submissive wife, willing to automatically and without thought do whatever you asked. She would happily set aside any of her own goals for yours. She's fourteen and in love."
"I know. That's not what I want. I want a partner, someone who'll tell me when I'm being an idiot. Someone who'll tell me when I'm making mistakes."
Steven smiled slightly. "Good." He sighed again and shook his head. "I'm not just being insulting, Mark, believe it or not. I know you want what's best for her. But if she were your daughter, you'd be paranoid, too."
Mark smiled. "I know. Hell, Steven, if she ends up wanting to have children herself . . . well, I might have to be paranoid."
"Too true. Has she mentioned anything like that to you, by the way?"
Mark shook his head. "No. And I haven't brought it up because . . . well, if she does, but hasn't thought about it yet . . . no point in her wanting something she can't have yet."
He shrugged. "That's a hard question to answer. I guess the best way to put it is this: if she wants children, I'd love to have them, but I won't feel like something is missing if she doesn't."
Steven rubbed his forehead, smiling sadly. "I guess that's it then. I'm going to let you have my daughter. Hopefully you'll take better care of her than I've managed these past few years." He winced. "The bitch didn't give me any trouble when I fired her, not after I showed her the pictures. She admitted everything. Everything."
"I'm sorry," Mark said quietly, then hesitated. "Was there more than Kristen said the other day?""
"Nothing . . . big. Little things. Nothing blatant, nothing obvious, but she's been making her miserable for years. She made it plain that she'd always tried to keep Kris 'in her place.' Bitch."
Mark sighed. "I know. Kristen will never tell you, but . . . when she first went to school, someone asked Vanessa if she was her mother. Vanessa said 'Of course not', and seemed totally offended by the question. I suspect it was bad then, and just got worse when Kristen's . . . appetites showed up." He paused. "Mind if I stick my nose in where it absolutely doesn't belong?"
Steven smiled ironically. "Most people would say it already was, son, so you might as well."
Mark chuckled. "Why don't you try dating women you could fall in love with? Kristen didn't like the women you were dating, but I never got the idea that she disliked the idea of you dating." He looked at Steven sympathetically. "You can't replace her, Steven, but you can love again."
"No. I can't. It would not be fair to the woman, Mark. She could never hope to compare. And with Kris out of the house, I no longer need a constant . . . outlet for excess energy."
"I understand," Mark said sadly, "For what it's worth . . . I'm sorry."
"You should be. You're taking my reason for living." Steven smiled to show he was teasing, but it didn't quite reach his eyes.
Mark looked at Steven sharply. "You wouldn't dare."
Steven shook his head. "No, son, I wouldn't. It would break Kristen's heart. But . . . " He shrugged. "I cannot deny that the thought is more attractive than waking up for the next fifty years without her. If there was no one that it would hurt . . . but there is, so I won't."
"You are welcome in our home anytime, Steven. Anytime."
Steven smiled sadly. "I know. Come on, let's fetch your bride and her pretty little friend."
Mark nodded, a thoughtful look on his face. "I need to pick up the ring, and . . . I think I'd like to get her a wedding present. It's not normal, I know, but it's not like any others can."
"Hmm. What did you have in mind? I'd already intended to do something for you, just hadn't quite worked out what, yet."
"One of those really nice sketchbooks, the kind with a leather cover."
Steven nodded. "I think I know where we can find that sort of thing fairly easy. As for the ring . . . " He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small box. "These were her mother's. I thought that . . . the two of you might like to use them."
In the box was a slender gold band carved with roses and a matching engagement ring, the stone a gorgeous dark ruby exquisitely carved into the shape of an open rose. "Jarai loved roses, and she hated diamonds. And, since it was her mother's, Kristen could wear it at school. No one would question a child wearing her dead mother's wedding rings."
Mark looked at the box, then up at Steven. "You have no idea just how happy this is going to make her. She hated the thought that she couldn't wear her wedding ring to school."
"I know. " Steven smiled. "Symbols are important to her. Bad enough that you can't wear one, but I knew it would hurt her even more to not be able to wear some symbol of her commitment."
Mark said, "Let's go. I can't wait to put this on her finger."
Steven took him to a very nice, quite expensive art store. He was rather surprised at variety of things available, and after some deliberation ended up with a pair of high-quality sketchbooks--one in a sealed, lockable titanium case complete with a carrying compartment with little sticks of charcoal and a miniature can of fixative, and another, larger spiral-bound one with a hard cover made of beautifully polished mahogany with a vine of roses carved up one side.
Steven picked up a set of oil paints and a pack of canvases. "To make up for making sure she had what she needed for her class," he explained at Mark's inquisitive look.
On the way back, Steven dialed the girls' phone and had them meet them at the front entrance of the mall. They were waiting when the men drove up, both carrying several shopping bags and smiling happily.
Mark helped them put the bags in the trunk, and slid into the back with the two happy, giggling girls. Kristen curled up under his arm, pressing close to his side, and he smiled down at her. "Hey, love. Let me see your hand." He slid the engagement ring on. "Will you marry me?"
She stared at the ring, eyes wide in shock. "Oh! Oh, Mark . . . I think I'm going to cry. Daddy, this is . . . "
Steven nodded. "She'd want you to have it, baby. She always did."
Kristen blinked back tears and threw her arms around Mark, kissing him soundly.
Mark kissed her, then pulled back. "You know, no one would be surprised that you were wearing your mothers rings to school."
She smiled with pure delight. "Really?"
He nodded. "Which means..."
"Oh!" Kristen kissed him again. "Thank you thank you thank you! Both of you!"
Mark then pulled out the shopping bag. "I know husbands don't usually buy wedding presents, but I figured this was a special circumstance." He handed her the bag, the contents still hidden.
Kristen peeked inside, and gasped. "Oh! How beautiful." She caressed the silky wood, then looked at the metal one. "Um...how do I get it open?"
Mark showed her how to work and set the lock.
"This is wonderful, love! I can draw anything I want in this. Thank you." She smiled up at him, and said with a blush, "I got you a present, too, but I want to wait for later to give it to you."
He leaned over and whispered. "Is it something I'll want to take off of you?"
"Oh, no, that's what Kayla got you," she whispered back.
Mark raised an eyebrow. "I see. Are you going to tell me, or do I have to wait?"
She grinned at him impishly. "You'll just have to wait," she said, eliciting a distinct pout and sad puppy-dog eyes.
Kristen planted little kisses on his cheeks and neck and warned, "Be good, or Kayla will tickle you."
He cowered in mock fear. "Not that!"
Kayla giggled. "Have patience, then. You'll see eventually."
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