Disclaimer: Daria and associated characters are owned by MTV. This is fan fiction written for entertainment only. No money or other negotiable currency or goods have been exchanged. Original characters and plot copyright Richard J. Lobinske. 2008.
This is the Sixty-first story in the Falling into College series.
In his apartmentís living room, Michael was sprawled on the sofa, watching TV. Laughing at a joke, he pointed a bottle of beer at the screen and said, "Sometimes, I canít believe that they successfully sold Guy TV to any network."
Seated on a recliner, Lewis took a drink from his beer and said, "Hey, itís niche marketing, just look at their 'Fathers of Invention' bits."
"Or the ĎGirls Jumping on Bedsí at the end of each episode."
Lewis snickered. "I bet the producers would die if they knew how many drag queens get ideas from that."
Michael drank some beer and said, "Now, thatís what you call unintended consequences."
More contemplative, Lewis said, "You know, this is your last summer before finishing your undergrad. Got any plans?"
"Besides going back to my folks' for Ginaís graduation next weekend? Not really. Dariaís play finishes up this weekend, so weíll hit the cast party. Other than that, I guess Iím mostly going to work. Probably get a trip or two to Newtown, depending upon if we dig up anything interesting."
"No other trips planned?
Michael held up his hand, still pale from the recently removed cast. "I donít see how. Between trying to save up to replace my car, the co-pay on my hand and, well, paying for things most of the time Daria and I go out because she still doesnít have a job, Iím mostly tapped out."
"Iíd hold off on the car then. If you think youíre busy now, wait until you get into grad school."
"Iíll see what I can do, but weíll have to work around Dariaís schedule; sheís still taking classes this summer."
Half-joking, Lewis said, "Doesnít she already have enough hours to graduate?"
"She is a double major who has taken a few extra classes. You could say that she canít get enough."
Lewis chuckled. "Iím not going to touch that one, except that maybe your egoís getting a little big."
"I walked into that one."
"Is she still student teaching?"
"Next week is her last. After things wrap up that Friday, weíre flying to Detroit."
Surrounded by other celebrating cast members, Wendy put her arm around Dariaís shoulders and said, "Now, arenít you glad I talked you into trying out?"
Daria flashed a faint smile and said, "It kept me off of the streets for a while."
"You just canít admit to having a good time, can you?"
Returning with two glasses filled with a blue-colored punch, Michael said, "It all depends on who is asking."
Daria looked at the drinks. "Do you think those things are safe?"
He shrugged, "Considering that they call it ĎCode Blueí, probably not, though theyíre drinking it anyway."
Daria accepted a glass and gently chided, "Youíre still not legal, you know."
"Hmm, so you like them young?" Wendy teased.
"Hey, Iím only a couple months shy," Michael said in his defense.
"Well, if both of you are drinking, make sure Lorna has your keys," Wendy said.
"Iíve already dropped mine off," Daria answered. "Michaelís still on driving probation."
"Thatís good, I want everyone to get home safe or crash here."
"Did you have to use the word, Ďcrashí?" Michael said.
Looking over at Wendy and Lorna kissing, Daria leaned against Michael and slurred, "Arenít they cute?"
Equally intoxicated, he turned her face toward his with a finger and said, "Not as cute as you," before kissing her.
Brian, Dariaís opposite during the play, walked between the couples and said, "Sheesh, people. Get a room. Or two."
Daria leaned against Michael and half-closed her eyes. "That might be a good idea; Iím in no condition to drive."
Brian stepped over to Wendy and cocked a thumb toward Daria. "I think someoneís about to conk out."
Wendy broke her embrace with Lorna and looked. "Daria? How are you doing?"
"Fine," she answered, leaning more heavily against Michael - who was starting to lean back and seemed to be losing consciousness just as fast.
To Lorna and Brian, Wendy said, "Wanna give me a hand? We can put them in the spare room."
He said, "Why do they get the good bed?"
"First passed out, first served."
Daria groaned and kept her eyes tightly shut against her pounding headache. Trying to move, she discovered that she felt weak and achy all over. The only thing agreeable was Michaelís arm around her waist. Hoping the light wasnít bright, Daria opened her eyes and looked into his face, half covered by the pillow and lightly snoring through his open mouth. "I probably looked just as bad a moment ago," she whispered and closed her eyes again at the pain. Okay Morgendorffer, donít talk, think. Daria watched him for a while and then touched his cheek. Our first hangover together, how romantic. I guess if I can stand to look at you right now, it must be love.
Hearing quiet rustling, Daria gently rolled and looked around the room to get her bearings. Good grief, we passed out at Wendyís place. Moving slowly and carefully, Daria stood and shuffled to the door. Looking down, she noted, I see that they werenít brave enough to take off my socks. Following the sound, she opened the door and peeked out.
Lorna was in the living room dragging a plastic trash bag and picking up debris from the cast party. She looked up and quietly said, "Morning. What do you want first, aspirin or coffee?"
Lorna went to the kitchen and asked, "How do you like your coffee?"
"Milk and sugar," Daria said, making it to the sofa and sitting down.
Shortly after, Lorna returned with a mug that said, "Girls just know how to have fun," and two tablets. She placed them in Dariaís hand and held the mug until Daria had popped the tablets into her mouth. When Daria reached for the mug, Lorna kept a steady hand around it until she was certain that the younger woman had a good grip.
Daria nodded in thanks and swallowed the pills with a sip of coffee. She stared blankly ahead for several minutes, slowly drinking her coffee while Lorna continued to clean. When someone else moaned, Daria realized that a couple of cast members were asleep or passed out on sleeping bags and inflatable mattresses along the edge of the room.
Wendy came out of her room and saw Daria. Having a little fun at her friendís expense, she said, "You sure canít hold your liquor and neither can your boyfriend."
"Iíd appreciate a little telepathy if you can manage it," Daria said, holding a hand to her head. "Maybe it wonít hurt as much."
Wendy took a seat next to her and said in a lower voice, "Youíre tough. Youíll get over it."
"Tell me something. If this is the usual aftereffect of too much drinking, why do people keep doing it? Havenít they heard of negative reinforcement?"
Silently laughing, Wendy said, "I guess people figure that itís worth the pain."
"People are weird."
"We knew that," Michael said, leaning against the doorframe. "My theory is that alcohol makes people forget about their previous hangovers, so they donít think about the aftereffects."
Daria asked, "Michael. How are you feeling?"
"About as bad as I felt after Trentís bachelor party."
Daria carefully stood and went over, giving him a hug. "Misery loves company."
He said, "So that means you still love me?"
"Yes, it does."
As Daria got out of her car early that afternoon, she saw Janeís boyfriend, Mike MacKenzie, coming down the stairs. He saw her and gave a wave. "Hey, Daria. How was the cast party?"
"It was okayÖat least the part of it I saw. Michael and I kind of fell out early."
He laughed and said, "Good thing you werenít at a frat party or you mightíve woken up with a tattoo or something."
"I still canít picture you at a frat party," Daria said.
He shrugged. "Itís part of the territory. Besides, I had plenty of experience keeping tabs on the old Lawndale football team."
"Good point, but I have to ask. Have you ended up with any tattoos?"
"Iíll let you ask Jane," he said. "Anyway, I need to hit the road to get back to Vance. See you later, Daria."
"Later," she said, starting up the stairs.
Inside, Jane and Karen were waiting, with Jane tapping her foot. "Itís about time you got home, young lady. What are we going to do with you after youíre out all night partying?"
"I saw Mike leaving," Daria said. "You may have stayed up all night, but donít try to claim that you were waiting for me."
"She got you," Karen said. "Donít worry, Daria, I didnít wait up and slept like a baby. Well, once I put in earplugs."
Jane ignored Karen and continued to tap her foot. "Well?"
"Michael and I had a bit too much to drink and crashed early in Wendyís spare room. I know whatís going through your mind. If there was any kind of wild orgy, we slept through it."
Jane grinned anyway. "You passed out at a party." She turned and hugged Karen. "Our little girl is growing up."
Daria smirked and said, "By the way, have you noticed any interesting tattoos on Mike? He said to ask you."
Walking along one of San Diegoís beaches with Q, Quinn smiled when he suddenly stopped and squatted down to look at something on the ground. Noticing the small beetle that he was watching, she said, "You are such a cute little geek."
Q glanced up and said, "Guilty," before observing the insect scurry away. He stood and grasped her hand. "Shall we continue?"
Teasing, she said, "Yeah, weíd better go before you get distracted again," while glancing down at her bikini.
He kissed her cheek and playfully said, "I get the hint. Itís all about you."
Quinn kissed him back and said in the same tone of voice, "And donít you forget it."
They continued to walk hand in hand along the shore, not really noticing the whirl of activity going on along the beach, nor the guys that stopped and looked before shaking their heads in frustration. Q said, "You know, I could get used to this."
"You mean walking along the beach with a pretty girl instead of chasing bugs in the sand?"
"No, I mean walking along the beach with you, and still getting to chase bugs in the sand."
"Quinn Gilstad, youíre starting to sound like youíre spoiled or something," she said.
"And if I am?"
"Hmm, Iíll have to work on that."
He then asked, "Speaking of work, howís your new job with those image consultants working out?"
She sighed. "Iím shuffling papers more than anything else. Daria warned me that Iíd be a small fish in a very big pond and Iíd have to get through some grunt work before theyíll notice me."
"I know the feeling," Q replied. "Still being the newest grad student in the lab means I get stuck with the same kind of stuff or worse, like cleaning the carrion beetle cages. I wish my professor would pick up another grad student so I can shuffle it off to them."
Quinn said, "Speaking of your professor, what else does he have you doing this summer?"
"Writing grant proposals. As my professor said, ĎTheyíre a fact of life. You might as well get used to it now.í Of course, bringing in more money to his lab is only a nice side benefit for him."
Hearing Jake yell, "Dammit!" following the clattering of cookware falling in the kitchen, Helen rolled her eyes with an amused sigh and grabbed her cane as she stood. Going down the stairs, she said, "Jake?"
"Stupid, miserable double boiler!" Jake yelled, seeming not yet to hear his wife.
At the stair bottom, she called louder, "Jake? Are you okay?"
"Oh, um, yeah, honey. Iím okay."
"Is the kitchen?" Helen asked as she continued to approach.
"Itís just a little messy and, um, maybe sticky," Jake confessed.
"Sticky?" she asked, almost afraid to turn the corner.
When she did, Jake was standing to one side of the stove and a few wisps of steam rose from the floor in front of him. He looked down and said, "I was trying to melt chocolate to make some candies like those you get from Amy."
Shaking her head but smiling, she said, "Oh, Jakey, you donít have to do that."
"But I like to," he replied.
"Okay," Helen said. Still staying at the edge of the kitchen, she then asked, "Do I want to see it?"
Jake gazed down at the floor. "No, not really, honey."
She came around the counter anyway. "Weíd better get it cleaned up before the chocolate hardens and we have to scrape it off of the floor tiles."
"I can get it."
"I want to help."
Helen pulled some paper towels loose from a roll on the counter and eased herself down to start sopping the mixed water and chocolate from the kitchen floor. Jake grabbed more and joined her in cleaning the mess. Side by side, they worked together. Seeing the upper pot of the double boiler, she tasted some of the chocolate remaining. "Hmm, this is good."
"Too bad I spilled it all," Jake mumbled.
Smearing a little more of the warm candy on her lips, Helen turned to him and seductively said, "I think you missed a spot."
"Mom, Dad, itís good to be home," Jodie Landon said, hugging her parents. Stepping between them, she then hugged her sister. "Hi, Rachel. How are you?"
"Iím good," the sixteen year old said. "Keeping my grades up. But Iím warning you, I am not going to Turner or to Crestmore when I graduate. I need a break from hearing about you."
"I donít blame you, though Crestmore is working my tail off and Iím mostly just another student. Itís giving me a nice sense of perspective." Jodie then squatted down and hugged her little brother. "Evan."
"Jodie!" he called and hugged her back.
Michelle said, "Heís doing great in his preschool," while looking aside toward her husband.
Andrew shuffled a little under his wifeís gaze and said, "Jodie, just another student?"
"Yeah, Dad. Crestmore is full of overachievers and compared to them, Iím one of the pack."
He smiled at her. "Ah, I see. Some serious competition for a change. Itíll be good for you."
"I suppose, but Iím glad to be back in Lawndale."
Andrew asked, "Are you still planning on working with Jake Morgendorffer again this summer?"
Jodie nodded an affirmative. "Effectively, Iím almost a partner and I get to work directly with real clients." She grinned at her father. "Experience all those other Crestmore students can only wish for while they file papers for their high-profile internships."
He nodded and put an arm around Michelle. "Thatís our girl."
Daria walked along the rows of eighth grade students, returning papers. "Overall, Iím very pleased with your final essays. They are a big improvement over what you wrote at the beginning of the semester." Done, she stepped over to her desk and turned to face the class. "Since those essays were your final exam, the rest of the class period is free time."
The students let out a cheer, which prompted Daria to hold up her hand and say, "As long as you keep the noise level down."
The students became quieter, but continued to talk among themselves and start to move around. Daria walked around the desk and took a seat to watch the class and make a final check of her grade book.
Sensing someone standing next to her, she said, "Did you want something, Kevin?"
"Ms. Morgendorffer, I, um, learned a lot from you. You made things fun."
Daria felt a pleasant warmth inside. "Thank you, Kevin. Youíve made a lot of progress and you have the good grades to show it."
"Too bad you wonít be teaching at my high school next year."
"Iím sorry, but I still have classes I have to attend, too. But that doesnít give you an excuse to slack off. You know you can do the work and I expect you to keep it up."
"Yes, maíam," he said before going back to his seat.
A girl came up and Daria said, "Yes, Kath?"
She twirled her hair on one finger, reminding Daria of Brittany from high school, though the child in front of her was very different from the cheerleader. Kath said, "I really liked reading Animal Farm. Is there anything like that I can read this summer?"
"I could tell you, but you also know how to use a library. I think you can find more books like that on your own. The search is half the fun."
"Like shopping," the girl cheerfully said.
"You could look at it that way. And with Bostonís public libraries, you have a lot to find."
"Iím going to ask my mom to take me there tomorrow. Hey, maybe you can go there, too."
"Iím sorry, Kath," Daria said. "But Iíll be in Detroit tomorrow. You have my e-mail. Maybe we can set up another time."
After the students had filed out of the room, Dariaís mentor teacher, Mr. Lambert, stepped into the room, silently clapping. "Congratulations, Daria. Iíll happily recommend an ĎAí for your grade this semester. Youíre good in front of a class."
"Having a good class helps. I know you donít want to scare off potential teachers by throwing them to the dogs while they're still interns."
He folded his arms over his chest and smirked. "True. We wait until youíre on the payroll."
"Something to remember while Iím waiting for my first book to sell," Daria replied in kind.
"All kidding aside, you have a talent for teaching. I hope you find some outlet so it doesnít go unused."
"Um, thanks. Iím planning on grad school, so becoming a professor isnít out of the question, though the job market for English and other Liberal Arts majors is the pits."
"Iím glad to hear that youíre being realistic."
"My auntís a professor at Tennyson and has given me a full run-down on the situation."
"It's always good to get inside information." He picked up the grade book and glanced at the pages. "Everything looks in order. You might need to come back for a bit of paperwork, but otherwise, youíre done."
"And there was much rejoicing."
He chuckled and said, "I hate to run you off, but my next class should be arriving in a minute or two. Have a good summer, Daria. And please, consider finding some way to teach."
"Thanks, andÖI will," she said, stepping toward the door as children started to wander in.
Leaving the school building, Daria saw Janeís custom painted car and headed straight for it. Before she got there, Michael got out of the front passenger door to greet Daria. "How did it go?"
"I passed and so did the munchkins," Daria said, giving him a kiss.
From the driverís seat, Jane said, "Come on and get in. They shifted lanes again around the Big Dig and traffic on the way to the airport is going to suck."
"Okay, okay," Daria said, "Iím getting in." She climbed into the back seat while Michael closed the front door and climbed into the back after her.
Jane grinned at them and said, "Itís a good thing I like you, Morgendorffer. Now please, try to keep your clothes on. This isnít a limo."
Daria looked at Michael. "Damn. I guess weíll just have to wait until weíre on the plane."
"Hmm," he said, giving her a sly smile. "That would make a good story when weíre old and gray."
Starting the car and driving through the school parking lot, Jane looked in the rear-view mirror and said, "You two finally get interested in an extracurricular activity together and it's the Mile High Club. Itís a good thing you two are out of town this weekend. Mack has a fraternity trip and we canít be together, so Karen and I are going out on the town. We wouldnít want to disturb you when we got home."
Finding them at the baggage claim, Samantha Fulton said, "Michael! Daria! Iím so glad to see you!" as she wormed through other passengers and their greeters to hug the couple. When she stepped back, Samantha said, "Come on, Ginaís excited to see you, too."
Picking up his suitcase from the carousel, Michael said, "Yeah, itíll be good to see Gina, too. Iíve kinda missed the little brat. Although, itís hard to say Ďlittleí anymore with her graduating."
Daria, already holding her luggage, said, "So Ginaís a big brat like my sister; we like them anyway."
"Some things never change," Samantha said. "Daria, how is your mother doing?"
"Very good. Her voice is almost back to full and sheís back to work. She still needs a cane and it frustrates her that she canít power walk anymore, but sheís finding other things to keep in shape."
"It looks like youíre doing a good job of that too, Daria. Youíve lost some weight and it looks good. Now if I can only do the same."
"Thanks, Samantha. I wish you luck."
"Daria, Iím going to need more than luck."
"Goofball!" Gina screamed, coming down the stairs.
"Hey, Brat," he said, waiting for his sister. "You finally made it, huh?"
Lightly punching his arm, Gina said, "One down, one to go," she said. "Berlioz College, here I come."
"Michael told me you were accepted into the Conservatory," Daria said with a touch of awe in her voice. "Impressive."
"Can you believe it?" Gina replied, her joy showing clearly. "They really liked my singing voice."
Michael said, "Thatís one thing you always did better than me. Congratulations."
His father walked in and said, "Welcome home, son. Daria, a pleasure to see you again, too. Gina, can I have a word with them for a second?"
"Uh, sure, Daddy," the younger girl said. "I think Iíll go call Natalie to confirm our plans for tomorrow night."
"Go on," Ron said. After Gina had gone upstairs and Samantha had entered the house, he said, "I didnít want her to tease you. Daria, will we need to open the sofa bedÖ" he took a deep breath, "or will you be staying with Michael?"
Daria clasped Michaelís hand as she said, "Weíll stay together, thanks."
"I know the wedding is still a year away, but youíve made a real commitment together. Weíll respect that," Samantha said.
Standing beside him in her nightgown and looking at Michaelís single bed, Daria smirked and said, "This is going to be cozy."
Running his hand along her bare shoulder, he said, "Whenever we sleep together, we tend to only use that much space anyway."
She turned to face him and slipped her arms around his chest. "We are spoiled that way."
Michael held her for several moments before saying, "Shall we?"
Daria nodded and stepped with him to the bed. The squeak of bedsprings as they sat down caused her to say, "I know that thereís one thing we wonít be doingÖat least when anybody else is home."
Laying down and pulling the sheets over them, Michael spooned against Daria and whispered, "But we can always do this."
Closing her eyes and holding her arms over his, she said, "As much as you want."
Pounding on the door late the next morning, followed by Gina shouting, "Come on, wake up! I donít want to be late," woke Daria and Michael the next morning.
He groggily said, "Itís not until one oíclock, relax."
"Itís 11:30, Goofball!" she replied.
Daria mumbled, "Hmm, maybe we should get out of bed." Snuggling her face against his chest, she added, "Though I really donít want to."
"Do I have to come in there with a bucket of water?" Gina called.
Michael held Daria close and said, "Youíre dead meat if you do. Weíll be out in a few minutes."
"Little sisters," Daria said. "Itís a wonder that we havenít killed them."
"Hello, sleepyheads," Samantha said as the couple came downstairs. "Gina just left to get lined up for the procession. We can go in my car after youíve had a quick breakfast."
Michael scratched his side and said, "So all of that was a parting shot. I shouldíve known."
Daria nudged him. "Hey, at least you donít have to get up on stage like I did at Quinnís."
"Point taken," he said. "Mom, you said breakfast."
"Thereís some French toast in the kitchen that you can heat in the microwave. If we can leave within half an hour, we should be able to get good seats."
"Gotcha, Mom," Michael said. "Daria?"
"Lead on. French toast sounds good to me."
While they were eating, Michaelís parents returned and sat at the table. Ron asked, "Howís your hand doing?"
Michael flexed the fingers of his left hand, saying, "Better. A little stiff for a couple days after the cast came off, but otherwise fully functional."
"I hope you learned a lesson from that little accident," Samantha said, her voice both warmly concerned but still nagging.
"Mom, that couldíve been one of the biggest mistakes of my life," Michael said. "I learned several lessons."
Daria reached for his hand. "Donít feel bad. Iíve had to learn some of those lessons the hard way, too."
Ron snickered and said, "Weíre all in the same boat." He glanced at his wife briefly before going on, "Iím not at liberty to discuss the details, but, Iíve been there too, son."
"Oh, so itís genetic," Michael said. "Figures."
Sitting with their arms around each other in the stands of his old high schoolís football stadium while Ginaís class valedictorian droned on, Michael leaned his head toward Daria and said, "God, these speeches always sound alike. What do they do, have a universal graduation cue card?"
Daria whispered back, "Itís something in the air that sucks all the realism out of your brain and replaces it with heart-warming optimism."
"Oh yeah, you got stuck giving one of those speeches."
"Two," Daria corrected. "One for mine and one for Quinnís."
"Oh, thatís right. You did the second one not long after my first real screw-up. You know, Iím starting to detect a worrisome pattern here."
"True, but we donít have any more siblings that will be graduating from high school."
"Which means I canít blame my next one on some cosmic alignment of high school graduations with my foot in my mouth."
Daria gave him a quick, sidelong glance. "Then donít have another one."
"Does that mean itís your turn?"
Daria faintly snorted a laugh and said, "Probably."
As the valedictorian stepped away from the podium, Daria motioned toward two young men climbing the steps. "Looks like those two decided to skip the boring speeches and just show up to see the long, dull line."
Michael let out a soft groan and said, "Thatís two people I couldíve gone my whole life without ever seeing again."
"I went to school with them. We didnít exactly get along."
"Ah, I see."
When the two neared, Michael politely nodded in their direction, but didnít say anything. After they walked past, one said to the other, "Damn, those seduction CDs they sell on the Internet must really work. Did you see that chick with Fulton?"
"Eh, he mustíve paid her," the other said. "Nobody that hot would be interested in him."
Her ears burning, Daria lifted her free hand and turned Michaelís face to hers, slowly and deeply kissing him while letting one eye watch the stunned looks on the other menís faces.
The first said, "Dude, even we donít have that kind of cash."
Following Dariaís idea, Michael took her hand and slowly kissed it before holding it and his over her heart while he moved up to softly kiss her lips.
"He didnít learn that off of some CD," the second said.
Behind the two young men, someone grumbled, "Hey, sit down, you dumb punks. We canít see through you."
After the two hurried away and found a seat higher in the bleachers, Michael said, "I love the way you think."
She smiled back at him. "I was only protecting your reputation."
Arm in arm with her best friend Natalie, Gina appeared from the edge of the crowd and waved. "Mom, Dad, over here!"
Ron and Samantha, followed by Daria and Michael, changed directions and hurried over to the teens. Ron held his camera up and said, "Hold still."
Both grinning, Gina and Natalie posed and waited for the flash to fade. Gina said, "Well, we really made it. Official and everything."
"OfficialÖonce we pick up our real diplomas and not the just the empty holder they gave us," Natalie said. "Just to make sure someone didnít use a joy buzzer on the old Wonder Weasel or something."
Michael sniggered. "Wonder Weasel. Some things never change."
Daria asked, "Principal?"
"Yeah. He can weasel his way out of anything. Too bad you didnít go to our high school, Daria. Maybe you couldíve done him in the way you did in yours."
Natalie exclaimed, "You got rid of your high school principal? That is so cool."
"I only had a part in it and risked a lot less than the girl that really got the ball rolling."
"Itís still cool."
Daria said, "I did what I thought was right. I heard that Gina is going to Berlioz College. What are your plans?"
"Not as fancy," Natalie said. "Iíll get my AA from the local community college and then transfer to U of M. That is, unless I can hook my mom up with some rich guy in the next couple of months."
"At least youíll be close," Daria said. "Sometimes, I wish I was a lot closer to my parents. I miss them more than I expected."
After the ceremony, Daria and Michael returned to the Fulton home with his parents. Seated on the sofa with Michael, Daria asked, "Did you go on a graduation trip with your class like Gina and Natalie?"
He shook his head. "No, I felt about as much attachment to my class as you did. I stayed home and went to work with Dad for the summer."
On one of the recliners, Samantha said, "What about you, Daria? Did you go on a trip?"
"No," she replied. "I didnít feel much attachment to most of my classmates, either."
"Oh. Anyway, it sounds like Gina is going to have fun."
"Are you planning any trips this summer?" Ron asked.
"No," Michael said. "Between everything thatís going on, we really wonít have a chance."
Daria said, "I still havenít found a job. The trust fund from my grandmother covers all my college costs and basic expenses, but not things like vacation trips."
"And it will take me a while to save for another car," Michael said.
"We understand and thanks for coming out for Ginaís graduation. It means a lot to her, even if she doesnít say it," Samantha said.
"I do miss the little brat," Michael said. "Iím really happy she got into the program she wanted. She was always a better singer than I was."
"Daria, you told me a little at the airport, anything more on how well your mother is doing?" Samantha said, shifting the topic.
"Still making progress and holding up working full-time, though sheís not putting in the extra hours any more. ĎActing more like a partner,í as Mom put it."
"His business is still doing well, though Dad still scares a client off now and then. I think my parents have finally settled down into a comfortable life without Quinn and me in the house."
Samantha looked sadly at Ron. "Maybe we can call Helen and Jake for a few pointers for dealing with an empty house."
"Or invite them to visit. I can set up the grill," Ron said.
Samantha gave him a glare. "You and Jake are not allowed near a grill at the same time."
"Never. Itís simply too dangerous for anyone with a hundred yard blast radius."
Daria smirked and said, "Wise woman."
"Speaking of families getting together," Samantha said as she turned her attention back to Michael and Daria. "What kind of wedding plans have you made?"
"Not much since itís still a year away," Daria said, manner-of-factly.
"Weíre not going for anything big or complicated," Michael said. "We figure Quinn and Gina can take care of that for their weddings."
Samantha sighed. "I should be grateful because Gina hasÖideas."
"Iíve never heard anything specific out of Quinn, but I know her and things will have to be just perfect," Daria said in agreement.
"But this should be a special day for you, Daria," Samantha said.
"We want it to be special," Daria replied. "So we're not focusing on the material part."
Ron asked, "Have you thought about what kind of ceremony you'll have or who will officiate?"
Daria looked at Michael and after a second, he said, "We've discussed it, but haven't decided. Daria leans toward writing our own ceremony, like her parents."
She promised, "Except, a little lessÖSixtiesÖthan they used."
Michael said, "While I think it still would feel right to have a minister and something a little closer to conventional."
"If Trent and Lindy could do something conventional, I suppose that I could go along with some conventionality," Daria said, before adding, "As a compromise."
"I'm sure Rev. Wilks would be happy to officiate, if you asked." After a pause, Samantha inquired, "Daria, how much have you discussed things with Helen?"
"We haven't," she said.
Samantha looked honestly surprised and said, "Oh. In that case, I better stop right here." Joking, she added, "Unless you're planning on getting married and telling everyone after the fact."
"It would make things easier," Michael said. "But we want our families and friends to be there with us."
Daria nodded and said with a knowing smile, "Just not too many of them."
Relaxing as much as permitted by the airliner seat, Daria rested her head on Michael's shoulder and sighed. "You know that these interrogations about our wedding are only going to become more frequent. Especially from my mom."
"And your sister," Michael said, gently stroking the side of her face. "But we'll survive and have something we both want. The day is for us, not them."
"Once we figure out what we want."
"Yeah," he said with a faint laugh. "Are you open to bribery?"
With a gentle laugh in return, Daria said, "My mother's a lawyer; what do you think?"
"So it's going to be expensive. I'd better start saving my pennies."
Daria kissed his cheek and whispered, "It doesnít have to be cashÖ"
Karen lifted the photo from her printer and studied the image of Derek's face. It was tanned and ruddy from windburn, with a couple days of beard growth and dark glasses perched on it. His smile touched her as always and she smiled back at the picture. "You know how to get me every time."
The printer continued on the next image in the queue and Karen waited patiently, hand ready to take it from the tray. She was glad to see that the next one was sans the sunglasses, allowing her to see his eyes. Her smile slowly faded as she looked deeper and saw the changes there. Nothing physical, but something very real that told Karen that Derek would not be the same when he returned.
There was a short commotion at the front door and Karen heard Jane say, "Come on, Daria, Iím disappointed in you."
"Jane, have you really noticed just how cramped the restrooms on airliners are?" Daria replied, humorously exasperated by her friend.
"I was thinking cozy."
Karen set the photos aside and stood before walking to her door as Daria and Jane reached the hallway.
Daria said, "Considering how many people use those bathrooms on a flight, I prefer to come in contact with as little of the walls or surfaces as possible. Tell you what. When I become rich, Iíll charter a private plane and have a moreÖhygienic experience."
"Iím going to hold you to that," Jane said.
"Hey, how was your trip?" Karen said.
"Thereís a reason that they call them discount airlines," Daria said. "When my legs feel cramped, you know that they have too many seats crammed into too small of a space."
"Okay, the flights sucked. What about the rest?"
"Michaelís parents got their first round of wedding questions out of the way. The graduation went about like most others. I met a couple of Michaelís former classmates and they were as big of asses as he claimed. Ginaís grown and I think sheís going to do fine. She took off for a graduation trip with her friend and I only got to really see her Friday night."
Karen listened and said, "I bet you ate well while you were there, too."
"I canít complain. Samantha is an excellent cook, and Ronís not so badÖas long as you keep him away from open flames."
Going to her room, Jane said, "Well, are you ready for another exciting Monday tomorrow?"
Daria sighed. "Exciting, yeah. Arenít all Mondays?"
Lindy sat across the booth from Helen at The Settlement and said, "Thanks for listening. Amanda might be the kindest soul Iíve ever known, but youíre the one whoís been able to give me realistic advice."
"Iím only giving back," Helen replied with a thankful smile. "For everything you and Trent did for us after my stroke."
Lindy smiled and sipped from her cup of tea. "What goes around, comes around. Quinn helped me get and stay sober."
"So, how is Trent holding up?"
"Heís still excited. Oh, did I tell you that Trent already bought a toy guitar for our son?"
"Iím not surprised."
The younger woman closed her eyes and fought down a wave of nausea. "Iíll be glad when the morning sickness finally goes away."
"I hear you, though I never understood why they called it Ďmorningí when it hit at all parts of the day. At least for me, it was easier with Quinn. I only felt it for about two months."
"Let me see if I survive one before I start making plans for a second."
Helenís cell phone rang and she said, "Excuse me," before answering it. "Hello." She rolled her eyes, causing Lindy to knowingly smirk. Helen inhaled and said, "Conrad, thatís why we buy the West Law CDs every year, so that associates donít get hernias looking up the legal code. The printed copies are there to impress the clients. Iíll run you through the relevant sections when I get back from lunch." She checked her watch and finished the conversation with, "Which will be about ten minutes. Good-bye."
"At least it wasnít that Eric guy," Lindy said.
"No, it was just another associate that needed a Monday afternoon hand-holding." Helen held up her hand and politely told the waitress, "Check, please."
A portly man with a fringe of grey hair entered Morgendorffer Consulting and looked around. Seeing Jodie at the desk, he said, "Ms. Landon, good to see you back. Is Jake available?"
She smiled and picked up the phone, punching buttons to ring in Jake's office. When he answered, she said, "Mr. Gavril is here to see you. Okay, I'll send him in." Jodie hung up the phone and said, "He's available."
The man nodded and went into the office. "Jake, how are you doing?"
Jake stood and shook his visitorís offered hand. "Very good, and how are you?"
"Great! Our bookings from the mid-Atlantic states are way up, thanks in no small part to you. The Caribbean Star and the Caribbean Queen both broke passenger records this last spring."
"That's what I'm here for," Jake cheerfully replied.
Mr. Gavril reached inside his suit coat and removed a stack of tickets from within. "As a little token of our appreciation, how would you like to take your family on one of our 7-day cruises? I have a block of three ocean view and three adjacent interior cabins with your name on it for the first August trip."
Flabbergasted, Jake sputtered, "Wow!"
"Celebration Cruises takes care of those that take care of us. Have fun, Jake. Oh, and the tickets are non-refundable," Mr. Gavril said.
Jake accepted the tickets, still looking down at them. "Helen's going to love this!"
"That's the idea. Anyway, thanks again for the great marketing campaign. Have a good day."
Jake looked up as his guest started to turn. "Oh, yeah. Hey, you have a great day, too!"
Mr. Gavril smiled to Jodie on his way out while Jake followed. After the door closed, she said, "Good news?"
"Great news! He just gave me six cruise tickets as a bonus for last year's campaign."
"That's so cool," Jodie said. "Have a good time."
Jake separated the tickets and said, "You did as much work on the Celebration Cruises account as I did and my family will only need three tickets."
Jodie pondered a moment and then shook her head. "Someone needs to hold down the fort while youíre gone. I bet Daria and Quinn have some friends theyíd like to invite."
"Donít you want to go?"
"Itís tempting, but you deserve a break with your family and this will probably be your last chance to do something together. I donít want to intrude. Besides, Iím also thinking about how this will look on my resume. Jake, you know I can handle the business for a week. Give me a chance."
"Okay, Jodie. But are you going to get away for a vacation?"
She smirked. "Donít worry; I have something planned for the week before I go back to Crestmore."
"Why does Jake have the garage open?" Helen asked herself as she pulled into the driveway. Part amused and part fearful of what she might encounter, she left the SUV and walked over to where Jake was pulling their SCUBA equipment free from the accumulated clutter. "Jake, what are you doing?"
"Hey, just pulling out our diving gear," he cheerfully answered.
"Is there any particular reason why?"
Jake brushed the dust from his clothes and took the tickets from his shirt pocket. "I thought we could take a refresher course before finally going on a Caribbean cruise."
"Jake!" Helen exclaimed. "Don't you think you should talk to me before spending a bunch of money on a cruise!?"
"Honey, I didn't spend any money," Jake said in his defense while stepping back.
With as much sarcasm as her daughter, Helen said, "Oh, someone just gave them to you."
"Mr. Gavril from Celebration Cruises."
Caught by surprise, Helen calmed and said, "What was that?"
"He gave me the tickets as a bonus for how well their marketing campaign has worked. Six cabins on the Caribbean Star in August. The girls can have their own rooms and still invite some friends. What do you say? A last chance to have a family vacation."
Helen threw her arms around his neck. "Oh, Jakey, that sounds wonderful!"
"You won't have any problems getting time off from work?"
"It's about time I took time off for a vacation and not for illness. The firm won't fall apart if I'm gone for a week." Helen seductively smiled and ran a fingertip along Jake's jaw line. "I think somebody deserves a reward for his hard work."
Relaxing on the sofa while Trent massaged her feet, Lindy said into the phone, "That is so sweet, Helen, but I don't know about sea sickness on top of morning sickness. I'll ask Trent." She moved her free hand over the microphone and said, "The Morgendorffers have some tickets to a 7-day cruise in August. Do you want to go?"
Trent slowly turned his head. "I dunno. Youíve gotta be on a boat, right?"
"Yes," Lindy patiently said.
"Donít like boats, just canít get on them. Long story."
"Kinda like the reason you canít go into bookstores?"
"NahÖitís a bit more complicated."
Back to Helen, Lindy said, "Weíll have to pass, but thanks for the offer."
She replied, "I understand. I canít think of anyone else to invite that wouldnít result in jealousy among other friends and such, so weíll let Daria and Quinn have the space for their friends, providing they can share a room."
Eyes closed, Quinn almost purred as she let the musicís melody guide hers and Qís slow dance around her living room. Within his arms, she felt a contentment that allowed her to live for the moment and forget about school and work. She laid her cheek against his chest to enjoy the most romantic point of the song when her cell phone started to ring with her motherís ringtone. Still inwardly worried about Helenís health, Quinn sighed and said, "I better get this."
Q nodded and took a small step back to let Quinn reach the phone in her pocket. Opening it, she said, "Hi Mom, how are you?"
"I'm fine," her mother said. "In fact, I have some good news for you."
"Oh, and what's that?"
"We're finally going on that cruise we had to cancel a couple of years ago."
"Um, wow, Mom. Really?"
"Yes. Your father got six tickets from one of his business contacts. We'll have one stateroom, Daria one and you will have one." Helen hesitated a moment before saying, "If you wish, your boyfriend Quinn can share your room and you can invite three more friends, as long as one doesn't mind sharing with one of Daria's friends."
Quinn partially turned away from Q and quietly asked, "Will you really go on the trip, or will another case come up and you have to cancel like before?"
Helen stopped and for a moment listened to a song on a Jimmy Buffett CD which Amy had given her playing in the background,
Helen closed her eyes and said, "I won't cancel. I can't."
Quinn inhaled a bit, surprised at the utter sincerity in her mother's voice. "Okay. Where are we going?"
"The Bahamas, St. Thomas, San Juan and Grand Turk Island."
Quinn moved the phone away and asked, "How would you like a cruise to the Bahamas, St. Thomas, San Juan and Grand Turk Island in August?"
"I'd love to go!" he said.
"We're in," Quinn said. "I'll ask Fran, Tammy and Grace when they get home later."
"I'm really looking forward to this," Helen said.
"Who did Daria invite? I mean, besides Michael and Jane?"
"I haven't got through to her yet," Helen said. "She must be busy. Iíll try again in a little while."
"Meow!" Bump called from the top of the dresser while casting an eye at Daria and Michael, spooned together on the bed under the sheet. Without her glasses, Daria squinted while looking over and saying, "Everyoneís a critic."
Michael kissed Dariaís shoulder and very softly ran his fingers along her spine, making her gasp with joy as he said, "Iím certainly not complaining."
She half-turned to kiss him. "Nor me."
Daria looked back at Bump and said, "Or somebody wants out to use the litter box. Thatís an argument I donít want to lose." With an, "Excuse me," she slid from under the sheet and stood as Bump stirred and gracefully leapt to the floor and walked to the door.
Michael allowed his head to rest on the pillow while watching her hide behind the door while letting the cat out. Also without his glasses, her nude form was blurred to him, but still a wondrously captivating vision. Closing the door, Daria turned and as she walked back to the bed, she said, "Youíre watching again."
"Mmmm," he quietly agreed. "I canít help it."
She sat and ran her fingers along his chest. "I like what I see, too."
The ringing of the cell phone made Daria sigh and look at it. Holding the display close to read her motherís number, she said to Michael, "Itís my mom. Hold that thought." She opened the phone and said, "Hello."
"Daria," Helen said. "Iíve been trying to reach you all day; you mustíve been busy."
"You could say that."
Michael crawled up behind Daria and started to kiss the back of her neck, forcing her to swallow hard to suppress a gasp.
Helen said, "Your father has tickets for a one-week Caribbean cruise this August. How would you and Michael, plus three more friends, like to come with us? Think of it as a last chance for a family vacation."
"It sounds good, but since youíre mostly back up to your old speed, can you get away from work?"
Weary, Helen asked, "Have I been that predictable?"
"Sorry, Mom, old habits." Holding back another cry of pleasure as he started planting soft kisses down her spine, Daria said, "If my outlook has changed, so can yours." Reluctantly twisting around, she asked, "How about a cruise around your birthday?"
"For little olí me?" he asked.
"Among others," she replied.
"I think itíll be cool."
Daria went back to the phone. "Weíre in. Iíll ask Jane and Karen later, and probably Mike."
"You remember Mack from high school? He uses his given name now. Only Jane can still get away with calling him Mack."
"Oh, yes. I remember him. He used to date Jodie."
"Thatís him. What about Quinn?"
"Sheís bringing Quinn."
Daria smirked to herself and said, "That still sounds so weird."
"Plus her suitemates, Fran, Tammy and Grace," Helen said, completing the list.
"Mom," Daria said. "This could be a very interesting trip."
"I hope so, sweetie."
Standing beneath a sign that said, "SCUBA Lessons," at the front of a small building, Helen said, "I hope this one hasn't heard about your little incident the last time we took lessons. It's the last dive shop in the area."
"Helen," Jake said, "It was the chlorine poisoning."
"Jake, you panicked and beat up an ex-Navy SEAL while yelling about your father."
"But the instructor said it had to beÖ"
"I looked it up online and chlorine doesn't do that to someone. The instructor didn't want to admit that a middle-aged office worker got the better of him in front of the entire class. Anyway, let's hope that they haven't heard about it. Agreed?"
On the sofa with her legs stretched out on the floor, Tammy used a remote to fast-forward through commercials on a videotape. "Quinn, you have got the coolest parents. Too bad I didn't know you in high school."
In the kitchen cutting some straws, Quinn said, "Trust me, they didn't have time back then. This is kind of a makeup for the cruise they had to cancel five years ago."
Sideways on the recliner, Grace said, "Whatever, I'll take it. A cruise is a cruise. Sun, umbrella drinks, hot and cold running cabana boys. We're going to be in heaven."
Lying on the floor and reading a romance novel, Fran said, "It's going to be kind of cool to finally meet your sister, though I'm glad both of you are taken."
"Yeah," Tammy said. "Leaves more guys for the rest of us."
Holding three straws in her hand, Quinn entered the living room. "Okay, time to pick who stays with one of Daria's friends." She went around to each and let them pick a straw. "Okay, let's see them.Ē
Holding her short straw, Fran said, "It looks like me. I hope I don't regret this."
Jane looked over Karenís shoulder at an e-mail and said, "Okay, I had to talk my boyfriend into going and yours had to talk you into going." Half-joking, she added, "Wanna trade?"
Karen glanced at the ring on her finger. "Nice offer, but no thanks. Iíll keep mine. Itíll still feel strange going and having fun while DerekísÖwhere he is. Someone else in his platoon was wounded and sent home last week."
"All the more reason for him to want a vicarious vacation with you. Have fun; itíll do you and him good."
"I know, itís just that I miss him so much," Karen said. "Youíll be with Mike and Daria will have Michael while I get to share a room with one of Quinnís friends. No offense to her, but itíll be a little weird."
"Iím a little surprised that Quinn didnít ask any of her old friends from high school."
"They probably drifted apart. It happens a lot. I saw a couple people from high school when I want back home the last couple summers, but I donít really miss them that much. Theyíve moved on and Iíve moved on."
Jane shrugged. "I guess. I didnít have a whole lot of friends from high school to drift away from, so my viewpointís a little different."
"Yeah, youíre dating one of them. Well, when he can get away from his fraternity duties."
"It means a lot to him, butÖ"
"But you wish it didnít get in the way so often. Trust me, I know the feeling. I thought Derek being gone one weekend a month was bad enough."
"Yeah, I guess I donít really have room to talk, sorry."
"Okay, so we both go on the cruise and have fun," Karen said. "Now, how do we convince Daria and Michael to do more than sit on a deck chair and read?"
"Weíll need a cunning plan."
Leaving the dive shop, Jake said, "Iím sorry, honey."
Helen shook her head and squeezed his hand. "Itís not your fault that I had a stroke. I shouldíve thought of checking before we started looking for a refresher course to make sure it was safe for me. Weíll have to content ourselves with snorkeling instead."
"It wonít be the same," Jake sadly said. "We lost the chance to scuba dive together. Weíll never know what it wouldíve been like."
"Weíve lost too many chances." Her voice becoming firmer, Helen said, "We canít let any more get away from us."
"What are we going to do?"
"I donít know, but weíll think of something. Until then, weíll have to find other things to do on the cruise."
A smile spread on Dariaís face as she read a new e-mail.
Dear Ms. Morgendorffer,
Your manuscript, Musings on the Head of a Pin, has been provisionally accepted for publication, pending revision. In the attached archive file, please find your manuscript with editorial recommendations included as tracked changes, standard publishing agreement and publishing contract. Please review the recommended changes and submit your revised manuscript and/or rebuttal within 30 days. Please print and sign the publishing agreements and return by mail within 30 days.
Thank you for your submission and for selecting New England Stories.
"Swimwear shopping," Jane said. "Thereís safety in numbers."
"I have one," Daria said.
"Have you tried it on lately?" Karen asked.
"No. Whatís your point?"
"Humor us," Jane said.
Daria looked back at the computer monitor and said, "I just received some good news, so I will. Now get out so that I can change."
Smirking, Jane said, "Weíll be waiting in the living room."
Shaking her head in good humor, Daria dug through a dresser drawer and located her one-piece swimsuit. "I donít see anything wrong with you, but what the heck, itíll amuse the crowd."
She quickly changed and said, "Huh?" The blue fabric was loose around her waist and across her shoulders. "I remember this being tighter than that." Looking in her small mirror, Daria gently dope-slapped herself and said, "Iíve lost the weight that Iíd gained as a freshman. Dammit, I will need a new suit, and there is safety in numbersÖ"
A couple minutes later, Daria, back in a pair of jeans and a pullover shirt, stepped out of her room and said, "Okay, you winÖdammit."
Staring at a yellow bikini with a green sarong displayed on a rail-thin mannequin, Daria said, "If you ignore the almost completely transparent wrap, there's more fabric in one of my socks."
"Yeah, but you're still looking at it," Jane said. "A big change from the first time I drug your ass to the beach."
Looking through a rack with black and white bikinis, Karen said, "This time, she has someone she wants to see her."
Still looking, Daria said, "I was surprised at howÖminimal it is."
"Try it on," Jane said. "Karen's right. Michael would love to see you in that."
"And don't try to say you haven't bought things for that reason," Karen pointedly added. "We've seen some of the nightwear you have for when Michael stays."
"That's in private," Daria said. "This would be for public consumption. Besides, youíre one to talk. Jane, donít say a word, youíre even worse."
"Hush, you. Michael would love to be seen with you wearing that." Jane held up a bikini made from a bright, abstract print. "Just like Mack will love to see me wearing this."
Pulling a hanger from the rack, Karen said, "Finally, something in my size."
"Derek wants a picture, doesn't he?" Jane teased.
Karen shrugged. "So we're all showing off for a guy. Come on, Daria. You won't know if it fits if you don't try it on. They don't bite."
"Yeah, both of us have already tried a couple each. Your turn," Jane said, grabbing one of Daria's arms while Karen grabbed the other.
Daria reluctantly let herself be corralled into a dressing room while her roommates took the rooms to each side.
Stripping down to her underwear, Daria thought, I can't believe Iím trying this on. Tentatively, she pulled the briefs up and fastened the top in place. They're right, Michael would like this. With one of her faint smiles, Daria posed a couple times and found herself oddly satisfied with the look.
A couple of minutes later, Daria joined her friends, saying, "Okay, I'll take it. Can we get out of here now?"
"I'm good, mine fits," Karen said.
"Mine, too.Ē Jane then smirked and said, "You know, we need to be fair about this and pick up some appropriate swimwear for our guys. We can't let them get away with long, baggy surfer shorts."
"It's a great idea for you two, but I don't get any benefit," Karen said.
"Mail it to Derek," Jane suggested. "He can send a photo back and you can look at it on the cruise."
"I'd prefer if he kept his Kevlar vest on instead," Karen said.
"Hmm, good point," Jane admitted. "Maybe I'll have to find something for Mack on my own."
"Sounds good," Daria said. "Now, if there are no bright ideas, I really would like to buy this and escape."
Back at home, Karen stepped into Jane's room wearing a victorious grin. "Told you it would work."
"Yeah, and I really should've known," Jane said. "I bet you and Michael could talk Daria into getting her belly button pierced and this time, she'd keep it."
"I'd pay good money to see that," Karen said with a snicker.
"You and me both."
In a beachwear store the size of a small supermarket, Fran looked in confusion at what Quinn was carrying. "I thought you said that vertical lines would make me look even thinner."
Spreading out a one-piece suit with a red and blue pattern of strategically placed contours, Quinn explained, "The pattern will nicely accent your natural curves. Trust me and try it on."
"Okay, I'll try it," Fran said and she took the garment and stepped into a fitting room.
A couple of minutes later, she stepped out wearing the suit and looking mildly surprised. The pattern did enhance the natural curves on the slightly built woman. "This looks great, thanks Quinn."
"My pleasure," she said. "I want my friends to be happy."
Fran ducked back into the fitting room and returned shortly back in her regular clothes. "Let's get this and then head over to the food court for some lunch; I'm starving and I'm buying."
"As long as you let me get mine at Saintly Salads."
"Okay, but don't say anything about me going to Lasagna Hut. I really need some carbs."
Quinn sighed. "Deal."
Curious, Fran asked, "What is it with you and lasagna?"
"A long, long story."
From the sofa, Lewis threw a wad of notepaper at Michael while saying, "Dude, youíre asking for my advice?"
Leaning against the wall, Michael swatted the paper away. "Youíll give me less crap than the rest of my friends."
"What does that say about the rest of your friends?"
"That they need a hobbyÖor something."
"No, they need to get laid. Okay, Daria bought a new swimsuit and sheís going to look real good wearing it. Therefore, youíre considering somethingÖa little more flattering than the dorky swim trunks youíve had for the last couple years."
"Then go pick up some Speedos or whatever and pack them along with your old trunks. The worst that could happen is she wonít let you leave the cabin wearing the Speedos."
"Or I chicken out and wonít leave the cabin."
"Youíll be on a ship with a bunch of strangers. Outside of Dariaís family and friends, nobody will know who you are or remember you a day later."
"But those who do know meÖ"
"As long as her folks donít freak out on you, I think the rest will go along fine. Dariaís roommates seem like good people and if her sister is anything like Daria, you donít have anything to worry about."
Michael nodded. "Thanks."
"But Iím not helping you shop for a pair. Youíre on your own."
Helen followed her doctor into an examination room. The slightly younger woman gestured to a chair and said, "Please have a seat, Helen," while bringing a rolling chair over for herself.
Helen sat and asked, "Dr. Hunter, why did you call me in? Do you have some word on the cause of my stroke?"
"Possibly," Dr. Hunter said. "Thereís been some important new information just released from the Womenís Health Initiative. The hormone replacement therapy youíve been using has been associated with an increased risk for cardiovascular events, including strokes."
"Are you saying the hormone replacement may have caused the stroke?"
"We canít say for certain, but you had no other strong risk factors for one. Now, whether the hormone replacement caused your stroke or not, thereís too much of an elevated risk of a second stroke for you to continue the therapy. Most women are only on it for a couple of years anyway, so, it may not be that stressful to stop."
"What am I going to do?"
"I want you to continue the exercises to protect your heart. If necessary, there are some non-hormone prescriptions available for your hot flashes, but Iíd rather hold off and see how well you can live with them for now. I have alternatives, including some dietary changes, for osteoporosis prevention."
"I really hate hot flashes."
"Iím not going to be happy about them either when itís my turn," Dr. Hunter said sympathetically. "Letís wait about four weeks and then see how you are feeling before we make any more decisions."
"Dr. Hunter, Iíll be on a cruise in four weeks."
"Oh, good for you, though Iím also jealous. Where are you going?"
"To the Caribbean for seven days. The entire family."
"Enjoy it while you can. You can return in five weeks."
Helen took her planner book from her briefcase, opened it and made a note. "Five weeks."
"You can set up the time with the receptionist up front."
Quinn, Fran and Grace gathered around Tammyís computer while she brought up the website for the Caribbean Star.
Grace was the first to speak. "Whoa, that shipís big."
"Four pools, five restaurants, three nightclubs, a full theater, a casino, and a spa. Damn," Tammy said, reading from the description. "We are definitely going to have fun."
"What do the cabins look like?" Fran asked.
Grace clicked through a couple links to show the inboard cabin. "Hey, these are pretty nice. They have twin beds that can be pushed together for a king-sized. We wonít need that feature, but Quinn, you might. Private bathroom, nice closet, lots of drawers and a cool vanity."
Quinn said, "Oh my God, thereís a huge TV in there. Who would go on a cruise and want to watch TV?"
Thinking somewhat practically, Tammy said, "Well, if youíre in bed seasick, I suppose itís more interesting than staring at the wall."
"Ewww," Fran said. "I donít want to think about that."
"And hereís the oceanview cabins," Grace said, loading a new webpage. "It looks to be about the same, only you get a window. I was kinda expecting a porthole; I guess things have gone high tech since the Titanic."
"Donít even talk like that," Quinn said. "I donít want to hit an iceberg or a garbage barge."
Fran asked, "Garbage barge? Is that another one of your long stories?"
"Yeah," Tammy said. "I thought your sister was the writer."
Protectively petting Bump, Daria said, "Are you positive that she wonít be used as a Ďteaching aidí?"
Leaning over the back of the sofa next to Daria, Karen said, "Yes, Iím positive. You can board Bump at the Vet School for half the price youíll pay anywhere else."
"Yeah, and whatís the catch? Her shots and spaying were done by a student; thatís why I got a price break then."
"And that student was supervised by one of the professors. Look, the Vet School has extra boarding space for those odd times when things get really busy. When itís not, the school can generate a little extra revenue with boarding fees. Considering how bored the vet techs get, she might come back with a catnip habit, but with how much Raft charges for tuition, anything that helps keep that down is good in my book."
"Did you hear that?" Daria said to the purring feline. "Youíll be helping starving students throughout Raft afford college. But then, if I donít find a job, next fall, I might be one of them. And no, I'm not going to keep you in catnip."
"Hey, at least you sold that story last month," Karen said. "That has to help some."
"Yeah, it paid for my plane ticket to Florida for the cruise. I know that if push comes to shove, I can ask Mom and Dad for help, but Iíve really gotten used to being independent."
"You still have that college fund from your grandma."
"Yeah, thatíll keep me in school and a roof over my head."
"Nothing to sneeze at."
"True, but letís face it, Iíve gotten spoiled and want to keep it that way. They say that a little poverty builds character, but all in all, Iíd rather avoid that kind of character building."
"Trust me, itís over-rated," Karen said. "Iím glad that the switch to organic is still paying off for my folks or Iíd still be scratching for money like I did as a freshman."
Daria paused in thought before saying, "Things really have changed since then, havenít they?"
Karen chuckled. "Yeah, they really have."
Jodie rose from her work desk and went to Jake's office. She said, "Are you ready for the big cruise?"
Straightening his desk for the fifth time that afternoon, Jake said, "You bet! What about you, are you ready for the big responsibility?"
Jodie nodded. "I'm ready."
"Not a bit nervous?"
"Well, maybe a little."
"Heh, I remember how nervous I was when I started. I wondered if Iíd get any clients. Everyone at my old work said I was nuts to go into business for myself. ĎJake, youíll be bankrupt in two months.í ĎHe wonít even last that long.í ĎYouíll come crawling back by the end of the year!í"
Hearing the familiar tone of an impending rant, Jodie said, "Um, Mr. MorgendorfferÖcruise."
"What? Oh, yeah. The cruise. Hey, tell you what, I think Iíll sneak out a little early today."
"Sounds good, Mr. Morgendorffer. Have a great trip and say, ĎHi,í to Daria, Jane and Mack for me."
"I will!" Jake called as he hurried out of the door.
Jodie smiled, shaking her head as she stood and went to Jakeís desk. "I knew youíd forget," she said, shutting down his computer. "At least you donít leave porn on your desktop like Congressman Sacks."
Back to her desk, Jodie pulled up the account program, saying, "Iím so glad Jake listened and replaced that old clunky software with something usable."
As Jodie checked through the Accounts Receivable, she half-smiled as a thought came to mind. She quickened her pace to complete her review and then started going through more details of the company finances. "That might work."
Hey, good news. Iíll get a week of what passes for R&R in Afghanistan while youíre on the cruise. They promise that theyíll have new games for our Gameboys. I hope so, weíve about played out all the ones weíve got.
Speaking of cruises, make sure you send a complete report when you get back. Itís not Vegas, but I bet someone will cut loose and do something very embarrassing and highly amusing.
At least Iím past the halfway mark on my deployment. I canít wait to get home and back to you.
Shutting down her computer, Karen breathed a small sigh of relief. "Thank God I wonít have to worry about him being on patrol."
"Are you ready in there?" Jane yelled from near the front door.
"Donít get your thong in a wad!" Karen called back. "Iíll be right out."
Picking up her suitcases, Karen rushed out to the living room, where Jane, Daria, Michael and Mike were waiting. The two guys took a suitcase each from her while Michael said, "Weíve taken the rest downstairs already. We didnít want you to feel left out."
"Thanks," Karen said. "Letís go."
Trailing the young women going down the stairs, Mike whispered to Michael. "Hmm, I wonder if Karen was right about the thong."
"If she was, I donít want to know about it," Michael whispered in response.
Mike snickered and said, "Daria in one would probably blow your mind."
"I would certainly be surprised," Michael said. "Itís really not her style."
"True," Mike agreed. Near the bottom of the stairs, he said, "At least I talked Jane out of buying me a Speedo. That wouldíve been scary."
"I hate airports." Turning to glance at the hand-holding couple behind her at the San Diego terminal, Fran said, "What are you smiling about?"
"Just remembering how we met," Quinn said.
"Iíd have thought youíd be terrified with Q doing the Ďmeet the parentsí bit for a whole week," Tammy said, following the couple.
"Iíll admit to being nervous," Q replied. "If I make a mistake, I could end up sleeping on a deck chair."
"Youíre going to be fine," Quinn said, reassuring. "If Mom and Dad can accept Dariaís geeky boyfriend, theyíll accept you."
"So, youíre saying Iím a geek?"
"Yeah, but a cute one."
"I hope he doesnít bring work with him," Grace said. Noticing the darting glace Quinn gave Q, she added, "He is."
Defensive, Q replied, "How can I pass up on a chance to collect in Puerto Rico or the islands? There are some really cool beetles I canít find otherwise."
"Okay, Quinn, where did he hide the net?" Fran asked.
"Camera only," she answered. "There are limits."
"That's good, and at least he doesnít collect roaches," Tammy said. "The cruise line might get upset about him bringing them on board."
"There are some interesting Blattodea in the CaribbeanÖ" Q said, teasing. "But out of a sense of self-preservation, Iíll pass on collecting any and stick with beetles and maybe one or two other things that might be interesting, if I had the option."
"MaybeÖthough Quinn keeps calling spreading boards miniature torture racks."
"Thatís what my sister called them," Quinn said.
Q shook his head. "Come to think of it, I donít want to think about how the cleaning staff might react to one, either. Good thing mine's at home."
"You donít have to do that," Helen said to Lindy as the younger woman carried a suitcase down the stairs for her.
"No, but I donít mind, and donít tell me that you didnít do the same things when you were in my condition. The exercise is good for me."
"Except I was carrying law books," Helen said with a light laugh. "You win."
"Donít worry. Once Iím a few more months along, Iíll take whatever help I can get," Lindy said as she reached the base of the stairs.
"You are a wise woman."
"I have a good example."
Helen stopped and said, "Thanks, Lindy, but Iíve missed a lot of my girlsí lives. Thatís why this cruise is so important. Donít make the same mistake."
Lindy gently smirked and said, "Trentís good practice."
"I thought that about Jake, but things really changed. We changed, and not always for the best."
The bark of a car braking sharply in the driveway made both women pause before Helen said, "Jakeís home."
"You get frequent service discounts on brakes for his car, right?"
Jake yanked the door open and almost ran into Lindy. "Oh, sorry. I didnít know you were there. Hey! I can get those bags."
"Sure, Jake," she said, handing over the luggage. While he was gone, Lindy said to Helen, "I figure itíll help him burn off some energy so that heís not bouncing off the walls of the airliner."
"Until I can get a couple drinks into him," Helen said. "Then heíll be fine."
The cruise line shuttle bus pulled to a stop next to the ship terminal and the driver immediately opened the door before facing the passengers. "Here we are, Port Canaveral. Please step outside and I will retrieve your luggage for you. Courtesy staff are available to take your luggage if you so desire."
Stretching, Daria was the first to rise and exit the bus. "I can't believe someone built a highway like that through the middle of nowhere."
"I guess someone wanted a straight shot from the airport to Kennedy Space Center," Michael speculated as he followed his fiancťe.
"Whoa," Karen said as she stepped off. "This feels almost like home in August; hot and humid."
"You're not kidding," Jane said in agreement. "But the sea air smells good."
"I could grow to like this," Mike said as he exited the bus. "I was surprised you could see the Vehicle Assembly Building from the highway."
"Man, I wish we'd thought of getting here early to make a side trip to the space center," Michael said.
Daria opened her cell phone and pushed one of the speed dial buttons. After a couple moments, she said, "Hey, Quinn, it's Daria. We just arrived at the passenger drop-off, where are you?" Daria tilted her head back and nodded along as she listened. After listening to a long explanation, she said, "Got it. As soon as we round up our luggage, weíll meet you inside."
Jane said, "Good, it sounds like we have a base camp."
Daria closed and pocketed her phone. "Quinn and her friends are in front of a big water fountain inside. She says we canít miss it."
The driver was quick and soon porters had their luggage loaded onto carts and were following the friends inside the terminal. After only a modest wait at the check-in counter, their tickets were validated and the luggage was on its way to their staterooms.
Quinn waved and called, "Over here!" to get Daria's attention.
She waved back and said to her friends, "Are we ready for the meeting of matter and antimatter?"
As they walked, Karen said. "They don't look that dangerous. And hey, the girl with the really long, dark hair is actually shorter than you are, Daria."
"She must be Fran," Daria said. "That's who'll be sharing your room."
"Better lay off the short jokes, then," Karen replied.
Jane said, "The guy's cute. I figured Quinn would snag a beach boy."
"Should I be worried?" Mack jokingly said.
"You're safe," Jane said. "If Quinn has latched onto someone, she'll have some serious claws out if anyone tries to get in the way. I'm not that brave or stupid."
Near the center of the large lobby, Quinn and her guests waited by a large, multi-tiered and illuminated water fountain. At first sight of Daria and her friends, Q said in a mock documentary voice, "Oh look, a herd of college students approaches. You can identify them by their careful mix of casual, yet distinctive clothing that attempts to make some statement. The proportion of mated pairs present in the herd is indicative of the more domestic variety of the upper classman cohort."
"He's going to get a job on The Animal Channel someday, isn't he?" Tammy said.
"I wouldnít turn it down," he said in return.
Quinn ran and hugged her sister once she was within a dozen feet, saying "Hi, sis!"
Daria returned the gesture with a bit more decorum and said, "Hi to you, sis."
Quinn bounced away and started introductions. "Everybody, this is Quinn, but everyone calls him Q to avoidÖ" she paused to giggle "Öconfusion. This is Fran, and she's Grace and sheís Tammy."
"Hi," Daria said. "That means itís my turn. This is my fiancť Michael. This is Karen, and thereís Jane and finally Mike. Jane can get away with calling him Mack, but sheís the only one who can."
Karen stepped forward and offered a handshake to Fran. "I guess we better find out if we can tolerate each other."
Fran shrugged and shook Karenís hand. "If one Morgendorffer sister is like the other, I donít think weíll have any big problems."
As their mutual friends started to talk, Quinn said, "Wow, Daria. You really look good."
Holding out her arms, Daria said, "Quinn, I'm wearing shorts and a cheap t-shirt. Has your fashion sense been turned off?"
"No Daria, you look really good and that combination shows it off. If you'd been like that in high schoolÖmy popularity would've been at stake."
"Quinn, IÖ" Daria stopped herself and said, "Öthanks."
"I know that wasnít what you were trying for," Quinn said. "But it looks good on you."
Fran stepped over to Daria. "I finally get a chance to thank you in person."
"From what I remember, Quinn and your sorority sisters did the work. All I did was come up with the idea."
"Yeah, but it was an idea that we needed."
"Okay, youíre welcome. Glad I could help a friend of my sister."
Michael said to Q, "Daria and I will be making the plunge into grad school in another year. Any advice?"
Q laughed and said, "Make sure youíre really pigheaded stubborn. Itís the only way to get through."
"Iíve learned to be stubborn about whatís important."
"Oh, and make sure you donít pick an ass as your advisor. Talk to the other grad students in the department before you make any commitments."
"Hmm, we'll keep that in mind."
About an hour later, Jake and Helen arrived at the cruise terminal. Seeing her parents in loud, tropical print shirts and shorts that simply screamed "tourist", Quinn sighed and said to Daria, "I canít believe theyíre wearing that."
"You know, I almost agree with you," Daria said. "But hey, Mom and Dad are trying to have fun and relax. Let them be; theyíve earned it."
"Oh, youíre right. But Iím also glad itís a big boat."
"Girls," Helen said and hugged both at the same time. "Both of you are so beautiful."
"Hey girls," Jake also said, taking his turn embracing his children. "Do your parents look tacky enough?" he said with a friendly wink.
"Youíve got the whole Ďtacky touristí look down pat," Quinn said.
Helen moved on to Michael and gave him a gentle hug. "Itís good to see you, too."
"Thanks, Mrs. Morgendorffer. It looks like youíre doing well after everything."
"Mostly," she said, still aware of the slight, persistent slur in her voice. She tapped her cane and said, "Though I'm still working on this.Ē
Daria noticed and was inwardly glad that her mother seemed to be relying on the cane far less than before. Now, it was almost an accessory more than a necessity.
Quinn pulled her boyfriend forward and said, "Mom, Dad. This is Quinn. You can call him Q.Ē
He held up one hand and waved. "Hi there."
"Hey there, my man," Jake enthusiastically said, offering his hand. When Q accepted, Jake gave him a good-natured slap on the arm. "Good to finally meet you."
"Yes," Helen said. "Iím very pleased to meet you, young man."
Q shook her hand and was startled for a moment by her glance. He knew instantly that there would be no mercy if he ever harmed Quinn. "Happy to meet you, Mrs. Morgendorffer."
"Now that everyone is here," Daria said. "Why donít we finally find our cabins and get settled? Maybe we can meet up again when the ship is ready to depart."
"Lead on!" Jake said. "Anchors aweigh!"
Quinn rested her head on Qís arm. "Did he just say what I thought he said?"
"This has a cozy feel like that bed and breakfast where we spent spring break our junior year," Michael said. He picked up a small stack of clothes from his suitcase and transferred them to a drawer.
Resting on the bed, Daria said, "That was nice. I hope we can go back there some day."
"What do you think of your sister's boyfriend? He seems okay to me."
"I think he's good for Quinn. She's a lot better than she was in high school, but she's still a little flighty and it looks like he balances that. Kind of like how you balance my tendency to put off dealing with my feelings."
"Only because I reach the point of either dealing with my feelings or letting my head explode before you do."
"Your head isn't as thick as mine."
"I thought it was because I was more desperate," he joked. "There are times I still can't believe that someone as smart and beautiful as you would give me a second glance, let alone agree to marry me."
"Even if you had to ask me twice?"
"So it takes me a while to get it right."
With Quinn's recent compliment in mind, Daria cautiously said, "Can I ask you something?"
"Of course," Michael replied. "Any time."
"This is a little hard for me and I know this seems like it's coming out of nowhere. From our first date, you've said I was beautiful."
"It's taken me a long time to really accept that."
"But that's not what you want to ask."
"What ifÖwould you have asked me out the first time if I wasn't attractive?"
Michael inhaled as he wrestled with a "If I don't answer this right, I'm dead meat," feeling that made his stomach lurch. He knew that the simple truth was the only way out. "I'd like to think so. Your answers in that biology class are what got my attention. Smart, witty, and not afraid to question the professor. There were plenty of pretty girls around Raft, but you were the one that stood out. What made you stand out is who you are. The fact that you are beautiful was a wonderful bonus."
Daria rolled off of the bed and went over to embrace Michael. "So, that was a good save?" he said gently.
"Very good." Daria then sighed and buried her face against him. "God, I just realized how much I sounded like Quinn of a couple years ago."
"I promise not to tell anyone. Now, it's your turn. Would you have gone out with me if I wasn't so goofy looking?"
She softly smiled back at him. "Your sincerity had a lot to do with it, but you have a cute kind of goofy that's hard to resist."
Daria noticed the Speedo in Michael's suitcase and picked it up with two fingers while raising an eyebrow at him. "Have you been listening to suggestions from Jane?"
"Huh? Jane? No. I, uh, thought you'd like the, um, moral support since you bought a two-piece swimsuit. You know, uh, share the exposure."
"My new one shows more than the old but it's not thisÖbrief. Certainly not something I'd like to see in public."
Embarrassed, Michael said, "Okay, time for Plan B," as he lifted his older swim trunks from the suitcase.
"Backup plans; I knew there was a reason I liked you."
He reached for the Speedo and said. "Might as well just leave those in the suitcase and toss them when I get home."
Daria moved it away from his hand, rose up to kiss his cheek and whispered, "I didn't say anything about not seeing it in private."
Quinn's back stiffened when she heard Q say, "Do you want me to push the beds together or not?"
We can't put this decision off any longer, she thought. Quinn turned away from the window and looked at him, waiting expectantly beside the far bed. It would be very easy for her to say to keep the beds apart and avoid the subject of close intimacy once again. Growing stronger in her mind was the feeling of how much she enjoyed being held by him and how much she enjoyed holding him in return. The memory of sleeping against his shoulder while his arm held her close during the flight to Florida rose in her mind. The comfort she felt let her say, "Together."
He nodded and pushed on the bed and it rolled toward the other on a track until a catch clicked into place to secure it. "The guidebook said that there are king-sized linens in the overhead vanity. Can you get them while I pull these off?"
Feeling a little dazed by her decision, Quinn shook her head and said, "Oh, sure. Just a moment."
Answering a knock on the door, Daria barely had time to say, "I'll be right back," to Michael before Quinn pulled her into the hallway.
She said, "Daria, Iím nervous."
Confused, Daria asked, "About what?"
"Q sleeping in the same cabin with me."
"You don't need my approval and Mom and Dad are cool with it. Itís not like they werenít sleeping together at your age."
Quinnís lip quivered slightly and she said, "But we havenít."
"Oh," Daria said, catching on to her sisterís concern. "No offense, but isnít this something you should be talking to Mom about?"
"I feel better talking to you."
"Um, Iíll do what I can."
"Daria, um, how long before you and MichaelÖ?"
"Well, we slept together on a pair of lounge chairs pushed together when we were stuck at Janeís dorm by a winter storm, but all we did was sleep. That was about five months after we started dating. It was a year before we, well, you know. I can see why youíre nervous. Tell me, do you trust him? I mean, completely trust him?"
"Yes, thatís why I invited him."
"Quinn, you know more about boysí tricks than Iíll even consider knowing. If you trust him, then I think youíre going to be fine."
"Daria, sometimes I put off deciding things too long."
"That's something we share."
"And so, I don't have any, uh, protection with me."
"I mean, I really like being with him and this whole cruise thing is going to be so romanticÖnot that Iím really planning anything, but you never know."
"Trust me, I understand. These cruise lines use sex to sell their trips. Therefore, I'm sure that the ship's pharmacy is well stocked with many different products."
Feeling very young and insecure, Quinn said, "Will you come with me?"
"Sure, sis. Just a moment." Daria poked her head back inside the stateroom and told Michael, "Quinn and I need to take care of something. I'll be back in a little while."
"Okay, I'll be here," he said. "Think Iíll grab a shower while youíre gone."
Daria nodded and closed the door. "Let's go."
Walking down the passageway, Quinn said, "Thanks, Daria. Do you have any more advice?"
"Redundancy is a good thing."
With a satisfied hum, Daria settled onto a deck chair on the ship's fantail and adjusted her large, white hat to shade her face and upper body. Her sunglasses reflected sunlight that glittered off the gently rippled ocean as the ship headed southeast toward the Bahamas. The music of the calypso band near the swimming pool just forward of them pleasantly added to the cool sea breeze. Two tall glasses of iced lemonade rested on a small table between her chair and Michael's. He nodded and handed her a book. "Comfortable?"
She opened the book at a bookmark. "Very. When someone makes holodecks, I want this as a program."
"I could go with that," he said, opening a book himself.
Still reading, Daria reached over the table and grasped Michael's hand. He kissed it and went back to his book.
A chapter and a half later, Daria heard Quinn say, "Put you on a cruise and you still manage to read."
The whisper of teasing in her sister's voice told Daria not to take the comment seriously. "We decided to stake out a spot on the stern early, just in case the ship hits an iceberg or a garbage barge and sinks."
Seeing Daria's attire, Quinn said, "You picked that swimsuit out yourself, didn't you?"
"Is there a problem?" Daria asked.
"With your pale skin, yellow really isn't the bestÖ"
"Hey, I like it and Michael likes it."
Quinn shrugged. "In that case, I guess I can't say anything."
From next to Michael, Helen said, "Hi Daria, hi, Michael. How are you finding the cruise so far?"
His eyes switched from Helen to Quinn and back. "Relaxing. How about you?"
"Wonderful. Michael, I was hoping to do a little mother/daughter bonding time. Do you mind?"
He gave Daria's hand a sympathetic squeeze and when she almost imperceptivity nodded, said, "I'll see if I can track down Jake and shoot the breeze for a while. I'm sure he'll like that."
"Thank you," Helen said.
As Michael left, Helen slipped into his vacated seat while Quinn rolled a new chair over.
Daria motioned for the deck waiter and said, "I think I'd like something a little stronger, please, but in the same vein."
He cleared the empty glasses from the table and said, "May I recommend a Margarita?"
"As you wish," he said and walked away.
Daria then looked to her sister and then her mother. "Okay, what's up with the double-team tactic?"
Helen started. "Sweetie, you've been engaged for almost nine months now."
Looking down at her stomach, Daria said, "I don't see any sign of the usual reason that nine months would be significant."
"Daria!" Quinn said. "You only have ten months until your wedding!"
"You can follow a calendar. Very good, Quinn."
Helen leaned toward Daria a couple inches. "Have you done any planning for your wedding?"
"We have the date." Daria folded her arms. "And we know we want it to be small and simple. Not much more than that is currently needed."
"You can't leave these things to the last minute," Quinn said. "I don't get it. You plan everything else, why aren't you planning your wedding?"
Daria held up her hand. "Hold that thought," she said and stood. "I'll be right back.Ē Without letting them answer, Daria went straight to the bar where the waiter had just given the bartender her order.
The bartender looked back and noticed Helen and Quinn, then winked at Daria and said, "Right away, miss." With much practiced speed, he had the glass salted, the drink mixed and then poured into the glass.
"Thanks," she said before taking a sip. The tartness and the tequila bite made her take notice, but the Cointreau gave a smoothness that counterbalanced the salt for a surprisingly enjoyable experience.
She took a couple more sips on her way back. Holding the glass tight, she sat down and looked back at Quinn and Helen. "You were saying?"
"Daria," Helen said, watching the drink in her daughter's hand. "A wedding takes a lot of planning and we're just worried that you won't get what you want for your special day."
"Our special day, Mom. Michael is included in the whole deal and he might have a few ideas about this, too."
"Of course he will, honey. Weíre just trying to get thingsÖjump started for you."
"Rings. Have you picked out rings?" Quinn asked.
"No, but you can't swing a cat in a jewelry store without hitting a rack or two of them."
"You'll need time to have them properly sized," Helen said.
"Not ten months."
Quinn said, "Your dress. What about your dress?"
"Iíve looked a little bit online."
"Online?" Quinn said in horror. "You are not getting married in an online dress."
"I think I have the final say on that. Look, Quinn, Mom, I know you want the best for me, but I think youíre really getting upset early without reason. My wedding is not going to be like planning the moon landing or anything."
Helen said, "Daria, a little advanced planning will help me to budget for everything."
"Mom, weíre not looking to spend enough on the wedding to warrant such long-range budget planning. I saw the insanity Amy went through and it is not going to happen for me. Mom, Iíll make you a deal. You can go as insane as you want on Quinnís wedding. Besides, you and Dad had a simple wedding and it was lovely."
"We didnít have as much of a choice as you do, what with the cost of Ritaís wedding six months beforeÖ"
"Donít go Dad on me," Daria warned, hearing the growl creep into her motherís voice. "But youíre right; Michael and I have a choice. Please respect that what we are choosing is something small and simple, even though you are happy and willing to spend a lot more."
Helen nodded. "Youíre right, Daria, but Iím here if you change your mind. One more thing you should consider; even if you want something small, a lot of people have June weddings. If you donít do much of anything else right now, you need to reserve the place you want to make sure you get it."
"Okay, Mom. Iíll look into that as soon as I get back to Boston."
Helen let out her breath and smiled at the small victory. "Just put the deposit on my platinum card, dear."
Daria tipped her glass toward Helen. "Want some?"
"After that, I need one of my own."
Jake, Michael, Q and Mike were all seated around a table at one of the nightclubs, an assortment of beers in front of them. Jake clapped his hands together and said, "Well, what do you say?"
Michael gave a thumbís up and said, "Iím in. This should be fun."
Q took a deep drink and said, "You shouldíve seen me at the California Ent Society meeting. Iím in."
Mike looked at the others. "Same here. I canít wait to see the looks on the girlsí faces."
"You really have a horse?" Fran asked while snacking on an apple. She was seated with the other women on the trip near the upper deck swimming pool.
Karen said, "Her name's Elvira. I get a little frustrated that I only get to ride her when Iím home in Georgia. Thatís why Iím planning on stopping by Mom and Dadís on the way home this trip. I wish I could afford to bring her up to Boston with me."
"Call me jealous, I always wanted a horse when I was growing up."
"Iím jealous of your hair. Every time I try to get mine to grow much longer than what I have now, it frizzes out and I look like Natalie Maines after electroshock treatment."
Fran used one hand to lift some hair and let it flow back down through her fingers. "Thanks, but it's also a lot of work. I'm tempted at times to cut it short like Quinn, but again, it's one of the things that people like, so I keep it."
"A horse is a lot of work, too. Which means I really owe my family for the last couple years," Karen joked. She closed her eyes and leaned back on her deck chair. "I really need to find a way to bring Elvira up to Massachusetts. Taking care of her will help keep me busy while Derek's away."
"Your boyÖfiancť, right?"
Karen nodded. "Speaking of him, I promised pictures." She rolled over to dig through her purse sitting on the deck. After finding her camera, she sat up and said, "Smile."
Taking a cue from some of Quinn's antics in front of a camera, Fran stood and struck a looking-over-her-shoulder pose. "How's this?"
"When they see that, some of the guys in his squad might want your phone number."
Tammy rolled onto her stomach and bent her legs forward, crossing them. "How's this?"
"Good," Karen said, taking the photo.
Laughing together, Karen gathered posed photos of all four, and then Jane took over the camera to take a few of Karen. "Just to keep things fair."
Tammy asked Jane, "Where's your guy?"
"We saw Michael wandering around and he mentioned that Quinn and Helen had hijacked Daria for some 'quality time.' I felt sorry for him, so I let Mack loose for a while so they can hang out."
"Do you think that's safe?" Grace joked.
"They're pretty well behaved," Jane said. "Though if they run into JakeÖhe has a way of making guys do weird things like chasing squirrels. Or, so I heard."
"You know," Fran said. "I think I saw Q with Quinn's dad. Should we be worried if all four get together?"
Jane sat down. "You had to bring that up, didn't you?"
"For this one time, I'm glad Derek's not along," Karen said.
Michael looked around the group of deck chairs and said, "No blood, no crime scene tape, I'll take that as a good sign the bonding experience wasn't fatal for any involved."
Daria looked up at him from her book. "Mom and Quinn decided I needed an intervention for wedding planning."
"What is it with mothers and wedding planning?" he said, sitting down.
"But things seem to have gone well enough." He quickly looked over the railing and said, "Or you dumped the bodies overboard."
Daria chuckled. "No, we came to a mutually agreeable arrangement."
"Oh? Should I be worried?"
"Not too much, though we have to figure out where to have the wedding. I promised to make arrangements when we get back to Boston."
"I wonder if I could swing the Old North Church?"
"You're kidding. I'd have thought that it wouldn't be open to things like weddings."
"It can't hurt to ask. Inside connections and all that."
"We'll still need a plan B."
"We have all week."
"True. So, what have you been up to while I was being interrogated?"
"Not much, just kind of hung around a bit."
"You wanted to get back to your book."
He sat down and opened his book. "You know me too well."
Stretched out on a chair later that evening, Mack said, "You've got easel itch already."
On the bed and flipping through a sketchpad, Jane said, "Yeah. I've got lots of good stuff already, not to mention the stuff on my digital camera. I hate waiting, but I wasn't about to try to get my easel onto a plane."
"Hmm, you know, if you can't scratch that itch, maybe I can scratch another one."
"Left up to you, we'd never leave this cabin," Jane teased.
"Is that a problem?" Mack said, raising one eyebrow.
"There's not exactly a lot of room for me to run in here."
"Running's not the only aerobic exerciseÖ"
"TrueÖbut can you keep up with me?"
"You're not freaked out," Fran, her makeup removed before going to bed, said to Karen.
"I have a history with people and body self-image," Karen said with some old sadness in her voice. She patted her hip and said, "Too many of us fixate on things, real or imagined, that we see as flaws and can hurt ourselves over that image. I've forced myself to be careful so that I don't reinforce the idea."
"Not too many people can do that. Even though she's helped me so much, Quinn was shocked by my face at first. It's a natural reaction."
"All of us can make mistakes with first impressions. I made some assumptions about Daria based on her looks that were wrong."
Fran picked up an energy bar from her stash on the vanity. "I hope you don't mind if I grab a quick snack before going to sleep."
Karen shook her head. "Not at all, Fran. Not at all."
Jake stiffly sat up on the bed, looking toward the wall separating them from Quinn's stateroom.
Helen crawled into bed beside him. "Quinn's a big girl now, just like Daria."
"I know, honey," He said. "But she'sÖ"
"She's just as responsible as her sister."
Jake nodded and put his arms around Helen. "You're right. It's not as if they're like we were at their age."
Helen sat straight up and stared at the same wall, her eyes wide open.
Wearing a new, long nightgown, Quinn stared in the bathroom mirror, saying, "You can do this. You can do this." She drained a glass of water and left it next to the sink before swiftly turning and marching into the stateroom.
Q, clad in shorts and a t-shirt, waited on the bed with the covers neatly pulled aside for Quinn. "You look great."
She smiled and nervously rushed to the bed before letting him pull the sheets over her.
He held her and whispered, "Itís okay to be nervous. How about if we just hold each other?"
"Iíd like that," she whispered, clumsily moving her arms around him. Her tension fell away to contentment as she listened to his heartbeat and fell asleep.
Listening to the soft snore, Q stroked Quinn's hair. "Some things are worth waiting for," he gently said. After a soft laugh, he added, "No matter how frustrating it might be."
Hovering near all of the young adults near the dockside exit, Helen said, "Remember everybody; donít be late, because the ship wonít wait for you."
"Weíre big kids now," Daria said. "Weíll be all right."
"That sounded bad, didnít it?" Helen said, embarrassed.
Quinn gave her mother a quick hug. "Not that bad, Mom. We know you worry about us, thanks."
"There are worse fates than getting stuck on a tropical island," Mike said.
"Is that a hint?" Jane said, giving him a grin.
"Hmm, maybe I should spend my time observing you."
Letting the mass of tourists leaving the cruise ship separate them from the others, Daria asked Quinn, "Is there anything you need to talk about?"
"No, I'm doing fine, but thanks for asking. We didnít do anything more than cuddle last night."
Daria gently nodded her head. "I'd say your trust was well-founded."
Q slipped through the crowd next to Michael. "Should we be worried that Quinn and Daria look like they're comparing notes?"
"Not unless you gave them a reason," Michael said. "They can fight as much as my sister and I, but I'd be terrified to face them united."
"I don't think they have a reason, but then, I haven't always noticed when I have given a girl a reason to be mad at me."
"Been there, done that, ate the crow."
"So have I, but so far, not with Quinn."
Q chuckled. "Yeah, yet."
Curious, Michael changed the subject. "So, you're voluntarily going on a shopping tour of Nassau with four girls."
"Yep. Even though I know better than to have any such plans, think of how the other guys will look at meÖ"
"Like you're a pack-mule?"
Q rubbed his chin. "HmmÖmaybe I haven't thought this completely through." He shrugged. "Oh, hell, how bad can it be?"
Walking through the streets of Nassau, Daria pushed an ill-fitting paper pirate hat off of her glasses and then looked at Michael wearing the same, as were the entire "Pirates of Nassau" tour group. "What are the meter readings now?"
"The guide's faux pirate accent pushes the hokey-meter up to Ďmild nausea,' but the accuracy-meter is still running in the 'only slightly embellished' zone." Michael said with an amused grin. Lifting his hat, he added, "But at the customer fashion end, it's well down in the 'needs improvement' range."
"I would say something," Jane observed, "But I know from past experience that is your idea of having fun."
"Just like you snarking at public art displays," Mike said.
Jane let a twinge of irritation pass by before she said, "Hey, that's what I call real fun."
Karen reached up and gently stroked the guide's pet parrot, perched on her left shoulder. "I give the guy credit for good taste in associates."
"Or associates that taste good?" Michael said, stepping quickly aside to dodge Karen's kick.
"Speaking of tasting good, I hope we stop to eat soon; Iím starving," Mike said.
"You're always starving," Jane said.
"I'm a growing boy."
"You had lunch before the tour."
Walking upright through the lower deck of a replica sloop, Mike said, "Is it me, or shouldn't the roof be lower?"
Michael looked up at the wooden deck above and said, "I guess they don't want the tourists to get sore backs."
Jane, mugging in front of a shipboard surgery display with full-size mannequins of the surgeon and patient while Karen took a photo, said, "Now I'm getting hungry."
"Mmmm," Daria said. "How about some hard tack and weevils?"
"I wonder if they'll serve them at the Pirate's Tavern at the end of the tour?" Michael asked.
"To go with the 'authentic pirate grog,'" Daria said.
"Your turn," Karen said, indicating Daria and Michael to stop for photos.
Settling into a pose, Daria said, "It's a good thing we brought my laptop to download all the pictures since your memory card would never hold them all."
"And Derek will appreciate it." Karen took the shot and motioned her head toward the exhibit exit. "Now come on, let's see what's next."
With her in the lead, the others followed to another display that featured two women as pirates. She read from the display placard, "Ann Bonny and Mary Read. This is really cool."
Seeing Daria eyeing the tall, cuffed boots on one of the figures, Michael whispered to her, "You'd look good wearing those."
Her eye glinted with mischief and she turned to whisper in his ear, "Yarr."
"We can look in the gift shop."
Under a red and white beach umbrella, Helen relaxed on a chair and looked out over the pure white coral sand of the beach at families playing in the gentle surf. She lifted a tall, cold drink from a table and took a drink from one of the straws in it.
On the next chair, Jake playfully said, "Don't bogart it, Helen."
Giggling at the reference to their youth, she said, "There's plenty left, honey," and passed the glass to him.
He sipped from the second straw. "Ah, this is the life. Why didn't we do this years ago?"
Helen took the drink back from him. "We let little things like corporate mergers and business conferences get in the way."
A teenage boy ran up to them, holding a post card in his hand. "Your card is ready."
"I'll get this," Helen said. She opened her purse and passed the teen some cash.
He accepted it and handed over a freshly printed postcard with a photo of her and Jake seated on their beach chairs. "Thank you, pretty lady," he said before running off to a small stand on the edge of the beach where a man was waiting. The boy grabbed a digital camera and ran back among the tourists on the beach, looking for new customers.
"That was a little steep for a post card," Jake said.
Helen shrugged. "Probably, but that boy and his family might be living off of selling them. We're on vacation; don't worry about it.Ē
"You're right, Helen. Who are you going to send it to?"
"I owe one to Amy.Ē Helen reached into her purse for a pen and then she wrote on the card, "Dear sis, I love island life. Beautiful sun, wonderful people, sharing umbrella drinks with Jake. Glad I'm on vacation. My love to all, Helen."
Hearing Quinn's voice outside of their cabin, Michael said to Daria, "After what you've told me about some of your sister's shopping trips, I have to see what this looks like."
Sitting on the bed, barefoot, she said, "Donít take too long. You promised to massage my feet after walking all day."
"Just a quick look at the train wreck, I promise."
"Good, then I can try on those boots when you're done."
Michael stepped into the hallway and saw Q easily pulling a folding, aluminum hand cart stacked high with packages. As he neared, Michael said, "Smarter than your average bear, I see."
Q tapped the side of his head. "You should know that smart guys get the smart chicks."
Michael laughed and said, "Is that just Quinn's stuff?"
"Oh, no. Since I bought the cart, I just agreed to carry stuff for everyone. A lot easier that way. When they gather together after dinner to sort through their purchases, it'll be a good time for me to slip away forÖyou know."
"Gotcha. Daria usually will write in her diary then."
"Cool. See you later."
Michael went back into the cabin and straight to Daria. He sat on the bed, lifted her right foot and then gently started to massage it.
She said, "How bad?"
"I suspect extra luggage will be needed by the end of the trip, but I think Q's smart enough to survive your sister."
"Oh, that's good." Daria laid back and closed her eyes. "That's very good."
"Q's good sense or the massage?"
Seeing Daria, Quinn and Jane gathered in the hallway between their cabins after dinner, Helen went to them and said, "Girls, have any of you seen Jake?"
Arms folded, Jane said, "He's missing, too?"
"Now it's really time to be worried," Daria said.
Quinn said, "Dear God, please don't let them try to cook anything."
"Hold on a second," Daria said before disappearing into her room. She emerged a couple moments later with the cruise schedule. After a fast scan, she said, "The kitchens are safe. No cooking classes are scheduled."
"Whew," Quinn said. "But Q, Dad, Mike and Michael are still off somewhere and you know that can't be good."
Jane said, "So they're not cooking and I'm sure that they can't find anything to blow up, so it must be something potentially very embarrassing."
"Sweetie," Helen said, "Is there anything else on the list we should worry about?"
"HmmÖpoker, probably not, Michael has a terrible poker face and he knows itÖballroom dance lessons?"
"Trust me, Mack doesn't need lessons in that department," Jane said.
Daria gave her a fast, curious look and continued reading, "Country line dancing?"
Quinn shook her head. "No way."
"Uh, Bartending 101? Michael just turned 21Ö"
"I could see that," Jane said.
"Yeah, in a science guy kind of way," Quinn said.
Helen rubbed her temples. "New versions of MartinisÖwe better check this out."
"Agreed," Daria said.
Jane asked, "So what's the plan?"
"Give me a minute," Daria said, looking at the ship's deck plans.
Fran blinked against the bright lights that mixed with the otherwise dim nightclub and found Tammy dancing with a guy wearing a University of Central Florida shirt. She tapped her friendís shoulder and yelled over the dance music, "Iím heading outside for a few minutes!"
"Iíll be around!" Tammy called back.
Fran nodded and weaved her way off of the dance floor and outside onto an observation deck. Several of the available tables were occupied, mostly by couples talking quietly. She went straight past them to lean against the railing and watch the pale green glow of the ship's wake. Beyond, only the shimmer of stars on the rippled ocean betrayed the difference between water and sky for the moonless evening.
Soon, she sensed someone behind her. A man's voice said, "Is this spot taken?"
She turned to find a young man joining her at the railing. He was a nondescript kind of cute, pleasant but nothing striking. He had light brown hair, a thin mustache maybe two weeks old and brown eyes. Fran said, "No. I was just getting some fresh air."
"You have pretty eyes," he said.
"I've been told thatÖwait, was that a pickup line?" Fran said.
"Not horribly original." The guy shrugged. "But still true."
"Youíre really trying to pick me up?"
He held up his hands. "Um, if youíre not into guys, I, like, apologize."
"Oh, no. Nothing like that. I like guys, I was just surprised."
"Oh, okay. Huh?"
"Letís say that Iíve been a little sheltered and leave it at that."
"Sure," he said. "SoÖ"
Fran faintly smiled. "You havenít struck out yet."
Inside, Grace found Tammy seated on a barstool and she took the next seat. "Hey, howís it going?"
"Oh, Iím having a great time. Danced with half a dozen guys and had a couple of drinks bought for me. How about you?"
Grace ran her fingers through the light curls in her hair. "These east coast boys seem to really like California girls."
Tammy giggled. "Yeah, for some of them, itís almost as if weíre from another country." She imitated a manís voice, "Do you have those all the way out there?"
Grace did the same. "Hey, I hear you have a Disney, too! When did it open?"
"Oh, thatís a good one."
Looking around, Grace said, "Whereís Fran?"
"She went outside for some air."
"That doesnít sound like a bad idea." Grace stood and said, "Coming?"
Stepping out to the observation deck, Tammy looked around. "I thought she came out here."
Grace pointed toward a couple on the stern railing, the woman almost a full head shorter than the man. "She did and it looks like she had an ulterior motive."
Returning to their staterooms from the "Golden Galleon" nightclub, Daria led her mother, sister and friend down the hall. "Well, the bartending lessons were a bust."
"Thereís Michael," Quinn said, seeing the red-haired young man entering his and Dariaís room.
"Iíll try to find out whatís going on," Daria said, increasing her walking pace. At her cabin, she paused for a second to collect her thoughts and then went inside.
"Hi, Michael," she said. "Where have you been hiding?"
Familiar with the little burr in her voice, Michael was immediately aware that she knew heíd been up to something and decided to clear as much as possible. "I was with your dad, Mike and Q. We have a little surprise planned for everyone."
Daria folded her arms and leaned back against the closed door. "A surprise?"
"Yes, a surprise. Therefore, I canít give you any more details or it will no longer be one."
"All four of you?"
"Yes. It was your dadís idea."
"Is this some bonding idea of his?"
"Maybe." Michael explained, "Okay, look. It wonít involve cooking, fire, alcohol or small animals of any kind."
"Thatís a start. So, youíre asking Mom, Quinn, Jane and me to trust you."
Daria sighed at herself and walked over to her fiancť. "I trust you and I know I can get Mom and the rest to trust all of you guys."
With Q spooned against her as they lay in bed, Quinn felt every muscle in her body almost melt away as he nibbled on the base of her neck. At the same time, she could feel excitement building within from the erotic intimacy she felt from being in bed next to him. She rolled slightly to kiss him. As she did, his hand moved down along her thigh, bringing shivers, but also a sudden case of nervous tension. Quinn's mind rolled through what was happening and where it was leading. Is he the right one? Is there such a thing as the right one? Should they wait or not? How would it change their relationship? Was she ready to let somebody truly be that close to her?
Unsteady, she moved his hand away with hers and whispered, "IÖI think that's enough for now, please."
His deep feelings for her making sure that no disappoint showed in his voice, Q whispered back, "Sorry for getting a little carried away," and he held Quinn's hand to reassure her that he would go no further.
"No need to apologize," she said. "I really liked what you were doing, butÖI'm just not ready for more right now."
Karen heard faint movement in her cabin and she looked at the clock, which read 2:44 AM. "Fran?" she whispered.
"Sorry," the other girl whispered back. "I donít have a lot of practice sneaking in late."
"Ah. Does this mean you had a good time?"
"Yeah, I did. What about you?"
"Dariaís letting me borrow her laptop. I got the first batch of photos ready and I wrote a letter to Derek. Thereís supposed to be phone jacks at the cruise terminal in St. Thomas. Iím going to e-mail them tomorrow before I hit the beach."
"After all day shopping today, I think staying at the beach will be great tomorrow. Iíll try to be quiet while I clean off my makeup."
"Thanks. Good night."
Holding a diving mask and snorkel in one hand and a pair of swim fins in the other, Jake looked at his daughters and their friends clustered under several beach umbrellas. "Are you kids sure you donít want to join us?"
Holding up a book, Daria said, "Iím sure, Dad. We spent most of yesterday walking around Nassau and I know that Michaelís going to spend all day tomorrow in Old San Juan. He really wants to see the El Morro fortress. I need a day of rest and Iím sure Mom will like spending the day alone with you."
Standing beside Jake, Helen saw the subtle twinkle in Dariaís eye when she said the last bit.
Quinn said, "And what good are these beaches if we donít take advantage of them at least once?"
Karen winked at Fran and scooted her chair over a foot away from Daria and Quinn. "The Morgendorffer sisters are in agreement."
Fran waved the concern away. "To slack off," she said.
"Yes, but Daria can be dangerous when sheís bored."
"Isnít that Michaelís job?"
Karen pointed a thumb at the guys talking together. "I think heís going to be a little distracted."
A familiar voice from the night before said, "Hi, Fran."
Her face lit up and she turned to face the man standing behind her chair. "Hi, Gerald."
"So thatís the reason you came in so late last night," Karen said.
Grace heard the comment and tapped Tammy. "Hey, itís Franís Ďmystery man.í"
Fran rolled her eyes. "Everybody, this is Gerald. Gerald, these are my suitemates at school. Tammyís the blonde and Grace has the naturally curly hair." Grace rolled her eyes at having her frequent insistence about her hair come back at her. Pivoting to shift Geraldís attention, Fran said, "Sheís my remaining suitemate, Quinn. Next to her are her sister Daria and her roommates. Sheís Karen and the one with black hair is Jane. The guys are Michael, Mike, and Q. Theyíre attached to Daria, Jane and Quinn, in that order."
"Put íer there, my man," Jake said, offering his hand. "Daria and Quinnís father, Jake. And this is my wife, Helen."
"Good to meet you, young man," Helen said.
A little confused, Gerald shook Jakeís hand and said, "Um, hi."
Fran asked, "Do you people mind if I, uhÖ"
Quinn grinned and said, "Heís a cute one, Fran. Go on."
"We can interrogate him later," Tammy said.
"Yeah, later would be good. I donít carry sodium pentothal on me," Grace joked.
Fran jumped up and grabbed Geraldís hand, leading him away and explaining, "Pharmacy major."
"They seem a little protective," he said.
"Theyíre my sorority sisters. Theyíre supposed to be protective."
"Then Iím glad your parents arenít onboard."
Jake broke the water surface next to Helen and extended one hand upward to grasp the gunwale of their small tour boat. After a bit of unclear mumbling, he pulled the snorkel from his mouth and excitedly said, "Honey, isnít this great?"
Hand also resting on the shipís rail, she said, "Yes it is, Jake. We really shouldíve done this years ago."
"Yeah, having the SCUBA gear wouldíve been fun, but I like this better." His voice started to progressively rise. "No fussy tanks or regulars or having to learn ditch and don and no damnÖ"
"Jake!" she softly admonished.
"What? Oh, yeah. Like I was saying, I like snorkeling a lot more. I feel freer, if you know what I mean."
"I do, Jake."
With a playful leer, Jake said, "Do what?"
Helen softly smiled and thought of Dariaís comment, "Iím sure Mom will like spending the day alone with you". Thank you, Sweetie. She said, "Later, Jakey."
Tammy looked around at the other women still gathered on the beach and then out at Q, Mike and Michael riding small, fast watercraft just offshore. Jane had a sketchpad on her lap and was happily drawing. Dariaís face was hidden by a book, and Quinn was supremely relaxed, lying on her stomach with her head cradled on her arms. "Okay, can someone explain this to me? The three guys are out there playing with their toys while six girls are here together on the beach. Iíd have thought the appearance of 2-1 odds would stroke their egos enough to hang around more."
Not even opening her eyes, Quinn said, "Boys and their toys."
"Theyíre in relationships, so that part of their ego is covered. Theyíre out there bonding over shows of testosterone-induced stupidity. Itís genetic," Daria said without even pausing her reading.
"And since thereís no keg involved, thereís not much to worry about," Jane said.
"Itís still a bunch of guys on motorized vehicles," Grace said. "Want to start a pool on who does something stupid first? Five dollars."
"Michael," Daria said without hesitation.
Karen said, "Put me down for that."
"Me, too," said Jane.
"That was fast," Grace said. "I was kind of expecting Michael to be the least likely. No offense, Daria, but he seems kind ofÖ"
Daria looked up and gave Grace one of her faint smiles. "Öplain? Michaelís usually very rational and thoughtful, but at timesÖheíll do something on impulse that often ends badly. I think it just needs to get out from time to time."
Tammy said, "You mean that if he holds it in, heíll explode?"
Karen laughed. "Something like that."
"I think thatís why he gets along with my dad," Daria said.
"Between watching over the football team in high school," Jane said, "and partying with his frat brothers, Mack knows how to cut loose without drawing attention."
"What about your guy, Quinn?" Grace asked.
"Oh, he would never embarrass me like thatÖif he knows whatís good for him," she said with a smile.
Not missing the chance to tease, Tammy said, "So, how's the sleeping arrangements going, Quinn?"
Blushing, just as Tammy had intended, Quinn said, "Um, fine. Okay."
"Aww," Grace said, watching. "Isn't it cute when she does that?"
After watching Michael ride his watercraft off of a jump ramp and plow it nose-first into the water, Grace sighed, looked at her purse and said, "I had to suggest a pool."
Daria watched the aftermath intently until she saw Michaelís head appear and he looked fine, if embarrassed, which allowed her to relax. When he started to swim to the idling craft, he seemed to slow down and then stopped, looking around in confusion. Mike and Q rode up to him and after a brief exchange, both started to laugh. Michael shook his head and swam the rest of the way to the waiting craft, holding on but not climbing up. Q and Mike drove their craft around, apparently looking for something. After a few minutes, they gave up and Mike rode toward shore. He cut the engine and allowed the craft to beach itself. Wearing a grin, he walked the rest of the way to the girls.
Daria asked, "Okay, did he lose what I think he lost out there?"
Mike chuckled and nodded his head. "Heíd appreciate it if you could find him some new pants soon."
The other young women broke into lighthearted giggles at the news. Jane said, "I didnít know he was such an exhibitionist."
Daria looked over her shoulder and back toward the many beachside shops. "I think I can find something nearby. Tell him I wonít go back to the ship for his other pair."
"I donít get it."
Daria was glad that the surf was light as she slowly swam to Michael. At the floating watercraft, she grabbed onto it and handed Michael a new pair of swim shorts. "You owe me."
"No kidding," he said, looking at the offered apparel. "Parrots?" he said, inquiring about the printed design.
"Hey, did you want fast or fashionable?"
He swam closer and kissed her. "Fast is good. Thanks."
"Some things are for my eyes only," she said, reaching down underwater to briefly stroke his exposed cheek.
He smirked and kissed Daria again, bringing her closer. "Maybe I should do this more often."
She accepted the kiss and then said, "Next time, I get the shorts with mouse ears."
"Okay, I get the hint. I wonít do it again."
The cashier at the photo shop handed Gerald a credit card receipt to sign. "Thank you, MrÖ"
"Just Gerald is fine," he said, exchanging a wink with Fran.
The cashier took the request in stride and then gave Gerald a package containing two large prints. "Have a good day, sir."
"Thanks," Gerald replied before following Fran out of the shop.
They joined hands and laughed as they started walking down the narrow street. They looked at each other and said in unison, "No last names," before laughing again.
Daria was lying flat on Karenís bed looking at trip photos on the laptop while Karen sat next to the machine. Daria pointed to one photo and said, "You have to send that one."
"Youíve got that right," she said. "Oh, and that one."
Daria nodded. Scrolling down the preview, she stopped suddenly and said, "Um, that oneísÖinteresting."
Karen blushed and said, "Oops, you werenít supposed to see that. Thatís for Derekís private viewing."
Daria scrolled past the photo quickly. "I should hope so."
Someone knocked on the door and Karen yelled, "Itís open!"
Quinn, Grace and Tammy entered the room and Quinn said, "Have you seen Fran?"
"She put on a hot-looking dress and met that Gerald," Karen said. "I think they said something about dinner on the Starlight Deck."
"Sheís spending a lot of time with him," Grace said.
Daria said, "I havenít heard any complaints out of her and sheís an adult. Whatís the problem?"
"Weíre worried," Tammy said.
"Iím no expert," Daria said, "Be he seems like a nice guy and she enjoys his company."
Quinn sat on the bed next to Daria. "Yeah, but we donít know anything about him."
Figuring out the situation, Daria said, "Youíre pretty protective of Fran, arenít you?"
"Sheís one of our sorority sisters," Quinn replied, followed with nods from the other girls.
With a shake of her head, Daria replied. "Itís more than that."
The other girls looked around, but didnít say anything.
Daria continued to say, "It says a lot about how good-hearted all of you are that you care so much for your friend and donít want her to get hurt. However, you need to give Fran a chance to try things on her own. Yes, her heart might be broken in the process, but sheíll recover. Just like I have and just like Iím sure each of you has." Daria shrugged. "Maybe you canít really learn to love until youíve felt the pain of failing at love."
"But sheís had such a hard time," Quinn said.
"Yes, she has, and this is something she should do on her own. If you are her friends, be there just in case she needs you."
"If you want my opinion," Karen said. "I wouldn't worry about Fran. She's here to have fun and it looks like she is."
"I hope you're right," Tammy softly said.
With Daria, Michael stood in front of the 16th century fortress gate and said, "El Castillo San Felipe del Morro. The defender of Old San Juan. This is going to be so cool."
Daria looked at the walls and said, "Letís hope the sanitary facilities are not from the 16th century."
The entrance portal ran through the massive walls and out onto the upper level plaza. Jake and Helen followed the young couple and once inside, Jake stopped next to Michael and both stared at the surrounding walls, mesmerized.
Helen went to Daria. "I donít think weíre going to be very noticeable on this trip."
"Michaelís in history geek mode," Daria replied. "I do the same thing when Iím writing."
"So do I with my legal briefs."
Michael and Jake broke out of their self-induced hypnosis and began actively prowling around the plaza, looking into the nooks and crannies while Daria and Helen followed. After the plaza, they went down a steep ramp through more heavy walls to the main battery of the fortress.
Along the way, Daria said, "Iím a little surprised at how interested Dad is in all this."
"Your father did go to a military school," Helen said. "He always liked the history; it was the training he feared and hated."
"I hadnít thought about that. Most of what I heard about his school was bad."
"Over the years, Iíve learned to sift through his comments to learn what else happened to him."
"I've done the same with Michael."
Jake and Michael stopped at one of the heavy cannons on display and broke into an animated discussion that alternated with pointing and looking down the cannonís barrel like two children out exploring.
Daria watched them with a soft smile slowly forming. "Iím glad that theyíre getting along. Itís one less thing to worry about."
Helen put her hand on Dariaís shoulder. "In some ways, Michael reminds me of Jake at that age. Kind, decent, intelligent, but still goes overboard at times." She gently laughed. "Iím glad your father wasnít with the boys yesterday on those contraptions."
Daria laughed back. "Same here. Both of us swimming out with shorts would've been too much."
"I hope you don't mind me saying this, but I see a lot of the old me in you, too. Dedicated and idealistic, but jaded by all that's wrong in the world around you. You know it's an uphill struggle, but you fight for the things you believe to be important. I see in you the best parts of me that I lost."
"UhÖthanks," Daria said, touched by her mother's sentiment.
"I think you know what I mean."
"Yeah. I think I also know what you lost. I started feeling it just before I left the University Press. I was becoming so dedicated to my work that I was losing sight of everyone else." Daria shifted to face her mother. "Mom, since your stroke, I can tell that you're fighting to change back. I'm with you."
"I'm trying, Sweetie."
"Can I make a suggestion?"
"Of course you can."
"Leave the law firm."
"Daria!" Helen said in suppressed surprise.
"Mom, I felt so much better when I left the University Press. I'm able to write again and enjoy it. I'm not thinking right away. Take your time and find something in law that you'll enjoy. Something you can be idealistic about again." When Helen didn't reply, Daria said, "Can you think about it?"
Helen nodded and her voice seemed distant when she replied, "I will."
Daria motioned toward Jake and Michael at the far end of the battery. "We better catch up with them."
Helen said, "I think we're going to be doing a lot of that in the future."
"I'm afraid you're right."
Nearing the men, they heard Michael saying, "We get some of the Rev War guys come through the Visitor Center now and then to check on things with the historians. I bet with a little work we could convince someone to let you onto a cannon crew for a shot or two."
"Really?" Jake said through a huge grin.
"You would have to dress for the part."
"They can't be any worse than my old cadet uniform."
"Do you hear that, Ellenbogen!" Jake said to the air. "You can't keep me away from a cannon forever!"
Daria said, "Should we be worried?"
Helen smiled and put an arm around her daughter. "I think we better get used to it."
Surrounded by the lush foliage of the El Yunque rainforest, Quinn folded her arms and watched Q as he carefully focused his camera on a large beetle crawling on a tree. "Just to let you know, I'm not eating any wild berries."
He snapped the shot and looked back at her. "Huh?"
"I'm not eating any wild berries."
"I wasn't planning on it myself."
"Okay," he said, going back to examining the foliage while silently wondering what caused that exchange.
"You're only going to take pictures of your bugs, right? You didn't sneak some of your pins on board so you can stick them through the bugs like voodoo dolls?"
Q shook his head. "I know you don't like the idea; that's why I agreed to just photograph. Besides, I hate to think what it would've been like to put a killing jar through airport security."
"Sometimes, you're a little like my sister."
"Is that good or bad?"
He nodded and stopped, slowly raising his camera again. "Well, I'm glad you agreed to follow me around in a rainforest, looking for insects."
She waited until after he'd taken his next photo before caressing his shoulder. "You agreed to come along on my shopping trip. Fair's fair."
"And the big day bonding with your parents tomorrow on Grand Turk."
"I wonder how well Michael's bonding with your parents."
"He'll be okay. He's dealt with them before."
Q stood and embraced Quinn. "At least you have two parents worth meeting."
"Hey, it's not your fault."
"I know, but trust me; if you get a chance to meet my dad, run away."
"Okay, but after this, I need to meet your mom."
"Yeah, we'll have to figure something out. Maybe Thanksgiving."
"Sounds good. Mom and Dad came out to visit me last year."
"Hold still," Q said as he backed slightly away and moved his hand next to Quinn's shoulder, then carefully slapped, killing a mosquito. He brushed it away and said, "Got it."
She gave him a teasing smile and said, "You didn't want a picture?"
"Nah, they're boring."
Karen stepped off the returning transfer bus near the ship dock and sighed. "They had some nice horses to ride, but it only makes me miss Elvira the more." She looked at the nearby beach, shook her head and muttered, "I don't think so. I think I'll find a quiet deck chair and chill for the rest of the port of call."
She went to her stateroom and changed out of her riding clothes and into simple shorts and t-shirt. Carrying her camera, she picked up the borrowed laptop and went up onto one of the open decks to find almost all of the chairs empty. She found one that had a nice view of the gangplank and settled in, hooking up the camera to the computer to download and clean up the day's pictures.
"May I get you something?" a voice said beside Karen after she'd finished the download and was longingly looking at pictures of Derek. She looked up to see a handsome waiter patiently standing by her chair.
Feeling a little down, she said, "Sure, can you get me a mint julep?"
"I'll be right back."
I've always wanted to try one, she thought before closing the photo program and opening a word processor to begin a letter to e-mail later.
I'm trying to have a good time, but today, I just ran out of steam. I guess being the first day actually alone did it. Daria and Michael are off with her folks doing the historical tour of San Juan. Jane and Mike went to one of the casinos. Daria's sister Quinn and her boyfriend are off bug-hunting, while all of her friends have picked up unattached guys and are off in different directions. I got a chance to do some horseback riding today along the edge of the rainforest and it only reminded me how much I miss Elvira. Once I got back onboard ship, being alone reminded me of how very much I miss you.
"Your drink," the waiter said, placing a tall glass on the table next to Karen. When she reached for her purse, he said, "On me."
She gave him a polite smile and said, "It's a kind offer, but no, thank you. I'll pay."
"Oh, come on. I don't bite," the waiter said, giving her a slick smile.
"Nothing personal, but I'm not interested."
"But a pretty girl like you, sitting all alone, can't help but sway a young man's interest."
Becoming annoyed, Karen said, "Thank you for the compliment, but Iím not looking to hook up with anybody. I just want to pay for my drink, enjoy it and write a letter."
"Aw, come on. Wouldnít you rather have some pleasant company?"
She held up her hand to show her ring and pointedly said, "No, I have somebody."
"So you have a guy. Where is he?"
"Afghanistan," she growled.
"What he doesn't know won't hurt him. My shift ends in half an hour."
Karen set Daria's laptop aside and stood, staring the offending waiter in the eye. "Listen here, you festering wad of foot and mouth drool. Considering that he's probably sitting in a Humvee behind a .50 cal about now, I'd say that what he doesn't know won't hurt you. But thatís not entirely true. I can castrate your ass just as fast as I've castrated bulls. A little faster, since there's less to cut."
The waiter gulped, backed away two steps and then ran for the bar. Karen looked around and then flagged the hostess to come over.
She looked at the departed waiter with concern and said, "May I help you?"
Karen pointed to her drink and pulled her room card from her purse. "I'd like to pay for my drink, please."
The hostess smiled and said, hoping to soothe an obviously annoyed passenger, "Was there a problem with your waiter?"
Karen glanced at the man hiding behind the bar. "Performance anxiety."
Her eyes dropped. "My apologies for his rude behavior. I will personally take your orders for the rest of the afternoon." The hostess accepted Karenís payment and said, "Iíll ring up this one, but your remaining drinks today will be on the house, if that is acceptable."
"I think Iím going to be fine with this one, but okay. I might like some coffee later."
"As you wish," the hostess said before leaving, while muttering, "Thatís the third passenger heís hit on this week. That asshole is spending the rest of the cruise doing dishes."
Karen sat down on her chair, sipped from her drink and brought the laptop back to finish her letter.
I wish I could see you right now. At least I can look at my ring and know what it means to us.
The last of the dayís makeup cleaned from her face, Fran left the bathroom and said, "Iíve been babbling the whole time about my day. How was yours, Karen?"
"The horse ride was fun, butÖI kind of felt a little adrift afterward, so I just came back to the ship. Some jerk waiter not taking Ďnoí for an answer didnít help my mood, either."
"Donít be, itís not your fault."
Fran lifted her hand to her face. "I know what itís like to be left out. Believe me."
"I bet. I was mostly thinking about Derek. Heís about halfway through his tour and I kept wishing he was here."
Fran pulled her thigh-length hair together into a pick ponytail, brought it up over her shoulder and sat down on the bed with Karen. "One thing about not getting out as much is that Iíve learned to be a good listener. We can talk."
"Thanks," Karen said. "In return, Iíve got a couple of Quinn stories from Daria that I bet youíve never heard."
Fran got a sneaky grin. "Oh, have I got some Daria stories for you from Quinn."
The "what-if's", doubts and fears welled up in Quinn, causing her to place her hands on Q's bare chest and breathlessly said, "Okay."
He silently nodded and rolled back onto his side, giving her the room she needed.
She nodded her appreciation and touched his cheek with her fingertip.
"Still worried?" he asked, knowing the answer.
"Yeah. Iím sorry. Part of me wants to, but then another part of me gets so scaredÖ"
Making a joke to break the tension, Q said, "Being scared will certainly put a damper on your fun, so we'll just have to wait."
She let out a quick laugh and let her head rest on the pillow. "Thanks."
Over breakfast the next morning, Tammy read from her guidebook and said, "The 4X4 safari excursion sounds like fun; anybody want to join me?"
"I had my fill of 4X4 safaris in high school," Karen said, "and washed plenty of red Georgia clay off of my boots after. Since weíre talking about plans, Daria, Jane, how about the three of us spend today doing something together? I think it would be fun."
Jane one-armed shrugged. "Sounds good to me. Mack?"
He returned the shrug. "No problem."
Jane said, "Cool, we can set M&M loose on Grand Turk and head the other way. That is, if you can tear yourself away from Michael, Daria."
"Jane, we are not joined at the hip," Daria said, pausing to glance at her fiancť, who nodded an affirmative. "Michael and I didnít have any concrete plans for today, so sure, Karen."
"Great," Karen said. "I'm sure the guys can amuse themselves for a few hours."
Michael said, "Mike, how does the deep sea fishing tour sound?"
"Sun and sleeping sounds good to me. Youíre on."
"So what are we going to do?" Jane asked.
Karen had her cruise guide. "How about visiting an uninhabited island?"
"Uninhabited, if you donít count the daily tourists," Daria said, looking at the guide. "But hmm, swimming with Ďfriendlyí stingrays could give me a few story ideas. If not, we can always use other tourists to see how friendly they really are."
Jane also looked at Karenís guide. "Thereís also power lounging on the beach with cold drinks and a full takeout lunch. Letís go."
Grace said, "Iím going to check out shopping in the main town, Cockburn. I donít have enough tacky tourist stuff yet. And as a native of Anaheim, I know tacky tourist stuff when I see it."
"Fran?" Tammy asked.
The young woman said, "I have plans with Gerald."
Showing a little concern, Grace said, "You realize the cruise is over the day after tomorrow, right?"
"I know; thatís why weíre enjoying the time we can together," Fran replied.
Tammy said, "Quinn, youíre off with your folks today, right?"
She nodded. "Weíre going sailing and then swimming along a reef."
Michael said, "Well Q, itís your turn to spend a day with the Morgendorffers. Are you ready?"
He said, "They canít be any worse than some of the students in the freshman lab I TAíd last year, and certainly no worse than my parents before my dad left."
Gentle waves made a faint slap on the schoonerís wooden hull as Quinn and Helen sat on the deck watching Q and Jake snorkeling in the water. Quinn lifted the edge of her wide hat and said, "What do you think, Mom?"
"Think of what?" Helen asked, though a glint in her eye said she knew.
"Oh," Helen said, seeing her daughter nervously awaiting the answer. "Heís a nice young man."
"Mom," Quinn said. "Thereís more than that."
"You seem happy with him; thatís whatís important."
Helen chose to stop teasing her daughter. "I approve, and it looks like your father approves, too."
"Thanks." Looking out again in time to see both dive under, Quinn said, "Yeah, they seem to really be getting along well. I was worried; it took Dad a while to warm up to Michael."
"Your fatherÖhad to learn that his little girl had grown up and found someone."
"So, it gets easier the second time?"
"Not really, but you learn not to show your concern as much to avoid upsetting your children."
Building up her courage, Quinn said, "Like when they sleep with their boyfriend?"
She saw the brief flash of sadness in her mother before Helen said, "Yes. That's one of the times you have to accept that your daughter is an intelligent, grown woman who can make her own decisions."
A burst of air bubbles came to the surface where the two men had dove, followed moments later by Jake frantically breaking the surface. His arm flailed around with a spiny lobsterís claw firmly clamped onto his hand. "Gah! Itís got me!"
"Jake!" Helen called, immediately worried.
Q came up and managed to grab the arm and errant creature. "Hold still!" he yelled, prying the claw loose. But with both hands busy with that, just as he got the lobster loose from Jake, the other claw bore down onto his arm. "Ah!" he yelled in pain and surprise.
"Quinn!" the female bearer of the name cried.
Q slammed his arm down against the water surface and the lobster let go, flipping its tail to bolt away. Jake looked around and said, "Dammit! It got away!"
Catching his breath, Q said, "After it!"
"Yeah!" Jake said and dove back down.
After Q followed, Helen sighed and turned to Quinn. "I think heís getting along with your father as well as Michael."
"Thatís good, right?" Quinn said.
"For as long as we can survive it."
Further offshore, a cabin cruiser kept a steady pace as a dozen tourists filled chairs equipped with the heavy-duty fishing rods and reels needed for large, deep-sea fish.
The fishing guide on the deck tapped Michael on the shoulder and said, "Sir."
He sleepily lifted the cap bill shading his eyes. "Shh. Iím fishing."
The guide said, "Looks more like youíre napping."
"Same thing. What do you want?"
"Something hit your line. You might want to reel it in."
"Damn," Michael said, opening his eyes again and grabbing the fishing pole. "Now I have to do some work."
In the next chair, Mike stirred and said, "Keep it down over there."
Pulling against the fish on the line, Michael said, "You know, this could really score points with Bump."
Mike gently laughed and said, "I know youíre engaged if youíre trying to score points with her cat."
Each under a large beach umbrella and enjoying a cold drink, Daria, Jane and Karen sat on the white sand beach and enjoyed the relative solitude. Only a couple of other tour members were on the beach and they were spread wide while most of the rest of the tour were further inland trying to learn how to clean and cook conch from one of the guides. Daria said, "Okay, Karen, whatís up?"
"Iím that obvious," Karen said, not really surprised.
Jane said, "Yeah."
Karen said, "Sorry guys, I felt a little left out yesterday. Youíre my best friends andÖ"
"You wanted to pry us away from our boyfriends because yours is away," Daria said. "Itís okay, thatís why weíre here."
"Trust me," Jane said. "Daria and I know the value of friendship."
"You know what would really be great right now?" Jane said.
"Pizza," Daria answered.
"On me," Karen said, raising her hand to catch the attention of a waiter. "What do we want on it?"
Sleepy but happy and cuddled against Qís chest, Quinn thought that except for the lobster incident, the previous day had been a success. Her mother and father had accepted and embraced her boyfriend. Her fear that he'd find them overwhelming proved to be unfounded. Quinn looked at his peaceful face, which seemed to glow from the dawn sunlight coming through the window. Something seemed to change within her as she watched him, a change that replaced trepidation with excitement. She felt closer and wanted to be even more so. Emboldened by the feeling, she slowly slid over and onto Q, straddling him and pressing down to embrace him closely before waking him with a kiss.
"Hmm?" he sleepily mumbled, though he clearly enjoyed being woken up.
"Good morning," she said with her voice deepened to a sultry tone.
Bringing his arms up and around her slender waist, he said, "Good morning. You seem to be in a good mood."
"Very," she said before slowly kissing him again.
He let his hand drift down and slip under the edge of Quinn's nightshirt to caress her thigh, which led to her almost purring and nestling her face against his shoulder while continuing her kisses. He whispered, "I guess breakfast can wait."
"That's why the ship has room service," she said, and then gently nibbled on his earlobe.
Daria answered the knock on her door and saw her mother in the corridor, looking down. As she stepped out of her stateroom, she said over her shoulder, "Michael, hang on a few minutes and then weíll go for breakfast."
Pouring a cup from the in-room pot, Michael said, "Okay. Do you want some coffee?"
Michael nodded and Daria closed the door as he prepared a second cup.
Daria went to Helen. "Mom? What's wrong?"
Helen lifted her eyes from the floor. "I'm feeling a little old this morning."
"I went to knock on Quinnís door to see if she was ready for breakfast." Helen sighed and looked at Daria with a sad smile. "My little girls aren't girls anymore."
Daria only briefly hesitated before putting her arms around her mother.
Helen allowed herself to be held for a nice, long while before pulling away. "Thank you, Daria."
"Youíre welcome, Mom. Q seems like a good guy. I was kind of expecting Quinn would warm to someone like him."
"Do you remember David, that tutor she had a couple summers ago? She had a pretty good crush on him. So I figured that when she decided to stick with one boy instead of changing them like socks, it would be with someone reasonably intelligent."
"That makes sense, now that you mention it. Although I didnít learn about that crush until you were off to college."
"She wasnít as obvious as you were with Trent."
"Okay, youíve got me on that."
A faint sound caused both to look at Quinnís room and Helen said, "Itís unsettling to think about you and Quinn being sexually active."
"Mom," Daria replied. "The feeling is mutual."
That made Helen chuckle. "I suppose it is."
Daria put her hand on the doorknob. "Iíll get Michael and you get Dad and weíll head up for breakfastÖbefore we hear anything else."
After lunch, Quinn found Daria and Michael on some deck chairs, reading. "You brains just canít stop, can you?" she said, playing.
"I can stop any time I want," Michael said, looking up. "But why bother?"
"When itís so much fun," Daria said.
Quinn nervously laughed and then said, "Uh, Michael, can I talk to Daria?"
"Alone, I take it," Michael said, placing a marker in his book and standing. "Tell you what; I need to meet up with the rest of the guys for one more thing before our surprise tonight. Whereís Q?"
"He ran into Dad and theyíre at the putting range."
"Cool, thatís two and then weíll have to track down where Mike wandered off."
"Couldnít you ask Jane?"
"We saw her a little while ago running laps around the deck," Daria said. "When she runs, Jane prefers to be alone."
"Wish me luck," Michael said, then leaned down and kissed Daria. "Iíll be back later."
"Iíll be here," she said. After Michael walked away, she said, "Whatís up, sis?"
Quinn sat on the vacated chair. "When did you know that you, um, were in love with Michael?"
Daria faintly smiled at the memory. "Driving back to Boston after Mom and Dadís twenty-fifth anniversary."
Quinn nodded. "How?"
"I was thinking about how much Mom and Dad love each other. Letís face it, thatís the only thing that would keep those two together after all these years."
That made Quinn laugh. "Yeah."
"From there, it was just a natural step to thinking about Michael and me the same wayÖand then it hit me."
"It wasnít easy, and neither was getting up the nerve to tell Michael, even though I knew he felt the same and had for a couple of months."
"Youíre wondering," Daria observed.
"I really like Q and I want to be with him, but I just donít know."
"Then you donít know. Thereís nothing wrong with that."
"I was hoping you could tell me how to know."
"Sorry, but I think thatís something everyone has to do on their own. Besides, driving from Lawndale to Boston probably wonít work for you."
Quinn laughed again. "I guess not."
"Good luck, though. I think you found a good one."
Daria leaned close to Quinn and discreetly said, "One piece of advice though, especially for when Momís around."
"Keep the volume down a little."
"Keep the volume down? We havenít been playing the radio or TV." When they met Dariaís, Quinnís eyes opened wide in shock. "Oh no!"
Michael and Q were joking together when they returned to Daria and Quinn about an hour later. Daria looked at them through the top of her glasses and tapped an open cruise brochure on the arm of her chair. "Welcome back."
Quinn said, "Weíve got a question."
Michael said, "Uh-oh. Weíre in trouble."
"Karaoke?" Quinn asked in amazement and dread.
Q looked over at Michael. "Busted."
Daria said, "So youíre confirming it."
"Yes," Michael said. "Look, itís going to be fun."
"And whose bright idea was this?"
Q said, "Your fatherís."
"Iíve heard Dad sing,Ē Quinn said. "Heís not the best in the world."
"He was a bit of a challenge, but I think I worked something out," Michael said. "Though Gina couldíve done a better job, I think my time in the church chorus helped me organize things."
"We better warn Mom and Jane," Daria said.
Quinn said, "Please tell me that youíre not going to wear some kind of costume for this."
"Define costume," Q said with a wince.
The announcer said, "Next, we have a group called The Beach Bums. How about a big welcome for Jake, Michael, Mike and Quinn!"
Jake looked at the others, grinned and stood along with Michael, Mike and Q. Each wore surfer shorts and bright, tropical print shirts. Scattered, polite clapping came from the gathered audience, most apparently there to watch some participant or a participant themselves.
Daria lifted a hand to cover her eyes. "Oh, God."
In almost the same pose as Daria, Helen said, "I was the one who told Jake to try something different."
Quinn looked at her friends gathered around the table. Fran had barely looked up before returning to her conversation with Gerald, while Tammy returned a grin that said she wouldnít forget and Grace pointed a camera to record the evidence.
Also ready to record the eveningís events, Jane adjusted her camera to the light level and said, "This has got to be good. Maybe not the singing, but I know Iím going to get some great shots out of this."
The four took the stage and Michael moved to one mike stand while the others gathered around a second. Michael nodded to start the music and his tenor voice chimed in on cue:
The others joined in to harmonize on the chorus:
More confident, Michael started the next verse,
Buoyed by Michael's singing, the second chorus came in louder and clearer.
The poor cook he caught the fits
And threw away all my grits
And then he took and he ate up all of my corn
Let me go home
Why don't they let me go home
This is the worst trip I've ever been on
So hoist up the John B's sail
See how the mainsail sets
Call for the Captain ashore
Let me go home, let me go home
I wanna go home, let me go home
Why don't you let me go home
Amid the applause from the audience, Jane said, "They better not quit their day jobs, but damn, they sound better after a weekís practice than Mystik Spiral ever sounded after years of practice."
Daria said, "It couldíve been a lot worse and they didnít embarrass themselves."
Helen found herself happily applauding, which, when he saw it, made Jake give her one of his goofy grins.
"They even look kind of cute in those shirts," Quinn said as she clapped. "I only hope he doesnít make a habit of it."
Geraldís arm around her waist, Fran looked forward from the observation deck over the bridge down at the shipís prow. The shipís lights shone on the white foam of the bow waves as they danced on the starlit waters. The wind passing over the ship tugged at her long hair, making it flow behind her like a dark cloak. Fran pressed her cheek against the side of his chest. "We couldnít ask for better."
Gerald leaned his head over to rest on hers. "No, we couldnít."
"This has been a wonderful week."
"Better than I ever imaged a cruise could be."
They stood together for a long time, watching and simply enjoying being with each other. Finally, Fran sighed and said, "Itís about time."
With a nod, Gerald said, "Youíre right."
The couple moved into a tender embrace and kissed. Trying not to think about the tears welling in her eyes, Fran stepped back but held onto Geraldís hands. She took a deep breath and said, "Good-bye. Iíll always remember you."
"Iíll never forget you, Fran," Gerald said. After a last kiss of her hands, he released them and said, "Good-bye. I wish you all the best."
"And I hope youíll always be happy," she said. By mutual agreement, the slender woman went first down the stairs and disappeared into the decks below.
Gerald watched the empty stair for a couple of minutes and then slowly followed, going to his room without a word.
Fran reached the stateroom door and stopped to wipe her eyes. She fumbled with her keycard and finally got inside the darkened room. Trying to be a quiet as possible, she went to the bathroom to remove her makeup. Done, she opened one of her drawers to find a nightshirt and picked up the photo theyíd purchased on St. Thomas. Fran touched the image of her and Gerald together and whispered, "Youíll always remember this face and Iíll remember you. For once, my scars havenít been in the way and Iíve been able to just enjoy the company of a boy without worrying about how heíll react when he finds out about my real face. I really needed this vacation. Thank you."
"Hmm?" Karen mumbled and rolled over in the bed. "Fran?"
"Sorry," she said, putting the picture back in its sleeve. ďJust getting ready for bed."
"One last late night, huh? I'm sure you had a good time."
Fran said, "I did. Thanks."
"What about you?"
"Yeah. I needed this vacation. I had a good time with my friends, and found a new one."
Their packing complete, Daria sat on the bed next to Michael and leaned against him. "Back to the old grind."
"Hmm, yeah. I canít believe we start classes again in a week and weíll be seniors."
"Seniors." Daria suddenly sat on the corner of the bed. "It all seems so fast and Iím not ready for it to end yet."
"There is one thing Iím looking forward to after graduation," Michael said.
"Yes, Iím looking forward to that, though if you asked me just before starting college about anticipating marriage, Iíve have considered you quite insane."
"And if youíd have asked me, I'd have asked what drugs were you on and in how many countries were they illegal." He sat behind Daria and wrapped his arms around her shoulders. "But I think I get your meaning. College has been so different from high school."
"Iíd call it a clear improvement."
He kissed her neck. "Youíre certainly part of that whole improvement thing."
After a knock, Helen poked her head into the room. "Hurry up or weíre going to be late for the airport shuttle. The next one isnít for another half hour and I donít want to try to rush your father through security again."
"Bye, kids, have a safe trip," Helen called back toward her daughters and their friends, who were on the other side of the security cordon in the large central lobby of Orlando International Airport. She and Jake had just navigated through security and were looking back at the others.
"I had a great time!" Jake loudly said. "Thanks for coming along."
After a few more waves, Helen and Jake stepped away from the cordon. They walked to the waiting elevated tram to take them out to the gate. Inside, they held onto a pole and the quiet train started its trip. Helen moved her free arm around Jake and said, "This was a good idea."
"Thanks. I canít remember the last time we had so much fun with our girls."
"I canít, either. Weíll have to make sure we hold onto these memories."
On the other side of security, the young people were completing their farewells and departing for their separate terminals, four of which radiated away from the lobby.
"Bye, sis," Quinn said, hugging Daria.
"Bye, Quinn," the older sister replied, also giving her sister a light embrace.
Michael said to Karen, who was watching, "Hmm, the only thing scarier than them acting sisterly toward each other would be if my sister and I acted that close."
"Being on good terms with your siblings isnít that bad," Karen said. "Iím looking forward to seeing my brother and especially my nephew."
Michael said to Q, "Good to meet you."
"Been a pleasure," he replied, shaking the otherís hand.
Tammy tapped Quinn on the shoulder. "Come on, Quinn, if you want to have time to drop your boy toy off at his gate so he can fly to his mom's place."
"Okay," Quinn said, letting go of Daria. "You better make it home to Mom and Dadís for Christmas."
Daria gave her an exaggerated sigh. "I will."
Fran stepped forward and gave Karen a fast hug. "Take care of yourself and I hope Derek gets home to you soon."
Though caught off-guard, Karen returned the gesture. "You take care, too."
In moments, the California students were on their way to the security checkpoint for their flight. Karen said, "I better get going, too. See ya'll in another week."
"See ya," Jane said. "We promise not to rent out your room this time."
"Oh, how kind," Karen said. "And don't use my sheets for an art project."
"Damn," Jane muttered.
Daria said, "Bye, Karen. Say hello to Laura for me."
With Karen gone, Mike said, "Looks like my turn. I'll see you the next time I'm in Boston."
After Daria and Michael said good-bye, Jane said, "I'll catch up with you two at the gate."
"Okay, later," Daria said before she and Michael turned to walk to their terminal.
Sitting on her carry-on just outside Mackís gate, Jane leaned forward and asked Mack, standing beside her, "Did you really enjoy being on the trip with me?"
"Huh?" Mack said. "I had a good time. The karaoke last night was a blast and watching Michael bring in that fish was a hoot. I thought the tour guide was going to have a cow when he let it go, but hey, I wouldn't want to pay that much to cold ship a big fish to Boston, either."
"That's nice, but I meant with me."
"Oh, um, yeah, I had a good time."
"Really? I was expecting something more but this felt likeÖalmost any other time we've been together lately."
Mack shuffled his feet. "We have been a little preoccupied with other things."
Jane swallowed hard, stood and looked directly at Mack. "I'll be the first to say it this time. We're getting bored with each other. It happens."
"I wouldn't call the sex boring."
"Okay, the sex is always great. But everything elseÖ"
"Then why'd we come on this trip?"
"A last grasp at something bigÖa last chance to push away the boredom. Come on, Mack. You know I'm right. You weren't even that sure about coming at first."
"Mack, I'm sorry. It's not your fault, itís not my fault; it's just not there."
He shook his head. "That's almost exactly what Jodie said, and you're right, dammit."
Jane went to him. "This doesn't mean that I regret seeing you."
"I have no regrets, either, except that things have worked out this way."
Finding tears close to flowing from her eyes, Jane said, "So, what do we do now?"
Just as saddened, Mack said, "We go our separate ways and save our friendship." With that, he grabbed his bags without saying another word. Jane stood watching him disappear into the crowd moving toward his gate. "Damn."
"Hold on," Daria said to Michael. They were seated at a tiny table at a coffee shop near their gate. "Let me go talk to Jane; it looks like something happened."
"Don't let me get in the way," he said. ďI'll keep an eye on your stuff."
Daria went to Jane as fast as she could and said, "Hey, what happened?"
Jane had wiped the tears away before getting near the gate, but the redness in her eyes told the story. "Mack and I broke up."
"Oh," Daria said, dumbfounded.
Jane shrugged to try to hide her feelings. "We were drifting apart anyway. I had the guts to admit it this time."
"Um," Daria said, "I think I understand what you felt when you heard that Tom and I broke up."
"Yeah, this was as much of a surprise for all of us."
"How did he take it?"
"He agreed that I was right, but I don't think either of us is taking it all that well."
Daria nudged Jane toward the coffee shop. "Come on, we'll get you a triple espresso with extra sugar. On me."
Tired from the long flight and fight against traffic to get home, Jane pushed their apartment door open and stumbled in carrying her luggage and one of Daria's suitcases. Daria followed with her remaining suitcase and her pet carrier. As soon as it was set on the floor and Daria turned to close the door, a loud "Meow!" came from within.
Daria squatted down and opened the door. "Yes, you're home to your temple and your staff is back and ready to serve."
"You can serve. I'm going to get some rest," Jane said, going to her room.
Daria pulled the black cat into her arms and held it. "We'll try to be quiet," Daria said.
"Okay, Ill try to be quiet; Bump's going to do her own thing anyway."
Bump nuzzled the underside of Daria's chin and started to purr. Daria carefully stood and went to the sofa. "I see that someone will require personal attention before I get to unpack."
Even with several local fraternity boys carrying their luggage, Quinn and her friends were also exhausted by the time they arrived home to the Tri-Theta house. Tammy kissed one of the boys and said, "Thank you very much."
"Anytime, ladies," he said, executing a short bow before saying, "Now if you'll excuse us, my friends and I will be on our way."
The girls waved and after they were gone, drifted to their separate rooms to unpack. Quinn quietly went to Fran. "How are you doing?"
"I'm fine," she said. "I know why you're here. Gerald didn't blow me off at the port; we said good-bye the night before. It was more romantic that way and avoided all that awkward, public stuff. Yes, I miss him, but it's okay. I had a fun summer fling and Iím happy with that."
Quinn understood and admitted to herself that she didn't need to be so worried about Fran. "I hope you have good pictures."
Marianne looked up with visible relief when she saw Helen walk in the following morning. "It's so good to have you back. How was your trip?"
"I had a wonderful time, but it looks like things haven't been so wonderful here."
Marianne swung her head toward Eric's door. "I think it's about time for him to go into rehab again."
"Just send him my way," Helen said. "I'll deal with him. When are you going on vacation and spending time with your kids?"
"I don't know, Helen," she timidly replied.
"How about next week?" she suggested.
After a momentary loss for words, the secretary said, "Sure, Helen."
"I'll fill out the paperwork right now," Helen said, going past Marianne's desk to her office. "Then I'll look at my backlog."
Eyes wide, Eric barreled out of his office and loomed over Marianne. "Did I just hear Helen?"
"Yes, Eric," she said. "She just went into her office."
Under the effect of what stimulant nobody really knew, Eric almost ran into the office. "Helen! You're back!"
"Yes, Eric," she calmly replied while taking a leave request form from her desk drawer.
"The Martingale case is about to come apart. You need to get on it right away!"
Helen started to neatly fill in the details on the form. "As soon as I take care of this."
"What could be more important than the case?"
"Marianne's leave. She'll be on vacation next week."
"Next week! What will we do?"
"Oh, I suppose we'll get by somehow. Maybe hire a tempÖor two."
"I better get that set up right away!" he bellowed and disappeared.
Helen finished the form and sighed when she looked at the legal paperwork backlogged on her desk. Instead, she picked up the latest State Bar Association newsletter and turned to the Positions Available section.
Jodie came into the office to find Jake already at his desk. She said, "Good morning, Mr. Morgendorffer. How was the trip?"
"I don't think I've ever had so much fun in my life," Jake said.
"How are Daria and Quinn?"
"They're doing great and I really like their fellas."
"So, how were things while I was gone?"
"I signed a new client for you and renewed the Mighty Mall Minis account."
ďI also spent some time looking at the net worth of Morgendorffer Consulting. The results are on your desk." When Jake looked around on his desk, Jodie smiled and said, "Right by your inbox."
"Oh, gotcha." Jake looked at the report and sat back in his seat with a whistle. "Wow."
"That's what I said," was Jodie's reply.
"See you later," Jane said as she raced out of the door to get to work.
Still wearing her sleepwear and seated at her computer, Daria knew that Jane was throwing herself into every activity she could to keep her mind off of the breakup. And as an old friend, she knew that it was the time to give Jane the time she needed, so Daria only said, "Later." Except for Bump sleeping, sphinx-like, in a sunbeam from the window, the apartment was empty and quiet around Daria. Somehow, that seemed just right as she went back to scanning the online help wanted ads for Boston. "Once more unto the breach."
Thanks to Ipswichfan for the "seduction CD" comment from Michaelís old classmates.
"Dr. Hunter" was previously used by fanfiction author RangerLou in her story, Renewal.
Holiday by Jimmy Buffett
Sloop John B Traditional, arranged by Brian Wilson
Thanks to Lousie Lobinske, Kristen Bealer, Ipswichfan and Mr. Orange for beta reading.
December 2007-March 2008