You can’t pick your relatives.
Ali Archer’s blue-eyed gaze zeroed in on her brother, Trent, among all the guests milling about in the backyard of her sister’s house in Westfield, New Jersey.
“Traitor!” she called out as soon as they made eye contact. “Don’t even pretend you don’t hear me.” She put him in her sights and strode straight to him like a laser beam, hands on hips.
Trent Archer nodded and benign recognition and calmly continued to flip the burgers on the built-in barbeque.
Trent waited until she was right next to him before he slid the stainless spatula under one of the burgers and raised it to eye level. “Rare or well?” he asked.
A slow grin spread across Ali’s lips. When it reached full smirk, she reached out with her forefinger and flicked the edge spatula just enough to send the burger flying onto the apron Trent was wearing.
“Just how I like it,” she said as she watched it slide down the front of the white cotton fabric and land on Trent’s tennis shoes. “Red and juicy.”
“Ma!” Trent shouted over his shoulder. “Mooch is here!”
Tess Archer came out the French doors leading to the patio from the family room of her married daughter’s house. “Ali, you’re late.” She watched Trent stab at the fallen burger with a long-handled fork. “What happened?”
“Tragic cooking accident,” Ali volunteered. “Where are Somer, Nick, and my nephew?” she asked her mom.
“Inside. Michael woke up from his nap a few minutes ago.”
“Great. Lead the way,” Ali told her mom. When Tess stepped back inside the house, Ali turned her head to her brother. She shot him an exaggerated smile and said, “Beef-brown is definitely your color.”
Trent responded by whispering, “Payback will be coming.”
The guests near the grill had witnessed the exchange. They stood, empty plates in hand, with confusion on their faces. Trent waved off their bewilderment. “My sister,” he explained as he scooped a well-done burger onto the nearest plate. “She’s a little upset with me right now, but she’ll be fine.” Then he looked around the yard intent on locating his fiancée. “Linda,” he called out when he saw her, “stay close. Mooch is here and she’s really mad.”
“What was that all about, dear?” Tess asked Ali as they walked through the family room.
Ali’s exasperated sigh underscored her frustration. “You know very well what that was all about, mom.”
Tess stopped and turned toward her daughter. “Are you still upset that Trent and Linda got engaged?”
“Of course I’m not upset. I was never upset about Trent’s engagement. I love my brother. I want him to be happy. Linda is perfect for him.”
Tess brushed Ali’s hair from her face just as she did so many times when Ali was a child. “I think so too. Maybe Linda will ask you to be in the wedding party just like Somer did.”
Ali waved off her mother’s comment. “No.” Her tone was emphatic. “No more of that.”
“But Trent met Linda at Somer and Nick’s wedding. Maybe you can meet….”
“I was just going to say…”
“I know what you were going to say,” Ali interrupted, “I really just want to see my nephew.”
As Ali followed Tess upstairs, her mind filled with conflicting thoughts. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her sister and new brother-in-law. On the contrary, she loved Somer a lot; Nick also. And she was thrilled about her new nephew.
But Trent. She loved him as any sister would love a pain-in-the-neck big brother, but he had broken a solemn sibling pact made to stand strong against a curse put on them by their mother.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t a curse in the strictest sense of the word. It was more like a suggestion that they take their grandmother’s rings and find their soul mates so Tess could have grandchildren soon.
At first she, Somer, and Trent took the rings – an Amethyst for Somer, a Sapphire for Trent and a Citrine for her - and scoffed at the idea that the rings could make them do anything. But as though under the spell of some type of love voodoo, one at a time Ali watched her siblings fall.
First Somer met Nick Daultry and before long, they were engaged. Then Trent met Linda Wolff at Somer and Trent’s wedding and he fell harder and faster than a cannonball dropped from a bridge.
And if all that hadn’t been enough pressure for her, now, a little after their second wedding anniversary, Somer and Nick had given Tess her first grandchild and Trent was engaged to Linda.
Now she was the last one standing.
“I thought I heard a lot of noise,” Nick said, coming out of the last room on the right when Tess and Ali got to the top of the stairs. He hugged his sister-in-law while Tess went into the nursery ahead of them. “Somer’s been waiting for you,” he continued
Ali kissed Nick’s cheek. “Now you went and did it. There’ll be no stopping mom now that she’s had her first grandchild. She’s going to be on me to find a husband like white is on rice.”
Nick laughed. “There’s always Leonard Wilkenstats.”
Ali chuckled. “Naw. He dumped me for A PhD. from Princeton. I heard he and Lolly were planning a spring wedding. Humm,” she said tapping her forefinger on her chin. “Do you think I could convince mom that she made that match?”
Nick shook his head. “Don’t think so. But I do think Linda and Trent’s wedding will distract her for a little while and buy you some time.” A soft baby’s cry from inside the room lifted Nick’s attention from Ali. “I think my son is calling us,” he said, pride clearly in his voice.
Inside the nursery, Tess had just finished changing the baby. She turned when Ali and Nick entered the room and handed Michael to his father. Tucked into the crook of Nick’s arm with his hand firmly underneath Michael’s backside, Nick held his son like a piece of spun sugar. Ali could not imagine a more perfect picture.
Nick’s free hand caressed his son’s cheek when he turned to Ali. “Want to hold him?”
Ali reached out her arms. “Of course I do. You don’t think I came all the way to Westfield to see you, do you?” She took Michael from Nick and felt like someone had just handed her an angel.
Somer draped a blue receiving blanket over Ali’s right shoulder. “Just in case. He just finished his bottle.”
Ali smiled at her sister and then turned her attention back to Michael. She inhaled the scent that only comes with babies. Could there be anything that smells better? At this moment, she couldn’t think of one thing.
Michael’s blue eyes held hers and Ali cooed at him until he smiled. “He is so cute.” She looked at Nick and Somer. “But I don’t understand why you named him Michael.”
Somer looked at her son over Ali’s shoulder, pride and love on her face and in her eyes. “We both liked that name.”
“But you broke the family tradition of naming the children after the place they were planned like mom did. Somerville, Trenton. . .”
“Alimuchy,” Nick chimed in.
Tess puckered her lips in lighthearted warning to her son-in-law. “It was the 70’s. Flower power, peace and love.”
“And weird names,” Ali offered. Michael began to whimper so she stood and held him against her chest, patting him on his back. “I think a better name would have been something like Garage.” She looked at the strange expression on her sister’s face and nodded with the satisfaction of getting the exact reaction she wanted. “Yes, little Garage Daultry.”
Three voices blended at the same time, seemingly in horror. “Garage?”
Michael began to wail. Somer held out her hands. “See you scared the baby.” Reluctantly Ali turned Michael over to his mother.
“How on earth did you come up with that one?” Nick asked, watching as his wife rocked Michael in the side-to-side motion mothers seem to do almost on instinct when they have a baby in their arms. He smiled when Michael quieted almost immediately.
“Because I can count,” Ali returned. “And if you calculate backward from Michael’s birthday, you get Thanksgiving Day.” She walked over to her sister and ran her finger down Michael’s cheek before turning back toward Nick. “We had a houseful of company. Cousins galore, most of them under the age of ten. After dinner, Mom asked you and Somer to get the pie out of the spare refrigerator. Remember?”
Nick began to grin. “Yes, I do.”
“You guys came back with the pie and the conversation over coffee and dessert turned to children,” Ali spun on her heels and pointed to Michael, “and to babies. Nine months later, Michael shows up.” She waggled her finger in the air. “And just where was that refrigerator, brother-in-law dear?”
Nick’s smile broke wide just before he burst out laughing. “In the garage.”
Ali threw up her hands. “I rest my case.”
“Next corner make a right. The house is five doors down on the left.”
Jake Daultry looked out the passenger window of his friend’s car and enjoyed the view of the neighborhood. Trees edged a street lined with two-story houses and a couple of kids rode bikes down the sidewalk. He was home.
Well, not home exactly, but the next best thing; thirty days on leave with the first stop at his cousin’s house before another tour of duty in the Middle East. No sand, no bullets and the temperature was under 100.
Not home, but heaven as far as he was concerned.
“Tell me again why you are stopping here before going home?” Tom Davis, the driver of the car and another soldier also on leave drawled.
Jake took off his aviator sunglasses. The bright September sunlight poured in through the windshield and felt warm on his face. Not desert warm, just warm enough to be pleasant. “Everyone’s here,” he replied. “My cousin and his wife just had their first and the family came down for the Christening. After a visit, mom and I will drive home together.”
Tom flicked on the blinker and the car made a lazy turn onto Elm Street. “Aren’t you afraid your home-coming is going to upstage the baby?”
Jake shook his head. “Never happen. Babies are big business in the Daultry family. No one upstages them.”
Tom grinned. “Not even a real-life, bona-fide, medal-winning hero?”
Jake returned the grin and shrugged. “Just doing my job.”
“Modesty like that might get you a date with the ladies, but it does nothing for me.”
“Don’t need any help with the ladies,” Jake returned confidently.
“In your dreams, Daultry.”
Laughing, Jake angled the rearview mirror so he could see himself in it. “I believe you’re jealous, Lieutenant.”
“Of what?” Tom asked, moving the mirror back.
“I’m single, good-looking as heck and have my pick of all the ladies I want at the O Club.”
With a sharp laugh, Tom pulled over to the curb. “Word’s out that you don’t leave with any of them anyway. I think that maybe you’ve been stuck in the sand so long you’ve forgotten what the ladies even want.”
With a sharp laugh, Jake dismissed the comment. “And I think you should more worry about what HT’s are doing and less about what I do at the O Club.”
“I can handle the Hard Targets just as well as you can. It’s the ladies that are in question.”
“I do just fine with the opposite sex,” Jake returned. He nodded. “No matter what the chatter might be to the contrary.”
“A challenge then,” Tom said angling his body toward Jake.
Jake leaned back in the seat. “Not today. We’re not at Delta Base and it’s my first full day back on U.S. soil. All I want to do is enjoy a pair of blue jeans instead of a green flight suit.”
Tom nodded. “Exactly what I had in mind.”
Keeping contact with the molded headrest of the rental car, Jake turned his head toward Tom. “What is that sun-baked mind of yours up to?”
Tom uncurled his forefinger from around the steering wheel and pointed. “Now there’s a pair of jeans any man could enjoy. Are you game?”
Swiveling his head to follow where Tom gestured, Jake saw what his fellow soldier meant. A few cars down, was the cutest pair of jeans he had ever seen. The blue denim outlined a perfect heart-shaped backside attached to long slender legs. He leaned forward trying to see more but the rest of the woman seemed to be inside the trunk of a Volkswagen Civic struggling with something she wanted outside awfully bad.
“Think you could sweet talk the owner of those jeans into easing you back into civilian life for a few days?” Tom asked in a playful, suggestive tone, the look in his eyes daring Jack to take him up on the challenge.
The idea was provocative and Jake mulled over the idea. “There’s no way for you to know if I could. You’re not staying.”
“Honor code,” Tom replied without hesitation. “Just like in the Academy. You can’t lie. You can’t cheat.” He held out his hand. “What do you say, Captain? Lock and load and report back in a few days?”
“Or you get me a date with the blond nurse I saw you walk into the O Club the last day you were in the sandbox.”
“Which one? There are a lot of blond nurses in “Fallujah.”
“The one I heard invited you to cool your feet in the blow-up pool the nurses have next to their tent.”
Jake nodded knowingly and didn’t hesitate. “Deal.” He shook Tom’s hand firmly.
“And I’ll need a full report on how you sweet talked her to prove it,” Davis said.
“Full report,” Jake agreed before getting out of the car and grabbing his green duffle bag out of the back seat. He slammed the back car door and then leaned in the passenger side window. “I’ll even bring you pictures,” he said before straightening and patting the hood of the car in a parting gesture.
He watched the car drive away and slung the duffle over his shoulder. Then he spun on his heel, aiming himself at his target. “Eleven months in the sandbox is a long time. I hope I’m not too much out of practice.”