I don't own LWD now or ever. Thank you so much, readers and reviewers, for being so faithful and surprisingly kind. Pass on the story to friends if you liked it. I'm a big believer in word of mouth! (Absolutely gutted to be at the end. But… I'll be back.)
Previously: George was a lawyer. He was trained to sift evidence and to read between the lines. Although Derek and Casey had backed each other up about the university story – and they surely hadn't made it up because it would have been so easy to check – he felt that there was something they were concealing. His instinct turned to certainty when he saw the look of infinite tenderness his stepdaughter cast in Derek's direction when she thought no one was watching.
Chapter Twenty - The difference between living and just being alive
Car lights glinted red and yellow through the rain. Everything else on the highway was smudged brown and grey. But neither of the car's occupants seemed even remotely depressed about the weather. The atmosphere was almost as joyous as it had been the day their joint documentary on modern blended families had aired in class all those months ago. In fact, contrary to all forecasts, the temperature between the two front seats was somewhere in the nineties, as if a tropical island had just landed beneath their feet.
'How on earth did you manage it?' Casey wasn't driving, so it was easier for her to keep her eyes on his profile, brown hair just brushing the collar of his shirt. 'I'm just going to keep bugging you till you tell me.' He remained silent. 'Seriously, I will chew away at you piece by piece till you tell me.'
'Like always.' He muttered.
'Like always.' She said, reaching out and placing cool fingers against his hot cheek, then trailing her hand down to his shoulder, via his neck, blushing with pleasure at the ensuing shiver. 'George never lets us use this car and mom was ultra-keen to have the whole family come along and see where we're going to be next year. So, spill.'
'Fine. But don't get mad, okay?' In honour of the family car, Derek was watching the road more carefully than usual, so she wasn't sure if she was imagining the glint in his eyes.
'Der-ek! What did you tell them?'
'I said', he was laughing already. She hadn't imagined it. 'I said that you would stay home for seven days and nights with the kids after your finals and wait on them hand and foot, while Nora and dad go to Paris for a post honey-moon jaunt.' Casey gasped, her hand flew off his shoulder, balled into a fist and thumped him fiercely on the thigh; he gasped, but he didn't allow her to interrupt. 'You know dad's got a case that needs seeing to over there, and Nora's been longing to go; she just couldn't figure out what to do with Marti and Lizzie and Edwin for so long…'
WHAT? How did Derek know all this? Mom had only just told her last night, with a pointedly mournful air, about George's fancy new case that just had to be followed up in Paris and she had nodded sympathetically. Then Casey's brain processed the deal Derek had done. Traded a week of her time for a day in her company. Some trade. But was that all he had done? Instead of getting mad, she asked cautiously, 'And where will you be?'
Derek hesitated, quirked an eyebrow. 'At Hockey camp.' A lorry splashed past on the inside lane, spraying them with slush. Derek swore softly under his breath, glanced at her, then back at the road. Friends or not, he had no intention of giving up the deep pleasure which seeing Casey all riled up provided. He had learnt over the years in their chaotic household that in the fire of her eyes, and the barriers that broke between them when they challenged each other, lay the difference between merely existing and really being alive. But today she she wasn't playing.
'Okay.' Casey closed her eyes and leaned back against her headrest. The past week had been a rollercoaster. She was still dizzy - mostly with relief and adoration; but also with anxiety.
George was being all edgy with them. Kind of suspicious and watchful, in a way they'd never witnessed before or expected from this mild-mannered, usually amicable man. It was as if his mind had swung open to something about his oldest son and stepdaughter, and now he couldn't get it closed. Nora had clearly been alerted by him to some unusual circumstance, and was trying her best to contain her excitement about both their children going off to university in deference to George's awkward mood. Edwin and Lizzie were always off in corners poring over their research files or giggling madly about something or the other. But when their parents or siblings entered a room, they would make a dash for the door. The resulting jumpiness was just not funny.
So, since the revelations of Thursday morning, Derek and Casey had tried to be as casual as they could around each other when in front of their family.
Although they had not discussed this, there existed a mutual agreement that nothing should be allowed to ruffle the waters between them all, at least until the summer vacation. So, not even the shadow of a public hug; no whispered conversations or flirtatious looks; certainly no entwined fingers until they were out of the house or safe in one of their bedrooms, with everyone else in bed. Only Marti, sucking on the corner of one of her pillows, sleepy and frightened by thunder, had walked in on them. And she'd barely seemed to notice that they were side by side on Derek's bed (wrestling soundlessly for the third pillow, as it happened, but Marti wasn't asking). She had accepted their joint affection with sweet complacency, simply demanding that one of them stroke her hair while the other patted her shoulder. Their love could work out well for some people in the family, Derek had realised.
Thursday at school had been like a superstore of killer smiles and covert touches. The anonymity of crowded hallways had given them a sense of safety and an edge of danger at the same time – because clearly, if either of them thought they were really anonymous at school, and that they were not being watched by at least as many curious eyes as at home, they were delusional. Nevertheless, neither of them had wanted to go home.
Passing them in the car park when they arrived in the morning, Paul had given them a questioning look. Casey had smiled, dazzlingly, unable to conceal her enchanted state and received in return a most astonished stare.
Sam had asked if Derek was sick and then been quietly congratulatory about the university thing; he was off on a road-trip with his girlfriend and then heading out to the States to work and travel for a year before making his mind up about the future; they were going to miss each other but neither wanted to say the words. So they concentrated on checking out the new Maths teacher, Miss Adkin. Or at least Sam checked her out, and Derek played along.
Emily had placed her hands firmly over her mouth and then screamed as loud as she could when she heard Casey's news – about Toronto, of course. Because that was where she was headed, to Art school, in the fall. Bar that topic, nothing further was heard or said.
Friday had been Derek's big game. And, despite the best efforts of the captain and coach, the screams of confidence from Edwin and Marti, the cheers from Nora, Casey and Lizzie, their team had lost, narrowly; simple bad luck. So celebrations and goodbyes had been muted.
But somewhere between Thursday morning and Friday night, Derek had spoken to George. Had done this deal. And it had bought them a whole day alone at a juncture when even an hour together was something to be cherished. Oh, how Casey now longed for those times she'd stayed up in her room, pretending to be oblivious to the proximity of Derek, reading a novel as the rest of the family shopped or ran errands. What would she not give for some of that time alone with him now - to creep into his room while he sat at the computer and wind her arms around his waist. To infuriate him by making sundry comments on his attire and his grammar. Their recent fights had brought them closer, she felt; but with George's newfound vigilance, they didn't have a chance to test this theory. Still, neither of them questioned that their family was a good thing, a wonderful, confusing magnificent thing, as important to their lives as the air in their lungs; had it not been for Nora and George's love, they might never even have met.
They turned off the highway, soon entering the outskirts of Toronto. It was raining furiously; visibility was dreadful. They had to stop.
'You're mad at me?'
'Well. You should be! I'm mad at myself! I don't want to go anywhere. I want to be with you. Uh. And the kids, of course.'
'Then don't do it.'
'You're suggesting I lie to George and not go to Hockey camp?'
'Derek, you infant! You know you lied already. So don't try and annoy me. There is no Hockey camp this summer!'
They parked on a side street, next to a shop selling oriental imports, and just stared at each other. Derek let out his breath unsteadily, wanting to say something, anything, with the word LOVE in it, so that Casey would never leave him or hate him or doubt him for as long as they lived.
'Coffee, sleuth McDonald?'
'Uh huh, cute guy.'
Glancing sideways at her open, happy face, Derek thought that if the moment of choosing were up to him, he would die right here.
But being Derek, he took refuge in wit, muttering, 'Why would I go to camp when I've got such an important Case to see to at home?' and then, when she just kept right on smiling up at him, 'Dad and Nora are now cool with our plans, thanks to incredible moi.'
'You know, I used to have to run to my room and whisper things into my pillow every time you said something like that about yourself.'
'What kinds of things?' His throat sounded dry, his voice rough. Why had nothing in his life before ever made him feel this nervous? He wasn't counting the time Abby knocked on his door to tell him she was leaving them.
'At first I used to curse you – well I'd do that to your face, admittedly.' She's giggling and he's feeling like he needs air. Now. 'But there were times – like when you filmed and edited that movie about our family and left my name on the credits? And when you helped out me and Marti at camp that year. And the day you got Lizzie's coach back for three-timing me. And after you got my dress and took me to prom and when you helped out mom on her sports stall; and every single time you smiled at me after I'd helped you – those times I'd be saying just one thing, Derek: I love him, so, so, so much. When Max and I split, the only thing I could think was, now I can think about Derek without feeling guilty. Even though you always say you're irresistible, I'll bet anything that you never guessed. I'm a pretty good actress, hey?' The car had disappeared. She had leaned towards him, and touched her forehead to his.
'Sooo... all those drool-stains on your pillowcase were actually parts of this longer conversation?'
She laughed. She laughed? That did it.
'Case, I felt – I do feel – the same way about you. I tried to tell you when we wrote that song - uh - when you helped me write that song about the girl I love.'
'I know.' She knows. And she's willing to wait it out with her mom, his dad, their friends. She willing to put up with his jokes, fight her own battles, and his at times, for the sake of the thing they've got going. There are so many things wrong with the world. But this love is really not one of them.
Hair, eyes, lips, shining, blinking, smiling. Hearts beating faster, faster.
Then they kissed, wordlessly, open-mouthed and eyes shut tight, before stumbling out of the car and sprinting through the rain to a near-by diner.
It was steamy and crowded, but they found a booth and slid in, again by unspoken agreement, beside each other. After they'd ordered, Derek sighed and tugged Casey against him, encircling her waist with an arm and leaning his head down onto hers, his hair and hers tangling together. His expression was relaxed and slightly awed: replete with contentment, a feeling that he usually chose to hide under faux-cool, pretend boredom or mock-bravado.
Billy Holiday was playing softly on an old fashioned radio. Her pain-filled words did not suit their mood, but her silken voice certainly did.
Casey, feeling Derek's body snug against hers and breathing quicker, and more openly than she allowed herself in the presence of her family, was again thinking things good schoolgirls really aren't supposed to think. Because, face it, there's still a premium on schoolgirl innocence in the adult world, at least when it comes to young women of Casey's description. In that textbook, juxtaposing hot stepbrothers and secret dates might create an earthquake. And yet, here they were, in perfectly imperfect accord as always, toying with thoughts of a future filled with each other and everything else as well.
Their twenty-something waitress – tired after her early start, the constant chug, chug of orders and conversations, thoughts of her equally tired boyfriend working his second job, and her smiling baby, and her dying mother swirling through her mind – is observing them quietly from another table as she clears away the detritus of a businessman's breakfast.
She feels a stab of mysterious jealousy. Her feeling is not for the girl in particular – though yes, the guy is incredibly cute and looks as if he just about wants to eat his girlfriend for lunch – but for the steady and tender place this young couple seem to have found. It's a place that is clearly at the beginning of something. And even though this is actually the middle of their complicated, hopeful and occasionally tragic story, it is in this place that you and I will have to leave them.
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