Disclaimer: The characters are still not mine, sadly.
Notes: Thank you to everyone who took the time to review last chapter; I really appreciate it and please continue to do so! Many thanks to Ballettmaus and Suallenparker for all their patience and help with this chapter, which has taken a bit of time to get just right. And a thank you to webDLfan for reminding me about Lucy's toys :D
This is the final chapter, so a big thank you to everyone who has read and reviewed the story. I hope you enjoy the conclusion :)
A cloudy morning had bloomed into an afternoon of balmy sunshine and acres of dazzling blue sky. After the storm, Don and his guests had enjoyed two days of almost perfect summer weather. The humidity had temporarily lifted and the air held just enough breeze to ripple the tips of the grass.
Having wandered indoors to fetch himself a glass of water, Don now stood on the steps of the porch, overlooking the lawn and the scene in front of him, unwilling for a moment to rejoin his friends, wanting instead to print the scene in his mind, a keepsake of the afternoon.
Lindsay sat absorbed in her task, putting the finishing touches to another sun dress for Iris. Close by, Lucy and Danny had set up camp with a chosen few of Lucy's babies (dried out after their soaking in the storm) under a tent constructed from an old tablecloth and a couple of garden chairs. Both of them were hard at work creating daisy chains - Lucy's new craze - with Danny being instructed by his daughter on how to make the chains.
At the sight of his friend, Don chuckled. He sported daisies himself, poked through his buttonhole, but he had escaped lightly in comparison: Danny wore several chains round his neck, one on his head and three on each wrist. Everyone, however, wore at least one of Lucy's creations. Mac's looked jaunty round his hat; Stella, resting on cushions with her arm linked through her husband's, had arranged hers in her hair and even baby Iris Rose had a little crown of daisies round her head and bracelets of them round her wrists and ankles. They entranced her as she clutched for her toes while she lay on a blanket at Stella's side, shaded by a large parasol. It was the first time that Stella and her daughter had been outside since Iris Rose's early arrival and Mac had hovered anxiously close to both of them.
Though it was only two days since her birth, his goddaughter had already become an important part of his life and watching her made Don smile involuntarily. She was dressed in the embroidered smock that Lindsay had made for her and Don's smile became a grin as he thought of the extensive wardrobe the baby had already acquired. He had already remarked to Stella that Mac might have to get a bigger car to fit the additional luggage they were taking back with them.
'Might I remind you that some of that so-called additional luggage is your goddaughter,' Stella had retorted, to which Don had only chuckled.
At that moment, Stella herself looked up and caught Don's eye, sending him a questioning look.
"Be with you in a minute," he called in response and she nodded, satisfied, turning back to address a remark to one of his more recent guests.
Although, they were perhaps not so much guests, he mused, as visitors; considering they owned the house and the grounds they all now sat in. Invited by him, with Jennifer's consent, Mrs Angell and her eldest son, Joseph, had arrived the day before. Now Mrs Angell and Joseph sat beside Mac and Stella, while Jennifer sat on her own a short distance from them.
Don wanted to join her, but hesitated and was stopped from any further action by a little hand tugging at his.
"Uncle Don, daddy said I had to ask you another question." Lucy gazed up at him earnestly.
"Oh he did, did he?" Don asked the little girl and shot a glare at Danny who grinned and waved at him, clearly feeling safe in the company of others.
Lucy nodded with a grave expression on her face. "Yes he did. Daddy says he doesn't know what babies like to eat for lunch but he said you would know 'cause you're a detective and you know all about lunch."
If there had been no one else around, Don would have had no compunction about sending Lucy safely out of earshot and marching over to Danny with a few words that were unsuitable for young ears. He had apparently forgotten the wrath of Lindsay after she had found out that the two of them had been sending Lucy back and forth with potentially awkward baby-related questions. As it was, he contented himself with a glower at Danny that promised vengeance and resisted sending Lucy back with an even more facetious question.
Crouching down to Lucy's level, he grinned at her. "Babies mainly have milk for lunch, because they haven't got any teeth to bite with."
Lucy frowned, considering, before asking with a troubled look on her face, "Does that mean they can't eat cookies with their milk, Uncle Don?"
He nodded solemnly. "It does. No teeth, no cookies."
An appalled look came over the little girl's face. "Poor, poor babies." She heaved a sigh. "I guess we're real lucky we've got teeth and we can eat cookies aren't we, Uncle Don?"
Still serious-faced, he nodded again. "We sure are, Luce."
"But when do babies get teeth so they can eat cookies?" she asked, leaving Don flummoxed as to the answer, until an idea struck him.
Smiling at Lucy, he ruffled her hair. "How about you go ask your Aunt Stella, seeing as your mom's busy sewing? She's a smart lady and you could ask her when Iris Rose will get teeth."
Lucy's face brightened up and she did a little jump of happiness, before exclaiming, "Thank you, Uncle Don!" and rushing across the grass to Stella.
Don grinned; Stella wouldn't mind answering the little girl's question – she had answered plenty already from the moment Lucy had been allowed a peep at Iris Rose - and in the meantime, he would think up something to pay Danny back, preferably when he least expected it.
Seeing Lucy kneeling down in front of Stella, who was now listening intently to the youngest Messer, Don turned his gaze and attention to Jennifer again. In contrast, her attention seemed adrift from everyone and everything, far away from the garden and the people in it. Seeing her among his friends and guests, it struck him how alone she looked, and how much he wanted to rectify that; to be with her and end his own loneliness, too. Once more he hesitated, unsure, until he realised that she was now watching him. With a knowing smile, she got up, walking across the grass to him, Mrs Angell's wistful gaze following her until a remark from Mac drew her attention away.
Don met her half way and they stopped in front of each other.
"Hey." Jennifer smiled, reaching out to caress his forearm. "You okay? You looked like you were having some pretty deep thoughts."
"Deep thoughts? You got the wrong guy for that."
She looked sceptical, but said nothing; instead she looped her arm through his before guiding him towards a patch of grass, away from everyone else.
"Sit," she commanded, tugging him down next to her, asking once they were settled, "What were you thinking about?" On the surface her question was light, but underneath ran much more.
In answer, Don leaned over, and with their gazes meeting for a moment, he let his lips brush across hers, drawing away while his fingers glided across her skin, moving down her face and around to caress the back of her neck. The gesture echoing those many that had passed between them in the last two days. And though they were not alone now, there was very little shyness left; just a quick glance round to check no one's attention was on them.
With the sun causing glints of light to dance in her eyes, Jennifer murmured, "Maybe I shouldn't ask any more about your thoughts?"
Don grinned as his other hand wandered to her leg and came to rest on her knee. "I was thinking about a few things, including us."
The smile on her face bloomed. "I like that."
"You do?" His eyebrows raised, unsure of her exact meaning.
"I do." She nodded. "I like us."
Moving closer to her, Don kissed her again. "Me too."
When her smile faded, he wondered, studying her as her eyes lowered and she plucked a daisy from the grass, twisting its stem between her fingers.
"You okay?" he asked, placing his arm round her back.
A brief smiled crossed her face, before it slipped into a frown. "I don't know," she admitted. Though her eyes met his for only a second, he saw the troubles within her. "I don't need to tell you that the last two days have been... confusing."
Don rubbed her back and she leaned into him, dropping her head onto his shoulder. "I know," he murmured, kissing her temple. "I know."
They stayed like that, Jennifer giving a weighty sigh after a minute. "I've thought a lot about things, too," she told him, looking up at him. "Asked myself a lot of questions; wondered about what I'm going to do, what decisions I make..."
He brushed a lock of hair behind her ear. "Did you give yourself any answers, or make any decisions yet?"
A wry look appeared on her face. "Not exactly. One answer led to another question, another answer, another question... then I'd decide something, then change my mind, then change it back, then change it again..." Her lips curled. "You get the idea."
In sympathy, his face softened, thinking about some of the choices he'd faced recently, too. Taking hold of her hand, wrapping his around it, he smiled. "We both have a lot of choices, and I guess we don't have to make decisions right away. Maybe we just got to see how some things work out."
She nodded, thoughtful. "I guess it's better to have choices than not have any at all."
"Exactly." He grinned then. "You know, we're getting pretty philosophical here."
A faint smile appeared on her lips and she squeezed his hand before she looked over at her mother. Her expression softened. "One thing's for sure, I feel like I've gotten a second chance at having a family, and, though this is all going to take time to get used to, I want to get to know all the people who've come into my life. I want to spend time with you all; with you, with my brothers, my mother..." Running her hands through her hair, she broke off with a rueful laugh. "You know I still haven't gotten used to saying that yet, my mother and brothers..." One hand had strayed, by habit, he had realised, to the pendant round her neck again and then her gaze met his, just a trace of insecurity in her eyes. "I'm-I'm kind of struggling with it all, Don," she confessed.
He drew her into his chest, tightening his arm round her while she clung to him, head buried in his shoulder. "I'd be worried if you weren't finding it tough, and you're doing great you know," he murmured.
"I'm not so sure about that," she mumbled with a self-deprecating snort, "Especially after bursting into tears last night just because I forgot to put sugar in your coffee."
He tilted her chin up with his fingertips, soothing the delicate skin under her jaw. "It doesn't matter, and you are doing great. Of course it's going to take time, but we got plenty of time. We'll work things out together..."
Jennifer reached for his hand, her fingers interlacing with his. "There's a lot I'm going to have to figure out by myself, Don, but... but if you're there with me, as long as you really want to be, then I will be okay."
"I do want to be," he said; stated it with more certainty than he had for anything. He saw the cares that she bore and wanted to share them with her. Those carefree days of his were in the past now and he did not regret saying goodbye to them.
Her eyes glistened as she nodded. "I want you to be, too."
He caught the tear that slid down her cheek and drew her into his chest as she sighed deeply and clutched at his shirt. They were disturbed by the sound of a car pulling up on the gravel driveway, followed by the appearance of the Hammerbacks: Martha hurrying across the grass as fast as her size would allow, followed by the doctor.
A hubbub of welcomes, tears, delight and exclamations followed as Martha was greeted by the Angells, introduced to the Messers and the Taylors, including, of course, the newest member of that family who she cooed and clucked over, and finally, she met again the woman who she had last seen as a little girl, so many years ago, who had hung back until then.
"Oh, my sweetheart..." Almost overcome, Martha enveloped Jennifer in an embrace, her plump, comfortable arms holding her close. "Oh, Miss Jessica, to think, after all these years you've come home. I can't tell you how happy I am to see you."
"Thank you," Jennifer said, her voice awkward, flushing a little as Martha dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. Don took hold of her hand again and she sent him a brief smile.
"I'm sorry," Martha shook her head. "Dearie me, this isn't the occasion for crying and I'm sure there have been enough tears shed here in this house and garden to last a lifetime. There now," she said resolutely as she tucked the handkerchief back into her bosom, "We'll have no more of that. Jessica has come home and Mr and Mrs Taylor have their baby girl." She smiled round at all of them. "This is a time for happiness, my loves."
"Well said, Mrs H," Don spoke up, squeezing Jennifer's hand. "So, seeing as it's a special occasion how about we find you a chair and I'll bring you something to eat and drink. What do you say?" He gave the housekeeper what he judged to be a winning smile and sure enough, he won her over as after a short hesitation she agreed to his proposition.
"Just this once, Mr Flack." She wagged a finger at him. "It's not right to have you waiting on me."
Don simply grinned and stepped back to allow Mac to set up a canvas garden chair for her close to Stella and the Angells, Lindsay moving over to join them. Martha was soon deep in conversation with them all, settling in her chair (whose back and sides bulged with her width) and pulling knitting out of her bag, while Don, accompanied by Jennifer, went indoors to fetch drinks and snacks.
In the kitchen, they prepared the food and drinks, as they had done several times now, with a practised ease; moving round each other in neat synchronisation, working to the same rhythm.
Pausing to watch Jennifer for a moment as she cut slivers of tomato, Don saw her attention wander from the fruit and the knife in her hand.
"You okay?" he asked, pulling the knife away from her fingers just in time.
"Thanks." She gave him a sheepish look. "Kind of silly really, but I was thinking about my name..." Don raised his eyebrows and she half-grimaced. "With Martha and my mother not even thinking of calling me Jennifer, it's made me think about if I'm going to have to make a decision on what I tell people to call me... what I call myself: am I Jessica or Jennifer, or both?"
Don watched her, seeing the conflict in her, before answering slowly, "Maybe both... I guess to your mother, you'll always be Jessica, even though to yourself, you've nearly always been Jennifer..." He frowned, unsure of how to articulate his thoughts, before simply shrugging and telling her what was in his heart. "But you're whoever you want to be, no matter what you call yourself, or what other people call you. A name's just... it's just a name. It's... I guess... it's the inside you that counts." His face had heated as he spoke, and he shrugged again, almost apologetically while Jennifer gazed at him. And then her lips quirked into a smile as she stated, "'A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.'"
Don grinned. "Shakespeare?"
She nodded, glancing at him, her smile shy. "He comes in useful sometimes."
"And he was a pretty wise guy."
"He was." She smiled. "You're a wise guy, too, Don. In the best possible way."
It made him grin as he kissed the top of her head. "Thank you."
She was silent for a moment, fiddling with the arrangement of tomato slices on the plate, before adding quietly, "You're a good guy as well."
Don smiled, feeling his heart almost glow with her words. "I appreciate that."
He wrapped his fingers round her and they drew together again, lips meeting in a kiss that was tender and languid, both of them drawing apart eventually with a soft sigh.
"Take these out so they don't start thinking we've run away together," Don finished, deadpan, and Jennifer laughed, relaxing a little as she picked up a tray.
"My mother's called me 'Jessie' a few times, too," she remarked. "She must have called me that when I was a baby.
"It suits you," Don mused. "Jessie... Jess... Or," he smirked. "We could call you 'J' which solves any problems."
"Hey." She nudged him in the ribs, but grinned as he feigned clutching his side in pain. "Try it, and you'll find yourself shortened to 'D' in no time at all."
He chuckled and hugged her side on as they strolled out of the kitchen.
Outside, they found Martha with her knitting needles clacking busily and what looked like a tiny cardigan for Iris Rose already taking shape. While she knitted, she continued to discuss clothes making with Lindsay.
"I hope you don't mind, but Dr Hammerback said I could borrow your sewing machine to run up a few outfits for Iris Rose," Don heard Lindsay mention to Martha, who immediately reassured the younger woman that she was delighted her old Singer had been put to such good use.
The doctor himself sat beside them, a benign look on his face as he gave half an ear to their conversation and allowed skeins of wool to be wrapped round his fingers. Don and Jennifer grinned at each other as they heard Martha remind her husband exactly how to hold the wool, the doctor responding with an amiable, 'Yes, my dear.'
After serving the food, and with Jennifer seized on by Lucy to try on some more daisy necklaces, Don was sought out by Martha for a few quiet words.
"Mr Flack, my love, how are all the Angells really?" she asked him. "You'll know that better than anyone seeing as you and Miss Jessica seem so close." Don smirked to himself, trust Martha to have noticed that. "Now I don't want you to share any secrets that aren't any of my business," Martha continued, "but meeting after all these years must have been difficult for all of them."
Don looked down at her, frowning, unsure how to answer. No one but the three Angells themselves had witnessed their reunion. Jennifer had gone out alone to meet the car that had brought her mother and brother and since then, the still-broken family had begun the slow, often painful process of sharing memories of the years they had missed.
"I think..." he began and paused, searching for the best way to express what he thought. Since the unseen reunion of the family, Jennifer and her mother and brother had begun a tentative and relationship, and he remembered what he had observed that morning, when Mrs Angell had moved to hug her daughter, just as she had turned, leading to her being almost trapped sideways in her mother's embrace. The emotion on both their faces had been clear. "I think they're a bit – a bit afraid of each other," he concluded, glancing at Martha uncertainly.
She nodded, sighing a little, but not surprised.
"It's likely you're right, my love, and it's what I'd thought myself. Mrs Angell, bless the woman, is no doubt frightened to lose her daughter again, and Miss Jessica herself, well, maybe she's afraid of losing herself in all that love and longing her mother's kept for all these years." Smiling a little sadly at Don, she studied his face. "That's one of the dangers of loving," she said and he was silenced, realising the truth of that.
They stood together, looking out at the people they loved. Don watched Jennifer, now applauding with Lucy as Danny held up a completed daisy chain in triumph and saw Mrs Angell, who with a delighted look accepted Stella's offer to hold Iris Rose, and then caught her daughter's eye, a hesitant but stronger smile passing between them.
Following Don's gaze, Martha nodded in apparent satisfaction. "They haven't got an easy road ahead of them by any means, my love, but I think things will turn out right."
With a warm smile, she went back to her seat and Don was left by himself until Jennifer caught his eye. Rising from her seat on the ground, she walked over to him.
Kissing him, drawing back, her fingertips brushing across his cheek, her eyes held a myriad of sparkles and with another kiss she gave him the promise of all there was to come for them. Then arms round each other they rejoined their friends and family.
Thank you for reading! Please spare a minute to leave a review for this final chapter, even if you haven't done so before - I'd really love to know what you've thought of the story :) More stories very soon! Lily x