DISCLAIMER: Characters of Popular are not mine. They belong to whomever. Although I think it's public domain, the title is taken from Shakespeare, Sonnet 116.
SERIES: Fourth story in the 'An Ever Fixed Mark' series, following Here's Where I Stand, The Mercy of the Fallen and And So this is Christmas.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

An Ever Fixed Mark
By Green Quarter


Part 6

When the foursome arrived back at the cottage, and Brooke and Nicole made the requisite ooh and ahh sounds regarding their surroundings after getting a tour of the cottage, Brooke accompanied Mac upstairs to help her get ready for bed.

Sam and Nicole stood awkwardly in the kitchen. "Would you like a drink?" Sam asked. She had noticed that Nicole hadn't had any alcohol at dinner. "We have soda, and juice, or I could make coffee if you want."

"A soda would be great."

Sam got her a soda and a beer for herself, and led Nicole out to the patio, where they sat down in the darkness and listened to the waves roll up on the beach below. Brooke had ensured that the conversation flowed at dinner, and had kept up a litany of each woman's achievements for the other to hear. They had been mutually impressed with all that the other had accomplished in their lives, and were now at a loss as to how to carry on the combative relationship that had been stuck on pause for ten years.

Sam decided to lay her cards out on the table. "Look, Nicole, I'm sorry to have to say this, because it seems like you've really changed since the last time I saw you, but I have to have your word that you will never do anything to harm Brooke ever again. I hope you understand, I just need to hear it."

"I understand," Nicole nodded. "I'm glad that Brooke has someone like you looking out for her." She paused a moment to gather her thoughts. "Brooke was my best friend. One momentary lapse in judgment and I lost her. I have been paying for it ever since that day, and I'll continue to pay for it for the rest of my life. Somehow, I have been given a second chance with her, and instead of running away from me in horror, she brought me on her vacation," Nicole gave a short laugh of disbelief. "I've lost a lot of things, but I don't want to lose Brooke's friendship again. I will never do anything to jeopardize this," she concluded.

Sam studied the woman who had once been such a plague on her high school days. She was sure that the smug bitch Nicole had been still existed on some level within her, but Sam could find no trace of her in the earnest words she now spoke. "Okay, then," Sam replied, satisfied.

The two sat in silence, each one thinking about where their lives had taken them.

Sam would never want to change anything that had brought her to this point. All the traveling and transience she had experienced made her who she was. Although she was only a waitress right now, she was still proud of the things she had seen and done in her life. But she couldn't help wondering what her life would have been like if she had gone down a different road, if she had stuck with journalism, or had become an entrepreneur like Nicole. They say hindsight is twenty/twenty, but Sam didn't think hindsight had illuminated anything for her. If anything, the meaning of her past was just as murky and dim as her future. All she knew was that she was enjoying the hell out of her present.

Nicole, for her part, was thinking how nice it would be to take a page out of Sam's previous book and just get on a plane and fly away from all her problems and responsibilities. She was twenty-eight years old with a failed marriage and a business that, while once promising, was now on the edge of collapse, without the business acumen of her husband to guide it. It didn't help that every moment of her workday was filled with reminders of him; she could never get away from him. Taking a long journey to some exotic land seemed like the solution to all her problems.

If either woman knew the direction of the other's thoughts, they would have been appalled.

Brooke stood leaning against the top bunk, watching Mac get settled under the covers. She had been listening to a running commentary of all the things Mac and Sam had gotten up to while she was gone. Mac proudly told her about her first successful foray into the ocean, and Brooke was happy that Sam found a way to get Mac over her fears. Being afraid of crabs was apparently a big thing to get over. She hadn't known it was a crustacean issue that was troubling the girl. Brooke commended Sam's simple and elegant solution to the problem. And she could see that Mac was excited by the experience.

"It's better than the pool, right Mac?" Brooke asked with a smile.

"It's pretty fun," Mac agreed. "Do you think Sam knows how to surf?"

"You can ask her tomorrow."

"Did you know that Sam was afraid of sharks?"

"She was?" Brooke laughed at the thought. She couldn't believe that Sam was unaware of Mac's adulation. How did Mac act around Sam anyway? She would have to pay closer attention.

"Yeah, but not anymore. Guess what? She's going to write me some more Annabella stories. She said she would."

"That's great, Mac," Brooke enthused. The whole family loved reading those letters, and she shamefully remembered being pettily jealous of the attention Sam paid to Mac in them, back in the old, pre-Sam-comes-to-New-York days. She couldn't remember if she had ever discussed them with Sam or not.

Mac's chatter was finally winding down, and Brooke got the chance to say what was on her mind. "Mac, Sam told me about the conversation you had with her the other day, the one about her and me being in a relationship now."

Mac lifted her head from the pillow and propped it up with her hand. She nodded at Brooke.

"I just wanted to tell you that it doesn't mean that anything will ever change for our family. I love you very much, and I know Sam does too. If anything, it just means that there is even more love to go around now, okay?" she watched Mac nod again. "So if you ever want to talk about it, or have any questions, just ask." She leaned over and gave Mac a kiss on the forehead.

"Okay," Mac said, and snuggled back down under the covers.

"Hey, Mac," Brooke said before she turned to go, "Would it be okay if Nic slept on the bottom bunk?"

"Yeah," Mac acquiesced. "I like her, she's funny."

"Yeah, she is," Brooke said, and turned out the light. "Goodnight, Macky. Bedbugs."


Brooke went across the hall and into the master bedroom. The bed was large, the drawer-space was plentiful, and the view was spectacular. What more could she ask for? She was more than impressed with the rental; it was everything she hoped it would be. She breathed a sigh of contentment and sat down on the bed and kicked off her shoes. She was so happy to be out of the city, to be done with her meetings in Boston, and to be finally free to enjoy herself. She lay down on the bed and thought she would go down and join Sam and Nic, right after she rested her eyes for a minute.

Many minutes later, she awoke to find Sam sitting next to her, softly calling her name.

"If you're going to sleep, you should at least change out of these things first," Sam said when she saw Brooke's eye flutter open.

"Sam, what time is it?"

"It's late, Satan went to bed, and I got lonely waiting for you."

"Do you have to call her Satan?" Brooke asked, discouraged. She had hoped the two might come to an understanding, after all, she thought she had seen a few looks of grudging respect pass between them at dinner.

"Relax," Sam said cajolingly, "I haven't said it to her face – yet."

"Well, thank you for being so good about her being here, I should have told you on the phone," Brooke said.

"Maybe not, I might have shown up at the pier with a gun," Sam jested.

"Not funny, Sam," Brooke tsked. "Anyway, I owe you one." She rubbed Sam's forearm, noticing that it was already turning a golden brown

"I can think of a million ways for you repay me," Sam said and leaned over, her face inches from Brooke's.

"Oh, yeah?" Brooke smiled.

"But not tonight," Sam gave her a quick kiss and then pulled back. She was disappointed that she wouldn't be paid tonight, but she could clearly see that Brooke was exhausted; she shouldn't have even woken her up. "We have plenty of time. Get some sleep." She handed Brooke her pajamas, and got up to go.

"Wait, where are you going?" Brooke asked. She was tired, but she wasn't that tired. And she could sleep tomorrow.

"I want you at one hundred percent when I exact payment, McQueen," Sam grinned mischievously. "Tomorrow," she added.

"Promise?" Brooke smirked back.

"Promise. Believe it." She headed for the door, then turned back around. "Are we still going to do the belated b-day dinner thing for Mac tomorrow?"

Brooke was a little thrown by the subject change. "Yeah, you still want to?"

"Hell, yeah, I've got something special planned," Sam said and rubbed her hands together.

"Can't wait," Brooke replied, and fell back among the pillows. She was asleep again within ten minutes.

Sam sat on her beach chair with a notepad in front of her. She had stayed up late last night writing an Annabella letter for Mac, and she was just putting the finishing touches on it now. She had spent the morning running around Wellfleet and P-town, gathering items for a birthday dinner for her little sister, and the letter was to be part of her gift. She and Brooke had sent presents to California for her sister's actual birthday in May, but they wanted to do something special while she was visiting.

A killer last sentence was all she needed to wrap up her letter, but the words had been eluding her, and she was having trouble concentrating. She looked out at the water, but wasn't really seeing it. Nicole's reappearance after all this time had dredged up memories she hadn't thought of in a long time. Visions of Brooke, motionless and solemn in a white hospital bed seized her heart once again all these years later.

She thought of the time spent with Brooke as she recovered that summer could have been the early stages of her love. The seed was planted as she brought books and magazines to read to Brooke in the hospital, and wracked her brain for funny and witty things to say to her, to keep her cheerful during the long afternoons spent marking the time until Brooke's bones healed and became strong again. All through their senior year the seed had incubated in the earth, her feelings buried but brewing. It wasn't until a fateful graduation party where they had been thrown together in the most intimate and accidental of ways that a sapling had sprung forth, strong and green. Its roots were deep, but it had been left to grow in rocky soil, untended without sunlight or water. Years later, the withered stalk was just barely surviving when the ground suddenly became rain-soaked and fertile, and the sun came out everyday. And now, the once poor little emaciated tree was growing tall and sturdy. Or that could just be a hackneyed metaphor and revisionist history, she thought wryly, biting her pen and shaking her head at the way her brain ran towards the purplest of prose. If she put as much effort into her story for Mac as she did her melodramatic musings, she would be finished by now

Sam looked up from her writing to see Brooke approaching, hale and healthy Brooke, with only a few scars to show from that horrible accident, dressed in Sam's old Coca-cola t-shirt and a faded pair of shorts, and carrying a towel. If anything could shake her from her maudlin reminiscences it was the woman herself. "Hey," she called, and resolutely bent her head down over the notepad, wanting to pin down that last sentence that had been buzzing around in her brain. Then she could give Brooke her undivided attention.

She could sense Brooke moving around, laying down her towel next to Sam's chair, getting things out of her beach bag, doing other things just outside her peripheral vision. She tried to concentrate on the page before her and the words that she was having a hard time stringing together.

"So what's the deal with tonight, Sam?" Brooke asked, breaking her train of thought.

"Don't worry about it, I've got it covered," Sam answered absently, eyes still trained on the page.

"Do we have everything we need?"

"Yes, I went to the market this morning," Sam answered, still patient, but slightly less so.

"And you were able to get everything?"

"Yep," Sam said shortly, just give me a minute here, Brooke, she thought, tapping her pen on the pad with frustration.

"Are you sure?"

A shadow covered Sam and her notebook as Brooke stood directly in front of her and blocked out the sun.

The hell? What's with all the questions, Sam thought. "I told you, you don't have to worry about a…" Sam finally looked up at Brooke, "…thong." Sam's jaw dropped in astonishment and the thought she was trying to put on paper was gone, flown away, never to return. Brooke stood before her in nothing but the merest hint of a fire-engine red bikini and a saucy grin. Oh. My. God, Sam licked her suddenly dry lips. She was suffused with desire as she let her eyes roam over Brooke's perfect pale flesh, covered only by a few strategically placed bits of fabric.

"Payback time," Brooke announced impishly.

Sam stood up and faced Brooke. She held out her thumb and slowly traced a line from the hollow of Brooke's throat down to her navel, like a benediction, and felt Brooke's answering shudder. She plucked gently at the string that connected two of the three triangular wisps covering Brooke's body before suddenly remembering that the two of them were on a public beach, and while there was no one around at the moment, people had a tendency to walk by at intermittent intervals.

She drew her hand back as if stung. "Brooke, we can't do this here," Sam took a step back reluctantly, and held her hands up, palms outward in a surrendering gesture.

"Why not? There's no one around," Brooke responded throatily. She advanced on Sam, leaned in and thrust her breasts into Sam's open palms

"Oh," Sam said weakly, lost in sensation. She looked around wildly for a moment. There really was no one but the two of them and a few indifferent seagulls on the beach. Her attention was once again riveted to the mounds of soft flesh that filled her hands. She couldn't stop her thumbs from rubbing across Brooke's erect nipples through the silky material. She was made for this, she thought, made for nothing but this. The exquisite friction caused a thrill of anticipation to run through her, and left her in no doubt of what it was doing to Brooke when she saw her eyes close and heard a sigh escape her lips. But, something was calling to her from the depths of her memory, and try as she may to disregard it; it would not be ignored. What was it? It would come to her, she thought fuzzily as she took a step closer and angled her face towards Brooke's, intent on claiming her lips with her own.

Brooke drank hungrily from Sam's lips, and slowly moved her hands upward from where they had been stationed on Sam's hips, stroking the sun-kissed skin that felt slick with sweat and sunscreen. Her hands were dangerously close to Sam's more modest bikini top when Sam tore her lips from Brooke's and blurted, "Mac!"

"No, I'm the other sister. Brooke, remember?" Brooke asked, amused.

"No! Where is she? She can't see us like this. It's one thing for her to know about us, but actually witnessing me fondling your admittedly gorgeous breasts would send her into therapy for decades," Sam said, nervously looking up and down the beach again.

"Relax, Sam. Do you think I would allow that to happen?" Brooke asked, and ran her hand through Sam's hair and cupped her cheek. "Nic took her into Provincetown for some ice cream and t-shirt shopping."

"Oh," Sam sighed, relieved, "I don't know why I was worried, with you on the case," she smiled into Brooke's eyes. Then she thought about what she had said. "You know I don't think there is anything shameful about us, right? But with Mac, seeing us would be like watching one of Mom and Mike's totally cringe-worthy cheesy public displays of affection from the early days, but, like, times ten. Not that it would be exactly like that, but-"

"Sam," Brooke pinched Sam's lips closed with her thumb and forefinger, "shut up. I get it. I really do. But we're wasting time here."

"Sorry," Sam said, slightly indistinct through Brooke's fingers.

Brooke chuckled and released Sam's lips.

Sam cleared her throat and said, "Well, as I see it, we have three options. First, we could continue as we were right here, which would be great except for the curious passers-by factor, not to mention if we got down and dirty right here on the beach we would probably get sand in the unlikeliest of places."

"And what's behind door number two?" Brooke asked dryly, trying to hide her grin.

"We could go in the ocean. But much as I would like to fling off my bathing suit and go swimming," Sam raised her eyebrows, "and stuff, with you, we should probably wait until the cover of darkness for that. But some of us have a lot less to fling off than others," She looked at Brooke's non-bikini pointedly, "so I would be willing to defer to your decision on this one."

"Mm-hmmm," Brooke rubbed her chin, pretending to consider the issue carefully, "and the third option?"

"Go back up to the house and give that king size bed a workout."

"Done. Let's go," Brooke said with finality.

Mac sat with Nicole in an ice-cream parlor on Commercial Street, a large chocolate sundae with extra sprinkles in front of her. Nicole had bought her the coolest sarong. She couldn't wait to wear it on the beach, and show Brooke and Sam. She didn't think either of them had a sarong. She hoped Brooke wouldn't be mad, she only gave her money to buy one t-shirt.

She watched as Nicole got up from the table and retrieved a spoon for herself. She had said she wasn't hungry, but that obviously wasn't the case as she dipped her spoon into Mac's ice cream and took a bite.

"Don't you want your own?" Mac asked, irritated at Nic's presumptuousness.

"I'm not hungry," Nic replied, her mouth full.

"I think you are," Mac declared, shooting her only a half-strength stinkeye, Nic had bought the ice cream, after all.

Nicole eyed her back and put her spoon down. "You've got more than a little Spam in you, haven't you?"

Mac blushed, and her mouth turned up in a grin. Her mother said that too, she looked more like Brooke, but acted more like Sam. She couldn't see it herself, and didn't know why Nic said it now. She had loved spending time with Sam these past few days, but she still didn't feel completely comfortable with her. Mac always felt a little off-balance when she was with Sam. Since she saw her so infrequently, Mac sometimes had trouble reconciling the real Sam with the Sam she held in her mind's eye. And things weren't easy with her like they were with Brooke. Her desire to impress Sam was always battling with her need to seem like she didn't care what Sam thought of her.

"Why do you call her Spam?" she asked Nicole.

Nic's expression clearly read, "busted." "It's a term of endearment," she fibbed.

"Really?" Mac looked at her suspiciously.

"No, not really," Nic sighed. How to give this a positive spin, she thought. "When we were in high school, Sam was very much her own person," she said carefully. "She didn't care what anyone thought of her, or the tragic way she applied makeup and fixed her hair, and pretty much stuck to her principles most of the time, which is pretty hard to do in high school. But, that didn't stop her from being a total pain in the ass sometimes. Even Brooke thought she was a pain occasionally, although you'd never get her to admit it now," Nic said with a smirk.

Mac found this very hard to believe.

"When I called her Spam, it was to get under her skin, because she seemed to be made out of Teflon. So when I said you reminded me of Spam, it was a compliment, because I admire those parts of her personality. But if you ever tell her I said that," Nic pointed a finger in Mac's face, "I will hunt you down like a dog, and the aftermath won't be pretty."

Mac drew back, slightly unnerved by Nicole's vehemence. She continued to eat her ice cream in thoughtful silence, pondering how a bad name could be a compliment.

"Hey Mac," Nic began, "how would you feel if Brooke and Sam came back to live in Los Angeles?"

"Are they moving?" Mac asked excitedly, her hopes soaring. "Did they tell you that?"

"No, no," Nicole quickly backpedaled. "I just thought that you live in L.A., and I live in L.A., and wouldn't it be great if they lived there too, and we could see them all the time."

"Oh." Mac suddenly didn't want any more ice cream. She stirred her spoon around, making swirls of vanilla and chocolate mixed with smears of bleeding multicolored sprinkles.

"Maybe they will, someday."

"Maybe," Mac agreed, but she didn't think it was likely. "They have a really cool apartment," she informed Nic, "with a fire-escape."

"That's good," Nic said amiably. "Safety first."

Mac nodded. She pushed her dish towards Nic. "You want any more of this?"

Nic looked at the melting mess. "Appetizing," she said with distaste, "but no, thanks."

Brooke and Sam lay sprawled across the king size bed in the master bedroom, which looked like it had been victimized by the early advent of hurricane season. Pillows and bedclothes were strewn haphazardly everywhere, but the pair hardly noticed. Their ardor had cooled, but they both enjoyed the post-coital pillow talk almost as much. Sam lay with her head and shoulders propped against the headboard, and Brooke was lying half on top of Sam, her cheek resting on Sam's belly. Sam was using one hand to comb her fingers through Brooke's blonde locks, while Brooke was half-assedly trying to defeat Sam in a thumb wrestle with the other. They both were looking out the window at the ocean.

"Remind me to thank Nicole. At least she's good for something. I guess I didn't think how having a kid around would cramp our style this vacation," Sam remarked, only half-kidding.

"Sam! She's not cramping our style," Brooke denied. "Besides, can you honestly say that you've gone without at anytime? We're like bunnies, for god's sake. I defy you to name one time you haven't been a satisfied customer."

"Hmmm, how do I answer that without it leading to more dissatisfaction?" Sam said, teasingly. Last night didn't count, as she was the one who had put the brakes on.

Brooke turned over the hand she was holding and slapped it playfully on the wrist. "Besides, it's good practice for when we have our own kids."

Sam's hand suddenly stopped moving through Brooke's hair, and Brooke realized her blunder. They had never talked about children before. It was way too soon. She took Sam's hand and placed it over her own mouth, wishing she could take the words back. She couldn't bear to see what the look on Sam's face was.

Sam did not want to talk about this right now, but couldn't see a way out of not having this conversation. "Brooke," she said.

Brooke refused to look at her, her head still turned towards the window and resting on Sam's stomach. "Just forget I said that, Sam. I'm sorry."

Sam sighed. "You don't have to apologize. Would you please look at me?" Finding Brooke unresponsive, she scooted down on the bed so that she was level with her, and the two of them were lying on their sides facing each other. "What is it?" she asked quietly, once she was looking into Brooke's unhappy face.

Brooke didn't know if she was ready for this, but she couldn't dissemble. It was too important. "It's just, I don't know where you stand on the whole thing. We've never even talked about it in general, much less specifically in regard to us, and it means so much to me. I don't know what I would do if you don't want a family," Brooke just put it all out there, and waited to see what would happen.

It was true that Sam had avoided the topic of children. She had known almost immediately that Brooke would want to have them, probably in large numbers. She would practically burst into tears of happiness whenever she saw a kid doing something cute, and you couldn't drag her away from the window displays at Buy Buy Baby on Seventh Avenue.

The fact was that Sam had never needed to think about it, and so she hadn't, pushing the issue to the back of her mind. It was fine for other gay people to have kids, she was all for it, she just didn't know if she could do it. She had trouble taking care of herself most of the time, and then to bring some poor defenseless kid into it? A kid who would have to deal with the state of the world today, not to mention the additional handicap of being saddled with gay parents. Was it fair to do that to a kid? Then there was the whole separate issue of explaining their particular relationship to their hypothetical progeny, which was as headache-inducing a thought as she had ever encountered.

In her idea of perfect happiness, she saw Brooke and herself together as the years stretched out before them, but she honestly hadn't seen any children in the picture. She now knew that for Brooke to be happy, she would have to enlarge her picture a little bit to include them. Because Sam did want Brooke to be happy; and she would do almost anything to achieve that end. It suddenly became a question of when, not if. And she decided then and there that, despite her reservations, she would get behind the having kids thing, just not right away.

"Well, you won't have to find out, because I do want a family. I want a family with you," Sam smiled.

Tears instantly came to Brooke's eyes and she smiled tremulously. "Really?"

"But I don't want to start tomorrow, " Sam cautioned. "In fact, I would prefer that I wasn't working in food service when we start to spawn, so it'll probably be years before we can consider it," she finished wryly.

"Oh, absolutely," Brooke agreed. "It'll be a long time before we're financially ready." She grabbed Sam's face and started placing kisses all over it. "Do you know how happy you've made me? I was so worried about this. We should've talked about it much sooner."

"Yeah," Sam laughed weakly. Then she brightened. "Hey, I know parthenogenesis is a long shot, but maybe we should start ruling it out as a possibility right now."

"You're insatiable," Brooke laughed, and planted a wet one on Sam's lips.

"I just want to remain another satisfied customer," Sam returned with a grin.

"You're the only customer," Brooke looked into her eyes with gratitude.

They heard a car pull into the driveway.

"They're back," Brooke said, "we better put some clothes on."

They had both managed to find something to wear when Mac shouted out their names upon entering. She ran up the stairs and into the bedroom to find Sam picking up the pillows from around the room and Brooke reaching under the bed for what looked like a bright red piece of dental floss.

"What happened in here?" Mac asked, nonplussed.

"We, ah, we're going to be washing the sheets, " Sam hastily improvised.

Nicole came up behind Mac and observed, "Looks like you've been burning up the sheets."

Mac looked at Nicole, confused.

"Thanks for your input, Nicole," Sam gritted out, then looked at Mac. "Hey Mac, you want to have one last swim before we get ready for dinner?" She put her hand on Mac's shoulder and steered her out of the room.


Part 7

Brooke went downstairs after a long shower to find Nicole in the kitchen making iced tea.

"Hey, Nic," she greeted, "so how was P-town?"

"Good, cute little town," Nic said, taking two glasses off the shelf and waving one towards Brooke. "Lots of your kind of people hanging around."

Brooke nodded. "Mac behave herself?"

"Oh, yeah," Nic smiled. "She's a little spitfire. I like her."

"She likes you too," Brooke said, accepting a glass from Nicole.

They went outside and walked across the lawn to the wooden staircase that connected the house to the beach. Brooke sat down on the top step and Nicole joined her. When she looked out over the water, she could see Sam and Mac on the raft, paddling lazily side by side. She smiled as she saw Sam gesticulating wildly, most likely telling some improbable story, while Mac's face was looking up at her, like a flower turned towards the sun.

She thought of her earlier conversation with Sam about parenthood. Whether Sam knew it or not, she was very good with Mac, and Brooke was sure she would be an excellent parent. She could tell that Sam had many unspoken doubts about having children; and she had seen the inner conflict that had been raging in Sam's brown eyes as Brooke waited for the verdict to be handed down. She didn't think that Sam was aware that every thought and emotion she had could be read in her expressive eyes, or maybe only Brooke could see it, having become so attuned to her since the change in their relationship.

She was still kicking herself for broaching a subject that neither of them was ready for, but had to admit that she felt relief to finally know how Sam felt about it. Brooke herself had many issues to work through before any concrete steps could be taken in the direction of having a family, and that's why she was surprised at herself for letting it slip in conversation. She guessed that it had been weighing more heavily in the back of her mind than she was willing to admit. She just couldn't picture her life without children in it, no matter what sort of adversity they would have to face as a couple and a family; the rewards would far outweigh the hardships.

Somewhere deep inside of her, Brooke felt that a major factor in healing the old wounds made by her own mother leaving when she was as young as Mac was now would be to become a mother herself. It seemed the only way to confirm the belief that she wasn't like her mother, that she wouldn't be repeating her mistakes. Not that that was the only reason why she wanted to have children, there were so many reasons. But she needed to test herself in this way, and she was certain that, with Sam's help, she would pass with flying colors. An enormous weight had been lifted, now that she didn't have to contemplate a future without children.

Nicole studied Brooke's face as she looked out towards Sam and Mac, and could easily see the depth of feeling clearly displayed in her features. She may not have made a success of her own marriage, but she knew real love when she saw it, and it burned with intensity in both Brooke and Sam. If someone had told her in high school that this would be the way things would end up for the stepsisters, she would have laughed them out of the state, but if the two of them had found happiness together in this fucked up world, then she was happy for them.

She still marveled at whatever god was manning the controls when she and Brooke had been placed in the lobby of the same hotel, in the same city, at the same time the other night. Maybe it was the same god who had allowed her to destroy her own life and seriously damage Brooke's that night long ago, now there would be a god with a sense of humor, or irony, at the very least. The timing was eerily fortuitous. There had to be a reason why she and Brooke had met again at this point in time, it couldn't have been just blind coincidence. All she knew was that she wasn't going to let an opportunity like this slip through her fingers. Nicole needed something, and Brooke could provide it. And it was beneficial to both of them. The additional benefit for herself was that instead of passing through Brooke's life, she thought she had figured out a way to remain. She felt good about what she was about to do; it felt right to her, in her gut. The only unknown element in this formula was Brooke's reaction.

"Boy, that Sam must be a bobcat in the sack," Nic said, "you're miles away."

"Nic!" Brooke protested, and nudged her with her shoulder.

"Now that I have your attention," Nicole grinned, "I wanted to talk to you about something."

"Okay." Brooke looked at Nicole inquiringly.

"You know how when we were talking about my company, and you said we were poised?"

"Yes, you're not very far from your tipping point," Brooke remarked seriously.

"Well, actually, it's more like we're teetering," Nic confessed, "on the brink of failure. With Mark gone, I've been trying to take care of the business and run the lab myself. I'm certainly not equipped for the business end, and most of the staff is science types, no business sense whatsoever. So I've begun a search for a new CEO and guess who is at the top of my short list?"



"Me?" Brooke asked incredulously. "Nic, I'm an analyst. A lowly analyst at that, my cube is nowhere near a window." But even as she said it she was gripped with excitement at the thought of such an opportunity.

"Brooke, I need you to pull us back from the edge of disaster. You can't do any worse a job than I'm already doing. You have that blue chip degree from Columbia, and all your IPO experience from Leviathan, which we are going to need when we're ready to go public. Mind you, that probably won't be for quite a while." Nicole paused and saw the ruminative expression on Brooke's face. "Let me just ask you this: Do you think you can do it?"

Brooke hesitated before answering. What a chance, she thought. But it would mean leaving the secure little world she had made for herself at the bank. And obviously, she would have to leave the home she had made with Sam in New York and relocate to L.A. What would Sam think about that?

Could she do it? She was young and hopelessly inexperienced, but she knew that a lot of being successful in business came down to common sense, and she had that. Could she let Nicole take such a huge risk with her livelihood? Despite what Nic said, there was every chance that she could do worse than Nic herself had done, but she didn't think she would. The more she thought about it, the more sure she became. She could do it. Brooke looked at Nicole and was about to give her answer when Nicole spoke again.

"Let me do this for you. It would also give me the chance to ---"

"No! Don't say it, Nicole," Brooke interrupted. "If you give me this opportunity, let it be because you think I can do it and not because you need to assuage your guilt over the accident."

Nicole nodded mutely.

"I can do it, Nic, I can make a success out of Julian Cosmetics," Brooke said with much more confidence than she was feeling. "But I can't give you an answer right now. Give me until tomorrow to think about it?"

"Of course. Thank you for even considering it," Nic said humbly.

Brooke was struck again at the change the years had brought to Nicole. She looked out to the sea and saw Mac and Sam coming in, running up the sand to where they had left their towels. "Could you not mention it to Sam and Mac yet? I don't want them to influence my decision."


Sam was in complete control of the kitchen. She had Mac cover the picnic table outside with newspaper, and set the table on top. Brooke was shucking corn, and Nicole was filling a huge pot with water. When Sam had seen that the cottage had all the necessary equipment for a New England Clambake, she knew she had to try it, even though she's a California girl, and severely lacking in culinary talent. She had gone to the fish market that morning and had peppered the fishmonger with questions until she thought she could handle it. Along with the lobsters and clams she had purchased, she also went to the supermarket and bought hot dogs, in case of a total seafood disaster.

"Hey Mac, c'mere," Sam called as she pulled a big bag out of the refrigerator. She removed four lobsters and placed them on the counter. They were still alive and they did not look very happy. Everyone gathered around the lobsters to have a closer look.

"That's what we're eating?" Mac asked in a disgusted voice.


"What else are we having?"

Sam had known that this would be a tough sell. "You know what the fish guy told me?" she asked. "The only crabs they have around here are the tiny little blue ones, but they're really wimpy and mostly hang out in Maryland anyway so you don't need to worry about them when you're swimming." She waited for Mac to be impressed, but Mac was poker-faced, so she continued. "Now the lobsters could definitely do some damage," Sam pointed to a claw that was encased in a thick rubber band, "but they stick to deeper water and we'd never encounter one where we are. And they taste really good, too."

"I thought lobsters were supposed to be red," Mac said, studying the darkish color of the lobsters, and still not looking too thrilled about dinner.

"They will be when they're ready," Sam explained, "they turn red when they cook." She turned to Nic and Brooke, "Man, if Lily could see me now, she'd dump me in a pot of boiling water," Sam remarked.

Brooke picked up two of the lobsters and cried, "Lily, please save us!"

"She would so not appreciate that, Brooke," Sam tsked, shaking her head woefully, but she couldn't keep a straight face.

"I had a meeting with Lily not too long ago," Nic said nonchalantly. "You know she works for PETA, right?"

Sam was surprised. "Yeah, but I lost track of her a few years ago. How is she? What is she up to?"

"She's great. A little surprised to see me after so many years, but very gracious and helpful, and not too preachy. She's a campaign coordinator and works with the cosmetics industry to educate and promote non-cruel methods of makeup testing. Mark was a big believer in not testing on animals, more for the PR value than because he actually cared about them. Lily was great; we got a lot of good info from her. I have her card," Nic said to Sam, "do you want it?"

"Yeah! I'd love it."

Nic retrieved her handbag and started digging through it. "She's still with Josh, and they have two kids."

"Aww, that's great," Brooke gushed.

"A boy and a girl, and their names are Eddie and Babe," Nic continued.

"No. Way." Brooke and Sam said in unison.

Nic cracked up. "Nah, I know they have two kids, but I have no idea what their names are."

She handed the card to Sam, who examined it closely and smiled. She put it in her pocket and then patted it, like she had just put a diamond in there.

"It's great that she and Josh are still together," Brooke commented.

"Yeah, who would've thought that marriage would last," Sam agreed, then winced. "Sorry, Nic," she apologized.

"That's okay," Nicole said easily, "I'm not bitter, much." She sat on a barstool near the counter. "Marriage is hard, but being in love is great. That's what I really miss. I loved being in love," she said dreamily. "You walk around in this haze and nothing bothers you. You see the object of your affection everywhere you go, in the petals of a flower or a passing cloud."

"I never knew you were so sentimental, Nic," Sam said. "It's funny you should mention that. I was at the fish market today and I walked by a display case and this flounder caught my eye. I looked into his googly eyes and thought, 'he looks just like Brooke.' The similarity was uncanny, really; I almost bought him. Ow!" Sam rubbed the place on her arm where Brooke punched her. "Just kidding," she smiled winningly.

Brooke just smirked and gave her a knowing glance. Sam was in trouble tonight.

Sam looked over at the pot on the stove and saw that it was boiling. "Okay, everybody out." She started herding them out onto the patio. "It's time for Lil' Eddie and the gang to meet their doom, and I don't want anyone else to be emotionally scarred by it, as I will be," she said dramatically. She gave Brooke the corn to put on the grill, and closed the door behind them. She picked up one of the crustaceans and said, sadly, "So long, old pal."

A little while later, the four of them sat around the table with newsprint covering their forearms, hands sticky with butter and lobster juice, unable to eat another bite. Mac had gotten into the shell pounding, claw-cracking aspect of eating lobster, and found that she liked the taste of the meat, too. However, nothing could induce her to try the steamers Sam had made, declaring that the clams looked like big boogers, which pretty much put everyone else off of them, as well. Unfortunately, Sam had neglected to get them bibs, so they were all a bit crustacean encrusted, but nobody seemed to mind. The best part was that cleanup had simply been a matter of rolling up all the newspaper and throwing the mess away. They sat in companionable silence as the sky darkened, leaving only a few citronella candles to see by, and the ocean as their background music.

Brooke had disappeared into the kitchen a few minutes before but now returned with the birthday cake Sam had bought, lit with eleven candles. Mac was speechless, but did not pass up the chance to blow out the candles while the three women sang to her.

As Brooke was doling out cake, Mac said, "My birthday was last month, and you guys already sent me presents. What's this for?"

"We wanted to celebrate with you in person, if that's okay," Sam said, smiling.

"Sure," Mac replied, beaming.

"Are you ready for presents, Mac?" Brooke asked.

"More presents?" Mac asked, her eyes wide, then quickly said, "Okay," as if she thought they might change their minds.

Sam presented Mac with a book. "Here you go, Macaroni, I didn't have time to wrap it, sorry," she said. It was a leather bound journal, with Celtic embossing on the rich caramel colored cover. Sam had one just like it. Mac opened the cover and a letter fell out. Sam couldn't find onionskin paper or a blue airmail envelope, but Mac knew what it was just the same. "Annabella?" she asked.

Sam nodded.

Mac ran over to Sam and threw her arms around her. "Thanks, Sam," she said. "And thanks for the journal, too."

Sam hugged her back with all her might, and surreptitiously wiped a tear from her eye. Maybe Operation Big Sister was back on track. "Now you can write your own stories too, and let me read them," she said.

Brooke was next. She handed Mac a long, slim, pink envelope. Mac opened it to find a card that read, "Entitles bearer to a manicure and pedicure at the Pink Door Salon, New York, New York." She looked up at Brooke.

"It's a day at the salon," Brooke explained. "You're scheduled to have your nails done, all twenty of them."

"Do I have to go by myself?" Mac asked fearfully.

"No, Macky," Brooke laughed. "I'm going with you. We'll spend the day together. We can do it when we get back to the city if you want."

"A Manny and a Peddy? If you don't want it, I'll take it," Nicole said, as she placed a white plastic pouch with Julian Cosmetics emblazoned on the side in front of Mac.

"No! I want to go," Mac insisted, smiling at Brooke. She picked up the pouch and asked, "What's this?"

"Well, I didn't know we'd be having this little shindig, but I never leave home without samples, and I thought you might like some. Happy Birthday," Nicole said to Mac.

Mac opened the case to find miniature lipsticks, blush and eye colors of every shade. "Whoa, this is so cool, Nic! Thank you so much! Brooke, look at this."

"I know two drag queens in West Hollywood, Brianna Cracker and Helena Handbasket, who would tear each other apart for that little pouch," Nic grinned.

After Brooke had duly admired the gift, Mac turned around to show Sam, but saw she was no longer sitting at the table. "Hey, where did Sam go?"

"Here I am," Sam called as she re-entered the back yard with a foam core Boogie Board, about half the size of a surfboard, under her arm. She walked over to the group and stood the board up beside her. "We know you want to learn how to surf. I don't know how, and neither does Brooke, so we thought we could all learn together. But we'll start with this and maybe get to longboards by the time you can lift one. Okay?"

Mac just nodded vigorously with a huge grin on her face and took the board out of Sam's hands. She looked towards the water like she wanted to try it out immediately. Then she looked at the three adults. "Guess I have to wait until tomorrow, huh?"

Sam stepped out the kitchen door carrying two bottles of beer and a blanket. While she was doing the dishes after their birthday celebration, she had looked out the window into the darkness to see Brooke's white shirt move away from the house and disappear down the steps. She'd been gone a little while now, and Sam was going to find her. As she got away from the cottage she realized that it wasn't very dark, really, and there were a thousand stars shining down in the clear night sky.

She saw Brooke, a little removed from the water's edge, sitting Indian-style on the sand, her back very straight, almost like she was meditating. She turned when she heard the bottles Sam was carrying clink together.

"Want some company?" Sam asked, as she approached.

"Sure. You're just in time," Brooke welcomed.

"Just in time for what? Here, hold these," she gave Brooke the two bottles. She threw the blanket over her shoulders and sat down behind Brooke, extending her legs so that Brooke sat between them, and wrapped them both up in its folds.

"Just in time to keep me warm, it's getting chilly down here," Brooke said, leaning back into Sam and resting her head and back against her chest. "Where's Mac?"

"She's holed up in the bathroom with all her new products. Nic's giving her a makeover." Sam sighed as the delicious heaviness of Brooke's body fell against her, and she felt the low voltage thrum of sexual energy course through her. "Which begs the question: What do you call a makeover when you've never been made up in the first place?"

"Good question. Do you think Mac is too young for the salon?" Brooke asked uncertainly.

"I don't think it matters," Sam replied. "It's not like you think her toenails are heinous and she really needs a pedicure. You're doing it to spend time with her, right?"


"She'll love it." Sam found Brooke's hands under the blanket and laced their fingers together. "Listen, are we okay about the children question from earlier?"

"Yes," Brooke replied, surprised. "Why do you ask?"

"Because you came down here all by yourself, looked like you were doing some heavy duty cogitating when I showed up. I thought maybe you were still thinking about it."

"No. I was completely satisfied with your answer."

Well that's great, but it doesn't tell me what's bothering you, Sam thought. She could tell something was up. "Are you upset because I compared you to a fish?" she tried. "It was a pretty cute flounder, you know."

"No," Brooke laughed, "although you do say the sweetest things, sometimes."

Sam took a drink from her beer and decided she would just shut up and wait. If Brooke wanted to talk, she would. Sam didn't have to wait long.

"Nic offered me a job today," Brooke announced. "As CEO of her company."

Sam whistled. "That's a pretty big leap up the corporate ladder. Do you want to do it?"

"Yes, I think I want to," Brooke said hesitantly, then added rhetorically, "who would be fool enough not to want to do it?"

I would, Sam thought. Doesn't appeal to me in the slightest. But she stayed silent.

"The question is, can I do it?"

"Yes. You can." Sam stated it with utter conviction.

"You think?"

"I know," Sam declared. "You're smart, you're dedicated and you have that business savvy thing going on. And you're sexy, although I'm not sure that's a prerequisite for the job, but it can't hurt." She paused for a second. "Brooke, there is no reason for you not to take the job; however, the fact that it's being offered by Satan does give me pause. From what you told me about her company, it sounds like a great opportunity for you. And you're not exactly enamored of the job you have now, so that can't be stopping you."

"Yeah. When I was sitting here thinking about it, I told myself that I should be like you. Just take a risk and do it. I don't want to be the kind of person who never has an adventure, who never takes a chance."

Sam nodded. "You can do it, Brooke. It's perfect for you. And on the miniscule chance that it doesn't work out, we always have my meatball slinging abilities to pay the rent."

"Sam, I know you are going to find something to do with your life that you are going to love, it just takes time."

"I'm not worried about it, it'll happen. But this conversation is about you, not me."

"There is a reason not to take the job," Brooke said slowly. "We'd have to move to Los Angeles." She resisted the urge to look at Sam's face.

"Oh, I don't know, Brooke," Sam joked. "I'm this close to employee of the month at the restaurant."

No response from Brooke.

"Kidding," Sam said. Still nothing. To fill the silence, Sam said, "So we're going back to Cali?"

"That's all you have to say? Your response to the not entirely unimportant decision of moving cross country is to make stupid jokes and quote LL Cool J?" Brooke was not happy.

"You're right," Sam apologized. She reflected on all the squalls that the little rowboat of their relationship had weathered lately. Telling their parents, the kid question, Nic's reappearance, and now this. The boat had rocked a little but they were still sitting side by side, each holding an oar. It was going to take a lot more than a change of location to capsize them.

"Okay. Here's a quote for you," Sam said. "Whither thou goest, I will go," she said simply. She moved her head closer and spoke quietly into Brooke's ear. "It's just a place, Brooke. It's as arbitrary as what pair of socks I put on this morning, or eating lobster for dinner. Where I am at any given point in time is just one of the variables that make up the equation of my life. But there is only one constant."

Brooke burrowed further into Sam's chest and turned her face towards Sam's neck, happy again. This is more like it, she thought. She loved it when Sam waxed poetic.

Sam nearly lost her train of thought as she felt Brooke squirming against her. She convulsively wrapped her arms around Brooke, trying to quell the arousal that was uncoiling within her. She tried to put it out of her mind and remembered the other point she wanted to make. She lifted one arm and pointed upward. "Where's the Little Dipper?" she said, half to herself, as her finger scanned the night sky. "There. See that bright one at the end of the handle?" she asked Brooke.

"The North Star?"

"Yep. You could also call it a lodestar, which is a guiding star, the star that is used as a reference point. In navigation," Sam explained, "no matter how lost you are, once you spot the North Star you're safe and can find your way home. Sometimes, if somebody is lucky, they'll find their North Star, their lodestar, their beacon, the fixed person in their universe." Sam brushed her lips against Brooke's forehead. "I'm lucky. I'm very, very lucky. You are the fixed person in my universe. So, New York, Los Angeles, hell, it could be Sandusky, Ohio for all I care, as long as I can find my way home to you, that's all that matters."

Brooke turned around so that she was face to face with Sam. "Do you know how hot it makes me when you talk like that?" she asked breathlessly, a grin on her face.

"Now who's cracking wise," Sam admonished with a half-smile, "I was being serious." But there was no denying that she was on fire for Brooke, as well.

"I know." Brooke pushed Sam back into the sand until she was lying on top of her. Sam reached up and joined her hands at the small of Brooke's back, enjoying the wonderful torture of being pinned by her weight. Brooke rested her forearms on Sam's chest and looked into her beloved's eyes, before pressing her lips against hers. Brooke's hot lips gave Sam a shock; it felt like an actual electrical pulse that spurred her response. She fiercely returned the kiss, plundering Brooke's mouth with her lips and tongue. They were drowning in each other, and the sound of the ocean only meters away had faded far into the background. Sam tilted her head, exposing her neck to Brooke's assault of her sensitive skin. She moved her hands down to firmly cup Brooke's bum, while simultaneously lifting her hips off the sand. Brooke groaned into Sam's neck, where her lips were pressed against Sam's jugular vein, fascinated by the feel of the strong and rapidly pounding pulse beating just under her skin.

Brooke suddenly felt the need to slow down; she just wanted to savor the moment. She raised her head and took Sam's flushed face in her hands, looking into eyes black with passion. Brooke wanted to remember this as one of the moments where their lives turned down a different path, a path that they would walk together, but which bent in the undergrowth all the same, concealing obstacles that remained to be seen.

Sam's eyes cleared and she seemed to understand what Brooke was feeling. She reached up and tucked Brooke's hair behind her ear, then brushed her knuckles along the soft skin of her cheek.

"I guess we're moving to Los Angeles." Brooke said.

"I guess so," Sam returned.

"Mac will by psyched," Brooke remarked.

"Yes," Sam smiled, that was probably the best thing about this surprising turn of events. "Moving to California will probably make it easier to teach her how to surf."

They lay in each other's arms, both offering hopeful prayers for their future.

Brooke mentally shook herself free from her serious musings and threw off the blanket that was half covering them. "Well, we can check the first option off our list," she said playfully. "And now I think it's time to see what's behind door number two."

Sam had no idea what she was talking about. "Um, a brand new car?" she guessed, clueless.

"Maybe this will refresh your memory," Brooke said and got up from her comfortable position on top of Sam. She walked towards the surf, stripping off her clothes as she went.

Sam quickly got up to follow. She knew they would be freezing when they got out, but that only meant that they could warm up with option number three.

Love is not love
which alters when it alteration finds,
or bends with the remover to remove:
Oh, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
that looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
    - from Sonnet 116, Shakespeare

The End

Sequel You're Aging Well

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