Reunions (HBTC #7)
Friday, 21st December
"Good evening, everyone," Shaunna greeted cheerily as she stepped up into the back of the limousine and took her seat next to Andy. Those few words of reassurance from Barbara had made all the difference, and whilst she was still nervous, she was also starting to feel excited about the night ahead. "How good is this? All of us are couples!"
Dan and Adele glanced sideways at each other, and Kris tutted loudly.
"Surely you can play nicely for one night," he said.
Josh gave a snort of disbelief, in response to which Dan leaned back and put his arm around Adele, kissing the resulting scowl. The sudden flash of light soon put paid to that, and Adele stared at Ade, aghast.
"If it's awful, I'll delete it," he offered quickly.
Adele was instantly all smiles. "Shaunna said you're a really good photographer."
"Did she?" Ade gave Shaunna a look that was both questioning and bashful.
"Yes, she did," Shaunna confirmed.
"I only take snaps."
"Maybe, but you've got an eye for a good photo."
Ade's smile didn't do justice to the warm feeling that filled him at Shaunna's words. The ten years before he and Kris got together, he was told repeatedly he was unattractive, talentless and worth nothing without his ex, and it was still hard to accept praise, not least because he wasn't used to hearing it. But the people he was with - Kris's friends - had welcomed and accepted him, history and all.
It was taking time for his self-belief to catch up with the reality of the very different life he had now, compared to when he was with Fergus. Being able to engage in his old hobbies - going to the theatre, writing, photography - still felt like a luxury, and there were days when the sound of Kris's key in the lock had him shoving away the evidence of what he'd been doing. But those days were happening less and less often. He was with someone who loved him, he had friends without the need for permission, and he was acting again. He passed his camera to George.
"Can you take one of Kris and me?" he asked.
"Sure." George waited for Kris and Ade to get into position, with their arms around each other, leaning close, cheek to cheek. "Ready?"
Kris and Ade smiled, and George took the photo.
Josh leaned closer and studied the screen. "Very showbiz, those smiles, aren't they?"
George nodded. "Hm. We need to make them laugh." He cupped his hand around his mouth, turned to Josh, and said at normal volume, "Maybe if we tell them what we've got them for Christmas..."
"Silhouetto re-enacting the Karma Sutra in the living room, you mean? Or are you talking about the other - "
The camera flashed. George checked the screen again and nodded. Kris and Ade were still laughing. "We could sell this to the nationals. You'd think by the age of forty-one he'd be able to fasten his pants..."
Kris immediately checked his fly - which was fastened - and narrowed his eyes in response to George's mischievous grin.
Ade took his camera back and homed in on Shaunna and Andy. "Your turn."
Shaunna groaned. "Do we have to?"
"You don't have to, but, honey, don't even think of claiming you're camera shy."
Camera shy she might not be, but Shaunna still blushed as red as her hair whenever any of her clients noticed that the life-size nude print on the salon wall was of their stylist and her partner. It was a beautiful photo, and she didn't regret it, but being heavily pregnant with twins when the picture was taken had given her a shield to hide behind. With Rosie and Sorsha just turned six months old, Shaunna was still feeling post-childbirth frumpy, which was part of the reason she wasn't happy about being in the limelight this evening, albeit for only a few minutes.
Andy nuzzled into her neck and whispered, "Naked or not, you're my sexy...red...hot - " his hand slid down her back and came to a rest on her hip " - baby." He trailed breathy kisses up her neck, across her cheek, to her lips. She turned to meet his kiss with her own. The camera flashed.
"Perfect!" Ade said.
His smile was almost as bright as the LED flash, and it made Kris a bit giddy. This man, whom he had fallen for the instant he set eyes on him, was now his lover, his partner. They owned a house, furniture they had chosen together, and they were both successful actors in their own right. Before Ade, every decision Kris made had filled him with doubt. More than twenty years he and Shaunna were together; he loved her - was in love with her - yet he was forever second-guessing his actions, and it had destroyed their marriage.
He understood and accepted now that it was not all his fault. He had blamed himself, always, still wrapped up in the toxic cocoon of childhood sexual abuse. But he and Shaunna had both failed in communicating their needs honestly. The tragedy was that they now knew their needs had coincided more often than not.
A little therapy - and a lot of patience on Ade's part - gave Kris the courage to face his insecurities head-on. With Ade in his life, every step was surer, and he was no longer afraid of faltering. Some days were bad - it wasn't a sign of weakness or failure - but most days were good. Better than good. Like today. He put his arms around Ade and squeezed. "I'm so happy you agreed to come tonight."
Ade's copper eyebrows lifted in that cute quizzical way they always did, and Kris kissed him, on the nose, on the chin, on the lips.
"Did you call Stas, bro?" Dan called along the length of the limo's leather bench seat. All eyes turned his way and glared.
"You'd best not be talking shop, Jeffries," Josh said.
"Business doesn't stop just because we're on a night out," Dan justified.
"Why? It's not like you're running an emergency service, is it?"
"Not exactly. But say...I dunno...Suzie Tyler wants to talk through her troubles with you tonight. Are you gonna turn the poor woman away?"
"Damn right, I am." Josh laughed long and loud at that. The very idea of counselling Suzie Tyler. Good grief. It was only when he emerged from the sheer infuriating hilarity of the thought that he realised Dan had been winding him up, and in the process had safely shifted the conversation away from himself. Adele patted Josh's hand to get his attention.
"I saw Suzie at the gym yesterday. She's been in every day for the past two weeks."
"Yep. I think someone might not be coping too well with going up a dress size. Or three." Adele gave Josh an overplayed innocent pout.
"Oh, Adele," he gasped. "You are outrageous!"
"And she's had her hair cut." Adele's perfect nose turned up, and she blinked her huge false eyelashes. "Doesn't she realise she's far too old for a pixie cut?"
"Oh my god, she has not?" Josh asked, hamming up a campness he had never possessed. George leaned forward and studied him with a frown. Josh pushed his face away.
Adele nodded very slowly. "It must be so hard for her to see me every day, doing fabulous forty for real." She gave Josh a wink to imply she was joking.
"You do do fabulous forty for real, Adele," he said earnestly.
Her mouth became a tiny 'o', and her eyelids fluttered almost shut. She didn't feel fabulous. Her implants were due to be replaced again - it would be the second time since she'd had the surgery at nineteen, but it was the first time she'd acknowledged that she didn't need them anymore. She had two beautiful children, a handsome, successful, pain-in-the-ass fiancé. This weekend, they were moving into a new house, and she had so many ideas - for the house, and setting up her own business, and doing more college courses - she didn't know where to start.
With all of that, silicon implants seemed so irrelevant and...unnecessary. But without them, she'd have two droopy pockets of skin, and Dan... Why would he stay with her if she was no longer attractive? She wasn't very bright, and she earned very little money compared to him. Her beauty she kept in a box and painted it on every morning with meticulous precision. It worried her - it always had. But the difference now was she realised false boobs were not the solution.
"Josh," she said quietly. He tilted his head subtly to listen. "I know we're not supposed to be talking shop, but...can we do lunch sometime?"
He turned so he could see her and smiled. "Of course."
Her hand was still on top of his, and she squeezed lightly and released. "Thanks," she whispered.
"Did you invite the entire school?" Dan asked, peering through the narrow gap between Kris's and Ade's heads and out of the darkened window.
Josh turned to look where Dan was looking. "Wow!"
They were in the limousine equivalent of a stack, circling the flowerbed outside the hotel's main entrance, waiting for one of the cars that had stopped to deposit its passengers and move off so the next could do the same. The flowerbed was occupied by a vast Christmas tree glistening with blue star lights. It gave them something to admire while they went around, and around, and around...
"I'm getting dizzy here," Andy said.
"I was about the say the same, bro," Dan remarked, which was true. Being the younger brother, he'd spent his life avoiding anything that might lead people to compare him to Andy. With Mike, it wasn't so bad. The age difference was sufficient and their personalities different enough for their similarities to go unnoticed. But with only a year between them, Dan was aware that he and Andy weren't just alike in looks and personalities. They shared many of the same interests in music, sport and their attitude towards life.
The resentment Dan had built up over the years since their teens and 'the party' - when he'd guessed correctly that Andy was the boy who'd had sex with Shaunna and got her pregnant - had all but obliterated the closeness and the love they had for each other as kids. A big part of it had come from resenting Andy, and not for any valid reason. Anders had abused both Dan and Kris, and Dan had never wanted Andy to go through something like that, yet the experience had put a rift between them that meant every ounce of idolatry he had for Andy was redirected. Kris had taken on Andy's responsibilities, loved Shaunna, brought up Krissi as if she were his own daughter. Kris had shared the self-loathing that came from their abuse. Kris, his best friend, his ally against his lazy, good-for-nothing older brother, the rapist.
But Dan had been wrong. So, so wrong, and he had tried to hang Andy out to dry. When it was all over, and the truth was out, Dan found again the older brother he had idolised, whose footsteps he had filled as he shadowed him through school. They were not-twins once more, and their business was booming. Jeffries and Associates. Andy, Dan, and the friends who had stood by them - or between them - time and again.
Their limousine slowed and stopped. After a ten-second pause, the door opened, letting in the warmth billowing from the hotel, carrying with it a Christmas symphony of carols, perfumes and a food aroma so rich one could almost take a bite of the air and feel fulfilled.
"Madams, Sirs," the chauffeur prompted politely.
From somewhere behind him, came the rather less polite and very impatient, "Agh! Come on, people! Chop-chop! There's serious partying to be done! Now where's my second-in-command?"
"Coming, Ellie," Josh answered, making sure it was loud enough for her to hear, followed by a very quiet mumble of, "Bully," soon drowned out by the laughter of his seven fellow passengers.
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