When JC got home he dropped the thick envelope on the desk in his office and left it there, putting it as far from his mind as possible.  He and Kyle spent the rest of the weekend buying last minute gifts and wrapping paper, though he put off the actual wrapping until later.  That was his least favorite part and if he had his way he wouldn't get it done until Christmas Eve night.  Which, now that he thought about it, was right around the corner.

            On Monday morning JC woke up before Kyle and sat on the edge of his bed, enjoying the silence of the large house so often filled with noise.  As he closed his eyes and flopped back onto his thick comforter, the phone beside his bed rang.  To keep it from ringing again JC answered it, saying "Hello?" before he cleared his throat of its early morning fullness.

            "Hey babe.  Did I wake you?"  Jessica asked quickly.

            "No.  No, I'm up."

            "You are?"

            "Kinda."  JC smiled at the worry in her voice.  "I was sitting up.  What's up?"

            "I…"  She paused.  "Nothing, I was just calling to… say hi."

            "At seven thirty in the morning you decided you needed to call and say hi?"  He didn't laugh, but anyone could tell that he was heading that way.  She had a real reason for calling and it had nothing to do with wanting to say, he just wondered if she'd actually say it this time.

            "Yes."  Jessica mentally kicked herself for thinking she could tell him she was moving in over the phone.  If there was ever a time she needed to gauge his reaction to something, it was then.  She thought quickly and added, "I also wanted to make sure I gave you my flight information for tomorrow because it changed."

            "Yeah, you told me.  You'll be in at six thirty two instead of four whenever.  You emailed me the changed itinerary and you called me yesterday."

            "Okay.  I just wanted to make sure."

            "I'll be there to get you.  As crazy as the airport will be on Christmas Eve, we'll be there."

            "With Frank?"

            "Um, actually, I don't think so.  We'll probably go solo and hope for the best.  I don't want to bother him on the holiday."

            "That's what they're there for."

            "I know.  Don't worry about it."  He smiled and stood up slowly.

            "I won't."  She countered with a raised eyebrow.  "So… how are you doing?  How's Kyle?"

            "Kyle's good."  He avoided the first question.  "He hasn't said anything or… anything.  Actually, he's been kind of quiet."

            "Is he excited about Christmas?"

            "Yeah.  I'm not sure how he feels about a strange guy coming in the house though."  JC actually smiled and laughed a little.  "He keeps asking about our alarm and Candy and stuff, it's cute."

            "Aww, you'll have to put it on Santa bypass or something."

            "That's a good idea."

            "I have a whole suitcase of gifts for him."

            "Uh oh."

            "It's not that bad.  But he's so easy to spoil."

            "I'll have to draw the line, you know.  I don't want all you guys spoiling him."

            Jessica laughed and bit her tongue, "Oh, of course not.  That's what mo – "  She caught herself and coughed lightly, "That's what daddies are for."

            An uncomfortable silence fell on the line and JC exhaled, letting his smile fade with the breath.  "So how… how am I supposed to explain this to him?"  He asked softly.

            "I don't know."  Jessica shook her head and bit her lower lip.  She hated being so far away from him when it was obvious he needed someone there.

            "I can't tell him she died because… just because I can't do that.  I can't tell him she doesn't want to see him any more, that would break his little heart.  I don't know how to do this."

            "I know…"  Jessica frowned and tried to think of something to say that would make his situation not feel so hopeless.  "I wish…"  She sighed.  "I wish there was something I could do."

            "Thanks."  JC whispered and ran his hands through his hair.  "I need a hair cut."

            Jessica smiled slightly and licked her lips; "You'll have to go do that then."

            "Yeah."  He nodded and took a deep breath.  "I told Chris."

            "You told him what?"

            "About Lori."

            "Oh yeah?"

            "Yeah.  He wants to fly to LA and kick her ass."  JC tried not to laugh.  "Typical Chris, you know?  He's so protective of everyone, especially Kyle.  He's a big talker and everything, but still… he was ready to go slap some sense into her."

            "That was nice of him to offer."

            "Yeah."  JC smiled, though inside he still felt like he was going to be sick.  "I guess since he was there for Kyle first he still feels really responsible and everything.  I mean, even though it's been almost a year."

            "Well that makes sense."  Jessica nodded.  "And I'm sure all the guys' kind of feel like he's theirs too.  Their nephew at least."

            "I know they do."  JC's brow creased slowly.  He knew the guys loved Kyle, but it still worried him.  "And I really appreciate that.  It was cool to hear that Chris wanted to go kick her ass though, it made me feel less guilty for thinking the same thing."

            "It wouldn't help anything."

            "No, I know."  JC shook his head.  "George talked to her lawyer again… she's changed her number and even moved out of her apartment.  There's no number listed for her in the directory… it's like she's just disappeared again."

            "He looked?"

            "I asked him to."

            "JC…"

            "I had a letter for her and a picture of Kyle for her to have.  I just… I feel like she should have that."

            "But… don't you think… I mean, that's kind of mean."

            "It's not mean, it's her son."

            "Not anymore."

            "She's still his mother."

            "JC, I know what you're saying, and I know you didn't mean it in a mean way… but she gave him up.  She doesn't want anything to do with him and you sending her a letter with a picture of him, that would only hurt her."

            "Good."

            "JC…"

            He pressed his hands against his eyes and took a deep breath.  "I just don't want her to forget.  She sent a letter for him when he gets older and I guess I was just sending that for when she got older.  I don't know.  But anyway, we can't locate her.  Her lawyer said we could send it to her and she'd make sure Lori was aware that she had it."

            "Did you send it to her lawyer then?"

            "No, not yet."  JC shook his head.  "And then what about this one she sent Kyle?  Should I let him read it when he gets older?  What could it possibly say that would make this okay?  If my mom had abandoned me when I was two and left me with nothing but a letter and a picture or whatever, there's nothing she could put in that letter that would make me not be mad at her.  If she didn't want him she could have put him up for adoption when he was born, she could have done so many things before all of this but she didn't.  She should have made her decision when she was pregnant."  He sighed.

            "She made it last month instead."

            "After getting Kyle attached to her and leaving him, then coming back just to do it all over.  That's not what a loving parent would do."

            "Which is why she removed herself from the situation completely."  Jessica said.  "I don't agree with what she did Jace, not at all.  I don't agree with a lot of things she has done, but she did the best thing by leaving.  She knew she wasn't being a good parent and she knew she couldn’t rely on herself to take care Kyle and she didn't want to hurt him any more.  It may seem like a cowardly thing to do, but it took a lot of strength for her to do that."

            "I wish she would have put that strength into Kyle instead of leaving him like this."

            "I do too."  Jessica nodded.  That was partially true, she wished Lori could be the good and kindhearted mother that Kyle deserved, but since she couldn't pull herself together enough to do that she was glad Lori was out of his life… and JC's.

            "I just… I need to get away from all of this.  Maybe we can go somewhere?"

            "After Christmas?  Sure… maybe.  If you don't have to work."

            "We're off till after the New Year.  I think I'll need it."

            "Okay… well we can talk about it when I get there."

            "Tomorrow night."

            "Tomorrow night."  Jessica smiled and rested her head in her hands.  "You'll be okay till then?"

            JC paused and considered that while his stomach did a few twists and turns.  "Yeah… yeah, I'll be… I'm fine."

            She waited a few seconds to see if he needed to add anything, then sighed.  "Okay.  I'll call you before I leave tomorrow, okay?"

            "Okay."

            "I love you."  She added softly.

            "I love you too."  JC whispered.  "I love you too."

            Jessica hung up the phone and frowned.  Words just wouldn't be enough this time and she knew it.  With a soft sigh she clicked her phone back on and made another call, the most impulsive move she'd made in a while.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

            "Hey."  Katie leaned on the doorframe to Jessica's room.  She stood there in her nightshirt with a bagel in one hand and her hairbrush in the other.  "Where are you going?"

            "Florida."

            "I thought you weren't leaving until tomorrow?"

            "I was.  But… I'm going today.  He's… I just need to go."

            "Is everything okay?"

            "Yeah."  Jessica forced a smile as she looked up at her friend.  "Yeah.  It's just kinda hard right now, you know?  So I'm going to surprise him."

            "You're the best almost-live-in girlfriend ever."  Katie laughed and shook her head as she took another bite of her bagel.

            "Whatever."  Jessica rolled her eyes and folded her fisherman's sweater into her suitcase.

            "Are you coming back?"

            Jessica stopped packing and leaned back against the wall.  "Honestly?"  She pursed her lips and thought for a moment.  "I don't know.  My furniture and stuff is all going to be here, so I guess I'll have to.  But other than that."  She offered a small genuine smile.  "I think this will be it.  I just feel at home there.  Like that's where I'm supposed to be."

            "I understand."

            "I love this place.  I love living here with you." Jessica explained quickly.  "But it's just that there… I don't know… it's different.  It's all so right."

            "Dude, I'm the one that's been pressuring you to move there.  You're preaching to the choir here."  Katie laughed.  "Do you need any help?"

            "No, I've got it.  My ride will be here in like, an hour though.  Are you going to be here?"

            Katie nodded, "I'll keep an ear out."

            "Thank you."  Jessica smiled then reached back in her drawer for her jeans.

            "So when are you going to tell him?"

            Jessica smiled, but winced slightly, "Would Christmas morning be too cheesy?"

            "Not at all.  You could wrap yourself up with a bow and –"  Katie was interrupted as a flip flop flew through the air.  "I'm kidding!"  She laughed and ducked out the door.  "I'll let you know when your ride gets here."

            "Thank you."  Jessica sighed at the clothes she was still trying to pack.

            "Anytime."  Katie smiled, then left Jessica alone to finish packing.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

            The cab pulled up at the security gate of JC's housing community and stopped to let Jessica out.  It was just after dusk and the street lights flickered before coming on one at a time all the way up the street.  "I'll just be a second, I need to do the code."  She said to the driver as she opened the back door on the driver's side.  She walked to the phone box and keyed in the five digit code for JC's house, then hopped back in the cab as the engine idled.  "Thanks."

            "Sure thing.  Where'm I headed?"  The cab driver smiled in the rear view mirror and waited for her to give directions.

            Jessica directed him down the well lit streets in the quiet community to JC's house at the far end of the last street.  "This is it.  Thank you."  They both exited the car and got her bags out of the trunk.  She didn't have much, but she was grateful for the hand up to the front door.  Jessica thanked him again before she paid him, leaving a generous tip in his hand as well.

            "No problem.  Thank you."  The driver smiled and waved, then hopped back in the drivers' seat.  Jessica walked back to the front door and prayed that he'd be home.  Through the leaded glass to the side of the front door, Jessica could see lights on at the back of the house. She knocked softly then tapped her feet as she waited for JC to answer.  After a few seconds she heard foot steps inside, then someone leaned against the door.

            Jessica smiled up at the peep hole as the porch light came on and the locks clicked loudly.  "Hi."  She smiled sweetly as he pulled the door open.

            "Hi?  Jessica, my God.  What are you doing here?  I thought…?"  He pulled her in for a tight hug.

            "You sounded like you needed someone here."  She said into his shoulder.

            "I needed you.  Thank you."  JC whispered, then kissed her softly.

            "Can I come in?"  Jessica laughed and looked past him into the house.

            "Yeah, in just a second."  JC smiled and took her face in his hands to kiss her again.  "I'm so glad you're here."  His eyes danced as his fingertips brushed her hair out of her eyes.

            "Me too."  She whispered as they stepped into the house. JC held her hand tight as he led the way down the hall to the family room.

            "Am I interrupting?"  She smiled at the large bowl of popcorn on the table.

            "I was going to watch a movie."  JC shrugged.

            "What movie?"

            "Um, I hadn't decided yet."  JC couldn't stop smiling every time he looked at her.  "I thought you weren't coming in until tomorrow night?"

            "I made a few changes."  Jessica nodded then stepped closer to JC.

            JC sighed and pulled her to him again, just happy to feel her in his arms.  "I love you Jess."

            "I love you too."  She smiled and kissed him again.  He wouldn't let her go until he'd had enough and that was going to take a while.  They stood in the living room locked together until they were both out of breath.  "Tell him now."  A voice in Jessica's head said.  She blushed hotly and he wrote it off to the barrage of kisses he'd just covered her with.

            "I'm glad you're here.  Man, this just feels so right."  He left his arms around her waist and rested his forehead against hers.

            "It sure does.  But that popcorn smells too good to pass up."  Jessica laughed and spun out of his arms and to the couch.  She sat down and took a handful, then tucked her feet up under her.

            "It's kettle corn.  Have you tried that?"

            "It's my favorite."  She nibbled on the snack as JC sat down and leaned halfway onto her lap.  "So… I'm sure your mind has been elsewhere, but have you thought about what to do for Kyle's birthday?"  Jessica asked as she moved the bowl closer to both of them.

            "Not really.  But it's not till next month, I've got time."

            "It's like, a week away.  You need to send out invitations."  She laughed.

            "Invitations?  I can just call the guys."

            "JC…"  Jessica sighed.  "You're not going to invite any kids?  He's three, he should invite his friends."

            "He doesn't… I mean, we don't usually hang out with a bunch of other kids."

            "Well no, but what about the kids in his class at preschool?  You could invite them."

            "I don't know.  He hasn't been in a while, and… it might be weird.  I think we'll just do something with family and friends."  JC slid down until his head was nestled in Jessica's lap.

            "Well you have to have decorations and balloons and all that.  That's half the fun of having a birthday party."  Jessica laughed and shook her head.  "See you've got to go to Party City or something and get little cartoon invitations and matching table cloths and plates and all that."

            "And goodie bags?"

            "Yes!"

            "I'm not very good at stuff like that."

            "Oh come on, you decorated his room in kids stuff.  You can throw together one toddlers party."  She nibbled on the popcorn and rolled her eyes.  "I can help you if you want.  But I think you'll have fun with it once you get started."

            "Okay."  JC sighed.  "I'll ask him what kind of birthday he wants to have after Christmas, then we can go shopping."

            "Yay."  Jessica said softly as she dropped a piece of popcorn into JC's open mouth.

            "Thank you again for coming down here."

            "No problem."  Jessica smiled back.

            "You don't by any chance…"  He paused and licked his lips.

            "What?"

            "Like to wrap presents, do you?"

            "I don't mind it… why?"

            "Well…"  JC smiled sheepishly and shrugged.

            Jessica sighed and roller her eyes, "You're kidding.  You haven't wrapped anything yet?"

            "I don't like to wrap."  He argued in his defense.  "And I've wrapped some of them, just not all of them."

            "Beautiful."  She sighed then sunk deeper into his lap.  "We can do that tomorrow then.  Do you have any other plans?"

            "Nope.  My big plans were to start wrapping then to pick you up in the evening."

            "Well now you don't have to."

            "Right."

            Jessica paused and listened to the heater kick on above her, "Will you sing me a Christmas song?"

            "No."  JC laughed softly.

            "Please?"

            "Jess…"

            "Just one.  A short one.  Come on, I flew all the way down here for you."

            JC relented, he'd never be able to say no to her.  "Which one?"

            "You pick."  She pulled his arms closer around her waist as she closed her eyes and sighed.

            "Okay."  He cleared his throat, gave a little chuckle then quietly launched into "Frosty the Snowman", setting the mood for how he hoped the rest of Christmas would go.  Light and fun, without the gloom of the previous couple weeks overhead.  Rain or no rain, JC was determined to make this a Christmas to remember.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

            Christmas Eve was spent doing the ultimate last minute shopping at the few stores that were actually open.  It was a madhouse, but somehow they managed to pick up three rolls of wrapping paper and some gift cards for the people that would be hard to buy for.  By noon they were home, hungry and tired.

            Jessica fixed a frozen pizza which they shared on the floor as they wrapped presents.  Kyle was in charge of putting bows on the gifts, but he got a little out of hand so he was relegated to amusing Candy in the back yard.  When lunch had settled they all napped upstairs on JC's large bed, then went back downstairs at three to wrap a little and play around a lot.  The only thing that made it feel like Christmas Eve to them was the Christmas music that was on constant replay in the background, and the Christmas tree shimmering in the corner with the ever-growing mound of wrapped gifts.

            "This is the best Christmas I've had in a long time." Jessica said as she smiled at JC over the Chutes and Ladders game board on the floor.

            "And it's only Christmas Eve."  He winked and moved his piece up a ladder.

 

            After a few failed attempts at board games with Kyle and a late dinner, JC took Kyle upstairs to get ready for bed.  He dressed the little boy in his fuzzy green footed pajamas with a zipper up the front and a snap at the neck.  "There you go, now you'll be warm all night long."

            "Is code daddy."

            "Yeah, it’s a little cold."  JC nodded with a smile.  "But the heater is on and you've got cool jammies."

            "Yeah."  Kyle giggled then yawned.

            JC stood up and lifted Kyle to his hip.  He placed a quick kiss on Kyle's cheek before running his hand over the little boys hair.  "We need to go downstairs and get ready for Santa, huh?"  Kyle nodded in response and they headed back down the stairs.  JC softly hummed along to the Christmas music playing in the family room as he headed for the kitchen.

            He set Kyle on the tile floor and pulled the pantry door open.  "Okay kiddo, get one of your plates."  JC instructed his son.  Kyle pulled open a low drawer by the sink and produced a plastic plate for JC.  "All righty, Bob the Builder."  JC smiled down at the plate.

            "Yeah."  Kyle giggled and fidgeted in place.

            "Okay.  First things first.  Cookies."  JC looked his choices.  Oreos, Chips Ahoy, pink and white animal cookies or Nutter Butters.

            "A cookie?"  Kyle frowned and looked at the plate in his hand.

            "Yep, you need to leave cookies out for Santa."

            "Why?"

            "Because Santa has to visit everyone's house in one night and I bet he's pretty hungry.  So we'll leave a cookie or two and some milk for him."

            "Santa like milk?"

            "Yep.  Milk is good for you."  JC smiled and set two Oreos on the plate.

            "Don't forget a carrot."  Jessica smiled from the couch.

            "A carrot?"  JC gave Jessica a look.

            "For the reindeer."

            "Oh!  That's right."  JC opened the refrigerator and looked through the vegetable bins.

            "Daddy?"  Kyle's look of concern made JC smile.  "We hava deer ina house?  Daddy Candy no lie deers."

            "No, the reindeers will stay outside, but Santa will take the carrot out to them.  Remember Rudolph?  We saw his movie on TV?"

            "Yeah."

            "See?  Rudolph will be outside and Santa will bring him the carrot to eat so he doesn't get hungry."

            "Oh."  He looked skeptical, but he took the carrot from JC and put it on the plate.  "I doe wanna see a deers ouside."

            "You won't see the reindeers.  You'll be asleep.  You won't even know they're here."

            "I be seep?  And you and Jessi?"

            "Yep.  When we all go to sleep then Santa will come with his reindeer and drop off a bunch of presents for you."

            "And a pesent for you and for Jessi?"

            JC laughed and picked Kyle up, "I think Santa might have a present for us in his bag too."  He carried Kyle to the family room and helped him set the plate on the little end table beside the glass of milk.

            "Daddy, Candy doe lie Santa."  Kyle frowned and shook his head.  The whole "Santa" thing was obviously bothering him more than JC or Jessica expected.

            "What if I let Candy sleep in your room tonight?  Will that make her feel better?"

            "Yeah."  Kyle smiled and practically sighed with relief.

            "Okay.  Then we'll do that."

            "It's getting late though, buddy.  You should go to bed so Santa can come and fill your stocking."  Jessica stood up from her position on the floor and stepped over the rolls of wrapping paper.  She set her scissors on the counter and walked over to where the stockings were hung.

            "He put a pesent ina socking?"  Kyle's eyes grew.

            "Well I don't know.  I'm sure you'll get a bunch of presents, but usually he puts candy in the stockings."

            "No!  She no lie a socking!"

            "No, no, no… candy that you eat.  Like chocolate and little toys."  Jessica laughed carefully as she ran her hand over Kyle's head.

            Kyle scowled and looked toward the garage where the alarm panel was, "Daddy Santa come ina house and push?"

            "Yep, Santa will push the right code in there."

            "He know?"

            "He knows it.  There's a special Santa code that all alarms have so that he can put the presents where they belong."

            "Kay."  Kyle still didn't look sure, but he was growing too tired to argue.  He yawned once and rested his head against JC's shoulder.

            "Okay, let's get you up to bed.  The sooner you fall asleep the sooner it'll be morning."  JC smiled and hopped up the steps.  "Come on Candy, girl.  You get to sleep in Kyle's room tonight."  The dog jumped up from her warm corner in the kitchen and trotted up the stairs.  "Say goodnight to Jessica."  JC prompted from the top step.

            "Nigh Jessi."

            "Goodnight, sweetie."  Jessica called up the steps.  She smiled and listened to the single set of footsteps walk around above her head.

            By the time JC came back down Jessica was back on the couch cutting another length of wrapping paper for yet another gift.  On the speakers mounted on the walls, Christmas music played softly.

            "Is he asleep?"  Jessica smiled up at him as she cut a piece of tape.

            "Close enough."  JC laughed and fell onto the couch beside her.  "He's totally not sure about Santa coming into the house."

            "That's so cute."

            "I know."  JC smiled and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees.  "When I was a kid my dad used to stand in the hall at like, three in the morning and say 'ho, ho, ho' at the top of his voice, as deep as he could.  We would hear that and know that Santa had been there.  I can remember waiting as long as I could, laying wide awake in my bed just waiting until it was safe to run out and dive into the presents to see what Santa brought before we'd run back upstairs to wake up mom and dad."

            "You can't do that."  Jessica tried not to laugh as she shook her head.

            "No, I know."  JC smiled.  "Maybe next year."

            "Yeah."  She nodded.  "He'd be scarred for life if you did that this year."

            "Oh, no kidding."

            "Do you have his Santa presents ready?"

            "They're in the garage."

            "Do you wrap them?"

            "Nope, not Santa presents."  JC shook his head.  "I'll go get them when we're done here."  He looked at the shrinking pile of unwrapped presents.

            "We're almost done."  Jessica covered her mouth as she yawned loudly.

            "You can nap all you want tomorrow."

            "Your family is coming over."  She gave him a look.

            "All the more reason."

            "Yeah right."  She laughed, then reached for a coffee table book with a post-it note that said 'Heather' on it.  "Can you pass the angel paper please?"

            "You bet."  JC happily obliged then sat back in the corner of the couch.

            They wrapped the rest of the presents and stood up slowly, not quite believing that it was only nine o'clock.  Jessica stood up and grunted as she stretched her arms over her head.  "I can't believe we're done."

            "Not quite."

            "Not quite?"  Jessica whined and looked back at the unrealistically large pile of gifts under the tree.  "What else is there?"

            "I have something."  JC massaged her shoulders quickly as he passed her and stepped into the kitchen. 

            "I know we're technically supposed to wait until tomorrow…"  JC shrugged shyly and opened a small drawer in the desk.  "But this is kind of just for you, you know?  It's special."

            "What?"  Jessica smiled slowly and gave him a cautious look.

            "It's just a little something."  JC held a small box out to her and cleared his throat.

            "JC… I don't - "  Her mind went blank.  For a second she didn't even want to take it, fearing that it might be a ring.  A special ring.  A special ring that she knew she wasn't ready for.  Her breath caught in her throat as she wondered how to say "not yet" and have it not sound like a rejection.

            "It's nothing big.  I mean, look how small the box is."  He laughed softly and pushed the box closer.

            "You didn't have to buy me anything."  Jessica blushed and carefully took the box from the palm of his hand, all the while wondering if JC had completely lost his mind.  Not only was she not ready for it, but he wasn't either.

            "I know I didn't have to.  I actually bought this a couple months ago but you weren't ready for it then."

            "You think I'm ready now?"  A blush spread across her cheeks as her palms began to sweat.

            "I know you are."  JC laughed.

            "What if I'm not?"

            "Impossible."  He shook his head and tugged on the red bow.  "Come on.  Open it up and say yes already.  I've had that sitting in the drawer for months."

            Jessica's heart pounded almost all the way through her chest.  "JC, I… you shouldn't be spending your money on little gifts."

            "It's my money and I can spend it on whatever I want." He smiled and pulled the bow loose.  "Besides, it's like… a buck fifty.  It's not going to break me.  I'll recycle that bag of cans on the patio and get it back."  He laughed and dropped the bow on the counter.

            Suddenly nothing made sense.  "What?"  Jessica knit her brow together and looked up at JC in confusion.  "I don't…?"

            "Am I going to have to open your present for you?"  JC fingered the top of the box.  "Come on, you're almost there."  He laughed and put her hand on the top of the box.

            Jessica carefully lifted the top of the box and let out the breath she'd been holding.  A small silver key sat on the cotton lining of the box with a tiny red bow tied around the top.  "Is this what I think it is?"  She smiled slowly.

            "Yep."  JC laughed and took it out of the box.  "I think we're both ready for this, don't you?"

            "I think so."

            "Will you move in with me?  Us?"

            "Yes."

            "Really?"  He smiled in surprise and closed his hand around the key.

            "I've been ready since Thanksgiving actually.  I was going to tell you the morning Lori - "  She stopped and licked her lips.  "That morning.  And then everything kind of went crazy for a while and I didn't think it would be the right time."

            "But now it's the perfect time."

            "Yes.  I think so."  Jessica nodded and held her hand out for the key.  He placed it in her hand, then closed her fingers around it.

            "Don't lose that."

            "I won't."  She shook her head and hopped up on her toes to kiss him quickly.  "I get to live here."  She whispered.

            "Yeah you do."  He whispered back as the doorbell rang.  "Hey honey… can you get the door?"

            "Yay!"  Jessica laughed and bounced toward the front door with the key still in her hand.  She pulled the door open and was thrilled to see Lance and Amy standing there.  "Hey!"

            "Hey Jess, how's it going?"  Lance gave her a quick hug as he walked in with a brightly wrapped gift under his arm.

            "Good.  Guess who lives here now?"  She asked.

            "Who?"  Lance frowned and looked from Jessica to Amy.

            "You?"  Amy asked excitedly.

            "Yes!"  Jessica bounced up and down and hugged Amy.

            "It's about time!"  Amy hugged her back and the girls giggled to themselves.

            "Hey."  Lance nodded at JC as he walked up.  "What's that about?"  He looked at the girls acting like teenagers.

            "Jessica's moving in."

            "Didn't you ask her like… a month ago?"

            "A couple months ago actually."

            "Okay…?"

            "Well she finally said yes today.  So it's official."

            "She's been here for weeks."

            "I know."  JC laughed.  "Today was just a technicality."

            "Ahh, I see."  Lance smiled and shook his head.  "So here." He handed the gift off to JC.  "We came by to drop off our gifts because we're driving out tonight."

            "Tonight?"

            "Yeah.  Don't get me started."  Lance rolled his eyes but laughed anyway.

            "We wanted to make sure you had these for Christmas morning."  Amy said as she lifted a green bag overflowing with gifts.  "Where do you want them?"

            "Out by the tree."  Jessica took the bag and led the way.

            "You guys can take yours tonight then too." JC said as he knelt by the side of the tree where he'd stuck the gifts for the guys.

            "Is everyone coming over tomorrow?"  Lance asked.

            "I don't know.  I think Joey's in New York."

            "What about Chris and Justin?"

            JC shrugged, "I'll be home.  I'm sure I'll talk to them."

            "Of course you will."  Lance smiled and pulled JC in for a hug.  "Merry Christmas, man."

            "Merry Christmas."

            "It's been one heck of a year, huh?"

            "You can say that again." JC ran his hands through his hair as Jessica sorted out the gifts for them.

            "Who woulda guessed?"  Lance and JC said in unison, then laughed almost in harmony.

            "What are you doing for New Years?"  Lance asked.

            JC shrugged, "I don't know.  I've… my mind has been going nine billion other directions."

            "True."

            "I'm probably just gonna stay home though, you know."  He raised his eyes to the ceiling, indicating the sleeping boy upstairs."

            "Ah, that actually sounds like a good idea."

            "Eh."  JC shrugged and tried to stifle a yawn.

            "We should get going."  Amy said as she and Jessica reloaded her bag with the gifts from JC and Jessica.

            "Yeah, we've got hours of driving ahead of us."  Lance tried not to roll his eyes for the millionth time that night.

            "They have planes that can get you there quicker, you know."  Jessica laughed.

            "This is a last minute thing."  Lance explained.

            "And driving is more fun."  Amy took Lance's hand and bounced up and down.

            "Have fun."  JC laughed lightly and patted Lance's shoulder.

            "Yeah.  Thanks."  Lance scoffed as they headed for the door.  They all said their good bye's and promised to call to make plans for New Years before Lance and Amy walked out to their car, the path illuminated by small green and red lights, the sound of their arguing drifting through the cold night air to the couple on the patio.

            "It's gonna be a long drive." JC laughed.

            "You can say that again."  Jessica hugged herself against the cold.  "It smells like rain."

            "That won't make it any better."  JC laughed and looked up at the sky as the first drops fell to the sidewalk.  "Oh man."

            "I'm glad we get to stay inside."  Jessica took a step into the house, avoiding the rain.

            "We need to go set up for Santa."  JC sighed and tried to keep his childlike enthusiasm to a minimum.

            Jessica bounced on her toes with excitement.  This was the first time she was going to play Santa and she could hardly wait, "Yes, we do."

            "Then we need to go to bed because Kyle was practically humming with excitement tonight.  He's gonna be up at the crack of dawn."

            "Aww, that's half the fun!"  Jessica shut the front door behind them, then followed JC back to the living room to admire the mound of Christmas gifts and take in the scent of the fresh pine tree and cinnamon candles.

 

            They spent an hour getting everything set up perfectly for Kyle's first Christmas morning with JC.  They took a bite of the cookies Kyle left out, then drank the glass of milk.  JC left the empty glass with the cookie crumbs on the plate where Kyle had left them then he fell onto the couch with a happy smile.

            "I hope I remembered everything."  He said softly as he draped his arm over his eyes.

            "I think you got it all."  Jessica smiled and collapsed onto JC's lap.  He pulled her close with her back on his chest and his chin on her shoulder.

            "I got the cookies and the milk.  The presents are all set out…"  JC paused to think.

            "The stockings are stuffed."

            "The alarm is set to Santa mode."  He laughed.

            "The gifts for Candy are put up so she doesn't get any ideas."

            "I think that's all."

            "Yep."  Jessica sighed and sunk into the heat of JC's embrace.  It was getting late but she was too keyed up from the excitement of everything.

            They sat like that in silence for a while just watching the lights twinkle on the huge tree and listening to the soft Christmas music JC had had playing all day.  "It feels kind of weird to be here for Christmas."  JC said softly.

            "Yeah?  Where do you usually spend Christmas?"

            "At my parents' house.  I usually go there and sleep in my old room and do all the family stuff there."

            "Hmm."

            "But this year… I have my own little family."  JC's arms tightened around her waist as he kissed her temple.

            "Yes, you do."  She smiled.  "What time is everyone coming over tomorrow?"

            "They'll be here around noon.  Mom wanted to give me the chance to do Santa and everything with Kyle before we were bombarded."

            "That was nice of her." Jessica laughed quietly.

            "Yeah."  JC sighed.  "You know, if last year on Christmas anyone had told me I'd be right here doing what we just did… I'd have thought they were nuts."

            "Me too."

            "I wouldn't trade it for anything though."

            "Neither would I."  Jessica fought the urge to yawn.

            Their breathing became so close that it was hard to know whose chest was rising and whose was falling, or if they were the same.  "I… when uh, when I got the paperwork for… everything… there was a letter in there."

            "From…?"

            "Yeah.  From Lori."

            "Oh."  Part of her wanted to tell him to stop talking.  To stop ruining the moment with more talk about Lori.   It seemed that every time she got comfortable or settled in, "Lori" would be brought up and knock everything slightly off balance.

            "There were two actually."  JC continued softly.  "One for me and one for Kyle."

            "Hm."

            "I don't know what to do with them though.  Should I read mine?  Or both of them?  Or none of them?"

            "Well… you don't have to, you know."

            "I know."  JC said softly as his breath warmed the back of her ear.  "I just… what if it explains why she did this?"

            "Is there anything she could say that would make her decision okay in your mind?"

            "I don't know."  He shook his head slowly and laced his fingers through hers across her stomach.  "But I don't think there's anything in there that would make me think any less of her."

            "If you want to read it, go ahead."  She said, just above a whisper.  Jessica felt him shrug and hold her tighter.  "Do you want me to leave you alone?"

            "No."

            "Do you want to read it?"

            "Yeah."  He nodded as she began to sit up.

            "Where is it?  I'll get it."

            "It's in my office on the desk."  JC sat back on the couch and dropped his arm above his head.

            "Okay."  Jessica straightened her tank top and padded up the stairs to JC's office.  He heard her walking around, then thump lightly down the stairs.  She handed him the large envelope that obviously held more than just the letter.

            "C'mere."  JC said softly as he reached for her.  He pulled her back into his lap and wrapped his legs around hers as she rested her head on his collar bone.  "I just want you here when I read this."  He kissed her temple and smiled as he opened the large envelope and pulled the small sealed one with his name on it out.

            "I'm not going anywhere."

            JC smiled as Jessica placed her hand on his thigh and gave him a reassuring squeeze.  "Here goes."  JC whispered as he slid his finger under the flap and pulled out the single sheet of lined paper.  As the rain picked up, the heater kicked on inside the house to add a soft hum to the Christmas music playing in the background.

            JC took a deep breath then began to read the letter to himself as he gently rubbed Jessica's shoulder with his free hand.  Just feeling her there and knowing that she would be there no matter what, made him much more able to read Lori's letter.  Jessica turned her head away from the letter and faced the back of the couch, her cheek barely touching JC's hand as he massaged her shoulder.

 

Dear JC,

 

I know you're upset, and I know there is absolutely nothing I can say that will change that.  I hope that you reading this means that you understand that I am human and that I too can make mistakes.  I also hope that eventually you will forgive me for everything I've done to hurt both you and Kyle.  That was never my intention.

 

First and foremost, I'm sorry.  I'm sorry that I could not be the kind of mother that Kyle deserves.  I'm sorry I couldn't be the kind of adult who could handle not only taking care of a child, but dealing with everything that came with that.  I'm sorry I didn't tell you right from the start that I was pregnant and that Kyle was yours.  I could have tried so much harder, but I… well I'm not going to make excuses.  I thought I could do it, but it is painfully obvious that I can't.

 

In the two years that I hid Kyle from you, I hid myself from everyone.  My mother kicked me out when she found out I was pregnant, and like the scared and defiant child that I was, even at 21, I ran away and never looked back.  I never contacted her again, never spoke with anyone in my family… I never made any effort to get help from her.  My stupid idea of pride hurt not only me, but Kyle as well.  Because of my selfishness he will never know his aunt or uncle, his grandparents, his cousins… or me really.  You once told me that I must have done something right during those two years in order for Kyle to turn out as great as he did.  And I did.  I did a few things right.  I left him with a friend of mine who had two kids of her own.  She knew what to do when I didn't have a clue.  For two months he stayed with her while I tried to get my life together.  When I did get him back from her, I thought I could do it.  And then when I discovered I still couldn't do it, I went into housing for homeless mothers where a staff there helped me out.

 

So yes, in the two years I had him, the best things I did for him was leave him in the care of others.  It kills me to know that there was not one ounce of maternal instincts in me.  I had no clue what I was doing, and I know that he ended up paying for it.  Every time I'd think I could do it, like when I returned to get him this year, I'd slowly fall back down into my selfish behavior and end up hurting him more.

 

I've seen how happy he is with you, and how happy you are with him.  He adores you and that feeling is obviously mutual.  You love him more than I ever could and you can give him so much more than I could ever even dream of.  I don't mean just money either.  Yes, you have the finances to literally give him everything, but you've got so much more than that.  You have that little something that makes you a father.  Something that was missing from me, to make me a mother.

 

I love Kyle.  I love him as much as I possibly can.  If there was a way to love him anymore, I would.  But I can not be a mother to him.  As much as I want to think I can and as much as I have wanted to try… I just can't.  That's not fair to you or to him, and it isn't good for me either.  But as much as I love him, I know that you can, will and do love him a million times more.  It pains me to say that, it's not right for anyone to love a child more than their mother, but you do.  And that's my fault.

 

Giving up my parental rights to Kyle was a way to assure myself that I wouldn't be able to go back and mess up his life in another three months, or six months, or three years.  I chose to do this because if I didn't, then I know that eventually I'd try to come back and get a second chance… a third chance even, to do things right.  You and your big heart would give me that chance and I know that I would just continue on with this cycle.  I want to change, I honestly do.  But at my expense, not yours and definitely not Kyle's.

 

I hope that someday you will find a kind and caring mother for Kyle.  Someone who can love him like a mother really should, just as much as you do.  I hope that he will understand that there are people in this world who love him.  Many, many people.  And that I am one of them, even though I can't be there to show him.

 

Thank you JC… for taking Kyle and being both a mother and father for him.  I'm sorry for any pain I have, or am, causing either of you.

 

Lori

 

            "Shit…" JC said under his breath as he clenched his eyes shut tightly.

            "What?"  Jessica asked.

            "Here."  He handed the letter to her and clasped his hands together across her stomach.

            "JC, I…"

            "It's okay.  It's not bad."

            "I don't think I should read this.  She wrote it for you, not me."  Jessica shook her head and let the paper fold down on itself.

            "I know.  But you're a part of this too.  I think you should know the whole story."  He nodded for her to read it.  "Please?"

            Jessica pondered it for a moment before she unfolded the letter again and started at the beginning.  She read the words carefully, searching for some deeper meaning in them, but coming up short.  The words Lori chose meant something to her, but it was lost on Jessica, the one who had been caring for Kyle for the past few months.  Jessica was not Kyle's biological mother, she had no children of her own, and yet she couldn't fathom just walking away from Kyle.  Or JC.

            When she was finished she folded it again and sat it on the table.  A heavy sigh passed her lips as she leaned back on JC's chest.  "Well… I don't really know what to say."

            "I know."

            "It's just… I can't even think of the word.  It's for the best though.  I have to believe that she and George are right about that, JC."

            "I know.  They are."  JC kissed her ear softly.  "That doesn't make any of this any easier though.  You and I know it's right, but how will Kyle ever understand that?"

            "You'll help him."  Jessica smiled over her shoulder, "What else is in the envelope?  It felt heavy."

            "Just the legal papers and some pictures."  JC shrugged.  "Do you want to see them?"

            "The pictures?  Of Kyle?"

            "Yeah, when he was a baby."

            A smile spread across Jessica's lips as the thought of seeing the two years that they'd missed in photographs.  "I'd love to."

            JC shifted uncomfortably behind her and reached for the large envelope.  He shook out the small stack of pictures and together they looked through them, commenting on how cute he was and how much he looked the same.

            They came to the last one which was Kyle sitting on Lori's lap with a birthday cake in front of him.  The cake was small, almost dwarfed by the two large candles in the middle.  Kyle was smiling but looking away from the cake while Lori smiled and held him close.

            "Wow.  I never really noticed how much Kyle looks like Lori.  I mean, in this picture you can really tell."

            "Yeah."  JC nodded and looked at the picture over Jessica's shoulder.  The similarities were eerie but JC knew that if he held a picture of himself up next to it, Kyle would look as much like him as he did Lori.  "It's weird though… because sometimes I hate her so much, but I see her in him every day.  It's almost hard to love him so much because he looks like her."  JC said softly, just above a whisper.  "I mean… that came out wrong."

            "I know what you mean."

            "I love him more than anything.  I do… but he looks just like her sometimes."

            "I know."  Jessica nodded and pulled his arms tighter around her waist.  "But you know, he's starting to look and act more like you every day."  She smiled and tilted her head to try to look up at him.  "The way he talks and some of his expressions… they're all you."

            "I know." JC laughed softly; it was true.  Kyle was picking up little things like running his hand over his head and biting his lip when he was frustrated.

            "Wanna talk about eerie?  When he looks up at me and puckers his lips for a kiss with his eyes open?  That's all you, honey.  That's all you."  Jessica laughed as she turned to kiss him.

            "You're a nut."

            "So are you."  She sighed and stood up.  "It's late."

            JC glanced at the clock and cringed.  If Kyle really was anything like JC, he'd be up in a few short hours with the energy of a dozen two year olds, just waiting to tear into the presents.  "Yeah, we'd better go to bed."

            "Yeah."  Jessica stopped and turned around to kiss JC correctly.  "Merry Christmas."

            "Merry Christmas."  He whispered back before he kissed her again and took her hand to guide her up the stairs and to their room.  Their room.  That was a phrase he'd been wanting to say for months and it was finally true.  For once, things seemed to be falling into place instead of falling apart.

 

 

 Next...

 

Copyright 2003, Amy Lynn