“Mama, we’re 2 hours out from home,” Charlotte said as the movers carrying her and Chris entered the county. “We’re going to stop for lunch and the next stop is home! Can you believe it?”
Bella had the house decorated to welcome her children home from college. They had graduated just days ago, both with degrees in science and medicine, both with full honors! She couldn’t be more proud of them. “Your Daddy and I are going to be right here, waiting for you to get home.” So much had happened while they were away, so much to fill Charlotte in on, but that could wait. The first thing Bella wanted to do was cover them in kisses and hugs.
“We’ll see you then, Mama!”
“Be safe, my loves.” Bella smiled and hung up the phone. Quickly, she dialed Rog’s cell. “Baby, they’re almost home. Two hours out,” she said as she recorded a message on his voice mail. “Hurry home!”
She put the last finishing touch on the cake and covered it. Chocolate with buttercream frosting, with Bella’s impeccable handwriting, which said “Welcome Home.” It was two years in the design and implementation, but the kids did all of the hard work. All she had to do was wait.
Rog’s car opened the gate as he pulled into the driveway. He walked from the car carrying packages for the kids, graduation gifts that he had ordered for them months ago. A new laptop for Charlotte, a new gaming console for Chris, as though he really needed a new one. And in two small boxes sat keys for two brand new cars. Charlotte hadn’t driven much since her accident, so Rog and Bella hoped she would be excited about the new wheels. They both knew Chris would be ecstatic.
She and Rog had discussed at length how much, and when they would tell Chris and Charlotte about the events of the past two years. Bella knew Jen had been in touch with Charlotte after their lunch together because Jen thought Charlotte should know. Bella couldn’t be angry with her but wished she would have left the disclosure to Rog and her. But Jen’s heart was in the right place.
“I’m expecting them any time,” Bella said as Rog opened the back door. “Is that everything?”
“It is, my love,” Rog replied. “I even wrapped it all!”
Twenty minutes later, the gate opened, and the moving truck pulled into the driveway. “THEY’RE HERE!” Bella yelled, almost ready to jump out of her skin. The truck had barely stopped when Chris was out the back door, running for Bella.
“Mama!” he cried, as she enveloped him in her warm embrace. Tears of joy streaked down both their faces, and she covered him in kisses.
“Chris, I missed you so much, baby boy.” She backed away from the embrace and held him at arm’s length. “You’ve grown so much! You’re not a little boy anymore!”
Charlotte came running, her backpack flung over her shoulder. “Mama!” she cried, running for Bella.
“Oooh, come here Charlotte!” Bella called to her, wrapping her arms around her daughter. “I missed you so, sweetheart.” Rog emerged from the house, and Chris ran for him, nearly tackling him with a hug. Then she moved closer and whispered, “I have much to tell you.” Charlotte frowned, but reading Bella’s smiling face, her frown dissipated.
“Daddy!” Charlotte spotted Rog and bolted for him. He had both of them wrapped in his arms, tears running down his face as well.
The movers, watching the touching scene, honked the horn. “I hate to break this up, but we have somewhere to be in half an hour.”
“Come on, kids. Help your old man unload this truck,” Rog said, and the three of them worked on emptying it and sent the movers on their way.
Bella had been cooking most of the day, making everyone’s favorite meals, and they sat down together and ate as a family for the first time in just over two years. The topic Bella couldn’t wait to hear more about was the friends they had made on campus. Charlotte looked misty-eyed when Travis entered the conversation. All the way home, she attempted to call him, but he just didn’t answer his cell. Chris shared how awkward it was to be so much younger than his classmates, but he outperformed all of them. Only a few from his study group came close to a 4.0 GPA, but none of them even graduated with honors. And then, there was Cade. Though they were good friends, their relationship was… complicated.
Charlotte and Bella cleaned the kitchen while the guys moved their boxes into the garage for the night. “Mama, are you going to tell me what went on here while we were gone?”
“Yes, honey, your dad and I are going to sit with both of you, but not tonight.” Charlotte seemed agreeable to that. She was tired, and she knew Chris had to be. A sleeper bunk in the cab of a truck was no place to travel for 3 days, and neither of them slept well. “We do have presents for you, though,” Bella teased. “When your dad and Chris are done, we’ll give them to you.”
The ladies were watching television when the guys came inside. It had started to rain lightly, and thunder rolled in the distance. “It’s a good thing we brought that stuff in tonight,” Rog said. “Do you hear it rumbling out there?”
“I do, and I agree.” She patted the cushion next to her for Rog to come sit, and Chris sat on the floor by Charlotte. Rog grabbed the gifts before he came to sit, and put them on the coffee table for the kids to open.
Charlotte grabbed the big, flat box and opened it. A laptop! “How did you know, Daddy? Mine is so old and beat up.”
“Because I’m a doctor, and I know how much you’ll use it,” he said, smiling. “It’s from both of us, you know.”
“Thank you, Mama and Daddy,” Charlotte said, hugging them both before sitting back down. Chris grabbed his big box and sat down.
“I feel like it’s Snowflake Day!” he said excitedly. As he ripped the paper, he spotted the box. “Wow, really? This is awesome!” He jumped up and hugged Rog and Bella. “Thank you so much!”
The big gifts were coming, and Bella and Rog were dying to see their reactions. Bella handed Charlotte’s box to her, and Rog, Chris’ box. “Open them together, on three,” Rog said, counting.
Both of them were shocked to see car keys in the boxes. Chris began to cry, excited that he got a car all his own. Charlotte’s reaction was a little more mixed. She hadn’t driven further than down the driveway since her accident, and part of her was afraid. She wiped tears from her eyes, and she and Chris both thanked their parents for their gifts.
“They’re parked at Jen’s house, so we’ll get them tomorrow,” Bella said, then noticed Charlotte’s face. “Are you okay, honey?”
She sniffled. “Yes, I’m just overwhelmed, Mama.”
“Well, you two have had quite the day. Why don’t you go on up, get cleaned up and head to bed for the night?” Bella kissed each of them on the forehead and sent them to bed.
She and Rog curled up in front of the fireplace, a bottle of nectar opened, and two glasses full. “For the first time in longer than I can remember, I feel truly remarkable,” Bella said, her head in Rog’s lap. “We’re all together as a family, I feel safe, and you are still here, loving me like it was our first day together. I’m truly blissful.”
He stroked her hair as he sipped on his glass of nectar. “Me too, darling.”
The next morning, Bella was making breakfast when the kids came downstairs. Rog was reading the morning paper, and they both had a big mug of coffee under their belt, working on a second. “Good morning, my babies,” Bella beamed. She handed Charlotte a cup of coffee, and both of them crepes, with freshly made fruit compote. Both of them devoured their meal, and sat back, talking together.
“Your mother and I need to talk to you both,” Rog said, motioning them toward the living room. They sat around, all facing each other. “Remember we talked to you a long time ago about Estevan, kids?” he asked, and they both nodded. Charlotte knew a little more than Chris, but they both remembered who he was, and why he was relevant.
“I’m not sure where to start,” Bella began, “So I guess I’ll start at the beginning.” They both nodded, Charlotte taking another sip of coffee. “Before you went away to school, Charlotte said something that inspired me. Remember, honey, when you didn’t cover your scar for graduation, and you said that you weren’t going to hide your past? Well, I took it to heart. I realized that when it came to Estevan and his whole mess, all I had done was hide from it, and I felt like a hypocrite. So, I went to see my lawyer, if you remember Nick? I made the mistake of going alone.” Bella swallowed hard and looked to Rog.
“Your mother had an appointment with him, so she went to get some advice. What she didn’t know was that Nick had other plans. He attacked your mother, but we got away.” Rog noticed Chris’ jaw clench and his temples throbbed. “She is okay, Chris, nothing happened. It could have been worse, but I got there in time to help her.” He eased his expression slightly, but his eyes remained fixed on Bella as Rog told the story. “So, this happened about 2 months after you guys left for school.”
Bella continued. “So, I did an exclusive interview with the news, and came clean about everything. My pen name, my reputation, what really happened with Estevan. And the most wonderful thing happened. Everything got so much better, crawling out from under the cloud, and things were really great for a while.” She paused to take a sip of coffee. “But your dad started having nightmares about my assault, and I did too.” Bella swallowed a growing lump in her throat.
“So he started poking around and hired a private investigator, who was looking into Nick’s background. This is about when I talked to Jen, maybe a little afterward, a few months maybe?” Rog nodded. “So, I went to see Jen, we had lunch together, because I wanted to see if she knew of an attorney who wasn’t affiliated with Nick, or could help me with some advice. Because we had literally no case to bring against a powerful, corrupt lawyer, and I needed someone with some expertise.”
Chris raised his hand and interrupted Bella. “What kind of case, Mom?” Bella just shook her head, unable to speak the words.
“Sexual assault, Chris. Nick tried to rape your mother.” Chris stood up, rage in his eyes.
“Where is he?” he demanded.
“He’s dead, Chris,” Rog answered. “We found out that Nick wasn’t named Nick at all, but was a hired hitman named Alexis Rockwell.”
“Who hired him, that scumbag Estevan?” Bella saw the anger building up, and she motioned to Rog to dial it back.
“Yes, Chris. Let us continue. We’ll cover all of this.” Rog spoke sternly. Chris sat down, his fists clenched.
“Anyway, we found out that Nick was hired by Estevan to terrorize us, and… “ he tried to think of a gentler, easier way to say it, but could not think of one, “murder your mother. While we were at the police station being brought up to date on all of this, ironically, they had gotten word that police in Strangeville had arrested Nick. I mean, Alexis. Even better news was that Estevan had been fatally wounded in a prison fight. He did not survive the day.”
“Why didn’t you tell us all of this?” Charlotte was angry. “He could have killed you, and we would have had a police officer show up on campus to tell us! Is that how you would have preferred we find out, Mama? Daddy?”
Bella tried to speak, but she couldn’t. “We didn’t want to worry you. Other than the meeting with Nick, no one was in danger.” Rog neglected to tell the kids about the trap door, on purpose. There was no need to make the situation any worse for Bella.
“Way wrong move, Dad.” Chris stood up to leave.
“You’re not going anywhere, son.” Rog blocked him. “We’re going to sit here and discuss this as a family. And you’re going to be respectful of your mother.”
Chris sat down and huffed at Rog. Charlotte shifted in her chair, not looking at either of them. Bella wiped the tears from her eyes. “I know this has to be rough to hear, Chris. But we truly did what we thought was best for you and Charlotte. I knew we’d get this reaction from you, I did. But I wouldn’t do it any differently if I had to choose all over again. It would have been a distraction from your studies.” She was aching inside to see her children so angry with her after she missed them for so long. “It was rough for me to hear, too. I threw up at the police station when they told me all of that stuff. I always knew he was crazy, but to hear that you are a primary target, and a hitman is after you, it’s devastating.”
“I’m sorry, Mama,” Charlotte said. “I can’t imagine how you must have felt.”
“You’ll understand someday, Charlotte, when you have children of your own. Your dad and I would die to protect you.” Rog rubbed her back, and she leaned her head against his shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Mama. I just can’t stand the thought of you being hurt, and that bastard…” Chris’ voice drifted off.
“Well, I will tell you that Nick… Alexis, whoever… he was sentenced to death, and your dad and I witnessed it. I hope I never have to watch something like that again, but it was closure for me. I have made peace with it.”
“We are all safe, and this nightmare is finally over,” Rog added, reaching to pat Chris on the shoulder. That is what we wanted you to take away from this, Chris… Charlotte. Not anger, not dread or fear. But peace. Security.”
Bella spoke. “What I want you to take away from this, both of you. Choose who you date very very carefully. Don’t rush into anything, and take your time and get to know that person before you commit your heart. If I would have followed my Daddy’s advice, we might not be sitting here discussing this right now.” Bella sighed. “Come here, you two.” They both got up and hugged Bella, and she kissed their foreheads. “I love you both, so very much.”
“I love you too, Mama,” said Charlotte, now weeping.
“Me too, Mama,” Chris concurred.
About six months after Estevan’s death, Bella’s phone rang, the Caller ID was from Pleasantview.
“Hello?” Bella answered.
“Bella!” said the voice on the other end. “This is Eliza from Pleasantview Publishers. First, I want to congratulate you on your recent legal victory. The news has been far-reaching and I know consequential for you.”
“Thank you, Eliza. But I don’t understand the purpose of your call. I’m sure you didn’t call just to congratulate me.”
“You are very astute, Bella. We are interested in renewing the contract to publish Destiny’s Art. With your problems solved, we thought maybe we could move forward on this book deal, and make you famous throughout all of Simville.” She shuffled papers, reviewing the original terms of the book. “We would be willing to double your past offer, and pay royalties for 10 years instead of the original 5 years.”
“Wow, Eliza. This is a lot to process, but I don’t want to make a decision on this until I’ve had a chance to discuss it with my husband and family. The last time, I acted selfishly and paid a huge price. I don’t wish to make that same mistake this time.”
“I totally understand. Look, why don’t I put the new contract in the mail. Have your attorney look it over, and get back to us. No hurry.”
“Sounds good, thank you, Eliza.” Bella was guardedly happy. “I’ll be in touch.”
Rog came home from work before Charlotte, so they did not carpool together that morning. He was dirty and tired, and not in the best mood. But Bella had this news and she really wanted Rog’s honest opinion. This time, she would put her family’s interests first, and not think of her own.
He sat at the dining room and finished up paperwork he should have finished in his office, and rubbed his temples with his thumb. Bella walked up behind him and massaged his neck and back, and kissing him, hoping to relieve the tension.
“Hmm, darling,” he purred. “That feels incredible.”
“Come sit with me in the living room. I’ll even rub your feet.” She kissed the top of his head.
“Shoulder massage, foot rub, what’s going on, Bella?” he asked, suddenly suspicious.
“You know me too well,” she replied as she sighed. “Come sit anyway, and you still get the foot rub.”
He got up from the chair and they went together into the living room. He sat sprawled on the sofa, his achy, tired feet in her lap as she massaged them with capable hands. “So, what’s on your mind, darling?” he asked.
“I got a phone call today from Eliza at the publisher. I guess our good news has made the circuit. Anyway, they want to renew the contract for my book, Rog. I told Eliza I wasn’t making any decisions until we had a chance to talk, but I don’t think I’m going to do it.”
He sat forward, looking concerned. “Why not? There is nothing to hold you back now.”
“My first knee-jerk reaction was to say no thank you. I mean, I think the book is wonderful, and considering all of the time, love and energy I poured into it…” her words trailed off. If her book wasn’t released, then literally anyone else could pick up the offer, and they probably wouldn’t do as thorough a job as she did. “I wouldn’t want Mama and Daddy to be portrayed dishonestly.”
“That’s exactly why you should do it, Bell. Because it’s already written, you know exactly what is in it, and you’re not getting any younger, either. Neither of us is, darling.” His hair was already peppered with white, and Bella’s vain attempts to keep hers a flaming red were beginning to prove futile. In a few short years, they would be retirement age, and hopefully grandparents.
“Well, we can discuss with Sarah when the new contract comes. I trust her because Jen does.” The book and contract that accompanied had some pretty horrible memories attached to it, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to reopen old wounds for a little money they didn’t need.
“That sounds good, but Bella, darling. Please consider it. Think of all the good it will do in keeping their memory alive and well, for the next generation. For her fans. For our family.” She finished her foot rub and he pulled her to him, kissing her. “I love you so much.”
“Mmm, I love you too, babe.”
Charlotte and Chris got home from work around the same time, and when they sat down for dinner, Bella brought up the book.
“Are you out of your mind, Mama?” Chris asked. “After all the trouble that brought last time…”
Rog cut him off. “Chris, all of the trouble is gone. Estevan is gone. Alexis is gone. Her name is cleared and the book is written.”
“I think you should do it, Mama,” Charlotte encouraged. “Nana and Pop-Pop would want you to.” Bella knew Charlotte was right, too. They would have encouraged her, as long as the family would be safe.
“So it’s two votes for yes, and one emphatic no from Chris. My vote was originally no, too.” Bella twirled her hair around her finger. We don’t have a tie-breaker.”
“How about Jen?” Chris suggested. “Give her a call.”
“I’ll call her tomorrow. I want to see the contract before I seriously consider it. I just wanted your feedback. I’m still leaning toward no.”
Rog helped Bella clean up dinner dishes. “I really think you should give more thought to the book, baby. You have nothing to lose on it.”
“For someone who was so adamantly against the first attempt, your enthusiasm is confusing.” She hugged him and put her head on his chest. “I don’t want to do the wrong thing. I still don’t trust.”
“I get that.” Rog kissed her. “Well, your plan is good. Wait for the contract, then we can make a decision.”
“I can make another decision right now, though,” she said, taking his hand and leading him upstairs.
Charlotte and Chris had gone back to Sim State to visit friends for the weekend, and Bella put the finishing touches on her latest romance novel, compiled the file and emailed it to her publisher. Hopefully, she thought, this one will be the breakthrough bestseller I’ve been waiting for. Jen’s lawyer, Sarah, didn’t like the terms in the small print for the biography and advised against signing. Although Eliza made the offer sound appealing, Bella would have lost a considerable amount of money in the long run. Sarah also demanded they return the manuscript to Bella, as they hadn’t advanced her any monetary payment for it, nor had they given her any payments in kind. The book was 100% Bella’s property, and when they were threatened with legal action, they surrendered the manuscript without incident.
Chris’ phone number came through the Caller ID. “Hey Chris honey,” Bella greeted him. “What’s on your mind? How’s it going with Cade?”
“Mama,” he said, “She wants to come back with me. She has no life here, and I can’t stand the thought of her staying where she won’t flourish.”
Bella wasn’t surprised to hear his request. Rog had thought this would be the end result of their trip. “I don’t have a problem with her coming back here, sweetie pie. We can fix up the loft for her.”
“Until we get our own place,” Chris added. “Mama, she’s so different. I love her.”
“I’m not surprised, son,” she answered. “We’ll see you all tomorrow night. Travel safely, Chris.”
She looked at Rog. “He’s bringing Cade home.”
He smiled. “I knew that boy was in love. He was far too sassy, too over the top.”
Bella nodded. “I can’t wait to meet her.”
The next evening, Bella and Rog fully expected to see four of them walk through the door, but Travis couldn’t leave school until his degree was finished. But both of them came home with renewed purpose and crazy blissful. They were so happy to meet Cade and loved her instantly. She got herself a part-time job waiting tables at the Flying V Coffeehouse, even though Chris told her she didn’t have to. At the tender age of eighteen, he was already wise and responsible beyond his years, with a good job earning a decent salary. Cade adored him, that much was apparent, and he lavished his love and attention on her when he wasn’t working to support them.
Bella took Cade shopping in the city shortly after she arrived. She came to Starlight Shores nearly penniless, with just a few personal items, and the clothes on her back. Luckily, she and Charlotte were close to the same size, but she really did need clothes of her own. So Bella took Cade for lunch and hit the boutiques on the strip, getting her everything she needed, including some pampering at the spa. They bonded over nails, hair, and clothing, and Bella couldn’t adore her anymore if Cade was her own daughter. And she guessed she probably would be soon enough if Chris had his way.
Bella took the old ring from the chest and looked at it. She had long ago stopped wearing Destiny’s diamond engagement ring when Rog had given her the anniversary band. Now, it sat in her jewelry chest, unworn and seemingly unloved. She opened the clamshell box, and put the diamond and Destiny’s gold band into it, and slid them into her purse. “Cade, I’ll be back in a while, honey” she yelled to her, and Bella left.
“Hello Mrs. St John!” the clerk greeted her. “How can I help you today?” Bella reached into her purse and retrieved the diamond wedding set.
“I need to pick out a new, more contemporary setting for this stone,” she said, pulling out the 2-carat diamond ring. The clerk had never seen such a large diamond in this condition. “I’m giving it to my son, to give to his girlfriend.”
“How exciting!” the clerk beamed. “Here, any of these bands would fit a stone of this size and clarity. This one in particular, though, will make the colors look like it’s on fire.” She pulled out a setting with diamond chips on either side of the solitaire. “This ring here has the same setting.” She pulled out a ring with a much smaller center stone, but Bella saw the difference in the fire of the stone immediately.
“That is the one, my dear.” She handed the ring to the clerk, who set the order up and gave her a claim check. “On this band, we’re just going to polish it up. Make it look new. “
“Absolutely, Bella. Both rings should be done in two weeks, but I’m thinking because you’re such a great customer, he’ll have it done closer to one.” She winked at Bella. “We don’t want to keep that beautiful, young, lucky lady waiting longer than she has to.”
“Chris doesn’t know I’m doing this. This was my mother’s wedding set.” Bella wiped a tear from her eye. “I can’t wait to see the look on her face. She’s such a lovely young lady, and Chris adores her.”
“You can’t ask for more than that, Bella.” She smiled.
“Thanks again, and call me when it’s done.” Bella waved and left the store.
A few days later, Bella’s phone rang. “This is Cheryl at the jewelry store. Your rings are ready, Mrs. St John.”
Cade was working the lunch/dinner shift at the coffeehouse and was scheduled to work a show in the early evening. Taking the opportunity to get out of the house, Bella drove to the store to pick up the bands. Three thousand simoleons later, and the rings were back in her possession. She admired the diamond’s setting and thought Destiny’s diamond never looked more beautiful.
When Rog returned home from work, she pulled him into the bedroom. “Rog!” she whispered loudly. “I need you.” He raised his eyebrow and followed her upstairs.
He closed the bedroom door behind him, locking it, a romantic aura in the air, when Bella looked at him oddly. “No, I don’t need you that way, silly.” She giggled at his dejected look. “Okay, but later. First…” she opened up the ring box and showed off the set.
“Isn’t the anniversary band good enough for you?” He looked a little hurt.
“This isn’t for me, Rog,” she said, faking exasperation. “I am giving this to Chris, to give to Cade.” He took the ring from the box and slid it on to his pinky finger.
“Wow, you did a great job picking this out for her.”
“The only part that’s new is the setting. The diamond was Mama’s.”
“I thought that looked kinda familiar. You sure giving her a 2-carat ring is wise?”
“Have you been living in this house, Rog? Don’t you see how they look at each other?” Bella smiled. “They look a lot like us, babe, hopefully without the physical part yet.”
“I know, but she’s…”
“What? From a poor family? I know. Not sure what that has to do with anything, but your son loves her.” Bella was giddy with excitement. “I can’t wait to see his face when he sees this.”
About an hour later, Chris poked his head into the master bedroom, always with his eyes closed. He didn’t want to see anything he couldn’t unsee, so until he knew he was clear, that was always his strategy.
“Come in, silly boy,” Bella said, patting the bed next to her. Rog was sitting on the floor, not worried about how he would get up.
“Chris, I know it’s inevitable that you will end up marrying Cade.” She took the ring and placed it in his hand, closing his fingers around it. “I want you to give this to her.” He looked at the ring, stunned.
“Mama, this is so extravagant.” He studied it, recognizing the large stone she used to wear for years. “Are you sure about this?”
“Of course I am, Chris. This was your Nana’s ring, by the way. I had the stone set into a prettier band. You can also have Nana’s wedding band when you need it. I’m guessing things will move quickly once you’re engaged. It’s all ready, too,” she said, with the ring on her own finger.
He hugged her and took the diamond ring. “She’ll be home soon!”
Cade came through the door at 7pm, tired and sore. She had been on her feet since 11am, and she couldn’t wait to sit. Bella, Rog, and Charlotte were sitting in the living room, awaiting her return from work. Chris descended the stairs, dressed better than casually. Cade looked around at everyone and felt uneasy.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Absolutely everything,” Chris said, his eyes sparkling. He always felt amazing when she was around. “I know that we always assumed we would get married. Why don’t we make it official?” He knelt on one knee, and opened the ring box, revealing the huge diamond that Arthur had given to Destiny years ago.
“Oh Chris,” she said, starting to cry.
“Cady, would you marry me?” He slipped the ring on her finger and stood up.
“YES!” she squealed. “Yes, I would love to marry you!” She was openly crying, and Charlotte had a video call with Travis in the background, so he could watch. Cade and Chris embraced and kissed.
Bella cried, and Rog held her. “Okay,” Rog said, “Let’s give the lovebirds some space.”
Bella turned and kissed Rog. “I’m so happy, my love.”
“Me too, darling,” he replied. “Me too.”
Up Next: Chapter Eighteen, Generation Three