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Sealed With a Kiss

Chapter 33

"Surely, it will be fine. It's got to be. Just fine. Yes," I stammered as my head peeked out from behind the curtain. My wide eyes stared out at the growing crowd in the auditorium. I tapped my hand nervously against my thigh as I ran the steps for the opening number through my head. Lord knew I didn't need to run through them anymore but at this stage, it had become second nature to picture my castmates' every movement in my head. It almost made me wonder what in the world my brain would do once I no longer had a reason to subject myself to such torture.

"By God, I think she's nervous. I never thought I'd see the day," Jodie exclaimed, a hand against her mouth in fake shock.

As my eyes shot back to my best friend, I noticed Parker eyeing me behind her shoulder. His hair was slicked back with gel and his face was freshly shaven. The departure of his five o'clock shadow made me blink a few times - I was having a hard time processing his new image. He shook his head in awe. "Kendra Lachen doesn't get nervous. She's our rock. She keeps us in line. What the hell have you done to your best friend, Jodie?"

Jodie snapped her head around her shoulder to give him a look. "I did nothing. She broke all on her own."

"I think it's because of all the times you stepped on my feet." Parker nodded sadly. "She's envisioning you doing it in front of everyone."

Jodie reached back to sock him on the arm and stick her tongue out at him. "Just for that, I'm going to."

"Kinky. Kind of." Parker smirked as he rubbed his arm, pretending that her fist hurt more than it actually did.

Refusing to be further distracted, I returned to peeking out at the audience. "How long do we have? When are we starting?"

"Just another five minutes, Sunshine. Then your nightmare will be reality," Parker responded and quickly dodged another fist flying in the air toward his body. He smirked as he slinked away backstage. "You'll miss me."

"Bloody hell I will!" Jodie called after him. With a chuckle, she pulled back the curtain a bit further so that she could look out with me. After a moment of looking out at the crowd, she placed a hand on my shoulder. "Seriously, slut, it'll be great. Stop worrying so much."

As my foot started tapping in unison with the palm against my leg, I felt my breath catch as my eyes fell on the vision walking through the auditorium door. Just as quickly, a soft sigh escaped my chest as her eyes looked at the stage and met mine. A wide smile spread across Bree's lips as she waved her hand in my direction. I couldn't help but smile widely in return, pulling the curtain back just a bit further to wave like a lunatic in response. An amused smirk settled onto her lips as she nodded my way then turned to search for a seat. I watched in surprise as each of her friends filed in through the doorway and followed her.

"Huh, I didn't realize they were coming." Jodie's voice knocked me out of my own thoughts. I'd almost forgotten she was still there.

"I didn't either," I agreed. "Maybe they liked us more than they let on."

"How could they not?" Jodie waved an arm wildly in the air around herself. "No one dislikes this."

My eyebrow raised as I evaluated Jodie all dressed up in her character's outfit with her hair pulled up tight into a bun. Her hands however were waving around the part of her shirt that was torn, exposing her naked midrift. I had to laugh a little. "What was I thinking? Of course not. Especially that milky white goodness."

"Damn right." Jodie nodded firmly before looking at them in amusement. "That or Bree threatened their lives if they didn't."

I smirked. "That sounds more likely."

I continued to watch Bree as they sat down and talked amongst themselves and I could feel Jodie's eyes on me. I finally pulled back and glanced in her direction. "What?"

A soft smile settled across her lips. "Well, we definitely know who can calm you down when you're acting like a freak."

Although I couldn't help but grin, I acted like I was insulted. "You're a freak."

"Mm hmm." With a smirk and a pat on my butt, Jodie turned and headed backstage as well.

Once again pulling the curtain back, my eyes once again settled on the auditorium door while occasionally glancing at the clock hung on the back wall. There were only a couple of minutes left until I needed to be in place on stage. I felt the anxiety begin to build as I glanced back and forth between my castmates assuming their positions and the door to the auditorium.

Not a moment too late, I saw my brother enter. I felt myself stop breathing as I waited to see if my mother was with him. Seconds later, she walked through the door, holding Kaylie in her arms. Another sigh escaped as I felt relief flood through my chest and release the tension that had been building in my shoulders. I watched as they grabbed a few seats near the back in case one of them needed to take Kaylie out.

Completely content, I smiled happily and quickly headed to my spot on stage without a moment to spare. After all of the hours of preparation, bruised knees and bloodied toenails, I couldn't contain my excitement - I was ready and eager for the curtains to open and for the audience to see everything we'd been working so hard on for months. And as the curtain finally came up, I quickly placed my arms in the first pose of the opening number and felt a large smile fill my face as I heard the downbeat of the first note.

I was fairly certain that Jodie purposely stepped on Parker's toes a few times. There was a certain evil glint in her eyes that was there and then gone so quickly that only a best friend would have noticed it. To Parker's credit, the slightest of smirks raised up his lips before he slipped back into character. Overall, the two of them were dynamite on stage. It was as if the weeks of rehearsing suddenly culminated all in this one moment, turning their chemistry electric. Even I believed they were in love as I watched them, which was saying something. Flirting and a lustful undertone was one thing but appearing in love with one another was an entirely different thing.

The few times I was on stage, it was certainly not to sing. I danced in the background and supported those who did have the voice to be front and center. I even had a few lines but I knew that my pride wasn't centered around my own performance - no, it was all tied up into how I'd helped create these scenes. I'd taught them to dance - some more than others. I'd choreographed these numbers. I was essentially Mrs. Schwartz's right-hand woman and had helped her pull this off. That in and of itself was something that I was extremely proud of, especially as I watched all those hours of hard work develop into something beautiful right in front of my eyes.

The pride must have illuminated my eyes. Whenever they locked onto Bree, my mom or Phillip, each would give me the biggest smile. Or in Phillip's case, two thumbs up and a goofy grin. It was as if they could feel how I felt and were just as proud of me.

As we performed the closing number, I could not remember a time when I had been that happy… or that sad as I realized that my father was not there to see just how happy I was. Looking out into the audience and not seeing his face smiling back at me tore into me in a way that was indescribable. Despite the reality of the situation crashing around me, I refused to allow the sadness to rob me of the happiness I was feeling at that moment. Purposely pushing it aside, I grabbed hold of the excitement and the sense of accomplishment I felt as we belted out the final bars of the song. I even sang a little louder than normal - I figured the good voices would cover up my foghorn and that I should allow myself to sing to my heart's content for just a moment. To get caught up in everything for once.

The applause that erupted brought a surge of joy through my heart. As we started taking our bows, I felt a tear or two come to my eyes as I looked out at the standing ovation. When it was my turn to bow, I listened with glee at the whistles coming from a certain section of the auditorium. I kind of zoned out after that, caught up in the song playing for us in the background. It wasn't until Mrs. Schwartz and Jodie literally dragged me from my spot to the front of the stage that I realized Mrs. Schwartz wanted me up there with her for her final bow. She yelled out, "Our choreographer, Kendra Lachen!" To my surprise, the applause thickened. A shade of red rose up my cheeks and for once, it wasn't Bree illicitating it. Yet it was still just as wonderful and I allowed myself to soak it all in with one final bow.

As we dispersed from the stage and filtered out into the audience, I found myself pushing my way to the back of the auditorium to find my family. As I reached my mother, I threw myself at her and gave her the biggest hug I could muster. She laughed and squeezed me in return. As she left a kiss on my shoulder, she whispered into my ear, "Your dad would be so proud. I'm so proud."

My eyes squeezed shut for a moment at her comment about my dad; however, I tried my best to push aside those feelings once again. I pulled slightly back to look at the smile on her face which was unmatched and how her eyes revealed just how proud she was of me. It made me melt somewhere deep down and I honestly wanted to revel in that feeling more than I cared to admit. I smiled warmly. "Thank you. I'm so happy you came."

She winked. "I told you I would."

"Keidrie!" Kaylie exclaimed from Phillip's arms, holding out her little baby hands. She flexed them open and closed over and over again, expressing how badly she wanted to be in my arms.

I laughed and swept her up into my arms, quickly planting little kisses all up and down her face as she squealed in return. "There's my girl! Did you like the show, Baby Girl?"

In response, Kaylie started singing in some special baby language and dancing with her arms waving slowly up above her head.

I laughed again. "I'll take that as a 'yes.'"

"She loved it," my mother volunteered. "She would squeal every single time she saw you on stage. She also kept pointing at Jodie and calling her JoJo."

Phillip leaned in in a conspiratorial manner. "We had to cover her mouth a few times."

My mom nodded and laughed. "I think Jodie heard her once because she looked out our way with a little grin. And then promptly went right back into character of course."

"Of course." I grinned at the image in my head.

"You really did do a good job, Ken," Phillip said wholeheartedly. He placed a hand on my shoulder. "I can't imagine how many more times Twinkle Toes would have stepped on Parker's feet without your help."

"Ha! You saw that, huh?" I smirked up at him.

He nodded with a grin. "Oh yeah. You better believe I was specifically watching for that after what you told me. I felt like I should have been playing a drinking game, taking a swig every time she stepped on his feet. One. Chug. Two. Chug."

"Oh, she would love it if she were a part of a drinking game. She would feel like she's arrived."

"We don't need Jodie to have any more of an ego than she already has," my mother remarked with a laugh.

"Amen to that," I agreed with a nod.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Bree waving at me a few rows away. Her friends had dispersed and were no longer with her. She was simply leaning against the back of one of the auditorium seats, waiting patiently for me to come to her.

I smiled at her before turning back to my family. "Um, Bree's waiting for me. Thank you again so much for coming; it really does mean a lot that you did. All of you. Even you, Little One." I smushed my nose up against Kaylie's and delighted at the giggle I received. I glanced at my mom. "I'll see you back at home?"

Phillip smirked. "Told ya, Ma. No celebratory dinner. Girl's got plaaaaaaans."

I glared at him and quickly poked him in his beer belly. "Shut it!" Then I turned toward my mom apologetically. "I'm sorry, Mom. Bree already asked if she could take me out after the performance and I said yes. Raincheck?"

"Absolutely, sweetie. You go have fun with your girl. We'll celebrate tomorrow after your last performance?"

I smiled. "You're going to come again?"

"We wouldn't miss it for the world." With a nod of her head, it was finalized.

"Then absolutely. Dinner tomorrow."

I took a moment to side-hug each of them before handing Kaylie over to my mom. "I love you guys."

"We love you too," my mom replied with a smile. With one more kiss against my temple, she shooed me in the direction of Bree. "Now, go!"

I laughed as I swatted a little at her hands. "Okay, okay!" Without any further convincing, I turned toward my girlfriend and paused for a moment as I took her in. She was still leaning against the back of the seat, her eyes steadily on me, a knowing smile resting casually on her lips. I was fairly certain she knew how much she still made me stop in my tracks and catch my breath. Without fail, she still threw me off-kilter. Taking in a shaky, excited breath, I made my way over to her as I kept my eyes locked on hers. "Hi."

"Hi, gorgeous," Bree replied, that knowing smile still resting on her lips.

I smiled shyly. "Did you like it?"

With a shrug, she grinned back at me. "I only already saw it fifty million times, buuuut… I loved it. You did such an awesome job. Both on stage and behind the scenes."

I wasn't quite sure where this shyness was coming from but it wasn't going anywhere. "Thanks," I replied as I hung my head a little. It didn't remain there for long as I felt fingertips raising my chin so that my eyes would meet hers again.

"I don't think I've ever seen you so happy," Bree said quietly. "It's really nice to see."

Another shy smile tugged at the corners of my mouth. "It's been a long time. Only you've managed to make me truly happy these days." I glanced in the direction of where my family was exiting the auditorium. "All the people I love were in the same-" I quickly halted in what I was saying as I realized that wasn't entirely true.

A touch upon my wrist made me turn back to Bree. "You don't have to say it. I know."

My eyebrows furrowed as I studied her face. The look she was giving told me she did indeed know where my mind had wandered. Once again, I tried my best to push it aside because it didn't fit with where I wanted my mood to be. I shrugged a little in response. "You ready to go?"

Bree evaluated me for a moment as if she were trying to decide whether to push the issue or let it go. With a slight nod to herself and possibly to me as well, she picked up her purse. "Let's do this."

As I entered the aisle, I glanced back at her quickly. "I need to go grab my stuff from the back and then I'll meet you out front?"

Bree nodded. "Sounds good."

I paused and turned to her, curiosity getting the better of me. "Where are we going?"

A laugh met my curiosity. "Oh hell no, this is a surprise."

I pouted and whined a little. "Baaaaabe, you know how I feel about surprises!"

She reached out to tap my lower lip and laughed. "And you didn't die last time when you weren't informed. I think you will be okay."

I managed to pout my lip out even more. "This is bullshit."

With another laugh, she forcibly turned me in the direction of the stage and gave me a smack on the butt. "Get moving, woman. I got plans!"

I reached down to rub my bum a bit and gave her another pout before heading backstage to get my belongings. Although I tried to hurry, I couldn't help but stop and give Jodie and Parker each a hug and congratulate them on a great performance. From the arm around Jodie's shoulders and the closeness between the two, I wondered if Parker was going to follow through with his promise and make a move on my best friend. In true Jodie fashion, she tried to get me to go out with them but I refused. When she knew Bree was the reason for my refusal, she of course tried to invite us both. When I told her that Bree would kill me as she had "plans," Jodie gave up and simply nodded. With another hug and kiss, I left them behind and headed outside to find Bree.

When my eyes landed on her, she was leaning against the brick wall and her gaze was already on me. Who knew how long she had been watching me. As I approached her, she pulled me in by the waist and gave me a soft, lingering kiss. When I pulled back, I smiled a little. "What was that for?"

She shrugged a little. "Just for being you." With a smile, she entwined her fingers with me. "Come on." With a tug of my arm, she led me out to her car. Despite my continued attempts to get her to tell me where we were going, she would not budge. While normally I would have pouted the whole way to our destination, I couldn't find it in me to do so this time. I smiled and rolled the window down to feel the wind in my hair. I didn't need to know where we were going - I was happy to be with my girlfriend and to have had such a great night. That was simply enough.

"Back to the beginning, huh?"

Bree glanced at me to see that I was grinning at her with a raised eyebrow. She smiled a little and shrugged. "I thought it might be nice to return to the scene of the crime."

"Crime indeed. This tree jacked up my ankle for days."

"I think it has a different point of view on how things went that night." She smirked as she spread out a blanket at the bottom of our tree.

I grinned and shook my head. Crossing my arms over my chest, I turned my gaze up toward the limb where we had our first kiss. As soon as Bree had turned down the dirt road toward the forest, I had a pretty good idea of where she was taking me. Why she had an obsession with going to this place in the middle of the night so that we could be murdered, no one knew. Alas, here we were once again - back where it all started. Something about it felt right. Especially tonight. I just had to hope she wasn't planning on taking me back up that tree.

"It was a great kiss, wasn't it?"

I returned my gaze to Bree to find her watching me. It was in that moment that I realized she had somehow managed to set up the picnic while I was in la-la-land remembering that night. There were plates resting on the blanket, sandwiches placed on top of them with some nacho cheese chips spread out in the empty space. A couple of soda cans were next to the plates and lastly, there was a bowl of strawberries sitting in the center. My eyes returned to her and I tried to express my appreciation with one look before nodding. "Yes. Honestly, I don't think I knew how amazing a kiss could be until that night." I took a few steps over to the blanket and sat down on the spot opposite Bree. "You still manage to take my breath away, Crystal."

"That's my goal, Lachen - to keep showing you how it's supposed to be." With a smile, Bree picked up her sandwich and took a bite. "Eat up. I know you're hungry."

With a relieved grin, I quickly picked up the sandwich and took a bigger bite than I should have. God, I was so hungry; performing always made me starve. After getting a few bites into me and taking a long drink of soda, I made sure I swallowed everything down before trying to talk again. "Thank you for this. This is honestly perfect."

"You're welcome. It'd been awhile since we'd been here and the last time was-" she paused, trying to find the right words, "-difficult. So I wanted to give you another happy memory."

I watched her face as it expressed her discomfort at realizing the last time we'd been here was when I'd been grieving the loss of my former life. I reached across the blanket to gently touch her hand. "Whether it was hard or not doesn't matter. They're our memories. I don't regret a single one of them."

"I sometimes wish this could have been easier for you," Bree lamented.

I smiled a little. "Me too. But honestly, things were hard before you came along. You just happened to join the ride."

Bree nodded as she finished another bite of her sandwich. "I'm glad I could help you through that. I got the feeling you probably hadn't really dealt with- well, your dad's death."

I shook my head as I remembered the state my mom had been in during that time as well as how demanding it had been taking care of Kaylie in her place. "Honestly, there was no time. Someone had to be strong and that someone was me." I paused, wondering if I wanted to dive into all of this considering how I'd been trying to push it away all evening. However, the longer it lingered untouched, the heavier it grew in my chest. I knew how this went and I knew if I didn't confront it, it was only going to get worse. Closing my eyes, I let out a sigh. "I'm tired of being strong though. I don't want to be that anymore."

"You're a different kind of strong now, Kendra," she said softly.

I opened my eyes and looked at her curiously. "Am I though? Tonight I've been running from what I'm feeling just because I refuse to let anything trample on my wave of happy."

A knowing look stared back at me. "Running from it? That's what you call this conversation? Hardly." She placed her sandwich down and re-positioned herself on the blanket before looking at me intently. "So let's do this. Talk to me."

While a part of me was a little annoyed at her readiness to talk about whatever was in my heart, the other part of me was relieved. Taking in a deep breath, I nodded. "I guess I just didn't realize that even the happy moments could be sad, you know? I thought okay, I dealt with my grief, I'm past that… but tonight, I got blindsided - I was thrown right back into that grief headfirst." I paused for a moment as I tried to find the words. Thankfully, Bree allowed the silence between us. "The knowledge that I could be happy and proud of something all while knowing that my dad would never get to experience it with me? It about ripped me in two. I mean, why couldn't I just be happy?" My eyes showed the desperation I felt as tears threatened to slide out of them.

"It makes complete sense that you're sad." Bree paused, then reached out and put her hand over mine. "Grief is an ever-evolving beast, Kendra. Unfortunately, I think any future happiness will be tinged with a bit of regret and sadness. Because he can't be there to see what you're doing, or feel your joy, or just be there with you."

I nodded as I swallowed down the lump in my throat, somehow managing to keep the tears from spilling from my eyes. Something about what Bree was saying gnawed at me. I'd thought my grief was done. I'd thought I'd handled it, I'd swallowed it whole and I wouldn't have to deal with it anymore. I'd always realized I might get sad when I'm supposed to - Father's Day, my dad's birthday, things like that - but I never once thought that it would creep into my happiness.

As I sat there pondering Bree's words, it dawned on me that my happiness would forever be bittersweet. Relationships, accomplishments, milestones such as my wedding or having children - all of it would never quite be the same again. Things that should be beautiful and happy would somehow also be heartbreaking.

Swallowing once again, I raised my eyes to Bree as I entwined my fingers with hers. I ran my thumb along the back of her hand, realizing that even my relationship with her was bittersweet. A quiet voice escaped from my chest. "I really wish he could have met you."

A gentle smile rose up Bree's lips as she squeezed my hand. "I really wish I could have met him too. He sounds like an awesome dad."

I nodded with a smile. "I have this feeling he would have been one of our biggest supporters."

"Makes me like him even more," Bree replied with a wink.

I grinned. "You would have loved him. He's kind of like Phillip. Just older."

"And who could possibly not like that nerd?" Bree laughed.

"Exactly!" I laughed with her and then paused to give her hand a squeeze. "Thank you. For giving me a place to be."

"That's what I'm here for," Bree replied with a smile. She picked up a strawberry from the bowl and held it up enticingly. She casually waved it back and forth as she wiggled her eyebrows. "Now for some dessert."

I laughed again. "We haven't even finished dinner yet!"

"Duh." She grinned with a widening of her eyes. "You're supposed to eat your dessert before you finish dinner."

"Oh really? I must have been crazy following normal protocol," I replied mockingly.

"You said it - not me."

With a laugh, I reached out to try to grab the strawberry from her hand but she was too quick for me, easily keeping it out of my reach. A teasing grin spread across her face as she pushed the plates aside and slid her body across the blanket. She dragged the strawberry down the curve of my neck. I could feel the juice begin to drip but Bree was quicker than it, easily capturing it with her tongue as she moved her way up my neck. She leaned back to give me another wiggle of her eyebrows. "You taste good."

I smirked. "It couldn't possibly be the strawberry juice helping with that."

"Not at all." Bree smirked and held the strawberry in front of my lips. "Want a bite?"

I eyed her suspiciously but her hand held steady in front of me. I gingerly leaned forward to take a bite of the strawberry and made a sound of approval as I pulled back. "Mmm, that is really good."

"Told you." Bree grinned as she brought the other half of the strawberry to her mouth and took a bite herself. "Very juicy."

I had to laugh. "God, this feels like some horrible, late-night, softcore porn on Showtime."

Bree held up a finger. "Don't knock it."

I laughed even further. "You're so fucking cute."

"Damn right," Bree agreed, quickly moving in to wrap an arm around my waist and pull me closer to her. With a nuzzle of her nose against mine, I grinned until her lips captured mine. I felt a burst of emotion course through my chest as I brought my hands up to each side of her face.

As our dinner was quickly forgotten and pushed aside, Bree proved that skipping straight to dessert was preferable. She continued to feed me strawberries and even pulled out some angel food cake from her basket to entice me with. But really, the best part of the date was how Bree found ways to make strawberries and angel food cake all kinds of exciting. I think the reason I found them so amazing was because I was caught up in her arms and kisses as she'd sneak a strawberry in. Either way, the time just slipped away and we couldn't believe it when it was time to head home. I wished I could stay in that forest with her for the rest of the night, just wrapped up in the blanket together. However as the hours passed, we gathered together our picnic and headed back to the car, hand-in-hand.

As we did so, I felt a bit of the bittersweet settle into my chest. It really did break my heart to know that my father would never know this woman and that she would not get the chance to know him. He made me into who I was and it only seemed right that she would get to know that person as well. But what it really boiled down to was how hard it was knowing that I would never see them laugh together, never see Bree delight in his ridiculous humor or see him enjoy Bree's confidence. I would be denied that joy and so would she.

But I wouldn't be denied the joy of experiencing life with her. I would get the chance to spend these moments with her, to dive deeper into this thing called love and to see where it would take us. That alone warmed me even when the bitter settled in. I had to believe somewhere, somehow he could see us and see how happy she made me.

Maybe someday the bittersweet would get less bitter and more sweet. I had to believe that would be true.