Forgive my crack!

A Partridge in a Pear Tree

"This is ridiculous."

Shelby tightened her grasp on her purse strap, pivoted on the kitten heel of her brand new strappy sandals, and walked away from Andrew. The staccato of her heels on the sidewalk was drowned out by the crowd of onlookers and photographers. As she'd half-expected him to follow her, she wasn't surprised when a long-fingered hand wrapped around her bicep.

"Shel, wait."

She stopped but did not turn around. Andrew's dimples were known to reduce women to a puddle of gooey hormones, and she was just as susceptible as the next female with a working reproductive system. Because of those damned dimples she'd done his calculus homework in high school, lied to his parents when he'd wrecked his car in college, and helped break the hearts of his overzealous admirers.

"I was on a date, Drew. An honest-to-goodness date with linen napkins, candles, and a menu in a language I don't understand. I was with a guy who hadn't tried to impress me by quoting football stats and wasn't waving a script around trying to get to you through me. A guy who thought I was funny and cute and smart." Shelby blinked back a rush of angry tears. She would not cry because of stupid Andrew Morrison. She was absolutely through with him. "When you texted me about an emergency, I expected to find you in the hospital or on the floor in your bathroom or something. I didn't think you'd drag me out here for… for this!"

"But Shelby," Andrew said, charm dripping from his voice and blue eyes twinkling. He would have called her no matter what she'd been doing; he didn't feel the least bit guilty for ruining her date. She had him; why did she need a boyfriend, anyway? "How could I let my best friend miss seeing such a sight?"

"It's a sixty-year-old former teen idol stuck in a fruit tree," she pointed out through gritted teeth.

"It's David Cassidy," he corrected with a grin.

She spun around, jabbed a finger in his chest. Her lips were thin and her eyes were dark with anger. "Don't you dare say it, Andrew. I swear I'll knock your teeth out right here and now if you do."

"It's a Partridge in a pear tree!" The grin slid off his face. He tried to reach for her but she slipped out of his grasp. Something like fear gnawed at his belly. She'd never walked away from him in anger before. "Oh, come on, Shel. Where's your sense of humor? Don't be mad. I'll buy you dinner. Come on! Shelby!"

Two Turtle Doves

Andrew followed the pretty redheaded assistant to the rear of the gallery. Under normal circumstances, his eyes would have lingered on the sway of the assistant's curvy hips, but his attention was drawn to the obviously exhausted woman slumped in a thousand dollar ergonomic office chair. He missed the redhead's collagen-enhanced pout when he didn't take the proffered business card and completely disregarded her huff of displeasure as she stalked out of the room.

He shoved his hands in the pockets of his pants and studied his best friend carefully. Though not as vain as other women of his acquaintance, it was rare for her to go out in public looking anything less than immaculate. The thin blonde with disheveled hair, wrinkled lilac shirt, and shadowed eyes was still the Shelby Pastor he knew and loved; she was just the Shelby from ten years earlier. Nostalgia settled over his shoulders like an iron cloak. He missed that Shelby and the goofball, carefree guy he'd been then.

"You missed our dinner."

Shelby jerked upright. Her eyes flew to Andrew's face. She glanced at the clock, winced. "I am so, so sorry Drew. I completely forgot."

He shrugged a shoulder. He'd certainly blown her off often enough for her to have a free pass or twenty. "We'll grab a bite at the café across the street. What are you doing here, though? I thought your mother had taken you off gallery duty after what happened with Mrs. Breghton last fall."

"She had a problem and she called me."

"Naturally." Disdain for the diva-ish Melody Pastor dripped off his tongue. His long strides swallowed the distance between them. Strong fingers eagerly went to work on Shelby's tight neck and back muscles. His hands slipped under the collar of her shirt. He pointedly ignored how warm and silken her skin felt against his. She was his best friend. Nothing more.

"Oh, Andrew, it's such a mess," she groaned, head falling forward as the stress of the day melted away. "God, your fingers are magic."

He smirked. "I know." When his fingers slowly caressed the thin satin strap of her bra, he pulled away as if burned. What was wrong with him? This was Shelby! "So, what's wrong with the gallery? Tell Uncle Andy all about it."

"You are such a dork!"

"Yeah, but you love me."

She swallowed. Her eyelids fluttered shut. Her face turned still as stone. "Yeah."

Andrew nodded. A line had been drawn in their once-comfortable friendship, and he'd crossed it. Again. He sandwiched one of her hands between two of his and squeezed. "What's wrong, Shel?"

With her free hand, Shelby gestured towards two identical paintings leaning against the wall beside her. "Mom bought both paintings in the past month. I don't even know if either one is the real one or if they're both reproductions."

Andrew stared at the identical paintings of a beautiful young girl in a purple dress cradling a brown bird. With soft golden curls, wide, clear eyes, and pretty pink smile, the girl reminded him of Shelby. "It is a beautiful piece of art."

"Yeah," she agreed, "but what am I going to do with two copies of The Turtle Dove?"

Three French Hens

Her laughter, as always, drew him in. He stood in the doorway and watched her carefully follow the matronly French woman's instructions. Shelby's happiness was infectious. A slow smile crept across his face. Entire wars could be fought over the curve of her lips and the tinkling melody of her laughter.

"Andrew!" She turned to him, a streak of flour across her nose and oil coating her hands. "Don't just stand there, come and help!"

He ambled in the airy kitchen, kissed Madame Merillat on the cheek, and joined Shelby at the large wooden island. She smelled of earthy herbs, fresh berries, and sunshine. He wanted to bottle the scent up and carry it with him always so he'd never forget their spontaneous getaway. "What tempting treat are you ladies preparing for dinner?"

"Petit Poussin roasted with lemon, garlic, and rosemary potatoes and a strawberry tart." Her grin faded, she shuddered. "Maman made me clean all three birds by myself."

"What is a poussin, anyway?"

"Faverolles. Chickens. We're having three French hens for dinner." Shelby wrinkled her nose at the unintended pun and the memory of plucking the hens. "They were kinda cute, too. Maman says that a couple of boys down the street keep them as pets."

"Look at you, Shelby Porter," he teased, "eating some kid's pet for dinner."

"Jerk." She slapped his shoulder, smile slowly returning. Forgetting about her dirty hands, she pulled him into a tight hug. "Thank you for this, Drew. It's been amazing."

"Well, I did owe you dinner. I ruined your date, after all."

"I expected pizza or dinner at that new Indian place. I never dreamed about this. We're in France!"

Andrew felt himself approach that line in the sand and, for the first time in months, didn't care. They were far from nosy family members, persistent photographers, and the lives they'd carved out for themselves. They didn't have to remain pigeon-holed in roles that had long-since grown uncomfortable.

Heart bursting with adoration, he kissed her flushed cheeks, her forehead, the tip of her nose, and finally, her warm, pink lips. "Only the best for you, Shel. It's my new motto."

Giving into her inner tween and giggling giddily, Shelby rested her head against his chest and breathed in the woodsy scent of his cologne. When she'd dreamed of this moment, she'd pictured herself cool and elegant, but she couldn't find the energy to form a coherent thought. She closed her eyes, sighed happily, and said the only thing that came to mind.


Four Colly/Calling Birds

Andrew startled at the unexpected but melodious warble. He lifted one heavy arm off the soft grass and shielded his face from the setting evening sun before opening his eyes. He made out the blurred shapes of blackbirds on an overhead tree limb before letting his eyelids fall shut.

Rather than dropping his arm back to the grass, he gently caressed the blonde head nestled in the curve of his shoulder. He and Shelby had spent an hour watching puffy, cotton ball clouds float by before they'd been lulled to sleep by the crisp spring air and warm sunshine. Their week in France was quickly coming to an end; neither looked forward to returning to 'real life.'

As soon as he returned to California, he'd buried by meetings with his agent and a couple of directors, shooting a television pilot, reading through several dozen scripts, and making twenty publicity appearances. Being an actor had always been his dream, after astronaut and rock star, of course, but it had been a fairytale job back then. The reality of his profession was exhausting.

Most of his relationships had suffered from the strain. He only saw his parents every other month, though he made it a point to call his mother every Monday. He had few true, close friends, and he couldn't remember the last time he'd had a female companion who'd lasted for longer than three or four weeks.

His stomach knotted in fear; his heart thudded painfully against his chest. He didn't want to leave France. They didn't have to go home. He had more than enough money in his various savings accounts, and Shelby was fairly well-off. They could explore all of continental Europe, hop over to England and Ireland for several months, and then pick a spot on the map for their next destination. Though she had a truly impressive collection of shoes, he was fairly certain he could talk Shelby into living out of a suitcase.

He didn't want to lose her. He'd held onto her with a grip that bordered on desperation, and their friendship had remained strong over the decades. He didn't know what to do about them, though. He knew how to keep her close as a friend, but he had no idea how to keep her as his lover. God, he was going to make a mess of things and lose her completely. He just knew it.

"What'cha thinking?" Shelby shifted slightly, rubbed her cheek on the soft cotton of his shirt. The birds had roused her initially, but she'd been jolted to awareness by the thundering heart beneath her ear.

Andrew opened his eyes and stared at the birds still singing over his head. He couldn't share his fears with her; it would only taint their brand new relationship. "What kind of birds are those?"

"Blackbirds," she responded without looking up. "Turdus merula. Sacred in Greek folklore and used to symbolize resignation or vigilance."

He shuddered. Vigilance. A warning. He had to remain wary or else he'd lose Shelby. He offered up a fake smile when she finally rolled onto her back, kissed his cheek, and stare up at the tree.

"It's like the song." She grinned at the four blackbirds lines up on the limb.

"What song?"

"'The Twelve Days of Christmas.' You know, 'On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me: Four colly birds,' blah, blah, blah," she sang, slightly off-key as usual.

"You mean four calling birds. I suppose that any quartet of singing birds would do, though."

"No, I meant colly birds. It was another name for blackbirds way back when."




"Colly. Look, which of us has studied more history, hmm? Which of us spent an entire semester studying folk songs and nursery rhymes?"

Andrew chuckled and shut her up the best way he knew how. She melted against him with a giggle and a moan. 'Maybe,' he thought, 'just maybe we'll be okay.'

Five Gold(en) Rings

"You're an idiot."

Andrew hissed as sharp pain radiated from up his arm and down his spine. Through the film of moisture covering his eyes, he glared at the woman kneeling beside him. They weren't tears in his eyes. He wasn't crying. But if he had been sobbing his manly little heart out, he didn't think anyone would blame him. What Shelby was doing hurt.

"D'you mind, Shel? I'd like to be able to use my hand at some point in the future." He muttered a string of obscenities when she ignored him completely and tugged on his swollen appendage.

"You're an idiot," she repeated, brow furrowed and lips compressed as she tried to fix Andrew's latest mess.

"Yeah, I got the memo, thanks," he bit out.

"I'm going to have to use the lotion," she announced gravely, much to Andrew's consternation. "Stop pouting, you big baby. It's the only way this thing is coming off."

"But you have that girly lily-scented lotion. No matter how many times I wash up afterwards, I'm still going to smell like a floral garden."

"You should have thought of that before you did something so utterly moronic."

"Don't you have any baby oil?"

"No," she snapped, rising to her feet and grabbing her purse off the low, granite-topped table. With her elbow, she nudged a tall glass of ice water towards Andrew. "Stick your hand in that for a few minutes."

"The place is going to be crawling with reporters. One's going to take a whiff of me and bam! The Internet will be flooded with stories questioning my masculinity."

"I'm questioning it now," she murmured as she dug through her purse for a small bottle of lotion.

"Oh hell." He slammed his dry, un-iced hand on the table so hard water sloshed over the rim of the glass. "Twitter. It'll be all over Twitter. That's it. I'll be stuck playing the gay best friend or the metrosexual or the guy in drag for the rest of my career."

"Oh, I'll just anonymously tweet something about your death. The firestorm from that should overshadow any other rumors."

"Really?" He grinned at her goofily. "You'd do that for me?"

"'Course I would." She returned his grin and held up the bottle of lotion triumphantly. "Then again, I'm just as likely to actually kill you so…"

She patted his icy hand dry then slathered lily-scented lotion all over his thumb. The golden ring resisted at first, but after several twists and tugs, it slid off his finger. Andrew collapsed against the chair with his shoulders slumped in relief.

"Thank you, Shel."

She glanced down at her watch. They had twenty minutes before the Valencia Hotel's Wedding-palooza was scheduled to start. Part charity fundraiser, part media spectacle, the hotel was hosting mass wedding ceremonies all day long. Celebrities had donated their time by offering to be attendants at fans' weddings. Andrew was best man in several ceremonies. The moron had stuck five gold wedding bands on his left hand, with the groom's initial on the knuckle as an identifier, so he wouldn't lose them. Though the rings had gone on smoothly, he hadn't counted on a late March warm front making his fingers swell.

"Don't get too comfortable. We've got four rings to go."

Andrew groaned. Fifteen minutes, and a whole lot of cursing, later, he furiously washed the lotion off his hands while Shelby wiped down each of the five gold rings. The fifth ring was thinner, more feminine than the others. Rather than a bright polished gold, it looked more like an antique. She frowned at it then scowled at Andrew's back.

"I thought you were only in four ceremonies today."

"I am."

Shelby squinted at the engraving on the inside of the band. 'One mind, two bodies.' Her jaw dropped. It was a phrase their parents had often used to describe her and Andrew. Holding her breath, she slipped the finger over the ring finger on her left hand. It was too loose. Her heart sank.

"Try your right hand," a husky, amused voice whispered in her ear. "It's a pre-engagement ring. I was going to give it to you tonight, you nosy little sneak."

The ring fit perfectly on the fourth finger of her right hand. She spun, wrapped her arms around Andrew's neck, and fused her lips to his. An image popped inside her head. She broke the kiss, covered her mouth with her hand, and tried to stifle her giggles.

"My kisses make you laugh now?"

"No. No, that's not it at all." She attempted to regain her composure, but it was a lost cause. "You just looked so ridiculous with those five gold rings stuck on your hand."

Six Geese-a-layin'

Muffled laughter, interspersed with snorts and the occasional shhh, broke the silence. Two figures, dressed in black but not the least bit stealthy, stumbled across the immaculate lawn. It was a cloudy night; even with the streetlight on overhead it was extremely dark.

Shelby tripped over a horse shoe, landed on her knees in the slightly damp grass. Her plastic pail of plastic eggs tumbled onto its side. Brightly colored eggs scattered around her. She picked up the horse shoe and studied it carefully. "Oh. So that's where that went."

"You," Andrew giggled, snorted, "are so drunk."

Shelby squinted up at the three Andrews swaying in front of her. "So're you."

"Yeah." Andrew sighed happily. He slowly helped Shelby retrieve the eggs and return them to the pail. Gripping her hand tightly, he pulled her to her feet. She overbalanced and tipped forward. He landed on his back with an oomph. She landed on top of him in a way that made him wish his mother hadn't insisted on separate bedrooms.

After a few heated kisses and a great deal of giggles, they made it to their feet. Andrew led the way to the first of his mother's six lawn goose statutes. Under Shelby's watchful, often over-critical, eye, he placed five eggs in a neat pile on the grass beneath the goose. Once she was satisfied with his arrangement, they moved on to the next statue.

Once they'd finished with the sixth goose, they stood on the sidewalk and admired their handiwork. Rather than hide the Easter eggs as Mama Morrison had instructed, Andrew had come up with the brilliant idea to make it look like each of the six fake geese had laid eggs. Shelby had used a wonderful bottle of merlot to get her through Mama's 'you've-been-friends-with-my-son-since-kindergarden-but-are-you-wife-material' inquisition. Normally the level-headed one in their relationship, she'd just laughed, grabbed the pail of eggs, and followed him outside.

"Mama's going to kill me."

"Nah," Shelby scoffed, grinning like a fool at the six plastic geese laying plastic eggs. Mama Morrison had a sense of humor. Somewhere. Maybe. Possibly. "Well, probably just a little bit."

Seven Swans a-swimmin'

At the sound of Andrew's voice coming from the television, Shelby dropped her brush onto the counter and moved into the bedroom. She smiled fondly as his charming grin momentarily flustered the reporter from Showbiz TV. Judging by the clock behind Andrew, he'd been stopped while running his morning errands. During their long text message conversation only an hour earlier he hadn't mentioned any reporters. Usually he was quick to either crow about discombobulating one or how he'd manage to escape the interrogation.

"It's Shel's birthday, you know," he said in response to a question.

Quickly regaining her composure, the reporter's eyes brightened, her smile was all straight, white teeth and anticipation. She reminded Shelby of a cheetah bearing down on an injured gazelle. Shelby wanted to punch her in the face. She and Andrew hadn't made any formal announcements about the shift in the relationship though there had certainly been plenty of speculation.

"And what are your plans for the evening? A romantic, candlelit dinner? An evening in at home? Another quick jaunt to France?"

Andrew chuckled, shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans, and winked at the camera. Shelby's heart fluttered; she was certain every woman watching the program had the same reaction. He was far too cute for his own good.

"I'm taking her to the ballet."

As the Showbiz News program segued into another interview, Shelby glanced down at her pale pink floral-printed sundress. Andrew had told her to dress comfortably and casually. He'd said nothing about ballet. He'd called five minutes earlier to say he was on his way; she didn't have time to change. She was absolutely going to murder him.

"I'm not dressed for the ballet," she said as soon as he stepped into her townhouse.


"Neither are you."

"Nope." After stealing a quick kiss, he grabbed her purse off a nearby table and tugged her out into the warm evening air. Using the spare key he'd had since the day she moved in, he locked her door and escorted her to where his motorcycle was parked.

"Where are we going, Drew?"

"You'll see."

While Andrew navigated through congested traffic, Shelby's mind went to work. She wasn't a ballet fan. The only ballet they regularly went to was their annual Nutcracker trip. That was more out of nostalgia than any love for the show. Had he lied to the reporter to give them a little privacy?

Almost an hour later, she stared at the sign in front of the doors to a community swimming pool. Andrew's arm slipped around her waist; he pressed his cheek against hers. She could feel his smug grin.

"Swan Lake? They're doing Swan Lake in a pool?"

"Water ballet. It's an interpretation. Come on, it's fixing to start."

Watching seven synchronized swimmers dressed like swans flit around the pool, she had to give him credit for creativity. They were far from prying eyes and the way the swan-swimmers moved in harmony with the music was impressive. Much better than any professional ballet performance she'd ever seen.

"Good surprise?"

"It's amazing."

"Good." Andrew tucked her against his side, eyes on her rather than on the swimmers. He had several more surprises planned. He subtly patted the square, black velvet box in his pocket. Hopefully it would be the last year anyone said, "Happy Birthday, Shelby Porter."

Eight Maids a-Milkin'

Despite his insistence that he did not need a bachelor party, Andrew's coworkers and friends hadn't listened. Instead of double checking the honeymoon arrangements and relaxing with Shelby, he was in a hotel suite sipping imported beer and waiting for a beautiful, buxom woman to strip in front of him. He'd have preferred to be home.

"Cheer up, man," Kevin Garbo, one of the co-stars on Andrew's new television series, said as he slapped him on the back. "Dave's brining her up now."


Andrew tipped his bottle up and drained the last dregs of beer foam. He was mildly surprised at his attitude. He had a reputation as a playboy, and there was no denying he had a healthy appreciation for the female form. A year earlier he might have been as anxious and excited as Kevin, but things had changed. He had changed. He didn't have to settle for an empty head, pretty face, and nice set of breasts. He had someone at home who could make him laugh when he was down or put him in his place when he got too full of himself. Okay, so she did have a nice set of breasts. He hadn't changed that much.

Six of the seven men in the room turned towards the door when it opened. Andrew stalked to the mini-fridge to retrieve another bottle of beer. He had just popped off the cap when he heard the stripper's voice. He spun around. The bottle slipped out of his hand; amber beer spilled out onto the plush carpet.

"You're Maisie Play!" he exclaimed, broad grin stretching across his face. "You were in Eight Maids a-Milkin'!"

Maisie flushed at the mention of a porn movie she'd starred in five years earlier. It was a truly terrible movie, but she'd needed the money and had believed the director's promise of eventual fame. "Yeah, that's me."

"That's my favorite!" He chuckled when his friends stared at him. He'd forgotten that they were mostly co-workers and didn't know all of his hobbies and habits. "It's awful, I mean really horrendous, but it's my favorite awful porno. I need to call Shelby."

"You're going to call your fiancée and tell her you've got a porn star-slash-stripper in a hotel room?" Dave Stewart, another co-star, asked incredulously.

"Yeah. She's going to be so jealous!"

Shelby had been the one to sit and watch hours upon hours of excruciatingly appalling porn movies with him in college when he'd done his paper on the evolution, and devolution, of acting in pornography for one of his classes. After he'd finished his paper, an A+ paper as a matter of fact, they'd made it a ritual to watch one horrible porn movie a week and pick apart the acting and the plot. It was one of their longest-standing traditions.

"Shel! You'll never guess who I'm standing next to right now!" He paused while she made a few outrageous guesses. "No! Maisie Play." He squealed like a tween at a Jonas Brothers concert, much to his friends' amusement. "Come over! We're at the Valencia. Bring the copy of Eight Maids a-Milkin'."

Instead of double checking the honeymoon arrangements and relaxing with Shelby, Andrew spent the Saturday before his wedding picking apart a deplorable porn movie with his fiancée and star of the movie while his friends played the hotel's Wii. It was, he announced later, the best bachelor party ever.

Nine Drummers Drumming

Shelby shifted on the uncomfortable, hard bench. The halftime show hadn't even started and her butt had gone numb. She glanced over at the scoreboard and suppressed a sigh. At least her alma mater was winning.

She hadn't wanted to return to her hometown to give a guest lecture at her old high school. She didn't have anything against the town or the school or anyone who lived there, but she'd spent two weeks in Pennsylvania helping out with a Civil War archeological dig. She missed Andrew fiercely. It was the first long separation of their seven-month-long marriage.

Staying with Mama Morrison hadn't been a problem - aside from the 'when do I get grandchildren from you?' interrogation session, of course. Shelby had enjoyed catching up with Andrew's older sister Cathy. She just wished she hadn't let Cathy talk her into attending a Silver Hills High School football game. Cathy's husband was the head coach, though, and Andrew's older brother Mike was the head band instructor.

Shelby dug her cell phone out of her pocket. She'd tried to call Andrew earlier, but he hadn't answered. Before she could press the 'call' button, a cadence so familiar she sometimes heard it in her sleep rumbled under her feet. She and Andrew had been band geeks in high school. Their summers had been spent sweating while learning new routines and they'd hidden in the percussion practice room during lunch and pretended to be rock stars. Front and center, as always, Andrew had played the snare drum while she'd twirled and spun cymbals like a pro.

She sat up, phone forgotten in her hands, when the drum line filed onto the field. She'd watched them march into the stands and had even remarked that the drum line was smaller than when she'd been a member. She'd counted eight drummers, so why were there nine standing on the field?

"We've got a very special treat tonight, folks...," the announcer started. Shelby tuned him out. She squinted at the suspiciously tall boy with a snare drum. His dark pants matched the band's uniform but his shirt was wrong. Her attention snapped back to the announcer when she heard Andrew's name followed by hers.

"Well," Cathy urged, Cheshire grin on her pretty face, "go on down there."

Head spinning, Shelby flew down the steps, hopped over the short fence, nodded at the security guard, and joined Andrew at the front of the field. He smiled at her, eyes crinkling warmly and lips looking utterly kissable, before gesturing towards the teenage girl hovering behind her.

"Think you've got one more in you, Shel?"

She chuckled as she stuck her hands through the straps of the crash cymbals. "You're insane!"

"And don't you just love it!"

Shelby's retort was lost in the sharp snap of the cadence. Just like in high school, she felt it all the way from her feet to her heart. She smiled so hard she feared her face would ache the next day. Positioned to the side so she didn't hit anyone when she twirled her cymbals, she watched the nine drummers drumming, with her nutcase of a husband in the center, and laughed.

Ten Pipers Piping

"Oh, this is so cool."

Shelby did not share Andrew's opinion, but she kept her mouth shut. He'd sat through enough dry history lectures for her; the least she could do was be his silent, supportive companion even if she was absolutely certain her ears were going to bleed. She'd never been a fan of bagpipe music, but Andrew was slated to star as Daniel Laidlaw, a Piper and Victoria Cross recipient from World War I, in an upcoming movie. He'd decided that a trip to the World Pipe Band Championships was the perfect way to do research for his new role.

She couldn't really complain, though. She'd gotten a trip to Scotland out of the deal, and they were going to tour a few archaeological sites after the Championships. The inn Andrew's assistant had booked for them was downright gorgeous with a bathroom to die for and a bed she wanted to ship home. She had her amazingly wonderful husband on her arm, and she was making him happy. There wasn't anything to complain about.

Except for the music.

She pasted on a smile when they stopped in front of a group of ten kilt-clad men. She bit back a laugh when Andrew spoke to them with a Scottish accent that was, surprisingly, quite convincing. He'd been practicing when she wasn't around. The accent he'd used on the flight from California had been truly dreadful.

"They're going to play for us," Andrew said, face lit up with joy.

"That's good," she said, resisting the urge to plug her fingers in her ears.

They stood arm in arm while ten pipers played a lively tune. Andrew tugged Shelby closer and kissed her temple. "Thank you," he murmured against her hair.

She melted against him. The music really wasn't that bad, she supposed, and the bands were impressive. The music could even be inspiring. She could see how Laidlaw had rallied the troops at the Battle of Loos. It was almost like having a bit of history standing in front of her.

She opened her mouth to tell him how happy she was that he'd dragged her along but snapped it shut when she caught the gleam in his eyes. Oh, she knew that gleam. She'd seen it just before he'd talked her into skydiving, bungee jumping, and riding that damn motorcycle for the first time. She knew, she just absolutely knew, they were going to be going home with a set of bagpipes.


"No. Just… no."

Eleven Ladies Dancing

With a fair amount of trepidation, Andrew eyed the gaggle of giggling girls gathered in the living room. He'd had a quiet night of basketball and beer planned while Shelby helped her older sister Celeste with ten-year-old Madison's birthday sleepover. When Shelby had called, in tears, because her mother had been in a car accident and they needed to get all the girls home, he'd volunteered to watch the girls until Shelby and Celeste returned from the hospital. They were just ten-year-old girls. He could handle them.

"You want to reenact a scene from My Lady's Hand?" At their enthusiastic nods, he swallowed. He remembered the movie far too well. The period drama had been one of his first movies. He still couldn't watch it without a bottle of tequila or a case of beer. "I don't suppose you mean the sword fight scenes, do you?"

"You're so silly, Uncle Drew," Maddie said, laughing and tugging on his hands. "We're going to pretend we're in the ballroom."

"The ballroom. Of course." He counted pig-tailed heads and grinned. "There are ten of you lovely ladies and only dashing hero. It wouldn't be fair for anyone to be left out, so I will just sit on the sidelines and applaud. How does that sound?"

Maddie's high-pitched giggle sent shivers down his spine. She'd inherited that laugh from her Aunt Shelby. Whatever little Madison had planned wasn't going to be pleasant. Not at all.

"I think Mom's got something that'll fit," she said as she dragged him out of the living room and into the spare bedroom her costume designer mother used as a workroom.

Ten minutes later, Andrew stood in the living room in a bulky, petal pink faux-eighteenth century ball gown. Though he'd drawn the line when Maddie'd held up a corset, he hadn't been able to escape the torture of makeup, a wig, and heavy costume jewelry. He felt like an idiot and was certain he looked even stupider. The happy grin on Maddie's face and the awe on the other nine faces almost made up for it. Almost.

Shelby followed the sound of old music to the living room. Weariness slipped off her tense shoulders as she leaned against the doorjamb and watched eleven dressed up, elegant ladies step gracefully in time to the music. Catching Andrew's eye, she wriggled her fingers in greeting.

"Help me," he mouthed, painted red lips a sharp contrast to his white teeth and powdered cheeks. Distracted by the sight of his salvation, he missed a step and hurried to catch up before Madison could correct him again. The wig slipped, a blonde ringlet covered his eyes.

He'd come to two conclusions while Madison and her friends had used a pound of makeup on his face: he was never giving any of his female costars a hard time for spending so long in the makeup trailer, and he and Shelby were never having daughters. Never.

Twelve Lords a-Leaping

"There you are!"

When two-hundred sets of eyes turned on her, Shelby wanted to pivot on her heel and walk right back out of the building. In the five hours since she'd left Andrew to his own devices, he'd managed to get himself completely sloshed, find a karaoke set up, and con twelve of the Michael Flatley look-alikes to join him on stage. It had all the makings of a terribly hilarious remake of Riverdance. She got her phone out of her pocket, hit the 'record' button, and held it up high.

"Do you know when I first loved you, Shelby Grace Porter Morrison?" Andrew asked, tripping over the syllables of her name. He didn't wait for her to respond. "In fifth grade when you sang 'You've Got a Friend' at the talent show. You hate James Taylor, but Cathy said you spent two months learning how to play the song on the guitar. You dedicated it to me."

Shelby grinned. Those had been the longest two months of her life, and in the end she still hadn't played the song very well. She'd won third prize, though. She still had the little bronze medal in her jewelry box. The look on Andrew's face, half-devoted and half-mortified, when she'd made her dedication was still etched in her memory.

"I'm returning the favor," Andrew said, pushing a button the karaoke machine. The familiar strains of a peppy song filled the packed room. Andrew and his twelve-man back up crew snapped along with the music.

"I needed the shelter of someone's arms and there you were
I needed someone to understand my ups and downs and there you were
With sweet love and devotion
Deeply touching my emotion
I want to stop and thank you baby
I just want to stop and thank you baby
," Andrew sang passionately, if a little too loud and a little too fast.

When it was time for the chorus, the twelve Lords of the Dance-wannabes leapt across the stage in a complicated, chaotic dance that had Andrew's stamp all over it. Shelby shook her head fondly, still recording the show on her phone. She loved Andrew dearly, but choreography wasn't one of his strong points. Unfortunately for the audience, neither was singing while plastered.

At the start of the second verse, Shelby slipped her phone back into her pocket and made her way to the stage. Andrew held out a hand to help her up the steep steps. He wrapped an arm around her waist and made her bow to the cheering, clapping crowd. One of the step-dancers tried to pull her into the routine, but she stayed close to Andrew. Twelve Lords a-leaping was twelve too many!

"What were you doing on your phone?" Andrew asked quietly while holding the microphone out so the crowd could fill in the lyrics.

"Recording you."

"For the DVD they'll play at our fiftieth anniversary?"

"Oh no, honey," she said, laughing, "this is going straight on Youtube."

Rolling his eyes, Andrew grabbed her hand and led her into a funny, twisting move that left her dizzy. The smile he beamed down at her left her breathless. He was a crazy, too-pretty-for-his-own-good, goofball, but he was hers. The only thing she could do was join in the insanity.

"How sweet it is to be loved by you."