Lies My Father Never Told Me

I returned to work a week after my father's funeral, making the awkward transition into his office from my own down the hall. I always knew I would eventually take over for Dad in the family's business but it was supposed to be a slow progression as he soft-shoed his way into retirement.
Those plans were abruptly altered when Dad was stricken while playing a Saturday round of golf at the country club and he was dead at sixty-two by the time they got him to the hospital. Now his secretary Cheryl was showing me the basics of the office as I slipped into Dad's desk chair.

It was my grandfather Sean "Mac" McHenry who started the Blue River Furniture Company in the late 1940s. The business began as a side job. Grandpa was a janitor at the high school after the war but he liked making furniture and he was able to sell several pieces to local customers. He saved some money during the war and he used it to start his own furniture business in the early 1950s. He bought an abandoned factory building in Greenville by combining his savings with a loan from his father-in-law and a donation from his sister who was willing to make an investment in her brother who she believed in and loved.

The Blue River Furniture Company became a full time business. Gramps quit his custodian job and began producing solid wood cedar chests and wardrobes. By the early 1960s the company had a couple dozen full-time employees producing about 20 items per day. The business continued to grow and expand and Blue River Furniture began producing solid mahogany five-piece bedroom sets along with a line of solid wood dining room tables and other formal furniture.

The business succeeded by producing solid high quality wood hand crafted products and Grandpa's personable friendly customer service was legendary. Blue River Furniture Company became a true family centered business as my great Aunt and eventually my father joined the company. Dad (Sean Jr.) took charge of the large fleet of delivery vans while Great Aunt Sally embraced her brother's philosophy of making wood furniture in its most natural form.
Blue River Furniture also marketed upholstery and other accessories and it continued to be a profitable, ethical, family friendly company providing exceptionally styled valued quality furniture with outstanding service while providing an outstanding work environment for its employees. People stayed with the company for their entire careers because they enjoyed the dignity, integrity and value that Grandpa and the rest of the leadership team provided. Employees took great pride in crafting the furniture and honoring the brand name. They were loyal, dedicated, committed, and hard working. The company was active in the local community and sponsored several sports teams in the area.

Dad turned the delivery department into a top notch feature of the company. While Grandpa made sure the stock was available and ready, Dad ensured it was delivered on time and in perfect condition. Dad eventually worked his way up the management ladder and he was well groomed to take over for his Dad when the time was right. During Dad's tenure as President, the company offered two dozen collections of beautiful solid wood furniture and an extensive line of custom upholstery with a customer base that spread into four states. My mother was in charge of the display room that was added in the front of the factory and the company never abandoned its commitment to quality solid wood cased furniture, comfortably stylish upholstery, and the best possible customer service.

With my parents and grandfather working as a family team (my great aunt had retired early) Blue River Furniture definitely had the face, image, reputation and style of a true family business. Sometimes my Dad would stick me and my sister Maureen in some of the newspaper advertising and television commercials and we became well known around town too (for better or worse). My mother also lined the display room and the hallway of the corporate office section with family photos dating all the way back to the beginnings of the company.

I have fond memories of the factory as a youngster. My grandfather brought me with him on Sundays (when the factory was closed) to catch up on paperwork or check on the status of a project and I loved to roam through the large empty assembly and manufacturing rooms. The place seemed endless to me a young boy. In the summers, my grandfather or Dad let me hang around the place - usually in the safety of the office section or riding in one of the delivery vans and I got an early taste of the reality of the business.

Schools visited the factory on field trips to watch the building of hand craved furniture and it was no different for my third grade class. I was proud of my family and the success of the factory and it felt good to be able to show off in front of my classmates. They were awestruck when they saw photographs of me up on the wall! That class trip was the first time I became aware that my family was "well off" when I overheard my teacher telling one of the parent chaperones that the McHenry family was one of the wealthiest in Blue County.

My grandparents remained in their humble small ranch in a nondescript section of town but my parents purchased a large upper middle class home in the Green Hill Section of Greenville, one of most expensive neighborhoods in Blue County. I quickly figured out that we were rich and that I had it made. Naturally, some of that started going to my head. I remember telling a friend when I was ten that I would be "a millionaire" running the company some day.

My grandfather was my first real hero but it was my father who taught me the important things in life. He's the one who put a golf club in my hand when I was six and taught me the game. He showed me how the equipment in the factory worked. He brought me to the library to pick out books to read, stressing the importance of being well read and knowledgeable – even if education wasn't a path I wanted to follow later.

Dad taught me about fairness and treating people right though his leadership and example at work. People were constantly telling me how honorable and trustworthy both my grandfather and father were when I was a youngster. Dad brought me on his fishing trips with his friends. I felt close to him from an early age and I wanted to be just like him.

When I think back on it now, I am amused by the Mark Twain quote (which my father first showed to me during one of those library trips): "When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."

I was actually thirteen when I decided my father was 'ignorant' because that's the summer when he 'made' me go to work at the factory. Up to the then, my summers were fun and free, including vacations with my grandmother and lazy afternoons by the pool. I resented being used as my father's slave labor - mostly cleaning up wood shavings and sawdust and carrying unused upholstery pieces to the giant dumpsters behind the factory. I wanted to be hanging out the country club swimming pool or playing golf with my other well-to-do friends from the neighborhood.

That summer was my first run-in disagreement fight I had with my father and we began to clash regularly through my teenaged years. I was acting out as the spoiled brat I became and he was trying to teach me a work ethic while showing me the family business and his ethics and values from the bottom up so I could earn my spot in the hierarchy later on but I really wasn't interested in that stuff back then.

I got into trouble at school for my elitist behavior and entitled attitude which embarrassed my parents and went against the family image. They decided to send me to the Sun Rise Lake School for Boys about fifteen miles from Greenville for high school to give me a new start. I only agreed to go if I could be a day student which allowed me to come home and be with my Greenville friends at night and on the weekends.

I fit right in at the prep school where most of my peers were just like me (elitist snobs) and when I continued to get into trouble - mostly mischief stuff like pranks, skipping class, and breaking moronic rules for the fun of it - while continuing to clash with my father at home - my parents made me become a boarder at Sun Rise starting with my junior year. That was fine with me - I had my own car and I could still get back to Greenville to party with my friends without having to live under my parents' roof.

I was barely passing my classes at Sun Rise with all my partying and goofing off and my father was disgusted with me. My sister Maureen remained in the advertising campaign but I was dropped from the family-themed commercials. I still had to work at the factory in the summer and while my Grandfather remained my biggest supporter and mentor there wasn't much he could do for me with my old man riding my ass so doggedly.

I was well known around town but no longer so much because of my family's business but because of my party hearty attitude in teen circles. I attended Sun Rise but everybody in Greenville knew who I was. I had the best car, the most money, and a reputation as a lady's man and cool dude. I brought some of the Greenville girls up to the Sun Rise campus to mingle with my preppy friends and my Sun Rise pals were always crashing parties in Greenville with me.

Norbert 'Lizard' Lizzotte from the eastern part of the state was my Sun Rise dorm roommate and my best friend at the school. He loved coming to Greenville with me to crash various parties. I was popular with the girls but I liked to play it cool, never committing to any particular one so I could play the field whenever I was in town. Lizard had the same attitude until he bumped into some girl at one of the parties and decided he liked her enough to see her again. Only problem was she was from Hillsboro and she only happened to be at the Greenville party on a fluke.

I didn't hang out in Hillsboro much except maybe to take in a ball game at Beano Field. Blue River Furniture was one of the sponsors of the Greenville Giants that played in the amateur Serguci League and I went to an occasional game at Beano Field, mostly to troll for girls. There was also a popular diner in Hillsboro that I liked but I didn't know too many kids from that town.

Lizard found out that this girl was going to be at a Hillsboro party and he begged me to take him to it that Friday night. I could hold court at any Greenville party because I knew everybody and everybody knew me but I wasn't quite as well known across the river in Hillsboro. Of course, I wasn't about to be uncool with Lizard so I agreed to check the party out with him.

Lizard got directions from the girl and we didn't have too much trouble finding the place in a middle class section of town. There were about fifty kids in the house but Lizard saw his girl right away in the crowd – she was tall and when she finally saw us she started waving like we were celebrities.

"Bert!" The girl gushed when we reached her. "I'm so glad you're here!"

She wore a tight red sweater that hugged her curvy body accenting her attractive figure that included shapely breasts that filled the sweater. Her long black hair hung almost to her ass.

"Who's your friend, Bert?" The girl asked as she gave Lizard a hug. I noticed another girl lagging behind her.

"This is Hank," Lizard grinned.

I was known as "Third" and "Three" on the Sun Rise Lake campus because I was Sean McHenry III but most of my Greenville friends called me Hank (a play on McHenry) and Lizard did the same when we were off campus.

"Hank, this is Vanessa," Lizard said proudly.

"Hey," Vanessa smiled. "And this is my friend, Julie." She stepped back to reveal the person standing behind her who was looking rather bored.

The bored girl was attractive and I decided on the spot that she was the prettiest girl I'd ever seen. She had deep eyes with a head full of thick golden brown hair. She was wearing tight jeans and a long sleeved yellow shirt.

"Geez," Lizard remarked when he looked back and forth between us.

"What?" I asked.

"You two look a lot a like!" He laughed.

It was kind of true. I had golden brown hair and blue eyes too. I kept my hair neatly trimmed and we both had pug noses, full lips and high cheek bones. But I was at least four inches taller than her and thinner. She had wide hips and a stout torso whereas I was lanky. But we were both definitely good looking!

"Let's go find me a drink," Lizard said to Vanessa and those two disappeared into the crowd without even saying goodbye, leaving me and Julie awkwardly alone.

I usually didn't have any difficulty chatting it up with girls but for some reason I found myself feeling tongue-tied as I stood next to the disinterested Julie. I was used to people talking to me, trying to be part of my popular celebrity. I mostly held court fielding questions like I was some big interview.

Julie stifled a yawn as she drifted toward a corner of the room with a can of Sprite in her hand. I thought about going into the kitchen for a beer but I didn't want to leave Julie on her own so I followed her into the corner. I got the impression that she didn't want to be at the party.

"Hello," I said, flashing my standard babe-magnet killer smile.

"You don't have to be nice to me just because your friend took my friend away," Julie replied.

"All I said was hello," I pouted.

"That was too much," she replied, clearly annoyed.

"What are you doing here if you don't want to be here?" I asked.

"Vanessa made me come," she mumbled. "I hate these things."

"Why?" I don't think I ever met a girl at a party who didn't want to be there.

"Well, because of guys like you for one thing," she replied.

I laughed, amused that she correctly pegged me as a player. I should have been insulted by her inference but instead I was tickled. This girl was beyond cute and I was fascinated by her disinterest.

"Why don't we dump this party and go do something more fun?" I suggested.

"I can't imagine having any fun with you," she replied

"Damn!" I remarked, taken aback by her attitude while quickly realizing that she had my number.

"You can run along now," she said, glancing at me with a cold look in her eyes.

I raised my eyebrow and gave her a frown. I was pretty sure this was the first time ever I got the brush off from a girl.

"Did I do something to offend you?" I asked, no longer quite so amused by her little act.

"You showed up," she replied with a sigh.

"Hey, I'm the one who wants to be here," I replied acidly. "If this is such torture for you, why don't you just leave?"

"I'm Vanessa's ride," she complained. "Otherwise I would have been out of here the moment I arrived."

"Don't you know anybody here?" I asked.

"Unfortunately, yes," she replied. "But this isn't exactly my crowd."

"What's the matter, the library club wasn't invited?" I sneered.

Julie actually laughed for the first time. "Just because you don't read."

I gave her an unappreciative frown. "I happen to be a senior at the Sun Rise Lake School For Boys," I let her know. "They don't exactly let morons in there you know."

"I would say boys is the operative word there," she replied dismissively.

"Where do you go?" I asked with interest.

"St. Anne's Catholic," she replied effortlessly. "They read there."

"This is a Hillsboro High Party," I realized. "Is that where Vanessa goes?"

Julie nodded affirmatively. "Unfortunately."

"I guess you're a pretty good friend to be here for her," I admired.

"A pretty gullible friend," Julie replied. "My mother would kill me if she knew. She thinks we're at the movies in Greenville."

"I'm from Greenville," I bragged.

"Figures," she replied, giving me a quick glance. "I bet you're from Green Hill."

I smirked and nodded. "What's wrong with that?"

"What are you doing in Hillsboro?"

"Lizard is taken by Vanessa," I replied.

"Lizard?" Julie asked.

"Norbert," I clarified. "He's my roommate at the lake."

Julie tilted her head. "What's the matter, can't you guys find your own parties?"

"We find all the parties," I laughed.

Vanessa and Lizard made their return, both with large drinks in their hand. Lizard handed me a beer.

"Jules, do you know who this guy is?" Vanessa asked, gesturing toward me.

"Hank," Julie replied without much excitement.

"Actually, he's Sean McHenry The Third," Vanessa laughed. "You know, the family that owns Blue River Furniture?"

"Oh yeah?" Julie looked like she cared about what we were talking about for the first time since we met. "My mother used to work there when she was younger."

"Small world," I replied.

"Hank's always doing something outrageous," Lizard revealed. "That's why his parents stuck him at Sun Rise - so he wouldn't embarrass the family."

"Oh, so you really are a jerk," Julie remarked.

"Yes, a rich handsome sexy jerk!" Vanessa laughed.

"That's me," I smirked.

"Jules and I have been friends since kindergarten," Vanessa said. "But she never met any rich handsome sexy jerks before!"

"Why would I want to?" Julie wondered aloud.

"Boy, is she always like this?" I asked Vanessa.

"She likes to play hard to get," Vanessa explained.

"That's because I am hard to get," Julie noted.

"What are you, gay?" Lizard teased.

"What are you, a primate? Julie countered.

"Wow, you're on a roll tonight!" I laughed.

"Jill is choosey, not gay," Vanessa replied.

There was something about Julie that intrigued me. She wasn't anything like the girls I was used to – the groupie followers and hanger-ons who liked being seen with the popular crowd of which I was a member. Julie could have cared less about who I was, where I came from, or what my status happened to be and that made me all the more infatuated by her mere presence in my circle of influence even if it was pretty clear I had no influence over her. I also realized that, like Julie, I really didn't want to be at the party anymore. I didn't know anybody and I really didn't care about them either.

"Why don't the four of us get out here and go do something else?" I suggested, glancing at Julie hopefully.

Vanessa seemed surprised. "What? You want to leave?"

"Julie isn't having much fun," I observed.

"She never does," Vanessa complained.

"What that's supposed to mean?" Julie asked defensively.

"Nothing," Vanessa sighed.

Julie frowned. "I told you I didn't want to come here," she protested.

"Because you don't want to have fun," Vanessa growled.

"I think it would be fun to go do something else," I said, not wanting to cause a fight between those two.

I threw Lizard a look, hoping for some assistance.

"I'm hungry," Lizard volunteered. "Why don't we go get something to eat?"

"Well, okay," Vanessa tentatively agreed. "Can I ride with you, sweetie?" She asked Lizard.

"You've both been drinking," Julie reminded them.

"Jesus, what a killjoy," Vanessa grumbled.

"I'll drive," Julie announced.

"Where we going?" I asked. "We'll follow you."

"You've been drinking too," Julie frowned.

"I had like three sips," I laughed, holding up the beer can.

"How 'bout the pizza house?" Vanessa suggested.

"Sounds great," I said. "Let's go." I put the beer down on a bookshelf and looked at Julie expectedly.

The four of us headed for the door, Vanessa hanging all over Lizard with Julie and me walking behind them.

"See, I rescued you," I said to Julie as we walked.

"I'm not looking for a superhero, thank you," she replied.

It was late March so it was a cool early spring evening. There were still splatters of unmelted snow here and there and the ground was still frozen so there wasn't any mud. Julie pointed to a twenty year old Honda coupe that was rusted and had a blue door although the rest of the car was red. I pointed to my late model sports car parked down the street.

"Don't lose us," I said.

"Nice wheels," an impressed Vanessa giggled. "I want to go with you guys."

"Come on, then!" Lizard laughed.

"You should keep Julie company," I advised.

Vanessa rolled her eyes with annoyance but followed her friend to the old Honda while Lizard and I headed for my car. Lizard was laughing when we climbed inside.

"What's so funny?" I asked as I started the car

"You!" He grinned. "That broad doesn't seem to know that you walk on water."

"I know, isn't she great!?" I smiled.

"Wait, what, you're serious?" Lizard asked with surprise. "You actually like her?"

"She's different from any other girl I know," I admitted as I followed Julie's car down the street.

"Holy shit," Lizard remarked with wide eyes. "Has somebody finally slay The Great Valentino?"

I thought about my romantic life which consisted mostly of endless flirting, hit and runs, quick gropes and make out sessions, but not a whole lot of personal meaningful conversation or exchange of ideas. My older sister Maureen called me a shameless Casanova and she had little patience for my womanizing attitude.

"Can't you just bring a nice girl home for dinner even once?" Maureen demanded when she noticed my less than respectful treatment of girls.

I suppose I wasn't ready to settle with any one girl, enjoying the excitement and challenge of bouncing from one to the next, mostly because none of the girls held my interest for very long and I was always searching for the next conquest. It was fun but not very satisfying or deep and for the first time in my teenage scorch and burn mentality when it came to girls, Julie grabbed my attention in a different way.

I parked my car next to hers on Hillsboro's Main Street and I smiled as I climbed out of the car and saw Julie getting out of hers. I hadn't felt this silly and giddy in a long time. I spent so much time taking my status with the girls for granted, being a moody prick to my father and a goof off on campus that I hadn't spent a whole lot of time thinking about my reputation with the fairer sex.

Vanessa gave Lizard another hug and they walked into the pizza place with their arms wrapped around each other. I gave Julie her distance as we walked behind them. The Pizza house was warm, loud, and friendly. We found a booth, ordered the pizza and some sodas, and then the four of us stared at one another, not quite sure what to do next. This was actually only the second time Vanessa and Lizard had been together in person although they had chatted on the phone several times.

Lizard told the girls about growing up outside of Boston and I talked a little bit about Greenville (an arch rival of Hillsboro). Vanessa bragged about Hillsboro but Julie didn't have much to say, answering our inquires about St. Anne's Catholic but not volunteering much more. She was sitting next to me while Vanessa and Lizard were comfortably close next to each other across from us in the booth. It was the first time I had seen Lizard smitten.

Meanwhile, I was feeling kind of awkward. I was used to getting my way with the girls but it was clear that Julie wasn't interested in playing that sophomoric game. She was the first mature, confident, grounded girl I met and that made her a mystery woman in my mind because I wasn't sure how to deal with her.

I was disappointed when the night came to an end. Julie left the booth and the pizza place before I had a chance to say good night and she was already in the car by the time I got outside. I guess that was her way of avoiding any awkwardness between us. Vanessa and Lizard spent five minutes sucking off each other faces on the outside sidewalk while I retreated to my car feeling sort of hurt and disappointed that Julie wasn't interested in continuing a conversation with me. She didn't seem upset - she just didn't care about any of this.

I couldn't stop thinking about Julie in the days that followed that first night. I tried to play it cool with Lizard but he easily figured it out after I asked at least seven times over the weekend if he was going to see Vanessa again.

"Maybe I will, maybe I won't," Lizard grinned knowingly. "But I think Julie is a downer so I don't want her around."

"She's not a downer," I argued. "She's just much more sophisticated than us."

"That's not really saying much, is it?" Lizard laughed.

I didn't know what to do about my newly discovered feelings about a girl. I had no clue how to proceed. I knew Julie wasn't going to be at any of the parties I attended and I felt weird about giving her a call. Girls usually called me - not the other way around. I didn't want to harass Lizard but I kept asking him if and when he was going to call Vanessa while suggesting perhaps the four of us could go out again. I had most of the leverage because I was the one with the car.

I kept bugging Lizard all week and finally on Thursday he told me that Julie wasn't interested in going out with us.

"How in the hell do you know that?" I asked angrily.

"Van told me," he replied with a sigh. "You're welcomed to be a third wheel with me and Vanessa if you want," Lizard added as he sat at his desk in our dorm room working on his homework.

I was sprawled out on my bed feeling rejected - not a feeling I was accustomed to (except maybe by the old man!). My next tact was to browbeat Lizard into getting Vanessa to give me Julie's phone number but Vanessa wasn't "comfortable" with violating Julie's privacy.

Sometimes I let Lizard borrow my car for his outings but this time I insisted on going even though Lizard was taking Vanessa to dinner and the movies. I kept bugging Vanessa into giving me Julie's phone number all through dinner at Serguci's Italian Family Restaurant in downtown Hillsboro.

"Since when did you become so pathetic?" Lizard groaned, embarrassed to see me 'broken' as he put it. "He's been tamed," Lizard complained to Vanessa. "He's never been this hopeless before."

Apparently, Vanessa actually felt sorry for me because she agreed to compromise and she called Julie for me when I had the manager bring a phone to our table (this was 1994, long before every teenager in America had a cell phone).

"Do you want to talk to Hank?" Vanessa asked once she was done with the small talk as we sat at the table after dessert.

"She says no," Vanessa whispered to me.

I grabbed the phone from Vanessa's hand.

"What do you mean no?" I demanded.

"I understand no's a word you're not familiar with," Julie remarked.

"Why don't you join us for the movie?" I asked. "I'll come get you."

"No thanks," Julie replied. "I don't go out with guys like you."

"Guys like me?" I asked, trying not to be insulted. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"I think you know perfectly well what it's supposed to mean."

"So, what kind of guys do you go out with?" I challenged. "Catholic boys?"

"She doesn't go out with any guys, actually," Vanessa volunteered.

"Tell Vanessa to mind her own business," Julie said over the line.

"Come join us and defend yourself," I told her.

"I'm sorry, but that's not happening," Julie said.

"Why not?" I didn't mean for it to sound like a whine but it did.

"I'm a junior," she said. "You're a senior."

"So what?"

"And you go to the prep school," Julie added. "My mother would kill me if she found out."

"So don't tell her," I replied.

"Yes, I'm sure that's your typical behavior," she sighed. "Lie. Cheat. Break the rules. Do what you want. Privilege. Entitlement. Get your own way."

"Look, you wouldn't be alone with me," I rationalized. "Lizard and Vanessa will be with us too."

"Lizard?" Julie asked.

"Norbert," I clarified again.

"Don't call him Lizard," Vanessa protested. "It makes Bert sound slimy."

"You really need to leave me alone," Julie was saying on the phone.

"I'm not a psycho," I assured her.

"Doesn't matter," Julie replied. "I don't date."

"It wouldn't be a date," I insisted. "You'd just be hanging out with Vanessa...and a couple of guys."

"I don't even know you."

"We had pizza together," I reminded her. "I promise I'll keep you out of trouble."

"Why are you bothering me for?"

"I like you."

"You don't even know me."

"I want to get to know you," I explained.

"What is wrong with you?" She accused. "Are you some kind of stalker?"

"Of course not."

"I'm going to hang up now."

"No, wait," I pleaded. "How 'bout you and Vanessa come to Greenville tomorrow? Norbert and I will meet you at the Greenville Grille at 5:00. Just dinner. Nothing else."

There was a long pause on the other end of the line. "I'll think about it," she finally said quietly.

"Okay," I said with a sigh of relief. "Think about it. And we'll see you and Vanessa tomorrow at five."

Julie hung up her end the phone without responding and I returned the receiver to the cradle of the phone on our table.

"She won't show up," Vanessa predicted.

"What's her story?" I asked as Lizard paid the bill.

"I don't want to talk about her behind her back," Vanessa replied. "She's my best friend."

"Did something happen to her?"

"Something happens to everybody," Vanessa remarked. "Look, Hank, I don't know you very well. You seem okay so far. Bert says good things about you." She leaned over the table. "But I swear to God if you do anything to hurt Jules I will hunt you down and mess you up."

"I appreciate that," I said earnestly. "Thank you. I'm glad you have Julie's back."

"You really like her?" Vanessa wanted to know as we left the restaurant.

"There's something about her," I said, sounding pathetically dreamily. "I've never met a girl like her. She makes me feel...warm."

I gave Lizard the keys to the car and told him I'd see him back on campus the next day. I walked to my parents' house on the hill but they were out to dinner. I spent the evening in my old bedroom thinking about Julie and wondering if she'd show up the next day. And I thought about what I might do if she didn't.

Maureen and I hadn't been getting along in recent years. Maureen worshipped and adored our father and she didn't like me being a dick toward him. She felt I had betrayed the family by getting kicked off the commercials. She also thought I was a snake with the girls. She was the perfect child with all the success and accolades and she couldn't understand why I was such a willing screw up. Maureen was three years older than me, presently living at home while attending nearby Green College and still appearing in the commercials.

Dad had left for the factory (on a Saturday) before I had gotten out of bed which was probably a good thing – he didn't have to grill me on my grades and behavior and I didn't have to be all up in his face like the jerk I could be. Mom had gone shopping with friends after making me a big breakfast before she left.

"What are you doing here?" Maureen snidely asked when she came into the room and poured herself a glass of orange juice.

"Spent the night," I replied.

"You in trouble again?"

"No," I let her know with annoyance. "Why are you always so quick to judge me?" I asked defensively.

Maureen rolled her eyes as she leaned against the kitchen counter and gave me the evil eye. She had darker hair than me but the same facial features and body shape.

"Why else would you be here?"

"To see you," I teased.

"Yeah, right," she grumbled.

"Seriously," I said, deciding I needed someone to confide in who might be sensitive to my plight. "I met a girl."

"You meet a girl every night," Maureen said sarcastically. "What's the big deal?"

"This time it's different," I smirked. "She's different."

Maureen peered at me trying to figure out if I was being serious. "You like her?"

I nodded. "But she wants nothing to do with me."

"Smart girl!" Maureen teased but then she saw the hurt look on my face. "Why not?" She asked.

"She sees me as I am," I sighed.

"Ah, it finally caught up to you," Maureen said with satisfaction. "What? She thinks you're some shallow womanizing rich creep elite?"

"Sort of," I admitted.

"And what's her story?"

"I'm not sure yet," I admitted. "She's not like any of the others which is what caught my interest. Plus, she's very pretty but she could care less about me."

Maureen smirked. "Smart girl!" She said again.

"So how do I get her to care?" I asked desperately.

"Jesus," Maureen remarked with surprise. "You're really serious, aren't you?"

I nodded my head desperately. "I think about her all the time."

Maureen took a seat across from me at the table. "Don't do anything stupid," she advised. "Don't try any of your usual dumb ploys, tactics, one liners and chauvinistic nonsense. Don't try to be a ladies man. Just be yourself. You know, the person you were before you turned into an asshole. The cute kid in the commercials."

"But what if that doesn't work?" I worried.

"Then it wasn't meant to be," Maureen replied with a shrug. "Look, you can't make somebody like you. It either happens or it doesn't. Don't force it."

"That sucks," I sighed.

"Yep," she agreed.

Later, Maureen gave me a ride back to the campus and we had the nicest conversation we enjoyed in years. Maybe Julie would be the person who would finally get me back on track in the personality department!

"Good luck with the girl," Maureen said with a smile as I climbed out of her car in front of my dorm.

"Thanks," I replied with sincerity.

But I was nervous as hell waiting for and thinking about five o'clock and hoping Julie would actually show up. Lizard razzed me but when I threatened never to drive him anywhere again he laid off. I felt crushed when Lizard and I were escorted by the Hostess into the Greenville Grille at five o'clock and I saw Vanessa sitting at a table alone. I had been stood up and I felt horrible.

Then Julie appeared from the women's room and I almost hugged her with happy excitement, truly thrilled to see her.

"You came!" I marveled.

"I was hungry," Julie replied with a shrug as she took her seat. "This is not a date. Just four people eating dinner together," she clarified.

"Of course," I agreed with a wide grin.

"I hope you'll be a little more interesting than you were the other night," Julie commented.

"We're not at a party so I don't have to be fake," I reasoned, eying her with a smile. "And I hope you'll be less insulting and defensive."

"Why should I suddenly be nice to you?" She challenged.

"It's the least you could do for a guy you're having dinner with."

"I'm having dinner with Vanessa and Norbert too," she pointed out.

"You can be nice to them too," I said.

"I have a proposition for you," Julie announced.

"What's that?" I asked hopefully.

"I'll be nice to you if you don't come on to me."

"Sounds fair," I agreed.

"We're not dating," she said strongly.

"Of course not," I agreed. "Just hanging out."

"You can't tell anyone about this," Julie ordered. "No bragging or any of that stupid stuff."

"I would never do that," I promised. "But I am very much interested in you."

"Why?" She frowned.

"Because I think you're great."
"Jesus." Vanessa spoke for the first time after she and Lizard listened to our conversation. "Don't make me throw up before I eat."

I laughed and glanced at Vanessa. "You should get Norbert to say such things to you."

"He does all the time," Vanessa smirked, throwing Lizard a knowing look. "Just not in public."

"Please don't say them to me," Julie pleaded. "It's embarrassing."

"I can't help how I feel," I said. "You're so intriguing."

"There is nothing intriguing about me," Julie insisted.

"I've never felt this way about anyone before and I can't stop thinking about you ever since we met," I blurted out.

Julie looked at me like I was crazy but the waiter came to save me from further humiliation. We placed our orders – I told them to go all out with their meals because it was on me. We ended up ordering a full course – soup and salad, the entrée, dessert and coffee….we were there for nearly two hours.

Vanessa and Lizard did the bulk of the talking and story telling although I picked up a few things about Julie along the way. She didn't have a dad, she was an only child, and her mom didn't work.

Lizard had told a few stories about me which didn't exactly reflect well on me and I felt the need to clarify things with Julie so she wouldn't get the wrong idea although it was probably too late for that anyway.

"I'm not a bad person but I have done some stupid stuff," I admitted. "Acting out against my father, mostly."

"What's wrong with your father?" Julie asked.

"Nothing," I confessed. "Just my adolescent angst and teenaged rebellion."

"Forget it," Lizard said. "You don't have to explain yourself to us."

"I know I sound like a jerk but I'm not really," I insisted.

"Yeah, you do sound like a jerk but at least you're honest about it," Julie noted.

I sighed and leaned across the table, tilting my head. "Would you be willing to give me a second chance?"

"I told you we're not dating," She stated with emphasis.

"I meant a second chance as a person," I clarified.

"Why does this bother you so much? Julie wondered.

"Because I care what you think," I answered.

"You never cared what other girls thought," Lizard remarked.

"I care what Julie thinks," I reported.

Julie stared at me with a funny look on her face. "You've got problems," she decided. "But I believe you're being honest."

That made me feel hopeful. "Thanks," I smiled. "You're the first girl I've wanted to be honest with."

"Maybe you're finally growing up," Julie theorized.

"That's no fun," Lizard complained.

"To tell you the truth, I'm tired of the same old game," I revealed. "I'm about to go to college. I need to start getting serious with my life."

"Can't you wait until after we graduate?" Lizard pouted.

"I'm just being realistic," I said. "My attitude these past few years has caused nothing but trouble and all I have to show for it is a crummy GPA, a frat boy's reputation, and an estranged relationship with my father."

"It's never too late to change," Julie said.

"I'm changing Bert every day!" Vanessa joked.

"I don't want Hank to change," Lizard complained. "He's what makes school fun."

"Oh, I'm sorry if I'm disappointing you," I told Lizard sarcastically. "You're on your way to Harvard. I'll be lucky if I get into Green College."

"You're going to Harvard?" Vanessa asked Lizard with surprise. "Wow!"

"That is impressive," Julie agreed. "Congratulations."

"It's not that big of a deal," Lizard replied. "I'm a legacy. It was pretty automatic."

I ran my fingers through my hair realizing how much I had screwed up my life. How could I hope to impress a girl like Julie when I was practically a juvenile delinquent? I felt pretty embarrassed.

"Look, everybody knows you're going to take over the business anyway," Lizard told me. "You don't have anything to worry about."

"There's no guarantee," I replied. "Maureen is the family star. She could be the one who gets it."

"Come on, you're the Third," Lizard laughed. "It's your destiny."

"My father doesn't think very much of me," I said. "It's my own fault anyway."

"You have plenty of time for all that," Julie said. "As long as you start doing things differently now."

"You've been a free-spirit," Lizard reminded me. "That's what made you popular. You willing to give all that up?

"You mean the weekly trip to the Dean's office for disciplinary?" I groaned. "Sure."

"You're kidding me," Lizard grumbled.

"Never been so serious in my life," I grinned, throwing Julie a look.

Vanessa changed the subject and the conversation turned to more teen normal topics but I spent most of the rest of the time thinking about the old me versus the (potential) new me. Would Julie have liked me better if we had met when I was twelve? Back when I was still a valued and eager member of the McHenry family proudly hanging out at the factory and happily being featured in the advertising? Back when my father and I were friends doing father and son stuff – playing golf at the country club, going fishing, and our talks about the important things in life – like family?

As corny as some of the furniture commercials were, my father loved making them. He usually wrote the script and each scenario had something to do with a real life family story or incident that he worked into the commercial – the tag line was something like 'well, at least we still have our furniture' at the end of every commercial. I was deeply hurt when he cut me out of them (although I deserved to be sacked because of my attitude and behavior) and that's probably another reason why I became even more of a jerk. I thought I was punishing him but I was really only punishing myself.

On the other hand, if I hadn't become a jerk and got myself sent to Sun Rise Lake School for Boys and become a party hound frat boy, chances are I never would have met Julie because I wouldn't have been hanging out at parties or been with Lizard who brought me to the Hillsboro party so he could see Vanessa who had a friend named Julie – so maybe it was all meant to be anyway.

"You okay?"

It was Julie's voice bringing me out of my thoughts. "I am now," I said with a smile.

I paid the bill using my credit card and walked with the others out of the restaurant. Vanessa and Lizard were willing to keep the night going but Julie wasn't interested. I gave Lizard the keys to my car again and told him I'd see back on campus the next morning.

"I think I'll spend the night at home again," I said.

"It smells like rain," Julie said. "I can give you a ride if you want."

I was surprised by her offer given her resistance since meeting her but I gladly agreed – a few more minutes with her wasn't something I was going to turn down. Vanessa and Lizard happily piled into my car and took off while Julie and I walked to her car further down the lot.

"How come you don't date?" I dared to ask.

"Lots of reasons," she replied. "But mostly because I haven't met the right person yet."

"How can you meet the right person if you're never looking?" I wondered.

Julie shook her head. "Says the guy who's seduced all sorts of girls but never dated even one."

"That was because I hadn't met the right one either," I explained.

Julie threw me a look. "You still haven't," she warned.

"What are you so afraid of?" I challenged.

We had reached her beat up Honda and we both climbed inside.

"I'm not afraid of anything," she insisted.

"You act as if you're afraid of me," I sighed as she drove the car out of the parking lot.

Julie reacted with annoyance and disgust. "Don't try to tell me how I feel," she said, sounding greatly offended. "Maybe you're the one who's afraid."

"Of what?"

"Of who you've become," she answered.

There wasn't much I could say in reply to that, mostly because she was right. I pointed for where she was supposed to turn and soon we were driving through the upper class neighborhood of Green Hill with the old Victorian semi-mansions intermixed with the newer expensive homes.

"You're pretty lucky, you know," Julie said.

I thought she was talking about the neighborhood and the houses and I shrugged indifferently. "These are nice places," I admitted.

"I wasn't talking about the houses," Julie said. "I meant your family. I've seen the commercials. Your parents look terrific. Your grandfather is funny. You have a sister. I'm an only child living with my single mom in a small condo. Don't get me wrong, I love my Mom and we have a great relationship, but it is just the two of us."

I pointed to my house and I could see Julie's eyes go wide when she realized that was where I lived.

"I believe in romance and love even if I don't have the track record to prove it," I said as Julie pulled the car to the curb. "My parents have been together forever but they still act like they're newlyweds. I want what they have."

"You're not going to find that if you're not serious about getting to know someone," Julie warned.

"I'm serious now," I replied.

She gave me a thoughtful look for a long moment. "We can't date," she finally said.

"But we can hang out," I smiled.

She chewed on her bottom lip for a second. "Maybe," she said quietly.

I grinned and nodded happily. "Thanks for the ride," I said as I climbed out of the car. I waved at her through the window and waited for her to leave but she was kept sitting there looking back at me.

Finally, she opened the driver's door and stood from the car. "I'm not a charity case," she announced. "I don't want you feeling sorry for me."

"I don't," I said with surprise. "I envy you."

I could see her physically react to that remark. "You envy me?"

"Julie, I know just about every girl who lives in this neighborhood," I said. "They have great clothes, drive fancy cars, go on glamorous vacations with their families and look like they're all together. But none of them have anything on you."

"Why's that?" Julie frowned.

"Because you're real," I answered.

She thought about it for a moment and then nodded her head. "Thanks," she said quietly.

"What's your last name?" I asked.

"Why do you want to know that?" She asked suspiciously.

"Just because," I shrugged.

She thought about if for a second. "It's Paoletti," she said.

"Ah, Italian!" I smiled. "Well, at least we're both 'I's' I grinned. "Irish and Italian. What a mix!"

"We won't be mixing," she said.

"What happened to your Dad?"

"I never knew him," she shrugged. "My mother never talks about him."

"And you don't ask?"

"What's the point?" She asked. "He's not here so end of story."

"I want to know your whole story," I said, giving her a gentle smile. "I want to know you."

She rolled her eyes. "Why?"

"Because you're special," I answered, staring at her.

"I told you before I don't need a superhero," she said. "I'm not looking for some Prince on his shiny white horse rescuing me. I'm not a damsel in distress."

"As you wish," I grinned, remembering the line from The Princess Bride. "I'm not looking to rescue you, Julie. I just want to be with you."

"And what's going to happen if I don't want to be with you?"

"I'll be crying myself to sleep," I replied with a pout.

She laughed at that one.

"I'm not a total jerk," I promised. "And I think you're the kind of girl who can cure me of my jerk disease."

"That's not my job, Sean," she said, calling me by my real first name for the first time. "You shouldn't be a jerk because you don't want to be a jerk anymore not because I don't want you to be a jerk."

"I don't want to be a jerk anymore," I announced truthfully. "I miss my old life. I'm tired of disappointing my family."

"I'm glad to hear it," she replied. "Will you still feel that way even if you never see me again?"

"Yes," I decided after considering her question for a minute. "But I really do want to see you again."

"Let me think about it," she said before slipping back into the car and driving off.

I waved after her and watched until the taillights disappeared in the night. I turned and walked into the house, surprising my parents who didn't expect to see me home at 7:30 on a Saturday night.

"Stopping by for a change of clothes?" My father asked from the couch where he sat with my mother watching the March Madness basketball game on the television.

I plopped into one of the easy chairs and glanced at the screen. "No, I'm in for the night," I replied.

My parents exchanged looks.

"You hungry, dear?" My mother asked.

"No, I'm good," I smiled. "I'll just watch some basketball with you guys if it's okay."

"Of course," My mother smiled.

My father wasn't going to warm up quite that easily. There had been nearly five years of trials and tribulations, disagreements and arguments, fights and confrontations between us and he wasn't going to trust me anytime soon.

I hadn't been following the basketball tournament very closely. Actually, my interest in sports had waned in recent years. I rarely watched it anymore but it didn't take me long to get caught up in the excitement and drama. President Clinton was at the game as Arkansas took on the Cinderella Tulsa team and I asked my father several questions to draw him out and get him talking. We both went with the underdog Tulsa squad, mostly because despite the success of the McHenry family in the furniture business I think we both saw ourselves as the everyman which Tulsa better represented. Unfortunately, Arkansas won in a runaway, 103-84.

Maureen came home half way through the Michigan-Maryland game and did a double take when she saw me sitting in the family room with my father screaming and yelling at the television (Mom had since retired upstairs).

"Twice in two days!?" Maureen remarked with surprise.

I shrugged. "Seems like the right place to be," I replied.

Maureen joined us for the rest of the game, hooping and hollering along with us as we watched Michigan win, 78-71. It was the first time in years I actually had fun with my family instead of coming up with snide remarks and insults, wrecking holiday gatherings and avoiding other get-togethers in my quest to be a jerk asshole all because my father made me go to work at the furniture factory when I was thirteen. The three of us walked up the stairs shooting the breeze and for the first time in years I felt like I was part of the family again.

My parents were seated in the kitchen with Maureen when I came down the next morning. They were dressed for church and I asked if I could go with them. I thought my mother was going to start crying and my father almost fell out of his chair but Maureen had a huge grin on her face.

After the church service, we went to lunch at the country club and Maureen asked my father if he had the script ready for the new Patriot's Day commercial yet.

"I think I have an idea," My father replied.

"Could I be in this one?" I asked hopefully after my four year banishment.

My parents exchanged looks and my father finally returned his attention to me. "I think we can work something out," he replied.

My family drove me back to the Sun Rise Lake campus after lunch and I felt pretty good about making strides to reunify with them after four years of assholiness. Later that week, I showed up at the factory to shoot the new commercial. My parents and Maureen were wearing New England Patriot football apparel – this was back before the Patriots became consistent winners and frequent Super Bowl champs with the new uniforms. Bill Parcells had finished his first season with the Patriots the previous fall (they went 5-11) with such players as Drew Bledsoe, Ben Coates, Troy Brown, and Andre Tibbett.

My parents and sister were wearing the old 'Patriot guy' helmets and the white shirts with the red stripes. Gramps was wearing an actual Revolutionary War Patriot uniform and he comes into the scene saying "Oh, those Patriots!" as my father tosses him a football. Then I enter – also wearing a Revolutionary War Uniform yelling 'The Furniture is Coming! The Furniture is Coming!"

My father looks at me and asks "Where have you been?" (an inside joke for those who knew I hadn't been in a family commercial for a while).

"Looking for furniture," I reply and that's when my mother and sister start listing some of the Patriots Day sales being offered at Blue River Furniture.

"The Patriots had a crummy season last year," Gramps says at the end of the commercial, cuddling the football like it's a teddy bear.

"Yeah, but at least we still have the furniture," My father says, once again offering the oft used company tag line.

I was happy to be back in the mix and my attitude at school was much different too. I was no longer being sarcastic and lippy to my teachers, I went out of my way to be helpful, I did extra credit work and turned in strong assignments and – even though Lizard and some of the others in our click weren't all that happy – I stopped being the party coordinator and social arranger.

I also didn't try to contact or bug Julie. I wanted to respect her privacy and give her a chance to think things over so I went almost three weeks before asking Lizard how things were going between him and Vanessa. He had borrowed my car a few times and I know Vanessa had driven to the campus too.

"I almost wish I never met her," Lizard groaned from his dorm desk where he was diligently working on some assignment. "It's my fault you found God."

"I didn't find God," I laughed, also seated at my desk (for a change) actually doing school work.

"Yeah, it's worse," he sighed. "You found love."

"Look who's talking," I accused.

"It's more like lust for me," he replied.

"Don't hurt Vanessa," I warned.

I'm supposed to take how-to-treat-a-girl advice from you!?" Lizard laughed.

Somebody knocked on the door. "Phone call, Third," they said.

I figured it was my mother wanting to check in about something so I wasn't expecting to hear the voice I heard when I walked down the hall to the pay phone on the wall.

"Hello?" I said.

"So, you're a television commercial celebrity again and all of a sudden you forget about me?"

I almost dropped the phone when I recognized Julie's voice. I couldn't believe she actually called me, nearly three weeks after our dinner at the Grille.

"Oh, is that on already?" I asked.

"Isn't playing a revolutionary a stereotype for you?" She teased.

"How'd you get my number?"

"Vanessa of course," she giggled. "I started getting the impression you weren't going to call me."

"I didn't want to pressure you."

"So you forgot about me?"

"Never."

"I'm guessing you're back in the family circle judging from the commercial."

"Haven't been to the Dean's Of Discipline's office in weeks either," I bragged.

"Gone to any parties?"

"Not a one," I said proudly.

"So, you are changing," she remarked.

"Will you give me a chance now?" I asked hopefully.

"I don't date," she replied.

"Then why did you call?" I sighed with defeat.

"I might still be willing to hang out together," she revealed.

"That would be good."

"I thought you might like it."

"Do you want to try to hang out one time without Vanessa and Lizard tagging along?"

"Maybe," she said and my heart skipped a beat.

"How bout a movie Saturday night in Greenville?" I suggested.

"I'll meet you there," she said. "Six forty five. I'll pick the movie."

"Okay," I agreed happily.

"See you then, Sean," Julie said and then the line went dead.

I hung up the receiver and practically danced back to my room where Lizard looked at me like I was nuts. "I don't want to know," he said.

I was at the Greenville theater complex by 6:30 and Julie arrived a few minutes later. She picked the just released Four Weddings and a Funeral with Hugh Grant and Andie McDowell which wouldn't have been my first choice but I was so happy to be going to a movie with Julie that I would have watched a test pattern. I bought the soda and popcorn and we took our seats in Theater Four.

The movie was fine - I felt a little awkward when Andie McDowell (as Carrie) lists off and reviews her 33 lovers for Charles (Grant).

"Sort of sounds like you," Julie whispered to me at the end of the scene and I felt pretty embarrassed to be compared to that.

I liked the scene near the end of the movie when Charles confesses that he now totally and utterly loves one person and it made me kind of think that was how I felt about Julie, at least in the context of my limited life. She was the first person I really cared about in a romantic, loving way.

After the movie, we walked to the ice cream shop down the street and I was bold enough to take Julie's hand. I was relieved when she didn't pull it away.

"You are the most beautiful and interesting person I've ever met," I told her as we ate our ice cream. "You have this wall built around you but I'm willing to take it down, brick by brick if I have to."

"Maybe you would be better off just accepting me as I am," Julie suggested.

"What caused you to become this way?" I wanted to know.

"What way?" She asked with interest.

"Guarded," I shrugged. "Protected. Shielded."

"I grew up the only daughter of a single mom so I got treated a certain way and I got used to it," Julie said. "My mother didn't want to see me get hurt and she overcompensated for me not having a Dad. Now that I'm getting older she wants to make sure I don't make the mistakes she made."

"What mistakes?"

"She was pretty young when she had me," Julie said. "I don't know all the particulars but I don't think it ended well between her and whoever my father was."

"You don't trust guys."

"I don't trust guys like you," Julie clarified.

"I'm determined to earn your trust," I replied.

'I'm violating my mother's trust by seeing you," Julie sighed.

"She doesn't know about me?"

Julie shook her head no.

"Why don't you just tell her?" I asked.

Julie gave me a strange look. "Weren't you the one who told me before not to tell her?"

"Haven't I proven myself to you?" I asked.

"She still wouldn't approve," Julie told me as she finished the last bite of her ice cream.

"We can still take it slow," I said.

"I just want to do something different for once in my life," Julie said as we left the shop. "But this might be a little bit too crazy for me."

"Going to the movies?"

"Going behind my mother's back," Julie said.

"Why don't we just give it some time?" I suggested. "See how it goes?"

"I've never done anything like this before," Julie told me.

"Please don't regret it now," I said. "This is new for me too."

"Why are you bothering?" Julie wanted to know as we reached her car.

"It's always been easy for me to get any girl I've wanted," I freely admitted. "But then I see this beautiful bored girl at a party who could care less about me and it blew me away."

"Yes, I went against your egotistical delusion of being God's gift to women," Julie remarked with a smirk.

"Thank you for that," I said with sincerity, looking in her eyes as she leaned against the side of her car giving me her full attention. "I hope you realize now that I'm not really like that."

"I'm beginning too," Julie said.

"The way I feel about you is all new to me," I said. "You're the only one I care about. The only one I want in my life. I don't care about parties. I don't care about other girls. I only care about you."

"It's hard to believe you can really change your ways, Sean," Julie said. "Do you really expect me to believe that you can retire as Don Juan overnight?"

"Just give me a chance is all I'm asking," I replied.

"You're driving me crazy," she said. "You're turning me into someone I'm not. Now I'm the one breaking the rules, doing psycho things, being dishonest."

"We haven't done anything wrong," I protested.

"What am I getting myself into?" Julie sighed as she leaned up and kissed me.

I swallowed when her lips left mine. The kiss was wonderful and magical.

"Good night, Sean," Julie said as she got into her car and once again I watched her drive off into the night.

I drove to Green Hill and spent the night in my own bed. In the morning I had a light breakfast with the family, went to church with them, and then played a round of golf with my father for the first time in years.

That became my standard routine for the next several weeks. Julie and I would meet at the theatre and see a film she picked out – Guarding Tess with Nicholas Cage, Naked Gun 3 with Leslie Nielsen, Maverick with Mel Gibson, The Flintstones with John Goodman, City Slickers II with Billy Crystal, and The Lion King.

Afterwards, we would go out for ice cream or maybe a pizza and talk about our week. Then I would stay at the house and do the Sunday routine with my family, followed by some sort of activity – golf with my father, or visiting my grandparents, or doing something with Maureen. We filmed another commercial for the Memorial Day sale with us draped in flags. I was getting ready to graduate from Sun Rise Lake School for Boys, studying hard for the finals in hopes of giving my final GPA a needed boost.

Sometimes Vanessa and Lizard would join Julie and me for the movie or a pizza or I'd have Lizard drop me off at the theatre and let him take the car and Julie would drive me to the house but she didn't want to go inside and meet the family. She still wanted to keep our relationship semi-secret as her mother was clueless that Julie was seeing a preppy from Sun Rise Lake.

Lizard and I graduated from Sun Rise the week after Memorial Day. It was a glorious day for the outside ceremony and I was thrilled to see Julie and Vanessa sitting amongst the vast crowd that included all my relatives. I graduated in the middle of the pack and while I could have done much better had I applied myself the past four years it could have been a lot worse too and I was grateful that things turned out okay starting from the moment I first met Julie Paoletti.

My mother and Maureen met Julie for the first time after the graduation ceremony concluded. Dad had wandered off to chat with people he knew (Dad knew everybody as a business man) so he missed the introduction but my mother was clearly taken by Julie and Maureen was all smiles too. It felt good to finally prove that Julie really existed – I had mentioned her in conversations but this was the first time she was seen with me.

Lizard and I took the girls out to a big dinner that night with Lizard's family but Vanessa spent most of the night holding back the tears because now that Lizard was done with school he would be returning to the eastern part of the state and it didn't look like their relationship had a chance of surviving. I was grateful that Julie lived locally but I began to wonder if we would spend any more time together. Sooner or later, Julie was going to have to come clean with her mom.

I returned to Blue River Furniture for another summer but this time with a whole new attitude and appreciation. I had promoted up to being a delivery guy and furniture mover and I was proud to be part of the team and to represent the family business with a positive outlook and a positive customer service mentality. My father was thrilled by the new me.

My mother told me to bring Julie over for dinner several times but Julie never accepted, afraid that if she did we would be "official" and she wasn't ready for that yet.

"You're going to have to tell your mom sometime," I said. "Why are you stalling?"

"I don't know," she confessed. "I guess because I'm going to have to tell her that I've been seeing you for a while and that will mean she'll know I've been deceiving her all this time."

"The longer you wait the harder its going to be on all of us," I warned.

My parents were out of town for a weekend and Maureen was off at her summer job at Summer Beach so I called Julie on a whim. It wasn't' something I did very often (at Julie's request since she was afraid her mother would answer the phone and ask questions) and sure enough Mrs. Paoletti was the one who picked up the phone.

"Hello?"

Should I hang up? "Um, er, hi, is Julie home, please?"

There was a pause. "Whom may I say is calling?" Her voice sounded tentative.

Should I use my real name? Come clean? "This is Hank," I said, deciding my nickname would probably be safer for now.

"One minute, please."

I heard Mrs. Paoletti put the phone down and my heart was racing. After a few moments, Julie came on the line.

"You jerk," she complained. "I told you not to call."

"Sorry, I couldn't help it," I admitted.

"I told Mom you were a guy from work probably looking to switch a shift with me. Geez, I hate lying to her."

"Nobody's forcing you to, Julie," I reminded her.

Julie worked as a waitress at Johnny C's Diner but she forbid me from going there when she was on shift because she didn't want people asking questions and sometimes her mom stopped in for lunch.

"What do you want?" She asked with annoyance.

"Instead of a movie tonight, how 'bout you come over to the house?" I suggested. "I have the place to myself."

I knew it was a daring invite and I was taking a chance but I needed to know if Julie was willing to push the envelope a little bit as more time went by. If our relationship was going to be restrained to a Saturday night movie I wasn't sure how long I could last.

Julie didn't answer right away. "What are we going to do?" She finally asked suspiciously.

"I'll grill us a steak on the grill," I said. "Bring your bathing suit. We'll take a swim."

"I don't know," she said. "Sounds kind of risky."

"Come on, Jules," I sighed. "Are you serious about me or not? It's been almost four months. Isn't it time to test our wings a little?"

"No monkey business," she said.

"Of course not," I said. "Come over at six."

I would never take advantage of Julie or try to do something she wasn't ready to do but I wanted to spend more time with her besides watching a movie and going for pizza one night a week (occasionally we would meet on another night once school got out, but never in Hillsboro so ballgames at Beano Field was out. We went up to the lake sometimes or down to the mall and Vanessa was always Julie's cover no matter what we did.)

I guess I shouldn't have been disappointed when Julie showed up at the house with Vanessa. Vanessa was willing to cover for us so I owed her a favor or two anyway. Plus she was in the dumps because she hadn't heard from Lizard since he left after graduation (I hadn't either) and it was pretty clear that he had 'moved on' from his previous life at Sun Rise Lake and with Vanessa. I was disappointed that my friend had apparently dumped Van without so much as a goodbye and felt guilty being the one left behind.

Vanessa had a bottle of booze with her and was already half lit but I declined her offer for some shots. I hadn't had a drop since meeting Julie and there was no need to partake now. I would have better enjoyed and appreciated some quality private time with Julie but this was better than nothing.

I cooked us some steak, grilled potatoes and corn on the cob on the grill and it came out quite well if I say so myself. Julie seemed to be enjoying herself and Vanessa – feeling no pain – was letting herself go, declaring that she was "over" Bert and ready to move on.

Julie and I cleaned up after we ate and I gave her a tour of the impressive house while the sad Vanessa sat in one of the lounge chairs by the pool listening to music and continuing to drink. Julie loved the house and I asked her when I was going to be able to see her place.

"I don't know," she admitted sadly.

When we got back to the pool we discovered that Vanessa had taken off all her clothes and gone into the pool totally naked. I could see her white tush as she swam back and forth the width of the pool.

"You shouldn't drink and swim alone," Julie warned. "You could drown."

"You two join me and guard me," Vanessa said with a laugh.

Julie and I exchanged glances. Never in my wildest dreams did I think a shy and reserved girl like Julie would take her friend up on the daring offer but sure enough she glanced around to make sure the pool couldn't be seen from the outside and then she pulled off her tank top shirt, allowing her white breasts to spill out.

I didn't want Julie to feel awkward or uncomfortable so I tried not to look and I tried to act casual and unflustered but I could feel my face getting red.

"Good for you!" Vanessa laughed, turning over onto her back so that her breasts stuck up out of the water. I could see dark between her legs. "Come on in, both of you!" She was clearly drunk.

Julie effortlessly tugged her jean cut offs down her legs along with her panties and suddenly she was nude before me. She raised her eyebrows at me before walking down the steps into the pool, letting me see her lovely rear before she dipped into the water.

"You too, Romeo," Vanessa insisted so I gladly discarded my clothes and pranced naked down the steps too as both girls watched with approval.

Julie was smiling when I swam over to them as they hung against the side wall of the pool.

"You finally broke her, Hank," an impressed Vanessa announced. "Jules finally did something totally crazy and wild. This is unbelievable!"

"I know its safe with you here," Julie told her friend before glancing at me. "This is an acceptable compromise, isn't it?" She asked me.

I wrapped my arm around her waist and pulled her into my hug while kissing her harder than I had ever kissed her before although my thoughts were scrambled and confused. I was stunned when Julie stuck her tongue into my mouth and she pushed herself even closer so I could feel all of her against me.

"You're not going to do anything in front of me, are you?" Vanessa worried.

Julie laughed and broke my embrace, seductively swimming away. Vanessa walked herself down the side of the pool and took a seat on the built in steps on the shallow end of the pool. Julie was in the deep end and I swam toward her.

"Mmmm," I mumbled when I reached her. "This is certainly different."

"I'm testing my wings," Julie announced. "Showing that I'm willing to take a chance with you. That you have proven yourself to me. That I trust you."

"I'm glad," I smiled as tread water in front of her.

Julie had her back to the wall of the pool, holding herself up by her arms almost like the Crucified Christ as she stared at me. Her breasts floated along the top of the pool's surface and I had to resist the urge to squeeze them but I did reach one hand out and extended my finger to push one of her puffy nipples.

Julie smiled, reached out, grabbed my hand and pulled me toward her. Suddenly my lips were on her breasts.

"Oh, Sean," Julie moaned as she cupped my head in her hands, using me as a buoy to keep her afloat as I caressed one of her nipples with my tongue. My hand massaged her other breast and Julie closed her eyes while my other hand found its way to her ass which I rubbed with affection. I could feel my member rubbing against her thigh and even though the water was cool I could feel the heat from between her legs against me.

"We have to stop," she whispered.

"I know," I sighed. "But thank you for this."

She kissed my nose before pushing me away and she swam the length of the pool with me following. We both sat on the steps in the shallow end with Vanessa who was on the top step with only her feet and ankles in the water. I tried not to look between Van's legs but it was hard not to notice her breasts sparkling in the lights reflecting off the water.

"Bert doesn't know what he's missing!" Vanessa cried as she wiped a tear away from her cheeks.

"I should probably get her home," Julie told me. "She's a mess."

"Yeah," I agreed.

We both stood naked and helped the nude Vanessa to her feet.

"I really love you guys," Vanessa mumbled.

We got towels from the nearby table and I watched as Julie wiped off the drunken Vanessa and then she dried herself off too as I dried myself with my own towel. Julie helped Vanessa get dressed and then she dressed too, throwing me a sad smile as I put my clothes on.

"It was a lovely evening," Julie said as I helped her escort the sobbing Vanessa to the car who kept mumbling "Bert…Bert…..Bert….." over and over again.

"It was," I agreed.

"We'll have to do it again sometime," Julie smiled.

I nodded and gave her a kiss goodnight. "You're amazing," I whispered into her ear.

She licked my earlobe before climbing into her car and taking Vanessa home.

Well, I was officially in love now. I knew it to be true. That night in the pool was the greatest moment of my life. The fact that Julie was willing to be so open and exposed with me proved that she trusted me and wanted to be with me. The only obstacle left now was telling her mother about me. All the excuses were meaningless now. The overprotective mother. The mother who didn't trust boys or want her daughter dating yet. Sure I was about to start college and Julie was still in high school but I was convinced that it could all work out and that we would be okay. Once Ms. Paoletti met me she would see that I was an okay guy from a good family and I was sure that she would approve of me seeing her daughter. I would have to convince Julie when I saw her on Saturday night that it was time to fess up with her Mom.

I floated through the week thinking about what Julie meant to me and how great the rest of the summer was going to be. I was happy.

I gave Julie a hug when we met at the Greenville Cinema on Saturday night. It felt like forever since I had last seen her that night at the pool and we both blushed thinking of that memory. Forest Gump with Tom Hanks was Julie's choice that evening and it was a great movie. I was rehearsing my speech in my head about having Julie tell her mother to give to Julie over pizza later as we walked out of the theatre but her panicked voice pulled me out of my thoughts.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"My mother," Julie squeaked as she gestured to a woman standing by the ticket window staring at us with cold dark eyes.

"Well, I guess the time has come," I replied.

Ms. Paoletti was a pretty woman and she was surprisingly young looking for a mother with a teenaged daughter. I was guessing she was maybe thirty-five or thirty-six. But she didn't look very pretty with the angry frown on her face as she approached us.

"Mom," Julie said, clearly surprised to see her mother at the theatre. "I didn't know you were going out tonight."

"Obviously," she said coldly. "You told me you were with Vanessa."

"Mom, this is Sean McHugh," the nervous Julie said.

"I know who he is," Ms. Paoletti said bitterly. "What are you doing with him?"

"We met through Vanessa," Julie explained, fear in her voice. "We're just friends."

"You can't be with him," Ms. Paoletti said coldly.

I figured Ms. Paoletti knew me from the furniture commercials but I was surprised by the venom in her voice. She couldn't possible know anything about me beyond the television appearances. She grabbed Julie by the arm and started pulling her toward the door.

"I can't do the movie tonight, Helen," Ms. Paoletti called to her friend who was standing by the ticket counter watching the drama unfold.

"Mom!" Julie protested. "You're embarrassing me."

"And you've shamed me," Ms. Paoletti snapped as she continued to force her daughter toward the main exit doors.

"Can't we talk about this?" I asked as I followed them to the door.

Ms. Paoletti turned on me like she was a secret service agent protecting the President from harm. "No!" She said angrily. You stay away from my daughter" She seethed.

"Mother!" Julie cried. "Don't."

"Believe me, young lady, I know exactly what I'm doing," Ms. Paoletti growled as the two disappeared out the door.

I was stunned by Julie's mother's curtly cold reaction and I felt the eyes of others burning in on me as if I was some criminal element who surely did something terrible to the girl being rescued by her mother.

By the time I was able to recover from my brain freeze and stumbled outside, Julie and her mom were nowhere in sight. I had no idea what to make of the situation and I didn't know what I was supposed to do. There really wasn't anybody to talk with anyway – Lizard out of the picture, Maureen was out of town, and I realized that I didn't have Vanessa's phone number or even know where she lived. Would Van even want to talk to me after sobering up and realizing what she had done in my pool last week?

I tried calling Julie several times during the rest of the weekend but nobody picked up the phone. I couldn't go see her because I didn't know where she lived. I had to hope that she would call or stop by the house and I drove through Hillsboro on Sunday afternoon desperately looking for her car in various driveways and parking lots.

I moped around the house until Monday morning when work would distract me from thinking about Julie non-stop. My father was waiting for me in the parking lot at work which was unusual. He had a funny look on his face and he seemed strangely white faced.

"This girl from Hillsboro," he said awkwardly. "You didn't sleep with her, did you?"

I was shocked that he would ask me such a blunt question out of the blue. We had been getting along well lately but this question put me on the defensive and I resented his interference in my personal life.

"Jesus, Dad," I frowned.

"Did you?" He asked more urgently.

"No, I didn't sleep with her," I said, embarrassed to have to admit it to him.

"Don't," my father told me. "If you need sex, I will get you a girl," he said.

"Christ, Dad!" It was the strangest most uncharacteristic thing my father had ever said to me.

"You need to stay away from that girl," My father said with a flat tone to his voice. "Don't look for her, don't try to find her, don't try to contact her."

He turned and headed for the factory, leaving me behind in bewilderment. How in the hell did my father know anything? Did somebody who saw what happened at the movie theatre tip him off? Had he been spying on me? Did Julie's mother call him to complain? Make some sort of charge of statutory rape or something? I couldn't believe any of this was happening and what was most frustrating was that there wasn't much I could do about it if I couldn't find either Vanessa or Julie.

It turned out that Vanessa found me. She ended up ringing my doorbell on Tuesday evening, upset and it was obvious that she had been crying.

"What's wrong?" I asked with concern.

"She's gone," Vanessa sobbed.

"Who's gone?" I asked with confusion.

"Jules!" Vanessa cried. "They packed up and moved out. Their place is empty. She just vanished without a goodbye! Just like the bastard Bert."

"What?" I croaked with disbelief.

"It's true," Vanessa wailed.

"Show me," I ordered, taking her by the arm and leading her to my car.

We drove to Hillsboro and Vanessa directed me to a condo on Alberto Street, attractive yet small townhouses in a handsome large common yard with green grass and nice trees. She led me up the walk to #29 and sure enough the apartment was empty, cleaned out to the walls, the shades opened to reveal the empty home.

"Why would she leave without saying goodbye?" Vanessa asked with disbelief. "Where would she go? Why so fast? I just saw her Saturday morning. Everything was fine."

I told Vanessa about the incident at the movie theatre and she seemed just as perplexed as me by Mrs. Paoletti's behavior.

"She was always nice to me," Vanessa insisted. "Sure, she kind of kept Jules on a leash but she wasn't mean or psycho about it. She just wanted to make sure Jules was safe and stayed out of trouble."

I asked Vanessa if she could think of anywhere Julie and her mother might go but she just shook her head and buried her head in her hands. "This is awful!" She wailed.

It was beyond awful but what could we do? Vanessa asked around the complex during the next few days but nobody knew anything. I kept waiting for Julie to call or drop a postcard or get in contact with Vanessa but neither of us heard from her. I had Vanessa's phone number now and we talked every few days in the first few weeks after Julie's "disappearance." I took Van to a few Serguci League games at Beano Field just for something to do – we were both victims in 'The Case of the Missing Jules' as Vanessa put it and it felt good to have someone each of us could confide in.

It was the summer from hell and I mostly went through the motions. I met a girl who had changed my life, felt real love for the first time with someone I cared about, and I became a different person because of Julie but now it was as if she had never existed.

Sometimes I drove by #29 Alberto Street in hopes that Julie's beat up Honda would have magically reappeared but a new tenant was in the condo now and I had to let go of that.

My father never mentioned "that girl from Hillsboro" again and I never asked him how he knew to confront me that morning. Our relationship actually got better as the summer progressed – I sensed that Dad felt sorry for me for some reason and he was unusually patient and understanding during those painful difficult summer months after Julie vanished

Maureen agreed that it was a bizarre situation when she came home at the end of the summer and I gave her the pathetic details of my sad love story. I was still moping around, unable to move on or stop thinking about Julie. It was as if she had died and I was grieving her loss. Sometimes I would think I saw her in a crowd (especially at the movie theatre) but of course it was never her.

I started at Green College that fall and I tried to motivate myself enough to care about my classes. Luckily, Maureen (as a senior) was there to help me get through the first tough year when the ghost of Julie haunted me on a daily basis. I still checked in with Vanessa but not as often as time passed. I continued appearing in the commercials with my family which was fun and I made some good friends at college but I didn't date much and I definitely didn't return to my partying and womanizing ways. I felt I owed it to Julie to maintain the image and attitude I groomed for her in case she showed up one day.

A year behind me, Vanessa attended Green College too and we'd bump into each other around campus. I hadn't seen her much in the past year and it was nice to reconnect and start hanging around again. We were both still grieving Julie in our own way (and Vanessa had never forgiven Lizard for the way he ditched her) but maybe it was time for both of us to move on with our own lives. There was familiarity between us and although neither of us mentioned the memorable skinny dipping pool incident that was also a bond between us.

We started off as friends - getting together for coffee or to kill time between classes and when Vanessa mentioned that she was looking for a summer job at the end of her first year at Green I hooked her up at the furniture company. As fate would have it, she ended up working in my department so we spent a lot of time together and that allowed us to get even closer. Vanessa asked if I wanted to go to a wedding in Vermont with her - it sounded fun so I agreed. We ended up sharing a motel room because it was too far to drive home after the reception. We both had our fair share of champagne and weddings always makes people feel more romantic than usual and that's probably why Vanessa ended up slipping to my bed into the middle of the night, naked, excited and wanting.

It was time for her to finally let go of Bert and for the two of us to let go of Julie as we made almost desperate love, each of us finally letting go of the past. She was tender and loving and I was grateful and perhaps even redeemed, realizing I could love again even while still missing Julie.

"Do you think Julie would forgive us?" Vanessa asked as dawn began to peek through the window as we lay cuddled together naked under the covers.

"I think she would be happy for us," I replied even though I really don't know if that was true.

I was pretty sure I still loved Julie but I also knew that I couldn't wait forever. Vanessa made me laugh, she cared about me, and we had our past in common. I could see myself ending up with her very easily (even if a small part of me still felt guilty about Julie).
Vanessa and I became an item after that wedding weekend, dating through the rest of college. I often wondered what Lizard would think but he gave up his 'rights' when he dumped her so unceremoniously and the truth was I really didn't care what he though anyway. He had been a bastard - the kind of bastard I once was - and I had no sympathy for him. We definitely weren't friends anymore so I didn't owe him anything anyway.

It was strange that after everything we had been through - Vanessa and I ended up together. My parents loved her when I brought her home for dinner for the first time (something that never happened with Julie) and Maureen thought Vanessa was a winner too. I think one of the reasons why the two of us got along so well together was because we both understood loss, pain and grief and that made our relationship stronger. We never took each other for granted and we appreciated the second chance we had been given. As an employee, Vanessa quickly adapted the Blue River Furniture Company attitude and mentality and she was a welcomed member of the team. Her family liked me (a semi-celebrity from the television commercials) and that made it a smooth transition.

Maureen graduated from Green with a degree in art and she worked for my father painting landscapes and other images for display at the factory and to sell with the furniture. My father also began to expand the offerings, adding lamps and other fixtures to the inventory.

I began working for the business full time as soon as I graduated from Green and my father welcomed me with open arms. I had been the first of the three McHenry men to graduate from college and that made me special in both Sean and Sean Jr.'s eyes – I had accomplished something they hadn't and that gave me added stature and respect as I began my adult career with the company.

Vanessa and I ended up moving in together. I suppose it was only natural that we would end up together, forever linked because of Julie and what she meant to us. We didn't talk about her much anymore four years after that fateful summer but she was still in our memories and heart and we used each other to keep that memory alive.

Maureen married into the Mahoney family that ran one of the bigger insurance firms in town but she stayed connected to the family business with her art work and continuing to appear in the commercials.

Vanessa and I married a few years later and I continued to move up the management ladder. Grandpa was retired but he still hung around the place, especially after Grandma passed away. Vanessa and I had three kids – Julie was ten, Louie eight and Maria six when Dad passed away. Some might think naming our first born after Julie was a little odd but it was something both Vanessa and I wanted to do to honor our long lost friend.

It was Vanessa who took the call. I was out in the back yard with the kids planting flowers. We had purchased a house in a nice neighborhood but not on Green Hill and we were quite happy with the yard and the people who lived on our street. I looked up to see Vanessa standing on the back porch with the phone in her hand, tears rolling down her cheeks. My father treated Vanessa well and she had been a welcomed member of the family so it was a big loss for her too.

I was thirty-eight years old when I returned to work a week after my father's funeral, making the awkward transition into his office from my own down the hall. The previous week had been a dizzy whirlwind of activity, visitors, condolences, and the long ordeal of the wake, funeral and reception. My mother held up well and although it was hard for Maureen to say goodbye to the father she adored, she had her husband and two kids to keep her occupied and distracted.

I was grateful for Vanessa and the kids. Van put in about 20 hours a week at the factory working with my mother in the display/sales area and it was nice to have such a strong close family during our time of grief and loss.

I couldn't stop thinking about my father, starting with the early years when we were so close and he taught me how to be a man. I tried to pretend those difficult teenaged years never happened – getting banished to Sun Rise Lake School for Boys, getting cut from the family business commercials, staying away from home partly to avoid my father – preferring to remember how great of a relationship I had with my Dad as an adult.

We played golf together regularly. We resumed our fishing trips with the other guys. We worked together at the furniture company. We came up with some great commercials together that won some regional awards. We shared in the happiness and successes of our expanding family as well as the grief and sorrow when loved ones died or experienced other difficulties. And now that he was gone, I felt like a part of myself was missing too – just the way I had felt when Julie disappeared twenty years earlier.

Grandpa hung around the corporate offices as a 'consultant' in the weeks following Dad's death while I adjusted to my new position as President of Blue River Furniture Company. Some feared I was too young and inexperienced for the position and that Dad's good friend Tom O'Malley, the VP, should have been given the position while I continued to be groomed but my mother wanted me to be in charge and that was the end of that debate.

I looked at how we could improve our processes, procedures, and maybe even strengthen our bottom line. A quick look at the balance sheets indicated that we seemed kind of top heavy in expenses and salary and I wondered if we could look at why we were bleeding there. I wondered if we should scrap the advertising line we had been using for decades – the family-based commercials Dad had written for years but I felt the consistency, familiarity, continuity, and trust was important too so a few weeks after Dad's death we filmed a commercial with Grandpa, me, my mom, Maureen and Vanessa walking down the corporate hallway past several photos of past employees and the early years of the business as we talked about our family and the Blue River Furniture Company.

"I don't know," I sighed as we stopped in front of the large portrait Maureen had done of Dad several years earlier (with a "Sean Andrew McHenry, Jr. 1952 – 2014 nametag listed under it). "Something seems to be missing."

"Or someone," my mother adds.

"Well, at least we still have the furniture," Grandpa notes as the camera tightens in on Dad's portrait before fading out.

Audit time was approaching and O'Malley was getting ready to call Crawford and Hurley, the auditing firm our company had been using for years. But Crawford was dead and Hurley was semi-retired and I wondered if it was time to bring in a fresh set of eyes to do a full and complete analysis of the books and a forensic examination of the past. Greg Tucker, a friend of mine from Green College, now ran his own financial and auditing company and I decided to use him to take a different look at our financial practices and see if there was any room for improvement or areas of concern.

Grandpa stopped by my office with a look of concern on his face. "You shouldn't go looking for things you don't want found," the 92 year old patriarch told me.

I had no idea what he was talking about but there was an ominous look on his face that gave me pause. Was there some scandal buried in the books? Some crime we could go to jail for? Some irregularities that would bring the tax investigators to our door?

I couldn't worry about that stuff. My responsibility was to the business and if I happened to uncover some skeletons or discovered some criminal activity my father knew about it I'd just have to live with it. Greg and his team did a good job and they were in our conference room for a week going through the books and old files looking for anything that might be found.

Grandpa kept asking when Greg was going to make his final verbal report and I told him it would be late on Friday afternoon. That's when Greg came into my office, closing the door behind him. He had put on some weight and lost some hair since our college days but he was a compassionate fellow even through the black and white reality of facts, figures, numbers, and data.

"Over all, everything's great," Greg told me much to my relief. "But I do have a few areas of concern."

"Such as?"

"Well, I don't' understand why it's necessary to continue with the property at Lake Ashlant," he said.

"What property at Lake Ashlant?" I asked blankly.

Greg looked at me with surprise. "Well, I assumed you use it as an incentive for managers or employees," he said. "Maybe for company parties? Vacation retreats? Reward for top performers?"

"I've never heard anything about it," I frowned. "You sure?"

"It was purchased in 1994," Gary revealed. "The company sold the condo in Hillsboro and bought this property."

"Condo in Hillsboro?" My throat went dry.

"Seemed strange to own that," Gary admitted. "I assumed it was used as a temporarily residence for folks brought in from other parts of the country? Or a rental property perhaps?"

"What was the address of the condo?" I asked, my heart beating in my chest.

"#29 Alberto Street."

I almost fell out of my chair but I tried to maintain my poker face for Greg. "Anything else?"

"Just your longest tenured non-management employee," Greg replied. "Thirty-eight years with company but nobody seems to know who she is."

"What's her name?"

"Heather Paoletti," Gary revealed. "We may not have flagged that except that the employee took the same two weeks vacation every year for thirty-eight years and the same sick days on the same dates every year which led us to believe it was a ghost account."

"Is that it?" I asked.

"Pretty much," Gary replied. "Otherwise, you run a pretty tight ship. If you could lob off the taxes for the lake house and make a profit selling the property that will really put you in good shape for next year," he said. "And you definitely need to get Paoletti off the books. That's twenty-two grand in salary and another fifteen in benefits."

"Okay, Gary, thanks," I said as I stood, masking my shock and disbelief at the revelations. "Good work."

Gary stood too and shook my hand as he handed me a memo highlighting his findings. "I'll have the final written report ready by next week," he said. "Thanks for the business, Sean. I really appreciate it."

"Thanks for all your help," I replied with a forced smile, walking him to the door trying not to fall over from my spinning head and pitching stomach.

I closed the door once Gary was gone and returned to my desk, burying my head in my hands as I tried to comprehend the revelations Gary had just made to me. I suddenly remembered one of the first things Julie said to me that night at the party – how her mother once worked for Blue River Furniture. I didn't think anything of it at the time – plenty of people came and went, especially college kids who worked summer shifts with the company and I assumed Ms. Paoletti was one of them. Julie also said that her mother didn't work and now I knew how and why – she was on the payroll (even if twenty-two grand wasn't all that much)!

But what was the connection? Greg said Ms. Paoletti was a thirty-eight year employee which meant she was around eighteen when she started, legitimately, I assumed. There had to be a reason why the company gave her a place to live and kept her on the payroll all these years and my stomach began to burn when I thought about the limited possibilities, none of them good.

There was a knock on the door and I stared at my grandfather as he entered the office. He looked troubled as he slowly walked across the room and heavily took a seat across from my desk. I sat back in my chair and eyed him.

"I was hoping I'd take the secret with me to my grave like your father did," he sighed.

"What secret is that, Gramps?" I asked.

"I kept it for thirty-eight years," he replied. "I'm not about to give it up now."

"So is Julie my half-aunt or my half-sister?" I asked, pretty sure Julie was the key to all of this.

"I was fifty-four years old, son," my insulted grandfather said with a frown. "The only woman I ever loved was your grandmother. I would never cheat on her, especially with an eighteen year old."

"But my father did," I realized, my stomach churning with all sorts of confused emotions.

"That's between you and your father," Gramps said sadly. "I told you not to go looking for things you didn't want to find."

I chewed on my lip as I stared at my grandfather trying to figure out if he was an instigator of the cover up or a willing co-conspirator in the lie. "Why did you go along?" I demanded, leaning across the desk and staring hard at him.

"We are a family business," he replied. "Our reputation was built on that image. I adore your mother. You kids mean the world to me. I wanted to protect you. And Heather."

"Why Heather?"

"I'm the one who hired her," Gramps sighed. "She was the grand daughter of Larry Watson who ran the lumber yard back in the fifties and helped us get off the ground. I owed her on behalf of her grandfather."

"Who else knows about this?"

"It was just me, your Dad, and Heather," Gramps replied. "That was the deal we made. We'd take care of her as long as she kept the secret."

"But now I know," I sighed.

"That's not my fault," Gramps replied pointedly. "I told you to leave well enough alone."

"Didn't Julie deserve to know?" I asked. "Didn't she deserve to have a father?"

"Would you and Maureen have accepted a sister from a different mother?" Gramps wanted to know.

I stood from my chair and went to the window, staring out at the parking lot of the company pondering my grandfather's question.

"Would your mother have stayed with your father knowing there was a love child out there? Would we have put Julie and Heather in our family television commercials? Even if you mom stayed, would you have had the same relationship with your parents if your Dad was visiting his other daughter every other weekend?"

"What am I supposed to do now?" I groaned. "Carry the secret too? Continue the sins of my father? Live the lie he never told me?"

"I can't tell you what to do, son," Gramps said as he stood. "I've carried this burden for thirty-eight years and I wouldn't wish it on anybody. But I do know one thing. It's not about your Dad or even you now. It's about your mom and your sister and your kids and your nieces and nephews. And this company, of which you are now the President. You will have to decide what the right thing to do is for all of them."

He started slowly walking toward the door.

"Gramps?" I called, stopping him with my voice.

He turned and faced me, waiting for me to say something.

"Did you forgive him?" I asked. "My Dad? Your son?"

"He made a mistake, Sean," my grandfather replied. "He paid for that sin thirty-eight years over. He lived with it every day of his life. Who am I to judge? It didn't change my opinion of him or all the great things he accomplished in his life. I still loved him. Because he was my son. And you should still love him. Because he was your father."

Gramps turned and slowly walked out of the room looking as old as I could ever remember him. I felt old too. Beaten. Defeated. Burdened. Overwhelmed.

What do you do when your hero disappoints you? When you feel betrayed by someone you loved, believed in, trusted, and idolized? When someone you thought you knew turned out to be someone you didn't know at all? I had felt this way before - but not like this. Lizard let me down when he disappeared from my life without a trace (not treating Vanessa very well either). I remember how crushed I felt when a teacher I admired at Sun Rise Lake For Boys later got busted for (allegedly) molesting students. We had to fire one of our most talented furniture makers at the factory - a guy that I admired and got along with - for excessive drug use. I'd also feel let down when some pop culture figure - a sports star or celebrity or politician I admired - did something to tarnish their reputation. But this was my father who apparently had an affair while married and impregnated a young employee at the company. Now that I knew of his indiscretion - his "mistake" as my grandfather put it - what was I supposed to do with that knowledge?

While dealing with that dilemma, I was also feeling excited over the possibility of seeing Julie for the first time in twenty years, reuniting her with her best friend - who was now my wife. And Julie - the first girl I ever loved - was now my sister. You couldn't make something like that up. But would Julie want to see us after all this time? And should I tell her the truth - that we were siblings from the same father? Or did she already know?

I glanced down at the memo Greg had left on my desk and saw the address of the cottage at Lake Ashlant. The lake was about fifty miles away - I had never been there before - but that's where Ms. Paoletti lived and I had her address.

I knew a secret. The question was what was I to do with the secret? My father and grandfather - two men I respected, admired and loved - had kept the same secret for thirty-eight years. Did I owe it to them to protect the secret, continuing the lies they never told me? Did I owe my mother and sister the truth - so they could feel just as miserable, disappointed and betrayed as I did? And what about Ms. Paoletti? Did she deserve her privacy after all this time? Should I just let it all go? And there was also the matter of Julie. Did she already know the truth? Is that why she stayed in hiding? To protect the secret too? And finally there was my wife. My newly discovered sister was Van's best friend from childhood. We named our daughter in her honor. Didn't Vanessa deserve the chance to reunite with her long lost friend? Or to at least know the truth and decide for herself? Or had so much time gone by that it really didn't matter anymore? Of course, I really didn't know the truth - and I wouldn't know it until I heard Ms. Paoletti's side of the story. But did I really want to hear that side of the story?

Vanessa knew I was troubled the minute I walked through the door that evening. I tried to put on my game face by goofing off with the kids but I was quiet and bothered thinking about the lies my father never told me and the burden I now carried, the same burden my grandfather carried. I decided I shouldn't say anything to Vanessa until I talked with Ms. Paoletti. I was pretty sure Ms. Paoletti didn't want to talk with me but I needed to know the truth before I made any decision about the cottage, our longest tenured employee, or my newly discovered sister.

Vanessa didn't ask questions - she may have assumed I was having a sad day missing my father - and we made love that night because I needed to be comforted and reassured that I was still lovable and still worthy even with the stain on my father's sin now on me. I did my welcomed family time on Saturday morning but after lunch I told Vanessa that I needed to do a work-related errand and I'd be gone a few hours. She didn't question it.

I had never been to Lake Ashlant before. Sun Rise Lake was always our lake, as well as Summer Beach and Cape Cod. But it was an easy drive to Ashlant and I had little trouble finding the Blue River Furniture owed cottage on Lake Front Road. It was small and quaint, storybook even, painted purple with white trim. It was older than most of the other cottages with the lake on the other side of the road, about fifty yards away. There was car parked in the driveway as I pulled my car off the road and I was surprised at how nervous I felt. I was sweating even though it was a rather cool September afternoon. A woman was doing yard work along the side of the house and she stood as I approached and I could tell she recognized me right away just as I recognized her.

"I was afraid this day might come," she sighed as she peered at me.

"Hello, Ms. Paoletti," I replied.

"Have you come to kick me out?"

I was surprised by the question and it kind of knocked me off my stride. I was thinking about my father and Julie and not the cottage. "No," I assured her. "That's not why I'm here."

She gestured to two lawn chairs underneath a nearby tree facing the lake and indicated for me to follow her. I did so and we took seats in the chairs. There was a slight breeze but the sun was warm enough to keep us comfortable outside.

"I was so sorry about your father," Ms. Paoletti said. "He was a good man."

"Was he?" I asked.

"Yes," she replied. "Please don't doubt that."

"I wonder if my mother would agree with you," I sighed.

"You are not responsible for your parents," Ms. Paoletti told me. She peered at me for a long moment. "I suppose you're here for the truth."

"Don't I deserve at least that much?"

"Yes, you do," Ms. Paoletti answered. "I just wish I wasn't the one who had to tell you."

"Who else is there?"

"This is very difficult for me, Sean," Ms. Paoletti admitted. "I ruined so many lives and here I am being reminded one more time. I know you're a victim in all of this and I am so sorry."

I appreciated her candor and I could see the troubled guilt written all over her face. "Just tell me," I said quietly."

"Your grandfather hired me at the company," she said. "I was eighteen. My parents had divorced a few years earlier and I was messed up. Angry. Acting out. Your grandfather knew my grandfather and he wanted to try to help. So he gave me a job. As a dispatcher. Working with your Dad."

"Who was a married man."

"Yes," Ms. Paoletti sighed. "With a three year old daughter at home and his wife about to give birth to you. And I was needy and lonely and conniving and I thought your Dad was the sexist man I'd ever seen. I made up my mind that I wanted him and I took advantage of his kindness. He was just trying to be a good person. I seduced him, Sean. He wasn't to blame."

"He was older," I grumbled. "He should have known better. Been stronger."

"Yes, he should have," Ms. Paoletti agreed. "But he wasn't. Did your parents tell you that there were complications with your birth?"

"Not in any detail," I said. "I knew there was surgery involved."

"Heart problems," Ms. Paoletti confirmed. "They weren't sure if you were going to make it. It was touch and go for several months."

"I didn't know," I said with surprise.

"It really stressed your father out. And your mom was obsessed with your health. She was preoccupied and distant and as supportive as your Dad tried to be your Mom wasn't really able to accept it and so there was a strain on the marriage. Your father was taking care of your sister practically full time because your Mom was with you 24/7. Even when you weren't in the hospital, she never left your side at home fearing something might go wrong."

"I was never told any of this," I sighed.

Both my parents had made it sound like it was no big deal and that I quickly recovered from my birth defect. I had been smaller than the other kids when I was young but I caught up by the time I was fourteen. I wasn't allowed to play most sports which is why I focused on Golf.

"I took advantage of the situation for my own benefit," Ms. Paoletti revealed. "I could see how upset your Dad was. How miserable. How vulnerable. So I worked my charms, gave him the comfort he was seeking and not getting at home, and I made the foolish mistake of falling for him. By the time you were out of danger and your mother got her act together I was pregnant."

"What happened then?" I asked.

"I quit my job," she revealed. "I had fallen for your Dad and I didn't want to cause him trouble. I never told him I was pregnant until he came looking for me to find out why I quit without notice or reason."

"Who's idea was it not to tell?"

"Mine," she answered convincingly. "I was always such a screw up. I didn't want to ruin any more lives. I had a baby on the way. I was nineteen years old and I needed to grow up, be a mom, and take some responsibility. I couldn't ask your father to jeopardize his marriage. I knew he didn't love me the way I loved him. I didn't want my child to have a part time Dad, in and out of her life, always competing against you and your sister. That wouldn't have been fair to her. So I told your Dad that I wanted to be a single mom. I didn't list a father on the birth certificate. I raised her alone."

There were tears in her eyes as she looked at me and I actually felt sorry for her.

"I'm sorry," she said softly. "What I did to your father was selfish and wrong. And unfair to Julie too."

I didn't say anything as I tried to process everything she had told me.

"You asked before if your father was a good man," Ms. Paoletti continued. "He's the one who kept me on the books as an employee so I take care of the baby. He's the one who bought the condo in Hillsboro so we'd have a place to live. He didn't have to do any of that. I never asked. He had a contract drawn up - agreeing to keep me as an employee and provide me a place to live as long as I kept the secret. He would only stop paying the mortgage if I remarried."

"You never did?"

She shook her head. "Your father was the only man I ever loved," she revealed. "And I never stopped feeling guilty for what I did to him."

It struck me that Ms. Paoletti paid the price for her mistakes too. Spending her entire life alone pining for a man she could never have. That struck me as a lonely and wasted life.

"He forgave you?"

"And himself," Ms. Paoletti confirmed. "We stayed in contact over the years," she revealed. "He'd check on the property, ask how Julie was doing, make sure I was okay. He was totally in love with and committed to your mom, Sean - but he cared about us and he wanted to make sure we were okay."

"You told him about me and Julie?"

"Can you imagine my horror and panic when I saw the two of you together that night? Ms. Paoletti asked with a shiver. "How many more lives would I have screwed up if my daughter had slept with her half-brother?"

"We didn't," I assured her.

"But you would have had I not found out," Ms. Paoletti said.

"Yeah," I admitted.

"I knew Julie was up to something," Ms. Paoletti said. "But never in my worse nightmare did I think it had anything to do with you."

"I'm sorry we went behind your back," I said in all honesty. "Julie was afraid to tell you she was interested in somebody."

"I was always way too over-protective" Ms. Paoletti confessed. "Although in this case it turned out with good reason." She gave me an appreciative look. "And I'm sorry I was so rude that night."

"I don't blame you at all," I replied.

"So, yes, I called your father in a dither that Monday morning. Practically hysterical. I knew Julie had fallen for you and from the look on your face it was clear you liked her in that way too."

"She was my first real love," I said.

"Your Dad told me to leave town," Ms. Paoletti said. "We stayed with my Aunt in Albany for a few weeks until your Dad could set us up here."

"Did you finally tell Julie the truth?" I needed to know.

"I had to," Ms. Paoletti sighed with defeat. "She hated me when I refused to let her see you again. She threatened to run away, come back to you. So I had no choice but to tell her that you were her brother and not her boyfriend but that it had to stay a secret."

"She agreed?"

"It took some convincing" Ms. Paoletti admitted. "But in the end Julie didn't want to hurt your family. We went to therapy and worked out all the pain caused by those terrible secrets and betrayals. And she met her Dad for the first time."

"She did?" I asked with surprise.

"Yes. They'd meet for lunch once a month. She had a lot of resentment at first but they eventually worked it out and she kept the secret."

"Wow," I said, sitting back in the chair, dazed.

"She's married now," Ms. Paoletti revealed. "A nice guy from Springdale. He runs his own Heating and Cooling business. They have two beautiful daughters. She's very happy."

"I'm happy for her," I said bravely.

"We went to the funeral," Ms. Paoletti told me. Snuck in the back of the church. It was very crowded and nobody noticed us. It was a lovely service."

"Yeah," I sighed. I stared at her for a long moment. "Thanks for that."

"It was emotional for both of us," she sighed. "Me saying goodbye to the only man I ever loved, a person who taught me so much about honor and commitment and doing the right thing, Julie saying goodbye to her Dad."

"I'm sorry for your loss," I said with sincerity.

"As I am for you," Ms. Paoletti said as she looked away to wipe away another tear. "So what are you going to do now, Sean?" She asked quietly.

"I don't know" I confessed heavily.

"I can't tell you what to do," Ms. Paoletti told me. "Once Julie moved out on her own I told your Dad he could sell this place but he turned me down every time. I think he saw this as his penance. That even after all these years he needed to pay for his mistakes."

"Could you afford to leave?"

"Julie said she would take me in," Ms. Paoletti said.

"How come Julie never looked me up?" I asked, trying not to feel hurt.

"And say what?" Ms. Paoletti wanted to know. "And do what? Break your heart all over again? She knew how you felt about her and she knew she'd have to reveal your Dad's secret to stop you from pursuing her romantically. She couldn't do that. She was happy when you and Vanessa got together. That took away some of her sorrow and loss."

"What about now?" I asked.

"What about now?"

"Do you think Julie would want to see me?"

"I don't think she would want you to expose the truth," Ms. Paoletti replied. "She kept the secret for your Dad and for me and she wouldn't want to be responsible for ending it now."

"But I'm her brother," I sighed. "Doesn't she want a brother in her life?"

"A brother she had fallen in love with? Almost had sex with in his pool?"

"She told you about that?" I blushed.

"She almost committed incest," Ms. Paoletti sighed. "I never would have forgiven myself."

"That was a long time ago," I reminded her as I stood, pulling my business card from my wallet. "We're adults now. Both happily married. Both grieving the loss of our father. Please give her my card," I asked as I handed it to her. "If she wants to contact me, great. If not, I'll respect her wishes."

Ms. Paoletti took the card from my fingers as she stood. "Okay," she agreed.

"I'm not going to kick you out of your house, Heather," I assured Julie's mom. "I will honor my father's wishes and I will assume the lies he never told me about. That will be my penance for all the mistakes I made along the way too."

Her eyes watered and she gave me an unexpected hug. "Thank you, Sean," she whispered into my ear. "God Bless You."

I broke the embrace and walked to my car. When I turned to climb in, I saw that Ms. Paoletti was staring after me and I was overcome by a sense of sadness and tragedy. She was only in her mid-fifties, still an attractive woman but she was an old maid because she had fallen for a married man and now she was in love with a dead married man. She had been more than punished for a mistake she made when she was eighteen, a young foolish girl who knew nothing about the realities of life and what could happen when used her sexual powers in a dangerous way with no conscious. I couldn't hate or resent her for what happened between her and my father. They both paid for their indiscretions. She waved sadly as I drove away and I tried to leave my father's past where it belonged.

I didn't tell Vanessa where I had gone or who I had seen and our marriage was strong enough that she didn't have to ask. We trusted each other and believed in each other and I now realized that my marriage was the most loving romance I had ever known. Was I violating it by assuming the lies my father never told me?

Days passed without hearing from Julie and when those days turned into weeks I assumed she didn't want an active brother in her life. Perhaps there was too much baggage or maybe she didn't want to risk the secret or maybe she still loved me as her first boyfriend and not as her unknown brother and she just didn't want to go there. She was my first love but it was a young and innocent love and I found real love with the woman I married.

There was a knock on my office door and my secretary Cheryl stepped into the room. "Excuse me, Boss, but there's a woman here to see you. She doesn't have an appointment."

"Did she give a name?" I asked, glancing up from the paperwork on my desk.

"Julie Wagner."

My heart skipped a beat. Could Julie Wagner be Julie Paoletti? "Send her in, please," I said, standing nervously.

A moment later, Julie entered with an aurora about her that almost knocked me back into my chair. She looked great and I felt myself being transported back in time to my senior year at Sun Rise Lake School for Boys when we first met. But this was my sister now, not some long lost love.

Cheryl closed the door behind her and I floated across the room to embrace Julie in a hug. I don't know how long we stood embracing one another, squeezing away the lost years and the missing bond while transforming our sibling power into each another. When we finally broke from the transforming embrace I saw that tears were running down Julie's lovely face.

"Hello, Brother," she said bravely.

"Hello, Sis," I grinned.

"Nobody can know," she insisted as she took both my hands in hers. "You promise. I don't want to hurt your mother or our sister."

"What about Vanessa?" I asked.

"Do you think she could handle the truth?" Julie worried.

"Let me think about it," I decided, giving one of her hands a kiss.

"Sean, I'm so sorry about everything," she sighed.

"I missed you," I told her.

"And I missed you every day," she said. "There was always something missing from my life. Even after I met Dad. Then I realized that it was my brother. Dad kept me updated on you all the time but it wasn't the same as having a conversation with you whenever I wanted."

"I didn't know you were out there somewhere," I sighed. "I thought about you often."

"I miss Dad," Julie admitted, falling into me and I held her close again.

"Me too," I said, giving the top of her head a kiss.

"That night," she whispered. "In the pool…."

"Shhh," I said. "It's not a sin if we didn't know."

"Thank God we didn't…"
"Shhh," I said.

"Jerry knows everything," Julie told me.

"Your husband?"

She nodded happily. "He's wonderful, Sean."

"I'm glad."

Julie broke the embrace and looked into my eyes. "Tell me everything," she said.

We spent nearly three hours sitting on the couch in my office telling each other about our lives. About our father and how hard it was without him. About our marriages and our kids. About our hopes and dreams. Julie thanked me with more tears in her eyes for what I did for her mother, letting her stay at the cottage.

"She can stay on the payroll too," I informed my sister.

"That's above and beyond, Sean," Julie stated.

"I plan on honoring our father's agreement," I said.

"I should get going," Julie realized when she glanced up at the clock and saw that it was nearly four. "Mom has the kids."

"Okay," I said. "But you have to say hello to Van before you go."

"Do you think she'll be ready for this?" Julie smirked.

"Only one way to find out," I grinned. "She's working until five. My mom has our kids!"

I went to the desk and picked up the phone, asking Cheryl to have Vanessa come up to the office for a minute. Julie and I were standing in the middle of the room with our arms folded across our chests awaiting her entrance.

"Do you remember that first night we met?" Julie asked. "How Bert laughed because he thought we looked alike?"

"Who would have thought he would have gotten it right?" I replied.

The door open and Vanessa came into the office, stopping short when she saw Julie standing next to me. It took her a moment to process the image she saw before her with the rolodex photo file in her mind but then her eyes went wide and her jaw dropped with disbelief.

"Jules!?" She screamed. "Is that really you!?"

Julie smiled and nodded.

"Oh my God!" Vanessa exclaimed rushing to her and almost knocking her over with her hug, lifting her off her feet and twirling her around. Van had at least four inches on her best friend. "How can this be? Where did you come from? Where have you been?"

"None of that matters," Julie smiled. "I'm here now."

They clung to each other and hugged and cried and when they were done sobbing and holding, they punched their cell phone numbers into each other's phone and then hugged again.

"I promise I'll call you tonight," Julie said to Vanessa. "Right now, I have two daughters and a husband waiting for me."

"Oh My God, you do!?" Vanessa roared with excitement. "That's great."

"Sean will fill you in," Julie said, leaving it to me to tell my wife as much as I felt comfortable revealing as she headed for the door. "Thanks for everything, Sean," Julie said. "And Van, I love you," she added before she disappeared from the office.

Vanessa stood staring after her long lost friend for the longest time. Then she turned to me. "Oh my God," she realized. "That was your girlfriend."

"My former girlfriend," I smiled, giving my wife a hug. "Don't worry about any of that."

I saw her head nodding but then she broke from our embrace and looked me in the eyes. "That night in the pool," she said.

"Nothing happened," I assured her.

"You sure?"
I nodded.

"And nothing happened after that?"

I shook my head affirmatively. "It's not like that between us now," I said.

"How do you know?"

"Because we're both in love with our spouses," I said. "And Julie is my sister."

Vanessa didn't pick up on the sister line. "I know you've missed her all these years," she sighed as she went to the window and stared out. "Thought about her."

"Just like you did."

"I wasn't in love with her."

"I'm in love with you."

I went to the door and locked it before crossing the room and standing behind Vanessa who was still looking out the window. I kissed the back of her neck while working my arms around her front and under her armpits, giving her breasts a feel. We weren't that demonstrative out of the bedroom but I felt the need right here and now to show her how much I loved her.

"Sean!" Vanessa giggled. "We're standing in the window!"

I smirked as I continued to kiss her neck and feel her up. "So what?"

"So somebody could see us," she worried.

"Let them," I said, rubbing my groin against her backside. "Can't a man make love to his wife in his own office?"

"Just not in front of the window," Vanessa replied as she turned and faced me. "You wouldn't really make love to me here, would you?" She half-teased half dared.

I swooped her off her feet with such speed that she screamed with startled surprise. I carried her to the couch and I sat, letting her lay on top of me and she happily kissed me.

"I love you so much," she said.

"And I love you," I assured her as I hiked her skirt up and pulled her panties down so I could rub my hands along her rear.

"You're not serious about doing it right here, are you?" She giggled as her hand worked my fly and buckle down and open.

I kissed her and made love to her on the couch, her on top of me with her eyes open staring into mine as we saw nearly twenty years of togetherness pass before us as we quietly made love, knowing that our emotions was what made the sensation so special and I kissed her as she climaxed and I spilled myself into her.

"This is what matters," I told her. "Nothing else."

Springdale was about thirty miles from Greenville, close enough for Vanessa and Julie to commute for visits. Sometimes they met at the mall that was almost half way between the two towns. Julie showed up at our house with her two daughters who were the right age for our three kids. I met her husband Jerry who was a nice guy. My mother happened to be visiting one time when Julie stopped by with her family and we were all surprised that my mother remembered her from the day I graduated from Sun Rise School for Boys.

Vanessa and Julie had a girls' night out one evening and Vanessa came home all teary-eyed when she crawled into bed next to me. "Oh my God," she said. "Julie really is your sister."

"Are you okay with that?" I asked, rolling over to face my dear wife.

"Are you?"

"Yes, but you still can't tell anybody," I warned.

"I know," she said, leaning over and kissing me. "God, I love you. You're the most remarkable person I've ever known. Jules told me everything. About her mom and the cottage and all that. You didn't have to continue any of that."

"The lies my father never told me, you mean?"

"Yeah, those," she said kissing me. "Are you okay?"

"It was tough to hear but I'm dealing with it," I admitted.

"It doesn't change who your Dad was to you and me, Sean," Vanessa told me. "And if Jules could forgive him and accept him after nearly eighteen years of abandonment I think we can try to be as understanding."

"I guess," I sighed.

She stuck her hand down the front of my briefs and easily got me excited. I needed her tonight more than ever. She pulled off her night gown and we made love in the warmth of our bed.

"Do you forgive him?" I asked afterward as we lay in the bed cuddling one another just like that first night at the motel after the Vermont wedding.

"Yes," Vanessa said easily. "I saw what kind of man he was even with the secret. What kind of husband, father and grandfather and father in law he was to all of us. And I'm grateful to have Jules in my life – both in my childhood and now back with me as an adult. I missed her and I love her."

"It's a tough secret to be burdened with," I sighed.

"Let me help you carry it," she whispered, kissing me on he cheek.

"My mother and Maureen will never forgive us if they ever find out," I warned.

"We're in this together, my love," Vanessa assured me.

"Secrets suck," I realized.

"Yeah," my wife sighed. "I guess that's why they're secrets."

My mother visited my father's grave every week on Sundays. Sometimes she went by herself, other times either Maureen or Vanessa and I would accompany her with the kids and we would make a day of it, going out to lunch or dinner afterwards.

My mother rebounded fairly quickly after Dad's sudden and unexpected death - returning to work the same day I did and continuing on with her routine as best she could. I admired her ability to bounce back and not feel sorry for herself as a widow. She loved being a grandmother and she was a strong presence in the display room at work so I knew she was going to be okay even with her loss.

But I had the burden of the secret. I knew Vanessa respected and loved Mom and Maureen way to much to ever spill the beans and she didn't seem to have the same amount of guilt that I did keeping the secret, but it wasn't her father who had cheated on her mother no matter what the circumstances may have been and I had to carry that weight every day.

One Sunday I accompanied Mom to the grave. There was no way I could ask her questions about her marriage without getting into unchartered and dangerous territory so I decided to approach it from my viewpoint. I figured focusing on my troubled teenage years when I was at odds with Dad and disappointed him would be a good way to bring up uncertainties from the past and address the subject of guilt.
"Don't be ridiculous," My mother replied when I said I was beating myself up for my past mistakes. "Your father forgot about all that stuff long ago."

"Well, I still think about it," I sighed as we stood in front of the grave on a cool November morning.

"Sean, if I thought about every mistake and miscue I made in my marriage I wouldn't be able to get out of bed in the morning," my mother replied. "We can't beat ourselves up about the past."

"I can't imagine you ever making a mistake in your marriage," I replied.

She laughed. "I didn't even want to marry your father," she revealed.

I was shocked. "What?"

"I had been going out with your father since we were fourteen," my mother explained. "I knew the furniture company was your Dad's future but I wanted to travel, explore, get out of Greenville."

"Why didn't you?"

"I did!" she laughed. "I was gone for three years after high school."

"I never knew that," I said with surprise.

"Then I came home for a visit when my father got sick and I ended up getting pregnant with your sister,' my mother said. "Your father proposed and we got married by a justice of the peace. I never left Greenville again."

"Geez, Mom," I said.

"I resented your father for a long time," my mother admitted with a sigh as she stared at the grave. "The early years of our marriage weren't the best. Maureen was a hand full and I wasn't ready to be a mom. I'm afraid I wasn't very nice or fair to your Dad a lot of the time in those early years. I don't know why he stayed with me to tell you the truth. A guy I knew from my travels wanted me to run away with him and I was torn between staying in Greenville and running off."

"Mom!" I said, my mouth hanging open.

"We all have our secrets, Sean," she said to me with a sad smile. "We all make our mistakes."

"Why'd you stay?"

"I got pregnant again," She replied. "With you. Wasn't exactly planned but there you were. A difficult pregnancy, a problem birth, and then you had your medical problems and I was convinced that was God punishing me for my indifference. I become devoted to making sure you made it, leaving your Dad to take care of Maureen almost on his own. I had abandoned my marriage emotionally until your Dad finally gave me an ultimatum."

"He did?"

"He said either we were married or we weren't," my mother told me. "Either I was committed to our marriage or I wasn't. Either I wanted to be with him or I didn't, but I needed to decide then and there." She glanced at me and smiled. "Well, I think you know what my choice was."

I couldn't believe I was now hearing the lies my mother never told me. Here I had been feeling guilty for months for carrying my father's secret never realizing that my mother had secrets of her own.

"I told the other guy to leave me alone and never contact me again," My mom said. "And I devoted myself to my marriage just as your Dad did from that moment on."

"Do you think Dad had secrets of his own?" I asked as I stared at the marble grave stone.

"I'm sure he did," my mother replied. "But whatever problems he and I had early in our marriage he loved you and Maureen with all his heart and he never gave up on either of you," she said. "Or me for that matter."

"Because he loved you."

"Of course," she smiled. "No marriage is perfect, Sean, as I'm sure you know from your own experience. Everybody makes mistakes, everybody has faults and problems, but in the long haul love will conquer all and survive anything. I know what your father and I had in the end so all those problems and mistakes along the way don't really matter much, do they?"

"No," I agreed. "They don't."

"That's what romance is really all about, Sean," my mother smiled. "Your father was talented and humorous, sensitive and kind. He believed in doing the right thing and he believed in the good in people. He did the best he could. He wasn't perfect and neither am I. But we loved each other."

"Good," I smiled.

"Don't let secrets haunt you," my mother advised as she took my hand and led me from the grave site. "The past is over and the future hasn't happened yet. Today is the only day that matters."

It was at that moment when I realized that our family secrets and the lies my father (and mother) never told me really didn't matter much in my life today.