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"But, Dad, we're eighteen. Why can't we stay out all night?" Alisa pouted. "You act like you don't trust us or something!"
"It's prom night, Daddy!" Ariana piped in. "All our friends are going to the after party."
Exasperation drew lines on Terry Winston's face. "And I have to tell you how many times, I don't care what your friends are doing because they're no concern of mine?"
"You know we really don't need your permission," Alisa said, testing the waters of defiance. "We're legally adults!"
Ariana stared at her mirror image in disbelief. She had to think quickly to counteract her sister's temporary bout of insanity. "I think what Alisa means is that--"
"Girl, you are straight up trippin'." The veins bulged in Terry's forehead and neck as he got into Alisa's face. "As long as my name is Terrance Winston and it appears on your birth certificate, my blood runs through your veins and you're slipping your key in my front door every day and driving the car that I make the payments on and--"
"Girls," their mother, Jackie, interrupted, "let me talk to your father for a moment. And, Alisa, I recommend you take a few moments to adjust your attitude before this family meeting reconvenes."
Ariana pushed her sister through the arched opening that separated the family room from the kitchen. Alisa jerked away, turning slightly to roll her eyes at her sister. "You're just tryin' to be Miss Goody-goody," she hissed. "You know you want this as much as I do!"
"Just go," Ariana whispered. "If you keep this up, we won't even get to go to the prom."
The two bounced up the wide staircase, splitting at the landing and going in different directions, though their rooms adjoined. "You seem to forget we're grown," Alisa yelled after her sister just before stepping into her bedroom and slamming the door.
Terry sat with his head in his hands, trying to understand where his sweet, almost-perfect daughters had gone and when the imposter who'd taken over Alisa's body had made the switch. In the scheme of things he really needed to count his many blessings. Ariana and Alisa Winston were top honor roll students as they approached high school graduation. They had been accepted by their top three choices of colleges with offers of full scholarships. To everyone's surprise, the girls were contemplating going separate ways in pursuit of their very grand academic dreams, which included environmental design for Ariana and journalism for Alisa.
By anyone's standard, Terry Winston had been a wonderful father since the day he decided he couldn't let Catherine Hawkins, their birth mother, put them up for adoption. He'd brought his darling princesses home from the hospital, determined to be the best father he could be, while Catherine went off in pursuit of her career goals. In spite--or perhaps because--of it all, he knew today as he'd known then that there had been no other decision he could have made. He loved those girls so much that he would have given them the shirt off his back if they needed it. Moments like these, however, made him understand why his temples, mustache and five o'clock shadow bore the distinction of time.
Thank goodness for his wife. Jacqueline Rogers-Winston was the anchor in the many stormy seas of his life. A sense of calm began to radiate through him as he felt the warmth of her touch in the center of his back. "Are you okay?"
"Not hardly!" Terry took her hand and pulled her around to sit on his lap. "When did she get so belligerent?"
"Honey, she's just feeling her womanhood. She thinks she's grown. Every girl goes through the very same thing," Jackie said as she slipped her arms around his neck. "Count yourself lucky it didn't happen any earlier."
"Then why is Ariana so different?" Terry pulled back to make eye contact with his wife of seven wonder-filled years. "They look like the same person, walk and talk the same, but when it comes to personality they are as different as sunshine and rain."
"You seem to forget that it's all still weather. But amazingly they really aren't that different. They both work you like a baker kneading dough, but Ariana just has more finesse." Jackie kissed him gently on the forehead. "And then, toss a little estrogen and oxygen into the mix and, voila, there you have it--women!"
Staring deeply into Jackie's eyes, Terry wondered what he'd done to deserve such a woman. His soul had connected with hers the moment he'd seen her in the supermarket on the rainy afternoon nearly thirteen years before. "What am I going to do?"
Laughing, Jackie pulled back and stood. "Oh, you thought I had a solution?" She walked around the couch into the kitchen, retrieving coffee mugs from the dishwasher. The sound echoed through the large, airy space as she placed them on the counter. She placed her hand on the cool granite and thought a moment before she turned and continued. "This is such a difficult age for everyone. They are in fact adults, though you think of them as your little girls. Look at them. They're built like supermodels with beauty to match, yet they still want nothing more than to please their daddy. They have the pressure of friends and adversaries alike to do this or to act like that. You seem to think that you're the only one with a hard job in all of this." Jackie poured two cups of coffee, added a little Baileys Irish Cream in both and moved back toward the family room.
"So you're saying I should let them stay out all night?" Terry wanted to be angry, but confusion won out.
Terry removed two coasters from the cut-crystal holder and placed them on the cherrywood table. Jackie set the mugs down and turned to her husband in the same movement. "Not at all. What I am saying is there should be some kind of compromise."
"I'm their father. I don't have to conciliate with them!" Terry stood, looking down at Jackie. "Teresa Winston never negotiated with me. It was her way or the highway."
"Times are different." Jackie grabbed his hand and pulled him back to the sofa. "And you'd lose your natural mind if Ariana and Alisa decided they wanted to take the highway."
"Alrighty then, Ms. I've-got-all-the-answers, what do I do? No daughter of mine is going to be out all night with my blessings. The only things open after two a.m. are legs!"
Laughing, Jackie found it difficult to be serious. Trying to compose her thoughts for a clever comeback, she gave birth to what she considered sheer genius. "Let's have the after party here."
Speechless and staring at her as though she were an alien, Terry finally said, "Are you nuts? Do you know what a house full of teenagers could do to this place? Look around you. We have beige carpeting and hardwood floors, antiques, fine crystal. We'd have to take out a rider to our homeowners' policy." Terry picked up the coffee mug and blew on the mocha liquid absentmindedly.
Touching his knee and forcing Terry to make eye contact with her, Jackie continued, "But look at the beauty of this. They get to party all night with their friends, doing whatever it is eighteen-year-olds do, with your watchful eye right upstairs the whole time. And even if the floors get scuffed and the carpet stained, isn't that a very small price to pay for their happiness and your peace of mind?"
This woman is as smart as she is sexy. Terry smiled. He had to admit her plan did seem without flaws. "Do you think they'll go for such an idea?"
"In the words of the great don, make them an offer they can't refuse."
"First find out what the other after party is offering"--Jackie grinned with satisfaction--"then trump it!"
Smiling at her, Terry thought back to the many times she'd been the answer not only to his prayers but also the desires of his heart. "How do you come up with this stuff?"
"Just brilliance, my love, sheer brilliance." She winked. "I think you should call them back down, first making Alisa apologize for her behavior, which immediately puts her at a disadvantage."
Just as Terry was about to summon his firstborn, Michelle, Michael and Terrance Junior rushed up the stairs from the basement playroom. "Mommy, can we have some popcorn?" Michael yelled as he approached his parents.
"Boy, you just had dinner not more than an hour ago. Where do you put it all?" Exasperated, Jackie smiled. "There's a new box in the pantry. I want to see your homework when you're done with the popcorn. Yours too, Michelle and T.J."
"Yes, ma'am," T.J. said with the enthusiasm of a six-year-old who hadn't completed his assigned task.
Michelle beamed with pride. "I'm done. You can check mine now, Mommy."
"Whatever," Michael mumbled in a baritone voice reserved for someone well beyond thirteen.
As the children headed for the walk-in pantry to retrieve an evening snack, Jackie's heart felt full, remembering how the two families had blended seamlessly seven years before. Only those who had known them for many years knew the story of how Terry's identical twins daughters and Jackie's fraternal twins became the loving Winston clan. And the cement that brought it all together was Terry's namesake, Terrance Winston Junior.
"So you think this will really work?" Terry interrupted her reverie. "I mean, how do we even begin to plan a party for teenagers who think they're grown?" A serious look crept across Terry's face. "I mean, what do we allow? Do we chaperone?"
Rising, Jackie looked back at Terry and smiled. "You convince them this is a great idea and I'll handle the rest."
Terry watched Jackie's full, round behind as she switched into the kitchen. Opening the door to the built-in refrigerator that blended with the oak cabinetry, she bent to retrieve a fruit drink, and Terry found himself moaning involuntarily. Jackie stirred him in ways he had never even imagined a woman could. He couldn't understand why Jackie had such issues with her size. The thought of her softness, silky smooth skin, round bottom, full breasts, thick thighs, the heat that radiated from her booty as they slept . . . lawdhamercy! The rumbling taking place above his head shifted his attention from the woman with whom he desperately wanted to sneak into the pantry for just a few stolen moments.
"What in the . . ." Terry leapt to his feet and took the stairs two at a time. "I swear, sometimes they act like they're the babies in this house," he mumbled as he reached the landing leading to the east wing of the house.
He stood outside Ariana's room and listened to the two argue before knocking. "I don't need you to talk for me. I can tell Daddy what I mean." Though Terry couldn't see who was speaking, he knew it was Alisa.
"You need someone to keep your stupid behind out of trouble. If you don't stop this, I'm scared we won't get to go anywhere at all!" Ariana's voice had a tone of pleading. "What's the big deal about going to the after party anyway?"
"Everyone will be there is the big deal. How can the most popular twins in the senior class not be?"
"Alisa, we're the only twins in the senior class!"
Terry knocked lightly.
"This is my room!" Ariana yelled just before she snatched the door opened. "Daddy?" Ariana said, taken aback.
With his hand positioned to knock again, Terry said, "Oh, so you were expecting whom?" He struggled to calm the anger he felt at Alisa at that moment. "May I come in?"
"Sure, Daddy. I thought maybe you were Michelle. She asked me to help her with something." Ariana didn't make eye contact with her father, which was a good sign she was fishing for a believable response.
"What's going on up here?" Terry stepped into the large space decorated in various shades of yellow and blue. The queen-size canopy bed with canary-yellow and cobalt-blue netting draped over the posts showed signs of a tussle. "It sounded like you were coming through the ceiling downstairs." Terry eyed the matching pillows that were tossed about the room.
Alisa turned away from her father, folding her arms. "We're having a private conversation."
"The minute you threatened the structure of this house, it became public." Terry moved to the blue-and-yellow patchwork-covered footstool and sat. "What are you two fighting about this time?"
"She's such a suck-up! I want to go to the after party and so does she, but she's saying whatever it is that you want to hear!" Anger filled Alisa's beautiful face. "You always taught us to be our own person and to stand up for whatever it is that we believe."
"And you believe what about this?" Terry asked calmly.
"I believe we're adults, and legally you can't tell us what we can and cannot do." Alisa eyed her sister, asking for collaboration, but Ariana's stony face yielded little support.
Terry was stoic.
Alisa continued, "I know we still live in your house and with that comes certain rules . . ."
Terry saw Alisa start to squirm and, enjoying the assumed shift of power, he said simply, "Go on."
"But I think you need to relax our curfew." Confidence fleeing rapidly, Alisa lowered her head and voice. "At least on prom night."
"I see." Tension began to permeate the air as Terry turned to Ariana, who stood with her back pressed against the door. "And what do you have to say, young lady?"
As she dropped her head, the only sound that could be heard in the room was the ticking of the clocks representing the four time zones of the United States, each slightly off cadence with the other. "I'd like to hang with our friends after the prom. Could we compromise and go out to eat and maybe come home by four?"
"I would have considered this counterproposal, but your sister's attitude has me more than just a little concerned. Since you're grown, then perhaps we need to make other living arrangements."
Terry toyed with them. "Grown is as grown does. I think you need to have your own place."
"Daddy!" they sang in unison.
Terry suppressed a chuckle. "Daddy what?"
"When you think you can apologize to me and your mother for that outburst downstairs, you let me know." Terry rose. "Then we can discuss your loss of good standing and what it will mean to this prom and graduation season."
Ariana shot a penetrating stare at Alisa and returned pleading eyes to her father. "Daddy, I didn't do anything!" Unshed tears caused her expressive brown eyes to sparkle.
Though his heart melted, he stood firm. "All for one and one for all! You'd better have a come-to-Jesus with your sister. I won't live in the same house with disrespect, ever!"
Without another word Terry walked to the door, and Ariana moved aside as he opened it and stepped into the hallway. He expelled more air than he contained. It was so difficult to be stern. Deep inside, he'd always felt the need to overcompensate for Catherine's abandonment of them. Even after Jackie had adopted the girls, deep in his heart those feelings never changed. In recent months Alisa had become more and more combative. Jackie assured him it was a long time coming and totally normal. What scared him even more was that Ariana must have just been lying in wait to spring her split personality on him when he least expected it. The thought always made his head ache.