Nineteen Years After The Heist
I leaned over in my seat to look out the airplane window at the red and yellow scenery. The mountains were familiar and beautiful, the terrain inhospitable and harsh.
Nevada. After all these years, we were back.
“Mom, you’re crowding me.”
“Sorry,” I said as I returned to the middle seat. Amanda wasn’t quite as bad as she was when she was 14, but she still had that special attitude only a teenager could possess. Plus, she was anxious about the trip. About why we were here. She deserved some slack.
I was the same way when I was her age, champing at the bit to go out into the world.
Two rows up, Bryce twisted to give me a sympathetic look. I smiled back at him. Somehow the streaky wrinkles at the corners of his eyes made him look more handsome. A man who knew things.
“Nervous?” I asked Amanda.
“I’m fine, mom.”
“It’s okay to be nervous, you know.”
“I said I’m fine!”
“Everyone gets nervous. It’s perfectly natural.”
“You didn’t,” she pointed out. There was a question in her eyes.
“That’s right, I didn’t get nervous because I didn’t go to college. I wish I had the opportunity.”
Amanda rolled her eyes and looked back at the landscape spread outside her window. She’d been asking her parents about college often lately. Asking and asking and then asking again, as if she might get a different answer. Or as if I was hiding something from her. But nope, the truth was boring: I hadn’t gone to college because my mom couldn’t afford it. As soon as I had my high school diploma I was out in the real world trying to find my place.
Amanda’s fathers had more interesting answers. Papa Eddie got his Bachelor’s Degree in criminal science before joining the LAPD. Papa Xander majored in French Literature of all things. And Papa Bryce had flunked out of college of course, quitting to focus on poker full time.
Our daughter seemed most curious about that. It worried me. Amanda wasn’t the most focused student, and I could already tell she was storing the, “Papa Bryce quit school too!” excuse up her sleeve.
But that’s the thing with children. All you could do was your best and hope they turned out okay. So far, we’d managed to do that.
“Moooom,” Teddy said on the other side of me. He held up his handheld computer. The paper-thin translucent screen was blank. “The video went out!”
“That’s because we’re about to land,” I said. “They always cut off everyone’s handhelds when we’re about to land.”
Teddy knew this. We’d flown half a dozen times before. But the triplets seized upon any excuse to complain.
That’s what Eddie had given me: triplets. Edward Jr, Thomas, and Timothy. Teddy, Tommy, and Timmy. After all my joking about only wanting three kids, the stork gave us a curveball right at the buzzer. Honestly, I don’t know how I’d do it if I didn’t have three husbands to share the work. Timmy was in the row ahead of us with Xander and Jessica, while Bryce and Eddie flanked Tommy two rows up.
Four adults and five kids. We were outnumbered. How did families with two parents—or, God forbid, a single parent—handle these many kids?
“Moooom,” Teddie said, turning the word into six syllables. “I was almost to the end of my game…”
The pilot came on the system and announced that we were beginning our descent into McCarron International. The plane banked and sunlight hit my engagement ring, sending disco-ball sparkles across the plane for a brief moment. A single ring with three different diamonds: one round, one princess cut, and one trilliant. Each different, just like my husbands. Lots of women commented on how unusual it was to have an asymmetrical ring. That it was strange to look at.
I always told them that the best things in life were non-traditional.
Like my marriages, I thought with a grin.
We’d found a way to make it work by getting married in three different countries. Bryce and I married on the beach on the French side of Saint Martin, while Xander and I bought out his favorite restaurant to play in on the Dutch side of the island. Finally we hopped over to Anguilla, a British island, so Eddie and I could get married.
Three countries. Three weddings. With the two other men serving as witnesses. Simple and perfect.
Now, the tax implications? That was a whole ‘nother thing. Fortunately we had enough money squirreled away between the four of us that we never needed to worry about that again.
The plane circled and then landed smoothly at McCarron. I thought I would feel goosebumps at returning to the city where it all happened, but I didn’t feel any different. Just a little nostalgic, and excited to see what the city was now like.
The triplets immediately yanked off their seatbelts and jumped into the aisle while Eddie tried to corral them together. The boys all had dark hair and emerald eyes like their father, and all dreamed of being police officers when they grew up. They’d worn the same police uniforms for Halloween two years in a row, and I knew they wouldn’t fit when the holiday rolled around again in two months. Eddie called them his outfield. All three were on the same little league team in San Diego. Left field, center field, right field. Sometimes I got confused as to who was where, though their coach always seemed to know.Opposing teams called them “The three terrors,” because they always tried to one-up the others in every game, leading to a barrage of hits and stolen bases.
That was a change that had been easy. Moving back to the States, I mean. San Diego was warm and generally pleasant, though I did miss the tropical air of the Caribbean. And the kids all loved being around more children their age in a big city rather than a tiny island.
Xander climbed into the aisle and started pulling bags down from the overhead. “I can get my own,” Jessica complained, insisting that her dad put it back so she could then reach up and get it herself. 13 years old now, she was a string bean with an attitude.
I don’t know where she got it from.
“Bryce!” I called. “Don’t let Timmy eat those. We’re going out to dinner later.”
“Hon?” Eddie said. “Do you have the chap stick?”
“Right here,” I said, handing it over so he could apply it to Tommy’s lips.
The woman in the seat across the aisle leaned over and grinned. “You’re lucky to have so much help!”
I admired my three men in the aisle, pulling down bags and directing our big family as the way off the plane cleared.
“Very lucky,” I agreed.
We could have taken two separate cars, but we liked to do everything together. At least, the four parents did. The kids complained, but that was something we were trying to emphasize: how important family was. We weren’t always going to be together, so we had to savor it while we could.
I flinched as I realized this was the last time we would all be together, except for holidays and summer. Don’t cry, Sage. Keep it together until you’re on campus. Then you can embarrass Amanda in front of her roommate.
Eddie pulled up to the airport pickup lane in the big van he’d rented. Aside from being an electric vehicle like all the others on the road, it was almost identical to the van we’d rented all those years ago when we were stranded outside the Guitar Center in Henderson.
“Lots of room back here,” I said as we loaded luggage in the back. “You could fit one, maybe two big crates.”
Xander removed his cowboy hat and scratched his hair. “I dunno about two. One for sure, but any more than that…”
He gave me a knowing grin.
Amanda looked from me to him and back again. “What are you talking about?” Without waiting for an answer she rolled her eyes and got inside. Always the little sister, Jessica mimicked the eye-roll perfectly and then did the same.
“Definitely two crates,” I said, smacking Xander on the butt as we all climbed in.
It took longer loading up the van than it did to drive to the UNLV campus, which was literally less than two miles away. It was picturesque on this late August day with the sun reflecting off the glass buildings, tall and new and full of educational potential, students walking between them with nervous parents in tow.
“I thought we were going to see the strip!” Timmy announced.
“We are,” Eddie said, “but not until later.”
“I want to see it now!” Teddy said. Tommy and Timmy bobbed their heads in solidarity.
“It’s much cooler at night when everything is lit up,” I said. “Plus we need to get Amanda to her room first.”
“Mom, it’s fine,” Amanda said.
I twisted in my seat to look at her. “It’s not fine. I read online that you want to get to the room first so you can claim the best bed and desk. If your roommate beats us there, you’re stuck with whatever is left.”
Another eye roll. I was getting used to those.
“Look, the fine arts building!” Jessica said. “Think they do singing there?”
Jessica still wanted to be a musician like Xander and me. She definitely had the voice for it if she didn’t get bored, and we’d been sending her to private music lessons because she refused to listen to the advice either of us gave her.
“I reckon they do,” Xander said. “Singing and musical instruments. They’ve got a whole marching band, right?”
“That’s what the brochure said!” I said.
“Marching band!” Timmy suddenly lit up. “I want to see the marching band!”
“Mommy, can we be in the marching band?” Tommy asked.
Teddy echoed, “Marching band! Marching band!”
“First you’ve got to learn an instrument,” Xander said, giving me an amused look. “Think about which instrument y’all want to learn and maybe we can practice when we get home.”
“Drums!” all three said in unison. Everyone in the van laughed, even moody Jessica.
Amanda’s dorm room was on the third floor of an old building that smelled like wet carpet masked by too much air freshener, the halls illuminated by the harsh glow of fluorescent lights. Our not-so-little party walked down the hall in silence, taking everything in. I cringed at what Amanda would say—if she didn’t take to this place from the beginning I knew she would end up hating it here, which meant she wouldn’t study, and she might use the Bryce card to drop out after a semester…
“Mom, here’s my room!” Amanda said. She used the key we’d been provided to open the door and then hesitated in the doorway.
“Oh. Hi,” she said.
I came up behind her and saw that we had been too late: her roommate had beaten us here. She was an African American girl with long hair pulled back in braids, and eyes as large as her smile.
“Amanda?” the girl asked.
“Amanda Parker,” she said, extending her hand. “Nice to meet you.”
Shit. I thought for sure we’d beat her here. Now Amanda would have to take whatever was left of the small space, which held two desks and two thin beds on wooden frames that looked like they were from the 1990s.
The roommate stared at Amanda’s hand like it was a snake. I began to cringe that they wouldn’t get along… But then the girl jumped in to hug Amanda instead.
“I’m Sariah,” she said. “We hug in my family. It’s so nice to meet you!”
“We’re huggers too,” I said as I hugged Sariah and introduced myself. “Where’s your family?”
“My dad had to take an early flight back to Kansas City,” she said. “Oh! I didn’t unpack anything yet because I didn’t want to just grab one half of the room without meeting you first. Do you have a preference?”
Amanda shrugged. “I’m easy! Whichever you don’t want.”
“Then you can have the side with the window,” Sariah said. “I’ll take the one by the door. I’ve got a softball bat to fight off any intruders!”
Amanda laughed in a way I hadn’t heard in years. “Are you on the team?”
Sariah rolled her eyes. “I’m trying to be a walk-on, but the coach takes days to answer her emails! Have you eaten yet? There’s a student luncheon over at the Rec Center.”
I started to open my mouth to say that sounded great, but Bryce came up behind me and squeezed my arm.
“I could eat,” Amanda said with a grin.
Xander and Eddie dropped her three suitcases on the bed. “We’re gunna go check out the strip. Want to join us for dinner later, Sariah?”
“I’d love to!”
“My family is big,” Amanda warned. “And my little brothers are a pain in the butt.”
“Am not!” Teddy yelled from out in the hallway.
Sariah’s face split in half with a huge smile. “I’ve got three brothers and two sisters!”
“Oh my gosh, that’s worse than me!”
“They’re not so bad,” Sariah said. “I’m the eldest so I get to boss them around.”
We said our goodbyes and then Bryce put an arm around my waist to guided me back into the hall. I was glad because I could have watched my daughter hit it off with her roommate all afternoon. It was time to give her some space. So far she loved it here. Everything was going to be okay after all.
It just might take me a little while to accept that.
“We raised a good young woman,” Eddie said in the elevator.
“We sure did,” Xander and Bryce said at the same time.
“Why are you crying, mommy?” Timmy asked.
“I’m not crying.”
“Yes you are. There’s a tear, see? It’s right there.”
“I’m just happy,” I said as Bryce held me closer. “I’m just happy because I love you all so much.”
We piled back in the van and drove a mile west until we reached the Vegas strip. It wasn’t as magnificent as it was at night with the lights glowing against a dark sky, but the remaining kids all pressed their faces to the windows and watched with wide-eyed wonder. The same way I’d looked at it decades ago when my mom first brought me here.
“Is that the Eiffel Tower?” Teddy asked.
“It’s a replica,” Jessica said scornfully.
“What’s that mean?”
“It means it’s fake.”
“No, it’s real,” Teddy insisted. “Look!”
The three dads and I listened to our children describing everything with excitement. Eddie drove slowly so they could take it all in, ignoring the honking horns of annoyed cab drivers behind us. “We’ll come back to the fountains tonight,” I said. “They go off with music and everything.”
“Music!” Tommy said.
We reached the end of the main strip… And came to an old, worn-down building. The Volga Hotel and Casino still bore the beautiful facade and sign on the front but the colors were faded and cracks shone in the brick. It’s like someone had come along and covered the entire thing in a thin veil, removing the sharp vibrance it once had.
Eddie pulled over in front and parked the car. “What’s this?” Timmy asked.
“We’re not staying here,” Jessica said, looking up at the building with distaste. “Are we?”
Eddie twisted in the driver’s seat. “This is the most special place in the world.”
“It doesn’t look like it,” Jessica said.
“This casino,” Xander said, “is where we met mom.”
All four children looked at the building with new eyes.
“But it’s so dirty,” Teddy said.
“It wasn’t always that way,” Bryce said. “It used to be a fully functioning casino with lights and machines and games. All of us worked there. I was a blackjack dealer, Papa Xander was a singer, Papa Eddie was a security guard, and your mom was a waitress.”
Jessica’s eyes almost bulged out of her head. “You were a waitress?”
“That’s how I got started,” I said. “A lowly waitress serving drinks to gamblers. It took me a long time to work my way up.”
Jessica looked like she couldn’t believe that. I was more-or-less retired from performing these days, which allowed me to go unrecognized around most of the world, but I’d still enjoyed an enormous peak of fame. Clearly Jessica was struggling to imagine me serving drinks.
“Let’s take a photo!” Xander said.
“That’s a great idea,” I said before Jessica could argue.
Ignoring the fact that we were illegally parked on the road, we all piled out of the van and stood in front of the casino entrance. Eddie flagged down a pedestrian and gave them his handheld to take our photo. The four adults stood in the back with the four kids in front, one big happy family.
We’ll need to take this photo again later, I thought. When we’re with Amanda.
We grinned and the pedestrian took several photos before handing it back to Eddie.
“A nice reminder of where we got started,” Eddie said.
I looked up at the building. I’d expected to feel a thousand emotions, sadness and anger and excitement, but all I felt was tired. It had been so long ago that it wasn’t even a memory. It was the memory of a memory, poor copies in my brain that couldn’t replicate the real thing. And the worn-down casino certainly didn’t seem real. Like trying to imagine the Great Pyramids as brand new buildings rather than ruins.
But everything had begun here. Our entire crazy, wonderful, big family.
I shared one final, knowing smile with Bryce, then Eddie, then finally Xander. This place would always be special because of what it had started.
“Who wants lunch?” I announced to a chorus of excited boys.
If you enjoyed this story, check out this other Cassie Cole romance: THE NAUGHTY LIST!
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That policy is going to be awfully hard to follow.
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Arthur, the suave French accountant who pronounces my name like it's an expensive wine.
Robbie, the awkward computer nerd whose chiseled body and sleeve tattoos hint at a hidden life.
The four of us have to finish our big project by Christmas.
Which means my gorgeous employees are totally off-limits.
But that just makes our professional relationship even more tantalizing.
Especially as we start working long hours in the office.
With our careers on the line, can we ignore the growing attraction between us?
Or will we all end up on Santa's naughty list?