Brianna drove through the gates and parked. She'd spent the entire drive trying to mentally prepare herself for what she was going to face inside the house, but she doubted she was really ready. She had never had to deal with death much - other than her grandparents - so she wasn't sure how well she would handle it or how much help she would actually be to Jon and the kids. Dorothea's weak voice and urgent tone during the phone call summoning her back, gave her the feeling she'd be finding out sooner rather than later.
Taking a deep breath, she climbed out of the car, grabbed her suitcase out of the trunk and headed for the house, not surprised when the door opened before she got there. The shadows in Jon's usually bright blue eyes made her heart hurt.
"Hey. You're back early." His subdued voice showed his surprise.
She stared at him. Does he really not know? "Dorothea called me this morning and said she needed me back....today. Didn't she tell you?"
Jon shook his head. "No, but I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Things are.....deteriorating. Quickly."
Brianna nodded. "Linda told me."
"Oh, right. The shopping expedition. How much did that set me back?"
The grumpy words didn't fool her. His tone and the expression in his eyes told of his lack of concern. "It could have been worse. Kenneth didn't have the full winter line in the store."
"Thank God for small mercies." He sighed and reached for her suitcase. "Come on in. Mom's here. She's making dinner. Jake will be thrilled to see you."
"I missed him too." She grinned and followed him inside.
"Bianna!" Jake ran into the foyer, threw his arms around her waist and hugged her. "You came back!"
Frowning, she knelt down front of him to look him in the eye. "Of course I did. Did you think I wasn't?"
He nodded, tears filling his eyes.
"Oh, buddy!" She hugged him again, her own eyes nearly overflowing. "I'm not going anywhere."
"I promise." She looked up at Jon to see his eyes shining as well.
Carol had been watching from the doorway and decided it was time to step in. "Hello Brianna, nice to see you. Hey Jakey, the first batch of cookies just came out of the oven and I need someone to taste them and make sure they turned out okay."
Jake sniffed, but released Brianna and turned to his grandmother. "I do it!"
Watching his son leave with his mother, Jon sighed, raked a hand through his hair and helped Brianna to her feet. "Dot's in the room next to my office. You go ahead, I'll take your bags upstairs."
"Thanks." Brianna wiped her eyes and took a steadying breath as she walked down the hallway. She hesitated in the open doorway, the sight of the woman lying in the hospital bed in the middle of the room shocking. She'd lost weight, the bones of her face more prominent than before, her cheeks sunken. Her dark hair, normally shiny was now dull and graying. Her skin was loose and sallow. She almost didn't recognize her.
She was sleeping, and Brianna was loathe to wake her. She was about to turn around and leave when Dorothea sighed and opened her eyes. In the depths of those dark eyes, Brianna finally saw the woman she'd first met about two and a half years ago.
"You're back. Good." Dorothea waved her forward. "Come in, sit down. Sorry about cutting your vacation short."
"No problem." Brianna sat in the chair pulled up beside the bed. She looked around the room. "What made you decide to set up your room down here?"
"I can't do the stairs anymore and it's easier for me to be down here so everyone doesn't have to run up and down the stairs." She paused. "And it will limit the sad memories in that room - for everyone." Including you when you move in there.
"That makes sense." Brianna agreed. "You sounded...urgent...on the phone. What do you need me to do?"
"I'm afraid we're running out of time."
"For what? Do you want to add something to the books or change them?"
"No, you did a fantastic job on them. They're perfect. Thank you." Dorothea assured her. "We've covered the past. Now it's time to prepare for the future."
"In what way?" Brianna asked warily, not sure where this conversation was going.
"What I want.....hope....for my family's future. Things I want them to have, values and morals I want the kids to learn."
"So.....you want me to write this down for Jon?" Brianna reached for a pad of paper and a pen.
"Oh he already knows and he'll do his best, but we all know most of that type of education comes from the main woman in their lives. From everything I've seen and heard, you've got all the qualities I could ask for. I have every confidence you will guide them well."
Brianna frowned, trying to grasp Dorothea's meaning.
"The first hurdle you'll have to face will of course be my death. The kids you'll know how to deal with. They'll just need love – possible a little tough love in Jesse’s case - and arms to cry in. Jon will be a little trickier. He'll react one of two ways. Either he'll act like nothing happened for the most part and continue on normally, or......he'll shut down completely. If he does that, you'll have to be strong and tough with him." She paused and looked Brianna in the eye. "You'll have to make him angry at me. Say whatever it takes to snap him out of it. He'll be angry at you at first, and may react a little violently - you should be prepared for that - but once he calms down, he'll understand and appreciate what you did. It won't have any lasting, detrimental effect on your relationship."
"Dot......of course I'll help Jon and the kids in any way I can, but......isn't there someone else.....someone closer than his assistant that should deal with something that....personal?"
Dorothea shook her head. "Sorry, this one's all on you."
Brianna frowned. "Why?"
"Because you're the only who will be able to get through to him. The only one whose sole focus and loyalty is to him and the children. And it will solidify your position in the family."
"And what position is that....exactly?" Brianna was pretty sure she wasn't going to like the answer.
"Lover, caretaker...." Dorothea paused. "....mother.......wife."
Brianna's eyes widened. "You're joking, right?"
"Not at all. Why do you think I've spent so much time helping you learn all about them and how best to handle them?" Dorothea sighed, shifted position and tried to explain. "Ever since it became clear that the treatments weren't going to work, I started thinking about what my family would need to survive and thrive. You were the answer to my prayers. You're great with the kids and they love you, you've earned Jon's trust and respect - which is no easy feat, let me tell you - and you understand the need to balance his work and his personal life.....and you have the strength to stand up to him and enforce it if need be."
"None of that is reason enough for marriage!"
"But it's a great start. And I know there are feelings there." She held up a hand to forestall Brianna's protest. "Don't try and deny it. I can see it in the way the two of you interact. And I think it's great! That's what I was hoping for."
Brianna stared at her, stunned. "Have you told Jon about this plan of yours?"
"Jon? No. Not yet."
Something her voice made Brianna suspicious. Her eyes narrowed in thought. "You told David!"
"Told? No. He figured it out on his own."
No wonder he's been so interested in my relationship with Jon! It was all too much for Brianna to process. "You're crazy!"
"No, I'm dying. And I need to know that my family will be looked after...and happy."
Before Brianna could come up with a response, Jesse appeared in the doorway. "Hi Brianna. Grandma sent me to tell you dinner's ready."
"Okay, thanks Jess." Brianna looked at Dorothea. "Can you make it to the dining room or do you want a tray?"
Dorothea grimaced. "I have no energy anymore. I don't have much of an appetite anymore either."
Brianna considered. "Soup or scrambled eggs…or maybe a grilled cheese sandwich?"
"Ummm....soup sounds good."
Brianna nodded and started to leave the room. At the door she stopped and looked back. "This isn't finished."
"No, it's just beginning." Dorothea agreed, deliberately misunderstanding Brianna's comment.
Frustrated, but unable to say anything with Jesse standing there, Brianna ground her teeth and led the way to the dining room.