Chapter 12

Keesha settled her cheek against Mary Maeís chest. Just like when she was a little girl, nothing calmed her restless spirit like the comfort she found in her grandmotherís arms. Her own living, breathing security blanket. Mary Mae insisted they retire to the living room and talk, and after sharing her tale of woe and crying her tears, Keesha felt tons better. "So, Gran Mae, what should I do?" she asked, ready to hear her grandmotherís renowned words of wisdom.

"I think youíve already done it," Mary Mae said, tightening her embrace. "Youíve asked Jason for some time to sort things out, so you need to do that."

"How? I donít feel right dating Jasonís brother when I still love him."

"Keesha, you were still with Jason when you developed these feelings for AJ. I donít see how not dating AJ will help. You need to explore these feelings so youíll know where your heart is. You knew that when you talked to Jason."

Keesha nodded. She did know, even Monica had said as much, but the idea of facing what that meant. She rolled her eyes. Mary Mae warned her about placing herself between Jason and AJ, but she didnít listen. Now, here she was, torn between two brothers, and feeling like a fool. "Iím surprised you havenít said ĎI told you so.í"

"Oh, baby, you know I would never say that." Mary Mae pressed a kiss to Keeshaís temple. "I never wanted this to happen, and Iím sorry it has. I only wish I could help you make your decision."

"Gran Mae, you can." She searched her grandmotherís eyes for guidance. "Who do you think I should be with?"

"No." Mary Mae shook her head. "Iím not getting involved with this, and even if I wanted to, what I think doesnít matter. This is a decision you have to reach alone. You must understand, whatever decision you make will affect two other people, and all three of you will have to live with it."

"I donít want to hurt either of them."

"The hurt has already started, Keesha, somebody is just going to be hurting a lot more when all is said and done. Search your heart, take as much time as you need, and donít succumb to pressure from either of these young men. Your heart wonít lead you astray." Mary Mae stood. "Now, I think Iím going to have some tea. Do you want a cup?"

She shook her head. "No, thank you."

"You sure? I think it could help."

Keesha managed a smile. Her grandma subscribed to the notion that hot tea could help everything. "Yeah, Iím sure."

"Okay." Mary Mae ambled to the kitchen.

Keesha flopped against the couch and covered her tired eyes. She had much to think about.


The unexpected voice startled her. AJ.

"The door was open so I let myself in," he said.

She moved her hands from her face and stood. Her heart dropped when she saw his battered face. His cheeks were puffy, tinged beet red and blue, and his lips swollen and cut. "My God, AJ, what happened to you?"

He grimaced slightly when she grazed his bruised face with the back of her hand. "Jason. He uh, he was a little upset when you left and he took it out on me."

She gasped. "Jason did this to you?"

"Yeah, but in all fairness, heís wearing a similar look."

Alarm widened her eyes; the threat of tears burned them. "Jasonís hurt?"

AJ frowned. "Donít worry, itís nothing some antiseptic, bandages, and Tylenol canít cure," he grumbled.

Her concern for Jason upset him, but she couldnít pretend she didnít care. She wanted to go to Jason, to see for herself he was okay, but that wouldnít be wise. She groaned. "Why did you two fight?"

His gaze bore into her. "I think you know why."

Her shoulders slumped. "I didnít want this to happen." She moved around him, staring out the window into the approaching darkness, trying mightily to keep her tears at bay.

"What did happen, Keesha? I pick up a flying jewelry box that smashed me in the chest, and the next thing I know Jason is all over me. I gathered, as he pummeled my lips, you told him we kissed." AJís squeezing hand on her shoulder turned Keesha around. "Is that all you told him?"

She lost the battle with her tears as they trailed freely down her cheeks. "No," she murmured.

Before more could be said, Mary Mae returned to the room with a steaming cup. "I heard voices and--" Her voice trailed. Keesha took the break in conversation to dry her eyes as Mary Mae stepped up to AJ. "Do I want to know what happened to your face?" she asked.

AJ glanced at Keesha. "I doubt it," he replied.

Mary Mae sighed and settled her cup on the mantle. "I think Iíll help Clara give the children their baths." She gave AJ a cordial smile. "You take care of yourself."

His left hand covered his right side. "I will, Mrs. Ward," he said, gingerly taking a seat on the couch.

Keesha looked on with concern. AJ was in pain. This was all her fault.

Mary Mae touched Keeshaís shoulder and motioned for her to follow. "Are you alright?" she asked when they reached the stairs.

Keesha sniffled. "Gran Mae, theyíre fighting."

"I gathered as much." Mary Mae brushed the tears away. "Are you ready to deal with him? To have this conversation?"

"Probably not, but the talk has already started, so I might as well finish it." She noted her grandmotherís hesitance to leave. She was a fierce protector. The familyís backbone. She covered Mary Maeís hand and gave it a squeeze. "Itís okay, Gran Mae, Iíll be fine."

With a slight tilt of her head, Mary Mae headed upstairs, and Keesha made her way back to the living room. AJ winced as he made it to his feet. Keesha shook her head. She couldnít believe he and Jason fought. "How bad does it hurt?"

"Not nearly as bad as my brother would like to believe," he answered.

She glared, unamused. "Thatís not an answer."

AJ eased back onto the couch. "Donít worry, Keesha, Iím fine." He patted the empty space beside him. "Come, tell me what you said to Jason."

Keesha hesitated for a moment, and then joined him on the couch. "AJ, I want you to understand what happened today between Jason and me doesnít change how I feel about him. I do love him."

"But you love me, too. Thatís what you told him, right?"

She averted her gaze, focusing instead on the family photos on the coffee table. "I told him Iím confused." God, that was putting it mildly.

"Did you tell him you loved me?" He cupped her chin, forcing her eyes to meet his. "You did, didnít you?"

"Yes, I did."

A smile curled his lips, and his bright eyes shined like twinkling stars. "I knew it. I knew you loved me."

He moved in for a kiss, but she backed away. "AJ, we shouldnít. YouíreÖ."

"Donít worry, Keesha, your kisses wonít hurt my lips. If anything, theyíll be a healing balm."

Keesha chuckled. "Iím sure you believe that, but I have to disagree." She took his hands in hers. They were as battered and bruised as his face. Pain filled her heart at the guilt she felt in being responsible for the physical pain he and Jason were now experiencing. "Iím so sorry youíre hurt, AJ. Iím sorry about all of this."

"You know what, Iím not." He released a breath, short and quick. "Jasonís an asshole, and he thinks he owns you, but he doesnít. It felt good to hit him." A crooked grin turned the corners of his lips. "It felt damn good."

His harsh and wholly unexpected words took her aback. "AJ!"

"Itís true, Keesha. I donít remember anything before the accident, but I have to wonder how it felt to live with somebody like him."

"Somebody like him? You and Jason love each other. Youíve had your problems, but you always had love."

"Well, your love is the only love I care about right now, and I have that. Thatís all I need, and all I want."

"AJ, I havenít--"

He brushed his lips against hers, silencing her protesting words. Her throat went dry and her pulse raced. The kiss was chaste, soft and innocent, but the feelings it stirred in her body anything but. The kiss was over before it begun, but the look in AJís eyes held endless promises of things to come. It took everything Keesha had to remember AJís battered body, and not push him down on the couch and straddle his waist. The lascivious thoughts that filled her head frightened her. The way AJ made her feel frightened her. She knew she loved him, but in what way? Was it platonic love that got confused by lust and intense attraction? Or romantic love she refused to acknowledge until just recently? For her own sanity she had to find out--one way or another.

"Iím not asking for promises, Keesha. I know you think you love Jason, but the fact youíre willing to admit you love me, and told Jason as much, means everything." He traced her lips with the tip of his forefinger. Her body trembled. Their gazes locked. The conviction in his eyes shined like an eternal flame; the intensity was almost unbearable. "Pretty soon you wonít have any doubts. Youíll know what Iíve known from the moment I opened my eyes in that hospital room and I saw your beautiful face and gorgeous smile staring back at me. We belong together, and we will be together. Make no mistake about it."