Fan Fiction - Written by Paul Austin - Sam Series

08 * Valentine Bloom
Written by: Paul Austin

As Samantha enters adulthood, & after considering how things could have been better, is thankful she's so close to Steph & Michelle, as even while successfully married, she still needs their help with some things.

A/N: This is the series finale, though 2 post-series fics were then created, as well as "Samantha and Friends." My thanks to the author "Me" for help with the baseball parts. It was decided to phrase things the way they were to make sure the team in question won sometime; and, it was figured that Steve Tanner would likely be acquired in 2003, if not before, as a veteran presence, while Colin comes up in 2007 or 2008, and that world title could be 2008 or 2009. But, just in case it can only be a league title (like it appears would have been in 2007 with how Boston did) it was decided that the team would have won the World Series in 2003.

A knock came to the front door of the Tanner home in early February of 2010. Michelle - the last of the original Tanner girls living there - was too busy upstairs with Samantha Burke preparing for a wedding. A very special wedding.

Her husband of several years, Jeff Farrington, jogged to the door and reached it just ahead of Danny Tanner, the father of Michelle, Stephanie, 28, and D.J., who was about to turn 33. "Hey, Kimmy," Jeff remarked.

"Hey, Jeff; this is July."

Jeff let out a hearty "ho ho ho." "First of all, Kimmy, this is February. Second, I didn't ask you the month."

"I know. I told you who it was."

"Well, if you told..." He saw Michelle wearily coming downstairs. "Honey, I'm afraid she's reverting to the old Kimmy. She just came to the door with her little girl, and told me it was five months later than it is."

"No, actually, she didn't," Danny said with a hint of astonishment. He couldn't believe it himself, long after he'd heard the first time. Kimmy Gibbler, D.J.'s best friend for many, many years, had been quite weird even in grade school. But, this...

Michelle picked up the little girl and said hello, then held her as they talked. "Isn't this exciting? Kimmy's one of the first clients for our home daycare!" Michelle ran House Full of Love daycare out of the home. She couldn't take many children. But, she could have one or two in her home while staying home to watch her own baby. Danny being there helped - he had hosted a morning wake-up show called "Wake Up, San Francisco," but had recently retired from that and gone to a job as sports commentator, so he would have less to do. Jeff had just gotten a job as a broadcaster for another local station.

"Yeah; I forgot she was coming today. It's just been really hectic with Samantha's wedding in a couple days," Jeff said.

"Tell me about it." Samantha had been a neglected kid who Stephanie had befriended when Samantha was in Kindergarten. The relationship had been very tough because Samantha was rather troubled emotionally by then from years of uninvolved parents, and Stephanie only saw her in school, for the most part, at first. But, Samantha had grown into a wonderful young woman, thanks in large part to Stephanie's work, and had moved into the Tanner home permanently about ten years ago. Her very rich parents had left her a lot of money in a trust, but she sadly didn't expect them for the wedding, though they had been forgiven years before and invited now.

At that point, Kimmy picked up the little girl, gave her a hug and a kiss, and told her to be good. While this happened, Samantha came downstairs.

Samantha spoke to Danny about Kimmy. "Isn't this amazing? Michelle's got clients already. I'm so excited!" She had other part-time ones, but this was the first client who would have Michelle watching her child on a full-time basis.

"Right. Kimmy dropping a strangely named child off at our house for one of my daughters to raise," Danny said pensively. "Somehow, I always knew it would come to this."

Jeff was stunned. "You actually named your daughter July? I'd heard she had a unique name, but I guess I'd forgotten it was..." He shook his head. Oddly named dogs were one thing, but this? "July?! And, she was born in October!"

"Sure, why not? April, June, and even August were taken; Stephanie's friend Darcy knew an August back in Chicago," Kimmy recalled. "I've heard May, too, though more as a last name, and even Summer. I figured it was only fitting to fill out this part of the calendar. Her friends will probably call her Julie. But now, we can remember summer any time of the year."

Michelle smiled apologetically. "Sorry; Jeff knows the name, but it gets pretty hectic around here, especially with his new job and everything. Things have been kind of nutty. But after Sunday..." Michelle sighed, and hugged Samantha, who stood inches shorter at only four foot ten. "I'm so happy for you."

"Thanks. It's funny that this is happening now. My dancing career is a few years away from the end just as my husband's baseball career starts in earnest," Samantha remarked.

Danny smiled fondly. "Yeah, I still remember that classic league championship series. And then, when he led his Cubs to a Series win...."

"Yeah, right. Colin pitched in a total of two innings in three of the games in the LCS. And he said if he'd been called in to face the Yankees in any tough spots in that Series, he would have fainted; it was tough enough with the couple guys he did face. They only had him because they needed an extra lefty and he'd done so great the first year he was called up." Samantha added that, "Your nephew, Steve Tanner, was really responsible for their first World Series since 1908, since he was a knuckleballer and could come in in relief a few times, like in the 2003 League Championship Series they won before beating the Yankees in the Series."

"Yeah, they hadn't won a World Series since 1908," Jeff remarked.

"True. He had a baseball scholarship back then, he taught Stephanie the knuckleball, and he wound up getting good enough at it himself that he's been a regular starter with them for years now," Danny concluded.

Danny recalled when Steve had come to visit, months after Pam died. He'd been so proud. And, he knew Samantha was trying to help him feel better, just as they often did for her. "Well, maybe Steve had more to do with it, Samantha. All I know is, it was a lot of fun. For both of us, huh, Jeff?" Danny responded.

Jeff agreed. He was about to go to spring training with the Giants in a few days. Michelle was glad he never wanted to move to and work in a bigger city. Indeed, he made no secret of the fact that when the current host of "Wake Up, San Francisco," Michelle's Aunt Becky, retired in about five years, he wanted that job. With his sense of humor, he was likely to get it, too. If that failed, he'd almost certainly find a job in radio or something similar.

"You're right, Pop. Well, I'll let you help with..." He chuckled. "With July. Our baby's down for a nap right now. Have a great day, Hon." He and Michelle exchanged a warm, passionate kiss. "I love you."

"I love you, too."

Once Jeff left, Michelle introduced July to Danny and instructed her to listen to him, while Kimmy rattled off a list of July's likes, dislikes, and her procedure with naps and timeout.

"Some of that sounds just like D.J.," Danny concluded.

"It should - who do you think I copied off of? Only problem is, it's not exactly the same kid so I can't do everything just like her." Kimmy admitted that her family wasn't the best to use as role models. "Between Duane and I, we don't know much when it comes to handling kids. Of course, we don't' know much about a lot of stuff. "But D.J.'s been a big help, like she always has been with everything else," she said with great affection.

Samantha smiled at Michelle. "Just the same way I feel about you. I couldn't have done any of this without you," Samantha confessed.

"Dad, can you watch July for a little bit? I'm trying so hard to make this the perfect wedding for Samantha. Thanks." They raced upstairs once more, leaving Danny to do one of the things he loved best besides cleaning - doting on little kids, just like a grandpa.

Michelle seemed to be going manic moments later as she marked the list; Stephanie had been handling the big picture, leaving Michelle to cover all the little things. And, she cared so much for Samantha, she wanted to cover every little thing. "Bouquet, veil, garter..."

"Did you remember the pacifier?" Samantha asked sardonically.

"Oh no the pacif- hey!"

"Sorry, sis. I love you totally - it's just you don't need to baby me so much. I'm 22 not 2!"

"I know." Michelle said, "Steph says you seem to try to take after me all the time, but I could just hear her pulling that joke, too," as she skimmed the rest of the list.

"Hey, all ready for the big day?" Courtney Larkin asked as she stepped in the door. Courtney was several months younger than Samantha but had been her best friend since they met when Samantha was almost 6.

The girls lounged around Samantha's room after Courtney had finished gushing over the beautiful bridal dress. Michelle sighed. She remembered reminiscing so much with her sisters at the time of each of their marriages.

"What is it, Michelle?"

"Oh, nothing, really. It's just that D.J. and Steph and I spent hours talking about all our fond memories of growing up before our weddings. I still remember that first day of Kindergarten. Leaving the classroom and looking all over for Stephanie, because I didn't think I would make any friends. And, even after she brought me back and helped me make friends, I felt so good the next few days, because until I got used to it, I knew I could just go see Stephanie anytime, and she'd make everything all right."

Courtney sensed the deep pride and warmth in Michelle's voice. "For me it was tougher, because I hadn't gone to preschool as long as you. You went since you were three, I was just in play groups. So I was in the half day Kindergarten. But, you know, it's a memory of my sister I remember most vividly, a little later that year is when she first learned to drive. I remember being so happy for her, but scared, too. Kindergarten was so big, then I'd be in school all day the next year. And I thought, will I have to learn to drive then, too?" The girls giggled.

"Yeah, little kids think funny things. I was just thinking, I wish we could have helped you earlier, Samantha."

Samantha smiled sadly. As time had passed, the memories became blurred in her mind. Names she knew - the PAs, Stephanie, Jen, Missy, Mandy, then Kiersten - and a number of her teachers. But, even those, along with Jen's name, she had trouble recalling at times, unless she tried.

"It's okay," Samantha said sweetly. "I mean, yeah, it was scary sometimes, with no parents to really care about and comfort me. I remember having a nightmare once early in Kindergarten, too, and waking up and thinking to myself, if I can make it to school I'll be okay, because then at least Stephanie can help me feel better."

It was a great testimony to the work Stephanie had done that combined with feelings of loneliness and desertion was this feeling of love and security from one person, as least. It was why Jen was so little remembered by Samantha, and specific memories from ages 5 through 7 or so, sporadic as they were, consisted of going to Stephanie for a variety of things, and if a memory did crop up of her getting in trouble, that memory was of getting in trouble with Stephanie. After all, she'd been in a lot of trouble in those days. But, Stephanie at least made her feel like it wasn't the end of the world.

Jen hadn't known how to love the unlovable, as Samantha - then called Sam - was back then. However, Stephanie had, and her work had overshadowed Jen's so much that there really weren't any memories of Jen. Michelle also remember nothing specific of Jen's year - with her it was mostly Sam being in the Honeybees club that stood out in her mind.

"We all tried," Michelle remarked, mentioning the Honeybees specifically. "We always had lots of fun there. That's where you and Courtney met, too."

"Yeah. And then my sister Hannah became your official sitter for a while if your parents went somewhere in the evening or on a weekend day, especially that summer. She even took me over to play with you a couple times, to reward you," Courtney said.

"Right. Just like when Stephanie brought Michelle the next year," Samantha said lowly. She looked at Michele with obvious affection. "You're just like the sister I always needed, just like Stephanie was a mom."

"Yeah. I bet we could have made things even better, though," Michelle lamented, thinking about how sad Samantha's first few years must have been.

"Yeah, I wonder." And, as Samantha closed her eyes and the girls began to think out loud, they envisioned how things might have been different if Samantha's problems were caught a couple years early.

D.J. Tanner was thirteen. She'd worn the rank of "team captain" with pride. She chuckled as she reminisced about the first time her dad had called her that. It was so easy, and natural, for him to call her that after his wife, Pam, died. For over three years, she'd been that captain, helping Michelle grow, just as her dad, Uncle Jesse, and dad's best friend Joey did.

Now? As she waved to Michelle on the preschool's playground, she realized that her "little Strawberry Shortcake" was starting to become a wonderful little lady. And, maybe she could help other kids a little bit, too.

"D.J.! Come play with me," Michelle called.

"Not right now, Michelle. I'm doing something for my class here."

"Then can you play?"

D.J. walked up to the fence. "Sorry, Michelle. I'll have to go back to school then. I'll see you at home." D.J. ignored the puppy dog look she was getting, and instead said "I love you" and blew her a kiss. She knew Michelle would do the same once D.J. turned to enter the building.

It had been a tough call, what to write about for the school paper. This was a day assigned by their Journalism class on which they could go anywhere to report on something. As editor in chief, D.J. could choose to write about any subject.

After much inner debate, she chose to cover the Fraser Street Day Care. She'd gotten permission for her Uncle Jesse to pick her up and drive her there to do an interview and talk to the children.

D.J. could have even studied Michelle again, though Michelle was only in the two-hour preschool program, not the daycare. But, D.J. had already reported on her day as a seventh grade class assignment. And, she wanted something different.

Indeed, she almost hadn't taken this at all. She had almost gone to the senior citizens' home a few blocks further east. Had she gone to the nursing home, she might have been inspired to start volunteering there next year. Now, who knew what would happen?

The daycare children were in Michelle's two-hour preschool program, but also spent their day at the daycare or on outings elsewhere. Since most of the children were in preschool at that time, this gave D.J. the chance to interview workers and maybe see a child or two. Maybe even read a little to one.

A child who looked about two and a half - but who D.J. learned was a year older - was walking around with a tube of lipstick when she got in the door. As D.J. introduced herself, she recognized quickly that it was not play lipstick. "Hey, should she have that?" D..

"Sam, that lipstick is not for you to play with!" The daycare worker tried to tell Sam what she could play with, but Sam just threw it at her and stared hard.

D.J. sensed that this child often flustered the workers there. As she watched the scene unfold, she offered to read a little to the child they'd called Sam. "Once I get my interview done, I'll have ten minutes or so. Is that a boy or girl, the hair's so short it's hard to tell."

"Girl. She's pretty wild; maybe not much more so than normal, especially for a boy that age, but there's just something about her."

"Yeah. Well, once she gets out of timeout maybe I can read to her for a minute, I have a way with kids. You might not see the preschool kids who don't come through your daycare, but I've helped my little sister Michelle a lot."

The worker nodded. "I've subbed over there a couple times. She's such a sweet girl."

"Yeah. Bit of an attitude, but nothing bad. Probably nothing worse than most kids her age."

"Exactly." She and D.J. spoke for several minutes, and then - with Sam out of timeout after some struggles to keep her in - the worker led D.J. over to her. "Sam, would you like D.J. here to read to you?"

Sam stared at D.J.. To her, it was just another new worker. Why did they have so many new people all the time?

"Hey, Sam, I'm D.J.. You know, I've got a little sister at home that loves to hear me read," D.J. said as she picked her up and sat her in her lap. "Would you like me to read to you, or would you like to hear a fun story about her?" She knew she could make up something pretty fast. "I can even put you in the story, too. What kind of stuff do you like?"

Sam picked up a crayon, and drew a line down the length of D.J.'s blouse. D.J. gasped as Sam stomped away.

"Sam, that was not nice," the worker said as D.J. stared at the orange line on her royal blue outfit. She'd have to go through the rest of the day at school like this now!

"I don't want her," Sam shouted.

The worker smiled apologetically. "She gets like this sometimes, especially if she's just gotten out of timeout."

"Wow, talk about a bad attitude. What do her parents say about this?"

"Nothing, really. We can never get hold of them; they're way too busy with their own lives, it seems. They drop her off, pick her up way late, make us stay past closing time, and that's it."

D.J. sighed. "Is it okay if I come back later today, after school? I doubt Michelle or Steph will need me for anything, and I shouldn't have much homework. It sounds like she needs someone consistent to really love her."

"You're right. She likely doesn't get any attention at home, and of course worker turnover in a place like this is pretty bad," the worker confirmed.

"Right. It's a shame they haven't found a home daycare." Of course, she told herself, maybe they never tried.

"Or, someone who's willing to be a parent to her, like a nanny, yeah."

Back in the present, Michelle agreed sadly. "It probably was hard for you in that place. That's why I like running a home daycare."

"Yeah, you're one person who will be the same all the time. And you won't have many kids; maybe a couple of your own and a couple others; maybe a coupld more when yours get older."

Courtney turned to Samantha and asked, "What about Stephanie? Of course, I guess you're right, D.J. would be the one most likely to help at this point."

"Exactly, Court. I think Stephanie was a mom figure as early as she could have been; she was what, ten when she started helping me?" Samantha fondly remarked, "That 'Rest of the Story' piece on me was really neat."

"Yep. Stephanie really was what a mother should be." Courtney read the words to the radio piece, and could just hear the announcer in her mind after nine months; it was a piece Paul Harvey, Jr. had read the Friday before the previous year's Mother's Day.

"People wonder, as Mother's Day approaches, just what defines a mother? I'd like to talk about that for a few moments, while sharing with you the rest of the story."

After a short ad, he'd continued. "I'd like to talk for a moment about ballerinas. Those magnificent, graceful performers in such ballets as Swan Lake and The Nutcracker hone their skills at a very young age. And such is true of Samantha Burke. Those who attend ballet on a regular basis have no doubt heard of her. But it is almost certain that nobody would guess the rest of the story.

"Samantha's early years were what one might call tumultuous; that's probably putting it kindly. But, surrounding those troubled years was the love of the one she now calls mother. It's the kind of love story that Hollywood used to write, a little girl discovers some outstanding skills that she has been given, and is encouraged by her mother to do all she can to perfect them, and through many trials she succeeds. And, Samantha had talent, oh yes. From her first recital at age six, from her first stage performance singing, her talents were apparent. And, by her side every step of the way, when she could be, was that 'mother.'"

A list of a good number of Samantha's accomplishments followed, both her theatrical performances and, of course, her many dancing achievements, followed words describing the nurturing, loving and guiding force behind Samantha. The voice continued by adding, "Her list of accomplishments could go on and on. Of course, her 'mother' ensured that she got to every possible performance, though she was quite sad that she couldn't be there for everything. For instance, she couldn't take the entire summer off to follow Samantha to a dance school in New York after fourth grade. Nor could she drive Samantha to practice. In fact schoolwork kept her from doing quite a few things she'd like to have done with Samantha.

"So was Samantha's mother a teen mom? Oh, not in the way you're thinking. For Samantha's mother began her loving, nurturing, disciplining, and guiding of Samantha when she herself had not yet reached puberty. In fact, the woman that Samantha calls her mother, the person she cites as most responsible for her turning into the wonderful ballerina that denizens of that art love and admire, had put together an entire network of family and friends to care for Samantha by the time she was thirteen. And while she wishes she could have done so much more, one wonders what more she could have done, considering...considering that the person Samantha Burke bonded with as a mother from age five, was a mere five years and two months old when Samantha was born, and began her work with her at the very unlikely age of ten and a half.

"And now all of you mothers out there know just how much impact one person can have, no matter what the age. For now you know the rest of the story."

"That sure was a great piece," Samantha agreed. "But, I'm sure D.J. would have been pretty good as a mother figure," Samantha said, trying to sound decisive.

Michelle sensed the uncertainty in her voice. "Steph might have insisted on tagging along with D.J., from what she tells me. And, from what I remember about being that age. It would have worked out okay."

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm sure it would have," Samantha agreed.

It was 6:30 at night. Thankfully, it hadn't quite started to get dark yet. But, as D.J. rode her bike to the daycare, she hoped that the parents showed up soon.

Especially because Stephanie, eight, had insisted on tagging along.

"So, who's this girl we're going to help, Deej?" Stephanie asked, trying to sound as much like a teen as she could. D.J. considered that the only thing that made Stephanie seem a lot more mature is that she'd recently lost her curls, and chosen over the summer to go with a straight ponytail look.

Still, she would try to make do with having Stephanie along with her. "Steph, this is that girl I talked to this morning who drew that line down my blouse. She wasn't much nicer this afternoon, and I've learned her parents really don't take any time with her at all. I'd just like to talk to them about that."

"Oh, yeah. You said you thought she needed a regular sitter."

"Right. Steph, it really is going to be easier if I do the talking. Try to play with her while I do that so she gets used to someone else being friendly with her; she doesn't seem to make a lot of friends, from what the daycare says. Oh, and if she does act up, I know she looks young for it, but a 'how rude' would be appropriate."

"Gotcha, Deej. You can count on me. I'll be your number one supporter. I'll..."

"...keep your mouth shut, I hope. That might be them coming now." A shiny new BMW was just pulling in as the girls rode up to the entrance and parked and locked their bikes.

D.J. and Stephanie walked into the daycare. Sam seemed to light up a little more at D.J.'s arrival than when Mrs. Burke entered a moment later. D.J. was stunned by the lack of enthusiasm.

Stephanie, however, was just interested in showing off a dance routine. She noticed Samantha was copying her very well for a three-year-old.

"Hey, look at this, Deej," Stephanie called out. "Wow, Sam, you're really good."

"It's nice to meet you, but I really need to get our daughter and leave," Mrs. Burke said. "We're lucky we got here early, usually it's not till closer to seven. But, we both have big meetings tomorrow."

"Excuse me, you're daughter is dancing here," Stephanie said loudly.

The woman said nothing; she simply picked Sam up, and walked to the car.

"How rude," Stephanie said after her.

D.J. breathed heavily and said lowly, "My sentiments exactly."

"Well, you're right, Deej. This girl needs help. How about we come here once in a while and I can teach her to dance ballet," Stephanie suggested as she walked toward the BMW, where Mrs. Burke was just buckling Sam into her carseat.

D.J. smiled at Stephanie, and spoke in a near whisper as she followed her younger sister. "You know, Dad once said each of us is a natural born leader. But, she's going to need more than just you teaching her to dance. She needs someone to spend time with her on a consistent basis. And, her parents don't encourage her at all."

Stephanie nodded back toward D.J.. She understood now what D.J. had meant by the parents not take any time with her - not to discipline or encourage or anything.

Stephanie looked at Mrs. Burke as the lady got into the front seat and said, "If you're not going to be Sam's parents, D.J. would like to be."

D.J.'s mouth stood in a half opened smile; she wasn't sure how to handle the last comment. Luckily, Mrs. Burke was not in a mood to wait around for an explanation.

D.J. was still embarrassed, though. "Steph," she said, slightly annoyed as they walked toward their bikes, "What did I say about keeping quiet?"

"Well, it's true, isn't it?"

"Not quite the way you said it. I mean, well, I already do so much with you and with Michelle," D.J. stammered as they unlocked their bikes and rode home, as the sun began to set low on the horizon. "I can't help all the time..."

"But, you're going to find a regular sitter for her."

"Well..." D.J. shook her head. Little sisters had so much eagerness in them. And, she supposed that was the logical next step. Still... "I'd like to find someone, yeah. A good home daycare."

"I'll ask Allie tomorrow. I don't know if her mom can handle and extra kid or not, though. They don't have a lot of money." She didn't' think about the fact that the parents could pay for it.

Neither did D.J., but for another reason. She knew it would be very hard for people to just rearrange their schedules suddenly. "Exactly, Steph. See, this is why you shouldn't just jump in and say stuff like that. These things need to be planned."

"I see. You sure are smart, Deej. I'm glad I know you."

"Same here, kiddo," D.J. replied warmly. Stephanie could be annoying. But, sometimes, her honesty allowed things to be said that D.J. really wanted to say, but didn't feel right saying.

"Steph always was a girl of action," Courtney said.

"And, a really good dancer herself," Samantha added. "I mean, it's funny, I sort of discovered this talent myself with you guys and the Honeybees, as much as anything. I think a younger Stephanie might be the one to discover my talents as a future professional dancer. She might have had a chance herself, if she'd really committed herself to it."

"That's true. Although, Steph helped, too, back then," Michelle noted.

"Yeah, but you and Samantha and the rest of the 'Bees encouraged me so much." Samantha smiled broadly. "I remember that big round of applause you gave me when I started doing cartwheels across the room. All the girls did, but you and Courtney really led them, Michelle. I guess, in your own way, you could get as excited as Stephanie about things."

"We tried. It was always lots of fun helping you."

"Michelle's right. You may not have been good at making friends early. But, Stephanie and Michelle and I could tell you needed friends," Courtney responded.

Samantha nodded. Stephanie had helped with so many things. But, the first pirouette she ever did was while playing around beforehand with a couple other girls at a Honeybees meeting. It was funny how she remembered that and the cartwheels so well.

Then again, it was a lot better than recalling the big trouble she would get into back then. Those different times blended together for her, all the timeouts and such from Stephanie. Over time, she'd forgotten that others actually had a hand in disciplining her, because Stephanie was so much the central figure.

She'd been involved in other stuff too, though. And, it was that part that the young women focused on next as they reminisced and discussed what-ifs. Along with what D.J. eventually would have done for a sitter.

Several weeks went by, during which D.J. had gone over to read to Samantha several times. More often, though, she'd gotten the daycare's permission to bring her home to play with Michelle for an hour or so. The parents had given permission for them to expose her to other kids, so D.J. reasoned, why not let her come home and play with them?

Thanks to Stephanie's big mouth, though, the first time Sam came to the Tanners, so did ten other kids from the daycare, for an impromptu party.

"You have how many kids coming?" Danny asked that afternoon, still in shock.

"Well, Dad..." Hannah and Kimmy walked in the door at that point. "Hey, guys. Glad you could come help."

"It sounds like you could use your whole eighth grade class. Eleven kids are coming over?!" Danny said, repeating with disbelief what he'd heard. "Eleven little kids?"

Michelle walked downstairs at that point. The four-year-old assumed she knew what was happening. "Eleven kids? Whose birthday is it?"

"Noone's Michelle. Well, actually...I don't know. When is Sam's birthday?" Stephanie asked.

D.J. wasn't sure. However, Kimmy piped up, "Let's say whoever's birthday is closest gets to blow out the candles. Oh, wait - we don't have any candles. In fact, we don't have any cake."

"A party with no cake? This is nuts," Michelle said.

Kimmy agreed. "She's right, Deej. We need to make a cake in the next..." She saw the van pull up outside. "...Twenty-four seconds."

Joey walked up to the door and opened it. When he saw Mrs. Manning and Mrs. Perry walking with the children - who were all holding onto a rope that the teachers were on each end of - he suddenly broke into his "Wizard of Oz" voices. "Oh, Toto, look at all the cute little people." "Ruff, ruff." "Oh, I'd love to stay and help, but I'm just a cowardly lion, I haven't got the nerve." His last voice was that of the scarecrow. "I know, why I could really help you organize this party, if I only had a brain!" he sang.

Stephanie looked mischievously at Kimmy. "Well, at least you're not alone." She teased Kimmy about her dumbness; not as often as she might have without D.J.'s influence on both of them, being so proactive, but still teasing some.

"Mrs. Manning, you're supposed to be in school," Michelle said, recognizing her preschool teacher.

The teacher laughed. She bent down to Michelle's level and said, "Well, Michelle, I just came because they wanted someone who knew your family to help with this party. Usually I go home after school just like you do."

"Do you eat lunch and play like me, too?"

Mrs. Manning smiled proudly. It was fun to witness a child making discoveries. And, sometimes, one of the most amazing was that their teachers had lives outside of school. "Why, yes, in fact, I'm married and I have two children in elementary school, the same school Stephanie goes to."

Michelle's eyes bulged, and her mouth flew open. "Whoa." She then turned to Danny and said, "Daddy, Mrs. Manning's just like a real adult!"

"Yes, she is. Why don't you take some kids up to your room and play in your stuffed animals or something. I need to...well, get things organized." He was very thankful that Joey was entertaining the children, for now, with a variety of different jokes and voices.

"Okay. Come on, girls. Mrs. Manning, you can come, too. Let me show you my room," Michelle said proudly.

Sam was one of the girls who went up to Michelle's room, while Hannah and Kimmy helped keep the boys in line.

"This is where I sleep. I play in here, too," Michelle said. She considered that it was also where she was sent when naughty, but she didn't like to think about that. Besides, with D.J. helping so much, and being such a great role model, then her dad encouraging a lot too, she really enjoyed being a good girl, and usually was.

While the others played nicely, Sam quickly grabbed some blocks from another three-year-old and wouldn't give them back.

Mrs. Manning thought about saying something, and then decided to let Michelle or another girl - the children weren't all preschoolers - try and take charge, to see what happened. It was normal childhood play, plus it was just fun to see her students interact in a different setting.

Michelle walked over to Sam. "Play nice," she said, trying to sound as mature as possible.


"Let's try to share," Michelle suggested, getting in between the two girls.

Suddenly, Sam picked up a stuffed bunny and threw it at Michelle. "No!" she said more forcefully.

"You got a bad attitude," Michelle scolded her.

Sam frowned. She threw down the blocks at the voice, which sounded in tone just like what D.J. would say to her. D.J. had been trying to teach her manners and kindness and such, and it had worked some. But, instead of fighting, Sam walked over to a corner, sat, and pouted.

Chrissy, seven, looked up from one of Michelle's dolls. "At least Sam's not throwing a tantrum. When D.J. said that to her at first she'd throw a fit."

"Then what did she do?" Michelle hated to see Sam pouting like that, but she didn't know what to do. When D.J. scolded like that, Michelle just looked down sadly and accepted it. Of course, Michelle knew she was loved, whereas Sam still needed lots of reassurance.

"She just walked away. The last couple times, Sam's just pouted like that. D.J. tells her she can choose how to behave. And, it's a lot more fun to be nice."

Michelle thanked Chrissy, and walked up to Sam, who was sitting in a corner of the room with a big frown. "You know, it's a lot more fun to be nice."

Mrs. Manning smiled at the way Michelle was trying to be so much like D.J.. She'd heard D.J. had tried to do lots of mothering in small ways, and it showed here.

D.J. eventually came upstairs and helped by starting to play with Sam and Michelle. Hannah joined them, too. Sam didn't recognize her right away, but Hannah had gone with D.J. to the daycare a couple times to visit and read and play.

"Once Sam gets attached to someone, she gets kind of clingy, huh?" Hannah remarked near the end of the party.

"You're right," D.J. said as Stephanie let Mrs. Larkin in the front door. "Sam really needs lots of attention, but she is warming up to me - and to you, too. She really seems to understand we care about her."

Hannah looked at her mother. "Hey, Mom. You know..." Hannah began, trying to figure out how to approach the subject of babysitting.

With Stephanie around, though, that was unnecessary. "We've got a babysitting job for you," she blurted.

"What Steph means is...well, there's someone who doesn't have a mother who needs someone to be like one."

"It's not something with Michelle, is it?" the woman asked doubtfully. She thought Uncle Jesse and Joey were both going to be around indefinitely, but she knew it was always possible someone like the Larkins would need to help. After all, there was only so much D.J. could do.

"Oh, no, Mrs. Larkin, everything's fine with her. No, this is a much tougher situation. This girl's kind of been neglected for a while, and it would be a lot better if she had a home daycare instead of the Fraser Street center," D.J. elaborated.

"How many hours a week would this babysitting be?" Mrs. Larkin asked.

Stephanie interrupted quickly. "Let's see, 24 times 7 is..." After a few seconds of calculating, she held up a finger. "168," she said decisively.

"It's not quite that bad," D.J. reassured her. "And, Hannah might just as easily become a sitter, too. Plus, I can always help some. But, it would be every weekday." D.J. emphasized that, "I know it's hard, but you stay at home, anyway, and she is Courtney's age."

"That's true. Let me meet her and at least try to talk to the parents, and see what our financial situation's like. We might be able to work things out, if they pay well enough, and just put off the remodeling we want to do for a while if we think it would be too tight but she really needs our help."

Stephanie's rambling about the BMW and Mrs. Burke's fancy outfit was mercifully brief, since she hadn't had the experience to notice them. But, D.J. silently considered that the Burkes would gladly pay whatever they could to get rid of any worries.

Samantha smiled sadly as she glanced over at a frayed pink bunny, now very pale and worn. With the fur totally gone in certain spots, an eye that had been replaced some years back, and other signs of wear, it certainly reminded one of the fictional Velveteen Rabbit as it sat on her dresser. "Yeah, I really needed a constant friend back then."

"At least we came by when we did," Michelle said.

"Yeah. I still remember when you gave Mr. Snuggle Bunny there to me soon after my sixth birthday, when I was still in Kindergarten. At least memories like your gift really help to remind me people care."

"It must have really been tough because Stephanie had to be so tough on you at first," Courtney said lowly.

Samantha looked sad for a minute, then shrugged it off. "Yeah, I guess." She hated to blame the Tanners for not helping sooner. She knew she had to admit she hadn't behaved well at all.

Michelle tried to say Samantha wouldn't have needed to be treated so harshly if she'd gotten help sooner, but Samantha wouldn't hear it. "Michelle," she said, "It hurts a lot less if I figure that I would have been that wild and rowdy anyway. Or...well, maybe not that wild and rowdy." She forced a laugh to try and hide the inner pain. "I made Calvin look good, huh?"

Michelle sensed the frustration and pain in her voice. "Sometimes. Usually, you were just like him, not worse."

"Yeah, guess there's not much more you can say, huh?"

"So, what do you think would have happened in this scenario, where D.J. finds out about you earlier?" Courtney asked.

"Well, Stephanie made sure Hannah was a consistent babysitter that spring and after Kindergarten, so I figure I'd have still been wild for her. And, while I'd still be timid around Mrs. Larkin, I'd have probably driven Hannah crazy when I was four," Samantha concluded, as they went back to the story.

Sam sobbed a long, sad "ow" as Hannah embraced her. Her crying almost over she looked up at Hannah and whimpered, "Do I hafta sit down there now?"

Hannah thought for a minute. Sam had fought her so much when she'd tried to put her in the corner for timeout, she'd eventually punched Hannah a couple times. Hannah had responded with a short, sharp smack on the rear. She was cuddling Sam, wanting her to know she was still loved. But, she also wanted her to know that she needed to be punished, too, for what she had done.

"Tell you what, Sam; I think you learned your lesson about not doing timeout like you were told. But, we still need to do something about that tablecloth you cut up." Hannah let go and picked Sam up to her own eye level, gazing at her in a firm but loving way. "I know you were just experimenting, but it was still very bad."

"I know. I'm sorry."

"You have really driven me crazy; even more so than you do my mom. I guess you just feel more comfy with me, huh?" Sam nodded slowly. "Well, you still need to be punished. Hmmm, tell you what." She started to carry Sam upstairs as Sam rubbed her bottom, though it was only the memory that smarted by now, her bottom wasn't sore anymore. "Let's have you lay down in Courtney's bed here for timeout."

Sam agreed. Hannah had cuddled her for long enough that it wouldn't have been a problem to sit. Still, she appreciated the warmth and love Hannah showed in caring about her feelings.

Once the timeout was over, Hannah sat besides Sam and rubbed her back. "You're a regular Calvin and Hobbes," she said lovingly. "Well, okay, maybe not that bad."

"I better not be; you'll make Stephanie come and yell at me."

"Yeah, I might."

Stephanie had just gained a major reputation as the bogeyman, even though she was the most loving and tender girl one could find, because of how she'd lectured the Kindergarten's class bully, Aaron, one day the previous week. A fourth grader now, Stephanie had also earned praise for how she'd helped kids like Michelle feel comfortable in Kindergarten the previous month.

"I'm scared of her."

"Oh, Stephanie's really nice, Sam; she helped get you to come here to be watched instead of that boring daycare. And, now you have a family that loves you and cares about you. And, you can call us any time you need to talk, even if you are at home and it's late at night."


Courtney came running upstairs from playing outside with one of her and Hannah's brothers, and she laid down next to Sam on the bed. "Hey, are you feeling okay?"

"I was a bad girl," Sam said, sniffling.

"Oh, it's okay. We love you."

Sam smiled. That was something she heard quite a bit from Courtney. And from Hannah; D.J. had said that she needed to hear that a lot. And, it felt so good to have that kind of compassion around her.

"Not that I would have been that bad for Stephanie if I was found earlier, not as bad as I was, anyway," Samantha said. "I would have done some bad things, but..."

Courtney jumped right in with something as they prepared to go to the mall. "The worst thing would have been like Jeff in that toy store, and those talking bananas. Remember that, Michelle?"

Michelle and the others laughed out loud. "Oh, yeah, how could I forget? Jeff finds these bananas in a toy store when we're about twelve. They sing that silly 'Bananas in Pajamas' song. So, Jeff starts them singing and sits them in front of these dolls that repeat everything you say. Pretty soon he had the whole shelf singing 'Bananas in Pajamas,' totally out of harmony."

"Yeah, that was crazy," Samantha said with a grin. They discussed that incident the whole way to the mall's salon.

"I'll always remember," Michelle said, "that's the first time I really understood how some parents can't stop laughing to scold their kids about something. I'm usually so blunt about stuff," she said, careful not to remind Samantha how blunt she'd had to be with her at times. "But, I couldn't stop laughing as I confronted Jeff and said, 'I can't believe you did that!'"

"Yeah. He's always wanted to show off for you. Thankfully, that showing off never led to anything more than harmless pranks. Just like with Colin," Samantha said, fondly considering her soon-to-be husband.

Michelle nodded. Forever seemed like an incredibly long time, but Samantha, just like Michelle, realized that it was important to take hold of the opportunity when someone special came along. "It's a one in ten thousand chance this early in life, but you and Colin have something wonderful. Just like Jeff and I have."

"And you'll find the same thing someday," Samantha quickly assured Courtney, who thanked her.

However, as often happened, Samantha's past hurt feelings quickly resurfaced. While waiting to get her hair done for her wedding, she opened up a magazine and saw her parents' picture inside. The accompanying article noted that her father had won an award for "Best Software Consultant."

"Notice how there's no mention of his only daughter's marriage coming up?" she said in a low soft voice to Michelle "I may as well not exist!" she added, long suppressed bitterness creeping in.

Michelle responded by putting an arm around her maternally. "We love you and that's all that matters right now."

Samantha sighed, and nodded slowly. She knew she was loved. But, she wondered why her parents hadn't just admitted that they didn't want a daughter. It would have been so much better for everyone if they had done so, especially before Samantha started school.

Sam had changed in Kindergarten. She was in the half-day program - Mrs. Larkin wanted to spend as much quality time with her as she could. But, some other changes had taken place, such as changing to Samantha upon entering school, and of course, her last name.

Her parents had decided, after many months, that they had so much more free time with a regular home sitter, that it was easiest to just relinquish control, so they could have all the time in the world. And so, they officially transferred control of a "going away" trust Sam could have at eighteen to an accountant friend of theirs, and then had officially transferred custody over to the Larkins. Samantha had a real family!

On the playground, she looked down at the ground as she thought about Aaron's offer - throwing rocks at stuff seemed a fun idea as long as it wasn't at people. But, then she thought about what Hannah and Mrs. Lark- her big sister and mom she reminded herself - would say or do about that. They might take away dessert and anything else that she liked for a looong time if she accidentally hurt a person. She would also be sent to see Stephanie, and that thought made her quiver further - though not as much as thinking about what her mom and big sister would do.

"No, if I got caught, or hurt someone, I'd be in big trouble. With everyone. Even my brothers." Her new older brothers were wilder than most girls, but even they were very protective of her. They seemed to sense Samantha had some deep emotional problems, though the troubles weren't nearly as bad as they could be. She had a real family, after all. Her new brothers prided themselves on keeping her out of trouble and out of danger - sometimes overly so. "I can't get away with anything!" she said to herself, a little frustrated but also thankful.

"I guess Stephanie never let you get away with anything either," Samantha remarked to Michelle.

"Nope; she was tough." Michelle knew that she wasn't nearly as tough on kids who knew how to behave, like she and Courtney. And, the reins would have been loosened on Samantha somewhat fast if she were a Larkin, too. But, she knew thinking about that would only make Samantha sadder about how her parents ignored her.

Samantha smiled and rested her head on Michelle's shoulder for a moment. "I'm so glad things happened the way they did, though, in a way. I never would have known how much you or Steph cared about me. We would have known each other, but without Steph getting involved, I'd have never known how great a mom she could be. And, maybe I never would have met Colin. But, now, I really love you, and I always have."

"Thanks, Samantha. I love you, too."

Michelle and Stephanie enjoyed fretting over Samantha the day of the wedding. "Now I know why my dad cried when he gave us away at each of ours," Stephanie told her. It was for that reason that Danny had decided not to walk Samantha down the aisle, though he'd been suggested for the job. Joey, however, was much more of a father figure to Samantha, and so he received the honor.

"It's beautiful here," Elizabeth Rowatt said. Elizabeth had been a good friend and horse riding companion of Samantha and Michelle for many years. She'd first met Michelle when they were competitors for a horse jumping contest in '95 at Golden Gate Stables. Their friendly rivalry had continued for years after that in that competition, though Elizabeth was much more skilled. In fact, she'd joined the Olympic team as a late addition for 2008's Games and won an individual bronze and team silver in equestrian events.

"You and your folks are rich enough, maybe you can help Samantha get used to all that money," Michelle's Aunt Becky remarked in a whisper beside her.

"Yeah, marrying a baseball player and having that huge trust fund from her parents." Elizabeth whistled silently. "Even if she could stand it she wouldn't know what to do with it. Now..."

"Well, that's why I think it's important to encourage her. All that money will remind her of how uncaring her parents were with all that cash."

Elizabeth agreed. It was probably true. "She talks about this nice, three-bedroom house in a middle class neighborhood that she wants. Thankfully, Colin will go along with that. But, they just can't help making money," Elizabeth said with a laugh. "It's like Richie Rich, in a way. Well, we'll have plenty of time to help her, some of my friends and I. Even Rachel says she'll help." Rachel Tilly had been a snobbish rich girl whose dad owned a national bakery chain when she moved into the area and started going to the public school Michelle and the others did. By now, though, she was quite nice and helpful, thanks to Michelle and her friends' work.

"Well, if anyone can help, you can." Becky smiled. "D.J.'s got a friend, Nelson Burkhardt, who can probably help, too, I don't know if you know him." The name was vaguely familiar, but she didn't know if she did. "Well, he's pretty rich, too, but very down to earth, the way she wants to stay. It is ironic, though, you're right. A professional ballet dancer, a pro ballplayer, book deals, trust funds, there's a lot that she doesn't care about, and all Colin ever wanted to do was play a kids' game, he never really thought about the money, I don't think. Whereas Samantha's parents, it seems like that's all they ever thought about," she finished sadly.

D.J. and her husband Steve turned around soon before the wedding was to begin, and realized that Samantha's parents had been sitting behind them for several minutes. D.J. didn't know what to say at first - she wished Michelle were with them, and not upstairs encouraging Samantha. Michelle had matured greatly so she didn't say the wrong thing, but still had to gift of saying what needed to be said with no fear.

Finally, she just asked Mr. Burke, "You sure you don't want the honor of walking her down the aisle?"

"We had our chance. We failed," was all he would say.

"We had to come here, though. This is a special day," Mrs. Burke added.

Michelle, meanwhile, was upstairs in the tiny church encouraging Samantha. She could tell Samantha was jittery.

"Look, Michelle, I know it's the right decision, but...I guess any kind of commitment bothers me, in a way. I mean, we'll be giving our lives to each other. And, I just don't want to feel trapped."

"You would be if you were the only participant. But, remember, Colin is just as dedicated to doing everything for you. He promised to only pitch in the majors ten years, after all, long enough to collect his pension. But, the fact that Colin's lefthanded means that if he had the chance, he could pitch as long as he kept breathing. And that Julio Franco played some at age 50 a couple years ago, and he's not lefthanded and not even a pitcher."

Samantha knew Michelle was right. She determined that what she was going through was probably the same pre-wedding jitters lots of couples went through - and that included men and women. Michelle had once told her that once that ring was on her finger, it should just feel right, somehow, in a way that couldn't be explained. Indeed, Samantha had, like Michelle, never wanted to drink - with Michelle it was memories of her mom, with Samantha it was not liking the idea and also still wanting to be like Michelle some. However, while she would decide not to at all after this, there was even part of her that wanted to sip a little on the plane going to their honeymoon. She was starting to feel independent, and Michelle was right, being married would not strip her of that.

While Samantha thought about what Michelle had said, Joey's boy Robin knocked on the door. "Michelle?" he began as she opened the door. "Stephanie said I ought to come up and tell you Samantha's parents showed up."

"Okay." Michelle was at a momentary loss for words. Finally, she blurted, "Did they say what they want?"

"To watch, I guess."

"Okay, but Joey's still walking her down the aisle." It was a statement by Michelle, not a question. She didn't think Samantha could handle it if her dad had decided he wanted to do that.

Robin said Stephanie had brought it up. "She would have said no even if her dad had wanted to, though. D.J. pretty much asked just because she knew he'd say no. That's what Steph said," Robin informed her. "I gotta get down to my place, but I thought I'd let you know." He waved goodbye and trotted off.

Her parents' presence left Samantha even more in a daze. But, Michelle reminded her that, "They know they failed. Maybe they came to say they're sorry, maybe not. All that matters is, there's a guy down there ready to throw every ounce of devotion into you, just like he always has. Just like he talked about in his book." She handed her a copy of the book Colin had written part of; Colin had written a little note and attached it to the book so it would be awaiting her when she entered the bridal room.

"I know." Samantha smiled, and read the introduction - it was a piece on one of the more prominent college baseball programs, Stanford University, and each chapter spoke of the life of one player. Of course, since college athletes couldn't profit from it, it didn't get published till a few months ago, by which time the ones who turned pro could provide little epilogues, and those who didn't could talk in general about their memories of college athletics at one of the most difficult schools to enter in the country.

Colin had jumped at the chance to be part of it. "I know he loves me..." Samantha murmured as she read:

"It happened to be fresh off my first major league win - the dream of every little boy. I met her in a quiet restaurant in New York, not far from Shea Stadium. She would be dancing ballet that evening, I would be making baseballs dance around the bats of the men standing at the plate. We were living out our dreams. And, I humbly asked if she'd be willing to spend the rest of her life living a dream with me, just as I wanted to do with her. She said 'yes.'" Samantha shed a happy tear at the memory.

"If you had told me ten years ago I'd be writing this, I could easily have envisioned the title as one for a chapter, or a book. But, I never would have imagined what I know now - that Samantha Lynne Burke, soon to be Samantha Lynne Douglas, and not baseball, would be the true 'Love of My Life.'

"Oh, I'd joked about how I'd have a girlfriend if she was as nuts about baseball as I was. I'd even liked a few girls. But when Jeff Farrington, who played for a rival school, asked if I had a girlfriend in the spring of 2001, I thought for sure it was a trick. He never could get a hit off me. To him, my stuff was already big league material. And, I figured he was trying to break my concentration, to get me thinking about a girl while he was at the plate.

"Jeff said he was serious, though, and explained the situation. I'd gotten to know him pretty well at a baseball camp the previous summer. I knew while he was a major league clown, when he believed in something he really put his heart into it. Now, Samantha and I promised not to delve into anything prior to our relationship here, but let's just say she'd had a really rough childhood. I only need to tell you the person she thinks of as her mother emotionally was only six years older than her; that's how rough it was.

"So this Stephanie Tanner, a college girl at the time, called my mom and asked a bunch of questions. Then, she talked to me, and I could tell she felt the same concern for Samantha that a mother would. It was obvious that there was a loving bond there. Soon, Samantha and I were going steady.

"This is a story about baseball. About a young lefty who lived out the dream of every little boy one October. But, it's also a book about finding that one true love that makes you complete. Because this February, as the Kenny Loggins song goes, I'll be smiling and facing a girl who shares my name. And, it's so true - this boy will never be the same."

Samantha smiled. Throughout his chapter of the Stanford Sports Stories (baseball version) book, he'd spoken about baseball, but it was clear that Colin Douglas was crazy for her, as she was also a constant subject. And, he hadn't divulged anything about Samantha's past that would embarrass her, but it was clear in how he acted that he wanted to protect her; indeed, he'd probably suffer all the anguish she had if it would make things better.

"He's so special, Michelle. He's always doing sweet little things, leaving messages, even blowing kisses to me when he knows I'll be watching. He's the best things that could ever happen to me."

"That's right. And, now you have a chance to blossom. To be that loving wife, someday a loving mother, and everything God made you to be," Michelle encouraged her.

Samantha nodded. "You're right. Thanks, Michelle."

Joey walked Samantha down the aisle moments later. The simple, yet elegant, wedding seemed more fit for a middle class girl. But, that's what Samantha really wanted to be. While others were helping her get comfortable with having lots of wealth, she really didn't like any sort of extravagance.

She blushed and grinned broadly as she said "I do," with the "first kiss of the rest of their lives" being the most incredible, passionate, and romantic thing she could envision.

As the crowd gathered to welcome them after the wedding, Samantha could tell her parents weren't comfortable there. They really only knew a few people, and they wouldn't be going to the reception. Still, despite the problems, Samantha managed to smile gracefully as she shook their hands. She pretended they were just an elderly couple that was some sort of acquaintance.

"Congratulations," they said without much emotion, though she did detect a little bit of regret. Once she thanked them, she sighed inwardly. She wondered if she would ever see them again now.

Colin could read her mind as they prepared for the many photos. "We'll just keep praying for them."

She agreed. Joey was right. The man who loved kids' things had always had great faith. And, considering all her problems, that was one thing that, though she might not have noticed it right away, had really endeared him to her as her father figure. She imagined that it figured she'd wind up married to a man who played a child's game for a living.

Once they arrived at the reception, Samantha excitedly trotted up to Stephanie and hugged her. "Thanks for a great wedding...Mom." It still thrilled her to say that.

"Well, I'm not the only one who helped prepare it," Stephanie remarked lovingly, wiping a small tear from her eye. "I know we went to a lot of trouble, but you really deserved this."

Samantha smiled broadly. "I know." She looked over at the mammoth cake and intricately decorated reception hall. So many people she knew were mingling, it was so far from the lonely days of her early childhood. "It's so fabulous."

Stephanie agreed. It seemed that every woman wanted to live that dream of a royal wedding; Becky had told her that was a trend that probably began with the broadcast of Prince Charles and Lady Di's wedding in the early 1980s. Not everyone could afford that, but they could for her. And, she considered, there was nobody in the world she'd rather see have one than Samantha.

"Well, there's still rice to throw after the reception; don't worry, we made sure Steve didn't eat any of it," Joey was kidding Colin.

"Thanks. The team's letting me report a bit later than most pitchers, so we can have a few days for a honeymoon in her parents' holiday home."

"Which reminds me," Jeff asked, "where would your holiday home be if the holiday you used it for was April Fool's Day?"

Michelle overheard, and teased her husband, "Knowing you you'd just suggest our house should be the one."

Samantha and Stephanie were walking up to Colin and the others. "Nice thing is, now Dad doesn't have to worry about getting nervous about who catches the bouquet, since all of us are married," Stephanie remarked.

"Only because Pamela's only a month old," Joey told them.

Samantha smiled, remembering stories of Jesse and Becky's wedding, when Joey had lifted Michelle up so she could catch the bouquet. "I hope my family has as much love and fun in it," she told Joey.

"It will. You're going to make the most wonderful mother."

"Thanks. I'm just glad nobody complains because we only have punch at the reception." She thought for a moment. "Are you sure it's okay to have some champagne later, by ourselves, Stephanie?"

Stephanie put an arm around her. "I've told you before, if you want to a little, that's fine. I think the reason we never do is because we think about Mom. I mean, it was a Saturday, so for all we know, the drunk who killed her could have been coming from a reception. It's so sad people have to lose control, instead of having good, clean fun and laughter without that stuff."

Samantha held up her hands. "Stephanie, please, I'm just getting to the point of being able to have a sip on the plane when we go later."

"Sorry. You're right." Stephanie had always missed Pam the most of any of Danny's girls. Especially at times like this, it wasn't uncommon for her to think - and ramble - a little about that if not stopped. Still, she turned that into a positive. "Hey, look, you can help snap me out of it now when I think about our Mom; you've really become great at encouraging people when they're down."

"I didn't think of it that way, but, yeah. I guess I am."

"Now the big trick is going to be writing 'Samantha Douglas' on your checks," D.J. told her. "It took me a few months before I got totally used to being 'D.J. Hale.' It's like changing years on the calendar." The others agreed.

"Yeah, it felt weird when I heard the photographer call me that. But, it sounded pretty, too. Samantha Douglas." He smiled broadly, getting a warm, happy feeling inside her - a feeling of peace and contentment, of security. She gazed warmly at the man who had just become her husband. "It just feels right, somehow."

"Sure, the rest is just muscle memory. I won't forget how to pitch just because I report a few days later. Although I'll be teased mercilessly if I come back too sunburned to pitch," Colin remarked.

"Well, we'll take care of that." Samantha looked to make sure none of the children had heard her and wondered what she meant; they hadn't.

The couples soon went to their assigned tables. Samantha look out over the crowd and looked up thankfully, considering how wonderful it was to have so many friends from her friendships with the Tanners, the Larkins, from school, even a couple young ladies from her ballet company. She turned to Stephanie. "Everything just looks so amazing; even my ballet friends are enjoying themselves. Although, I don't think that flower girl has stopped asking questions or looking at them in awe since we got here."

"I know; when I was that age I was so disappointed because I got the chicken pox when a real, live ballerina was coming to speak in our class." Stephanie knew that the girl in question thought of Samantha as just "Aunt Samantha," she wasn't really old enough to contemplate that she, too, was a ballerina just like them. Though she was the girl of one of Colin's friends, they still called her Aunt Samantha on occasion, just like Michelle had sometimes called Joey Uncle Joey. "Of course, Joey's boy Robin is just as much in awe of Colin's friend on the Cubs." Samantha agreed with Stephanie.

Finally, the extravagant reception was over. It had been so much fun. Everyone was worn out. The flight to the Bahamas would be long, but they probably wouldn't fall asleep till they were halfway there, they were so excited. They'd be up late talking about how enjoyable it was, and dreaming of their future together. They were both professionals, but they could tell it was a match made in heaven. And, with cell phones and other things, they could keep in touch incredibly easily.

As the crowd was about to leave, Samantha and Stephanie looked lovingly at each other, unsure of what to say. Finally, Samantha thanked her for all her help.

As they embraced, Stephanie reminded her, "I'll always be here for you." She and Colin hugged, too. "I know you'll take good care of her."

"You bet I will. I can't imagine being any happier. Thanks for bringing us together." He wiped away a tear himself, overcome by how awesome it was. "There's not supposed to be any crying in baseball, you know," he teased, not wanting to think about how emotional he was feeling, but also how scary it was to have such responsibility. And yet, he knew he could do it. He really loved Samantha with all his heart.

Samantha told him not to worry. "Your friend doesn't see you; Robin's got him going over the entire championship season, play by play," she teased.

Stephanie had to laugh. She had so much of Michelle in her yet, with blunt comments like that. "You're going to have the best family." They hugged again, and Samantha thanked her, as the young couple prepared to depart.

Beneath a shower of rice, Colin and Samantha left the reception, headed for the airport. There was a home in the Bahamas waiting for them.

As their plane left the runway, Samantha's hand in her husband's, she hoped the rest of their lives would be as wonderful as today had been. They sipped champagne and kissed as they headed toward the Caribbean.

As the flight attendant saw to their every need, asking what they wanted for dinner, she leaned close.

"What would you like, Mrs. Douglas?"

Samantha liked being called that -- it gave her a thrill inside. She smiled, holding Colin's arm.

"I'll let my husband order for both of us."

It was June, 2018. Colin had left with the Oakland A's in Boston, where they would face the world champion Red Sox. He'd pitched for the Indians for three months after a "loaner trade" several years ago, and won another world title. Then, he'd come out to the Bay Area as a free agent. Samantha's ballet career had wound down, and she'd grown tired of following the team all around. Now, she could be in the area for all his home games, and just watch their little girl when Colin was on the road.

As Samantha held little Michelle Courtney Douglas, two and a half, though, she couldn't help but be amazed.

"Somehow, it seems fitting," Samantha said as Michelle - whom they called 'Chelle for the most part - tried to squirm out of her grasp. She spoke to one of Stephanie's best friends from school, Allie, while not looking away from the grave. "He collapsed at work on Father's Day. If we hadn't kept praying, if Harry hadn't visited him a few months back, when you and he came home on furlough..." she muttered with a sigh.

Allie turned Samantha's face toward hers. "But he did. Samantha, we knew they were on your heart for a long while. Maybe more on ours, because I remember more than you do," she said, not mentioning what she referred to, the way Samantha was when she was five, six, seven years old. She knew there had to be a lot of pain and torment from back then, living with parent who didn't care at all. "And, Harry and I were able to lead him to Christ. That man's in Heaven now, and your mom will be too, after what happened after the funeral. And, they'll be changed people. God changes people when they get saved, because they truly do repent."

"I know. They'll be the type who show up in Heaven, and when billions of saints and angels lay their crowns at Jesus' feet, they'll be among the few with nothing to show for their lives. How embarrassing!" she said with more sadness than bitterness, the bitterness having evaporated over the years.

"Still way better than the alternative," Allie said. Samantha nodded as Darcy, Stephanie's other best friend from school, walked up to them. "In the end, all the devil could do was deny them any rewards; he couldn't even keep them from getting saved, couldn't take their souls down with him. The right kind of prayer really is powerful stuff."

Indeed, the alternative had been what had worried Samantha's biological mother, Lynne. During the funeral, the minister had spoken of how Lynne's husband had very nearly wasted his last chance to get saved, working for things that would all come to naught someday. Lynne and the minister spoke for a while after the service, and Lynne then knelt and received Christ's forgiveness for her sins, too.

Samantha agreed; she still had her troubles, but the influence of anger and bitterness was quite low in her life, despite her upbringing, thanks to the love so many had shown her. After the funeral, Samantha had gone to her parents house in Oakland for the first time in years. She'd sat with her mother Lynne for hours as they cried together and talked together. For the first time, she'd felt a genuine desire to reach out to her mother, and an equal desire from her mother to reach out to her. While it wouldn't be easy to forget what had happened because of her parents' actions in her childhood, Samantha felt that even if it was too late for 'Chelle to know her grandfather, just maybe little 'Chelle would one day come to know and love her Nana and also her mother might come to know just what she had missed.

Darcy asked where Allie and Harry were going next. "You've got a flight out to Canton, don't you?"

"Yep, Canton Baptist Temple. One of the best missions churches I know; I still remember being there our first time when we were raising support."

"Since the Football Hall of Fame is there, I was going to kid you about picking up some coaching tips if you see any Hall of Fame coaches," Darcy explained.

Samantha managed to laugh as she tried to let 'Chelle walk for a while. "Yeah, Darcy, that's incredible, you joining the Olympic field hockey team as an assistant; hey, 'Chelle, come on, walk a little if you don't want held. I don't want to drag you."


"Getting a bit of the Terrible Twos, huh?" Allie asked.

"Yeah. 'Chelle, if you won't walk Mommy'll have to carry you!" After a moment, Samantha picked her up and sighed. "It was so much easier when Colin was here, he took a day off to fly home to be with me after the funeral, then before that there was a ten-game homestand. And, he was putting her in timeout, was setting limits, everything just like a pro. I'm pretty good at not falling for tantrums," she said as she ignoring the fussing and buckled 'Chelle into her carseat. "But, timeout's something I just can't do yet."

"You have to start sometime," Allie noted. "Pretty soon, too. Even when Steph's dad wasn't doing it, D.J. was when Michelle was two and a couple months."

"I know. Thanks, guys, for meeting me out here." And, as Samantha drove off, she wondered when she would start. She didn't want to be a female Danny, or keep Colin at home watching her after he retired in October. But, she knew it could happen. She supposed there were still little pieces of her that didn't want to think about punishing anyone, for fear it would bring back the sadness of her own past.

Michelle watched happily as Jeff winked at her on the air. "His live-in angel," Michelle repeated, laughing to herself.

"Of course, that one he copied from Paul Harvey," July noted as she sat with Michelle on the couch.

"I know. But, still, it's great to be called something like that." Michelle turned to Kimmy's daughter and said, "You make sure the guy you fall in love with knows how to treat you. You should treat each other like the most important person on the earth."

"Even more important than the President?" July asked.

Michelle giggled at the Kimmy-like query. She was grateful to be able to help this girl, to the point where now, July could even assist her a little with the younger ones. "Yep, even the President."

Michelle had heard from Samantha about her troubles with 'Chelle. She knew with Courtney on her honeymoon, it would fall to her to assist. She was grateful D.J. had set firm limits so early in her life, so she hadn't had to be even firmer later.

"Mom," their oldest, Jesse Joseph Farrington, cried. "Tell Jeffy to leave my stuff alone!"

Jeffy - which Jeff, Jr. still liked to be called - followed. The five-year-old asked, "Can you make Jesse keep out of my stuff?" He then thought of something that he'd heard a while ago. "Is my great-uncle really named Hermes?"

"That's classified; if Uncle Jesse wants to tell you you'll have to ask him," Michelle responded.

"If I'm named after someone who's really a Hermes, maybe I would rather go by Joseph," Jesse said glibly.

Michelle smiled, the same smile she'd heard always seemed to be on her mother's face. She was so happy to be able to care for such wonderful kids, just as she'd been for so long. It was extra gratifying to think that Samantha had named her little girl after Michelle.

"Some kids say I have to go by Jeff. But, I don't want to, that's Daddy's name. I'd rather be me."

"That's fine, dear," Michelle said lovingly.

July added, "Yeah, besides, anytime you drop a 'y' I think you have to add 'ies.'"

"Oh, no, so there would be two of him! Have mercy!" Jesse teased.

"That's right. And, I can be Jeffy as long as I want." The five-year-old explained, "Daddy says there's a whole team of Hall-of-Fame baseball players with a 'y' sound on the end of their names. Like Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Eddie Matthews, Willie McCovey, Jackie Robinson..."

Danny walked downstairs with three-year-old Brandon, who had just gone to the bathroom successfully, and went to the door. "Boy, Jeffy makes me proud," he said as he opened it. "He talks on and on just like me."

Little Staci's mother brought the two-year-old in. "She's been difficult this morning," the mom explained. "No major tantrums yet..."

Michelle nodded her understanding. She only took in a couple kids at a time - three was the most she had ever had, and that included July. She had her own children to worry about, of course, and wanted to make sure each child got plenty of attention. Plus, if one of these had another child, she wanted to be able to care for the siblings at the same time, too, and she could fit one or two more in if needed. With herself, one other young lady, and Danny, they always had the most important thing - very consistent caregivers.

Michelle was proud to see July rounding into such a compassionate person, as well. She apparently hadn't inherited too much of either Kimmy's or Duane's weirdness, though the girl was a trifle slow in school, which figured with her parents' challenges. She asked July to play with Staci till the other helper came, while she got Brandon involved with something.

Jesse told Danny, "Michelle's friend Mandy's going to be my teacher this fall."

"That'll be neat."

"So? I already went to day camp all week," Jeffy said triumphantly. Courtney and her now husband had helped run the church camp where he'd attended.

"That was just for a week. Besides, she was in charge of everything, you probably didn't see her at all."

"But, I was still the first one to have one of Mommy's friends as boss over me."

Danny chuckled at the banter; while he'd never liked to hear his girls argue, a little debating was a good thing, and this took him back to those wonderful days when they were little.

July looked up from the toys Staci was refusing to share with her as they tried to play. "Technically, I was first, with horseback riding." Michelle's friend Denise Chow had recently inherited Golden Gate Stables from her uncle, where Michelle and her friends had ridden for many years. Once she retired from the show, Becky had been hired to work with something she'd loved since growing up in Nebraska - she taught kids to ride at the stables.

"Yeah, but you're allergic to milk products like your mom, so you've never had ice cream at Tilly Pastries," Jeffy pointed out.

Jesse threw back his head at Jeffy's attempt to sound like he was first. "Oh, please, Rachel's dad still owns that. And, even if her friend worked there, having her fix you ice cream does not mean she was boss over you!"

"But, if I was bad she could have tried to give me broccoli flavored ice cream," Jeffy pointed out. "So, she was kind of like a boss, since I had to be good or she'd do that."

"Ah, the joys of grandfatherhood. Sounds like your mom got that threat idea from your Aunt D.J.," Danny said, reminiscing about how D.J. would trick her sisters sometimes into being good.

At that moment, Jesse gave up. "You just can't win with him," he said as he walked toward the kitchen to grab his bike, which was parked outside the back door. "I'm riding over to Justin's."

"Okay, have a nice time."

Danny grinned broadly. He remembered the guest he'd interviewed almost 30 years ago on "Wake Up, San Francisco" - Bo McIntyre. An ex-college quarterback who'd won a national title before going into medical school, McIntyre had earned such a name for himself that by 2000, he'd been in state politics. That had been McIntyre's plan as he outlined it on the show.

Since then, McIntyre had taken a strong, though moderate, position against the more radical elements in the state's legislature. His motto was, "The courage to fix what I can, the grace to accept what I can't, and the wisdom to know the difference." His simpler slogan had always been, "Common Sense Restored." And, he'd done that, having the reputation perhaps nobody else would have had that allowed him to prevent the most radical of voices from gaining control on many issues; frivolous lawsuits were only part of the problems McIntyre confronted and was victorious over.

Danny shuddered to think of what things might have been like even by ten years ago - political correctness run amok, the terms "mother" and "father" not allowed, a near socialist state in some areas. And yet, because of McIntyre, even before the revival that had broken out in the U.S. over the last few years, California was a moderate state in which his grandkids could ride their bikes and play and so much other stuff in safety, having the childhood he wanted his kids to have.

He was glad they never had to consider moving to Nebraska en masse, which even now he thought they might have done, if he felt things would be too unsafe. He was against discrimination, but wanted to protect this kids - and grandkids - from the really bad morals that society had had for a while back then.

"Grandpa, what do you do now that you're retired?" Jeffy asked, breaking Danny out of his train of thought.

"Well, technically I'm not retired; I just have a commentator's position once a week."

"But, you don't really have to work, do you? A job is something where it takes some time to learn. Like Doctor Cassie." Cassie had gone to medical school, having found she enjoyed the profession quite a bit from hearing D.J. talk. But, while D.J. was among the top nurses at her hospital, Cassie had gone on to medical school.

"Well, it's true, Jeffy," Danny said as Michelle came in to try and calm Staci, who was now pitching a major fit. "Jobs do require a lot of effort. But, the nice thing about retirement, or at least semi-retirement, is you can do almost anything you want because of your experience."

"Anything we want. Does that mean you can take us all to the moon in a rocketship?" Jeffy asked as he put his hands over his ears. He simply grinned and shrugged off the toddler's crying, this client's daughter threw major tantrums at times.

Michelle finally gently grabbed the flailing girl and wrapped her in her arms so she couldn't thrash her arms and legs around. Unable to do that, Staci stopped screaming, and simply dissolved into tears as Michelle cuddled her and she calmed down.

Stephanie grinned broadly as she stopped in to say hello with several of her children. "Hey, Michelle. You sure have a knack for mothering, you know that?" She thanked her while talking softly to the little girl.

Jeffy and Stephanie hugged. "What brings you here, Aunt Stephanie?"

"My car." They shared a gentle laugh as Stephanie said, "Actually, I'm taking Robbie to a doctor's appointment. You know, your mom might have a really nice home daycare, but I don't think she's brave enough to haul five kids to the doctor's office at once."

"Buying the building her old daycare was in and turning the daycare into a well-run place like this was probably just as brave on Samantha's part," Danny said. Michelle tried to explain for Jeffy, Staci, and Brandon, who was now happy playing with blocks, when Brandon expressed shock that one could buy a building.

"Yeah, it sounds like she's just having trouble keeping 'Chelle in line, let alone five kids," Stephanie said. She decided she might as well stay and chat; her kids had all run off in different directions. Indeed, it was quite likely that at least one would ask to stay with their Aunt Michelle while she took Robbie to the doctor. Although, she didn't see Jesse around for the oldest to play with; she deduced that he'd gone to a friend's house already. One of the things she took most pride in was keeping track of all her kids at once. She could do it even when they tried to confuse her.

"She called me about it last night, yeah," Michelle said. "I guess she just finds it hard to put her in timeout."

"You mean like Grandpa did?" Jeffy asked. "Aunt D.J. said Grandpa kept wanting to think of you as a baby, and he missed your Mom too much." Danny had hated to think of doing something that important without her.. So, D.J. had to be proactive and use timeout or revoke privileges for a while.

Michelle hedged, and finally said, "Yeah, kind of like that." It didn't pay to try to explain Samantha's early childhood to Jeffy, and she didn't know how much Samantha would want explained, anyway. It had even been hard for Samantha to spend her money, as she thought of the incredible wealth her parents had while spending no time with her. However, at least Elizabeth and some others had helped her get used to doing that a little, though Samantha and Colin would always live in a modest, middle-class home.

Jeffy accepted that Samantha was like Danny, and Michelle motioned Danny to watch the others, and while he and Stephanie's oldest watch the younger children, along with July, Michelle and Stephanie walked out back a moment.

"Same as when Uncle Jesse and Aunt Becky lived here; a beautiful flower bed way in the back," Stephanie said. "You sure have a green thumb."

"Thanks. Yesterday it was orange," Michelle quipped, thinking of some fingerpainting silliness that had occurred. "Of course, Aunt Becky's so good at gardening, she's got a green arm. Anyway, seriously, Samantha kind of hopes you'll step in and help, I think."

"Michelle, she knows I'm always there for her."

"I know. And, we might give you a call. She says 'Chelle is really testing her limits; she's convinced she should change her name to 'no,' she hears it from 'Chelle so much."

"Well, tell her to hang in there; it'll get better. She just needs to start being consistent. It went really well when Colin was home, right?"

"Yeah. She'll remove privileges where Dad wouldn't even do that; I think he didn't want to see me sad since I already didn't have a mom. But, taking a toy out of the bathtub each time she splashes water out is one thing; removing dessert for something naughty a few hours before is another, it just won't work too well with a kid that age." Michelle add that, "A couple Christmases ago, when Brandon was just eighteen months, I was doing it in a way around the Christmas tree, though not with anything else. When he'd pull at it, I just pulled him away, and made him stay on the couch for a minute or so. I didn't do it with anything else because he was so young, but that was important to his parents and to me, so he didn't go pulling things down."

"I know. And, I've told Samantha, she's there with 'Chelle so much, there's no way that bond's going to break. She's with her most of the time." Stephanie sighed. "I guess it's just one of those things where she thinks of how little bond she had with her biological parents."

"I thought it was just memories of getting in so much trouble when younger."

"It's not just that, Michelle; if that were the only thing, it would make her more proactive, because she'd want to make sure 'Chelle didn't get that bad."

Michelle rubbed her chin as she heard the other helper pull up outside. "I never thought of that. It makes sense, though."

"It's why Samantha hired such good people who are going to stay at the daycare for years, it's not a chain anymore like it was, with worker turnover worse than some fast food places." Stephanie grinned proudly as she considered Samantha's growth. "She wants to make sure there's a strong bond there, only one worker for every couple kids. She realizes that to some kids, that worker is going to be just like their mother."

"Or their grandpa," Michelle joked as Danny walked out the back door, leaving the other worker to watch the children. Brandon was running after him shouting, "Pa!" "Brandon, let 'Pa' work himself."

Danny picked up the little boy and held him. "Oh, it's no problem, pumpkin, I'll just be out here in my tool shed. I'll watch him." Michelle grudgingly agreed.

"He follows Dad everywhere, huh?"

"Yeah, Steph, his grandparents are all out of state, so Dad is like his grandpa to him. Although Dad won't interfere when I put him in timeout, even though Brandon begs him to help him."

Stephanie nodded. It sounded just like Michelle had been when she was two. Although she didn't remember that, she'd heard enough from D.J..

"Well, you sure take after D.J. in how proactive you are, Michelle; you do a great job."

"Thanks. I take after Jeff with his humor, too. Kimmy's lax on study habits; so is Duane. Well, July tried to pull on me what she did on them when I was looking over some spelling homework of hers. She told me one of our presidents, Andrew Jackson, once said he didn't think much of a man who couldn't think of more than two ways to spell something. So, she didn't think she should have to spell either; and of course, her parents that that actually made sense."

Stephanie stifled a laugh as they walked back into the kitchen and she awaited the punch line.

"So, I said to her, 'Yeah, right. I'm sure someone made that up, July. I mean if that was the case, he'd try to spell the word 'a' with a 'q' sometimes.'"

July overheard as she was coming into the kitchen for something. She turned to Michelle and spoke defensively, trying to prove she wasn't the only one who tried to give lame excuses. "Well, my mom's the one who identified the works of e e cummings as being from Yoda in school once."

Stephanie grinned. "You don't know half the things that happened when she was young." She then put an arm around Michelle and laughed. "You sure have got a way with kids. These children don't know how lucky they have it with you as a sitter."

Samantha, meanwhile, continued to try to get 'Chelle to listen. However, a few days later, when trying to put 'Chelle down for a nap, the little girl absolutely refused to obey Samantha. When Samantha tried to read 'Chelle to sleep, or even lay down with her on her cot, 'Chelle started flinging stuffed animals at her.

"'Chelle, no! You know your stuffed animals are not going to be happy getting thrown like that."


"You're just saying 'no' to say 'no' now, aren't you?"


Samantha couldn't help but chuckle at the humor of the situation. However, she also began to be a little exasperated. Colin had remarked once that 'Chelle seemed to have inherited her mother's determination-to-the-point-of-stubbornness. The fact that this had earned him a night on the couch rather proved his point, he thought. Samantha had felt lonesome by 4 or so that morning, but she'd been unable to awaken Colin off the couch after that previous day's game. She'd realized long ago, though, that Colin could sleep through Hiroshima at times, especially after a game in which he pitched.

And yet, he could never sleep through one of 'Chelle's tantrums.

Now that he was on the road, Samantha would have to make do herself. When 'Chelle decided to try and pull the tablecloth off the table, though, she realized she couldn't do that very well; it was several hours till dinner, and she doubted removing dessert would work at this age.

"Hey, Michelle," Samantha said in a frazzled voice once 'Chelle finally went to sleep, after wearing herself out with activity about 3:30.

"Hey, Samantha. How's 'Chelle doing? "

"Well, I don't like to admit it. But, I guess 'Chelle inherited some kind of stubborn streak from me. I always kid Colin it's on his side of the family, of course," Samantha joked.

"Every mother does that."

"You're probably right." It was just as she'd said years ago; even without the difficult upbringing, she might still have had an attitude. She just hoped she could stop 'Chelle's attitude before it got too bad.

She told Michelle what had been going on lately. "Do you think maybe you could come put her in timeout instead?"

"Come on, Sammie; her Aunt Michelle shouldn't be the one to always punish her."

"Well, not always, just till Colin comes home again."

"Samantha, you're not going to break that bond just because you tell her something's bad and she has to sit in the corner for timeout," Michelle emphasized.

"I know...I just don't know how to start. What do I do, what do I say?"

"Well, you can start by saying 'It's bad to do that, you need to sit in the corner for timeout.'"

The ladies quickly started laughing. "That's what you just said a second ago, isn't it?" It was. "Well, I've tried a little to make her sit and settle, but it's hard sometimes. I need you and Stephanie to come help me."

Michelle smiled sweetly. "Okay, I'll call Stephanie, maybe after supper; how is she on bedtime?"

"Not too bad there, actually, because we have a consistent ritual, like you always say to do. But, it might be tougher now, because she got to sleep for her nap so late."

Michelle said that might not be a huge problem. "If she doesn't fight going to bed much, I'd say tomorrow would be better; Steph and I will be over then. I'll stop over around seven once the last of my charges get picked up; Jeff and my dad can watch the boys. Just in case you need help then."

That evening, Michelle stopped by Samantha's, but as expected, there was little problem. Samantha had developed a very nice routine, and it was close enough to the end of the day that she could do something for discipline if she had to - if 'Chelle threw a toy out of the tub, it stayed out. If she threw a fit before bedtime or wouldn't go to bed, she got no story. By this time, 'Chelle had settled into that routine quite well.

"I guess you really have things down pat there, huh?" Michelle said as they sat downstairs, once 'Chelle was asleep.

"Yeah. Although having her Aunt Michelle around helps a lot."

"Come on, Samantha, you do a great job yourself." She hedged as Michelle sipped some lemonade. "You could almost go with all revoked privileges; our dad did seem to favor those over timeout somewhat. And, it's good, in a way, because you don't want her getting too used to being sent. But, there are times when you probably have to have timeout available at this age."

"Right. It was so much easier when we'd play with dolls; for some reason we never seemed to make them misbehave."

Michelle agreed. "All our play was so tame compared to boys' play. I was kind of glad you were picked to do those couple ads for different board games, or Legos. When you, Courtney, and I appeared in a Lego ad, it was a whole lot different than if boys had been used. I knew just from Nicky and Alex boys could sometimes get pretty wild in their play."

"And even more so now, huh?"

"You bet," Michelle exclaimed. Jesse and Jeffy had some hilarious action in some of their play. But, some of it was still more funny than action-packed. "The other day they were having a battle with some action figures, arguing back and forth about knights, dinosaurs, Civil War soldiers, and so on about who was better. And, it just reminded me of that one ad."

"Oh, yeah, I remember..."

Samantha was eight, and as the cameraman shouted "Action!" she swiftly held up a Lego vehicle and house she'd constructed and sang, "Your Lego house is nice, but mine is much better; I can make anything better than you."

Michelle and Courtney both sang "no you can't."

"Yes, I can."

"No you can't!"

"Yes I can, yes I can!"

Next, it was Michelle's turn to sing about the various things you could make and so on, followed by Courtney, with each having to argue as in the song, the outside two singing "no you can't," the speaker singing "yes I can, yes I can!"

After Courtney sang "Yes, I can, yes I can!" an announcer came on for a very brief moment, after which Samantha said to the other girls, "Well, one thing we agree on; the stuff we built is much better than the boys' stuff."

"That sure was fun," Samantha agreed. "Then, I got to star in one myself, a Lego building competition with a boy."

"Jesse didn't quite repeat your line about that two-foot high Lego mansion just being the doghouse for in the back of the real house you built. But, what he said to Jeffy was close. And, they picked the perfect boy for that ad, his shocked look was so authentic. When Jeffy turned to me and said, 'Mom, is that possible!' it was just like that ad."

'Right. 'Chelle's the same way, she's not really that bad. Most of her stuff's just so cute. You know Elizabeth's like your dad or Aunt Becky would be, she throws parties that are really just like middle class get-togethers, not the lavish, expensive things my parents did."

Michelle nodded and related hearing that Elizabeth's boy, who was four, had announced to an entire family room of guests once, "You've got to see our toilet water, it's so cool! It's all blue!"

"I heard about that one too, yeah. Anyway, Elixabeth's been helping me learn how to do that, too. Well, a couple weeks ago, 'Chelle comes downstairs in her pj's, all ready for bed, and there's this rich doctor who has a big, light gray beard - kind of looks white to some. Well, 'Chelle crawls in his lap and says ever so innocently, 'Hi, Santa.'"

As the girls laughed, Samantha said, "Wait, the best part is, everyone started laughing, and when I tried to tell 'Chelle that couldn't be Santa, she insisted it had to be him because he really does have a laugh just like Santa's 'Ho, ho, ho!"

"That's great."

"Yeah, my parents missed hearing all sorts of funny stuff. I mean, when they're young kids don't need anyone to show them off, they show themselves off with their cuteness."

Michelle agreed. "I guess that's one reason why you can't stand to put her in timeout, huh? It sounds like my dad, in a way, when I was little. Oh, most of it was missing Mom, and not wanting to see me sad, I'm sure, but some of it might have been just not wanting to think of me as growing up."

"Right. Well, we'll see how things go when Stephanie comes tomorrow."

The next day, Stephanie and Michelle left for Samantha's around ten. "Jeff just left with Dad and the boys," Michelle remarked as Stephanie picked her up. "They're going to the Giants' game at one, and they wanted to do some sightseeing and get an early lunch at the game."

"Cool. I wonder if they'll see any balls hit into McCovey's Cove.- which, of course, physicists speculated would be impossible because of the trajectory needed." This cove was a piece of San Francisco Bay that was beyond right field at the ball park. It was named after a great lefthanded power hitter for the Giants in the 1960s and '70s.

Michelle agreed. "It's happened far less since Bonds retired, but still, nothing's impossible. I hear even Aaron Bailey's finally turned his life around; that seemed pretty much impossible once he got into high school; I think you were one of the few ever to make him behave consistently."

"Right. It's a shame, but you know, there's one in every crowd who won't get better till it's too late in this life. At least he's trying now; he received the Lord while he was in prison, I guess he's out now and moved somewhere, I don't know where."

"Yeah. Denise, one of our classmates in high school, said one of her friends got a note from him recently. Aaron says you'd make a better parole officer than the one he's got."

Stephanie chuckled. "Well, I don't know about that. But, I try. So, what do you think Samantha will need most help with?"

"Just getting 'Chelle to listen, I guess. And, if she does something bad, putting her in timeout."

"Okay." Stephanie mulled it over as she and Michelle rode to Samantha's home. "I might let you handle 'Chelle while I talk to Samantha. I think it'll be easier."

"Okay. At least she doesn't fall for whining; 'Chelle might have half a dozen kittens or puppies by now," Michelle joked.

Stephanie nodded. "And a horse by age five. Hey, next dog you get, you're going to have to use another name. Remember how we joked in the beginning after Comet died that we still had eight more reindeer to go, counting Rudolph? Well, it seems our families living in different places caused that number to go down faster than we thought. Uncle Jesse got a belated birthday gift, and of course, since it's got a hint of red in it he called it Rudolph."

"Yeah, but Joey cheated; that greyhound he got when its racing days were over was already named Prancer." The sisters laughed at Michelle's assertion. "Sounds like old times, doesn't it?"

"Sure does. Joey and his whole family are in cartooning and animation now, since Joey got that job down at Disneyland a few years ago. They do some really funny stuff. Although, I think I envy his daughter Wendy's job with 'Big Idea,' the people that do Veggie Tales and all that stuff, the most. Still, it's nice to see he became successful after so long."

The sisters parked in Samantha's driveway. "Some wives travel with the kids on lots of road trips, too," Michelle remarked as they walked up to the door. "But, I can see why Samantha wants to give her little girl a less hectic lifestyle."

"Yeah. Colin staying home more will help, too, though of course he'll have some things to do. There's his love of baseball simulation games like Strat-o-Matic, of course. But, there's plenty of other stuff, too. I hear the church is even trying to push Colin to head one of the adult Bible Fellowships," Stephanie remarked. She taught Sunday School on a regular basis, and Samantha helped in the nursery.

"He'd be good at that; he's worked with Fellowship of Christian Athletes for a while. He and Samantha both knew Courtney's husband pretty well when they introduced her to him a few years ago. If it didn't take so much time away from being with Samantha, Colin might be running his own camp next year, or at least helping with one; he got a number of offers." After Michelle's third knock, Samantha finally came to the door.

"Hey, guys," Samantha said excitedly as she opened the door and invited them in. "'Chelle's playing with dolls now, and I'm making beds. I'm making them into boats."

Michelle chuckled. "Boats?"

"Well, I knew you'd ask me what I'm making them into, you've been around Jeff so long. And ever since a few weeks ago when your boys were over here playing, Michelle, 'Chelle's copied the idea they came up with to play with her; she tries to turn everything into Noah's Ark." Samantha looked up briefly and considered that, "The beds aren't bad at all. It's when she tries to turn the kitchen table or the dryer or the stovetop into Noah's Ark that it causes problems."

"I'm glad you're keeping a sense of humor, but...the stovetop?!" Stephanie exclaimed.

"She just thinks piling things on top of somewhere means she's playing that; thankfully she only tried that once, and I did manage to convince her that only food was supposed to go up there. I think she knows now animals should never be thrown up there."

"That's good. That's the thing about her age, they think something can only be for one thing, they don't have the concept of something being for several purposes yet, though they start to get that," Michelle advised her.

Stephanie concurred. "In a short while, her first jokes will appear. And, they'll be jokes where she says the wrong word on purpose. Like pointing to her nose and saying 'ear' or something. Pammy would crack up with laughter after stuff like that when she was three."

"I remember," Samantha said as 'Chelle suddenly came bounding down the steps. She greeted the younger Tanner sisters excitedly. "'Chelle, how about playing with your Aunt Michelle here, I've got some things to talk to Aunt Stephanie about."

"I hear you like to play with animals. Did you ever make a fort with them?" Michelle asked. 'Chelle shook her head. "Jesse and Jeffy like to build forts, too, I'll show you how."

Samantha and Stephanie stepped outside onto the back patio, and sat on a porch swing. "She sure is great with little ones."

"You could tell, even since Nicky and Alex were little, that it was the kind of thing she'd do for a living." Stephanie observed the beautiful birds singing in the trees and the wonderful flowers around them. "It sure is peaceful here."

"It's a great backyard, so filled with life. 'Chelle loves it out here. And, having it like this just helps me even more to not feel lonely. Although, I can't wait till she's old enough for horseback riding lessons."

Stephanie agreed. While she dislike the smell of horses herself, she could see why that was such a pleasant thing for Samantha. It was a shame that television's emphasis on looks forced people like Becky to retire earlier than some, unless they were incredibly popular. However, Becky had been ready, after over 25 years at the station, for a break, and their Uncle Jesse not only had his radio show, he still had ownership in the Smash Club, though he didn't handle day to day things he still made money on it. And, of course, there were occasional music gigs. The family was not only well off, Becky would likely get a great kick out of being able to teach 'Chelle to ride.

They spoke for several minutes, looking at all the plants Samantha planted, talking about the birds, and so on. Finally, the conversation drifted back to 'Chelle.

"I just want her to feel so much love; I want her to feel like she can talk to me about anything, like she can confide stuff in me, that if she does something wrong she can tell me. I know in my head that when I start giving timeout it'll get better, but in my heart, it's so hard. I just feel afraid of losing what I've got here."

"Even with timeout, it's going to be rough sometimes," Stephanie said tenderly as she put an arm around Samantha. "I caught Pamela and Jesse, about a year or two ago, making prank phone calls; apparently Jesse got the idea from his namesake. She figured I'd caught her, but she was just young enough yet to think she could get out of it. So, she said, 'I'm a little girl, with big blue eyes, and long blonde hair, with a wide smile who wears pink. Would I do something like that?'" Pamela was normally very well behaved, and admitted what she'd done pretty well for her age, but between Jesse, Jeffy's jokes, and Jeff's silliness, she had lots of influences in that are. Neither she nor Jesse had understood some of them, but they were old enough to get the ones like "Is your refrigerator running? Well, you'd better go catch it." And, she was verbal enough to say what she had, having gotten that from Stephanie.

"What did you say?"

"I said, 'Yes, and I'm a mother who can find out anything, and I can tell you you're also a girl who's going to her room and who will get no dessert for several days if she does it again. And, it'll be a lot worse if you don't admit to what you did when you do misbehave." Stephanie couldn't help but smile sadly as she said, "We had a long talk about it, though, and she knows better now."

"I guess it can get pretty tough, huh?" In a way, Samantha was glad to hear things like this, as it confirmed in her mind that she would have likely gotten in a lot of trouble at times even without her bad childhood. That was something she needed to tell herself, as it hurt a lot less then.

And, why not? Stephanie's deceased mother, after whom her daughter Pam was named, used to stick carrots up her brother Jesse's nose all the time. What both Pamelas had done was just a sign that kids were kids sometimes.

But, it spooked her, too. And yet, she was still nervous about that bond - it was so precious between her and 'Chelle.

"You'll hear her say she loves you afterward, I'm sure. But, you can't hear that after timeout if you don't take the initiative to put her in timeout. Michelle hears it from the kids she babysits; they love Miss Michelle. But, you've got something far more special; so, if she can hear it, you can."

Resting her head on Stephanie's chest as they cuddled, Samantha said softly, "Sometimes I wonder if joining that motorcycle gang at 16 would have been easier then this Mom."

She smiled at her ability to call Stephanie "Mom" - it still felt wonderful, even after starting to form a relationship with her biological mother, to have Stephanie around to call that. It was almost like Stephanie was her adopted mother, and Mrs. Burke was a birth mother who'd given her up for adoption, in her mind. As she considered trying to form some kind of relationship with Mrs. Burke, she found herself discussing things with a couple other people who'd searched for and found biological parents after being given up for adoption.

Stephanie looked down at her and smiled. "Not that I'd have ever let you join. Anyway motorcycling may be easier then being a mother. But, it won't give you the love you have from 'Chelle"

"That's for sure. She's so sweet, so loving. I keep just thinking it's a phase she'll grow out of, this defiance. And, I do ignore her tantrums very well."

"That is a key; she knows whining and all that stuff won't get her anywhere. It's probably more of a key than discipline, in fact; what good is any punishment if they learn they can get what they want by screaming loud enough? It just loses effectiveness then. But, you have to establish boundaries, too. And, they really need that, and I think they even want it, in a way, they want to know what's right and wrong. It is up to us parents to teach them, after all."

"Maybe you're right." Samantha rose slowly, and said, "I wonder how Michelle's doing with her in there."

"Well, let's go and see." She patted Samantha's shoulder and gave a loving smile as they walked back into the house.

As they entered, they heard Michelle say "'Chelle!" in a stern voice from the living room. They walked in to see the toddler with Michelle's lipstick, and a number of squiggly lines on the wall. "The walls are meant to be white, not floral pink," Michelle scolded her.

She looked expectantly at Samantha. She knew what that look meant - which of them was going to put the little girl in timeout.

"Can't turn your back for very long at that age, huh?" Samantha remarked as she dithered over what to do. Finally she took a deep breath, and made a large step of faith over to 'Chelle. "Young lady, we only color on paper, and only with crayons! You were a naughty girl!"

Samantha picked her up and glared, before sighing heavily. "You are going to timeout," she managed to utter, carrying her to a little chair and turning it to face the wall before sitting 'Chelle in it.

She expected the bevy of "no"s that followed. 'Chelle had tried that a few times with Colin, but it hadn't worked. Still, it was quite hard for her to watch her little girl sobbing in the corner.

"You're doing the right thing," Stephanie and Michelle both whispered to her.

Samantha could understand why it had been so hard for Danny to punish. She was grateful to have Stephanie and Michelle there to assist; and to keep her from getting 'Chelle up after about ten seconds.

Finally, after a couple minutes, with the crying down to mere occasional sniffles, Samantha walked over to the timeout chair. She turned it around, and knelt down.

"I sowwy, Mommy," 'Chelle whimpered.

"I know, honey. Mommy's sorry she had to punish you. Are you ready to be a good girl and only color on paper?" 'Chelle nodded. "All right, you may get up."

'Chelle threw her arms around Samantha and said, "I love you, Mommy!" As the two embraced, tears of joy streamed down Samantha's face. Stephanie and Michelle had been right. She could tell the loving bond was still there.

"We knew you could do it," Michelle exclaimed.

"You're going to be the best mom," Stephanie echoed.

Samantha stood and held her little girl. She smiled thankfully and said, "Of course. Thanks to you, I'm part of the best family anyone could have."