A Shepherd No More
Chapter 1

Caution: This Science Fiction Sex Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa, Ma/ft, Consensual, Heterosexual, Science Fiction, Space, Harem, Interracial, Slow,

Desc: Science Fiction Sex Story: Chapter 1 - A pastor's life gets turned upside down when the Confederacy comes to extract him.

The moment I saw him walk into the rear of the nave that first Sunday in September, I knew my life would never be the same. Truth be told, that process started back when the President made his speech. But seeing the large man flanked by equally large men in dark green uniforms sent the truth home in a far more personal way. The reason? I knew they were here for me.

I'll admit the CAP score surprised me. I'd avoided taking it for over a year since I didn't plan on going anywhere. That all came to an end, though, when I went into the Sheriff's office to renew my driver's license a few weeks earlier. Turned out if I wanted to get the one, I had to take the other. Needless to say, I walked out a few hours later in a bit of shock. My only thought was that maybe my remoteness would keep the Confederacy from picking me up—which, of course, seems silly now that I think about it.

Harkin, Idaho, tucked away in the east-central mountains of the state, is about as far from anything as you want to get. Still, if your favorite kind of merchandise is found at Cabela's or Bass Pro Shop, it's definitely the town for you—not that we had either of those stores around, mind you. Those would be a three hour drive either to the north or south, take your pick.

Harkin's also in ranching, mining and timber country but the largest employer is the federal government—which should come as no surprise being they owned most of the county. The Mormons owned much of the rest. Good people and great neighbors but a real pain in the ass as a group—but I digress.

I will say, as an outsider, it was real interesting to watch the fallout among the Mormons as the reality of the Sa'arm and the Confederacy sank in. You'd have thought that with all that polygamy in their Scriptures and history, they'd have no problem with the whole sponsor/ concubine thing. And you'd be wrong. Oh, sure, their fundamentalists started out pleased as punch but that came to a screeching halt when they all turned up with low CAP scores. And then there were the Latter Day Saints (LDS) out of Salt Lake City.

No surprise their president came out with a new "revelation" heralding the Church's return to polygamy. What was a surprise was the backlash among the faithful. Turns out a lot of those good Mormon women were not into sharing unless it meant getting off the planet, nor were the men too keen on the idea of female sponsors. Throw into the mix a whole galaxy of already inhabited worlds completely ignorant of Mormon cosmology—which really mucked up their doctrine of eternal progression for a time—and it all made quite the mess. Split that church right down the middle and, in Harkin anyway, many just walked away from it all together. The LDS eventually did get their house in order, to a certain degree, but in the face of the Sa'arm threat how much does that matter?

Mind you, I'm not throwing stones. My own Christian beliefs were hitting the spin cycle right around the same time. Truthfully, Christianity took a far greater hit than pretty much any other religion on the planet. The others—like the Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, or Hindus—all have some significant wiggle room when previously unknown residents of the universe show up on your doorstep.

Christianity, on the other hand, has next to none. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son..." John 3:16, that touchstone of the Christian faith seems quaint and naïve now in the face of numerous populated worlds scattered across the galaxy, let alone the universe. Did Jesus die for them, too?

What we Christians faced in those early days made what the Mormons went through look like child's play. Every denomination took a hit. Most of the theologically liberal churches, who'd been hemorrhaging members for years, went into freefall. The majority closed their doors, while those that remained made the transition to being little more than a lodge or social club. In other words, they finally admitted they'd never really believed in much of anything anyway.

The radical Protestants, on the other hand—namely your Pentecostals, Independent Baptists, and the like—opted for open denial and became easy pickings for the TV preachers. As for what remained in the middle—the Catholics and Orthodox, along with the conservative Lutherans, Anglicans, Calvinists, and Methodists—well, we just retreated to what was familiar and comforting.

In some cases, our congregations actually grew. I know mine did—Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in little ole Harkin, Idaho. In the face of such dreadful news, many who hadn't darkened our doorway for quite some time opted to return to the liturgy, hymns and prayers they'd learned as children. We all knew fear—awful, debilitating fear and dread—so we turned for peace to the One we thought we knew, hoping desperately that He was actually there ... for us ... for me.

For me. If you were expecting to find me sitting there in a pew when the Confederacy Marines arrived, you'd be mistaken. I'd never have seen them walk in had I been occupying a space there. No, I was up front in my robe and stole, giving the benediction. We never made it to the closing hymn.

"If I could have your attention." The man in the grey uniform spoke with a subtle accent as he walked up the center aisle. "My name is Decurion Einar Sundberg of the Confederacy Civil Service and this is an extraction."

There were a few gasps as people turned to look at the unexpected visitor but otherwise everyone remained calm. We are Lutherans, after all—the ones who sing "Stand Up, Stand Up, For Jesus!" while sitting down.

"Now, before we get started could I see a show of hands of all those who are currently armed with some type of weapon?" A smattering of hands went up. No surprise there—it is rural Idaho after all. He nodded his head and then gestured to his men, who quickly moved into action—two more of whom emerged from a door to my right.

"Let me assure you," he continued, "we are not confiscating these weapons. We are merely securing them temporarily for everyone's safety."

Once that was complete, he glanced down at some kind of handheld tablet. If I had to guess, we had about 120 or so people in church that Sunday. The decurion looked up and around at all those gathered with a pleased expression on his face.

"Thank you so much for remaining seated and quiet," he remarked with a smile. "Continue to do so and follow my instructions to the letter and we should be done in short order."

Shifting his focus back to the pad, he began to call out the names of volunteers followed by their CAP score. In a matter of minutes, he had eight men and three women standing just in front of the communion rails. Having been these people's pastor for seven years, not one of those named was a surprise—though I was more than a little curious that Gene Krespi and Martin Showalter didn't get called up. I looked over their way and they each somewhat sheepishly shook their heads.

Lastly, Decurion Sundberg called my name: "Reverend Doctor David Hendricks, with a 9.2."

I must admit, it was very gratifying to hear the smattering of groans, gasps, and murmured disappointments bubble up from those gathered. It's often said that when a pastor leaves a congregation, some are sad, some are mad, and some are glad. That mix, however, didn't seem to be the case here. Surveying the faces, all I saw was sadness—which made sense since we had been through a lot together over the last year or so and now it appeared I was leaving them.

Except I wasn't so sure I would. They had called me to be their pastor and that didn't stop just because the Confederacy Marines showed up. How could I just walk away? I was their shepherd and they were the flock placed into my care.

Glancing over at my wife, Lily, I could see her slumped shoulders and the resigned expression on her face. I already knew she wouldn't go. She'd told me as much when I returned with my new unasked for CAP card. She couldn't bear to be apart from the kids and grandkids. True, our relationship may have been only a shadow of what it once was, but I couldn't see just walking away from her either. I had given my word—for better or for worse.

As I was contemplating all this, the president of our congregation, Earl Stumpfig, a tall, wiry rancher who'd retired some years earlier, got up from where he was sitting and turned as if to address the congregation.

"Decurion, if I may?" he asked, seeking the leader of the extraction's indulgence. When the man nodded, Earl continued on. "If no one objects, I would like to call a special voters meeting." Hearing no objections, he glanced over at me. "It is clear our pastor is struggling somewhat with his decision to either go or stay. Now, he's served us well and—while I'd prefer for him to stick around—having him go and take eight..."

"Nine, potentially," the decurion interrupted, "if he were to chose a mother with a nurturing subscore over 8 and at least one child under fourteen."

Earl smiled and gestured to the Civil Service officer, "and the fact that Pastor could take nine people plus children to safety is hard to ignore. So, can we have a motion concerning this matter?"

One of our other members, Dorothy Riggs, 82 years old and absolutely the sweetest lady you could ever meet, stood and offered a motion. "I move that we release Pastor Hendricks from his call." It was clear that she wanted to say more but her voice cracked and she couldn't continue, so she sat back down in tears.

The motion was quickly seconded, followed by ... nothing. There was no discussion, only silence. Seeing no discussion, Earl called for the vote. Every hand rose in support—even Lily's. It was unanimous and my decision was now clear. My vocation as pastor, along with my marriage, had just come to an end.

I rose to speak next. "It has been my honor and privilege to serve as your pastor these past seven years and it was my intention to continue to do so into the future. But I will honor your vote and your sacrifice, as you took the weight of this decision from my shoulders and placed it on your own."

With intensity and no doubt watery eyes, I turned my gaze to Decurion Sundberg. "Before I agree to go, I have some demands. This extraction will devastate this congregation—taking a third if not a half of its members and making it no longer financially viable. I want the Confederacy to fix that."

The decurion seemed momentarily distracted but then nodded. "Consider it done."

"And secondly," I continued, shifting my eyes to my wife and unable to keep my unhappiness with her out of my voice, "unless she has changed her mind, Lily will not be coming with me." There were a few murmurs as she tearfully shook her head. "I want her financially compensated as if I had died."

She gasped but with the gray-clad officer there was no hesitation. "Again, consider it done."

"Alright, the last concerns how the rest of this extraction will proceed." My gaze was back on the decurion. "Rather than follow the normal pattern we've heard mentioned in the media, will you allow us the freedom to do it our own way?"

"What do you have in mind?"

"That we pass the offering plates and anyone wanting to be considered as a concubine will place their CAP card in it. I know some of the folks up here have pre-packs that need to be called. Those of us with open slots will head back to a classroom to divide up the remaining candidates among us."

"Does anyone object?" the Civil Service officer asked the congregation. Most shook their heads no. "Let's do it your way. You have twenty minutes."

We probably sat around that table staring at the cards in the offering plate for a good half minute or so before someone finally said something. That someone, of course, was me. There were only seven of us now: four men and two women plus myself—while the others waited by the front doors for their pre-packs. The six in the room with me were all waiting for someone to lead this bizarre mix of a slave auction and horse trading session. So I did what pastors do and offered a prayer. It wasn't all that profound and I kept it short. I know—weird, right? It's just that we were in desperate need of wisdom and guidance, so that's what I asked for. Whether we got it or not is another matter entirely.

Once done, I grabbed the cards out of the plate, counted them, and stacked them vertically in front of me. Everyone already had the special card readers the decurion had given us and shown us how to use. "Alright, first off, if we do this right, we have more slots than candidates so no one has to feel bad about leaving someone behind."

More than a few breathed a sigh of relief at that news. I then proceeded to read off each of the names, passing along spouses' cards to those around the table, and placing the remainder in three neat piles. We were proceeding rather smoothly through the first pile—the mothers with children—when I was taken by surprise. The first five had been chosen quickly with no fuss but when I read the sixth—Erica Gilley, 35, mother of Gina, 9, Matthew, 7, and Gretchen, 4—no one said a word. Instead, they glanced at one another with odd expressions on their faces and then turned back to me.


Janice Hill looked at Deborah Reynolds again, who was sitting across the table from her, and giggled. Debbie shook her head in obvious amusement but finally took pity on me when she saw my confusion. "It would probably be best if you take Erica, Pastor, since she would not be happy with any of us." The rest all nodded in agreement.

"Okay," I responded flatly, still unclear as to what was going on. "And why is that?"

I know, it seems obvious now—hindsight being 20/20 and all—but I'd honestly never noticed what they did. I had counseled Erica when her husband walked out on her and their three kids a few years back, and she attended Bible Class pretty regularly—but that was it, as far as I was concerned. Both of the women looked at me like I was a complete moron. It was John Goeglein, at the opposite end of the table raising his right eyebrow at me, however, that finally clued me in.

I was stunned. "Seriously?"

"Oh my word!" Jan exclaimed. "She's your biggest fan! All you have to do is say you would like something and—bam!—she's twisting arms and bending ears to get it for you. The new copier for the office? The security light for the parking lot? The blue Advent paraments? All Erica!"

"I had no idea."

Jason Beck, one of our now former trustees, nudged me in the shoulder. "Pastor Dave, you've got to take her. She's just going to spit in our food."

How he kept a straight face as he said it, I'll never know. He probably would have kept it, too, had Debbie not let out a loud snort. Before long we were all laughing. It didn't last too long but was just what we needed. The weight of the choices before us was heavy.

"Alright, I'll go ahead and take Erica," I agreed with a small chuckle. Thoughts of her now as a concubine, instead of just another lady in my congregation, were having a field day in my brain. Picking up the remaining cards, I began to shuffle back through them. "Before we go any further, though, are there any other surprises in here I should know about?"

"Trisha Adams, Nichole's daughter." This time it was Garrett Faulkner, our former treasurer, speaking up. "As shy as she is, I don't think Nichole would want her with anyone but you."

Now that name set off all kinds of alarm bells in my head. Trisha was a lovely child, don't get me wrong, but in my mind that's what she was—a child. Oh, I knew she was sixteen and considered an adult under the new laws of the land, but the old ones were deeply engrained in me as a pastor, father, and grandfather.

Trisha had been my confirmation student only a few years before. Exceptionally bright but very timid, the girl had a serious self-image problem. Barely five foot, she probably weighed nearly as much as I did—and I'm over a foot taller. We got along well, though. I recalled looks of adoration from her from time to time, but let that pass as the temporary adolescent crush it was. The squick factor of her 16 years over against my 59 now caused bile to rise in my throat. There was no attraction there for me whatsoever.

Rubbing my temples to calm myself, I asked the dreaded question. "Any others?"

The girls looked at each other and then back at me. "Felicity Meier," Jan replied quietly. Felicity was the 47 year old wife of the chairman of the Board of Elders. They had never been able to have children.

"Oh, that's right," John chimed it. "Tom's card wasn't in the pile."

That was curious and I wondered how I had missed it. I guess it was because I'd spent my entire time as pastor there at Our Redeemer putting her out of my mind. "I'll go talk with him," I said as I stood up from the table with three cards in my hand. "Why don't you guys go ahead and split the rest of the candidates between the six of you."

Jan looked at me in confusion. "But you've still got seven slots open—six if you take Felicity."

"Don't worry about me," I told them with a wink. "I've got a few cards up my sleeves."

My alb and stole safely hug up in the closet and my clerical shirt lying discarded on the couch, I was pulling on a green polo shirt when I heard the knock at the door. I had passed a list to one of the marines of three couples I wanted to visit with briefly in my office, and this was probably them.

"Come in."

Sharon Krespi was the first one through the door and once she saw my changed attire made a beeline for me. "Oh Pastor, we are going to miss you so much," she exclaimed as she wrapped me up in a hug. A lovely Filipina who looked more like 30 than 50, Sharon and her husband Gene had three sons, all of whom had already taken up the offer of a free ride off planet for them and their families.

I patted her back and gave her a big smile as she stepped away from me. "Maybe not," I told her.

"What do you mean?" her husband asked, who was right behind her. Gene was a smaller man, not much taller than his wife, but what he lacked in height he made up for in a lot of other things. Normally quite gregarious, the retired pilot—he was a good deal older than Sharon—was understandably subdued.

Seeing the Showalters and Meiers hanging back behind them in the doorway, I waved them all in. "Do you trust me?" I asked as I walked past them and shut the door.

"Of course," Gene replied, a sentiment that was seconded by the others.

Turning back to them I held out my hand. "I need to see your cards."

"What? Why?" Martin Showalter questioned, looking first to his wife, Diane, and then back to me. "We're not signing up to be concubines."

I've always thought those two were an odd pair physically. In their late forties, Martin was tall and muscular with broad shoulders, while Diane was short and rather heavyset. They only managed to have a daughter, Jeanette, who was currently doing graduate work at the University of Hawaii. Still, their marriage had always appeared solid, with the friendly and outgoing Diane usually paving the way socially for her reserved husband.

"Trust me."

It was quiet for a moment as they all stared at me. Finally they each began to reach for their respective cards. All except Felicity, that is.

"I already gave mine," she told me in that soft voice of hers.

"I know," I replied, pulling it out of my back pocket. An expression of both relief and trepidation flashed across her face.

One by one, the rest placed their cards in my hand. Employing the reader I'd been given, I tested out my hunches. As I expected, both Sharon and Diane scored in the fives, as did Tom—though his was high, a 5.8.

Martin's on the other hand was a 6.3, a score my instinct told me was on the low side. Looking at his subscores, I could see the problem was with his confidence and aggressiveness. A construction foreman by trade, his job vanished a year ago when the new housing market tanked. He just got picked up again, this time by a mining outfit, a few weeks ago. During that year, however, I'd had to refer him to a psychiatrist up in Missoula for clinical depression.

"When did you take the test?"



Glancing now at Gene's card, I could see a similar problem. A retired bush pilot out of Alaska who'd done a stint in the Navy, his CAP score was lower than Martin's at 6.1 but I suspected I knew why. It was there in his subscores, as well. Type 2 Diabetes had taken its toll, ultimately landing him in the hospital with a nasty, two month bout of pancreatitis late last year. Looking at the low sexuality subscore, I guessed he was likely suffering from diabetes related issues like erectile dysfunction, as well—which, of course, would negatively impact his overall confidence.

I looked up at him. "When did you go in for the test?"

"Back in March."

Pocketing the cards, I gave each of them a very serious look. "I want the four of you to agree to be my concubines." I waved them off as they began to protest. Pointing first to Martin and then Gene, I spoke very firmly. "Look, no testing scheme is perfect and I'm quite confident the two of you have fallen through the cracks in the current CAP system. As soon as we can when we get up there, I want the two of you retested."

Diane gave her mountain of a husband a stout shove in the shoulder. "I told you! I knew it was too low!"

I chuckled softly at the display. "Martin, if I'm right, I fully expect to see yours in the low sevens. As for you," I said, turning to Gene, "It's my belief that the testing totally underestimated the impact your diabetes has had on you, psychologically. As soon as those Confed doctors get your health issues squared away, I wouldn't be surprised, with your background, if you hopped up into the eights."

Sharon was floored, the corners of her mouth tipping into a frown. "Seriously?"

I nodded, pretty sure I knew what was bothering her now. It's what probably upsets every wife or husband in this situation. "Let's cross that bridge when we come to it, okay?"

"It's just a lot to get used to, you know?"

"Especially when, only a few minutes ago, we were sure we weren't going," Diane added in.

"So, do you four agree to become my concubines?"

They all nodded yes.

"Alright then," I answered as I turned and opened the door. "If you would go wait where the decurion has the other concubines gathered, we'll be out there momentarily." Once they left, I once again closed the door.

"Retesting won't help me, will it?"

I shook my head as my eyes met Tom's. "Not right away like theirs, no." Taking his card, I slid it into the viewer. Knowing him as well as I did, I had a pretty good guess where his difficulty lay. He was a rancher, born and raised, going to work for his dad full time right out of high school.

"As you can see here," I said, holding out the card reader so he could see it, "your primary problem is education, and secondly, technology. I strongly suspect we can fix that up there but my guess is it will probably take six months to a year, and even then it will be just barely over—maybe a 6.7 tops. I won't know for sure until we're extracted, though."

"That'll be too long," he replied with a shake of his head. "Someone'll probably push me out an airlock way before then."

Knowing his quick temper, that was a real possibility. He normally kept it under control but his strong aggression and leadership subscores indicated he'd chafe under the tight restrictions typically placed on concubines—especially male ones. Still, because of our friendship and my care for his wife, I was willing to take the risk. I knew he wasn't ready to take it but I would offer it anyway.

"If you're willing to give it a shot, I've got an opening," I offered.

He looked at me long and hard, then turned to look at Felicity. "I couldn't do that to her," he finally replied, shaking his head. "Or you, for that matter. I'm hard enough to live with as it is but that ... that would be bad."

"Please, Tom," his wife pleaded, "don't do this!"

Looking at me with watery eyes, he shook his head yet again. "You're the only one I trust," he choked out with a quiver in his voice. "Take care of her for me." And with that he quickly kissed her on the lips and slipped out the door.

His wife turned those red-rimmed brown eyes of hers my way and I was lost. "What will I do now?" she asked in a whisper.

Felicity is, in all honesty, one of the most wonderful women I have ever had the pleasure to meet. You would never get that from a photograph of her, though. She is attractive but not gorgeous; intelligent but not brilliant; kind but not Mother Teresa. In other words, she is the exemplar of the phrase: "greater than the sum of her parts." If you're thinking I have a thing for her, you are completely right and completely wrong, all at the same time. I simply think the world of her and have always policed my thoughts around her so as to keep my job and my marriage.

"Don't worry," I murmured as I wrapped her up in a hug, knowing I would always do my best for her. "I've got a plan."

"I need a favor."

The decurion turned to look at me but said nothing.

"Actually, I need three favors."

I had just spent the last couple minutes conversing with Roger Stillwell and Clara Teshke. They were an unmarried older couple in their late sixties who lived together but were adamant they weren't fooling around. Knowing them like I did, I believed them. Roger was a military and law enforcement veteran with a really bad hip. All in all he was a decent guy, if a bit narcissistic. Clara, on the other hand, was a peach and kept Roger in line but was slowly dying of leukemia.

Mr. Sundberg raised an eyebrow. "Why should I grant them to you?"

"Because two of my concubines will turn out to be sponsors when I have them retested whenever we get to wherever you're taking us," I explained confidently. I was counting on the idea that a higher than expected number of sponsors would benefit him personally.

"You have my attention," he replied with a small smile. It would appear I was right.

"I want to conditionally claim both Roger and Clara as concubines," I said, pointing back at them.

The decurion's eyes kind of lost focus for a few seconds. I suspected he was silently communicating with one of those AI's we'd heard about. "Clara is not eligible," was his eventual response. "She is not fertile."

"That could be due to her leukemia," I offered.

He shook his head. "Extremely unlikely, given her advanced age."

"But possible," I countered.

"Why conditional for both of them?" he asked after another slight delay. Before I could answer, however, I could see by the expression on his face that he understood what I wanted to do. He raised his hand to stop me from responding.

"You want me to have both of them returned here when she turns out to be post-menopausal as the AI suspects," he observed with raised eyebrow.

I nodded. "But healthier than they left."

"I can allow that," he finally agreed, "but that's two favors for two additional sponsors. Why should I do you a third favor?"

"Because I'll owe you one?"

He paused but this time appeared to be studying my facial features. "Tell me more." The smile that then appeared seemed almost ... predatory.

I had become distracted. There I was, holding my childhood Luther's Small Catechism in my hand and staring out at a glorious view of the mountains I'd likely never see again, when I felt a light touch at my elbow.

Turning my head to see who was there, I found myself gazing down into warm, hazel eyes. They were set above a lovely nose that turned slightly up at the end and red full lips, the bottom of which was being nibbled on by teeth as if their owner was nervous. I must say it was the first time I'd ever looked at Erica Gilley that way.

"Pastor ... I mean David," she stumbled, wringing her hands. "Jan, Debbie and the others are done ... and they said you picked me."

Over her shoulder, I could see her three young ones with Gina holding the hands of her younger brother and sister. Behind them was little Trisha and her mother, as well.

Turning fully to face Erica, I shrugged my shoulders. "It's not like I had much of a choice," I said with as straight a face as I could muster. "They said you'd spit in their food if I didn't."

She caught on to my tease right away, however, and her face lit up with a relieved grin. I opened my arms and she stepped into them, giving me a warm hug. "I always knew you were a smart man," she murmured into my chest.

She did surprise me, though. Leaning back just a bit, Erica lifted up on her tiptoes and before I knew it, locked her lips on mine with unexpected passion. I will admit I was stunned. I hadn't been kissed like that in decades. Thoughts swirled in my head and before I knew it, the kiss was over.

With her arms now around my neck, Erica pressed her cheek against mine and snickered in my ear. "Maybe you could have Nichole and Trisha take my kids out and watch them while you take me for a test drive." The way she said it—her voice low and husky—sent shivers up my spine.

"I had no idea you were such a naughty girl," I whispered back.

She giggled. "Only for you."

I let out a soft sigh. My world was indeed turning upside down.

No doubt sensing my reluctance, Erica kissed my cheek and stepped back—an understanding smile on her face. "Too much, too soon?"

I nodded. "And no time. The decurion is expecting us to be ready to go in about five minutes."

"Are you taking those with you?" she asked, gesturing to the small stack of books setting on my desk.

"It's funny," I answered, shaking my head at the thought and then tossing my old catechism on the pile. "I stood here looking at all the books I've collected over the years and those particular ones somehow jumped off the shelves, demanding they come with me."

"Do you have any boxes?"

"In the secretary's office," I replied, pointing toward the other door. She nodded and went after them.

"Are you going to take your animals with you?"

I glanced over to see Trisha standing by my bookshelves, holding a carved wooden giraffe I picked up in Kenya. It was one of my better pieces, shaped and stained by a true artisan. The others of my eclectic collection from around the globe—all one hundred sixty-two of them, some purchased by me, others given by friends—were scattered around my office.

Stepping over to the closet, I lifted down a special storage box. Inside it were thin, stackable foam panels—designed for the layered packing of my carved animal collection.

"Do you think you and the kids could pack them up for me?" I asked her, tipping my head toward Erica's three.

Taking the box from me, Trisha gave me a sweet smile and nodded her head. In a matter of moments, the four of them were scattered around the office gathering the pieces of my collection from their various resting places. Erica, meanwhile, was back and diligently packing up what was stacked on my desk.

"You're doing the right thing," came a voice from behind me.

I shrugged as I watched the flurry of activity. "I keep telling myself that but..."

"You can't help feeling like a creepy old pervert?"

I replied to Nichole's query with a nervous laugh. "Exactly."

"Which is why I'm okay with this," she told me, patting me gently on the back.

"I'm glad one of us is," I muttered.

She laughed.

"You're sure I can't talk you into going? We have room, you know."

Though I couldn't see it, I knew Nichole was shaking her head. "No, Will and the boys are here. I can't go. You just take care of my baby, okay?"

"I'll do my best," I replied, turning to give her a hug.

Lily was standing in the hallway outside my office door, her eyes puffy and red from crying. Nearly thirty five years of marriage—some good, some bad—were now at an end. She just watched as the other occupants of the room streamed past her. I, however, remained behind.

"I didn't want it to end like this," I told her quietly.

"Me neither," she whispered. "I just can't..."

"I know."

There was no point going over all that again. I knew where I ranked with her and that was near the bottom. It'd been that way for years, decades even, and it wouldn't change with this conversation. I suspected she'd regret this choice of hers before too long. I know I already did. Love is a funny thing, that's for sure.

"Tell the kids and grandkids I love them."

She nodded.

With a chaste kiss to her forehead, I left her standing there as I headed off to my new future.

Chapter 2 »