“You have to keep your mind as wide-open as your eyes, because almost nothing is what it seems.”— Jonathan Maberry
Windenburg Isle Hayes Estate
Entering the hallway, Sophie was met by the melancholic sounds of an old acoustic guitar, Stryker’s favorite. I was a cheap model, worn, drawn and written all over, and even though Stryker could now afford the finest, handmade, customized instruments, this was still his favorite, his preferred choice. ‘Old Betsy’ was ‘her’ name. According to Stryker she was his first love.
Sophie halted and listened to Stryker’s song, matching the instrument’s melancholy with a deep timbre. The sound of his always ever so slightly raspy and husky sounding voice, his signature, singing or talking, still did something to Sophie. Send shivers down her spine. The good kind. The ‘makes you drool’ kind. The kind that got you three pregnancies in three years.
Smiling, Sophie closed her eyes and took this feeling in, the feeling of home, of coming home to a man she loved, a special man like no other, a musician, so unique and wonderful. A man who had given her everything she ever hoped for and more. Her real-life Prince Charming, even though, Stryker was nothing like the kind of Prince Charmings she had always imagined growing up, nor the type of guy she always thought she may end up with one day. More the exact opposite. The tough rocker type, uber-confident and brash, impatient, crude and sometimes rude, with a rough past, yet he was so patient and gentle with her and the boys. And every time she caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror or window, she wondered how it could be that a man like him would love a girl like her. But he did. And it was real. She could feel his love, taste it. It was real. He got clean and stayed clean for her. He still had court-mandated appointments with his parole officer, and occasional surprise drug tests. He passed everything with flying colors. He didn’t drink. And most importantly he didn’t cheat. He was hungry for her after every extended time away, and she could just tell he was all hers. Even though at times intimacy got harder, as more than half of the time they had been a couple now, Sophie had been very pregnant.
Her current pregnancy was the roughest yet, she had pains, discomfort, was permanently exhausted, slept a lot, but at least finally it was the little girl she had been hoping for, and it would be the last pregnancy, at least for a good, long while. Her mom was right saying her body needed a break. Three pregnancies in less than three years was a lot. Still, she told Stryker not to get the vasectomy yet, even though he offered. You never know, she thought. Sophie was glad and more than grateful that Stryker had suggested she quit her job, working in a commercial kitchen was more stressful than she could handle now. Right now, the only stress she had was taking care of their sons and to spoil Stryker with her cooking, which she loved doing, spoiling her man. Between that and his sober lifestyle, he had to work out a lot to keep his weight in check. A new problem for him, but a welcome one after spending most of his life wondering where the next meal would come from, while skipping many.
Oh right. The reason why she had dropped off their two kids with her sister Emmy dawned on her and she peeked at her wristwatch. Oof.
Hurrying into the living room, Stryker turned to her, continuing his song, until she leaned in to kiss him. He put aside the instrument and grimaced.
“You’re back to take me to the guillotines now? You are really making me do this?” Stryker frowned.
“I am. And you’re not even showered. Or shaved. Hurry.” she pressed, feeling like she was having a conversation with their toddler. Same faces were being pulled, too.
Rolling his eyes he trotted towards the stairs, when noticing she followed him, he grinned.
“Oh, I am getting help. This is starting to sound better already.” Stryker wiggled his eyebrows at Sophie.
“No. You’re flying solo in the shower! I need to change too, into anything that fits, I am not even in the third tri and already down to a handful of outfits. I keep getting bigger and bigger, earlier and earlier. I need to put on makeup and do something with my hair. Maybe I am gonna try that updo Maddie made for the last event we went to, but no promises. I am already exhausted just talking about all that.”
“Ha – maybe it’s twins after all. You know, like it happened to Chase and Hailey. Doctor kept confirming one baby. You look beautiful as you are. Hair disheveled by the sea breeze, flushed from wrangling the boys …. hmm hmm …If those moneybags don’t like it, I got two cheeks for them to kiss, not talking about the ones in my face. Maybe we’ll avoid all that and just stay home, hoping they’ll get the hint and stay the fuck away.”
“Stryker! No. We ARE going. Nice try though. And our baby isn’t a Vampire, so they can tell accurately how many there are by the heartbeat. If there were another baby in there, he or she would be dead. And now I am all creeped out. Eeeww!” Sophie averted her eyes, her gaze fell straight onto the sign on the wall, a handmade gift from her dad, handcarved in wood were her and Stryker’s names and the line She Said “Stay”. Dad’s wedding gift that brought both of them to tears. When she turned her head, she noticed Stryker’s head turning back as well, he had been staring at the sign as well. His voice sounded calmer and resigned.
“So, what are you gonna make me wear? What’s wifey approved?”
“Hmmm? The dinner’s at the Rhapsody, that’s a nicer place. So … the burgundy suit?”
“No. NO! Absolutely not. I am doing this, because you want me to. I don’t want to. I don’t give a shit on flames about those fuckers. But I draw the line at monkeysuiting myself. Not happening! I am NOT dressing up all pretty for this shit, so I have to be uncomfortable while they analyze me like a stool sample! I’d wear it for a date with just you, but never ever for them. No Soph. I’ll wear this. My merch tee and jeans. They’re lucky I am gonna wear anything at all rather than go naked so they can take turns kissing my ass and sucking round front!”
“Stryker … ” Sophie sounded resigned and annoyed.
“I said I am going. I promised you I will be a good boy. And I will be. I will be so fucking nice and sweet to them, that they will all have diabetes when they leave. For you. But I am NOT playing dress up for the DiLaurentis asswipes! And you better remember this moment next time I mention the Starlight Accolades award show. You better believe you are going! And you WILL be in a dress! No matter how pregnant you will be, you are GOING and I want to hear NOTHING out of you about it aside from squeals of joy that I am taking you for a date weekend alone in DSV!”
“Okay okay fine. But now hurry. I hate being tardy. We’re cutting it close to the ferry. If we miss it, we will DEFINITELY be late.”
“Yeah yeah …. wouldn’t want to make them wait, since they have always been there for me. Oh, wait a minute …”
Windenburg Mainland Rhapsody Cafe & Fine Dining
By the time Stryker and Sophie headed to catch the ferry off the island to the mainland, it had started raining, so typical, anyone who ever lived near the ocean in a median climate was well acquainted with the sudden changes in weather sometimes. The gray clouds matched Stryker’s grumpy face. It was impossible to miss, the only reason he was going to this at all was because of Sophie.
Once the rather stiff greetings had been done and everyone was seated at the table, Sophie looked over at Stryker. She could almost feel his inner tension, funny how much she was tuned into him after only three short years, a good part of which they had to spent apart because of him traveling for his career.
So far, he had kept his word, despite getting a bit snippy and growly at times, overall, no drama at the dinner with his biological father, his biological grandmother, his adult half-brother, teen half-sister, both from his bio-dad’s first marriage, the subsequent marriages had remained childless, until his current one to Sandrine Auditore. Their toddler son was not present but with a babysitter and awkwardly would be another half-brother to Stryker, making Sandrine his stepmother, even though she was only a few years older than him.
Sandrine was visibly just as tense, especially since Stryker’s mother was also present. Sophie thought she was probably seeing things but could swear that the old DiLaurentis and Stryker’s mom randomly exchanged flirty glances and odd smiles. It couldn’t be, could it? The next time it happened, Sophie’s gaze met Sandrine, and she could read that she was thinking the same. Sandrine looked ready to explode, downing her wine faster than the waiter could keep up with.
Meanwhile, a pleasant dinner table conversation was trickling along, mostly upheld by the grandmother, Marnie DiLaurentis. It was clear to see that she was the backbone of the family, though poised and soft-spoken she was a matriarch, but her two grandkids very clearly loved and respected her, while their father seemed to be just as much a stranger to them as he was to Stryker.
As any pregnant woman knows, bathroom visits are a prerequisite. Leaving a stall Sophie ran into Sandrine at the sinks. Their eyes met in the mirror.
“Your first?” Sandrine asked.
Seriously?! She REALLY doesn’t give a shit about her ‘stepson’ at all if she STILL doesn’t know. Sophie thought but forced a smile and shook her head.
“Oh wow. All by Stryker or different baby daddies?”
“Nope, all Stryker’s.” Sophie smiled, swallowing the insulted feeling.
“I’ll be darned. I have three too. Started early, if you had known my father, you’d know why. My oldest two have flown the coop already, still feels strange, they are not Marco’s, obviously. The little one is though. Cutest anchor baby imaginable.”
“Anchored me into a comfortable lifestyle. After he knocked me up, Marco had to marry me.”
“Oh!” flabbergasted by so much blunt honesty, Sophie was speechless.
“Yeah, I know how that must sound. Not all that glitters is gold, and fairytales just aren’t real, Sally.”
“Sophie. My name is Sophie.” Sophie’s tone was less polite now. SERIOUSLY!? Sally?!
“Right, Sophie then. Sorry. I have always been terrible with names. Funny coming from someone with my name, I cannot count the ways my name gets butchered usually. Evidently Sandrine is not easy on ignorant people.”
“Well, I never had a problem remembering your name. Why do you dislike me, Sandrine? I literally have done nothing to you. I can’t help that you married a man like Marco, who fathered my husband and then ran. Not my fault, none of this is.”
“Who says I don’t like you? I have no opinion on you, I am just a miserable bitch, at least according to my sister Addy. Well, actually, after a recent fight with her, our older sister Giulia gave me a lecture too, so she would agree.”
“Why be miserable? You have everything. Beauty, wealth, a nice home, loving husband, big family …”
Sandrine threw her head back and laughed. When she stopped, she looked at Sophie.
“You innocent child you. How old are you, Sophie? 20? 21?”
“Oh dear, we’re not as far apart in age as I thought. You must have led a very sheltered life then. You see, I haven’t. People always think if you were born into wealth, you have the world at your fingertips. Well, I didn’t. I had to marry to get away from my controlling father. The love of my life, Rhys, dumped me after we got engaged to run off with his plain-Jane roommate Samantha. So, I married someone my dad liked for me. Right after the wedding he showed his true face, gambling away all the money my father was giving us, he knocked me up right away so I didn’t dare go for an annulment, then cheated on me while I was carrying his child. Knocked me up again, then ran off with a secretary. My father ruined his life for it as a punishment, my ex got a taste why nobody dared mess with my father, he still is dirt-poor and just one paycheck away from living on the streets, after 18 years, but I still ended up with my first divorce. A great shame for my family – yeah, they are THAT old-fashioned. Second husband seemed like a great guy … until I caught him cheating. He tried to blame me for it, said I was too demanding and controlling. That was a slap in the face, to be accused to be like the father who made me run into marriage after marriage. Well, a bunch of failed attempts on a relationship followed, but then I met the second big love of my life, a real gentleman, so loving and caring, a wonderful dad to my children. Finally, I experienced true love, and being loved. We were a real family, he moved us to his home on Sulani and we had the best times. My kids still talk about him. Kai. My prince. My love.”
Sandrine paused, clearly affected, but then seemed to shake it off and continued.
“You see, people thought back then Kai and I were what Marco and I are now, a cliche. Young pretty wife looking for a comfy life and an old fool looking for arm candy and a bed bunny. But with Kai, it was real. He was the best man I ever had, inside and out of the bedroom. He was old, but he knew how to make me feel like a real woman, loved, like a queen. We had just started talking about starting a family, I wish we had. A baby by him would have been everything to me. And then Kai died. Old age. I felt like my heart was torn out and the carpet pulled out from underneath me. Everything reminded me of him, of the best times we had spent there. Everything was Kai. I had never seen my kids cry so much, I never seen myself cry so much. My kids were teens then, so together we decided to let Kai’s son have the home and moved to San Myshuno. Then, a year or so later I tried dating again. Man, the frogs I kissed. One loser after another. Including one who swindled me out of most of my money. I used to own a wedding boutique, but had to sell if to survive. It was in the DiLaurentis mall, still is actually, which is how I met Marco. He runs that place, owns it. A charming old man, treating me like a princess … I thought I had found another Kai. We moved fast. Against better judgement. But when his attorney put that prenup in front of me, I realized, this wasn’t another Kai. Kai had trusted me. Well, I had nowhere else to go, so I signed. Let’s just say after the wedding the mask fell, Marco is most definitely not another Kai. I know he’s sneaking around with other women, but the biggest slap in my face was when I realized he is screwing your mother-in-law. Which woman who takes as much pride in her appearance as me gets cheated on with an OLDER ex?”
“Don’t pretend you didn’t notice. I watched you. I know you saw it too. And my sister caught them on two dates now. Addy took photos with her phone each time, so I know she wasn’t imagining it. Screwing the younger supermodel is one thing, but cheating on me with that old bat? No offense …”
“None taken. I am not necessarily her biggest fan either. But … are you sure? Maybe they’re just … talking?”
“I haven’t walked in on them, if that’s what you mean, but a woman can feel it. If you – heaven forbid – ever find yourself in that crappy position of being cheated on, you’ll know the feeling I mean.”
“I have been there and I do know. Now that you say it … man, if Stryker finds out, he will lose his shit. He barely gets along with his mother, finally, but doesn’t like his father at all. No offense.”
“None taken. He has every right not to like him. Marco lies. Everything is lies. He lied to me, too, and like a fool I believed him. Including about the whole Stryker ordeal. My sister shook me awake. I told Addy last thing I need is another divorce and another child to raise on my own. She made some good points why that is still a better option than teaching a child to be like his father. I have a little boy, you see. Here’s a secret for you, only you and I know, but I am already working on filing for divorce. Nick and his dad Liam found some loopholes in the prenup, entitling me to some decent severance payments in case my husband cheats. They’re building a case and once we’re ready – BAM! – I will slap the divorce documents in Marco’s face and if he doesn’t sign, I’ll go public with what a nasty louse he is. I am tired of being used and some rich man’s token.”
Sophie didn’t know what to say, so she just followed her instinct and hugged Sandrine. Reluctant and surprised at first, she allowed it, then melted into the embrace up until a hard knock on the door interrupted them. Stryker’s voice sounded.
“Soph, babe? You okay in there? Did you go for a swim in the bowl or something? You’re not having the baby really early, are ya? Please don’t. That was fun the first two times, but … actually wasn’t ever fun. Just don’t.”
Sophie giggled, then opened the door and stepped out, followed by Sandrine who nodded at Stryker then rushed off back to the table, while Sophie kissed her husband. After they separated, he asked.
“She didn’t fuck with you in there, did she? I’ll make her cry, I swear!”
“No. Actually, she isn’t bad, kinda nice even, has her own cross to bear. You really cannot judge a book by its cover. I almost feel sorry for her.”
“Ah, so she knows my mother and sperm-donor are fucking again?”
“STRYKER! And wait .. what? How did you know?”
“I have eyes, Soph. That writing is on the wall in neon lettering. And remember, cheating used to be my brand. I know the signs. Couldn’t be more obvious if he had her bent over the table during dinner.”
“You’re okay with that?”
“I don’t give a fuck, Soph. The only reason I kept my mother in my life was because she was the only family I had. Now that I have you and the boys – and soon our little girl – I have her in my life because you asked me to, because I never had grandparents and my kids will have as many as possible. Beyond that, she can fall off the face of the earth and it would take me ages to notice. YOU are my life. You have proven to me that love is real. You were a constant I never had, you ground me, you know all of my flaws, edges, shortcomings, and you still stayed by my side, you were the light in my darkest hour, you are my literal reason for being, even when I deserved NONE of it. YOU are the only one I need, more than air. You and our kids, who I fucking love more than my own life, and through whom I am egoistically kinda reliving the childhood I always dreamed of having.”
“Oh Stryker – why do you have to be so sweet right now. We need to get back to the dinner. We’re being rude.”
“Nah, I got them busy watching unreleased footage of my next music video. Best binkie ever. They’re all feeling extra-special now, getting to see it before the rest of the world, just as any DiLaurentis loves, being extra. The only one who ever even heard of me as a musician was Peyton, and Monica in a way, blind man can tell none of them listen to the type of music I make, yet, they are glued to the screen as if it were me playing Mozart. Pretentious bastards.”
“All right, let’s get back anyway. I am proud of you, by the way. For everything, including but not only for tonight.”
“Orrrr … we could slip out the emergency exit and call it a night. Except those asses still have my phone. Kinda need that back. Shit!”
“We’re not sneaking out anyway. That’s your grandma, your brother and sister in there! I am not exactly crazy about your dad, I’ll tell you at home why. Sandrine told me some stuff in confidence, but I think you should know.”
“They are strangers to me, Soph, just as I am to them. If they really cared, they could have made an effort to find me, I had my own demons to wrestle and neither time nor money to track down the fruit of my sperm donor’s loins. And what for anyway? YOUR family is more my family than they are. I feel zero connection to any DiLaurentis. And I have no interest in trying to change that. Yeah, I agree Peyton and Monica are nice, he’s about my age even, but Monica is a teen. WTF would I do with a teen sister, Soph? And don’t get me started on that brother that is around our son’s age. That is SO not going to happen. EVER!”
“I think your grandma is nice. She can’t help that her son is such a …” Sophie tried to mediate.
“Dick? Maybe, but she’ll be dead soon anyway. No point in getting attached now.”
“STRYKER! Good grief! But your brother really is nice. Peyton. I like him. You might have things in common.”
“Yeah. A father with an overactive dick.”
“Oh jeeze!” Sophie deflated. It was pointless. He had dug in his heels and there was no convincing him now.
“Fine then Sophie, let’s get back and dry-hump the past and act like there’d ever be repeat of this dinner.” Stryker shrugged.
“Sounds like there won’t be.” Sophie stated.
“Not in a million years. Not even if you threaten to cut me off. Or cut THINGS off me.” Stryker was shaking his head.
“No worries, I’d be hurting myself if I did that.” Sophie winked at him, finally a smirk crept onto his lips.
“THAT’s my girl! I corrupted you sufficiently. My work here is done. Insert evil laughter here.”
A quick kiss, then Stryker put his hand on Sophie’s back to guide her back to the table.