Joel Book III is available in paperback as Joel III Back to Normal. To purchase a copy, follow the link to my website below.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
This story is copyright by Ted Louis, all rights reserved. Distribution, including but not limited to: posting on internet sites, newsgroups, or message boards, or in book form (either as a whole or part of a compilation), or on CD, DVD or any other electronic media, is expressly prohibited without the author's written consent.
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Monday morning at breakfast, Chris asked me if we could go fishing. We hadn't been in quite a while. The others agreed that it was a good idea. I told the boys to go get ready and I went to my bedroom to put on a pair of jeans and a tee shirt. I was just coming out of the bedroom when Marie and Ricky arrived.
"I'm sorry we're late," Marie said, as Ricky ran and made a jump into my open arms. "There was a wreck on 281 that had traffic backed up for almost a mile. It looked serious. I think it was the same place where Mr. Levin's accident happened."
"Good morning, munchkin," I said, getting one of Ricky's sloppy kisses on my cheek. "How are you today?"
"Fine," he said, and scrambled down as Joel came down the stairs.
"Don't worry about it, Marie. Could you tell if anyone was hurt?"
"I think so. The paramedics were there and there was a yellow blanket covering what I think was a body on the ground in the median. They were putting another person on a stretcher into the back of the ambulance as a cop waved us by the wreck."
"Look, I'm taking the boys fishing this morning. Do you think Ricky would like to go?"
"I don't know. He's never been fishing. Are you going out in a boat?"
"Is it safe for him with his leg?"
"I'm sure it is. He'll have a life jacket on all the time we're on the water. I'm sure he'll have fun."
"Okay," Marie hesitated.
Joel had been standing there listening to Marie and me. When he heard Marie agree, he said to Ricky, "Come on, munchkin, let's get you ready to go fishing. You need to get some sun screen on before we go."
I called the marina and asked them to get our boat gassed up and ready to go when we got there. Hildy was busy packing the cooler with drinks and snacks when I entered the kitchen. As the boys filed into the kitchen area, I checked to see that they had applied sun screen. Satisfied that they had, we headed for the van. Larry and Lenny insisted on lugging the cooler. They had to set it down a couple of times before they made it all the way into the garage, but they maintained that they didn't need any help. It wasn't that far from the kitchen to the garage and the van was in the first space.
At first, Ricky wasn't too pleased at having to put on a life jacket until he saw Joel putting on his own. Then he was all for wearing it. There was a different young man waiting for us as we were about to climb onto our boat. He introduced himself to us as Leo. He looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn't place where I had seen him before. I rarely forget a face, it's the names that go along with them that I have trouble remembering.
The boys took their seats as I maneuvered the boat out of the slip and out into the middle of the lake. Ricky insisted on sitting on Joel's lap. His head was twisting from side-to-side trying to take in everything as we slowly made our way to our favorite fishing spot. I cut the engine and let the boat drift. There were not very many boats on the lake at this time of the morning, only a few other anglers.
We broke out the fishing gear. Ricky was watching intently. I don't think he had ever seen a fishing pole before. I held him back as each of the boys cast their line. When all their lines were in the water, I took out the fishing pole that TJ had used the first time he had gone fishing. It was shorter than the other poles. I cast its line and then handed the pole to Ricky. His eyes were open as wide as they could be as he held it. I didn't know what he would do if he actually caught a fish.
Lenny was the first to catch a fish which was received with mixed emotions from his brothers. It was always a source of pride to be the first to reel in a fish. When Ricky saw the fish he let go of his pole and went to see it. I was able to grab it before it slipped into the water. Ricky was fascinated by the flopping fish on the boat deck. I picked up the fish and removed the hook and started to put it into the chest that Leo had filled with ice when he had prepared the boat. Before I could close the lid, Ricky had squirmed his way between me and the chest and was staring at the fish. It was not flopping around as much now. Ricky reached out and poked the fish with his finger which made it flop its tail. This caused Ricky to giggle hysterically. When his giggling subsided, he poked the fish again with the same result on the fish's part and Ricky's. This happened several more times until the fish no longer did its thing.
In the next couple of hours, each of the boys caught at least one fish. By this time, the novelty had worn off for Ricky, although he was still fascinated by them as each new fish was caught and added to the ice chest. The boys had fished continuously taking time out only to have the snack that Hildy had prepared for us.
As we headed back to the marina, Ricky climbed up onto my lap and went to sleep. He didn't wake up until Joel was buckling him into the car seat. When we arrived at home, I sent the boys to wash up. We all smelled like fish. While they were in their bathrooms, I started cleaning the fish. We had enough for supper and then some.
By the time I had the fish cleaned and filleted, it was almost time for lunch. I took a quick shower and joined the boys in the breakfast area just as Hildy was setting a platter of sloppy joes on the table. The platter was soon empty, but the boys didn't have to worry, Hildy had another platter ready to serve.
After lunch the boys took Ricky and went upstairs to play. Hildy, Marie and I sat at the table drinking cups of coffee.
"Marie, what are you going to do with Ricky while you and Dirk are on your honeymoon?" I asked.
"Mary Francis, my matron of honor, is going to keep him at night after she gets off work. Another of my neighbors is going to keep him during the day."
"Would you consider letting him stay here?"
"Oh, that's asking too much," she said.
"Nonsense, the boys love the little stinker. We certainly have enough room. And besides, we won't get to see him as often after you're married."
"Well, if you're sure he's not going to be a problem..."
"Of course he's not a problem. It's settled."
"He's right," Hildy said, nodding her head at me. "I'm sure the boys can keep him busy and keep him from missing you as much."
"I was worried about him being homesick for me and his own bed, but I think he would be happy staying here while we're gone. Thank you, I'll feel better knowing that he'll be well taken care of and loved."
"Good, now how are the plans for the wedding coming along?" I asked.
"If I had known it was going to be this much work, I would have suggested to Dirk that we get married in front of the justice of peace and forget all this hassle."
"Honey, your wedding is a piece of cake compared to some of the weddings that I've been to," Hildy said. "Most everything has been taken care of. About the only thing left to do is to arrange for the rehearsal dinner. That's usually done by the groom's mother."
"I don't think Mrs. Soznowski is going to be much help," Marie said sadly.
"I assume the rehearsal will be held here?" I asked.
"If you don't mind all of us here two days in a row," Marie answered. "We plan to have it at around five o'clock because Reverend Rollins has an evening wedding at seven. We'll have time to go to the restaurant after we're done."
"How many people will there be?" I asked.
"I think we counted nine. That's not counting my youngest sister, who's the flower girl, and Ricky, who's going to be the ring bearer."
"I think that Dirk should get involved in planning the dinner. After all, it's his mother who should be doing it. Let me call him and work it out," I said, getting up from the table.
I called Dirk at his office. He was just returning from lunch when I called. I explained the situation to him and he readily agreed to plan the dinner. I suggested that he might want to consider the club house at River Crossing. I gave him the number of the restaurant manager, whom I had met on several occasions when Joel was playing golf at the course.
"It's all taken care of," I said, returning to the kitchen where Hildy and Marie were cleaning up after the lunch. "Now all you have to do is get ready for the wedding."
I had returned to the library to check on the boys' trust funds and my own investments when the phone rang. "Crane, it's Eric. I've got a problem."
"What do you need?" I asked.
"Benjamin Cross has worked his magic and has gotten a hearing for Bran tomorrow morning in Houston. I was wondering, could you look after JR? He has a soccer game tomorrow that he doesn't want to miss. Bran and I are going to leave as soon as I get home from work and get a few things packed."
"Sure, we'd be happy to watch JR and take him to his game tomorrow. It looks like your visit to see the house will have to be postponed. That'd probably work out better anyhow. I'd forgotten that Joel and Larry have guitar lessons tonight when I asked you to come for supper. If you'll be driving back tomorrow, let's make it then."
"Sounds great. And thanks. I'll bring JR over on our way to Houston."
The boys were delighted to hear JR was going to be spending the night and began planning what they were going to do while he was here. The first thing that came to their minds was swimming. In fact they thought it was such a good idea that they decided to start without him. The idea appealed to me, also.
Eric arrived with JR shortly after four. JR was greeted by six wet boys. Ricky had thrown a fit after he had gotten up from his nap until Marie let him join them in the pool. Without his peg leg on, Joel had to carry him to greet JR. I talked briefly with Eric and Bran before they took off for Houston. They planned to spend the night with Alan, Eric's dad.
I offered to let JR sleep in the spare bedroom downstairs, but he wanted to sleep with the twins and Chris. I figured I would have to make a couple of trips upstairs later tonight to quiet them down and get them to go to sleep. I was right. It took me two trips before they settled down.
JR's game was at ten o'clock. Joel and Casey, one of his friends on the school's golf team, wanted to play golf at nine. I figured out the logistics so that everybody would make it to their appointed times with enough for some warm-up. After I dropped Joel off at the course and paid his green fees, the rest of us headed for the soccer field.
JR's game ended just before noon. I could tell the boys were getting hungry. I convinced them that we should go to the golf course and have lunch while we waited for Joel to finish his round of golf. We took a table in the course restaurant by a window that had a view of the 18th green so that I could see when Joel finished. After we ordered our lunch, I herded the boys into the restroom to get washed up. JR needed it worse than the other boys.
I kept one eye out for Joel while we ate. We had nearly finished when I saw him and Casey walk onto the green. Joel's ball was closest to the pin so Casey putted first. He two putted and then held the flag while Joel putted. Casey was standing so that he screened Joel's putt, but I could tell from Joel's reactions that his putt went in. I told the boys to stay put and went to tell Joel where we were.
"Hi, dad, I shot a 76. I had a 40 on the front nine and shot par on the back. That's the best I've ever scored on this course," he said excitedly.
"That's great son. It looks like you'll be beating me next time we play together. How did you do, Casey?"
"I had an 80, 40 on both nines. I should have had a 78, but I hooked one out of bounds on number 13 and took a two stroke penalty," he said with a frown.
"That happens to all of us," I said. "We always think we should have done better."
"Yeah," he laughed.
"Look, if you don't have anyone waiting to take you home, why don't you have lunch with Joel. His brothers and I have finished ours."
"Thank you, sir, my mom told me to call when I finished and she would come get me."
They put their clubs in the racks and we went into the restaurant. I showed them to the table where we had waited for them. The boys at the table were busy studying the dessert menu when we arrived.
"Dad..." TJ started. I knew what he wanted.
"Yes, you may order some dessert." That brought smiles to everybody's faces. The next big decision was to figure out which one of the several desserts on the menu they were going to order.
While waiting for their food to arrive and all through their meal, like every golfer does at the 19th hole, Joel and Casey re-lived every shot they took and how if they had just hit the ball differently or chose a different club their score would have been so much better. It was all I could do to keep the smile off my face. After they finished their meal and the re-hash of their game, we retrieved Joel's clubs and put them in the van. Casey thanked me for the meal and went to call his mother to come get him.
"Eric called," Hildy announced, as we walked into the kitchen. "He said something about emancipation. I didn't quite understand what he meant."
"Did he sound happy?" I asked.
"Yes, he did," she replied.
"That's great news," I said, and then explained what I thought Eric had said.
All the while I was explaining it to Hildy, JR was listening intently. "Does that mean Bran is gonna leave?" he asked.
"When he goes to college, he'll have to leave," I said.
"I don't want him to leave," JR cried, and ran up the stairs. I could hear him sobbing as he ran.
"Chris, go see if you can talk to him," I said, giving him a hug.
"Oh, Crane," Hildy said. "The moving van was here this morning and delivered a whole bunch of boxes. They said they were books. I had them put it all in your library."
"Thanks, I was expecting them." I headed for the library. When I opened the door, I was shocked at the number of boxes there were. Hildy didn't lie when she said there were a 'whole lot of boxes'. There must have been 35 or 40 neatly stacked in the middle of the room. I could barely get around them to get to my desk. On the desk I found a folder containing an inventory of each box detailing the author and title of each book in the box. The inventory was cross-referenced to a large number written on each box. Now all I had to do was to unpack and shelve the books. I decided to wait for another day to unpack the boxes.
Eric and Bran arrived shortly after 3:30. The boys were upstairs in the game room and didn't hear them come in the front door. Bran went upstairs while Eric and I went into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. I explained JR's reaction to the news that I thought Bran would be leaving to go to college.
"It's going to be a shock for JR when Bran leaves, I know," Eric said. "I've talked to him and thought he had accepted it. I think we need to have another family meeting this evening when we get home."
"I'll probably have the same problem with TJ in a year, if Joel is able to graduate early. I almost wish he wouldn't graduate early, but it's something he wants to do."
"Has he started looking at colleges yet?"
"Not seriously. He hasn't decided what he wants to study yet. He likes computers and math, so I wouldn't be surprised if he ended up in an engineering field."
"He could do a lot worse," Eric said.
After we finished our coffee, I gave Eric a guided tour of the house. He had seen it while it was under construction, but not since the furniture was in and the decorating was complete.
"Oh, my God," he said, as we entered my bedroom suite. "This is fantastic. I love the fireplace in the sitting area. If I lived here, I'd spend a lot of time in this area. Your decorator did a great job. It's masculine, yet soft and inviting."
"That could be arranged," I said, smiling at him.
"Tempting as it is..." he trailed off.
I showed him into the bathroom area. When we walked into the huge closet, he stood there stunned. "This closet is bigger than the room I rented in college," he said.
"Well, you can see my clothes only take up about 20% of the space. I suppose a woman would be able to fill it up, but I don't have that much in the way of clothing," I said. "We'll probably use part of the space for storage."
We toured the rest of the house, except for Hildy and Manfred's quarters. He was impressed with the room over the garage the boys used to practice their music. He was even more impressed when I told him it was soundproofed.
"I wish JR were interested in music. I can't honestly say I enjoyed playing the trombone all through high school, but I think it gave me a better appreciation for music. When I look back on it, I wish I had taken piano lessons. It's hard to tote a trombone around to play at parties, and you don't get too many invitation to play it either."
"No, it's not exactly the first instrument that comes to mind when you want someone to play a solo," I laughed. "Well, now that you have seen the entire house, how would you like to help me build a fire in the grill? We went fishing yesterday and we have a lot of fish to eat. I thought I'd put them on the grill and put some mesquite on the fire."
"Sounds great," Eric said. "I haven't had any fresh fish for months and I love the mesquite flavor."
Our supper was a big hit with the seven boys. In addition to the fish, Hildy made hushpuppies and coleslaw. For dessert she made a cherry cobbler which she topped with a large scoop of vanilla ice cream. It was a little sad when our guests had to leave for home.
On Thursday, Connie Givens arrived for her first day of work. Hildy showed her around and explained to her what she wanted done. I left them alone and told the boys to go outside and play with their dogs.
At the end of the day, after Connie left, I asked Hildy what her first impression was. Hildy was very impressed with Connie and the way she went straight to work and didn't waste any time. When she had any questions, she wasn't afraid to come to Hildy and ask.
The week of Marie and Dirk's wedding arrived before I realized it. Connie was now a part of our daily scene. She and Marie had spent last week making everything in the house shine in time for the wedding. On Thursday, Dirk called to see if he could bring his folks to see where the wedding was going to be held. We both knew there were other reasons why he was bringing them by early.
It was a little after seven when the buzzer announced that Dirk and his parents were at the front gate. I activated the gate to let them in and went out to greet them on the front porch. An older version of Dirk with graying hair got out of the passenger side of the car and opened the back door to help an over-dressed and slightly over weight woman exit the car.
Dirk rushed around the car and shook my hand. "Mr. Johnson, may I introduce my father, Feliks Soznowski. Father, this is Crane Johnson." The formal introductions were repeated for his mother, Kamila.
"Please call me Crane. Won't you come in? I believe that Hildy has prepared coffee," I said.
"You have a live-in maid?" Kamila asked.
"Hildy is not our maid. She is our cook and housekeeper and nanny. But most of all, she's the boys' surrogate grandmother. She's the glue that holds this family together."
"Dirkson has told us you have quite an unusual family," Kamila said, with just a hint of a disapproving tone to her voice.
"Yes, we are a little unusual," I said, ignoring her tone. "You will have to meet my sons before you leave. I believe they are practicing their music at the moment." I led them into the conservatory instead of the formal living room. It had a much better view of the lake. "Please, have a seat. I particularly enjoy this room."
"This is an impressive view," Feliks said.
"How large is your home?" Kamila asked.
"It's a little over 9700 square feet, not counting the music practice room over the garages. That's around another 500. That was an after thought when the boys decided they wanted to learn to play instruments."
Hildy arrived with the coffee. I saw she had used the good china.
"What do you think of my son's fiancée?" Feliks asked, not beating around the bush. "We're a little disappointed. We think he could do much better."
"Dad," Dirk interjected, before I could answer. "I love Marie and that's all there is to it."
"Mr. Soznowski," I said. "I thought it was the other way around when I first met your son." The look of all three of their faces was priceless. "That's why I had him thoroughly investigated."
"How dare you investigate my son," Feliks protested loudly.
"Not at all, you see Marie means a great deal to me and the rest of the family. I didn't want her to be taken advantage of by some lothario who was only out for what he could get. The initial report from my investigators was not positive. It seems that your son played the field and left many a young lady in his wake. Dirk, if you remember, I confronted you about your intentions, when I saw that Marie was falling for you."
"But... but... she's just a common maid," Kamila said. I could almost see her looking down her nose as she said it.
"Yes, she's a maid. A darn good maid who has worked hard to provide a good home for her son. I'm proud to say she's also a good friend to everyone in this household. We will sorely miss her now that she is getting married. I know that Marie has not had the education that Dirk's had, but she is far from dumb. She completed her GED earlier this year and has plans to take some college classes. She hasn't had everything handed to her on a silver platter. She's had to work for everything she has. She has earned my admiration over and over again."
"We were hardly expecting to be instant grandparents," Feliks said. "Especially not to a cripple and a bastard."
"You may be technically correct when you label him as a bastard. It's true his mother and father were never married. That is certainly not his fault. Marie made a mistake when she was younger. Her mistake was in loving someone who didn't deserve her love. Then he abandoned her when she needed him the most. It was a painful lesson for her to learn, but she didn't let it drag her down. Ricky may not have a complete left leg, but I wouldn't classify him as a cripple. That beautiful little boy can do almost anything he wants to do," I said, trying to control the anger that was building up inside me. "He has won the hearts of all my sons as well as mine. I know he has wormed his way into Dirk's heart as well." I looked at Dirk and saw him nod his head. "I would gladly take that boy and raise him as my own. I hope Dirk will love him as much as I do."
"I will," Dirk choked out. "It's my intention to adopt him as soon as I can after we're married."
"What?" Dirk's mother shouted, almost spilling her coffee. "What will my friends say?"
"Mother, I don't really care what your so called friends say. Ricky is going to be my son whether you and your friends like it or not. He's already started calling me 'daddy'."
"Feliks, talk to your son," she said, taking a handkerchief from her purse and dabbing at the corner of her eyes.
"Father, you and mother can give Marie, Ricky and me your blessing and wish us well or you can continue your attitude toward them and cut yourselves out of our lives. I hate to be that blunt, but that's the way it's going to be. I love you and mother and I always will, but Marie is my future and I plan to spend the rest of my life making her and 'our son' happy," Dirk said, placing particular emphasis on 'our son'.
Feliks looked at his son for what seemed like several minutes before he said, "I believe you would do just that. Son, we only want what is best for you. If Marie is what makes you happy, then I'm happy for you. It's not what I would have preferred for you, but it's not my life. Marie and Ricky will be welcome in our home anytime, won't they Kamila?" He looked at his wife for several seconds. "Won't they Kamila?"
"Yes, dear," She replied meekly.
I heard footsteps running down the stairs. I looked at my watch and I knew instantly what they wanted. They came to an abrupt stop when they saw that I had company.
"Come here, boys," I said, beckoning them to come in. "I'd like for you to meet Dirk's mom and dad." They were very polite as I introduced them. When I completed the introductions, TJ sidled up to me.
"Can we have a snack?" he whispered in my ear.
"Of course, go see what Hildy has fixed." That was all it took and they were off to the kitchen.
Mrs. Soznowski was still noticeably distant around Marie, but at least she was not openly hostile Friday evening at the wedding rehearsal. I had made arrangement for Marie's mother and all of her brothers and sisters to be picked up at their home and brought to the house. Only her mother and youngest sister were involved in the actual rehearsal, but I thought it would be a treat for the kids to watch the ceremony. They were also going to be staying with the boys and me while the wedding party went to the rehearsal dinner.
Manfred and his crews had done a wonderful job getting the area where the ceremony was to be held in condition. There were potted plants behind where Reverend Rollins would be performing the service. They were low enough that seated guests would have a view of the lake that looked as if it was immediately behind the plants. Since there would be few guests on the Soznowski side of the aisle, it was decided to eliminate the center aisle and have a combined seating area.
Reverend Rollins ran through the ceremony twice to make sure that everybody knew what they were supposed to do before he had to run off to perform a seven o'clock wedding. Shortly after he left, the wedding party took off for the rehearsal dinner.
Hildy was in her element with all the kids around. Although she treated all the kids the same, you could tell by the look in her eyes that the four girls made her day. With the eight Salazar children, my five sons and Ricky, it was a madhouse when it came time to have supper. It was a madhouse, but the kids were all well behaved and got along very well with each other.
It was nearly nine o'clock when Marie and her mother returned to the house. I had asked Marie if she wanted us to keep Ricky overnight so that she wouldn't have to bother with him tomorrow morning, but she refused. I think she was feeling a little guilty about leaving him for a week.
The wedding was scheduled for two o'clock, Saturday afternoon. I had a stretch limo pick up her and Ricky at eleven. Her mother and siblings were picked up by a van I had arranged. I turned over my bedroom suite as a dressing room for Marie, her mother and her sisters. Her brothers used Chris and the twins' room. I moved the clothes I was going to wear into the downstairs guest bedroom.
The weather was cooperating. It was partly cloudy and the temperature forecast for the time of the wedding was for the mid 80s. The catering service arrived and started setting up while Hildy was feeding the mass of kids and trying to keep them away from the beautiful wedding cake she had made. As was the custom in Texas, a separate groom's cake had also been prepared. Local tradition mandated that it be chocolate. That suited my sons' preferences just fine.
At exactly two o'clock, Reverend Rollins took his position at the front of the assembled guests. He was joined by Dirk and his best man. Reverend Rollins' wife was playing wedding music on an electronic organ located on the terrace. I held my breath as Ricky walked down the left side of the seats and went to stand beside Dirk. He looked so cute in his long-legged black pants, white shirt and black bowtie. A chuckle went up from the guest when he looked up at Dirk and said, "Hi, daddy."
The guests stood when the organ began playing Mendelssohn's Wedding March. Marie looked beautiful as she walked down to the left of the guests in a light peach, ankle length gown with veil. Her matron of honor wore a light blue cocktail dress. The men wore black tuxedos.
The ceremony went off without a hitch. Nina, Marie's sister and flower girl, and Ricky did begin to fidget before it was over, but didn't do anything to embarrass Marie. The wedding photographer was so unobtrusive that he was hardly noticed throughout the ceremony. When Dirk kissed Marie, Ricky wanted to get in on the act. He held up his hands and wanted to be picked up. Dirk picked him up and the three of them headed toward the house to the applause of guests.
"Dad, can we change our clothes? We can't play in these," Larry asked.
"As soon as you have a piece of cake you can change."
"When's that going to be?" Chris asked, tugging at the collar of his buttoned up shirt.
"It won't be too long," I said. "Remember what you did at Hildy's wedding and at Darcie's? You went through the line and shook hands with everybody. Then you can have some cake. Maybe Hildy will give you a piece of chocolate and a piece of white. How's that."
"Okay, but it better be soon. This tie is choking me," Chris said, as he was walking away.
It didn't take too long for everybody to go through the receiving line. Thankfully for the boys' sake, the cake cutting ceremony didn't take long either. I held them back or they would have been waiting in line for cake before the bride and groom had their piece. By some unspoken agreement, after Mrs. Salazar and Dirk's parents got their cake, all the kids were next in line. It didn't take them long to finish their pieces of cake and take off for the bedrooms to change clothes. Eric and Dirk's best man volunteered to supervise the kids when they went outside to play.
The caterers had set up on the terrace with an array of finger foods both hot and cold. It didn't take the kids long to discover the food and they made repeated raids on it for the rest of the afternoon.
Although there was no band to play dance music, my stereo system served. Dirk and Marie had the first dance followed by Feliks dancing with Marie and Dirk dancing with his mother. After that anyone who wanted to dance did.
At around five, Dirk and Marie changed clothes and announced they had to leave to catch their plane. The guests formed a double line and threw rice at Marie and Dirk as they made their way to the waiting limousine.
To be continued
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