Chapter 20

    It was a warm and sunny day—the perfect weather for a gathering outdoors. As Michael's family and guest started arriving, Leila's body shook with anticipation. They were still getting ready and hadn't left the guest house yet.

    Checking herself out in the floor-length mirror for the umpteenth time, Leila frowned. "God... What am I doing? Maybe I can plan my escape while Michael is in the bathroom." She spoke aloud.

    Sneaking up behind her, Michael wrapped his arms around her. "Sorry, babe, but I have the keys to the golf cart. Exiting the ranch will be no easy task unless you want to walk in the heat for the next two hours." He laughed.

    "Michael... I'm feeling a bit anxious. I'm about to meet your entire family."

    "Don't be. Their harmless-- well most of them anyway."

    "I can't do this." She groaned while trying to pry herself out of Michael's arms. As he held her firmly in his grasp, he kissed the side of her face. "Stop worrying, Leila... You'll be fine. Just watch out for Jermaine and Randy's ole' slick asses. They're always looking for women to screw."

     Leila grimaced. "But aren't they married?"

    "Like that has ever stopped them. Jermaine's current wife, Alejandra, is my brother Randy's Ex. Before being married to Alejandra, Jermaine cheated on his first wife, Hazel, with another woman named Margaret. He got them both pregnant roughly around the same time."

    "Oh, wow! Poor Randy."

    "Poor, Randy?" Michael sneered. "His ass was cheating too and got married behind his then-girlfriend Alejandra's back... They both have kids with her."

    Leila widened her eye's in surprise. "Wow! That's a bit much! Will all three women be here today? What about Randy and Jermaine? Will they be here today as well?"

    "Believe it or not-- yes. But out of respect for my mother, Randy and Jermaine have learned to put on a great show of pretend. The two can't stand each other."

  Reaching up to caress Michael's face, Leila glanced upwards and back. "Don't worry, baby. You're the only man that I want. You have nothing to worry about."

    "It's not you that I'm worried about. Look-- just stay close to me, alright? I don't trust either of them."

    As more and more of Michael's family started to arrive at Neverland Garden's, a beautiful open space where Michael hosted most of his outdoor events, they began to talk amongst themselves. Most of his family knew he hadn't been to the ranch since Patrica's passing and wondered if he decided to skip the family reunion altogether.

    When Michael and Leila finally arrived, everyone went completely silent except Michael's mother. She was the only one that knew about Leila. Greeting his mother first, Michael introduced her to Leila. "Hello Mother, how are you?" He smiled warmly, enveloping his arms around her.

    "I'm alright, dear... Are you doing, OK?" Katherine spoke concernedly, wondering how he was handling his return to the ranch since Patrica's passing away there.

    Knowing exactly what his mother was alluding to when she asked about his well being, he tried not to focus on it too much. If he had, he probably would have started crying on the spot. To keep himself in a good headspace, he focused his thoughts on Leila.

    Nudging Leila forward, he took a deep breath before answering. "I'm doing OK, mother, but uh-- I have someone I'd like you to meet."

   Extending her hand forward, Leila spoke nervously. "H-hello Mrs. Jackson-- It's a pleasure to meet you finally."

    Katherine smiled warmly as she ignored Leila's hand, giving her a big hug instead.

    "You to baby... Thanks for coming. I'm glad you're here."

    Leila smiled. "So am I Mrs. Jackson... So am I."

    After speaking with his mother for several more minutes, Michael politely excused himself and Leila. He wanted to introduce Leila to the rest of his immediate family before the day's festivities began. There were many activities planned for the day, and everyone usually scattered about throughout the ranch until they reconvened for a huge BBQ to end the day.

    After gathering his siblings and father at a nearby table with his mother joining them soon after, Michael introduced Leila to everyone personally. In the beginning, Leila was a nervous wreck. But shortly after discovering just how warm and friendly everyone was towards her, she started to relax.

    "Mike! Do you mind if we borrow Leila for a little while? We want to show her all of your embarrassing baby pictures." Latoya squeaked excitedly, running up beside Leila.

    Pushing Michael out of the way, Janet and Rebbie huddled around Leila. "Don't worry, Mike, we'll return her in one piece," Janet spoke in a sarcastic but playful tone.

    As Michael's sisters started leading her away from him, he stared at her in confusion. "Leila-- where are you going?"

    "I don't think I have much of a choice." Leila laughed over her shoulder.

     "Janet, Latoya, Rebbie! Come back here right now!" Michael yelled to no avail. When he turned back around, his father and brothers burst out laughing.

    "Man... You know how they are. But hey! At least you tried. Now come on-- let's go catch up while Leila is being interrogated." Jackie spoke smoothly.

    "You know Jackie... You used to be the one that I could rely on to ease my nerves. But right now, you're not helping much. " Michael shook his head sideways.

     As Leila chatted with Michael's sisters, she found them to be very sweet. They didn't ask her too many personal questions about her and Michael's relationship but rather just general questions about herself and how she met Michael.

    Sure, there were a bunch of details that Leila left out purposely, but she did tell them the semi-truth about their initial meeting and re-acquaintance. She revealed to them that she and Michael met many years ago and had bumped into each other at a toy store a few months ago.

     She made no mention of their one-night stand, her marriage to Calvin, or stint in rehab.

    "Wow! That's incredible, Leila!" Rebbie gushed.

    "Yeah, Leila-- sounds like you two were brought back together by fate." Janet smiled. "We haven't seen him this happy since Patricia died. Her death really took a toll on him." 

   Scooting closer to Leila, Latoya asked curiously. "So, how is he holding up?"

    Leila sighed. "He's doing OK. It's been hard for him to come back here, but he's hanging in there."

    "That's good to know. I'm sure your being here has helped him." Rebbie smiled warmly. 

    "Well... We should get ready to head back soon. I'm sure Michael's imagination has gone off the deep end of what we could be telling you." Janet laughed.

    When the four rejoined the others later that afternoon, Leila snuck up behind Michael. "Did you miss me?" She cooed sweetly in his ear.

    Pulling Leila into his lap, he placed a tender kiss on her lips. "So, what lies did they tell you about me?"

    "Boy, please! If you don't stop." Janet hissed, punching Michael in the arm.

    "Oh, stop it, you two!" Katherine scolded as if they were five years old. 

    "Yes, mother." They both replied in unison. Even though Michael and Janet were very close to one another, the two still teased each other mercilessly.

    "Ooooh, you're in trouble," Leila whispered in Michael's ear.

    "Mmm... And you're gonna be in trouble later tonight if you don't stop teasing me." Michael whispered back seductively, tracing his thumb along the side of Leila's bare thigh.

    Noticing Leila and Michael's intimate exchange, Jermaine blurted loudly. "Cut it out, Mike! Not at the dinner table."

   "Really, Jermaine? With eight kids of your own, when did you start being such a prude? Geeze... You're hardly the moral compass I should be listening to." Michael scowled before kissing Leila once more.

   Leila giggled. "You're terrible."

    "No... I'm just being honest." He replied in an exasperated tone.

    Michael loved all of his brothers dearly, but there was something about Jermaine that irked his soul, not to mention the fact that he still hadn't forgiven Jermaine for recording 'Word 2 the Bad'.

    Jermaine recorded the diss track in retaliation of Michael trying to steal his top producers for his 'Dangerous' album. Even though Michael's actions were questionable at best, he still felt as though the diss track was uncalled for. That was his family, and family shouldn't try to tear down one another. At the end of the day, Michael deemed himself as 'doing good business.'

     Trying to diffuse an ensuing argument from taking place, Tito pulled out his brand new guitar.

    "Wow! A 'Gibson CL-20.' Leila shrilled in delight.

    "Damn! You know your guitars girl." Tito bellowed. "Do you play?"

    "Hmm, a little," Leila replied

modestly, cocking her head to the side.

    Passing her the guitar unexpectedly, Tito urged her to play.

    "No, no... I can't. She's brand new. I wouldn't feel right."

    "Come on, Leila. It's OK. I don't mind at all."

    "Well, if you insist." She smiled excitedly. When Leila started to play an acoustic version of the Jackson's song 'Show you the way to go,' Michael stared at her in amazement. After she was done playing, everyone gave her a standing ovation. 

    Leaning closer to Leila, Michael spoke in a hushed tone. "That was great, baby. You never told me you played guitar."

   "I know." Leila smiled sheepishly. "I'll explain later."

    As the family reunion came to a close, Michael and Leila returned to their guest cottage. Because it was so late, Most of Michael's family decided to stay the night instead of driving back into the city.

    When Michael opened the door, he was surprised to see that the cottage had been occupied by his brother Randy and his children. "Randy! What are you doing here?"

    "Sorry, Mike, but all the other cottages were taken." Randy shrugged.

     After seeing his nieces and nephews fast asleep on the couch, Michael took pity upon Randy and let them stay. He'd feel terrible if he disturbed the kid's sleep only to make them move into another guest house.

     Knowing that there was only one place left for them to stay, Michael started to feel queasy. As they approached the main house, Leila rubbed Michael's back gently. 

    "We can always stay out in one of the teepees."


    "No... We can't. While you were grabbing our things from the guest house, I texted my head groundskeeper and asked what places were available. He told me that every spot on the ranch was being occupied. And besides-- I'm not going to have you sleep outside Leila."


    "Ok-- but for future reference, I don't mind sleeping outside. I'm not that prissy, Michael. As a child, I used to go camping and hiking all the time."

   

     "That's all fine and well, Leila, but I want you to be comfortable. I'm sorry, but unless that was something we planned together, I'm not gonna have my girlfriend sleep outside in a tent on her first visit to my house."


    "I'm your girlfriend?"


    "Yes, Leila, What else would you be?"


    "I just didn't know you considered me your girlfriend. That's all."


    "Well, I hope you consider me your boyfriend despite your soon to be ex-husband."


    "Yes, Michael-- I do."


    "Good! That makes me happy to hear, baby."


    Putting the golf cart into park, Michael banged on the steering wheel."Damn it! If I had known the family reunion was going to run so late, I would have arranged a designated spot for everyone to stay at. The only reason the main house is locked is because I instructed everyone to stay out except for if there was an emergency. I haven't allowed anyone back in since--"

    Leila cut him off abruptly, speaking in a  sympathetic tone of voice. "We can always go to a hotel, sweetie. I'll drive, OK?"

    Exiting the golf cart slowly. Michael walked over to Leila's side, extending his hand for her to take hold of. "Come on, baby-- it's damn near two in the morning. Let's just go inside and get some rest. It's been a long day for both of us, and I'm completely exhausted."

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