PDA

View Full Version : Believe (Shuis, Gwank, cast)



UAgirl
5.2.07, 10:29 PM
Because there are really too many pairings to list, I limited myself to Sher/Luis and Gwen/Hank in the title line.

This fic has way more pairings than that. : )

I'll post chapters here as I find the time; maybe eventually I'll post all the prequels (lol).

Hope you enjoy!









Believe





Chapter 1




Feline and man were locked in a brutal stare-down—THE most brutal standoff in a long history of similar events.

The white Persian’s fluffy tail whipping back and forth tauntingly was the only movement in the sunny kitchen, and the continuous drip-drip of the coffee maker the only noise.

Dark eyes narrowed menacingly at the creature of stuck-up regality over the top of a chipped ceramic mug proudly bearing the words “Bestest Daddy.”

Cool blue eyes regarded him disdainfully in response.

One of them had to break sooner than later, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to let the old Pain in the Ass get the better of him.

It was a fight to the end, the ultimate battle of wills, the…

“Grow up, Luis,” Sheridan advised him as she breezed past him en route to the refridgerator, the smart-assed smirk playing upon her lips tempered by the loving, if not exasperated, show of affection in her blue eyes. “Accept Miss Priss as the rightful master of this household, and all will be as it should be,” she told him, her laughter lighter and more carefree this morning when the possibility of bringing their baby daughter home from the hospital loomed closer day by passing day.

Luis gave Miss Priss one last black scowl before getting up and walking up behind his wife. He pressed his lips to the crook of her neck in a tender good morning kiss, a chuckle rising up within him as he peered over her shoulder at the seemingly endless supply of breast milk overflowing from their freezer shelves.

“Luis, don’t even,” Sheridan warned, sensing his playful mood could spell H-E-L-L for her. This had the potential to be one of those days where every word that left Luis’s mouth had the power to annoy her. She hated those days. Even if they did usually end in the most passionate nights.

“Who said I was going to say anything?” Luis shrugged behind her.

The phone’s sudden, insistent ringing interrupted any answering comment Sheridan might have made, and she started packing up the diaper bag she usually carried to the hospital, keeping one ear open, lest it be news from Harmony Hospital concerning their nearly three-month old daughter.

“Lopez-Fitzgerald Dairy Service,” Luis greeted jovially, dark eyes sparkling teasingly at her when she whirled around to cast him a fiesty glare. “Morning to you too, Mama…let’s just say if looks could kill. Yeah, she’s almost ready…I’ll let you talk to her,” Luis said, covering the receiver with his hand as he leaned forward and claimed one last kiss from her lips. “I should be able to swing by around lunch. Don’t forget to give her my good morning kiss. I’m going to say bye to the kids.”

Sheridan smiled at his retreating form and removed her hand from the receiver. “Pilar? Give me half an hour…”


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* ~



Ali fingered the short, baby soft wisps of pale hair on her head gingerly, a soft sigh escaping her pink lips as she dropped her hands back to her sides and studied her reflection in the floor-length mirror.

The simple baby blue bathing suit was loose and baggy on a figure too slender, too small for her nine years. Her skin was pale and unhealthy-looking due to months in and out of the hospital. And her eyes…the weight she had lost made her normally large blue eyes more prominent than ever.

Watching his young daughter from her open doorway, Luis recognized that, for now, post-cancer Ali was but a shadow of pre-cancer Ali. Physically at least. But in every other way that counted…Ali Lopez-Fitzgerald had more than proven she was a champion fighter with more heart and guts than most people had in their little finger.

“I see you, Daddy,” Ali smiled, blue eyes twinkling in the reflection of the mirror as they connected with his brown gaze. “What do you think?” she asked him, twirling around and modeling the suit for him with a giggle.

Luis swept her into his arms easily, feeling his heart swell almost painfully as he felt the whispering flutter of her lashes against his cheeks. “Perfect, AliCat.” Luis declared.

“Daddy,” Ali’s tone was disbelieving, and her blue eyes fell to her own small fingers, lovingly straightening the brown collar of his police uniform.

“Perfect,” Luis repeatedly adamantly, tipping his daughter’s stubbornly set chin up and forcing her to meet his eyes. “I thought Mommy told you to change into the suit when you got there.”

Ali ducked her head guiltily. “She did, but Daddy…”

Luis chuckled, hugging her slender frame even more tightly to himself and nearly making her squeak before she burst into giddy co-conspiratorial giggles.

“Our secret, huh, Daddy?”

Luis kissed each smooth cheek and set her back down on her feet. “Our secret,” he agreed. “Pack your bag. Nana’s already on her way.” Pausing at the door, he turned back to spy her stuffing all her little girl toiletries into the pink and white duffel bag usually reserved for trips to ballet class. Smiling, he left her room, walking a few feet down the hallway to Cristian’s domain.

Just inside, Max lifted his golden head from its resting point on his front paws, greeting him with a friendly thump of his tail.

Luis scratched behind the dog’s ears as he crept quietly into his son’s bedroom, not wanting to disturb Cristian’s current operation: stuffing all his dirty clothes and piles of toys underneath his bed. Cleaning up without actually cleaning up—one of the child’s most notable talents. With a controlled effort not to laugh out loud, Luis bid the five-year-old a good morning. “Not even monsters are brave enough to live under that bed.”

Cristian jerked his dark, sleep-rumpled head up at the sound of Luis’s voice, bumping it soundly. His brown eyes were still soft with sleep, and his yellow and navy-blue tee-shirt and faded jeans looked suspiciously like his uniform of the day before as he padded over to Luis on bare feet. “My room’s clean,” Cristian muttered defensively. “You can’t see anything dirty, can you?”

Luis ruffled his son’s haphazard black spikes affectionately. He had to agree with him there. Anything dirty was shoved under the farthest corner of the bunk beds. “Nothing but yesterday’s shirt,” he smirked, giving the shirt a swift tug over Cristian’s head.

“Daddy!” Cristian cried out, his hands flying to his hair.

Luis chuckled, hefting the little boy onto his shoulders and striding purposefully out the bedroom door.

Sheridan rolled her blue eyes at them good-naturedly when they appeared beside her in front of the long bathroom mirror. Once she’d finished applying her makeup, she crossed her arms over her middle and watched, amused, as Luis set Cristian down on the bathroom counter and filled his palms with the hair gel he, and now her little son apparently, found essential to daily life.

Cristian’s grin grew wider the higher Luis lifted the black spikes on his head, and he puffed his little chest out proudly.

“You,” Sheridan smiled, winking at Luis as she talked to Cristian, “look more like your daddy everyday.”

Cristian beamed with pleasure, hopping down from the counter and pausing only long enough to hug her loosely around the waist before he scampered back to his room.

Sheridan looked back to the mirror just in time to catch Luis adding a little extra gel to his own spikes and shook her blond head at him. “Men and their hair. Aren’t you late enough already?”

“Bye. Love you too,” Luis grinned as he starting backing out of the bathroom, realizing she was actually right. “Gotta make those rookies sweat a little. Besides…I’m their boss. What are they going to do? Fire me?”

“Maybe,” Sheridan retorted teasingly. “Luis, go. You’ll see us, ALL of us,” she emphasized, her laughing demeanor suddenly turning somewhat sober, “around lunch.” She expelled a soft sigh as she grasped the hand he offered her.

“Hey,” Luis chastised gently. “It won’t be much longer until she’s home where she belongs. You’ll see.” Heartened by her grateful smile, he released her hand. “Remember what I said and believe it, Baby.”

“Believe it,” Sheridan echoed him, long minutes after he’d gone, and she heard Ali and Cristian greeting their grandmother at the front door.


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“Uh! Uh! Uh! Uh!” Joshua proclaimed over and over again as he bounced up and down on the bed, trying doggedly to wake the bed’s occupant from her restless slumber.

Abby groaned, rolling onto her back and flicking a long strand of tawny hair out of her hazel eyes as she grabbed the exuberant little monkey and tugged him into a sitting position astride her waist. “I’m up already. Geez,” she proclaimed, annoyed to find her annoyance slipping away like water through her fingers. “Has MJ already left for school?” she asked slowly.

Recognizing his older brother’s name immediately, Joshua nodded his head vigorously, the meaning of Abby’s question lost somewhere in the translation.

Flashing the tiny boy an affectionate smile, Abby wrapped her arms around him and pulled him down to her in a bear hug. She looked up when a looming shadow blocked out the morning sunlight streaming in through the bedroom’s generous windows.

“Ten minutes ago,” Miguel answered her earlier question, stepping inside the room and approaching the bed’s edge to extricate his giggling, wiggling son from her arms. “Breakfast,” Miguel reminded Joshua, signing out of habit as he spoke. When Joshua glanced longingly at Abby, Miguel shook his head. “Abby has to get ready for work,,” he told the dejected toddler, giving him a helpful push in the right direction.

Abby heaved her sluggish limbs over the side of the bed, standing up quickly and teetering unsteadily on her bare feet. She held up a distancing hand when Miguel advanced in concern. “Nothing but a head rush,” she muttered, absently pulling the hem of her night-shirt down to cover the tops of her naked thighs.

Miguel fixed his dark gaze on a silver framed picture of Kay and the boys directly over Abby’s right shoulder and felt himself relax marginally as she slid on a pair of worn-out jeans.

Abby’s hazel eyes twinkled merrily at his discomfort, and she took pity upon him, disappearing into the bathroom to finish getting dressed. She re-emerged seconds later, toothbrush stuck in her mouth. Noticing the serious nature of his mood, she lifted one tawny brow in question, waiting for him to confess all to her—a confession that did not come. She slipped her feet into the pair of clogs at the foot of the bed and gave Miguel another assessing look. “He’s gone at the end of the month, and so am I. So no more free peep shows,” Abby teased gently, a sparkling smile lighting up her face at the slight blush Miguel couldn’t seem to control at her words.

Miguel stopped fighting the grin creeping onto his lips and reached out a hand to pull Abby to him in a tight hug. “The boys love having you around. So do I. You don’t have to leave anytime soon,” he said sincerely, his arms dropping back to his sides as Abby stepped carefully out of his warm, friendly embrace, backing toward the open bedroom door.

“Yeah,” Abby shot over her shoulder, a wicked twinkle glimmering in her hazel eyes as she delivered the parting words that would have Miguel laughing for several long minutes after her departure. “You just want my body.”


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


Noah’s silver-blue eyes darted over his shoulder as he clicked the mouse nestled in his palm rapidly. Sighing as he scrolled through several pages of names without any luck, he didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed with his lack of results.

“Any leads on the break-in at the Book Café?” Luis asked as he reached across Noah’s arm to retrieve the file.

Noah quickly closed the window he’d been working in and whirled his chair around to face Luis, the knot already present in his gut tightening when he saw the suspicion glittering in his superior’s intelligent brown eyes. Chafing his sweaty palms against his pants legs, Noah decided it was best to come clean with his boss. Instinctually, he knew he’d be better served having Luis as his ally than as an adversary. “I wasn’t working on the break-in. I was working on something more…personal,” Noah admitted, looking up and meeting Luis’s unwavering dark gaze reluctantly.

Luis handed the file in his hands back to Noah and continued on to his office without another word.

“That’s it? You’re not going to lecture me…” Noah trailed off, too surprised at the lack of reprimand to say anything else.

Luis turned around, taking several steps back toward Noah before answering his question. “First offense. You came clean. There’s nothing to say except advise you not to do it again and trust your word that you won’t…”

Noah lowered his eyes from Luis’s level stare guiltily. His dark blond head jerked up in astonishment when he realized Luis wasn’t finished.

“…Make it an official investigation. Have Marty or another one of our officers look into it,” Luis stated.

Luis’s suggestion sounded logical, but Noah wasn’t convinced.

“If it’s something serious, Noah…” Luis began.

“It’s not. Really,” Noah said emphatically. “I’m looking for Katie’s ex. Kendall’s father,” he clarified.

“Has he done something illegal?” Luis questioned, walking back around the desk and looking down at Noah in concern.

“No,” Noah sighed. “I don’t think so, Luis.”

“You don’t know?” Luis arched one dark brow at Noah in consternation. “You and Katie are getting married, Noah. Ask her.”

“I didn’t want to upset her,” Noah said, raking a hand through his dark blond hair. “That and I wanted it to be a surprise, Luis. I need to find this guy so he can sign away his parental rights. On our wedding day, Katie’s not the only one I want to make mine. I want to adopt Kendall.”


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


“I feel like the daughter trying to keep peace between her divorcing parents,” Katie declared, rolling her green eyes as Abby swept past her into the empty apartment. “How are you two ever going to work things out if you keep avoiding him, Abby?”

“Simple,” Abby answered as she snatched the plain white envelope off of the kitchen counter and tossed it into the trash. “We won’t.”

Katie plucked the envelope out of the garbage and removed the single sheet of unlined paper from it, her green eyes fluttering closed in disappointment. “When are you just going to tell her how you feel?” she muttered under her breath, shaking her head as she re-deposited the envelope into the trash. She heard the shower start in the bathroom and wandered over to the refrigerator intent on finding some sort of sustenance. “Abby?! Do you want anything?” she yelled, deciding on the menu herself when she couldn’t decipher Abby’s muffled reply.

Toast, buttered and plain, scrambled eggs, and orange juice awaited Abby as she scurried out of the bathroom, fuzzy lavender towel tucked under her arms and tawny hair trailing down her back, dripping wet. She grabbed a piece of plain toast, stuck it between her teeth, and hurried to her bedroom before Katie could stop her.

Katie paused outside Abby’s open bedroom door, watching amused as her friend huffed with the struggle to fasten the button of the pair of khakis then shoved them off her tanned legs in frustration, kicking them across the room. “Who’s the parent and who’s the child here?” she teased.

“Katie, stop it with that damn analogy and find my swimsuit,” Abby ordered, yanking a pair of purple track pants up and over her legs. Her tawny head disappeared momentarily while she slipped her arms and head through the form-fitting white tank top, reappearing moments later to nod at Katie when she held up the black one-piece. “My bag’s over there,” Abby pointed, dropping to her knees to hunt for her missing tennis shoe.

“Kendall’s neater than you, and he’s two years old. Two years, Abby,” Katie shook her head in amazement as Abby swept her arm under her bed. She placed the swimsuit on top of the change of clothes already in the bag and zipped it up.

“Thanks,” Abby rolled her hazel eyes at Katie. “Why don’t you make yourself useful? Check my messages.”

“Only if you promise to hurry, Bossy,” Katie answered easily, laughing as she witnessed Abby limp over to her dresser, minus one shoe, and plug in the hair dryer. “I don’t want to be late for my shift again.”

“That was Lover Boy’s fault, not mine!” Abby shouted over the loud noise generated by the hair dryer.

Katie hurried back into the living room in search of the answering machine in order to hide the tell-tale blush on her cheeks. She pushed the button on the small machine and listened as Sheridan’s breathless voice filled the room. Katie smiled at the anticipation so evident in the other woman’s tone as the message played, telling Abby to pick Ali up at the hospital where they were on their way to visit Hope. She forwarded past a couple messages for Nick and emitted an envious sigh as she listened to Shane’s morning greeting to Abby. Shane’s message finished, and Ivy Crane’s voice seemed to fill the entire apartment, at once commanding and full of steely resolve.

“You’ve had your chance, Abby. No more waiting.”

Katie turned around, open-mouthed, to see Abby’s ashen face and furiously flashing hazel eyes as soon as soon as the beep signaled the end of the message. Her green eyes widened in incredulity at Abby’s forthcoming condemning words.

“Damn that woman. Damn her to hell.”

UAgirl
5.9.07, 10:20 PM
Chapter 2




Ivy slipped her cell phone back into her purse, covering up her calculating expression with one of concern as she watched Beth yank the yellow police tape down from the front door and flip the OPEN sign over, announcing the Book Café was back in business. “Don’t you think you should wait a few days before you start taking customers again, Dear?” Ivy asked, unable to keep her blue-green eyes from straying to the gaping hole left in the large front window by the so-called burglar. “It’d only be a day or two. It’s not like you NEED the money,” Ivy stated the obvious.


“It’s not the money,” Beth declared adamantly. “This place hasn’t been closed a day since it opened, and it’s not going to be closed now. It’s a nice day outside. I think the…new addition…will be a hit. People will be able to enjoy the fresh air.”


“Good morning, Pollyanna,” Hank greeted with a grin, prodding his twin daughters through the door gently.


Emily’s arm dropped limply to her side as her little mouth opened wide in amazement, her dolly hanging upside down with its skirt over its head.


Sara shrugged her dad’s hand off her shoulder, scampering over to Beth’s side to better marvel over the fact that she could now literally reach out and touch the little old lady walking carefully down the sidewalk. She jumped when the driver of a car passing leisurely by tapped his horn in greeting and offered her a quick wave of his hand. “Cool! I think you should keep the hole, Beth,” Sara chirped. “Dad,” she turned back to Hank with an overly eager expression on her young face. “I want to sit here so I can throw stuff at the birds.”


“Don’t you mean feed the birds, Darling?” Ivy asked distractedly, digging through her purse to retrieve her ringing cell phone. Covering the receiver with her hand, she pointed toward the back of the Book Café. “I have to take this call.”


Beth glanced down at Sara, noting the wicked, anticipatory gleam in her brown eyes. “You don’t want to feed the birds, do you?”


Hank wore a proud smirk when Sara set the record straight once and for all.


“No. I have a game today. I need to work out my arm. Right, Dad?”




*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“No, Mother. You can’t rent out the concession stand. You’ll have to sit on the bleachers with the rest of us,” Gwen sighed, tapping her pen against the edge of her desk impatiently while she listened to her mother prattle on about the injustice of being made to sit with the rest of the ‘common’ folk of Harmony. A red light flashed on the phone, announcing an incoming call, and Gwen wanted to burst into a chorus of Hallelujah’s. “See you later, Mother. Goodbye.” Gwen huffed at the errant strand of golden hair freed from her elegant French twist during her animated discussion with her mother and pressed the flashing button. “Gwen Hotchkiss speaking…Ethan…Lunch at the Seascape?” Gwen’s golden brown eyes widened in surprise. “You want me to bring Daddy along? Ethan, at least tell me what this is about…You’ll tell me at lunch. I’ll be there. Bye.”


“Lunch date?” Jonathan Hotchkiss questioned as he bent forward to kiss his daughter’s cheek.


Something in her father’s blue eyes raised Gwen’s suspicions, and she leaned back in her chair, folding her arms across her middle and giving him a knowing look. “You’re keeping me in the dark about something, Daddy. What is it? What does Ethan want to discuss over lunch?”


“You’ll find out at lunch,” Jonathan replied, giving her a non-answer. “Now, how’s that little granddaughter of mine? Is she excited about her first game?”


Gwen sighed, scribbling down a reminder about the 12 o’clock appointment before looking back up to her expectant father. His grandchildren were Jonathan Hotchkiss’s favorite subject. She wasn’t going to know the truth behind Ethan’s invitation until Daddy WANTED her to know.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“Looks good on paper,” Shane said, sliding the information-packed manila folder back to Ethan. “Do you think she’ll agree to it?”


“I don’t see why not,” Ethan answered, thumping the folder against his knee in thought. “Hotchkiss approached me about the merger. Not the other way around,” Ethan reminded Shane. “Mother’s already on board. Chad’s interests lie elsewhere…”


“How are things going with getting his recording studio off the ground?” Shane asked, his interest piqued. He’d only had limited interaction with Chad Harris, but he respected his drive immensely.


“Well,” Ethan admitted, the admiration noticeable in his voice and manner. “Theresa’s helping him scout for talent,” Ethan revealed, letting a wide smile take over his entire face, “She’s planning this big event for the grand opening of her new boutique this weekend. I hear it’s going to be quite a show.” he chuckled, the pictures of the spectacle all-too vivid in his head.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“What about some more streamers…right there,” Grace Bennett stretched her arm out, pointing out a relatively unadorned corner of the brimming shop.


Sam offered Theresa an apologetic smile and shrug of his shoulders before mounting the ladder and climbing to the top to hang yet more streamers.


Theresa whirled around to face Chad with enormous brown eyes, trying desperately not to burst into a fit of girlish laughter.


“It could be worse. There could be Tomato Soup Cakes at every entrance,” Chad grinned, sweeping his hands down Theresa’s back and pulling her close for a lingering kiss.



“My brother’s got a point, Theresa,” Simone agreed with a smirk. “Chief Bennett, the crew needs some help outside setting up the stage.”


Theresa had to fight back the giggles again at the look of utter relief that flashed across Sam’s face as he practically leaped from the last few rungs of the ladder and hustled toward the building’s exit.


“Helpful husbands are a dying breed,” Grace commented, sticking the vibrantly colored streamer between her teeth and climbing the ladder herself. “If you want something done, you have to do it yourself.”



Theresa and Simone took one look at each other and erupted into helpless laughter, completely surprised by Grace’s uncharacteristic mutterings.



“T-girl,” Chad shook his head as he grabbed his giddy fiancee by the arm and pulled her toward the exit. “What do you say we do a little sound check?”


“There’s still some balloons that need blowing up, Simone,” Grace suggested, all business.


Simone sighed, grabbing the bag of balloons from the cluttered check-out counter as she made a bee-line for the door and the helium that would save her a never-ending headache.


“…somebody needs to make sure the venders know to be here at 7,” Grace said, content that she had the streamers JUST RIGHT. She frowned when she found herself alone. “That’s funny. Where did everybody go?”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“Going to the chapel, and I’m…going to get married…” Theresa crooned into the microphone, winning over every unattached man within a mile radius despite the autobiographical nature of the song.


She was every bit the attention-seeker Martin remembered from her long-ago days in the cradle, and he couldn’t help but chuckle. His eyes started twinkling even more when he looked up to see Hank making his approach on the sidewalk with his energetic twin daughters.


“Mr. Fitz!” Emily cried, breaking away from Hank and racing toward Martin with arms outstretched.


Martin lifted her up in his arms with a slight grunt and accepted her exuberant hug and kiss on the cheek. “Good morning, lass. You’re not looking your usual cheerful self. Did something happen?”


Emily shot Sara an accusing glare, turning back to face Martin with an exaggerated pout. “Sara killed Mr. Flutters.”


“Mr. Flutters?” Martin looked to Hank in confusion.


“It was a stupid pigeon Emmy never even met, and I didn’t kill him,” Sara told him with a roll of her brown eyes. “Dad took him to the vet, and he said his broken wing would heal just fine. And he told me I have one helluva aim,” Sara declared proudly.


“And she’s using bad words, too, Mr. Fitz,” Emmy tattled with wide eyes.


“Sar,” Hank chided. “If Aunt Grace hears you, she’ll make you eat TSC. It’s the new soap,” Hank grinned at Martin, laughing when comprehension started to dawn on him. “What about that new granddaughter? I hear she’s a real looker.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“Here’s your beautiful girl, Mrs. Lopez-Fitzgerald,” Penny announced, handing her precious cargo over to Sheridan very, very carefully. “She’s getting big. Aren’t you?” the kindly nurse cooed to her favorite little patient.


Ali’s blue eyes twinkled, and Sheridan smiled back at her brightly as she cradled Hope in her arms. With minimal coaxing, Hope latched onto her mother’s breast and suckled greedily, her long dark lashes fluttering against her cheeks.


“She’s a hungry little thing, isn’t she?” Penny observed. “No wonder she’s getting so big. Those doctors don’t believe me when I tell them she’s ready to go home, but we know better don’t we, Mrs. Lopez-Fitzgerald? She’s having no problem eating, she’s gaining weight every day, and we haven’t had anymore major setbacks since that pesky infection last month.”


Sheridan stroked a finger across her daughter’s silky smooth cheek as she nursed, Ali standing behind her and gazing down in awe at her baby sister. “She’s not the only one ready,” Sheridan sighed.


Ali reached a tentative hand out but thought better of stroking Hope’s soft, curling dark hair and dropped her hands back to her sides.


Sheridan smiled. Even now, Ali treated Hope like a priceless treasure that might disappear upon first touch.


“Hey, Roo,” Ali greeted, using a nickname that had stuck from the early days of Hope’s ‘Kangaroo Care.’ “It’s me. Ali. Your sissy.”


Tiny fingers grasped Sheridan’s pinkie, and sleepy lids struggled to open, revealing eyes as big and bright and blue as the two pairs staring down at her.


“She knows me,” Ali whispered proudly.


“Of course she knows you, Miss Ali,” Penny gave Ali an indulgent smile. “You’re the only one that calls her that.”


“She’s so beautiful,” Ali breathed, her desire to lavish affection on her baby sister evident in her eyes and restless gestures as she admired the tiny infant dozing off in Sheridan’s comforting embrace. “Will she sleep this much when we take her home, Miss Penny?”


“I hope so,” Sheridan announced, making the older woman laugh outright.


“Right now this little lady is on her best behavior, but Mrs. Lopez-Fitzgerald…I’ve never seen a child with more energy or life in her,” Penny told Sheridan softly as she gently gathered Hope in her arms. “Come on, Honey. You rest up so you’re awake when that handsome Daddy of yours comes by to see you later. Maybe he can talk the shy little guy into coming inside with him,” Penny commented, smiling as she remembered the way Cristian had hid his face against Sheridan’s shoulder earlier.


“He’s not shy, Miss Penny. Not really,” Ali giggled. “He just doesn’t like to wash his hands.”


“He’s a little boy,” Penny winked. “The dirtier his hands are the better.” She glanced back at Sheridan, shaking her graying head slightly as she noticed the wistful expression in the younger woman’s eyes. “It’s not goodbye forever, Honey. You’ll see her again real soon. And, I have a feeling…you’ll have her home with you. It’ll be a miracle if this isn’t the most spoiled child in the state of Maine within a few more months,” she teased, causing Ali and Sheridan both to laugh softly. “I’m going to miss her.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~





“There’s that dashing young gentleman I told you about, Katie,” Abby winked, giving Cristian’s dark head an affectionate ruffle.


“Abby,” Cristian blushed, looking up to Katie out of the corner of his eyes. “What does dashing mean?”


Ali and Sheridan emerged from the nursery, and Cristian’s question was forgotten in the excitement as Ali divulged Penny’s prediction.


“Mija,” Pilar looked to Sheridan hopefully. “Is this true?”


“Penny seems to think so, and she’s been working in the NICU for over 15 years,” Sheridan said, lifting her hands to her mouth and taking a deep, slightly shaky breath. “Oh my God,” she breathed. “We could have our baby home with us in a few days, Pilar. I need to call Luis and tell him…this is…this is wonderful news.”


The two women walked further down the hallway, only pausing at its end to share a warm embrace.


“Abby, I thought you wanted to talk to Pilar,” Katie commented, standing upright after hugging both Ali and Cristian tightly.


Giving Pilar one last rueful glance, Abby shook her tawny head, letting her hazel eyes drift back to Ali’s expectant little face. “It can wait, can’t it, Ali? We’ll be late for our appointment. Go tell your mom bye,” she instructed, giving Cristian a gentle nudge forward as well.


Katie’s green eyes studied Abby closely, the tiny lines of fatigue around her eyes, and the unusual downward cast of the corners of her mouth. “Talk to him. Talk to me. Your brother. Talk to Sheridan, Pilar, Hank…anyone that will listen, Abby. Talk to Miguel. Just talk to somebody about whatever or whoever is bothering you.”


Abby’s lips twitched, and she chose to play off Katie’s show of concern with a crooked smile and teasing remark. “You’re not charging enough by the hour. Worry about your wedding plans, Katie,” she advised, expelling a sigh. “Not whatever perceived problems you think I have. I’ll deal. I always have. Okay?”


“No, but I don’t have all day,” Katie muttered. “You and Nick really ARE perfect for each other,” she added under her breath.


“Whatever, Katie,” Abby said, picking up Ali’s duffel bag and slipping the strap onto her shoulder. Gripping Ali’s slim shoulder gently, she steered them both toward the elevators. “See you later, Katie. Tell Sheridan not to worry about picking Ali up. I’ll take her home.”


Katie watched her friend leave and heaved an exasperated sigh. Getting Abby to open up was worse than having teeth pulled, and, she was beginning to have the nagging feeling, ten times more painful.

UAgirl
5.11.07, 5:31 PM
Chapter 3




The terrace doors flung open, and Gwen stalked to the balcony’s edge in a fury. “I can’t believe this! I can’t believe he did this without telling me,” she growled, yanking her jacket off of her shoulders and tossing it at Ethan’s face.
Ethan’s held a protective hand up, catching the material and draping it over his arm, waiting quietly for the storm to pass and Gwen to calm down once the initial shock had worn off.


“And you! You went along with this, Ethan. Why?” Gwen demanded to know. “You know how much the company means to Daddy. Why do you want to take it away from him? We used to be friends, Ethan.”


“And we could be again,” Ethan issued in a low voice. He leaned his back against the spindly railing, studying Gwen thoughtfully for a moment before speaking again. “You weren’t listening in there, Gwen. You heard the word ‘merger’ and let your defenses get worked up. Your father approached ME. This is HIS idea.”


“But…” Gwen started to protest, pushing her arms against the terrace railing in frustration. “Daddy wouldn’t do this. He wouldn’t…”


“He would, and he has,” Ethan reiterated. “The only thing standing in the way of making this deal official is your approval. It’s your decision.”


Gwen’s hands clenched and unclenched on the rail, and her face was a tumultuous sea of emotion as she gazed straight ahead at the horizon silently.
“He knows he isn’t getting any younger,” Ethan said, “and he wants to spend more time with his grandchildren. You and your children are what matter most to him now, Gwen. The company isn’t his pride and joy anymore. Jake and Emily and Sara are.”


The hard line of Gwen’s jaw softened, and her golden brown eyes were liquid as she turned to meet his eyes.


“No one is going to lose his or her job. I won’t let that happen,” Ethan promised. “And with you as my Vice President…”


The corners of Gwen’s mouth twitched as she folded her arms across her middle. “Do you really think we can work together, Ethan?”


Ethan’s blue eyes danced as he offered her his hand. “I know we can. What do you say? Make it official?”


“What if I wanted your job?” Gwen smirked, her hand hovering over Ethan’s hand.


“You’d have to prove you were the better woman for the job,” Ethan said seriously, grasping her hand and shaking it firmly before realization of what he’d just said started to slowly dawn.


Gwen laughed at his reddening cheeks as she let her fingers slide free of his, tugging the jacket from his arm and heading back inside. “You do realize you just called yourself a woman, don’t you, Ethan?”



“I’m going to have to watch what I say around you, aren’t I?” Ethan muttered.


“This might be more fun than I thought,” Gwen grinned back at him slyly.


“For you maybe,” Ethan groaned. Between his mother, Beth, Gwen, and Aunt Sheridan…



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“You heard what the nurses said back there, Luis. Hope’s another ‘Daddy’s girl’,” Sheridan reminded him somewhat disappointedly, taking up residence on what had become THEIR park bench.


Luis grinned at her, recognizing the signs of jealousy. He handed the vanilla cone to her wordlessly, watching as she picked at the colored sprinkles in discontent. “Yeah,” Luis couldn’t resist teasing. “She loves me best.”


Sheridan’s blue eyes flashed, and she pushed her elbow out, nailing him soundly in the ribs. “You’re making fun of me.”


Luis’s brown eyes twinkled with just a hint of mischief, and he made a playful grab for her ice cream cone. “You make it so easy,” he laughed, slipping his arm around her shoulder. “Jealousy looks good on you.”


“It’s silly. I know,” Sheridan sighed. “Not that I blame them. I’d love you best too.”


“Really?” Luis wondered. His fingers played with the golden strands at the base of her neck as he gazed at her. “*I’d* love YOU best.”


Sheridan’s blue eyes twinkled, and she felt her cheeks burning with embarrassment as she turned to look directly into his eyes, helpless to stop the smile tugging at her lips. “It’s your turn to tell ME to grow up.”


“I wouldn’t do that,” Luis smiled back at her.


“You would,” Sheridan retorted. “You’re still ‘Daddy,’ and you’ll probably always be…”


Luis raised one dark brow in interest, his curiosity growing by the moment. He struggled to keep a straight face at her next, revealing words.


“Ali called me ‘Mom’ today, and I could have cried. Like a baby. Like the baby I’m being right now,” Sheridan’s voice dropped to a mortified whisper. “You think I’m being ridiculous, don’t you?”


Luis opened his mouth to refute her assumption, but, as usual, he didn’t stand a chance of getting in a word edgewise when his lovely, stubborn as hell wife was having one of her…moments. Hormones, the big let-down from the tumultuous roller-coaster ride they’d been on the better part of the last year, the insecurities her damned father had saddled her with as a child that lingered sometimes still—he couldn’t pinpoint the exact cause. The best medicine he could offer her though, was a listening ear and an open heart.


“I didn’t have enough ‘Mommy’ time, Luis,” Sheridan murmured wistfully. “Time’s moving so fast. She’s growing up. Soon, she won’t need me at all. Then it’s Cristian after her. And Hope…”


“Is in diapers and nursing,” Luis interrupted her with a chuckle, cupping his palm around the curve of her cheek as he turned her face to his. “They love you. I love you. And you’ll learn to love the sound of ‘Mom’ almost as much as ‘Mommy’,” he teased, walking his fingers down her arm and wrenching the forgotten ice cream cone from her fingers.



“Thief!” Sheridan cried, surprised giggles escaping her lips as she tried to ‘wrestle’ the cone back from him. “Get your own ice cream. With chocolate sprinkles,” she said, shaking with laughter as he pinned her against the side of the bench and smeared ice cream across her nose, mouth, and chin.


Luis tossed the melted mess into the trash bin over his shoulder, grinning as he wiped the smudge of vanilla, rainbow-colored sprinkles included, from the tip of her nose. Leaning in to kiss her, he remembered a playful exchange from their first date long ago, and his dark eyes danced at the light in her blue eyes as they relived the shared memory. “Are you kidding? Colored sprinkles rule.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“If you hurry and get changed, we might make a stop for ice cream before I take you home,” Abby proposed as she knelt at the pool’s edge, offering Ali her hand and tugging when the little girl took it. “With colored sprinkles,” she added, groaning softly as she pulled Ali to her feet. “Good Lord AliCat, what have they been feeding you? You’ve left those butterfly days behind. We’ve reached hummingbird status, Bay-bee,” Abby winked.


Ali giggled, impulsively wrapping her arms around Abby’s waist and hugging her tightly.


Abby combed the pale, wispy locks from Ali’s forehead with delicate fingers, and, overcome with a sudden onslaught of affection for the child, she bent to kiss her noisily on the forehead. “Don’t tell Kara this because it might hurt her feelings, but you’re a way better assistant than she is. Maybe even the best I’ve ever had,” Abby revealed with merry hazel eyes. “I think you deserve a raise. What do you think? Two scoops of ice cream?”


Ali giggled again. “But Abby…I don’t do anything. Three scoops?” she bargained.


“And ruin your appetite for the whole shebang after the big game? That’s what hotdogs and nachos are for,” Abby grinned, slipping an arm around Ali’s slender shoulders and leading her toward the locker rooms. “I have to make a quick stop before we get ice cream. It’s going to be close.”


The last clients of the day were departing, raising their hands in goodbye as their family members escorted them toward the center’s main exit.


“There’s Lissy’s daddy,” Ali announced, raising her hand in a friendly hello. “Can I go say hi?”


“Be quick,” Abby told her, turning on her heels and immersing herself in idle chit-chat with Mrs. Honeycut, the resident gossip of her gaggle of misfits. She kept one eye attuned to Ali’s whereabouts, a silent mantra echoing in her brain as she hoped beyond hope that the former Mr. Pissy Pants, a.k.a. Christopher, would finally catch a clue and stop hinting around for a date. She was so over men, she had no desire whatsoever to hook up with another ‘nice’ guy on the rebound, not to mention the fact that sooner or later she would have no choice but to come out of denial concerning a certain alarming growing suspicion. Say, this afternoon, the nagging voice inside her head reminded her just before releasing an exclamation involving more than a few bits of foul language when it seemed Christopher still hadn’t wised up. “Damn,” she swore through her teeth, clenched and fixed into a fake smile as Christopher and Ali approached her and Mrs. Honeycut. “Christopher. Hi. Mr. Homan should be ready to leave soon. Kara’s…”


“I can wait,” Christopher said with a smile.


Abby had to admit it to herself. He wasn’t the complete donkey’s ass she’d pegged him as in the beginning. Normally, she’d consider that smile quite charming. If only she weren’t feeling a bit nauseous at that precise moment. She clung to Ali’s small hand, willing the feeling to pass and her heartbeat to slow down to a calmer rhythm as her hazel eyes connected with gray across what seemed like miles. Christopher’s voice faded away, dying beneath the roar of blood she heard rushing in her ears. Finally, she jerked her gaze away from Nick’s handsome face, damning him silently for making her feel like a weak little fool. Catching the tail-end of Christopher’s one-sided conversation, she decided the only way to rid herself of that awful feeling was to get over Gray Eyes once and for all. And the only way to do that…


“…Lissy wanted to go the Grand Opening this weekend, and I thought it’d be nice if you joined us. Ali tells me her aunt Theresa throws a fantastic party. What do you say? It’s not really a date—just some harmless fun. You were going anyway, right?” Christopher finally paused to take a breath, flashing Abby another engaging smile.


“Me and Lissy’ll have so much fun!” Ali exclaimed, almost bouncing with excitement at Abby’s side.


With excruciating effort, Abby managed to avoid Nick’s piercing gray gaze as she mustered the brightest smile she could manage. “Bright and early Saturday. Do you have something I can write my number down on?”


Christopher searched his pockets, coming up empty, and held out his hand, palm up, with an affable smile. “Will this do?”


Abby took his hand, scribbling the number to her cell across his palm. When she looked back up, Nick was nowhere to be found.

UAgirl
5.13.07, 7:58 PM
Chapter 4






“Is that all you have to say…Congratulations, you’re one of the one in…how many was it?” Abby practically growled, stalking around the confines of the small bedroom like a caged tiger. She glanced again at the small alarm clock on the nightstand, mentally calculating the remaining minutes until Miguel arrived home. “Yes, I understand there’s no guarantee of 100% effectiveness…”


The faucet in the bathroom dripped steadily, and the breeze coming in through the cracked window made the light blue curtains flutter.


Abby paused in front of the window, lifting one curtain edge up for closer inspection. She fingered the embroidered silhouette with a half-smile on her lips, noticing for perhaps the first time, the nautical theme of the room—lighthouses, ships, and the colors of the ocean, all courtesy of Grace Bennett, no doubt. The woman’s condescending voice continued to squawk at her through the receiver, and Abby moved the phone to her other ear as she dropped to the comfortable mattress in tired resignation. She twirled a heavy strand of tawny hair around her forefinger, biting her tongue to keep from screaming a litany of obscenities back at the woman. Finally, she disconnected the phone in disgust, flinging herself back against the mattress and covering her hazel eyes with her hands. “---DAMMIT!” she screamed suddenly, hurling the phone at the closed door with all her might.


“I’ll not have that kind of language around my grandchildren.”


Abby jerked upright in surprise, instantly regretting the motion. Her hazel eyes snapped shut, and she bowed her head, taking several deep breaths before addressing Pilar. “I’m sorry, Pilar. I…” Abby trailed off when she felt the gentle press of a cool cloth against her forehead. She took the cloth from Pilar’s hands with a grateful sigh.


“It gets better. It doesn’t last forever,” Pilar uttered softly.


“I know,” Abby muttered. “I mean…I’ve heard, and you know, read that it gets better. Wait a minute…How did you…Never mind. You don’t have to answer that question,” she said, exhaling a quick frustrated breath. She wore a wry smile on her lips when she continued. “I bought every test on the damn shelf, and I just left them lying there in the bathroom, for anyone to see.” Brilliant move, Abby, her inner voice nagged. Now she undoubtedly thinks you’re crazy. Just like the poor little checkout girl at the store. “I’ll take care of that,” Abby offered, standing up slowly and moving toward the bathroom.


“All babies are blessings, Mija. Even unplanned babies,” Pilar told her with a gentle smile.


The understanding in Pilar’s warm brown eyes both stunned and heartened Abby, and without even realizing her actions, she found herself seated beside Pilar once again. “As usual, my timing sucks,” she muttered. “I can’t be… s**t Abby exclaimed, giving Pilar an apologetic glance as soon as the word left her mouth. “Not now. Nick and I…Pilar, what am I going to do?”


Pilar folded Abby’s hands in her own, giving them a reassuring squeeze. “You’ll do what’s right. Face this…challenge. Use that…refreshing honesty of yours.”


One tawny brow lifted in questioning wonder, and hazel eyes sparkled, matching the amused smirk on Abby’s lips. Bless the woman for not clutching her ever-present rosary and reciting a prayer for her sinful ways. Abby knew her sailor’s tongue already kept Pilar’s panties in a constant uncomfortable twist. Surely, the irrefutable evidence that she’d enjoyed premarital sex many more times than once was going to send her straight to Hell in the older woman’s eyes. Yet, Pilar was doing her best to speak supportively. “Refreshing?” Abby scoffed. “Pilar, I think the word you’re searching for is something more like…brutal, startling, embarrassing,” Abby grinned. “I’ve made you blush more times than I can count. And this is more than a challenge. I’ve got way too many screws loose to be a mother. Forget being a good one.”


An answering smile threatened to dispel Pilar’s normally solemn demeanor, and the older woman gave Abby’s arm a motherly pat before standing up. “Children have a way of changing a person,” Pilar stated, brown eyes starting to twinkle suspiciously. “And Dr. Taylor can only be a GOOD influence.”


“So basically what you’re saying, no insinuating,” Abby paused, shocked laughter bubbling up from deep within her, “is that I AM a raving lunatic, and I can’t do this without Nick.” The prospect of telling Nick was a very sobering one, and Abby fell quiet for several seconds. “I don’t know how to tell him.”


A car door slammed outside, and MJ announced his arrival a moment later. “Abby! Is my uniform ready?”


“It’s on your bed!” Abby yelled in response, rising from the bed and joining Pilar at the door. “I better go make sure he eats something before the game. Preferably something I can stomach the smell of. IF such a thing exists anymore,” she muttered, brushing past Pilar.


“Abby…”


“Yeah?” Abby asked, turning around and holding her breath in anticipation of Pilar’s next words.


“You’ll figure it out,” Pilar smiled encouragingly. “I think you’ll do just fine.”


“As long as I keep my big mouth shut,” Abby tossed back. “I think I’ll make a $20 donation to the jar and MJ’s and Joshua’s allowance funds anyway. Sort of an apology kind of thing,” she explained. “Oh, and you should take a trip to confessional for lying and scaring the hell out of me.” Abby groaned, giving Pilar one last sheepish look. “And I’ll just add another couple dollars to that jar…”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“I can’t believe there aren’t better seating arrangements,” Rebecca Hotchkiss grumbled disdainfully, climbing the bleachers behind Gwen and grabbing her shoulder forcefully a couple of times when her ridiculously high heels threatened to topple her over the edge.


“Mother,” Gwen huffed. “It’s a tee-ball game, not a black-tie dinner. You’re going to break a leg in those things.


“You’re the one who insisted on sitting on the top row, Gwennie,” Rebecca replied, plopping gracelessly down on the bench beside her daughter. It took only a few seconds for the heat of the evening sun to work its ‘magic’ on her. Fanning herself vigorously with her hands, Rebecca’s blue eyes narrowed in distaste as she glanced around at the growing crowd. “It’s absolutely stifling out here. They should make baseball an indoor sport."


Biting her tongue, Gwen simply rolled her eyes, waving at her father when he appeared at the foot of the bleachers, Jake by his side. “Daddy! Up here,” she called. “Jacob Bennett, I told you no junk from the concession stand. Since you’ve already eaten, you can go home with Mother and Daddy after the game.”


Jake’s mouth twisted into an annoyed scowl, and he reluctantly handed the nachos and hotdog in his hands to his grandfather before hopping onto the first step of the bleachers. He took up residence on the bottom seat, keeping a lookout for Ali’s imminent arrival.


Jonathan Hotchkiss chuckled as he passed his grandson by, giving the strong young shoulder an affectionate pat before slyly slipping him a cheese-laden nacho.


Jake popped the nacho into his mouth with an appreciative grin and quickly began to chew, without letting his mom see. Or so he thought. Moms, he grumbled silently when he heard her voice behind him. Not only did they have eyes in the back of their heads, his mom had X-ray vision too.


“Jake…I see chewing,” Gwen said.


“Chewing? What chewing?” Jake played it cool. “How can I chew if I didn’t have a nacho in the first place? See?” he said, opening his mouth wide for proof.


“Jake, Little Buddy,” Hank chuckled as he sidled up beside him, “you got a little cheese right there…yeah, right there on the corner of your mouth.”


“Oh man,” Jake muttered, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Dad,” he whined.


“I thought I told you,” Hank smirked, “a guy can never put one over on his mom. She’s all-knowing.” He leaned in close to whisper in his son’s ear. “Dugout,” he nodded. “Keep your sisters from overdosing on sugar, will ya?”


Jake eagerly scurried away, the twinkle returned to his brown eyes.


“Hank,” Gwen said reproachfully as her husband advanced on her, settling down on the seat in front of her. “They’ll ruin their appetites.”


Hank took her chin in his hand, giving her lips a quick, loving kiss, then grinned up at her. “Yeah, Babe?”


“When did you become such a tightwad?” Gwen laughed, resting her hands on his shoulders and leaning in to bestow another kiss on his lips. “You have more layers than an onion, Bennett.”


“Ah, young love,” Jonathan mused, blue eyes dancing. “Your mother and I were…”


“Jonathan!” Rebecca shrieked, hands flapping excitedly in the air and lips puckered in disgust. “It’s disgusting. I never would have given it to him…get it out, get it out,” she demanded with a shudder.


“…never quite like that,” Jonathan finished as he stood up, gallantly offering his wife his handkerchief to wipe off the excess cheese left behind by a curious toddler’s foray into the unknown, Rebecca’s ample bosom.


Hank howled with laughter, much to Rebecca’s ire, and plucked a couple dollars out of his wallet, handing it to the mother of the now squalling toddler. “You’ll have to forgive my mother-in-law. Nannies,” he said, as if it explained everything, and apparently it did. “She never changed a poopy diaper. She would have considered it a traumatic experience,” Hank winked.


“Why you…you, you SWINE!” Rebecca bellowed, as Gwen tried to tamp down her own threatening laughter.


The game hadn’t even started yet. How in the world were they going to last through the home-stretch?



*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~





“I’m going to get every out. I’m going to throw the ball to first so hard it knocks MJ down. I’m going to hit a kazillion home-runs, and Dad’s going to owe me a $100,” Sara’s brown eyes were round and filled with dollar signs as she chattered excitedly about her performance in the impending game.


Jake stuck another sour straw into her mouth when she finally paused to take a breath, hoping like the devil to shut her up, but it didn’t work. She was making him so dizzy walking back and forth and jabbering her head off, he had to look away. He scrunched up his nose in disgust as he watched Emily group red M & M’s and red Skittles together, shoveling them all into her mouth at once. Her entire mouth and chin were bright red, and the wild look in her brown eyes put Jake further in mind of a vampire he’d seen in one of those movies he’d watched even though his mom told him not to.


“Jake,” Emmy said suddenly, “Do you think if I run really, really fast when I hit the ball and throw the ball to Cristian real quick, we’ll get home in time to watch Spongebob?”


Keeping in mind that the wrong could, very possibly, make his little sister erupt into tears at any moment, Jake decided to play it safe. Well…sort of. “Only if you run all the way to home without stopping every time. Right, Uncle Luis?” Jake waited for Luis to agree.


Luis slid Cristian’s bat bag off of his shoulder, hanging it up on the fence beside the girls’ bat bags before issuing a distracted answer. “Yeah…sure. Run fast like we did in practice, Emily.”


Cristian shyly nudged Emily over, taking a seat beside her.


Emily promptly thrust a package of Starburst into his hands. “Daddy bought the whole team candy!”


Jake snickered at the panicked look on Uncle Luis’s face and decided to make his getaway while he still had a chance. “Uncle Luis?”


“Ali’s with Sheridan,” Luis knowingly answered. “They laid out a blanket by that old…shade tree,” Luis trailed off, laughing when he realized Jake was long gone.


“Here, Daddy,” Cristian announced as he crammed an orange and a pink Starburst into his mouth. “You can have my yellow ones.”


Thanks, Hank, Luis thought sarcastically as his son dropped the candy into his palm. All the kids were going to be ricocheting off the walls of the dugout before the first inning was over. What the hell had he gotten himself into, agreeing to help Hank, of all people, coach their kids’ tee-ball team? If Hank weren’t his longtime buddy…





~*~*~*~*~*~*~





“Are you sure you don’t mind?” Sheridan asked, chewing thoughtfully on her bottom lip. “I know how to operate the camcorder, Gwen. You don’t have to…”


“Sheridan,” Gwen interrupted, muttering under her breath, “give the damn thing to me. Mother’s driving me up the wall. If I have this thing in my hand, maybe she’ll shut up. And I’ll get some nice shots of Cristian from where I’m sitting,” she added. “Please. Save your best friend’s sanity.”


“Anything for my best friend,” Sheridan quipped, blue eyes sparkling with humor. “Speaking of best friends…” she began, touching her hand to Gwen’s arm.


A few feet away, Jake and Ali stood, smiling brightly at each other.


Gwen recognized the nervous shuffle of her son’s sneakered feet and had to struggle to keep a straight face. “You realize Ali turns him into a pile of mush,” she commented in amusement, lifting the camcorder up.


Jake’s brown eyes widened when he spotted the camera. “Mom!”


“Come on, Jake. I know you’re not shy,” Sheridan teased, her smile growing wider when Jake blushed a bright pink.


Ali giggled and waved at the camera.


“It’s off,” Gwen lied quite convincingly, lowering the camera to the level of her chest. She kept the camcorder pointed in Jake and Ali’s direction, while Sheridan pretended to instruct her how to use it.


“Are you getting it?” Sheridan asked.


“Every mumble and goofy smile,” Gwen told her, biting her lip to keep from laughing. “Jake’s such a flirt. And Ali…Sheridan, she’s working him like a pro. I’ve never seen anything cuter. You’re going to have to make me a copy of this tape.”


“I think the jig’s up, Auntie Sher,” Chad chuckled, making Sheridan squeal when he wrapped his arms around her in a bear hug from behind.


“Looks like he’s right,” Gwen sighed, turning the camera off when Jake captured Ali’s small hand and tugged her out of sight. “Chad. Theresa,” she greeted politely. “Sher, I’m going to go check on Daddy. Make sure he hasn’t committed Mother to Shady Pines yet. I’ll keep an eye out for Jake and Ali, too.”


“Okay. Thanks, Gwen,” Sheridan waved. She hugged Theresa quickly and tightly then held her at arm’s length, mischief lighting up her blue eyes as she spoke. “Everything set for tomorrow?”


“Set and ready,” Theresa bubbled. “Luis is going to be so surprised.”





~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~





Ali giggled breathlessly as she and Jake slowed to a stop beside the monkey bars. “I’ve never run so hard in my life,” she grinned at him, placing her hands on her knees and gasping for breath.


“You okay, Ali? I didn’t mean to…” Jake’s voice held an edge of concern. “I shouldn’t have made you run, but I hate when Mom tapes me like that. It’s so embarrassing.”


“It’s not so bad,” Ali smiled softly. “My mom likes to watch videos of me when I was younger all the time. That way she doesn’t feel like she missed so much.”


Jake jumped up in the air, grabbing and catching hold of one of the bars. “That’s not so bad,” he agreed, dangling for a moment in mid-air. Grunting with the effort, he started to cross the monkey bars. His motions froze, though, when he heard the noise of gravel crunching beneath feet, announcing that he and Ali were no longer alone.


“Look at Jakey, Boys,” Dylan instructed his gang of rowdy followers. “Trying to impress your girlfriend?” he taunted.


Jake hopped down from the monkey bars and fitted his hand into Ali’s, tugging her with him as he headed for the slides. “Just ignore them, Ali.”


Dylan stepped in front of Jake, the look in his green eyes matching the cruel smirk on his lips as he looked at Ali. “She the best you can do, Jakey? My old man has more hair than she does.”


One of Jake’s hands gripped Ali’s tighter while the other clenched into a fist at his side.


Ali’s blue eyes were wet with the sheen of tears, but she gave Dylan and the rest of the boys the biggest, brightest smile she could muster. “I’m really looking forward to coming back to school next year. Maybe we’ll have P.E. together or something.”


One by one the boys hung their heads in shame, and Dylan averted his green eyes from Ali’s forgiving gaze in embarrassment, his bravado having vanished into thin air. “Uh…the game’s about to start. My mom will kill me if I’m not there to watch Caleb play so um…Boys, let’s go,” he said, stumbling over the command.



Jake glared at them as they left, whirling on his heels to face Ali when they were gone. “How can you be so nice to them, Ali? They’re nothing but a bunch of jerks.”


“I guess,” Ali said in a small voice, walking over to the row of swings and circling one before sitting down. She kicked her sandals back and forth in the sand at her feet, twirling the swing from side to side without meeting Jake’s intent gaze. “Being mean back doesn’t make you feel better.”


Jake reached a hand out to stop the swing’s motion.


Slowly, Ali raised her blue eyes to his face, her fingers going to the gold heart locket at her neck and curling it around her forefinger. Though her blue eyes still swam with tears, they clung stubbornly to her pale lashes, refusing to fall, and Ali’s voice was nothing more than a whisper when she posed a question. “Will you push me, Jake?”


A lazy smile flitted across Jake’s lips. “How high do you want to go?” he asked, grasping the chains in either of his hands and pulling her back slightly.


“To the moon?” Ali quirked a golden brow at him, clutching the chains tightly beneath Jake’s hands. “Ja-Jake!” she squealed as Jake pulled her farther and farther back. “I didn’t really mean it…I didn’t…JAKE!” she cried, shrieking with giggles when he let her go.



And when Ali flashed him that magical smile of hers, her tears forgotten, Jake realized something he’d always known: Ali Lopez-Fitzgerald was the most amazing girl he’d ever met.

UAgirl
5.24.07, 7:26 PM
Chapter 5





“Dr. Taylor. Nick,” Katie called, hurriedly signing out and ignoring Ellie’s jealous scowl. “Wait up.” She snatched her purse off the counter and reached down to grab her duffel bag, jogging down the hallway to catch up with Nick’s much longer stride.


“What is it now, Katie?” Nick asked, not letting her impede his progress toward the stairwell. “More of your sage advice?” he sighed, arching a dark brow at her as he held the door open to the fire exit, stepping inside after her. “The letters were a great idea,” he muttered sarcastically. “I bet she doesn’t even read them before she throws them in the trash.” With a shake of his dark head, he took off down the stairs, taking them two at a time. “It doesn’t matter. I’m out of here in a few weeks anyway.”


Katie clattered after him, stumbling and nearly losing her footing on the bottom step. She gripped Nick’s arm when he reached out a hand to steady her, refusing to let go. “What do you mean you’re out of here?”


Nick’s gray eyes filled with regret, and his voice lowered to a soft, apologetic tone. “I took the job in Colorado. I’ve been sitting on my resignation for a while now. I gave my six weeks notice today.”


“Does…does Abby know?” Katie stammered, letting her hand drop from his arm. “She didn’t say anything. She doesn’t know I know, but she’s read every one of your notes. She would have said something if you’d…Nick, what happened? If you’d just admit that you love her…I can’t believe you two!” Katie exclaimed in frustration. “You’re acting like a couple of kids.”


“Abby doesn’t know, Katie. I just made my final decision a few hours ago,” Nick explained.


“So you’re going to give up? Just like that? She was right, wasn’t she? You really ARE afraid to love her. So afraid you’d put hundreds, thousands of miles between you and her,” Katie muttered.


“Katie, I…it doesn’t matter whether I love her or not,” Nick sighed in answer, averting his gray eyes from Katie’s incredulous expression. “Abby’s moved on. Maybe this guy Christopher can give her what I can’t. Look, Katie…I have packing to do, arrangements to make,” he said, leveling his gaze on her once more. “You’ve been a good friend, almost like a little sister to me.” Nick smiled and curled his fingers around her cheek as he leaned in close, pressing warm, soft lips against her forehead. “I know you’re meeting Noah this evening. Don’t keep him waiting.”


Katie remained there on the bottom step, too dumbfounded to speak or stop Nick as he walked away. Angered, she finally found her voice, turning around and trudging back up the flight of stairs, “Yeah, well…some kind of big brother you are.” Abby and Christopher, she thought, shaking her head in dismissal at the very idea. What in the world was Nick thinking?





~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~





“Tink!” Hank whistled in greeting, brown eyes roving up and down Abby’s slender jeans-clad figure in teasing appreciation. “Don’t tell the wife,” Hank grinned, snaking an arm around Abby’s shoulders and squeezing her tightly, “but you’re looking pretty hot today, Ms. Stone. Single looks sexy on you. What do you think, guys?” Hank turned to the ragtag team of youngsters lined up along the bench.


Yeah, right, Abby thought, chewing self-consciously on her bottom lip when 12 pairs of young eyes suddenly locked in on her. What about single mom, she posed silently. She bet THAT’D look REAL sexy on her. A few more months and she figured she’d probably be the main attraction at Old MacDonald’s farm.


“Daddy!” Emily gasped, brown eyes going wide, “I reject. I’m a girl!” she cried out indignantly.


Sara rolled her eyes. “Big sissy.”


“Hot?” Cristian queried, concerned. “Do you have a fever, Abby?”


For someone that had such a smart Dad, MJ thought, some things just went WAY over Cristian’s head sometimes. “He means she looks good, Doofus,” MJ spoke up. “Pretty,” he mumbled when he realized Hank AND Abby were listening quite intently to what he had to say.


Hank smirked, regarding Abby with twinkling eyes. “What an honor it must be,” he said, giving her a quick wink before glancing back at MJ, “being the Demon Seed’s first crush.”


“Hey!” MJ scowled. “I don’t like Abby like that. She’s more like…she’s more like…” MJ paused, struggling for the right word.


“The crazy aunt that lets you eat popsicles for breakfast and forgets you in the frozen section of the supermarket?” Abby finished his thought helpfully, thanking God she was able to cut him off before he said something remotely close to ‘Mom.’


“Yeah,” MJ grinned, tossing the baseball in his right hand in and out of his glove.


“Dad,” Sara whined. “When is the game going to start? I get to bat first. You promised. I’m not going to get rich sitting on this bench all day,” she huffed, standing up and planting her hands on her hips.


“Sar, we can’t start the game ‘til the rest of the other team’s players get here. They don’t have enough players to play yet,” Hank explained rather patiently to his highly impatient little entrepreneur.



“Well, they can have Emily and stick her out by the fence,” Sara volunteered. “You wouldn’t mind, would you, Emmy? You’d get home in time for Spongebob.”


“Okay,” Emily singsonged. “Can I, Daddy?” she asked, gathering up her doll in one arm and glove in the other.


“What do you think, Tink?” Hank chuckled at Sara’s suggestion as he snagged Emily around the waist and set her back down. “Actress, politician, or juvenile delinquent?”





~*~*~*~*~*~*~





“You better watch that woman,” Rebecca leaned forward and hissed into Gwen’s ear. She and your swine of a husband seem a little TOO friendly if you know what I mean,” she disclosed, eyebrows raised in suspicion.


“Why, Mother,” Gwen replied dryly, lowering the camcorder to her lap and turning it off. “I didn’t know you cared about my swine of a husband.”


Rebecca bristled at the smirk adorning her daughter’s lips. “I don’t,” she blustered unconvincingly. “Nonsense. You and the children, Gwennie. I just don’t want you getting hurt again like you did with Ethan.”


“Oh God,” Gwen groaned. “Wait ‘til Hank hears he’s reached Ethan status in your discerning eyes,” she exhaled with a roll of her own golden brown eyes. “Honestly, Mother, if I didn’t know you loved me…Ethan and Hank are nothing alike, Abby’s hung up on Nick, and I can’t believe you’re comparing Hank to Ethan,” she repeated again in incredulous exasperation.






*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~





A couple of rows below, Theresa tried not to giggle aloud as Gwen and Rebecca’s ridiculous tiff continued.


Chad grinned, popping another nacho into his mouth and chewing as his dark gaze drifted out onto the field where the kids were now warming up for the game. He nearly choked when Cristian ducked to preserve his head from the missile Sara had launched straight at him. “Damn,” he sputtered as Theresa slapped him on the back with one hand and handed him her soda with the other, “girl’s got heat.”


“Protect your head, Sweetie,” Theresa yelled. “Hank, get him a helmet.”


“Leave him alone,” Chad said hoarsely, ignoring the stinging of his nostrils and thrusting the soda back into Theresa’s hands. “T-girl,” he explained, “it’s a guy thing. Little Man’s got to prove he’s tough. No helmet, okay?”


“I grew up with two brothers, and I still don’t understand men,” Theresa huffed. “Chad, what if he gets hurt?” she pouted. “I’m going to go make Luis switch him up with a different partner. If I can find Luis,” she muttered.


Chad smirked, shaking his head as he watched her barely avoid disaster descending the bleachers. He sure wasn’t marrying her for her grace and coordination. “Just…”


“Look for Sheridan,” Theresa took the words out of his mouth. “I know.”




~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~





“And she did fine with the bottle?” Sheridan asked, moving the cell phone to her other ear so Luis could listen in on the conversation. “She did? The whole thing? That’s Luis’s daughter for you,” she said, laughing at the pleased expression on her husband’s face.


Luis’s smile transformed into a full-fledged grin with Martin’s next words. “Are you sure?” He cupped his hand over the receiver and wiggled his dark brows teasingly at his disbelieving wife. “Papa says she smiled at him twice, and he swears it wasn’t gas. I told you she smiled at me today.”


“Luis,” Sheridan shook her head, amusement sparkling in her blue eyes as she made a daring grab for the cell phone he’d taken over.


Luis held the phone at arm’s length, just out of her reach.


“And I suppose she’s already calling him Grandpa Martin,” Sheridan smirked. “Give it back, Luis,” she demanded, laughter still in her voice as she lunged forward, falling against his chest.



“I think Sheridan’s eyes are…yeah, they are. Sheridan’s eyes are turning green, Papa. I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Luis laughed into the phone before tossing it to the far corner of the quilt.


“How long has Martin been off the phone?” Sheridan asked, somewhat sheepish at her behavior. “You made the whole thing about Hope smiling at him up, didn’t you?” she grilled him when he couldn’t hide the mischievous twinkle in his eyes.


“Long enough,” Luis answered her with a soft press of his lips to hers, “and I only made part of it up. My daughter really did smile at me today, Sheridan. What can I say?” he shrugged with fake modesty. “She was happy to see me. I’m the man.”


“Luis, you are so full of yourself,” Sheridan laughed softly as she wrapped her arms more tightly around his neck and brushed her lips against his grinning mouth. “And hopeless,” she added as they nuzzled noses. “She’s already got you wrapped so tight around her little finger it’s affecting the amount of oxygen reaching your brain. Otherwise you’d realize what we all know to be true.”


Luis’s dark eyes reluctantly left her mouth to search her blue eyes for answers, and he couldn’t stop smiling when she collapsed against him in a renewed fit of laughter. Even as he continued to protest.. “I’m telling you, Sheridan. I know the difference between gas and a smile.”




~*~*~*~*~*~





“I’m in the single woman’s version of Hell on earth. Apparently, I’m stuck in the Nation of Twitterpation,” Abby muttered. When she noticed Grace looking at her oddly, she explained even as she mentally flayed herself for uttering such corniness. Damn. The moment she started spewing random quotations from the ‘Cat in the Hat’ was the moment it was all over. She’d shoot herself or at least fantasize about it. Her? Somebody’s mother. Pfft! “Do the names ‘Thumper’ and “Flower’ ring a bell?”


“Jessica always used to love that movie,” Grace remembered fondly.


“It’s Joshua’s movie of the month,” Abby revealed. “He refuses to watch anything else. Even though MJ hates it.” And it’s really no surprise, Abby thought. Disney probably wasn’t the best substitute for grief counseling.


“Kay hated it too,” Grace murmured. “As soon as she was old enough to realize and understand what happened to Bambi’s mother. She vowed to become a vegetarian, and she kept it up for almost a week. I was impressed,” Grace smiled, lost in the memory. “She was always so determined.”


“MJ’s a lot like her. Well, a lot like the Kay I knew,” Abby said. “Joshua, too. I see more of her in him everyday.”


“I think maybe you’re right,” Grace agreed, staring straight ahead, watching her littlest grandson follow Sam down the length of the left foul line. A small smile tugged at her lips when Sam swept the little boy up into hia arms, and the twosome proceeded to play airplane, seemingly oblivious the onlookers around them. “If you’ll excuse me, Abby, I think I’ll…”



“Jeez. If you don’t like my company, Grace, all you have to do is say so,,” Abby teased, flipping her long tawny hair over her shoulder and tilting her head to the side to observe the approach of Katie and Noah in the distance, Kendall riding piggyback on Noah’s broad shoulders. “No need to make excuses.”


Grace simply smiled in response, leaving Abby to join Sam and Joshua, now cheering the children on from the dugout as they continued to warm up.


Even from here, Katie looked more than a little pissed, and somehow Abby doubted Grace could inspire such…damn, the steely expression on Katie’s normally serene face actually looked a little bit scary. In fact, Katie looked like she had had quite enough. Time to get out of Dodge, Abby realized, making a beeline for the mile-long concession line. As if her day could get much worse…

UAgirl
5.28.07, 9:03 PM
Chapter 6




“Oh!” Theresa’s hands flew to her mouth in surprise when she saw the mottled purplish, black discoloration of Cristian’s left eye. “It looks worse than it did last night. Chad,” Theresa glared accusingly at her fiance as she stooped down to closer inspect her young nephew’s injury. “I told you he needed a helmet.”


Chad remained silent.


“Does it look really, really bad, Aunt Theresa?” Cristian asked, a suspiciously hopeful ring to his childish voice.


“Oh, it’s just awful,” Theresa cringed. “What are we going to do? You’re not going to be able to model in the fashion show like that,” she mused, standing up and pacing around the living room. She paused only to scratch an expectant Max behind the ears, letting out a frustrated sigh. “Chad, help me think of something here.”


Sensing Theresa’s agitation, the golden retriever nudged her hand again with his nose, looking up at her with large golden eyes.


Chad’s mouth quirked at the corners at the pleased grin Cristian couldn’t quite hide and the state his girl was already working herself into, and he crossed the living room, pulling Theresa down onto the sofa with him. “Breathe, T-girl,” he suggested helpfully, thwarting her efforts to stand back up and resume wearing a hole into the living room carpet by pulling her into his lap.


“But Chad!” Theresa protested, shifting restlessly on his lap, “I’ve planned this day for the last three months. It has to be perfect. Nothing can go wrong, and Cristian modeling in the show with a black eye is…Chad, it’s just all kinds of wrong. What am I going to do? Who am I going to get to replace him on such short notice? I love MJ, but he can’t pull off the look I wanted. He doesn’t have Cristian’s innocence, and the clothes don’t even fit him. They’re too small, and…Chad, this is a disaster. It really is…”


Chad’s dark eyes sparkled with humor as he slid a hand around the back of her slender neck and pulled her closer, fastening his lips to her babbling mouth. He fought the urge to smile against her lips when he felt her relax slowly against him, finally kissing him back.


Theresa pulled away from the kiss with a pout on her lips and dancing brown eyes. “You did that to shut me up, didn’t you?” The unmistakable music of Ali’s soft laughter immediately filled the room, and Theresa looked over Chad’s shoulder to find Ali watching them, bright eyed and smiling knowingly.


“Daddy does the same thing to Mom,” Ali giggled as she told her daddy’s ‘secret.’


At the word ‘Mom,’ Theresa arched a dark brow in surprise, noticing for the first time that Sheridan had also joined them. “And it works?”


“I like to let him think it does,” Sheridan stated with a sly smile, adjusting the thin straps of her pale blue sundress on her shoulders. Her fingers then went to the silver teardrop earrings dangling delicately from her earlobes. “Too much? It’s been so long since I’ve dressed up, I…I’m overdressed, aren’t I?”


“Whoa, whoa! Hold up there, Auntie,” Chad said teasingly. “I think you look damn fine for a mother of three, and I think your hubby agrees,” he winked.


Sheridan’s smile lit up her entire face as she felt Luis’s arms encircle her from behind, and she hummed with contentment when Luis brushed his lips against her bare shoulder.


“It works,” Ali giggled into Theresa’s ear, “It always works,” she murmured softly as Theresa snaked an arm around her tiny waist and pulled her into a bear hug. Ali giggled some more when Chad tightened his arms around both of them.


“Moving in on my girls, Chad?” Luis couldn’t resist commenting. He pressed another kiss to Sheridan’s cheek before releasing her.


Just in case Luis was seriously going to pull the big brother act, Theresa scrambled from Chad’s lap, taking Ali with her and whisking her toward the kitchen, mumbling something about a busy day and the benefits of a good breakfast.


Sheridan grabbed Cristian by the shoulders, and the pair followed Theresa and Ali into the kitchen.


Chad stood up, offering Luis his hand with a chuckle. “You ready for this three-ring circus, Man?”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“Did you tell Abby breakfast was almost ready?” Miguel quizzed MJ, carefully transferring the stack of plates to his son’s waiting hands. “Wait a minute,” Miguel laid a hand on MJ’s shoulder before he could take the few steps to the kitchen table, “Is Papa going to be able to make it, Mama?”


Pilar wiped her hands off on the corner of a dishtowel and picked up a platter heaping with pancakes. “He’s meeting us later,” she answered, placing the platter in the middle of the table. She grabbed the pitcher of orange juice from the counter and began filling the various glasses lined up at one end of the table.


Miguel released MJ’s shoulder, glancing down at him expectantly.


“I told her, Dad,” MJ shrugged, “but she said she wasn’t hungry. I think she’s sick,” he said as he worked diligently at setting the table, Joshua acting as his shadow as he painstakingly placed pieces of silverware next to each plate his brother set down.


Pilar read the concern in her son’s dark eyes. “I’m sure it’s nothing serious, Mijo,” she said reassuringly. “You and the boys start breakfast, and I’ll go check on her.”


“No need to check on me,” Abby appeared in the kitchen wearing a twinkling smile and little else in Miguel’s estimation. “I’m not 100%, but don’t give me up for dead yet,” she smirked.


“Bee!” Joshua exclaimed, wrapping his arms around Abby’s bare legs and holding on tight “Uh,” he said, lifting his arms up in the air for Abby to pick him up.


“It’s Abby, Doofus,” MJ rolled his eyes at his little brother and propped his hands on his hips, eyeing Abby suspiciously.


“Mijo, no name calling. Remember?” Pilar chastised gently. Noticing the pale pallor of Abby’s normally luminous complexion, Pilar scooped her littlest grandson up in her own arms and settled him down in his booster seat at the table.


“Bee,” Joshua whined, arms reaching for Abby even as Pilar poured syrup over his pancakes and cut a piece, holding it up to his mouth.


“Breakfast, Abby?” Miguel asked, indicating the vacant chair opposite his own seat with a nod of his head as he sat down. “Are you sure you’re okay?” he wondered aloud, noting the dark circles under her hazel eyes still faintly visible beneath her light makeup.


“Worrywart, “Abby teased good-naturedly, “Of course, I’m fine,” she said, smiling warmly at him as she grabbed a banana from the fruit bowl at her left. “Christopher’s on his way over so as delicious as those pancakes look I don’t think there’s enough time.”


“Christopher,” MJ snarled in disgust. “What about us?”


“Mijo!” Pilar scolded, “Apologize to Abby this instant.”


“MJ,” Miguel spoke warningly when MJ hesitated, wholly unrepentant.


“Bee!” Joshua continued to cry agitatedly from his booster seat, tears of frustration welling in his big brown eyes.


“Christopher asked me to go the Grand Opening with him and Lissy. It’s not even a real date, MJ,” Abby told her irate little friend, hoping to ease his almost glaring feelings of jealousy.


“Does Christopher know that?” Miguel couldn’t resist asking.


One tawny brow raised in surprise, and it took Abby several seconds to compose herself enough to answer so floored was she by the hints of identical jealousy she saw shining in Miguel’s deep brown eyes. “Sadly, he’s not very bright,” she tried to ease out of the awkward moment with an attempt at humor. “Besides, I didn’t want to cheat Lissy out of her chance to spend the whole day having fun with Ali,” she further explained, grateful when all semblances of jealousy fled Miguel’s demeanor. Hell. Maybe she imagined it all.


“You don’t LIKE like him?” MJ asked dubiously, softening up a little at the edges.


“Mijo,” Pilar chided, removing Joshua from his booster seat and taking his untouched plate off the kitchen table.


“Not at all,” Abby laughed, ruffling MJ’s dark hair just because she knew he hated it so. She grinned down at him when he scowled, pleased to see the sparkle return to his brown eyes.


“Bee,” Joshua hiccuped, rubbing at his wet brown eyes fretfully and wiggling mightily in Pilar’s arms.


When the doorbell rang, Pilar looked to Abby in resignation, handing Joshua over to her waiting arms.


Joshua immediately twined his limbs around Abby’s neck and waist, the fingers of one tiny hand twirling a heavy strand of soft tawny hair while his other hand hung limply across her shoulder. The toddler pressed his tear-streaked face against her neck, his hiccups gradually lessening.


“That’s probably Christopher,” Miguel stated the obvious, rubbing Joshua’s knee soothingly as he looked up into Abby’s hazel eyes.


“Why don’t I take him with me?” Abby pressed her lips against Joshua’s forehead with a sigh. “MJ too if he wants,” she said, glancing over her shoulder at her waiting ‘date’ and his daughter standing just inside the front door. “Lissy’s already going with us. What’s two more? That way any illusions Christopher has left about me being interested in him romantically will be taken care of, and I know I won’t be bored with these two around.”


“MJ?” Miguel turned to his oldest in question. “It’s up to you. What do you think?”


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“Dad!” Sara raced back to Hank excitedly after running ahead in impatience, “I want to jump in the bouncy thing. Please. Please, Dad.”


Hank smirked at the incredulous expression on his wife’s face as she slowly took in her surroundings.


“My God, Hank, this Grand Opening is a parent’s worst nightmare. I may have to rethink being on better terms with Theresa after this,” Gwen muttered.


“Just go with the flow, Babe,” Hank chuckled. “Every kid deserves one weekend of fun like this one.”


“Cotton candy!” Emily exclaimed gleefully. “Mommy, I want pink.”


“Cat got your tongue, Little Buddy?” Hank teased, dropping his arm over his son’s young shoulders.


“Let Mom at Ali’s aunt Theresa, Dad. There’s no way I’m being in her stupid fashion show,” Jake grumbled in disgust.


“Aww, come on, Jakester. You mean you don’t want all the women of the six grade lusting after you?” Hank winked.


“For goodness sake, Bennett. He’s ten years old,” Gwen expelled a slightly annoyed breath. Her frown was replaced with a smile though when she spotted Beth manning a coffee stand a couple of feet away. “Caffeine is the key to my ultimate survival.”


“Dad, can I go see if Ali’s here yet?”


Immediately recognizing the pleading tone of his son’s voice, Hank quickly gave his permission and joined his wife.


“Hi, Hank,” Beth greeted him with a friendly smile. “I was just telling Gwen that Sheridan and Luis haven’t gotten here yet. Jake’s going to be disappointed.”


“Not for long,” Hank said, giving Beth a brief hug. “Where’s Boy Wonder? You’d think he would have scraped enough nickels together to take you on a much deserved honeymoon already so you wouldn’t have to slum it with the league of former debutantes today,” Hank shot a teasing grin his wife’s way.


Ignoring Hank’s remarks about Ethan, Beth laughed when Gwen rolled her brown eyes, promptly walking away to look for her wayward daughters. Handing over Gwen’s latte and change to Hank, Beth spoke. “He and Shane had some contracts to draw up then they’re dropping by the Mansion for Ivy.”


At the mention of Ivy’s name, Hank narrowed his eyes. “Care to tell me why your mother-in-law’s giving Tink so much hell lately? Surely Ivy’s not winning any brownie points with Boy Toy by antagonizing his sister the way she did last night at the Lobster Shack.”


“I’m not sure, but there’s definitely something going on there,” Beth agreed before becoming distracted by a new customer.


“Don’t work too hard,” Hank threw out a little bit of advice upon leaving.


“I won’t,” Beth promised with a twinkle in her eyes.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“I can’t believe Hank’s jumping in that…that thing with all those kids,” Sheridan laughed as she and Luis watched Hank flop and bounce around with several hyperactive children, basically making a fool of himself but having too much fun to care.


Luis shook his head in disbelief. “I can,” he smirked.


“Has anyone seen my husband?” Gwen heaved a long-suffering sigh, rolling her eyes reflexively. Uncrossing her arms from her middle, she grasped Sheridan’s hand in passing. “I’m stealing your wife, Luis.”


“Theresa and Pilar can’t be having an easy time dressing all the kids,” Sheridan told him, ignoring Gwen’s insistent tug on her hand and brushing her lips across her husband’s mouth.


“You two are worse than newlyweds,” Gwen groaned. “Unless you want to see my son scale that building over there in an effort to escape ‘the stupid fashion show,’ I suggest you go with me. Now,” Gwen emphasized. “Any day now,” she sighed when Luis reached his hands up to cup Sheridan’s face, continuing the gentle kiss. Watching Luis caress Sheridan’s cheeks with the pads of his thumbs made her feel more like a voyeur than if she’d accidentally walked in on the two making love. Still, she could be nothing less than completely delighted for them. They’d earned a little uncomplicated happiness. “Sher, don’t you want to see how beautiful Ali looks, how Theresa covered up Cristian’s black eye? Do me a favor, Luis,” Gwen requested.


“No problem,” Luis answered her, though his gaze never left Sheridan’s face. “Anything.”


“Don’t let Hank kill himself in there,” Gwen muttered. “I know it hasn’t dawned on him yet, but he isn’t seven years old anymore.”

UAgirl
6.30.07, 10:04 PM
Chapter 7






“Mama!” Theresa’s voice echoed off the walls of the upstairs studio. “Cristian doesn’t have enough concealer on!”

“More make-up?” Cristian whined as Theresa grasped his chin firmly, studying his black eye from all angles.

“We’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz!” Emily, brown braids flying behind her, sang as she skipped by them, caught up in one of her frequent daydreams.

Hot on Emily’s trail was Sara, stomping furiously and giving Theresa her best ‘death’ glare for having the audacity to put her into a dress.

Shades on, MJ strutted back and forth in front of the mirrored wall, stuffing his hands in the faux black leather jacket and lifting his chin in the air with an uncanny air of arrogance. With his gelled hair spiked, he bore more than a fleeting resemblance to both Miguel and Luis. The attitude, however, was all Kay.

Watching him, Theresa giggled. “MJ thinks he’s hot stuff, doesn’t he?”

“He gets to wear the cool outfit,” Cristian mumbled, casting his big brown eyes down to the floor in mortification. This was worse than the suit Mommy made him wear at Easter. “Aunt Theresa, I feel like a nerd.”

“You look adorable, Mijo,” Pilar complimented him as she knelt at his feet, dabbing a bit more make-up over the uncooperative bruise maligning Cristian’s left eye.

“I told you so,” Cristian sighed, looking back up to Theresa with pleading puppy dog eyes. “I’m not a baby, Nana,” he told Pilar pointedly.

“I’m the biggest nerd of all,” Jake grumbled, fumbling with the ends of the ivory bow tie looped around his neck.

“Oh, Jake,” Theresa beamed as she tied the bow tie for him, “You look so handsome,” she gushed. “You and Ali are going to…”

“Whoa,” Jake tugged self-consciously at his collar. “Me and Ali what?” He ducked his head when Theresa reached a hand out to give his mop of unruly curls some sort of order. “Watch the hair,” he muttered with a scowl. “What about me and Ali?”


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“I present to you, Lady Lissy, and Sir Joshua Baggy Bottoms,” Abby announced, bowing at the waist, “Your Majesty, Princess Ali.”

A vision in shimmering ivory satin and lace, Ali giggled, stepping out from behind Abby with a shy smile on her lips.

“Oh, Ali,” Lissy brought her hands to her mouth in awe. “You look so pretty. Like a fairy princess,” she whispered softly, lifting a shaky, hesitant hand up to touch the garland of tiny pink and white baby rosebuds sitting atop Ali’s golden head. “Can I?” she looked to Abby in question.

Abby gave her consent with a smile, snagging Joshua by the waist of his oversized swim trunks and hauling him into her arms. Joshua’s flipper-clad feet kicked out helplessly as she tickled his ribs, and his mouth opened in a wide grin, showing perfect pearly white teeth. “What’s that?” Abby paused in her tickling just long enough to let the toddler catch his breath, pretending to entertain the idea of stopping her assault—but only for the briefest of moments. “Your refusal to surrender will be the end of you, Sir Baggy Bottoms,” Abby promised gleefully, sneaking a hand behind Joshua’s knees and tickling the sensitive skin there.

Ali’s blue eyes sparkled as she carefully placed the crown of flowers and ribbon atop Lissy’s glossy tawny mane, and the pair’s smiles were equally bright as they turned to face Abby.

Abby set Joshua back on his feet and whistled in appreciation. “Watch out, AliCat. Looks like you’re not the only princess in town,” Abby winked, causing Lissy to lower her eyes and twirl a long strand of tawny hair around her forefinger in embarrassment.

The bathroom door creaked as it opened behind them, and Ali swept past Abby and Joshua, wrapping her arms around the waist of their new arrival. “Aunt Ivy!”

“Look at you,” Ivy held Ali at arm’s length, her blue-green eyes softening with affection as she regarded her little niece. “You look lovely, Darling.”

Abby gritted her teeth, and her hazel eyes fluttered shut at the sound of the other woman’s voice. They opened in surprise a moment later when she felt Lissy’s gentle touch on her arm.

“Miss Abby?” Lissy’s voice was soft with concern. “Is it okay if I go with Ali?”

Abby smiled reassuringly and placed Joshua’s small hand in Lissy’s hand. “Take him with you. I’ll only be a minute.”

Both women waved goodbye to the children as they filed out of the door, but as soon as the door shut, the temperature in the room dropped several degrees as they stared right through each other.

“What the hell is it now, Ivy?” Abby finally snapped, raking a hand through her tawny hair in aggravated frustration. “If you don’t stop harassing me, I swear to God I’m going to have a restraining order taken out on you.”

Ivy lifted one regal brow and smirked at the petite blond, unruffled by the threat. “I just want the truth, Abby. Something you’ve neglected to tell Pilar and the rest of her family from the moment you insinuated yourself into their lives.”

The truth? Who really knew the damned truth anymore, Abby wanted to shout. Instead, she bit her tongue on that subject with great effort, her stomach churning as Ivy stepped closer, backing her up against the bathroom counter. “Shane hasn’t met Bitch Ivy, has he?” Abby growled, shoving Ivy aside as she stalked angrily toward the door. Her hand tightened on the door handle, knuckles white, with Ivy’s parting words.

“The company we keep says a lot about us. Do you really think the Lopez-Fitzgeralds want a criminal’s ex-wife anywhere near their children? Your own brother disowned you, Abby,” Ivy’s reminder was all too painful. “Your ex-husband is a drug addict. Attempted murder and manslaughter bought him an extended stay in a New York penitentiary. Do you think they want you anywhere near their families if he decides to look you up after he gets paroled? Do you honestly think so?”

Abby didn’t think. She whirled around, and before she could stop herself, her palm hit Ivy’s cheek in a stinging slap that left both women stunned.

Ivy gasped, cupping her tender cheek with her hand as her flinty eyes flashed dangerously at Abby. “Why should I be surprised you reacted with violence?”

“GO…TO..HELL,” Abby grit out over her shoulder, yanking the bathroom door open and stumbling outside. Ignoring the curious murmurs and glances of concern from Theresa, Pilar, and the bewildered children, she took the stairs two at a time, putting as much distance between Ivy and the ugly reminders of her past as fast as she could. She was bound to make a mis-step.

Nick had no choice but to catch her when she fell.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“Does that tickle?” Simone pulled the tiny paintbrush back from Kendall’s nose with an amused smile.

Nose scrunched up and green eyes blinking slowly, Kendall nodded his sandy blond head ‘Yes.’

Beside them, Katie too was all smiles and gentle teasing. “My puppy’s ticklish everywhere,” she revealed, winking at Simone. “But he really starts barking when I tickle his tummy.”

“Hmm,” Simone sounded, scattering freckles across Kendall’s painted cheeks. “His tummy, you said?” Whiskers were last, each squiggly stroke eliciting giggles and toothy grins from the little boy, mixed in with a few breathless barks. “I’ll be sure to keep that in mind,” Simone pledged, dark eyes twinkling as she sat back and admired her handiwork. “Quite possibly the cutest puppy dog I’ve ever seen. If I do say so myself.”

“Thanks, Simone,” Katie told her warmly, handing her a couple of dollars in payment. “You really did do an amazing job,” she said with sincerity. “Have you ever thought about opening up your own studio?”

“It’s an idea,” Simone responded, “but the time never seems to be right. The last time I gave it serious thought was before…before Kay died,” Simone finished in a whisper as Miguel joined them. “Miguel, I’m…”

“Katie’s right,” Miguel didn’t seem affected by Simone’s attempt at an apology. Glancing down quickly at Kendall, only the brightness of Miguel’s eyes revealed his inner feelings. “You’ve always been the talented one, Simone, just like Reese has always been the brain. I was just the guy who almost didn’t recognize his best friend to be the best thing that ever happened to him.”

“But you did,” Katie reminded him, “and I know, from Sam and Grace, and Noah and Jessica, that you made up for those years of teenage stupidity and blindness.”

Her words were delivered with a smile that told him she meant no harm, and they made Miguel smile in return.

Something in the way they smiled at each other aroused awkward feelings within Simone, and she fixed all her attention on Kendall, fitting her hands beneath his arms and lifting him onto her hip. When she noticed Noah making his approach, she pointed him out to the child in her arms, and Kendall immediately started squirming to get down.

“Nowa!” Kendall cried joyfully, racing to Noah’s open arms and squealing with delight when he swept him up over his shoulders and piggybacked him back to Katie, Miguel, and Simone.

“He really loves Noah, doesn’t he?” Simone commented.

“He adores him,” Katie corrected her with a beaming smile, “almost as much as I do.”

The sincerity of her answer should have made Simone feel better.

Oddly, It didn’t.


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


Pilar watched her youngest son from afar, the worry she couldn’t help but feel lately for him evident in the crease of her brow.

Grace finished tying the brightly colored string of the balloon around the wrist of the little girl standing before her, feeling a tug at her heartstrings as she watched the little girl look up at her father with thankful, adoring brown eyes. Just around the eyes, she thought. There’s something about her that reminds me of Kay. Just around the eyes. “That’s the biggest, reddest balloon we have,” she told the little girl.

“Tell the nice lady thank you, Kayleigh,” the father gently reminded her.

“Thank you,” Kayleigh beamed.

Grace felt her eyes mist over, and her smile was bittersweet as she answered the child. “You’re welcome, Kayleigh. You have such a beautiful name.” Grace felt Pilar come up beside her, and she gripped the hand Pilar offered hard. At that moment it was her lifeline, and she clung to it long after the little girl and her father had left them. “Her eyes, Pilar. Just around her eyes,” Grace explained in a choked whisper.

Pilar squeezed her hand knowingly, and together, they waited for the moment to pass.


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


That’s it, Abby. Throw yourself at the man’s damned feet, she thought, every nerve ending in her body in a heightened state of awareness as Nick’s arms wrapped tightly around her waist to keep her from tumbling headlong down the rest of the stairs. It couldn’t get much more pathetic than this, and dammit, she couldn’t think when he was this close to her. Her heart was going to jump right out of her chest. If she didn’t throw up on him first, she realized, lifting a shaky hand to her mouth when an unwelcome wave of nausea assaulted her. Weakly, she pushed against Nick’s broad chest with free her hand, but it was like pushing against a brick wall. She lifted her chin in annoyance, hazel eyes burning into his gray ones. “You can let go now,” she muttered tiredly, “I may have the grace of an elephant, but my feet and legs still work.”

Nick’s answer was simple and to the point. “No.”

Blinking in astonishment, Abby felt the blood in her veins start a slow simmer. “Excuse me? I can’t have heard you right. Did you just refuse to let go of me?”

Nick smiled to himself when he stared into her eyes. It seemed anger made the flecks of gold appear too. He tightened his arms around her almost unconsciously. “You heard me,” he answered, his hand rising of its own volition to tuck a stubborn strand of tawny hair behind her ear. Letting his fingers linger along her jaw, he dropped his voice to a low, determined whisper. “This is the closest you’ve let me get in months. I’m not letting go. Not until you talk to me. We NEED to talk, Abby.”

Oh, you have no idea, the nagging voice Abby couldn’t tamp down inside her brain practically shouted, making her wince. She couldn’t suppress the shiver that traveled down her spine when Nick’s hand slid lower, resting almost protectively against the small of her back. She was having difficulty determining whether the lightheadedness she felt was attributed to morning sickness or the man’s proximity. Abby decided no matter the reason, the blame rested solely on Gray Eyes’s strong shoulders. Taking a slow, deep breath, she tried to ignore how right it felt to be held by him again and not let him see her heart in her eyes. If he pushed hard enough, she feared she’d crumble, especially today. “We need to talk?” she finally said. “About what? I read too much into our relationship. I was stupid to think it was more than sex between us, and I got burned. Hell, I asked for it. I pushed and pushed and pushed. Two, three years ago, it would have been enough, but not now,” she admitted, more honestly than she would have liked. God help her, living in the shadows of Sheridan’s and Luis’s, Kay’s and Miguel’s, and Gwen’s and Hank’s happy marriages had made her want more. She wasn’t going to settle for less no matter how tight a grip Gray Eyes had on her heart. “I need more, Nick. Maybe not more than you can give me, but definitely a helluva lot more than you’re willing to give me,” she told him, her voice hoarse with raw emotion. “Now, please,” Abby pleaded. “Let me go.”

Nick’s arms dropped to his sides, and though nothing had ever felt more wrong, he did what she asked him to do, his mind telling him it was forever. His heart was saying no way in hell.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“So?” Luis grinned, capturing his wife about the waist as soon as she was within reaching distance, “Has our beautiful little AliCat
bewitched Jake into proposing marriage yet?”

“I thought you weren’t letting Ali date until she was forty,” Sheridan laughed, clasping her arms around his neck and gazing into his eyes.

“Forty-five,” Luis corrected her, “And I didn’t say she COULD marry him.” His fingers played with the golden curls at the nape of her neck as his lips twitched with the makings of another smile. “I just wanted to know if he had asked yet.”

“He hasn’t even seen her yet,” Sheridan smirked, “Theresa’s insisting on keeping them separated.”

“Just like a real wedding day, huh?” Hank joined them, chuckling. “Poor kids. They haven’t even hit puberty yet, and we have their entire lives planned out for them. Come on, Luis. You sure you really want to be in-laws with me?”

“I sensed a little hesitation on his part, Bennett,” Gwen sent a teasing grin Luis’s way. She turned to Hank, her golden brown eyes roving over him, ostensibly to check for any injuries. Arching her brow at him, she couldn’t resist one last jab at his earlier activities. “Make any new friends? The little redhead coming over for a play date next week?”

“Nope,” Hank played it straight, but nothing could disguise the devilish twinkle in his dancing brown eyes. “Her mom said she’d pick me up tomorrow around 7-ish. Mandy doesn’t like to play with boys, but her mom said we’d find something interesting to do. She didn’t say what, but she promised she wouldn’t let me get bored.”

Luis hid his smile, tugging Sheridan close to his side when he saw his sister’s petite figure practically bounce out onto the makeshift runway, ready to truly kick off the day’s festivities.

“They’re about to start,” Sheridan breathed, Hank’s antics already forgotten.

Gwen simply rolled her eyes and gave her husband’s arm a playful shove when he reached for her. “You’re incorrigible, Bennett. A hopeless case,” she added after their brief tug of war ended with her in his arms. “God help poor Ali. She doesn’t know what she’s getting into.”

UAgirl
6.30.07, 10:41 PM
Chapter 8




“Let’s give Ali, Jake, and the rest of our models another round of applause!” Theresa grinned, her enthusiasm fueling the crowd as she clapped her hands together. “They did such a wonderful job,” she praised, squatting down and wrapping Cristian up in a bear hug despite the embarrassed blush on his cheeks. “All of them.”

Jake basked in the applause. Maybe being a nerd wasn’t so bad, he thought, giving the cheering audience his most charming grin. Heck. A little adoration always felt good, he reasoned, straightening his slim shoulders proudly and tossing his head back when a lock of unruly brown hair fell forward into his eyes. This was the good life. He was the man. He was…sweaty and nervous, and blushing. No! Blushing was something girls and Cristian did. He was turning red. His cheeks were on fire! And it was all because…because…because…He gulped, his brown eyes shifting downward and widening at what they saw. Ali’s hand was in his, and it felt like it was glued there. He couldn’t let go of it no matter how much he wanted to. It was just like the moment, not even ten minutes ago, when she first appeared at the end of the runway, a beautiful angel walking slowly towards him with her magical smile on her lips. He couldn’t stop staring as she made her way to his side. Why did looking at her make him feel like he had a thousand butterflies flapping around inside his chest, trying desperately to escape? His brown eyes reluctantly traveled up Ali’s slender arm, past the gentle curve of her neck to her face. Her pretty blue eyes drew him in, mesmerizing him like the most powerful of witches’ spells. He tugged at the constricting bow tie around his neck with his free hand, offering her a bashful smile. The sounds of the crowd and the rest of the kids surrounding them died away, Theresa’s announcement that ‘Over the Rainbow’ was now officially opened for business barely acknowledged as the smile on Jake’s lips blossomed into a full-fledged grin. “You look…,” he paused, coughing awkwardly as the dryness of his throat seemed to increase a thousand-fold when her sparkling blue eyes lit up with expectation. Heat began to creep up his neck and into his face, his ears, and Jake shifted his feet in nervous exasperation as his tongue suddenly seemed too thick to say the words. “Ali, you look…”

“She’s the fairest princess in all the land,” Martin stated proudly, reveling in the delight on his young granddaughter’s face upon discovering him.

“Grandpa Martin,” Ali giggled prettily, slipping her hand from Jake’s and wrapping her arms tightly about Martin’s waist. “You’re being silly again,” she told him, squealing slightly in surprise when he lifted her up into his arms easily as if she weighed no more than a feather. Her hands gripped his shoulders as she leaned forward to happily scatter kisses on his cheeks, her crown of roses slipping unnoticed from her head.

Jake bent to retrieve the crown, guarding it close as his sisters and MJ tore past him excitedly, pulling Cristian and Joshua along with them. He sighed disappointedly when Sheridan and Uncle Luis joined Martin and Ali seemed to forget all about him.

Martin couldn’t help it. His eyes twinkled merrily when he noticed young Bennett’s newfound fascination with the ground at his feet, and he glanced back at his granddaughter now safely ensconced in the arms of her adoring father. Young love was something to behold, he thought to himself, forcing the amused smile from his lips when he looked again at the disgruntled boy in front of him.

“Ali dropped this,” Jake commented, offering him the crown. “Will you give it back to her?”

Shaking his head in dissent, Martin gently pushed Jake’s outstretched hand away. “YOU give it back to her. When the time is right,” Martin added when it become apparent the idea held no appeal at all to the boy. “In the meantime, keep it safe.”

“If you say so, Mr. Fitzgerald,” Jake muttered. “I’m going to get out of this stupid monkey suit.”

Martin only chuckled. One smile. One smile from their sweet Ali was all it would take to restore the charming twinkle to young Bennett’s brown eyes and the spring to his step—so enchanted was he.

Jake was Ali’s Jake.

Ali was Jake’s Ali.

Martin liked to believe it was foretold.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Did I tell you they’d look adorable or what?” Theresa bubbled, giving Chad’s hand an excited squeeze. “Oh, Chad, it’s going better than I even expected. Look at all these people,” she gestured broadly at the brimming shop, her eyes dancing with the sheer thrill of it all. “Over the Rainbow’s a success. A huge success!” she squealed happily, cutting off his oxygen supply with her fierce hug.

With much difficulty Chad loosened her arms from his neck, his answering laughter sounding more like croaking. “T-girl, you won’t have anybody to walk down the aisle to if you do that again. Damn, that’s some grip you got,” he said, wincing slightly when she threw her arms back around his neck, only slightly less tightly. Surrendering, he wrapped his arms around her tiny waist, grinning when he realized she’d never actually stopped talking.

“…and I owe everything to you, Chad,” Theresa said, finally pausing to take a deep, replenishing breath. “That’s why I’m going to help you discover just the person to make Blue Note Records a household name. Someone with charisma, savvy, and talent to spare. Let’s not forget fashion sense,” she added seriously. “The way a person dresses says so much about them…”

“And if the person has no fashion sense whatsoever, well, they’re totally wrong for the job, right Theresa?” Whitney said teasingly, the smile on her face stretching wide at the astonished expression on Theresa’s face when she whirled around to face her.


“Whit!” Theresa exclaimed, “I thought you couldn’t make it.”

Whitney returned Theresa’s hug tenfold then pulled back, shaking her head. “I told you I’d do my best, didn’t I? Besides, I missed you, Mom, Dad, Simone, everybody,” she said, giving Chad a sincere smile. “No matter where I go, Harmony’s home.”

“And it always will be,” Theresa agreed, linking arms with Whitney and dragging her off to parts unknown. “You know, Whit. I’ve been thinking…”

Chad crossed his arms across his chest and watched them leave with a smirk on his lips as he caught the end of Theresa’s ‘thought.’

“…it’s past time you moved back to Harmony.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Is she going to be alright, Mr. Shane?” Lissy asked solemnly, chocolate eyes large and welling with undisguised concern.

A wry smile flirted on Abby’s lips, and her hazel eyes were bright as she looked up at her older brother. Always her protector, Shane was. But even he had his limits—as she remembered all too well. “Don’t worry, Lissy. I’ll live to make the same mistakes again tomorrow. I just never learn,” Abby’s laugh was sharp and strangled on a half-sob as she snatched at her brother’s large open hands. She’d tell him to muzzle his bitch later. Right now she just needed to draw calm and comfort from his touch.

Shane half-turned to Lissy, his voice warm and reassuring. “She’ll be fine. I’ll take care of her,” he promised, pulling a handful of Kleenex from the box resting behind Abby. “Tell your daddy we’ll meet him in front of the carousel in 15, 20 minutes tops. Can you do that for me?”

Lissy nodded her tawny head, backing slowly toward the bathroom exit.

Shane crossed the small space to twist the lock into place as soon as the little girl was gone, his brow etched with worry as he watched a single tear trail down his little sister’s cheek. “Okay, Runt,” he sighed, moving to stand in front of Abby. “There’s more going on here than your little feud with Ivy. Which came out of nowhere, I might add,” Shane felt the need to interject. Lifting his hand, he gently dabbed all evidence of the tear away with the soft Kleenex, dismayed to discover that the action actually seemed to trigger more tears. He tossed the wadded tissue toward the trash receptacle in the bathroom’s corner, pulling his baby sister into a fierce bear hug. “Tell me what’s wrong so I can fix it, Baby Girl,” he murmured into her silky crown of hair as she cried against his shoulder.

Smiling through her tears, Abby’s focused her attention on the straightening the collar of her brother’s shirt, refusing to meet his searching gaze. “The sentiment’s always been nice, but we both know the messes I get myself into usually don’t have solutions so easy. Once a screw-up, always a screw-up, right?” Abby tried to laugh the comment off. “I always have to fall for that unattainable guy, don’t I? The one I just can’t have. Hey, at least this time I’m not married. Then again, it’s not always a good thing in some social circles to bring a baby into the world without a ring on your finger. It’s supposed to be a modern world, but you never know.”

“Abby,” Shane whispered, grasping her chin and forcing her to meet his eyes. They weren’t shocked or accusing. Just filled with brotherly concern. “You haven’t told him, have you?”

“And get the obligatory marriage proposal?” Abby snapped, immediately softening the tone of her voice when she continued. “It’s like a knee-jerk reaction with nice guys, and Nick’s a nice guy even if he doesn’t love me. As scary as it sounds, I’m better off having this baby by myself. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to tell him because I am. I will. Whenever I can force the words out. Probably at the worst possible moment because we both know my timing sucks royally,” she muttered, holding onto his shoulders for support as she jumped down from the bathroom counter. “He’ll be a wonderful father,” she said, wiping the remains of her tears away with the back of her hand.

“I’ll make an even more wonderful uncle,” Shane teased, bringing a much-needed smile to her lips as he slipped an arm around her waist, steadying her when her step faltered momentarily, and her hazel eyes shimmered briefly with tears again as she looked into his understanding eyes. She visibly swallowed past the lump in her throat, tucking herself more firmly against his side as he led her back outside into the teeming crowd, her answer no more than a whisper.

“That goes without saying.”
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“A kissing booth?” Luis scoffed. “Of all Theresa’s bright ideas. I can’t believe Gwen’s going along with it,” he said, unable to hide his grin at Hank’s obvious discomfort with the idea. “I’m a little worried, Buddy. Are you two having any problems you haven’t told me about?”

“Ha, ha. Funny, Luis,” Hank muttered sarcastically. His Jake-like scowl said it all. He wasn’t thrilled with the prospect at all, and Luis was only making it worse. “It’s for charity. Right, Chad?”

Chad sidled up beside Hank, sporting a similar look on his face. “Yeah. Charity.”

Luis laughed openly at their ‘pain,’ insinuating himself in between them. One hand gripped Hank’s shoulder firmly, and the other rest at the base of Chad’s neck. He smiled at Gwen and Theresa when they glanced back in his direction, his smile growing wider when both women smiled back. “They look awfully excited about fulfilling their charitable duties.”

“I always knew the old smartass Luis lurked inside that body somewhere,” Hank rolled his eyes. “Mr. Perfect,” he muttered under his breath, shrugging Luis’s hand off of his shoulder. “Ha. Ha.”

“Have a little more sympathy, Man,” Chad said in a near-whine. “Theresa’s your kid sister,” he reminded.

“Who’s all grown up,” Luis replied with a shrug of his shoulders. “Now if that were Sheridan up there it’d be different.”

“Different how?” Sheridan sauntered up to them, a smirk playing on her lips.

Chad felt a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth when he saw the mischievous twinkle in her blue eyes, one that virtually dared Luis to make an ass out of himself.

“Fess up, Buddy,” Hank grinned evilly, this time slapping his hand on Luis’s shoulder. “You’re not so different from the rest of us, after all. You’d be green with jealousy, festering inside at the thought of another man kissing your beautiful wife,” he said, putting special emphasis on the part concerning ‘another man.’

“That’s where you’re wrong, Buddy,” Luis said cheekily, the perfect answer to his wife’s question suddenly on the tip of his tongue. “I wouldn’t have a problem with Sheridan kissing another man because I know I’m the only man who has her heart. She’d be thinking of me the whole time.”

“Good answer,” Sheridan said, sliding her hands up his chest to the open vee of his shirt and smiling into his dark eyes just moments before she bestowed a kiss on his lips that left him breathless and giving Hank and Chad his best ‘take that’ smirk and arched dark brow. “Not every woman has a husband so understanding.”
“Understanding?” Hank snorted, watching the disbelief war with jealousy and embarrassment for most dominant expression on Luis’s face as realization slowly dawned that Sheridan had played him and played him big time, joining Theresa and Gwen just seconds after leaving him in a puddle of speechless, spineless goo. “That’s the biggest crock of bull$#*! I’ve heard all day.”




~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“Luis pulled out $100, yanked Sheridan out of that booth, and two hours later, they’re still playing kissy-face,” Hank informed Abby with an over-the-top roll of his brown eyes. “It’s a permanent honeymoon. I predict,” he told her with a sly wiggle of his brows, “that Crane-Lo-Fitz joint endeavor numero cuatro will be well on the way before Hope’s potty-trained.”


Abby’s hazel eyes drifted to the pair, tucked away in a relatively quiet little alcove, lost in each other. Pulling her bottom lip between her teeth, she held in the envious sigh that wanted to escape her lips and arched a tawny brow at her companion. One kiss fractured the fairy tale she hadn’t realized she’d wanted, but it hadn’t seemed to have much of an impact on Sheridan’s and Luis’s life together. Luis’s non-reaction didn’t really make sense to her, and she had to wonder…but wondering never did do her much good. She shook the thought from her head and turned to Hank with a smirk on her lips as another, much more amusing thought took its place. “How much did you cough up for Gwen? I’m assuming your offer wasn’t attractive enough considering you’re over here with me, and she’s spending quality time with the Chief,” Abby teased, giving Gwen and Sam a quick wave.


“Where’s the respect? Us stay-at-home dads aren’t exactly hauling in the big bucks. Jeez, Tink. You slay me,” Hank pretended to be offended, melodramatically clutching his chest with his hand. He grinned at her and started to explain himself, “The Little Buddy swiped my last $20 to buy something for his girl. I ask you, who am I to stand in the way of true love? I’m really a romantic at heart. If the wife can’t see that…”


“The world needs more true romantics like you,” Abby muttered sarcastically, elbowing him soundly in the ribs when he gave her tawny head a playful tousle that would have made any annoying big brother proud, including Shane. “Congratulations, Hank. It took a supreme effort to really give a damn what I looked like today, and you just shot all my hard work to hell.”


Hank tossed an arm over her bare shoulders and tugged her close, studying her tired profile intently for a few minutes before he responded. “So you’re using Wedgie Boy to stick it to Taylor.”


“Wedgie Boy? I don’t even want to know,” Abby sighed, covering her face with weary hands. Pinching the bridge of her nose, she looked at Hank out of the corner of her eyes. “You don’t have to sound so pleased.”


“Taylor’s a jackass. He deserves to suffer,” Hank retorted with a simple shrug of his shoulders. “You, on the other hand…” he trailed off. “Something’s up. You’re not yourself. See these worry lines?” Hank pointed to his forehead. “I was admiring myself in the mirror the other day, and I noticed them. Now, I’m not going to lie and claim that the Little Buddy and Sar have been perfect little angels lately, but the last few months have been relatively quiet. They didn’t put these lines here. You did, Tink, and if you don’t fess up to what’s been bothering you, I’m holding you partly responsible for the ulcer the kids have already helped begin, not to mention making me a little gray before my time. I can’t go gray before Sammy. Not when being the little brother finally has its perks. Just so you know what you’re dealing with,” Hank told her in his most serious voice. “Talk to me. I’m a sensitive male.”


Laughing in disbelief, Abby reached up to give Hank’s hair an answering sisterly tousle and pressed her lips to his cheek before resting her tawny head tiredly on his shoulder. “Romantic and sensitive with hair a girl can run her fingers through. Are you sure there’s not something you want to tell ME, Hank?”





~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“Are we 100% positive those two weren’t separated at birth?” Gwen commented dryly, reaching down to wipe at a droplet of apple juice clinging to Kendall’s chin with her thumb.


Juggling the drowsy toddler in his arms carefully, Sam stood up to join Gwen, and he finally answered her with a wink and a smile. “Anything’s possible in Harmony.”


Gwen’s brown eyes twinkled back at him warmly as she took the sippy cup that dangled precariously from Kendall’s tiny hand, combing her fingers through the boy’s sandy hair. Green eyes fluttered at the touch, and in that instant, Kendall didn’t just resemble Katie. He vaguely reminded Gwen of someone else…someone she couldn’t quite put her finger on. She shook her head laughingly. “He’s almost gone.”


Sam nodded. “It’s been a long day. I’m going to see if Grace still wants to take Joshua and this one and call it a day. If you see Katie and Noah…”


“Of course,” Gwen agreed. “Should we look for you at morning Mass?”


“We’ll be there,” Sam promised.


Gwen watched them go, her mind still puzzling over the brief moment of recognition. Glancing at her watch, she decided to perform her good Samaritan act of the day and go rescue Martin and Pilar from her lovely children. With half the day gone, it was the least she could do.




~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“Mr. Fitz?” Emmy piped up between slurps to the towering—and melting—strawberry ice cream cone grasped between her small hands.


Martin smothered a chuckle at both the valiant attempt she was making to conquer the ice cream cone and the expression on her face. “Yes, young lady?” he answered her with a smile.


“Is Jake Ali’s boyfriend?” Emmy asked curiously.


“Yuck!” Sara exclaimed as she and MJ joined them. Munching on the popcorn she and MJ shared, she looked at her sister as if she’d grown two extra heads.


“But he does like her, doesn’t he, Mr. Fitz?” Emmy prodded. “And they’re going to get married when they grow up, and Ali’s going to look just like a princess. Right, Mr. Fitz? Jake’s going to be handsomer than Daddy.”


“Don’t listen to her,” Sara warned Martin, her brown eyes flashing in annoyance as Emily spun her fairy tales. “Sometimes she’s loonier than Grandma.”


Eyes twinkling merrily, Martin could only smile wider. “MJ, you’re being unusually quiet. What’s your opinion on the matter?”


MJ just sighed, cramming more popcorn into his mouth to quell the irresistible urge to comment and risk having one cousin in tears and the other fighting mad at him. From his standpoint, it was a no-win situation so he wisely kept his mouth shut or otherwise occupied. He’d learned a valuable life lesson early on: sometimes just opening his mouth in the company of girls could get a guy like him in trouble.





*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“I have to give credit where credit is due, Pilar,” Ivy murmured appreciatively as she held up an adorable pink jumper fashioned of the softest fabric imaginable for further inspection, “Theresa’s really done well for herself. Hold on to this for me. Hope will look positively scrumptious in it, don’t you think?”


“Yes, Ivy, but…” Pilar grabbed at the jumper before it fell from the heaps of baby clothes already in her arms.


“And this dress,” Ivy cooed. “Oh, Pilar, this dress will make her look like a little doll. She’s blessed with such a beautiful complexion. She’ll be able to wear anything and look good in it.”


Pilar was momentarily blinded by the new addition, wincing as she stumbled into a display of baby tees of the palest hues and nearly toppled it over. “Mrs. Crane!” she finally exclaimed in frustration. “I am no longer your maid!”


Ivy, along with seemingly everyone in the boutique, went quiet. After staring at Pilar with her mouth hanging open in dumbfound silence for several seconds, Ivy was finally spurred into action—as were the rest of the boutique’s patrons. “Of course not, Pilar. Let me help with some of those,” she blustered, taking a good portion of the baby clothes into her own arms. “I apologize. I just got a little…” Ivy’s smile was a tiny bit embarrassed, “teensy tiny bit carried away.”


“Already you spoil her,” Pilar shook her head disapprovingly. “One little baby cannot possibly wear as many clothes as my granddaughter already has waiting for her at home in her own bedroom closet. Buy her something more practical.”


“You’re absolutely right, Pilar,” Ivy beamed as she was hit with the makings of a brilliant idea. “’Shoes! I saw the most adorable little sandals over here…”


Sighing resignedly, Pilar followed her. Ivy was an unstoppable force of nature if allowed free reign when shopping. SOMEBODY had to be the voice of reason.




~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~





Jake stuffed the coil of colorful satin ribbons into his pocket, his earlier feelings of pride over his gift for Ali replaced with a mixture of disappointment and embarrassment. Sure, Ali HAD always worn pretty ribbons in her pale blond hair for as long as he could remember. But that was before she got sick. Before she…His gift was stupid and useless, and he’d probably make her cry if he gave it to her. He scowled at no one in particular as he trudged through the aisles dejectedly. He never used to be so dumb BEFORE he liked her. Jake wondered if liking a girl did this to all guys. He was so deep in this particular train of thought that he wasn’t alerted to the presence of the tawny-haired girl in front of him until she startled him by giggling.


“Hi, Jake,” Lissy smiled brightly, clasping her hands loosely in front of her. “You looked kind of scared there for a minute. Did I scare you?”


Heck, yea…”No,” Jake blurted, feeling his cheeks start to burn when he glanced around and realized he was standing in front of the girls’ dressing room. “Where’s Ali? Have you seen her?”


Lissy giggled some more before answering him. In a roundabout way. “Ali!” she called over her shoulder.


Jake blinked when Ali suddenly appeared in front of him wearing an exact replica of the baby-blue spaghetti-strapped tank top and white capris that Lissy proudly sported.


“Hi, Jake,” Ali greeted sweetly, gazing at him expectantly.


“Uh…um,” Jake stammered uncomfortably as he admired the way Ali’s big blue eyes seemed even bluer and brighter. “I um…nevermind,” he mumbled, deciding NOW would be a good time to make his exit and hide under the nearest rock. “I’ll just, I’ll see you later. Bye,” he waved, unable to meet her eyes again without blushing. “Bye, Lissy,” he forced out before bolting away, the sounds of Lissy’s and Ali’s girlish laughter following him, mocking him, the entire time. Girls definitely made guys stupid. He couldn’t be the only one.



*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“This is it,” Theresa motioned to their surroundings with infectious enthusiasm, “the home of Blue Note Records. Small but state of the art.”


“And conveniently next door to ‘Over the Rainbow’,” Whitney teased, causing Katie and Simone to laugh and the guys to smile.


“Looks like you’re off to a pretty good start,” Ethan remarked admiringly.


“It’s a work in progress, Man,” Chad accepted his praise. “Things are going to be a little slow at first.”


“Don’t listen to him, Ethan,” Theresa interjected, slipping her arm around Chad’s waist. “By the end of the night, Blue Note Records’ first superstar will be born.”


“When Theresa dreams, she dreams big,” Miguel commented.


Katie laughed softly, and Whitney, Simone, and Noah shared a knowing look.


“There’s nothing wrong with having your cake and eating it too,” Theresa defended herself, slipping her other arm around Chad’s waist and hugging him tight.


“Nothing wrong with it far as I can see,” Chad agreed.


Mock groans resounded interspersed with playful teasing about the soon-to-be newlyweds and their ‘disgusting’ happiness.


And the ache of Kay’s absence settled heavily in Miguel’s gut.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




Twilight had fallen, and the doors of Over the Rainbow had closed as dozens of acts took the stage and music filled the streets of Harmony.


Off to the side of the stage, Theresa watched Chad’s face as he listened to performer after performer. They ranged from good to bad and in between, but she could tell none had captivated him yet. Maybe she’d spoken too soon. She hoped she hadn’t. Resting her chin on Chad’s shoulder, she whispered into his ear. “At least everyone’s having a good time.”


Chad smiled in agreement as he realized just how right she was.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“Are you going to tell me where you and Theresa disappeared to?” Luis quizzed the woman in his arms with a somewhat worried expression. “Theresa had that twinkle in her eyes. The dangerous one,” Luis elaborated. “Come to think of it,” he mused, gazing into her smiling blue orbs, “you’re twinkling too. All right. What are you two up to?”


“I’m twinkling, Luis?” Sheridan smirked, casually running her fingers through the dark hair at the nape of his neck as they swayed gently to the music. “How do you define ‘twinkling’?” she teased, smiling into his exasperated kiss.


Luis chuckled. “Is this ‘Tease Luis Day’ or something?”


“Maybe,” Sheridan gave him a soft smile. She pressed a lingering kiss to the corner of his mouth, resting her hand upon his strong shoulder as she looked into his eyes. “I’m happy, Luis. Thank you.”


Equally surprised and touched by her unexpected proclamation, Luis simply raised a hand to her cheek. He opened his mouth to respond, but a small hand tugging at his shirt interrupted anything he could have said.


“Daddy?” Cristian looked up at him pointedly. “Daddy, I want to steal Mommy.”


Biting back a smile, Luis turned to Sheridan. “What do you say, Mommy? Are you going to do it? Are you going to let him steal you away from me?”


“I’ll give her back,” Cristian promised solemnly.


“He’ll give me back,” Sheridan told Luis with blue eyes that positively danced with humor. “It’s just for one dance. Then you can steal me back.”


“One dance,” Luis playfully warned his little son. Then he stepped back, letting Cristian claim their girl.




~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“Looks like there’s another Lopez-Fitzgerald Casanova in the making,” Hank commented with a chuckle.


For all his fierce determination, Cristian was obviously a novice in the art of sweeping a girl, in this case his much beloved mommy, off of her feet with a whirl around the dance floor. Gwen just had to laugh. “I bet Sheridan’s toes haven’t been this sore since, oh, that ill-fated date she suffered through with the police chief’s black sheep brother years and years ago. What ever happened to that guy?”


“Local legend has it that he conned a jilted Harmony socialite into marrying him so he could live off of her money for the rest of his life,” Hank lowered his voice to a gossipy tone.

“I heard there were children involved,” Gwen carried on the charade, smiling thoughtfully as she scooted closer to him on the picnic bench. “And one day they just woke up and realized they were having this crazy love affair.”


“Love HAS to be involved to put up with her mother,” Hank continued with a barely-there smirk. “I’ve heard she’s a real pill.”


“True,” Gwen agreed. “Learning to accept her mother was an amazing feat within itself,” she acknowledged, dropping all pretenses as her golden brown eyes took in his proud grin. “But you did it, and here we are.”


“Becs and I have an understanding,” Hank shrugged, sliding his arm around her shoulders and pulling her closer so they were shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh. “I’ve been thinking, Babe. Sar and Emmy are starting school in the fall, and there won’t be much for me to do around the house except look at Gus’s ugly mug all day…I was thinking…maybe I could, I don’t know, become some sort of entrepreneur or something.”


“Entrepreneur?” Gwen laughed, giving him a questioning look.


“Yeah,” Hank grinned. “I figured I had a snowball’s chance in Hell of getting hired on somewhere so I’ll just create my own job. I figure it can’t be that hard. Then you can live off of MY money.”


“Are you telling me being a househusband’s not glamorous enough for you?” Gwen teased lightly.


“I prefer to think of myself as a professional dad,” Hank told her matter-of-factly.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“Do you dance as well as your nephew?” Katie’s green eyes sparkled in the darkness as she smiled down at Miguel, sitting Indian style on a patchwork quilt and keeping watchful eye on MJ and his cousins.


At the mention of Cristian, Miguel looked up to her with a half-smile on his face. “Even better,” he replied, pleased with the way her smile seemed to grow before his eyes.


“Mind if I…” Katie trailed off, indicating the vacant space beside him.


Miguel voiced no complaint, and when she had settled beside him, delicate hands clasping her knees, he resisted the temptation to stare at her in wonder for seeking out his company in his current state of melancholy. Instead he blurted a question that seemed to startle her. “Where’s Noah?”


“Remembering old times with Whitney, Theresa, and Simone,” Katie responded softly. “I don’t think they’ve missed me yet,” she told him with a small laugh. “I know it’s silly, but I felt…kind of like I didn’t belong or something. You know? And you looked a little,” Katie paused, seemingly thinking better of what she’d been about to say and continued only when he met her green eyes again, “you looked like you’d appreciate the company of another adult. Those three wearing you out yet?”


“They’re wearing THEMSELVES out,” Miguel grinned, nodding at Emily rubbing at her eyes sleepily with her small fists. The frantic pace of MJ’s and Sara’s game of tag had even slowed to something more like a tired stagger as they weaved in and out of the shadows. “They’re dead on their feet. They’ll probably sleep through the fireworks.”


“Fireworks? I’m impressed,” Katie said appreciatively. “Is there anything your sister doesn’t think of?”


Theresa and her dreams, Miguel mused. He used to think she didn’t think past happily ever after, but he wasn’t so sure that was true anymore. Dreamers, though, weren’t always practical, and he turned to face Katie with a smirk on his lips. “Who’s going to clean up this mess after the party’s over.”


“My favorite brother and all my wonderful friends,” Theresa announced, giggling as she threw her arms around Miguel’s neck and hugged him happily. “It’s just a few fireworks. Nothing big or splashy like the 4th of July.”


Recovered from the momentary shock of his sister’s appearance, Miguel rolled his eyes. “I’m your brother. Not free labor.”


“Miguel, you know you love me,” Theresa giggled into his ear. “And you love your niece even more,” she singsonged, using emotional blackmail on him. “This is really more for Ali than it is for me, and…”


“Okay, okay,” Miguel relented finally. “Sisters fight dirty,” he told Katie.


“Brothers are just powerless to fight our charms,” Theresa added her two cents, winking at the amused blond “Noah’s looking for you, Katie. He got a call from the station,” she said with a note of apology in her voice as Katie climbed to her feet, green eyes searching for her fiancé.


“I see him. Thanks, Theresa. Miguel,” Katie waved with a smile. “Bye.”


“Bye,” Theresa sang, wrapping up Miguel’s right arm in both of hers and watching him watch Katie leave. She demanded his attention with a quick squeeze to his arm, forcing him to meet her eyes albeit reluctantly.


“I know that look,” Miguel emitted a faint groan.


“What look?” Theresa played the innocent. “You and Luis are paranoid,” she huffed indignantly, skating her nails across the back of his palm before turning it over and sliding her fingers through his. “It’s got to be exhausting to always be so suspicious.”


“Being your brother is exhausting,” Miguel retorted jokingly. “What else could you possibly have planned for tonight?” he asked, his curiosity finally getting the best of him.


“It’s a surprise,” Theresa countered coyly, giving him a quick kiss to the cheek and standing up. “Meet me upstairs in 15 minutes,” she instructed him, quickly disappearing from sight but still audible. “And bring MJ!”


Miguel just shook his head. His sister…




~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




Whitney watched with envy as Noah and Katie exchanged goodbyes as only a young couple very much in love could. “They’re so sweet,” she sighed.


“Yeah. Doesn’t it make you sick?” Simone laughed, tucking her arm through Whitney’s arm as they ambled along the sidewalk. “It sucks to suck so badly at love.”


“Simone, Honey, you just haven’t found him yet,” Whitney spoke with gentle hopefulness. “You’re smart, funny, and beautiful—inside and out. When you find him, he’s going to fall head over heels in love with you. I know it.”


“What about you, Whitney?” Simone asked, deflecting the attention away her own pitiful lack of a love life. “You’re all those things that I’m not. I’m sure you’d have a date lined up for every day of the week if you’d give some lucky guy the time of day.” Simone fell silent when she saw that Whitney was visibly embarrassed by the turn their shared commiseration had taken. “I’m sorry. We’ll talk about something else.”


“Thank you,” Whitney murmured appreciatively.


“Do you know what this surprise of Theresa’s is?” Simone wondered out loud. “Luis and Chad have been going crazy trying to figure out what she’s up to, and Sheridan’s been no help, refusing to say a word.”


Whitney just smiled. “You can never tell with Theresa.” Her brows drew together in concern when she saw Nick standing several feet away with another man, looking stone-jawed and slightly angry. “Isn’t that Abby’s brother with Dr.Taylor?”


“They look like they’re arguing,” Simone frowned. “I wonder what they’re arguing about.”


“Not what,” Abby pushed by them, effectively abandoning her ‘date’ and his young daughter. Her mouth was set in a hard, unforgiving line. “Who. I’m going to kill him.”


Whitney crossed her arms primly, averting her eyes from the inevitable scene before them, but Christopher and Lissy were having no such luck.


“I’m sure she’s not going to literally KILL him,” Simone smiled weakly, not knowing which ‘him’ she was talking about. “So,” she exclaimed loudly. “Everybody having a good time?”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“What is this, Nick? What do you hope to accomplish by pissing me off?” Abby lambasted Nick as soon as Shane reluctantly left them alone.


“Knowing I care enough to listen when your brother approaches me out of concern for you pisses you off?” Nick snapped. “Dammit, Lady. I don’t understand you. You want me to love you, but you don’t want me to care?!”


“Shane had no right to be talking to you about me. I’m none of your business anymore. You agreed to let me go, remember?” Abby spat, barely concealed hurt flashing in her eyes. Turning on her heels, she started walking quickly away without another glance in Nick’s direction.


Swearing under his breath, Nick jogged after her. He was sick of letting her run away from him and what he felt for her. Catching up to her, he grasped her arm hard, pulling her into the shadows with him and pushing her back against a brick wall, effectively trapping her. “You did all the talking. I never agreed to let you go. Stop fighting me so hard, dammit,” he swore when Abby struggled against him. His heart clenched when he saw real panic in her hazel eyes, and his fingers loosened around her wrists, sliding down to capture her hands. “I’m not going to hurt you, Abby,” Nick soothed, resting his head next to hers. “Not anymore. I’m not letting you go either. If I have to do all the chasing this time, I’ll do it,” he vowed.


Abby shivered involuntarily when his warm breath caressed her cheek, flexing her fingers against his. “Why?” she asked in a strangled whisper. He was so close, too close after the distance she’d imposed on them both, and she felt like she was dissolving in his arms as the seconds ticked by. “The challenge? The thrill of the chase? You can’t possibly want m…” Her nails dug into Nick’s palms when he closed the minuscule distance between their mouths, tugging her bottom lip between his lips and engaging her in a sweet kiss that was more a soft exchange of breath than anything else. When Nick’s hands left hers to cradle her face in his palms and his gray eyes hinted at words he couldn’t say, a little part of her heart crumbled with the realization that, in that moment, she’d willingly believe any lie he told her. That’s just how gone she was. She kissed him back, and the kiss took on a life of its own. When his hand brushed against her stomach, she shuddered, breaking away from him with a startled gasp.


“Abby?” Nick anxiously waited for her response, breathing hard. “Nothing’s going to convince me to give up on you. Not after the way you just kissed me.”


“I think I have something to say that will change your mind,” Abby muttered, dropping her head back against the brick wall in resignation and closing her eyes.


“Abby, whatever you’re going to say isn’t going to make a difference in the way I feel about you,” Nick stared into her now open eyes. “Abby, I…”


“I’m pregnant.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Somebody’s coming,” Jake cried, pulling Ali with him behind the first door he saw.


“Is it Beth?” Ali whispered over Jake’s shoulder. “Uncle Ethan? Jake, we’re not supposed to be up here. What if they’re looking for us?”


Jake turned around, blinking rapidly when he discovered how close he and Ali were actually standing together. “You never get into trouble, do you? It’s not that bad. Really,” Jake insisted with a rascally grin. “It’s kind of fun.”


Ali looked past him in disbelief, her blue eyes wide and worried when she heard footsteps outside and a voice she recognized. “That’s my aunt Theresa.”


“Yeah,” Jake shrugged. “So? C’mon, Ali,” he cajoled. “The fireworks will be so much cooler from the roof. What, are you afraid of heights or something? That’s impossible. You’re the bravest girl I know. Are you coming or not?” Without waiting for an answer, he started to climb the stairs leading up to the roof. He smiled when he heard her footsteps rush after him and felt her hand clasp his hand a moment later. With great flourish, Jake pushed the door open, leading Ali out into another world just as the first fireworks were beginning to ignite in the midnight sky.


“Oh, Jake,” Ali whispered in complete awe, releasing his hand and walking closer to the roof’s edge. “They’re beautiful. Look! Look, over there,” she cried, grabbing his hand again in her excitement and pointing as another firework exploded in the sky, bathing her pretty face in sparkling pinks, purples, and blues.


Jake reveled in her happiness. He didn’t even complain when Ali reclaimed his hand.


To Beth and Ethan, watching from afar, he looked quite like the cat that ate the canary.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“Here we are,” Sheridan removed her hands from Luis’s eyes as soon as they stepped into the open studio. “You can open your eyes now.”


Glancing around, Luis noticed many of the people he loved gathered together, looking every bit as confused as he felt. “Mama?” he turned to Pilar. “Do you have any idea what this is about?” he questioned, when he realized Sheridan was no longer standing by his side. She, and Theresa it seemed, had disappeared. For the second time that night.


“You know as much as I do, Mijo,” Pilar answered truthfully.


“Don’t worry, Uncle Luis,” MJ said. “Aunt Theresa promised it was a good surprise. One we’d all like.”


Miguel shrugged, laughing at his brother’s suspicious expression and the remembrance of Theresa’s comment earlier. Luis WAS like a dog with a bone where a mystery was concerned.


Theresa emerged from a door at the end of the room, grinning from ear to ear. “Sheridan,” she called. “You can tell them to come in now.”


“Them? Theresa, what’s…” Luis’s voice left him at the picture before him.


“Aren’t you going to welcome us home, Luis?” the petite brunette smiled tearfully as she cradled his crying daughter in her arms.


“Paloma. Is it really you?”

UAgirl
6.30.07, 10:46 PM
Chapter 9





Monday morning dawned with Luis staring wondrously into his daughter’s blue eyes.

Pausing at the doorway to Hope’s nursery, Sheridan admired the beautiful picture they made in the glowing sunlight spilling in through the windows.

Hope’s tiny fists waved in the air, her mouth opened in a coo at Luis as he cradled her close. Little toes clenched and unclenched as tiny bare feet pushed against Luis’s stomach.

Sheridan smiled at the enchanted pair, filing the precious moment away in her mind to remember always. She crossed the room on silent bare feet, slipping her arms around Luis’s waist from behind and dropping her head to place a loving kiss on his shoulder. “I love the smell of baby powder on a man,” she teased. “It has a certain sexy appeal.”

Grinning, Luis turned around so that they were face to face, Hope nestled between them as they kissed good morning.

“Time’s up,” Sheridan announced, taking her baby daughter from her husband’s reluctant arms. “My turn,” she smiled, nuzzling the sweet-smelling dark curls on Hope’s head before gently pressing a kiss to each chubby cheek. “Daddy has to share you. Isn’t that right, Sweetheart?” Her lilting laughter filled the room when Hope gurgled in seeming affirmation. “See? Hope agrees 100% with me, Luis.”

Luis left the cheerful yellow nursery, shaking his head in amusement.


~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Bracing her hands on either side of the bathroom sink, Abby watched the swirling water chase the foamy white bubbles of toothpaste down the drain. When she raised her head to study her reflection, she found herself staring into Miguel’s concerned brown eyes.

“I’m coming with you,” Miguel looked away almost uncomfortably. “You don’t need to be alone if he doesn’t show up.”


Abby gave the hand towel hanging to her right one last straightening tug before turning around to face him. “You don’t have to do that, Miguel. I left him a message.” And basically made myself unavailable to the man since I ran away from him—again—less than 48 hours ago, not giving him time to have a reaction. “He knows about the appointment,” Abby sighed. “If he doesn’t show up, I guess I’ll know where he stands…” she trailed off, growing somber at the mere possibility. “Stay, Miguel. You have a lot of catching up to do with your sister.”

Miguel brightened at the mention of Paloma.

Knowing he only needed a little push to be convinced, Abby decided to try one of her more effective methods where Miguel was concerned: merciless teasing. “Come on. Do you really want to see me in my skivvies THAT bad? You know all you have to do is ask. Although…I have to warn you…I’m not the sexpot I used to be.” Ignoring the slight blush to his cheeks, she continued. “I’ve put on a few pounds. I had had high hopes for some cleavage, but so far, to no avail. They’re just sore as hell. Not any bigger,” she blew out an exaggerated breath of frustration. “Which totally sucks. The breast exam should be interesting”

“O-O-Okay,” Miguel waved any further commentary off, stammering in embarrassment. “You know the number if you need me.”

“Don’t worry, Miguel,” Abby laughed. “In the interest of preserving the wonderful relationship we have and you ever being able to look me in the eyes again, I’ll spare you.” Abby thought she heard a muttered thanks as Miguel made a beeline for the door.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~






Cristian was assigned the painstaking task of removing shell bits from the bowl of scrambled eggs while Ali oversaw the frying of the bacon.

Miss Priss swished her fluffy white tail back and forth under Max’s nose tauntingly from her kitchen chair perch while Gizmo burrowed under a Harmony Herald newspaper tent on the tiled floor.

Bread, burnt almost black and unrecognizable, popped up from the toaster as Luis entered the kitchen after dressing for the day, and his eyes widened when he spied four glasses placed atop the set kitchen table, filled to the rim with orange juice. Clearing his throat, he made his presence known. “Mmm. Something smells good.”

Ali’s blond peach fuzz-covered head whipped around, and her sunny smile lit up the room. “Good morning, Daddy.”

Luis chuckled when Cristian promptly abandoned his task, propping his chin on his upraised hand with a frown.

“There’s too many.” Eyeing Luis, he sighed. “Do you think Mommy will be able to tell?”

“Mommy’s no stranger to crunchy eggs,” Luis reassured him as he grabbed the bowl from the bar and poured the contents, eggshells and all, into the second skillet on the stove, causing Ali to burst into giggles.

Catching her breath, Ali admonished him, blue eyes twinkling. “Daddy!”

“She’ll never know,” Luis winked. “The bacon’s done. Ali…get Mama’s big platter and put the toast and bacon on it while I finish up the eggs. And Cristian…get Mommy’s rose.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Stopping occasionally to chew on the end of the pen in her hand thoughtfully, Abby filled out the stack of forms in front of her while pondering the wisdom of telling Ellie to buy a one-way ticket to Hell in front of Katie and half of the oncology ward when she made some not-so-pretty insinuations. It was definitely not one of her shining moments—not by a long shot. News of her pregnancy must have reached half of the hospital by now, and she hadn’t even mustered up enough guts to tell Hank yet. So much for breaking the news gently to her overprotective friend. Unconsciously rubbing a hand over her abdomen, she muttered to the child inside of her, “We need to talk to Luis about getting your daddy into the Witness Protection program as soon as possible.” Not that she believed Hank was actually capable of…Hell! Who was it now? She frowned when the pair of white nurse’s clogs came to a dead stop in front of her, and a curse was on her lips when her hazel eyes took in Katie’s amused smirk. “What the hell’s so funny?”

“Oh, nothing,” Katie continued to smirk. “Just…you wouldn’t want to protect him if you didn’t still love him.”

“You’ve been watching that damned Learning Channel again, haven’t you,” Abby retorted, tossing a tawny braid over her shoulder and shifting in her seat. She tucked the clipboard underneath her purse and turned to face Katie. “I bet your favorite’s ‘A Dating Story’.”

“Actually, I’m more into ‘A Wedding Story’ these days,” Katie replied.

“Smartass,” Abby rolled her eyes at her.

“Now I know why you’ve been being such a bitch lately,” Katie’s green eyes sparkled with humor at the look of incredulity Abby was currently giving her. “Hormones.”

“Does Noah know what a potty mouth his dear, sweet, little fiancée has?” Abby let the question hang in the air. “Boy, do you have him fooled. You’re such a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” she shook her head at Katie’s cutesy scrubs.

“My kids like them,” Katie shrugged, the expression on her face suddenly turning serious as she focused all of her attention on her friend. “He knows about the baby and the appointment, right?”

“And he still isn’t here,” Abby sighed, slipping her purse onto her shoulder and grabbing the clipboard when the nurse at the front desk announced her name.

Katie stood with her, the picture of concern. “I’m on lunch break. If you want, I could go in there with you. I know the first time can be a little scary. Especially if you’re…all alone,” she trailed off, obviously regretting her choice of words.

“I’m not alone,” Abby faked a cheerful smile, resting a hand over her still non-existent belly. “I’m okay, Katie. Really. I guess I just didn’t get the answer I wanted. Work on Hank for me, will you? Nick’s already on his crap-list. When he finds out his favorite person knocked me up…”

“You put it so delicately,” Katie laughed. “I will. Call me later? Mama’s taking Kendall with her to visit her sister tomorrow, and I have to get him all packed up, but I’ll be home all night. Noah’s working late.”

“I’m sure you don’t want to know EVERYTHING,” Abby teased, backing away as the nurse called her name a second time, “but I will. And Katie? You’re going to have to learn to live with the bitch so I’m going to apologize in advance, okay?”

Katie laughed, even though she knew Abby was far from joking. Maybe she should say a little prayer for herself and all the men in Abby’s life at the next Mass.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“You’re a big brother now, Cristian,” Luis gripped his young son’s shoulder firmly. “Do you know what that means?”

Cristian stopped mid-nod to shake his head, his dark brows furrowing as he looked to his father for answers.

“It means that you’re Hope’s protector,” Luis told him, and he paused for a moment as Cristian’s solemn gaze traveled several feet away to land on his baby sister, nestled against Sheridan’s breast in slumber as a warm gentle breeze made the hammock sway to and fro. “She’s going to look to you for all the answers to her questions.”

“But I don’t know all the answers,” Cristian frowned.

“You’ll find them,” Luis reassured him. “And it won’t matter if you don’t because she’s still going to think you’re the best big brother in the world.”

“What if she doesn’t?” Cristian worried.

“She will,” Luis answered him. “You think Ali’s the best big sister no matter what, don’t you?”

Cristian nodded his head vigorously. “She is.”

“See? What did I tell you?” Luis smiled at his young son, giving his shoulder a fatherly pat before gathering him close to his side and nodding down at the shaded hammock where Ali stirred slightly before sighing and falling back to sleep tucked safely in Sheridan’s arms, one bare leg thrown over her mother’s. “Do we have the prettiest girls in Maine or what?”

“In the whole wide world,” Cristian corrected him, letting his feet dangle from the tree house floor. “We must be the luckiest guys in the world.”

Luis’s only answer was a grin. He didn’t have anything to add. Cristian had already said it all.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“All those home pregnancy tests weren’t lying, Abby,” Maggie re-entered the small examining room with a smile on her lips as she lay the charts in her hands aside. “You’re pregnant. Nearly three months pregnant, in fact. Why didn’t you come to see me sooner?”

“Have you ever heard of a little thing called Denial?” Abby muttered. “I just couldn’t be pregnant. Not after…”

“And now?” Maggie gently prodded. “You seem to have accepted this pregnancy. What changed?”

“With my pitiful track record, this baby’s going to end up being the love of my life,” Abby answered her, picking self-consciously at the hospital-issue gown she’d recently put on in preparation for the physical exam.

“The odds of that happening anyway are very good,” Maggie told her, giving her a light pat on the arm before donning a pair of gloves. “Is it completely out of the realm of possibility that you and the baby’s father will reunite? I don’t know him personally, but from all accounts, he seems to be a good man. A good person. I can’t promise this is going to be pleasant, but I’ll be a gentle as I can,” Maggie promised when Abby flinched at her touch, her hazel eyes clamping shut at the almost painful sensation.

“I can handle swollen ankles and the near-constant urge to pee better than this,” Abby hissed as she willed herself to relax, dragging in deep, replenishing breaths. “This kid is going to be the death of me. The morning sickness is a hundred times worse…dammit, Maggie!” she swore.

“I’m sorry,” Maggie murmured, lifting a guiding hand to Abby’s shoulder. “I want you to lie back. We’re almost finished with the uncomfortable stuff then we’ll have a listen at the heartbeat.” Noticing the suspicious wetness of Abby’s hazel eyes, Maggie looked away discreetly. She continued her exam, and after several minutes of silence, cleared her throat. “All finished,” she announced. “Everything seems to be in order. I’m going to step outside and have Dawn call in these prescriptions. I’ll be right back.”

Abby simply nodded, hugging her arms around her waist as she looked at the opposite wall, blinking away the unwanted tears. Dammit! She didn’t know whether she was crying over the fact that Nick obviously wanted nothing more to do with her or his own child or the fact that, any minute now, the life she carried inside her would be more real to her than ever. It wouldn’t be THIS baby, THE baby, or THIS KID anymore. It’d be HER baby. “My baby,” she whispered, giving in to the tears tracking down her cheeks. She didn’t even try to hide them when she heard the sound of the door opening or footsteps approaching. Maggie had already seen them anyway.

“OUR baby,” Nick corrected her, taking her hand in his own. Wiping her tears away with the pads of his fingers and not letting her look away, he pressed his lips against her forehead and pulled back to stare deeply into her eyes, his apology clearly visible in his own gray ones. “I’m here now.”


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Lifting the last two slices of pizza onto his plate, Luis tucked the box under his arm, tossing it into the trash as he followed the sound of laughter into the living room. The silly antics of Cristian’s favorite cartoon characters played out on the television screen, but Luis soon discovered it was just background noise for the real entertainment.

In record time, Hope had taken her rightful position in the Lopez-Fitzgerald household: the undisputed center of attention.

Shooing Miss Priss away, Luis reclaimed his place at Sheridan’s side, balancing the plate of pizza in his lap as he reached for his drink. He smiled at the way she automatically curled her body around his and gestured at the scene before them with his glass. “What did I miss?”

“Roo’s ticklish, Daddy,” Ali giggled, lightly tracing a pink nail over the arch of Hope’s tiny foot. “She makes the same face Cristian does when you tickle his feet. Watch.”

Hope jerked her foot away from Ali’s touch, and her little nose scrunched up. Her fists flailed out, one of them catching Cristian on the chin. Ali shrieked with giggles when Cristian pretended to be knocked out on the floor and Hope went completely still for a moment before cooing loudly and wiggling with pleasure. Her blue eyes lit up, and her little hands grabbed greedily at Cristian’s hair when his laughing face loomed in front of hers again. Luckily for Cristian, her uncoordinated attempt failed.

“Bath time for you, Monsieur Clown,” Sheridan laughingly announced as she stood up, carefully scooping Hope up and transferring her to Luis’s waiting arms.

“But Mommy,” Cristian protested.

“You too, Ali,” Sheridan said, forcing herself to keep a straight face as Cristian left the living room with an air of total dejection. “Make sure he doesn’t just turn the water on and let it run,” she instructed Ali. “I’ll be back there in a few minutes.” When Ali left, Sheridan found herself smiling at her smirking husband. “What?”

“Nothing,” Luis answered her, holding out his pinkie for Hope to grasp. “If you’d told him to wash behind his ears, I’d swear you were channeling my mother.”

“Luis!” Sheridan exclaimed. “I guess I’ve earned that ‘Mom’ from Ali, huh?” she quizzed him, smiling down at their baby daughter over his shoulder. Touching her thumb to Hope’s chin, she murmured, “I think I see a little bit of your sister in her, Luis.”

“I don’t know if I can raise another Theresa,” Luis chuckled, gazing down at Hope whose tiny mouth opened in a yawn.

Sheridan shook her head. “Paloma, Luis. Let me ask you something. If Hope is a dreamer like Theresa, are you going to try to change her or let her stay true to herself?”

Luis sighed after several moments of contemplation then gave his honest answer. “I won’t try to change her. But I’ll always feel the need to protect her. It’s something I can’t help. I just don’t want her to get hurt, and if her head is always in the clouds like Theresa’s always was…Dreamers get hurt, Sheridan, when their dreams don’t come true. I never wanted to take away any of Theresa’s dreams. I just wanted her to wake up and see reality sometimes so I wouldn’t have to worry about her as much. Was that really so bad? I wanted her to have a clearer, more level head on her shoulders. Like Paloma. She’s a realist. Like me.”

“I never would have guessed you two weren’t raised together in the same house,” Sheridan agreed with a gentle smile. “I’m sorry, Luis. I can’t help but feel somewhat responsible for my father’s actions. Taking your father away the way he did…I can’t imagine Ali and Cristian growing up knowing each other only through letters, pictures, and phone calls. It must have been so hard…”

“Paloma’s home now where she belongs thanks to you,” Luis cut her off. “Hopefully to stay.”

“She’s got more than enough reasons,” Sheridan told him, snuggling close to him and delicately trailing her fingertips across Hope’s dark brow. Black lashes fluttered sleepily against her porcelain cheeks as Sheridan gently lifted her and cradled her against her breast. Standing up and pressing her cheek to Hope’s downy head, she smiled down at Luis as he lifted a hand to caress the back of her bare knee. “It looks like another one of Theresa’s dreams is on its way to becoming reality.”

With a mock groan he asked, “Which dream is that? There’ve been so many.”

“Her dream of having her whole family there for her and Chad’s wedding,” Sheridan stated simply and hopefully. “Theresa’s sure Antonio’s coming home.”

“Mom!” Ali called out, preventing Luis’s response and making Hope fuss lightly, “Cristian’s snorkeling in the tub again!”

“Luis?” Sheridan paused, stroking Hope’s back comfortingly as she handed her back to Luis. The hardness around his eyes at the mention of Antonio was gone thankfully, but she was still a little concerned.

“Go remind our son that the Great Barrier Reef is not in our bathroom,” Luis told her with a slight smile on his lips. “I know it’s not as good as one of your lullabies, but I’ll read to her,” Luis murmured his plan against Hope’s temple as she squirmed in his embrace. “Or maybe I’ll tell her the story of how we met,” he grinned. “Ali always loved that one when she was little.”

“Luis, you’re awful,” Sheridan couldn’t help but laugh at his gently teasing tone of voice. “Meet me later in our room?”

“Mrs. Lopez-Fitzgerald, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you were propositioning me,” Luis deduced with much self-satisfaction. “Best offer I’ve had all night.”

“Tsk, tsk, Luis,” Sheridan scolded playfully. “Not in front of the baby.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“If you weren’t the sole reason behind my spending more than half of the day in front of this damn thing, I’d thank you,” Abby muttered as she leaned heavily against Nick solid’s form, grudgingly allowing him to sweep her tawny braid from her shoulder and run a cool, damp cloth across her brow. Her slender shoulders slumped forward against his bracing arm, the fatigue that never left her far behind these days dictating her movements. She was so damned tired that she didn’t protest when Nick lifted her onto the porcelain edge of the tub, offering her a glass of water. She weakly shoved the glass away in favor of mouthwash. Gargling and spitting it out quickly, she tried to glare menacingly at him but failed miserably. “I thought I told you to take me home,” she grumbled, scowling as Lucky wound himself around her legs, ‘welcoming her home’ with a continuous purr.

“You are home,” Nick responded, his gray eyes unblinking and resolute.

“I am NOT,” Abby snapped, standing up and pushing past him and Lucky on shaky legs. She made it as far as the kitchen before she started feeling faint again, grabbing hold of the counter to keep her balance. She cursed silently when she felt Nick’s steadying hand at the small of her back. What? Did he think just because she’d let him hold her as they listened to their baby’s heartbeat together in Maggie’s office that everything was suddenly hunky-dory and he had free reign to touch her again? “I mean it, Nick. Take me home,” she growled, whirling around—and falling right into his arms. “SHIT!” As if that weren’t enough, she realized tears were threatening again halfway to the sofa.

Nick sat down, Abby straddling his thighs, and his hand found its way to her face. In a soft whisper, he broke her heart all over again. “Tell me what’s wrong. Is this about what Maggie said…”

“Don’t!” Abby clamped her hand over Nick’s mouth, her hazel eyes wide and brimming with tears that stubbornly refused to fall. When Nick pushed her hand away and attempted to speak again, she brought her mouth down over his in a frantic kiss. Her hands framed the sides of his face then ran roughly through his dark hair as she tried to force him into silence with her lips. The kiss was angry, scared, and filled with a sadness she’d carried with her since Maggie’s parting words.

Caught up in his own need to touch her, Nick allowed the kiss to go on, sliding his hands up her thighs and resting them gently on her hips before clutching at the hem of the soft lavender tee shirt she’d worn home sans the uncomfortable scrap of satin and lace she’d tucked into her purse. His hands burned a path up and down the warm, smooth skin of her back, taking the shirt with them. His fingers tenderly unraveled Abby’s tawny braids and cupped her head as her mouth continued its ferocious assault on his and her denim-clad knees dug into his sides as she shifted more fully onto his lap. From her shoulders, his hands skimmed down her arms, taking her hands in his own and threading their fingers together. His hands anchored her to him as his mouth gradually gentled her, and he could taste the salt of her tears on his lips when she broke away from him on a sobbing breath. “Tell me. Tell me about the other baby.”

UAgirl
6.30.07, 10:48 PM
Chapter 10




“Why? Is your male pride offended because you’re not the first man to get me pregnant?” Abby asked tightly, trying without success to disengage their clasped hands. “Believe it or not, you’re not the only bastard I’ve known.”

Fighting the urge to wince at the harsh words, Nick released Abby’s hands to cup her face, refusing to let her look away from him. His thumbs brushed away her tears as he spoke to her in soft whispers. “You don’t have to tell me more than you’re comfortable with. You don’t even have to tell me anything if you don’t want to, but I want to help you. Talk to me. I admit to being the world-class idiot who’s finally bought a clue and pulled his head out of his ass, but I’m not Vincent, Abby. Maybe I’m two seconds too late, but I realize you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Abby’s lips trembled and her chin quivered at the earnest expression in Nick’s gray eyes. Nails digging into her palms painfully, she shook her head, tawny waves spilling over Nick’s cradling hands. Speaking wasn’t an option. Her heart was firmly lodged in her throat, and she was suffocating, unable to breathe as Nick’s lips tried to kiss away her tears. Her arms wound around his neck and clung tightly as he pulled her against him, and only then did she realize she was shaking all over. She was physically and emotionally exhausted. “I’m too tired to hate you right now.” She tucked her face into his shoulder when he stood up, hooking her ankles around his waist.

Pushing her bedroom door open with his shoulder, Nick carried her inside, sitting them both down on the bed’s edge. Softly stroking her hair with one hand, he used his free hand to shove the assortment of clothes strewn across the bed to the side and peel the comforter back. Shadows hid Abby’s face from his eyes as his hands fell to her waist, his fingers hooking in the belt loops of her jeans. His lips found her forehead in the darkness, and he told her, smiling ruefully as he did so, “Hate me in the morning. Rest now. You’ve had a long day. If you decide you DO want to talk to me, I’ll be the self-proclaimed jerk camped out on the living room sofa with a feline attached to his head.”

“Nick?” Abby’s voice stopped him at the door. “The sofa?”

“The TV helps me sleep,” Nick shrugged in answer to her implied question.

“Goodnight,” Abby murmured. “Since I’m not hating you again ‘til tomorrow,” she explained awkwardly. “I hope,” she sighed, completely at a loss for sensical words. “Just…goodnight, Nick.”

“Thanks,” Nick smiled appreciatively. “And Abby?” he paused for a long moment. “Sweet dreams.”


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Several aborted attempts at making love to his beautiful wife later, Luis leaned back the pillows stacked against their headboard with a quiet groan. He didn’t dare risk waking his sleeping daughter, not when she’d only just seemed to run out of steam. And tears. He reached across the short distance between them and brushed a strand of blond hair from Sheridan’s forehead, feeling slightly guilty when her tired blue eyes jerked open and her hands immediately checked over every inch of the boneless bundle that was their daughter curled against her chest.

“Luis,” Sheridan leaned into the palm that curved around her cheek.

Reading the unspoken apology in her eyes, Luis chuckled softly. “I’d forgotten how much fun this was.”

A smirk tugging at the corners of her mouth, Sheridan agreed him with, adding her own comment. “How you ever ended up with four siblings, Luis…”

“I love my mama and papa, Sheridan, but I’d rather not be having this conversation. The thought alone,” Luis practically shuddered.

As beautiful as she found Martin and Pilar’s love to be, Sheridan agreed some things were better left unspoken or simply left to the imagination. Martin and Pilar were practically her parents too. The more the thought lingered in her mind, the more disturbed she became. She was blushing when she met his laughing eyes again. “Luis, stop it.”

“You’re cute when you blush,” Luis grinned, scooting closer to her. “Your face and your cheeks and your neck turn pink,” he said softly, brushing his fingertips down the curve of her neck. His hand lingered on her shoulder before it continued its path past her collarbone and the little hollow of her throat. “You’re even pink here,” he murmured, placing his lips at the perfumed location and making her pulse thrum faster, her breath catch in her throat.

“Luis, you’re not being fair,” Sheridan protested as she felt his breath tickle her neck just seconds before he placed a kiss below her ear.

“I just want to kiss you,” Luis countered simply as his hand again traveled to her face, cupping her jaw in his palm as he kissed the corner of her mouth. “I promise I won’t wake up Sleeping Beauty,” he said, bestowing a sweet kiss on the tip of Hope’s tiny nose as he ran his pinkie over the back of her hand. Their lips had barely touched when a small, muffled voice beyond their closed bedroom door broke the silence.

“Mommy, I hear thunder,” Cristian whined plaintively.

No sooner had the words left his son’s mouth did Luis hear a distant, low rumble. Sighing, he gave his wife and daughter quick kisses on the forehead before throwing his legs over the side of the bed and standing up to cross the bedroom on bare feet. Unlocking and opening the door, Luis gently steered Cristian toward the bed, giving his dark hair an affectionate ruffle as he helped him climb into bed beside Sheridan. Raising his finger to his lips, he whispered, “Be careful not to wake your sister.”

Nodding silently, Cristian regarded Hope reverently as he cuddled against his mother’s side.

Luis hesitated before climbing back under the covers, glancing at their open bedroom door.

Solving his dilemma, Sheridan reminded him, “It’s a big bed. We can make room.”

Luis was gone before the words were completely out of her mouth, returning with Ali’s blond head tucked beneath his chin a few minutes later, her hands rubbing sleepily at her blinking blue eyes and a confused “Daddy?” leaving her lips as he gently lay her in bed beside Cristian. Shushing her with a murmured “AliCat,” he climbed into bed after her, tucking the covers beneath her chin as her blue eyes fluttered shut again the moment her blond head touched the pillow. With one touch of Luis’s hand to the bedside lamp, the only light in the room came from the intermittent flashes of lightening and the glow of the nightlight spilling in from the hallway. “Everybody settled?”

From the silence, Cristian started the traditional recitation. “One Mississippi…Two Mississippi…Three Mississippi…Four Mississippi…Five Mississippi…”




*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Abby could see the flashes of lightening behind her closed eyelids, hear the droning of the heavy rain outside her bedroom window, and feel the careful weight of Nick’s arm across her waist. She leaned her tawny head farther back into his chest, letting the slow solid beat of his heart calm her racing one.

“You were crying in your sleep,” Nick murmured against her damp cheek. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…”

“I was dreaming about her,” Abby whispered into her pillow, making a desperate grab for Nick’s hand when he started to remove his arm from her waist.

Nick relaxed his arm, his fingers fanning protectively across her abdomen as he waited patiently for her to reveal more to him.

“I can hear her crying, but I can’t see her face. It’s the same every time I dream about her,” Abby said shakily. “The doctors took her away. They wouldn’t let me see her, Nick. I was such a mess. Vincent had really done a number on me, and I hurt all over. I was so out of it, but I remember hearing her cry and wanting to see her,” Abby cried, her voice thick with the memory. “I never got to see her. I never got to hold her. When I woke up a couple of days later, and they told me she hadn’t made it…”

“Shh,” Nick soothed with kisses to her tear-stained face, holding her to him in a tight hug as her tears began anew. “Abby, you don’t have to..”

Clutching at the strong arms that held her, Abby used Nick as a lifeline as she admitted a painful truth. “Hearing her cry is the only memory I have of my daughter.”

The storm, inside and out, was just beginning.

UAgirl
6.30.07, 10:52 PM
Chapter 11




Jake watched Emily slurp noisily at her cereal, milk dribbling down her chin, while he waited impatiently by the toaster for his blueberry Pop-Tart, shoving his fists in and out of his jeans pockets.

Sara fed Gus waffles beneath the kitchen table, and the pug happily licked maple syrup from her fingers, eliciting sly giggles from her mouth.

Gwen swept through the kitchen like a tornado for a quick cup of coffee, brown eyes narrowing suspiciously at the guilty grin on Sara’s sticky face.

“Mom,” Jake made a last ditch plea, “do I have to go? It’s only half a day. They can put my report card in the mail.”

“I’m not falling for that one again, Jake,” Gwen warned with a raised brow.

“You have to admit, Babe,” Hank grinned as he joined his family in the kitchen, “Siberia was a stroke of genius for an 8-year-old.” Spurred on by his wife’s dismissive eye roll, Hank gave his young son his full attention. “Too bad they don’t give out grades for recess, huh?”

“Daddy,” Emily tucked a tangled strand of long brown hair behind her ear, “will you make my hair all pretty today? I want three ponytails,” she enthused, brown eyes bright with excitement. “With all different colored bows.”

“A three pony-tailed rainbow,” Hank considered then nodded his head with a grin. “Gotcha!”

“Hank,” Gwen chided, wincing slightly when the hot coffee scalded her tongue.

“Careful,” Hank advised, taking her coffee mug from her and setting it on the kitchen counter. “Did you know some idiot sued McDonald’s because their coffee was hot? These things are common sense. Steam usually denotes there’s heat somewhere.” He slipped his arms around her waist and winked at her teasingly. “You look a little tired. Did somebody keep you up all night?”

Jake didn’t have to fully understand the import behind the words to catch the tone of voice, and his young face twisted into a grimace.

Emily, on the other hand, was focused on one thing and one thing only. “Can we go to McDonald’s for dinner?”

“Aunt Grace is making us dinner,” Gwen answered distractedly.

Beneath the kitchen table, Sara’s hand paused halfway to Gus’s open mouth, and maple syrup pooled on the tile floor as she repeated Emily’s request more plaintively, “Can we PLEASE go to McDonald’s for dinner?”

“Would you listen to that?” Hank chuckled. “You threaten them, and suddenly, they’re polite.”

“Sara, you’re going to make Gus sick,” Gwen scolded, and Sara reluctantly plopped down into her chair. “Emily,” she explained patiently but firmly, “Aunt Grace is cooking dinner for the whole family, and she expects us to be there.”

“Okay,” Emily shrugged nonchalantly, picking up her spoon and slurping once again at her now soggy cereal.

“Jake,” Gwen looked over Hank’s shoulder at her son, taking his silence as a sullen protest to being forced to go to school, “I’m leaving this house in five minutes. If you’re not ready…”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Jake muttered at her stern tone of voice. Jeez, first his mom was being gross with Dad then she was just plain mean. Parents, he sighed, tossing his Pop Tart into the trash on the way out the front door. He wasn’t hungry anyway. He opened the car door and slid into the passenger seat, dutifully buckling his seatbelt and waiting for his mom.

“Mom means business this morning, Girls,” Hank said in a stage whisper.

“I’m helping Daddy clean out his office today,” Gwen admitted morosely.

“Having second thoughts about working for Boy Wonder?” Hank cracked.

“I’m not working for Ethan,” Gwen stifled a smile at the moniker. “I’m working WITH Ethan, and it’s going to take a bit of adjustment. I think I’ll manage though.”

“No late nights,” Hank made an attempt to be serious but ruined it with the sly smile lurking in his brown eyes. “I don’t want you to be tempted.”

Laughing, Gwen pressed a quick kiss to his cheek and hugged each of her daughters goodbye before heading toward the front door and the rest of her day. “Try to stay out of trouble. At least for today. Do you think you can manage that?”

Three nearly identical faces gave her their most innocent looks.

Needless to say, being the intelligent career woman, wife, and mother she was, she wasn’t convinced.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



MJ wasn’t talking, wasn’t eating his morning muffin, wasn’t giving his aunt Paloma a second glance. He didn’t even acknowledge Beth when she walked up to their table, a pleasant good morning on her lips and a steaming coffee pot in hand.

Miguel had a feeling he knew why. Accepting his refill of coffee from Beth with a smile, he glanced at Joshua, also uncharacteristically quiet this morning in Paloma’s lap, and began to speak. “Boys, Abby…”

“I wan’ Bee,” Joshua interrupted with a pout, crossing his little arms over his chest and looking at Miguel with accusing dark eyes.

Paloma raised a brow in question, running a soothing hand over Joshua’s shoulders.

“She didn’t come home last night,” MJ frowned, kicking his book bag with his feet. “What did you do?”

“I didn’t DO anything,” Miguel answered him. “Abby has a home of her own, MJ. She doesn’t live with us. She’s just been staying with us while she…works out a few things,” he finished awkwardly. He wasn’t good at this. How did he make them understand? They were so young.

“She likes us, Dad,” MJ insisted. “She wouldn’t leave. Did she call? Something happened.”

Miguel looked to Paloma for help, but regretfully, she didn’t have anything to offer. “Abby’s a grownup, MJ. She doesn’t have to call. I’m sure she had some things to take care of.”

Stubbornly ignoring his dad’s words, MJ pulled his backpack onto his shoulders, announcing, “I have to go to school.” He waited, expressionless, tableside.

Miguel stood up and pushed his chair back. “Okay. Paloma, do you mind staying here with Joshua while I walk MJ to school?”

Paloma opened her mouth to answer, but MJ didn’t give her the chance.

“No, Dad. I want Aunt Paloma to take me.”

“MJ,” Miguel started to protest.

MJ was already halfway across the Book Café when Paloma placed Joshua safely in Miguel’s arms, kissing them both on the cheek. “It’s okay. I’ll take him.”

“But you don’t even know where the school is,” Miguel shook his head.

“It’ll be an adventure,” Paloma smiled down at him and her little nephew. “I’ve been meaning to walk around and explore this strange little town anyway. You’re not going to take away the first real chance I’ve had, are you?”

“Do you have my numbers if you get lost? What about change?” Miguel asked, jamming his hand into his jeans pocket and coming up empty. “Take my cell. It’s outside in the car…” Positioning Joshua on his hip, he moved toward the door but stopped when he felt his sister’s hand on his arm and heard the soft sounds of her laughter.

“You know I’ve always wondered,” Paloma said, “what having a protective older brother felt like. Now I know.”

“Yeah, well,” Miguel responded with a rare grin, “Wait until Luis is the protective older brother. You don’t know the real meaning of the word. You laugh now, but…” he trailed off, his brown eyes drifting to the Book Café entrance when the tinkling of the bells captured his attention.

And a pretty green-eyed blond, Paloma thought, wondering about the girl and her seemingly easy ability to wrangle a genuine smile out of her brother. Her curiosity was further piqued when the blond approached them with a question that seemed to be on everyone’s lips this morning.

“Where’s Abby?”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*




Curled in the oversized armchair beside her bed, Abby indulged Lucky’s wishes to be scratched while indulging herself and gazing at the beautiful male that still slept amongst her rumpled sheets, his dark lashes resting against his cheeks and her pillow clutched in his arms.

Nick sighed, sweeping his arm out to gather Abby close to him once again and opening his gray eyes when he came up empty. Rolling over onto his back, he flung an arm behind his dark head, blinking against the sunlight that spilled in through the windows. Regret flickered in his gray eyes when they finally found and focused on her. “Last night didn’t change anything, did it?”

Tucking a heavy strand of tawny hair behind her ear self=consciously, Abby tried to lighten the heavy mood that seemed to have descended on the room. “I promised not to hate you again ‘til tomorrow. It’s tomorrow.” Sensing she’d failed miserably and her words were really bordering on morbidly wrong, Abby tried to make amends, admitting on a weary sigh, “I don’t hate you, Nick. You know that. Better than anyone.” She looked away awkwardly when his legs shifted underneath the sheets, affording her a view that brought memories of the last night rushing back all too clearly. Dammit, insanity is what always happened whenever she let her heart overrule her head.

Nick studied her silently, looking for signs of the woman he’d comforted last night, the woman he’d made love to last night, wrong or right. All signs of vulnerability were carefully hidden along with any indications of her feelings. He wanted to apologize for taking advantage of her the night before, but he stumbled over the words. “Abby, I’m…”

“Don’t say you’re sorry to a hormonal pregnant woman.” Abby’s smile was forced, and she couldn’t meet Nick’s eyes as he clutched the sheets around his waist, throwing his legs over his side of the bed. She heard the floorboards creaking under Nick’s weight, but she didn’t look up, resolutely staring into Lucky’s eyes and tickling her nails under his chin as he purred appreciatively. “The sex, uh…it was good. Almost like you meant it.”

Nick tamped down the anger he felt building inside of him, kneeling down in front of the armchair and plucking the purring, piteously protesting bundle of fur from Abby’s lap. Willing her to look at him and read the truth in his eyes, he rest one of his hands on her bare knee. “I’ve always meant it, Abby. It’s never been JUST sex between us, and you’re wrong if you keep believing that.”

Closing her fingers over Nick’s hand as he moved to cup her jaw in his palm, Abby replied, “Am I?”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




MJ’s school wasn’t that hard to find, and after safely depositing her young nephew in his capable teacher’s hands, Paloma’s ‘adventure’ as she had called it officially began.

Though not a booming metropolis, Harmony had its own quirky charm with its population of everyday folk and eccentrics sharing the same sidewalks.

Paloma’s curiosity propelled her feet toward the Youth Center, and she regarded the front doors with a tiny smirk on her lips. Theresa’s letters had romanticized the place, boisterously exclaiming it was the birthplace of Luis and Sheridan’s fated love. Her sister had always had a certain dramatic flair, Paloma smiled, mounting the concrete steps. Pausing at the top step, she tried the door, and finding it unlocked, cautiously stepped inside.

The bleachers were rolled back against the wall in the gymnasium, and all the lights were turned off save one, illuminating the basketball goal at the far end where a bare-chested man bounced the orange globe in his hands, lifting it and taking a shot. The ball circled the rim before falling to the floor, missing its mark and eliciting a slight grunt of annoyance from its handler.

Paloma’s smile gave way to soft laughter when the man tried to kick the ball away, missing yet another mark.

Broad shoulders tensed at the noise and silver eyes sought her out in the shadows. He seemed poised to speak, but the sudden illumination of the gymnasium changed his mind.

“Boy’s never been much of a basketball player,” T.C. Russell chuckled, setting the stacks of boxes in his arms down in the floor and rubbing his hands together as he came to stand beside Paloma. “But Luis seems to think he’s on his way to becoming a damn fine police officer. Work your magic, Sugar Bear. It’s all yours. Noah,” T.C. nodded in Noah’s direction. “Make yourself useful. Help these pretty ladies help Sheridan out.”

“Hi, Paloma,” Simone smiled as she breezed past en route to what Paloma assumed to be her sister-in-law’s office.

“Paloma? Paloma Lopez-Fitzgerald?” T.C.’s reaction was borderline incredulous. “I haven’t seen you since…Wow. It’s been a long time. Martin and Pilar must be happy to have you back home.”

“Actually,” Paloma began.

“Paloma’s just visiting, Daddy,” Simone interjected.

“Just visiting?” T.C. scoffed. “That’s what Whitney says. If you ask me…”

“She’s not asking you, Daddy,” Simone interrupted her father with a gently reprimanding tone then looked to Paloma in apology. “We’re getting the Youth Center ready for the kids. It’s the last day of school, and a lot of them don’t have anywhere else to go while their parents are at work. And since Sheridan and Luis just brought Hope home, we thought we’d help them out. You’re welcome to join us if you’d like.”

“The help would be appreciated,” T.C. agreed, waving Noah over and dropping a set of car keys into his open palm. “I left some equipment outside. Do you think you could get it for me?”

“Anything else, Coach Russell?” Noah asked, his silver eyes studying Paloma intently while he waited.

“I think that’s it,” T.C. answered. “Can you think of anything, Sugar Bear?”

“Daddy, I’m an adult,” Simone protested. In the same breath, she added, “Paloma, would you mind helping Noah? Thanks.”

Noah chuckled at her dazed expression, offering his hand. “Welcome back to Harmony.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“I take it you haven’t heard from Abby either,” Katie commented as she joined Miguel and Joshua at their table.

Beth appeared beside them, coffee in hand, but both of them politely declined her offer, and she made her way back to the front counter, stopping and chatting pleasantly with her customers on the way.

“She didn’t come home last night,” Miguel responded, sobering when he realized how dangerously close his feelings were to MJ’s feelings where Abby was concerned. He hadn’t realized just how much he and the boys had grown to depend on her just being there in the few short months’ time she’d been staying with them.

“She had her appointment yesterday,” Katie reminded him in a soft voice. ‘She was supposed to call.”

Lifting Joshua from his lap and pointing out the newly arrived Sam and Grace, Miguel made sure his son reached their side safely before he turned back to Katie, resuming their conversation. “Something must have happened with Taylor,” Miguel broached the possibility. “What?”

Katie struggled to wipe the smile off of her face. “You’re all so protective of her. I’m sure Abby doesn’t share my thoughts, but I think it’s sweet.”

Miguel shrugged uncomfortably. It hadn’t always been this way, back when Kay first welcomed the self-proclaimed crazy lady into their lives. In fact, he was man enough to admit to the fact that Abby used to scare him senseless. Kay’s death and his and Abby’s shared devastation had woken him up in a sense. “She grows on you.”

Smiling openly, Katie agreed. “Yes, she does.”

“You’re not worried about her anymore,” Miguel guessed, aiding Joshua as he struggled to climb back into his lap.

Katie waved at Sam and Grace as they approached the table before fixing clear green eyes on Miguel’s face. “No. Maybe the good doctor’s finally wised up and kidnapped her. They both need a good slap of reality.”

As they shared conversation and coffee with their in-laws (in Katie’s case, future in-laws) Miguel watched her, a slight smile on his lips.


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Calmly laying Nick’s hand down, Abby tugged the sweatshirt that engulfed her petite frame down lower in an effort to cover herself. She already felt like a raw, exposed nerve when she was in the man’s presence, no need to be practically physically naked as well. Unable to stop herself, she touched her thumb to the corner of his generous mouth, sighing resignedly when he pressed a soft kiss to her flesh. “Be honest with me,” she pleaded, hating the pathetic sound of her own voice.

One of Nick’s hands idly caressed her thigh while the other lifted to her face, cupping her jaw. Encouraged when she didn’t again try to remove it, he spoke softly but earnestly, “Last night was me being honest with you the best way I know how.” Abby tried to look away from him, but he wouldn’t let her, grasping her chin tightly in his hand. “Saying the words won’t convince you now. Not when you’re dead-set against believing them.”

Wrapping her hand around the hand that held onto her so tightly, Abby looked at Nick with unflinching hazel eyes. “Why did you kiss her?”

Quickly recovering from the shock her question aroused within him, Nick said simply, “It was goodbye.” He watched her face, waiting for a reaction, but there was none. Looking at her almost sheepishly, he admitted, “You were right. You DO scare the hell out of me. One wrong turn, and we’re a train wreck waiting to happen.”

“Thanks,” Abby muttered sarcastically. “Every girl should be so lucky to hear those exact words at least once in her lifetime.” She pushed his hand away from her face angrily. “I never took you for such a coward…”

“I could say the same about you,” Nick didn’t back down. “Why are you so afraid to open your eyes to the truth?”

“What makes saying three little words so terrifying?” Abby shot back heatedly. Her hazel eyes sparked at him hotly, and a small smile of twisted triumph caressed her lips as she watched the angry throb of the small vein at his temple.

Nick shook his head at her, climbing to his feet and beginning to pace the room. This very moment the woman was about 95 % guts, 4 % hormones, and 1 % common sense, and her heart was even worse for the wear than his was. He admired her courage, but he couldn’t change who he was just because he wanted to. Already he’d made so many mistakes. He wanted to take his time so he wouldn’t make the biggest one: losing her. “We hadn’t known each other two, three months before we were sleeping together, having sex every night. What makes you so sure you love me? What makes you so sure this thing between us is real? Why are you so willing to risk it all?”

Springing from the armchair in a rage, Abby marched up to him, hazel eyes flashing as she shoved him in the chest furiously, sending him tumbling to the bed below with her astride him. “Never just sex, huh? You, you bastard,” she screamed, balling her hands up into fists. “I’ve told you things I’ve never told anyone. You got to me by pretending you cared. I don’t know if this ‘thing’ we have,” she spat, “was ever really REAL, but you could have fooled me the night we conceived this baby. But then you’ve fooled me all along,” she swallowed past the lump in her throat, pushing her hands against his chest so she could get up. “Right now I wish I didn’t love you,” she cried as Nick rolled them over so that his face hovered over hers.

“It was real, Abby,” Nick promised as his lips brushed against her forehead and placed her hand over her womb where their baby grew, covering it with his own. “It IS real, frighteningly real and so worth it we can’t let anything mess it up.”

“Avoid the train wreck,” Abby whispered, biting her lip when his hand trembled over hers. “How are we going to do that?”

Kissing the tip of her nose and standing up, Nick held out his hand to her. “Become friends.”




~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~




“Which one do you think I should wear, Mom?” Ali quizzed Sheridan from the doorway of Hope’s nursery, holding up two dresses. “The pink one or the white one?”

Sheridan secured the tape on Hope’s diaper before looking up. Biting her lip as she considered the two choices Ali’d given her, she glanced down at her cooing younger daughter before answering, “Neither. It’s a party, and you don’t want to worry about keeping your clothes clean. Pick something more comfortable.”

Peering over the edge of Hope’s changing table, Cristian regarded Sheridan with solemn brown eyes. “Why can’t I go to Ms. Kinsay’s party? You and Hope are getting to go.”

Cupping Cristian’s trembling chin in her hand, Sheridan gave him a gentle smile. “You weren’t in Ms. Kinsay’s class, Sweetie. And besides…you’ll have a party all your own next year that Ali won’t be able to come to.”

“But I’d want Ali to come,” Cristian insisted.

Hugging Cristian to her with one arm, Sheridan cradled Hope’s wiggling body close with the other. “I know,” she said, urging him to take a seat in the rocking chair beside Hope’s crib. “Hold her careful like I showed you,” Sheridan reminded him as she placed his little arms around Hope’s dimpled body and crossed the room to scour the closet for a suitable outfit.

Hope’s face scrunched up fretfully, tiny fists reaching for Cristian’s hair. Her blue eyes welled with tears as her arms continued to flail in the air, and she pushed her feet against Cristian’s palm.

Returning with Hope’s clothes, Sheridan crouched before the rocking chair, carefully slipping the dress of palest pink and lace over Hope’s dark-curled head and praying the act wouldn’t work her daughter into a crying rage. When only a few fat tears escaped and Sheridan realized she was getting better at dressing a baby that absolutely hated to be dressed, she and Cristian shared a smile over the avoided disaster. “Maybe you and I could so something special soon. Just the two of us. Would you like that?”

Cristian’s grin made the cheerful yellow of the nursery even brighter, revealing his missing baby tooth. “Yeah.”

“That’s it,” Sheridan ruffled his dark hair lovingly. “It’s a date.”



~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~



True to his word, Hank delivered on his promise to Emily, and when the little girl scampered through the front door of the Book Café on the heels of her sister, rainbow ponytails bobbing in her excitement, Beth could only laugh.

Hank sauntered up to the front counter and requested a copy of the Harmony Herald with a quirk of his dark brows, immediately turning to the classifieds and scanning their pages while keeping his other eye peeled out for his young daughters, seated at a table a couple of feet away.

“You missed the family reunion. Grace and Sam just left out of here on their way to the Youth Center. They took Joshua, Miguel, and Katie with them,” Beth informed him.

Hank crumpled the paper in his hands and tossed it toward the small waste basket hidden behind the counter. “We’re headed there. Just stopping by to let the girls fill up. Grace is making dinner tonight,” he said by way of explanation. “Sar, Emmy, give me your orders,” he called over his shoulder.

“Gwen truly is an amazing woman,” Beth smirked as she removed a fudge brownie for Sara and dropped a handful of bubblegum into Hank’s palm for Emily. “Putting up with you…”

“I’m not so bad,” Hank grinned. “You have to admit I’m easy on the eyes,” he winked.

“I doubt that’ll save your butt when Gwen finds out you’ve been plying them with sugar all day,” Beth answered him, eyes twinkling merrily. “Can Divorce Court be that far off?”

“I always knew you wanted me for yourself,” Hank grinned back at her.



~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~



The halls of the school were bustling with exuberant children as Sheridan wheeled Hope’s stroller toward Ms. Kinsay’s classroom.

Ali shadowed her mother, her blue eyes cast downward. She stumbled into Sheridan when they paused outside of the closed door, biting her lip when she heard the muted sounds of celebration within. Her small hands trembled with uncertainty when her mother took them in her own, and her eyes lifted reluctantly at the touch. “Mommy, I don’t know,” Ali shook her head worriedly, “what if…”

Sheridan gave Ali’s hands a gentle, encouraging squeeze. “Did I tell you how pretty you look today?” She cupped her palm around Ali’s cheek with a smile. “Your daddy loves you in that color blue. Your daddy loves you in every color,” she laughed softly. “Just like I do.”

Ali’s smile was tremulous at best, and her hands fidgeted nervously with the heart-shaped locket at her throat.

“You know,” Sheridan offered, “we could go see Daddy at the police station. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind. We could pick up Cristian and lunch and make it a day, but first you really should apologize to Ms. Kinsay and explain why you won’t be able to make it to her party. I’m sure she’d understand. Of course, she’ll be disappointed, but I’m sure you’ll see her around next year.”

“It won’t be the same,” Ali muttered.

“It won’t,” Sheridan agreed, unbuckling Hope and lifting her out of her stroller when she started to fuss. “I don’t think your sister likes all this noise. Maybe it’s not a good idea to stay for the party.”

“But it’s different noise,” Ali insisted, smoothing the wrinkles out of the soft baby blue fabric recently clutched in her hands. “Roo would like Ms. Kinsay. And Lissy. And Ella and Tyler…Mommy,” Ali gathered in a deep breath and a bit of courage, “I think I want to stay.”

“Your choice, Sweetie,” Sheridan held in her smile, smoothing a hand over Hope’s wispy dark curls. “I’m just the transportation.” Her comment earned a giggle from Ali, and Sheridan let her smile take free reign over her face, causing more than a couple of passers-by to pause in the hallway and admire the picture the trio made. “We can always have ice cream with Daddy after the party.”

“Pinkie promise?” Ali grinned.

“Pinkie promise,” Sheridan wrapped her pinkie around Ali’s.

Hope gurgled happily when Ali’s fingers skated over her tummy.

They entered the classroom together to an excited chorus of “Ali!”






~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



While Hank, Sam, and T.C. enjoyed the unenviable job of cleaning out the Youth Center’s locker rooms, Grace instructed Simone and Miguel where to hang each and every decoration.

Theresa and Katie brainstormed for ways to safely and painlessly remove the purple bubblegum from Emily’s hair in Sheridan’s office.

And in a quiet corner by themselves, Noah and Cristian took turns teaching Joshua how to dribble a basketball.

Paloma watched them with a tiny smile on her lips, glancing back every few seconds at her unrepentant ‘prisoner.’ So far, Sara’d shown not one iota of guilt for putting several wads of bubblegum into her sister’s hair.

“Why can’t I take my time-out under the bleachers?” Sara whined. “This is boring. YOU’RE boring,” she grumbled, sticking her tongue out at Paloma in disgust.

“Time-outs aren’t supposed to be fun,” Whitney said, taking a seat at Sara’s side. “Apologize to Paloma.”

“I’m sorry,” Sara muttered. “But you’re still boring.”

Paloma looked to Whitney with laughing brown eyes. “Is she always this bad?”

“Nope,” Sara cut Whitney off before she could answer. “I’m worse.”

“Is it any wonder we stopped at three?” Hank groaned as he plopped down beside his young daughter. “Sar, play nice.”

“Nice is boring, Dad,” Sara frowned. “Like her,” she pointed at Paloma.

“Don’t take it personally,” Whitney leaned down to whisper to Paloma, a smile tugging at her lips. “She thought I was boring at first.”

“I still do,” Sara stated with brutal honesty.

“All right,” Hank grabbed his daughter by her shoulders, steering her down the bleachers. “Since a slap on the wrist isn’t good enough for you, it’s time for some community service. To the bathrooms, Kiddo.”

Paloma and Whitney watched them leave, identical expressions of dismay on their faces. Finally, Whitney broke the silence. “Kids can be tough critics.”

Paloma simply nodded in agreement.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




At the Seascape, Shane held Ivy’s seat out for her. As soon as she was seated, he took the seat across from her, his expression bordering on grim.

Seemingly oblivious to Shane’s black mood, Ivy flashed a bright smile at the flustered young waiter, handing the menus back to him once she’d ordered appetizers for both her and Shane. “I think things went well, don’t you?”

“Hotchkiss’s daughter is quite the businesswoman,” came Shane’s only comment.

“Ethan and Gwen have always worked beautifully together,” Ivy said. “They nearly married you know,” she paused to take a sip from her wine. “I can’t help but wonder how different things would be. Don’t get me wrong. I like Beth, but…She and Ethan are more like friends than two people in love.”

Shrugging noncommittally, Shane said, “Ethan seems pretty happy with the choice he made to me. Why can’t you leave it at that?”

Shaking her head, Ivy replied, “Contentment and happiness are two very different things, Shane. Ethan’s content with Beth.”

“Sometimes contentment is better than the alternative,” Shane answered her, tugging uncomfortably at the tie that felt like a noose around his neck. He was lying about his feelings on the matter, and Ivy knew it. He could tell by the expression on her face. “This isn’t working for you anymore, is it?”

“I care for you, Shane,” Ivy answered haltingly. “We’ve had fun, but…”

“We’re not going any farther,” Shane cut her off. “I get it, and I really can’t say I’m surprised. It’s been a long time coming.” He unknotted his tie and his fingers worked the top two buttons of his shirt free as he stood up slowly, pushing his seat back. “I’m still searching for forever, and forever’s already passed you by, hasn’t it Ivy?”

“It doesn’t have to pass you by,” Ivy looked up at him with blue-green eyes that were full of regret. “Promise me you won’t let it. We can still be friends,” she suggested.

“I won’t,” Shane promised. “And as for us being friends…that depends solely on you. If you continue to choose to hurt my sister to further your own agenda…Abby comes first with me, Ivy. Remember that,” he told her, taking his leave without a second glance.

The waiter returned, arms laden with their orders, but Ivy sent him away, her appetite gone. Nursing the glass of wine in her hands, she made a vow of her own. “Ethan comes first with me.”


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


Beth felt a chill travel up her spine as she gazed up at the stern likeness of Alistair Crane. She hugged her arms around her waist comfortingly. His eyes were so cold.

“Kinda intimidating, ain’t he?” Chad commented, holding out an apologetic hand to steady Beth when she whirled around. “Still have a hard time believing the old bastard’s my grandfather sometimes.”

Nodding unconsciously, Beth couldn’t take her eyes away from Alistair’s portrait. “You’re nothing like him,” she reassured him. “Neither are Ethan and Sheridan.”

“You knew the old man?” Chad remarked with interest.

“Knew of him,” Beth corrected him. “As ridiculous as it sounds, I resented him for the way things ended between Luis and me. And after hearing about the horrible things he did to his own children…I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to ramble.”

“No harm,” Chad gave her a friendly smile. “Ethan’s helping Gwen move a few things into her new office. I can take you to him if you want.”

Shaking her head, Beth turned down his offer. “He’s busy, and I need to get back to the Book Café. Luis promised to drop by and update me on the investigation into the break-in.”

Falling into step beside her, Chad mused, “I still can’t believe they didn’t take anything.”


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Bent at the middle with his hands resting on his knees, T.C. panted from exertion, shaking his head at the knowing look on Sam’s face. Straightening, he wiped the sweat from his brow with the towel Sam offered him and said, “Two old men like us have no business out here on this basketball court. We’re just embarrassing ourselves.”

“Speak for yourself. COACH Russell,” Sam grinned, sounding a little winded himself. He leaned heavily against the wall and looked to the front entrance where the first trickle of children had already begun to arrive. “Looks like we’ve been spotted,” he chuckled when a boisterous little trio sprang forward in a race to see which one made it to their side first.

“Remind me to thank your wife,” T.C. retorted. Pushing himself forward, he greeted the kids. “Who wants to play some basketball?”

Three little hands shot up eagerly, and Sam started to laugh in earnest at the look on T.C.’s face. “Show them what you got, Coach.”


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



With one last scribble of her red crayon, Emily held her newest masterpiece up for Cristian to admire.

Ever the little gentleman, Cristian politely told her, “It’s pretty.” After a beat of silence, he looked at her with a befuddled expression and asked, “What is it?”

“From the horns, I’d say it was Sar,” Hank quipped, pausing to kiss the top of Emily’s mussed brown head. Crouching down in front of the pair, he greeted Cristian. “How’s life as a big brother, Cristian? Hope’s sure something, isn’t she?”

“She cries a lot,” Cristian admitted. “Daddy says she’s stubborn just like Mommy.”

“What does Mommy say?” Hank grinned.

“That Daddy has no idea how stubborn she really can be,” Cristian divulged, “and he’s only shooting himself in the foot.” His dark brows furrowed with confusion, Cristian posed a question that had Hank alternately choking with laughter and embarrassment. “What’s a libido?”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Leaving Beth at the front counter to discuss the break-in with Luis, Chad strolled over to the table in the back, currently occupied by three, make that four, giggling blondes and a cooing brunette. “Ladies, may I take your orders?”

Sheridan smiled brightly at her nephew while the girls made their requests. “Shouldn’t you write that down or something?” she teased, blue eyes dancing as he squatted down to greet Hope in her stroller.

Smirking as he stood back up, Chad replied, “I’m good.” Turning to Ali with a grin, he asked, “How was the party, Squirt?” The nickname sent Lissy and the little blond proudly sporting a pair of pink glasses into a fresh round of giggles, and Chad and Sheridan shared an amused smile.

“It was the best,” Ali gushed happily.

“Tyler asked Ali to go out with him,” the little blond with the pink glasses provided helpfully. “He’s the cutest boy in our class,” she told Chad excitedly.

“But he’s not as cute as Jake,” Lissy interjected. “Everybody knows Jake and Ali are going out anyway,” she argued. “They’re practically married, Ella.”

Chad looked over at Sheridan who was trying her hardest not to laugh then back at Ali who now wore a pretty pink blush on her cheeks. Chuckling, he teased her further and the pink blush seemed to travel all over her body, “Ali’s taken. I can vouch for that.”

“Ali, Ali!” Ella stuck her hand up in the air, waving it in a near-frantic fashion. “Me and Lissy HAVE to be in your wedding.”

“Wedding?!” Luis walked up to them. “Sheridan,” he entreated, “clue me in here.”

“Hi, Mr. Lopez-Fitzgerald,” Ella squeaked, blushing furiously. Clutching Lissy’s hand, she looked over to Ali, and, rapidly fanning her other hand in front of her face, squealed, “Oh my gosh, Ali, your dad is so hot!”

With visions of a mini-Hank taking his precious AliCat away from him and on a honeymoon no less, Luis was oblivious to the cause of his wife’s utter loss of composure and the three giggling little blondes joining her. “She’s only nine.”

Leaving them to fill their orders, Chad mentally added a coffee for Luis. He sure as hell looked like he needed the jolt of caffeine to restart his heart.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Miguel sighed heavily as he stuffed the letter from MJ’s teacher back into its envelope and tapped the envelope against his knee.

Taking a seat beside him on the bleachers, Katie stilled the nervous motion by placing her hand over his and gently taking the envelope from his fingers. Arching a golden brow at him, she waited patiently for him to respond.

Rubbing his hands over his face tiredly, Miguel muttered, “MJ’s teacher thinks it might be better if I held him back a year.”

“May I?” Katie indicated the envelope in her hands. At Miguel’s nod, she withdrew the sheets of paper and scanned through them. “His grades were already dropping before?” Katie looked up, searching Miguel’s face.

“He has trouble paying attention in class,” Miguel admitted. “She wanted us to have him tested for ADHD, but then…the accident happened, and for a while there, I wasn’t much of a father.”

“You were a little lost,” Katie took his hand in hers and gave it a compassionate squeeze. Her green eyes softened as she gazed into his sad dark eyes. “But you’re finding your way back now. And so are MJ and Joshua,” she spoke with quiet confidence. “You’re too hard on yourself.”

“I’m not hard enough on myself,” Miguel declared. “What am I going to do about MJ?”

“You’ll do what’s best for him,” came Katie’s simple answer.


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“That has all the makings of a Lifetime Movie,” Abby commented dryly on Katie and Miguel’s apparent heart to heart.

Hank turned around slowly, his dark eyes drawn to her chest.

“Just like a man to look at a woman’s breasts first,” Abby scoffed goodnaturedly, standing tall under Hank’s quiet scrutiny.

“It’s a little hard to notice anything else,” Hank answered her. “Did you know you had the word ‘BRAT’ stretched across the front of your chest?”

“I have one at home that’s much more appropriate, but I didn’t want to corrupt the innocents of Harmony,” Abby told him, fishing for a smile. When it didn’t appear, she sighed, hazel eyes boring into brown apologetically. “Would it help if I promised to name you the godfather?” When she saw a hint of a twinkle in his eyes, she mock-groaned, “Spare me the Brando and Pacino impersonations, okay?”

The corners of Hank’s mouth twitched, but he stayed mum.

“I’m sorry you didn’t find out from me first,” Abby grew serious. “But that bitch had it coming. She’s lucky I didn’t go all kung fu on her Sumo ass.”

Finally, Hank laughed, sliding his arms around her waist and tugging her into a bear hug. Giving her tawny ponytail an affectionate tug, he looked into her sparkling hazel eyes and grinned, deciding to make light of the situation instead of voicing his misgivings of Taylor for the millionth time. “Godfather has a nice ring to it, but I think we should go with the more traditional Uncle Hank. What do you think?”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Dragging her feet dejectedly and wearing a black scowl, Sara followed Grace into the kitchen.

Stealing a covert glance at the petulant child, Grace smothered a smile. Contrary to popular Harmony belief, she wasn’t blind, and she’d picked up a few things along the way raising three children. While Hank hadn’t meant for Sara to view her early departure from the Youth Center with Grace as a punishment for her various misdeeds of the day, it was more than apparent the child did. Grace couldn’t help but find a little bit of humor in the situation. Kay had always felt the same way, and, much like Sara was now, more than made her feelings known without uttering a single word. Crossing the kitchen to the refrigerator, Grace opened the door and withdrew the casserole she’d prepared earlier that morning. Pulling out a couple more dishes and setting them on the counter, she tossed a question at her young niece. “Sara, what do you think we should have for dessert?”

Sara’s small shoulders lifted in a shrug, and she walked over to the kitchen table where she plopped gracelessly into one of the chairs. She tugged at one corner of the red-and-white checkered tablecloth, resolute in her decision to ignore Grace.

Smirking at the thought that the Cranes and Lopez-Fitzgeralds didn’t have a monopoly on the trait of stubbornness, Grace doggedly continued the one-sided conversation. “Noah says he and Katie want you and Emily to be in their wedding. Sounds exciting.”

“I don’t want to wear a stupid dress,” Sara muttered under her breath, twirling the salt shaker between her fingers. She snatched it up when it toppled over, sneaking a peek at Grace before sweeping the tiny white crystals off of the table. “Weddings are dumb.”

Arching an auburn brow at that comment, Grace decided the sentiment could ring true to a child such as Sara, who’d just as soon wear her T-ball uniform to church as a dress every Sunday. “Your cousin Kay always thought that too until she married Miguel. I think weddings are nice,” she commented, setting the timer on the oven. “Someday you’ll feel the same way.”

“I won’t,” Sara vowed, shifting in her seat to get a better look at what Grace was doing when she took a package of Oreos out of one of the cupboards. Her brown eyes widened when Grace opened the package and took out a handful of cookies, crumbling them into a bowl. Without noticing she was doing it, Sara slid out of her chair and made her way across the kitchen to Grace. Clambering onto a barstool, she peered into the bowl of crumbled cookies and back at Grace’s face, frowning, “What’d you do that for?”

“Because it’s fun,” Grace answered her with a straight face, picking up a spoon and mixing up something in a second larger bowl. “You want to do it? Go head,” she encouraged, nudging the package of cookies toward Sara along with the smaller bowl.

Sara took the cookies from Grace suspiciously and experimentally crushed one, sending crumbs everywhere. When Grace didn’t immediately tell her to clean her mess up, she grabbed handful after handful of cookies and crumbled with gusto. She loved making a mess!

When Sara was finished, Grace helped her pour the cookie bits into the larger bowl and instructed her to start mixing again while she retrieved the vital last ingredient to their little mishmash from the cupboard.

Sara eyed the bag of rainbow colored gummy worms with undisguised interest. “What are you going to do with those?”

Grace smiled. “You’ll see.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“God help us all when her hormones REALLY start going haywire,” Abby nodded in Ella’s direction. The giggly little blond vaguely reminded her of an overly excited toy poodle or Pomeranian. Actually, she reminded her of Theresa after too many drinks. “Jeez, she’s making me dizzy.”

“You okay, Tink?” Hank immediately placed a protective, supporting hand at the small of Abby’s back.

“Maybe you should lie down,” Miguel said, looking concerned as he gently took her arm and started leading her toward Sheridan’s office.

Smirking, Abby looked back and forth between the two men and swore, “Damn. If only the thought of either of you naked in my bed didn’t make me want to crack up.”

“As in ‘haha’ or ‘I’ll never teeeelllll’?” Hank grinned. “On second thought, forget I asked that question. Neither response helps the already bruised ego.”

Miguel shook his head slightly at them, and Abby stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek with a tender smile. “You’re great guys,” she said. “Both of you.”

“And that should make me feel better when you’ve already insulted me?” Hank continued the light teasing.

“Don’t be insulted,” Abby replied, tongue in cheek. “You’re my very own Will.”

“Grace’s Will?” Hank’s grin faltered. “Tink, you’re killing me here.”

“BEE!” Joshua raced to Abby, latching himself firmly onto her legs. “Uh,” he held his arms up.

Abby glared at Miguel when he stopped her from picking up Joshua, lifting the toddler himself. “Hand him over. I’ve missed the little monkey.”

Miguel refused, ignoring the way Joshua whined and stretched his little arms out reaching for Abby. “MJ got too heavy for Kay to lift when she was pregnant with Joshua, and Joshua’s at least a year older than MJ was.”

“He can’t weight twenty pounds dripping wet,” Abby protested with an exaggerated roll of her hazel eyes.

Hank didn’t help her argument, commenting, “You’re a lightweight, Tink. I could easily toss you over my shoulder right now and carry you ten blocks.”

“Will ya shut up, Bennett? I know the height on your driver’s license is wishful thinking,” Abby shot Hank a meaningful look.

Realizing the pair could easily trade barbs for hours, Miguel solved the dilemma with a simple, logical suggestion. “Sit down and hold him.”

“Thanks, Miguel. You’re a fledgling Einstein,” Abby beamed, taking Joshua from his arms before he could stop her and striding over to the kiddie-size table Simone and Paloma had set up a few feet away where she claimed one of the miniature chairs as her own. She bounced Joshua on her knees, making him giggle, before pulling him close in a tight hug and kissing his dark head.

Beside Hank, Miguel sighed and wondered aloud, “What are we going to do with her?”

Hank responded, “That’s a question I’ve been trying to figure out for years.”



~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~

“It’s like an out of control family reunion out there,” Luis joked as he shut the door to Sheridan’s office softly, taking every precaution to avoid waking the little sleeping beauty in the corner.

Slumped in her stroller with drool dribbling down her sweet chin, Hope was the picture of a tiny angel.

Luis had a feeling though that the third time was the charm. He and Sheridan finally had the little hell raiser that destiny had dictated they’d be blessed with sooner or later. His gut told him Hope was going to give him far more gray hairs than Ali’s little romance with Jake. Or maybe not, he decided as the returned thought of his AliCat growing up sent another pang coursing through his belly.

Sliding her arms around Luis’s waist and tucking her blond head against his strong shoulder, Sheridan sighed, the small sound signaling both her exhaustion and contentment just to be in his arms. Raising sparkling blue eyes to his beloved face, she said, “I know exactly what you’re thinking, Buster. It’s not a thought scarier than death.”

“We’re never going to have another peaceful night’s sleep again,” Luis declared.

Luis definitely had Pilar the worrywart’s genes, Sheridan decided with a small laugh. She knew he wasn’t just talking about the present; she even had a niggling sense he was right. She preferred a little optimism, though she couldn’t help teasing him. “I think I read somewhere that fathers of daughters live shorter lives. Higher incidence of stomach ulcers, high blood pressure, things like that…”

Luis acknowledged her teasing with a helpless smile and pressed his lips against her temple as he backed them both toward the chair behind her desk. The chair squeaked beneath their combined weight as Luis pulled her into his lap and muttered against her golden brow. “It’ll be like raising you.”

Laughing, Sheridan cupped her palm around his smooth jaw. “Is that really so bad?” When his only answer was a tiny smirk, she cried out, “Luis!”

Kissing her, Luis grinned, “I haven’t tamed you yet.”


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



When Katie came back to Martin wearing an apologetic smile, Martin nodded knowingly. Being careful to avoid Emily’s blue paint-covered palms, he scooped her into his arms and carried her toward the locker rooms. “Come on, Lass. Let’s get you cleaned up before your mother gets here.”

Katie followed Martin, gently pushing a similarly marked Cristian forward. “I didn’t have the heart to disturb them.”

Martin set Emily on her feet in front of the row of sinks, leaning over her to turn on the faucet. Taking both of her small hands and a bar of hand soap into his own hands, he rubbed vigorously as the warm water poured over their skin.

“I wanted to look like Smurfette, Mr. Fitz,” Emily told Martin.

“The Smurfs still come on?” Katie asked, biting her lip as she concentrated on removing the red paint from Cristian’s palms. “Who’d you want to be, Cristian?” she inquired, meeting the little boy’s repentant brown eyes in the reflection of the mirror.

“Cristian was supposed to be Clifford,” Emily piped up for Cristian. “Mr. Fitz, are we in trouble with Uncle Luis? He’s the police. If the paint doesn’t come off, will I be blue forever? I’m hungry. If I apologize real nice, can I have a cookie?”

Chuckling at he dabbed a damp cloth at the blue spot on Emily’s button nose, Martin took a few seconds to process her line of questions before answering. “I’m sure Uncle Luis will let you off with a warning this time, the paint’s washing off, and Katie will get you both a cookie when we’re finished here if you promise not to sneak into the finger paints again.”

“I promise, Grandpa Martin,” Cristian said solemnly as Katie dried his hands with a small hand towel.

“Me too, Mr. Fitz,” Emily said, flinging her arms around Martin’s neck and noisily kissing his cheek.

“Be on with you now,” Martin smiled, shooing the two little ones and Katie away as he stood up. Looking into the mirror once they were gone, he raised his hand to the small speck of blue paint adorning his cheek with a chuckle.



~+~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Jake’s confident swagger was suffering under the scrutiny of the giddy blond trio known as Ella, Lissy, and Ali.

Ella whispered something to Lissy, and the two girls looked at Jake and giggled while Ali just continued to smile at him.

Jake’s curiosity was killing him, and he kept sneaking glances at the girls, his focus straying from the game of basketball at hand. It wasn’t much of a surprise then when he looked up just in time to see the basketball flying toward his face. Stunned, he fell to a heap on the gym floor. When he blinked his eyes open a minute later, muttering ‘ouch’, all he could see were Ali’s big blue eyes welling with worried tears.

“Jake,” Ali shook his shoulder gently. “Jake, wake up. Are you dead? You just can’t be dead.”

Ella’s and Lissy’s faces loomed behind Ali’s, but Jake focused his eyes only on Ali’s sweet face. “Aww, Ali,” he complained when she threw her arms around his neck, causing Dylan and a bunch of the other guys to snicker. “If I was dead, do you think I’d be talking to you right now?”

“Little Buddy’s got a point,” Hank agreed, parting the crowd that had gathered around his fallen son and striking out a hand. Jake took it, and Hank hauled him and Ali to their feet, grinning at the embarrassed blush on his son’s cheeks as he tried to disengage Ali’s arms from his neck.

“Dad,” Jake gave Hank a pointed look.

“Come on, Ali,” Hank took Ali’s hand gently. “Just because Jake’s not old enough yet to appreciate a pretty girl’s concern doesn’t mean I’m not.”

Jake tamped down his guilt, puffed up his chest, and walked right up to Dylan, snatching the offending basketball from his hands and saying, “Game’s not over.” A guy had to save a little face.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Hank had put forth an admirable effort trying to lift Ali’s sagging spirits after Jake’s snub, but his attempts weren’t all that successful, and Ali joined Martin, Pilar, and Cristian on the bleachers, stretching out her parents’ stolen peaceful moments as long as she could.

Then Ella’s harried mother had arrived to pick her up mere minutes after the incident, essentially leaving Lissy alone.

Completely relaxed in Abby’s arms, Joshua snored lightly. The little table they were seated at was all but abandoned with the mass exodus of children following their parents’ arrivals at the Youth Center, and Lissy easily found a seat.

“Boys are so stupid,” Lissy muttered, tossing her long tawny hair over her shoulders as she glanced over at Abby.

Smiling inwardly at Lissy’s protectiveness toward Ali, Abby commented, “Especially when it comes to girls. He really hurt her feelings, huh?” She knew Jake had only added insult to injury when he’d left with Emily and his parents to go home and get ready for dinner at Grace’s without offering Ali an apology.

“He did,” Lissy took the comment and run with it. “I was so sure Jake was different. Ali’s always been his best friend.”

Abby carefully shifted Joshua to the arm that wasn’t asleep and looked into Lissy’z chocolate eyes before speaking, “Maybe now that he realizes she’s more than his best friend, he’s a little scared. Plus, he doesn’t want to look like a sissy in front of all his other friends. Maybe he doesn’t realize that’s making him look like a jerk.”

Lissy considered Abby’s words for a moment then said, “I’m still mad at him for hurting Ali’s feelings.”

“You’re a good friend, Lissy,” Abby smiled at the little girl, causing her to smile back.

Lissy scooted her chair closer to Abby’s, stopping abruptly when Joshua stirred slightly, murmuring, “Bee.” Lowering her voice to a soft whisper as she watched Abby lovingly stroke Joshua’s baby smooth cheek in a calming gesture, Lissy asked Abby a surprising question, “When are you and my dad going to go out again?”

Christopher echoed his daughter’s question. “I’d like to know the answer to that question myself.”

UAgirl
6.30.07, 10:56 PM
Chapter 12




Thanks to a last minute call for Noah from the station, Katie found herself standing in front of the Bennett’s door alone, contemplating whether to ring the doorbell or just knock.

Sara made her decision for her, bursting through the door and sweeping past her to grab MJ by the arm and drag him inside. “MJ, we’re having dirt for dessert!”

Laughing softly, Katie waited for Miguel to come up the walkway, carrying a cranky Joshua in his arms. She reached for Joshua’s small hand, but he pulled it away, burying his tear-streaked face in Miguel’s neck. “What’s wrong, Sweetie?”

“He wanted to stay with Abby,” Miguel sighed. “And MJ wouldn’t even acknowledge her. I don’t know how to handle either one of them,” he admitted, following Katie into Sam and Grace’s home. It was with much relief that he placed Joshua into Grace’s open arms.

Grace soothed her grandson, keeping her comments about MJ and Joshua being too attached, almost unhealthily attached, to Abby to herself. Smiling at Katie, she asked, “Is Kendall still with his grandmother?”

Nodding, Katie sighed. “I’m glad they’re coming home tomorrow because I don’t think I could stand to be away from him much longer. The apartment’s so lonely without him, and Noah’s been working late…” she trailed off, blushing as she realized the conclusions Grace could draw from that little statement. Regardless of their engaged state, Katie knew Grace wasn’t completely happy about the nights Noah spent over at her apartment.

“It’s the life you lead as a police officer’s wife,” Grace commented, “they spend more time at the station than they do at home. That’s where Sam’s at now. I hope you don’t mind waiting a little while before dinner’s served.”

“It’s not a problem,” Katie assured her, breathing in a sigh of relief when the moment passed with minimum discomfort. She followed Miguel to the sofa and sat down beside him, where they watched Grace try to coax a smile out of Joshua by offering him one of his favorite stuffed animals.

“Hi, Katie,” Emily beamed happily, flapping the little pink brush in her hand at Katie in greeting when she emerged from the kitchen, Gwen following close behind her. With her dolly tucked safely under her arm, she climbed onto the sofa, situating herself between Katie and Miguel, and soon busied herself by brushing the tangles from her dolly’s long, curly hair. Glancing up at Katie between strokes, Emily divulged, “I’m getting her all pretty for my wedding to Mr. Fitz.”

Off Miguel’s astonished, greatly amused expression, Gwen only smiled and said, “Hank’s just glad she’s not fantasizing about Luis. Apparently, she has a thing for older men. I think it’s fitting, considering Hank once admitted to harboring a secret crush on your mother.”

“Guess that one’s not making it to the grave with you, Babe,” Hank pretended to be upset as he took up residence in the oversized armchair, pulling Gwen down onto his lap. Shrugging, he grinned, “Luis always had his suspicions.”

“No kidding,” Katie responded playfully, causing all of the room’s occupants to laugh, including Grace.

“See that, Miguel,” Hank said proudly, “I’m training her exceptionally well if I do say so myself.”

“You’re an example in modesty, Bennett,” Gwen rolled her eyes, dodging his kiss with a small laugh. Sliding her arms around his neck, she gazed down at him with curious brown eyes, “While the fact that Sara’s being unusually well-behaved this evening has me suspicious, nothing has me more curious than Jake’s Houdini act. Care to enlighten me on our son’s disappearing act?”


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


Jake was, for this evening at least, an adopted Lopez-Fitzgerald, enjoying Pilar’s cooking if not the pleasure of being the recipient of one of Ali’s magical smiles. Cristian wasn’t even being nice to him, and Jake was a little worried because Cristian was always nice to everybody. He guessed you didn’t have to be a big brother to feel that embarrassing occasional pang of protectiveness for your sister. Jeez, had he messed up big time this time or what? He pushed his plate away, the knots in his stomach making it impossible to take another bite. He couldn’t eat anyway with Ali’s aunts Theresa and Paloma staring at him with those funny smiles on their faces. Scooting his chair closer to Martin’s, he whispered, “It isn’t working, Mr. Fitzgerald. She hates me.”

“Nonsense, young Bennett,” Martin whispered back. “She doesn’t hate you. She’s only pretending to so you’ll feel even more guilty. It’s one of a woman’s most useful weapons against us.”

“Well, it works,” Jake muttered, scowling blackly at Theresa’s smothered giggles and Pilar and Paloma’s irritating smiles. He looked to Cristian for solidarity, and finding none, turned back to Martin with a look of desperation in his brown eyes.

Martin hid his own smile and offered Jake some sage advice. “Your best bet, young Bennett, is to bite the bullet and apologize. It doesn’t have to be fancy. ‘I’m sorry’ is more than enough.”

“Okay,” Jake sighed, “but I can’t do it here. Not with them,” he nodded, indicating the trio of Lopez-Fitzgerald women, “watching. It’s too embarrassing.”

“All right,” Martin agreed, pushing his chair back from the kitchen table purposefully. “Ali and Cristian…we’re going out for ice cream.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


Maybe her guilt over the disastrous end to their first ‘date’ had led Abby to accept Christopher’s invitation to join him and Lissy at the Lobster Shack for dinner, but genuine enjoyment of the pair’s company kept her around for a hot fudge sundae and a walk along the pier.

Lissy raced from one eye-catching window to another, peering into each pier-side shop with wonder and reporting her finds back to Abby and Christopher excitedly.

Abby laughed as she commented on Lissy’s apparent fondness for shopping. “Something tells me she didn’t inherit her shopping gene from you.”

“Maybe she got it from her mother,” Christopher stated with a smile, his attempt at pretending to be offended by Abby’s comment a complete failure. Lightly touching a hand to Abby’s arm as they slowed to a stop, he changed the subject, hoping he wouldn’t make her uncomfortable. “I like spending time with you, Abby. So does Lissy.”

Backing up a little and putting some distance between the two of them, Abby laughed nervously, more than a little confused. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but it wasn’t too long ago that you hated my guts.”

“That’s not true,” Christopher protested. “I just didn’t know you very well, and things…they’ve changed. You’re growing on me, Abby Stone.”

“Like a fungus,” Abby jumped in. She tapped her spoon against the sides of the empty paper cup in her hand, keeping her hazel eyes fixed on the motion as she searched for the right words. Finally, she decided honesty was indeed the best policy, and blurted, “I’m pregnant.” When Christopher remained silent, she searched his eyes for a reaction, then added, more quietly, “And, get this. I’m hopelessly in love with the father even if he can’t admit his feelings to me.”

Christopher opened his mouth to speak but was interrupted by Abby’s hurried chatter.

“You really should go back to hating my guts for letting things even get to this point.” More nervous laughter spilled from Abby’s lips before she continued. “I wanted to make Nick jealous, but I didn’t want to hurt a nice guy in the process. You ARE a much nicer guy than I’d given you credit for earlier,” Abby said, realizing her blunder a little too late. She tried to apologize, but the words didn’t feel like they were enough.

“Abby, I…” Christopher began, only to be cut off again.

“I REALLY didn’t expect that to sound so bad once it left my mouth…Say something. Tell me you’ve rediscovered those old feelings of hate for me again. Call me a babbling idiot because I don’t have the sense God gave a knot on a log, and put me out of my misery. This wouldn’t be so bad if the idea of spending any more time with you and Lissy was abominable, but it isn’t. God help me, but, believe it or not, I genuinely like the idea of you and I being friends,” Abby said, shocking both herself and Christopher with her last admission. “See?” she threw her hands up in the air in exasperation. “Bonafide proof that I’m crazy. I mean, to even consider the possibility that you’d want to spend another minute of your time with a woman that’s a hopeless case, a pregnant hopeless case at that. It’s preposterous. It’s ridiculous to even hope you’d consider…” Her eyes widened when Christopher framed her face with his hands and pressed a kiss to her babbling mouth. Covering her mouth with her hand, she stared at him in astonishment before exclaiming, “What the hell was that?!”

Nick, who’d witnessed the whole exchange several feet away, was left wondering the same thing.


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Jake knew the true seriousness of the situation when ice cream—with colored sprinkles—failed to bring a smile to Ali’s pretty face. At ten, the love life he hated to admit to, was over. Kaput. He decided he may as well take up permanent residence in the doghouse.

For his part, Martin did his best to let the little guy fix things on his own. He knew his granddaughter to possess the gentlest of hearts and that all it’d take were the beginnings of a heartfelt apology issued from young Jake’s reluctant lips to make her happy again.

Cristian remained quiet by his grandfather’s side, his concern for Ali not permitting him to fully enjoy the banana split that melted before him on the picnic table. His brown eyes followed Jake and Ali’s every movement as they trekked across the shifting gravel to the playground. When their voices faded into the growing shadows of the day, Cristian looked up to Martin, and taking his reassuring nod to heart, decided to leave the rest up to Ali and Jake themselves.


~@~

Wishing for the ground to open beneath his feet and swallow him up at any second, Jake cleared his throat, hoping to gain Ali’s full and undivided attention. When she didn’t lift her golden head and those blue eyes stubbornly refused to look at him, Jake crept closer to the swing Ali twirled lazily in, a tiny, drooping wildflower clutched behind his back. Presenting it to her somewhat shyly, Jake spoke with an embarrassing tremble in his voice, “I’m a jerk.”

Hesitantly, Ali’s fingers fluttered over the delicate green stalk, and gradually, she stopped twirling, instead moving her feet back and forth through the earth deliberately, still refusing to meet Jake’s eyes. Her fingers wrapped around the stalk gingerly when Jake released it, and she listened to the crunch of his sneakers on the gravel then the creak of the chain of the swing next to her as he pushed it into motion. Out of the corner of her blue eyes, she saw him with his tousled brown head down, watching his feet as if they were the most interesting thing in the world at that moment. And she murmured a single word. “Yeah.” The restless movement beside her stopped, and she felt the weight of Jake’s hand slowing her own motion then heard him clear his throat again.

The lowering sun glinted off of Ali’s golden hair, and Jake realized in the moment she finally looked at him, that he’d spend the rest of his life mesmerized by her big blue eyes. They made him do funny things, like blurt out crazy ideas. And none were crazier than what happened next. “I’ll do anything you want. Anything. If you’ll only believe how sorry I am.” When she looked at him, all angelic and glowy-like following that embarrassing moment of weakness, he knew he was going down without a lifesaver, and he could only brace himself for the worst.

Raising the drooping token of apology to her nose and breathing in its scent, Ali raised a golden brow. “Anything?”

Mr. Fitzgerald, Jake silently telepathed across the stretch of dusky acres. Help. Hhhhhhheeeeeeelllllllllppppppp.


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Ali and Cristian were safe with his parents, Hope was finally asleep in her crib in the nursery, Noah and Sam were handling things at the station, and Luis was a happy man.

Entering their room in her most comfortable, tattered-looking fuzzy white robe, Sheridan stopped at the foot of their bed, groaning when she saw her husband sprawled seductively across the freshly laundered sheets wearing nothing but a come hither smile and a pair of revealing black boxers. Moving closer and setting the baby monitor on the nightstand, Sheridan raised a hand to her waist, tugging the belt of her robe tighter, lamenting as Luis leaned up on his elbows and snagged her by the arm to pull her closer to him, “Luis, I feel anything BUT sexy right now. Look at me.” Pouting as she fended off his attempts to wrap her in his arms, she sighed, “I desperately need a long, hot bath and about a week’s worth of sleep crammed into one night.”

Sitting up and throwing his legs over the side of the bed, Luis took her hands in his and brought them to his lips, pressing a kiss to each palm. He stood up slowly, giving her hand a gentle tug as he padded toward the bathroom on bare feet. “I’m not going to be much help on the sleep-front,” he told her with a grin that had her shaking her head, “but I know you’ve been missing your bubblebaths lately so…” He stepped aside, letting Sheridan walk into the bathroom and see for herself what he had done.

Laughter bubbled forth from Sheridan’s lips when she saw the bubbles shimmering in the candlelight, and she turned to Luis, blue eyes dancing as she tried to shield her smile from him with her hand. “You’re not going to let me get any sleep tonight, are you?”

“Only if that’s what you really want,” Luis said, giving her a smoldering look as his hands went to the belt at her waist, loosening it and slipping a hand inside. Dragging the knuckles of one hand across her naked curves, he lifted his other hand to guide her mouth to his waiting lips.

His kiss was warm and lazy, and his hands swept the heavy robe from her shoulders, pooling it at her feet. Before she even knew it, Sheridan found herself lulled into such a pleasurable state sleep was the last thing on her mind.


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“Dr. Nick!” Lissy exclaimed. “Daddy, it’s Ali’s Dr. Nick.”

Abby’s eyes slammed shut, and still covering her mouth with her now shaking hand, she swore softly. “Dammit.” She held up a distancing hand to Christopher and turned to face Nick, who now stood just a couple of feet away with Lissy. “You weren’t supposed to see that.”

His mouth a grim line, his gray eyes unreadable, Nick replied, “Obviously.” He fumbled with the paper shopping bags in his hands, thrusting them at her. Mustering a brief smile for Lissy, he hastily said his goodbyes and left.

“Oh, Abby. It’s so cute,” Lissy squealed, tugging a small, white teddy bear from one of the bags and hugging it.

“Lissy, that doesn’t belong to you,” Christopher scolded his young daughter. “Apologize to Abby,” he ordered, taking the teddy bear from her and gently placing it in Abby’s hands, hands that already held a beautifully patterned baby blanket.

“I’m sorry, Abby,” Lissy said contritely. Tucking her small body beneath her father’s protective arm, she whispered as tears of frustration collected in Abby’s hazel eyes, “She’s not going to cry, is she Daddy?”

“I’m sorry,” Christopher was full of remorse. “If you hurry, I’m sure you can still catch him. Explain that I was the one that…I’m sorry. Just go. Tell him it’s my fault,” he called after Abby as she hurried after Nick.


~@~



When Abby caught up with Nick, she was out of breath and mad as hell. Grabbing his arm roughly, she spat, “What the hell happened to you doing all the chasing this time?” She dropped the shopping bags at her feet, bending at the waist and gasping softly for air.

Clenching his fists at his sides, Nick fought with himself not to reach out and touch her before he had his say and some answers. “It looked like someone else had already caught you back there, and he didn’t have to chase all that damn hard, did he? I’m sorry I interrupted your date. You don’t waste any time, do you?” he cringed at the words, looking away in disgust. His gaze snapped back to Abby’s face when she started laughing incredulously.

Sobering in an instant, Abby let her anger resume control. “Grow the hell up. Do I like Christopher? Yes, I like him. I enjoy spending time with him and his daughter. I’m not inviting him into the same f---ing bed we supposedly made love in last night. Give me some credit,” she growled. “I wait more than 24 hours before I move on to my next partner. Hell, I waited more than ten years before I let someone else in to do some more damage. I hate this shit. It’s so damned complicated. You’re so damned complicated. Loving someone, wait I mean caring deeply for someone,” she threw his words back at him, wiping at the tears that’d started to trickle down her cheeks, “shouldn’t twist you up into so many knots. I went through this with Vincent, I went through this with Tony, I don’t have to go through it again with you.”








Following a surprisingly subdued dinner and Noah excusing himself to take Katie home, Grace and Gwen cleared the table of dishes in companionable silence.

In the living room, Hank and Sam whooped and hollered, excited and eager as two little boys on Christmas morning as they ‘tested’ out the new PlayStation game Sam had so generously purchased MJ earlier that week. Sara and MJ rolled their eyes at the two grownups as they waited impatiently for their turn, and Emily slumped against the arm of the sofa, mouth lax in sleep as she snored softly. Beside her, teddy bear clutched in his small hands, Joshua pouted silently, wiping at his runny nose with the back of his hand.

Sighing, Miguel re-entered the kitchen, intent on saying his goodbyes so that he could take his boys home. Clearing his throat, he approached Grace, praising her for their meal in the same breath he took his leave. “It’s getting late. I should get the boys home,” he explained as he let Grace hug him and offered Gwen a small smile. “Get them to bed.”

“MJ hasn’t played his game,” Grace protested as she stepped back, fussing with the plastic containers of leftovers she’d yet to place in the refrigerator. “Noah didn’t get to tell the boys goodnight. Don’t go, Miguel. Stay just a while longer,” she pleaded.

“I forgot to mention that,” Gwen interrupted quietly. “Noah called earlier and said not to wait up. There was a change in plans, and they’re expecting Kendall and Katie’s mother back tonight.”

“Oh,” Grace uttered, unable to hide her disappointment. Pushing the leftovers at Miguel, she told him, “For the boys. If they get hungry. There’s some more ‘dirt’ in there. MJ really seemed to like it.” Unsure of what to do with her hands once they were empty, she dropped them to her sides then clasped them together tightly to keep from reaching out to Miguel and preventing him from leaving when he turned to go.

“Thanks,” Miguel mumbled awkwardly. Grace’s voice stopped him not two steps later.

“Call me if Joshua doesn’t start feeling any better. He felt a little warm at dinnertime.”

Gwen itched to tell Grace not to worry so much but knew it really wasn’t her place to say anything. Instead she smiled understandingly at Miguel when he promised Grace he’d call, barely disguising his frustration. “We’ll see you at T-ball practice. Hank will anyway. Bye, Miguel,” she said.

“Thanks, Gwen,” Miguel murmured gratefully then took one of Grace’s hands in his own, squeezing it reassuringly as he repeated, “I promise to call. If Joshua’s sniffles aren’t gone by morning, I’ll call his pediatrician.”

Throwing her arms around Miguel’s neck and hugging him tightly once more, Grace apologized tearfully, “I worry about you and boys. I know you have Pilar and Martin looking out for you, and you’re doing a wonderful job yourself, but…”

With Miguel’s nod of approval, Gwen took the containers from his hands and placed them in the refrigerator before leaving the pair alone and rejoining her husband and children in the living room.

Miguel embraced his sobbing mother-in-law, and their roles were reversed as he became something he hadn’t been in many long months: the comforter.





~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Chuckling at the expression of abject horror Jake made no effort to conceal, Martin pulled up a chair beside the young Bennett, reminding him, “You DID promise her you’d do ANYTHING.”

“But ballet? The stinking ballet?” Jake grumbled as Theresa and Ali excitedly chattered to Pilar about the trip, still in the planning stage.

“Don’t forget Broadway,” Paloma interjected with a smile. “Theresa won’t be able to pass up Broadway when you guys take your trip. It’s simply too irresistible an opportunity.”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” Theresa bubbled. “Ali, how would like to see ‘Beauty and the Beast’?”

“No, no,” Jake whined. “Not some loser love story. At least make it something cool.” His lamentations fell on deaf ears, and he gave Martin a look that bordered on frantic.

Martin simply smiled, enjoying his daughter and young granddaughter’s growing excitement.

“What about tickets, Mija?” Pilar asked, ever practical.

“Aunt Ivy can get them for us,” Ali beamed.

“She’d do anything for Ali,” Theresa agreed.

“Your meetings, Theresita,” Pilar said, reminding Theresa of the original reason for the trip to New York.

“They won’t take long, Mama. I’m sure Chad won’t mind watching Jake and Ali for a few hours,” Theresa answered her.

“What about Chad’s auditions?” Paloma remembered. “Theresa, neither one of you can be two places at once,” she said logically.

“You’re right,” Theresa admitted, crestfallen as reality began to sink in. Her brown eyes lit up a moment later as a solution occurred to her, and she jumped out of her seat, nearly bursting with excitement as she advanced on her sister. “Paloma…my favorite sister…”

“Your only sister,” Paloma replied warily, knowing exactly what was coming.

“Still my favorite,” Theresa grinned, wrapping her arms around Paloma’s shoulders with a giggle. “Think of it as a chance to bond, make up for lost time. You can help me look for a wedding dress,” Theresa singsonged, putting the suggestion out there and dangling it like the proverbial carrot in front of Paloma’s nose.

“Wedding dresses, too?” Jake groaned, pushing his chair back and trudging off to join Cristian in the living room. “Oh, man.”

Giggling, Ali scampered after him, trusting her aunt Theresa’s considerable skills of persuasion.

“I thought you were designing your own wedding dress,” Paloma retorted.

“Come on,” Theresa poured on the charm as her amused parents looked on. “You know you’ll have fun. Say yes. Please, pretty please.”

“Not the puppy dog eyes,” Paloma groaned, looking to Martin for help.

“The puppy dog eyes are hard to say no to,” Martin told his youngest daughter as he stood up and took the cup of coffee Pilar offered him, trying without luck to hide his smile behind it.

“You’re no help,” Paloma sighed. “Mama?”

“I’m sure Ali would love to get to know you better, Mija, and any excursion with Jake is never boring,” Pilar responded with just a hint of a twinkle in her eyes.

Paloma smiled because she was just beginning to realize the truth of her mother’s last statement. The smile on her lips stayed when she thought of how welcome the chance to get to know her little niece better was too. The trip had definite possibilities. “It could be fun…” she said, before Theresa cut off her oxygen supply with the fierceness of her hug.

“It is going to be SO much fun, Paloma. Wait and see. You won’t regret this,” Theresa squealed happily.

Picturing Jake flop face-first onto the couch after hearing his muffled groans of defeat, Paloma laughed, thinking she’d definitely wait and see.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Facing the bathroom mirror, Sheridan hummed under her breath while she briskly rubbed her short blond hair dry.

Behind her, Luis perched on the closed toilet seat, Hope’s tiny feet dangling freely over his arms, and her small dark curled head, still damp from her shared bath with her mother and father, resting against his chiseled chest. Luis murmured sweet words in her listening ear as her blue eyes watched the rhythmic movement of the shiny silver handled brush through Sheridan’s hair with rapt fascination.

Sheridan lay the brush down, tightened the jade sash of the silk robe Luis had draped over her shoulders after helping her towel dry, and turned to the pair with a loving smile on her lips. She lifted her baby daughter into her arms, bringing her chubby cheeks to her lips for a kiss before cuddling her naked body close and breathing in her sweet baby scent.

Luis rose in front of them, white towel knotted at his waist, and cupped Hope’s tiny bare foot in his palm as he leaned forward to steal a kiss from Sheridan’s lips. Hope cried softly when he pulled back, nuzzling her face against Sheridan’s silk-covered chest, and Luis smirked to himself.

Knowing her husband, Sheridan’s suspicions were immediately raised. “What?”

Luis wisely said nothing, gently guiding Sheridan out of the bathroom and into their dimly lit bedroom. “Nothing,” he said with a shake of his head. He crossed the room to their dresser and removed a fresh pair of boxers from a drawer, putting them on. Then he crawled into his side of the bed, reclining against the headboard and opening his arms to his wife and daughter.

Settling comfortably into the vee of Luis’s open legs, Sheridan gently rocked Hope in the cradle of her arms. Hope continued to fuss and rub her face against Sheridan’s robe, only quieting when the barrier was removed and she’d latched onto her mother’s breast.

“I knew it,” Luis remarked, stroking a finger across Hope’s silky cheek before holding out his pinkie for her to grasp onto as she greedily nursed, “I’m not the only one who’d recognize those goodies anywhere.”

Dropping her head onto Luis’s shoulder, Sheridan laughed softly. “She won’t be fooled, especially when she’s hungry. Isn’t that right, Roo?” Sheridan’s fingers skated across Hope’s stomach, making her squirm. “Not when that little tummy’s growling.”

“It can’t be growling,” Luis chuckled in disbelief. Releasing Hope’s hand, he reached down to rub his thumb over the sole of one little foot and each tiny toe, smiling as his big hand traveled up the chubby leg, stopping at the knee. “How can something so little be so…”

“Don’t say the f-word,” Sheridan warned him with a sly whisper, blue eyes twinkling as she pressed noisy kisses to Hope’s open palm. “Tell Daddy, Hope. A gentleman NEVER discusses a lady’s weight. It’s not proper. Besides, we have a goal to reach before we go back to the D-O-C-T-O-R.”

“It looks like we have another overachiever in the house,” Luis stated teasingly as Sheridan lifted the drowsy infant to her shoulder, tucked everything back into place, and began to gently burp her.

“Just for that,” Sheridan turned around in his arms, giving him a wicked smile as she carefully transferred Hope to his waiting shoulder after a kiss to each cheek, “you can dress her in her diaper and pjs.”

“That’s okay ‘cause Daddy’s got the magic touch,” Luis flashed her a confident grin as he swung his legs over the bed’s edge and started walking for the door. Pausing in the doorway, one large hand patting their daughter’s back, Luis murmured against Hope’s temple while casting sparkling dark eyes in Sheridan’s direction, “Tell Mommy not to fall asleep before Daddy has a chance to kiss her goodnight.”

Falling back against the mound of pillows at the head of the bed with an exhausted sigh, Sheridan played along with eyes closed and a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. “Tell Daddy he better hurry.” Fumbling for the baby monitor on the nightstand, she turned the volume up and couldn’t hold in her laughter.

“Mommy told you to do that, didn’t she?” Luis groaned softly then whispered, “Daddy hates spit-up.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


With the key Abby had had made for him, Shane let himself into her apartment. Letting his eyes adjust to the darkness in the room, he moved forward slowly, swearing when he stumbled over Lucky and sent the cat away screeching. Feeling his way around in the dark, he found the lamp beside the sofa and fumbled with its switch. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts, he turned the lamp on, casting a pale glow across the living room and the lone figure seated in the floor, head hung low.

Nick looked up to Shane with bleary gray eyes, circling his fingers around the half empty beer bottle that joined its empty twin on the coffee table. Gesturing with the bottle in his hands, Nick made what appeared to be a painful admission. “She’s not here.”

“I already knew that,” Shane said, crouching beside Nick and eyeing the shapeless pile of parts in front of him suspiciously, “but Runt’s got a better selection of alcohol in her cabinets than half the bars in Maine. There’s no sense letting it go to waste just because she’s pregnant and has to find other ways to drown her sorrows.” Picking up one of the parts and inspecting it at eye level, Shane finally looked to Nick and blurted, “What the hell is this?”

Nick finished off the bottle of beer in his hand before answering. “It’s supposed to be a baby bed. I threw away the directions. Thought I didn’t need them.”

Chuckling, Shane said, “I don’t have to be a woman to appreciate the humor in that.” Gripping one of Nick’s shoulders firmly, he asked, nodding at the empty beer bottles on the coffee table, “Any more where those came from?”

“You know where to find them,” Nick groused. When Shane returned from the kitchen a few moments later, he gratefully accepted the replenishments he offered.

“I think between the two of us, we can figure this thing out before the baby’s born,” Shane declared. “Think of it as a challenging puzzle.”

“Kind of like your sister,” Nick muttered under his breath. Changing the subject, he asked, “Did Ivy call it quits?”

“Mutual decision,” Shane mumbled, shooing away Lucky, who’d already forgiven him for their earlier run-in and was back to his old tricks, demanding affection. “Abby’s not all that complicated. She’s…she’s reacting out of hurt. Being pregnant again…” Shane trailed off, unsure whether he should continue.

“It’s okay. She told me about the other baby, and how she,” Nick paused, the words sticking difficultly in his throat, “how she died. I’m sorry you didn’t get the chance to know your niece.”

Shane turned pain-filled hazel eyes on Nick. “My niece didn’t just die. She was murdered.”

UAgirl
7.22.07, 7:34 PM
Chapter 13






A week had passed since Nick and Abby’s angry confrontation on the pier, a week Abby spent lying low in the comforts of Miguel’s and the boys’ company, a week where she tried to make sense of the mess her life had become yet again. It hadn’t worked—the making sense part. But Abby was grateful she’d been able to mend the broken fences between MJ and herself, grateful to again have his love and acceptance, even if it meant sweltering on this unusually warm Maine day. She’d be damned if she skulked around Miguel’s house and moped the rest of her life. Baseball had never been her sport, but T-ball had its own special appeal. Especially when Hank and Luis wore their coach’s uniforms so well. Laughing as she watched Cristian, Emily, and the rest of the outfield scramble after a fast-rolling ball as one, she shielded her eyes with her hand and looked back over her shoulder at Gwen, capturing it all on video. “The Bad News Bears have nothing on us.”

“Dad’s team sucks,” Jake muttered, just loud enough for his mother to hear, and Gwen turned the camera off long enough to scold him, resuming her taping just a few seconds later when the team raced toward the dugout, the other team having mercifully scored the maximum allowed points per inning with Sara’s failure to tag the runner out at home plate.

“Excellent effort, Sara,” Jonathan shouted his encouragement. “Better luck next time.”

From her husband’s side, Rebecca hollered, “Kill the ball, Sara! Touchdown! Touchdown!”

Connecting eyes with Gwen, who simply raised her eyes to the heavens and shook her head, Abby refrained from making a comment regarding Rebecca’s faux pas, though the effort was extremely difficult. She held her hand out to grab Katie’s nachos, setting them on the bleachers beside her and extending a steadying hand to help Katie when she wobbled slightly on the bleacher below her, her own hands otherwise engaged in holding the disgruntled little treasure she’d procured from Grace just a few short moments ago.

Beneath the wide brim of her pink Pooh Bear hat, Hope’s dark brows furrowed as her little face scrunched up in preparation of releasing an ear-splitting wail. She looked utterly miserable in the unrelenting heat and completely ready to let the entire world know it.

Abby braced herself for the inevitable, watching the baby’s big blue eyes well up with indignant tears as Katie jostled her around trying to seat herself more comfortably on the hard bleachers. “You might as well give it up,” Abby stilled Katie with an outstretched hand, “Your skinny ass is going to be numb just like the rest of ours before this is over.”

Above them, Jake snickered at the comment, quickly hiding his grin from his mother when she cut her eyes over to him. He was in enough trouble as it was for reasons he’d rather not visit again. No use making it worse.

With a beckoning hand, Abby told Katie, “Give me the kid before all hell breaks loose.” Being passed around like everyone’s favorite new toy could do it. She was sure. She traded Katie’s nachos for Hope’s pacifier, rubbing it across the baby’s lips and trying to coax her to take it without much success. Hope continued to fuss irritably as Sara marched up to the batter’s box, giving her bat a few vicious test swings along the way.

“Make ‘em eat dirt, Sar!” Jake yelled when Sara shoved her helmet up out of her brown eyes to look up into the stands.

“You can do it, Sara,” Gwen zoomed in on her young daughter’s fiercely determined ‘game face.’

Katie sprang forward when Miguel appeared at the bottom of the bleachers with Joshua on his heels and Kendall in his arms, stretching his arms out for Katie and whining, “Mama, I potty.”

Abby swore softly under her breath when Sara smacked a ball into left field, causing everyone to stand up and loudly cheer her on, and Hope started to cry in earnest. “No need to permanently damage Aunt Abby’s eardrums,” she muttered as she descended the bleachers carefully and went in search of Sheridan. Sara was rounding third base to wild cheers when Abby, having deemed Sheridan and all potential caregivers unavailable, started walking toward the relatively quieter playground area after making sure Martin at least would know where she was going. By her own self-admission she was crazy, but she was far from stupid. She didn’t want Luis to have a heart attack when he scanned the stands and found Hope nowhere in sight.

The team enthusiastically welcomed Sara at home plate, with MJ finally pushing through the excited bunch to take his crack at evening up the score a little bit.

Abby smiled fondly at the display of bravado and continued on to the playground. Bypassing a trio of playing children at the sandbox, she chose an unoccupied swing at the far, largely deserted corner of the playground, gently lowering herself and Hope into it. With the sounds of the ongoing game muted, Hope gradually calmed in Abby’s arms, and her big blue eyes blinked against the bright sunlight peeking in through the blanket of the surrounding trees’ leaves. Grabbing the small fist Hope waved in the air, Abby pressed a kiss to the tiny fingers, her hazel eyes merry as she dodged the baby’s attempt to grab onto her long tawny hair and tug. “Aunt Abby’s got a better idea than honing your considerable hair-pulling skills—those will come in handy in the future, by the way. High school can be brutal. If you let it. Don’t let me scare you. Let’s just forget I mentioned it okay?” Abby murmured, tired of her own rambling. “Back to my original point,” she dragged in a deep breath, pushing the swing forward slightly with her feet. “Let’s swing.” Hope enjoyed the rocking motion, waving her fists in the air and opening her rosebud mouth to coo at Abby when her smiling face loomed near. “You like that, don’t you? Uh oh,” Abby reached out to catch the little Pooh hat as it tumbled from Hope’s dark head, but it was too late. Giving Hope an apologetic smile as she paused the gentle movements of the swing, she murmured, “It’ll just take me a minute to…” The words stuck in her throat when she noticed a familiar-looking pair of hands pluck the Pooh hat from the ground, brush it free of debris, and hold it out to her in offering. Hazel eyes met gray, and Abby felt her heart skip a beat when their fingertips met. “Nick?”

“I believe this is yours.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Ignoring the curious glances Beth stole in her direction, Ivy led her guest to an empty table at the back of the Book Café. Taking her seat, she waited for the man to seat himself and made sure no one was in earshot before addressing him, “You said you had something new for me.”


With a mysterious smile, the man pushed a manila file across the table to Ivy and relaxed in his seat, waiting.

Scanning the first page in the file impatiently, Ivy’s elegant brow furrowed and a frown maligned her aristocratic features when her gaze lifted. “We already established the ex was little more than pond scum with violent tendencies. What am I looking at here?”

“Keep reading,” the man encouraged, knowing the exact moment she found it by the horrified expression in her blue green eyes when she looked back up at him.

“He murdered his own child,” Ivy’s own heart felt bruised with the revelation, and she pushed the file away, not really wanting to read anymore.

“That was a matter of great contention,” the man replied. “At any rate, he made a deal with the D.A. and reduced the charges. He couldn’t worm his way out of attempted murder though, no matter how hard he tried. He definitely had murder in mind when he was beating the hell out of his wife. If it hadn’t been for Mr. Lopez-Fitzgerald…”

“Antonio,” Ivy’s blond head snapped up. “What part does he play in this, this horrific mess?”

“It was Mr. Lopez-Fitzgerald’s heroics that saved Ms. Stone’s life,” the man revealed smugly. “He placed the call to 9-1-1.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Abby took the little hat and placed it back on Hope’s dark head, but the baby’s impatient wriggling dislodged it again and it landed at Nick’s feet.

Chuckling as he crouched to retrieve the hat a second time, Nick’s gray eyes were laughing as well when he said, “I’m thinking she’s tired of the hat.” His big hand reached out to cup Hope’s tiny skull, and his fingers played with her wispy dark curls. He trailed his knuckles across the silky soft chubby cheeks and rubbed the stubbornly set Sheridan-like chin with the pad of his thumb. Hope’s eyes stared intently at him, big and round and blue, and Nick returned her stare, finding himself strangely mesmerized, his mind’s eye conjuring up a similar picture, only Abby held their child lovingly and securely in her arms. Still staring into Hope’s fathomless eyes, he murmured, “You look good holding her.”

His comment broke Abby out of the trance she’d seemed to be in, watching him interact with Hope, and, nuzzling Hope’s fuzzy curls with her cheek, she tried to make light of what he’d said. “Anybody’d look good holding her. Luis and Sheridan make disgustingly beautiful babies together.”

“They do,” Nick conceded, “but that’s not what I meant.” His fingers traced Tigger’s image on the tiny white sandals Hope wore.

“Nick,” Abby warned, the tension coiling up in her own body setting Hope on edge and making her whimper.

“I don’t have any expectations,” Nick forced the painful words past the tightness in his throat. “I don’t want our relationship to twist you up in knots anymore. I want to be a part of your life and our baby’s life, even if I can’t play the role I want to play. Come home,” his voice took on a pleading edge.

“Nick…from where I stand, nobody’s holding you back but yourself,” she sighed tiredly, resigned to the tears she felt building behind her closed eyes. Her hazel eyes shimmered when she opened them and stood up on unsteady feet, allowing Nick to take Hope into the cradle of his arms and try to soothe her renewed tears. Wrapping her arms protectively around her own waist, she started to walk away.

Nick watched her leave, frozen in place, the painful truth of her words resonating within him.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Feeling the fleeting flutter of fingertips tickle his elbow, Jake turned around slowly from watching his sisters once again gracefully—in Emily’s case at least—concede defeat, a grin stealing over his face before he could stop it.

“Hi,” Ali smiled at him.

“Hi,” Jake answered her, stuffing his hands in his pockets before he could do something really embarrassing, like reach out and grab her hand in his. Nodding toward the field where his dad and Uncle Luis shook hands with the coaches of the other team, Jake said, “We lost. Again.”

Ali giggled. “Yeah.”

Jake’s grin stretched impossibly wider at her infectious laughter. He opened his mouth to say something, anything, to keep her laughing, but before a sound could emerge, his mom swooped in, totally diverting Ali’s attention from him and erasing his good mood. Annoyed at the intrusion, he trudged off, deciding to go help his dad and Uncle Luis load up the equipment and carry it to their cars.

“How’d the appointment go?” Gwen ventured nervously, not wanting to read too much into Sheridan’s and Ali’s matching bright smiles.

Squeezing Ali’s shoulders encouragingly, Sheridan bent to whisper in her daughter’s ear. “Should I tell her or do you want to?”

“Dr. Nick says I’m his best patient,” Ali beamed.

“So far so good,” Sheridan told Gwen, blue eyes shining happily. “We were thinking we’d celebrate the news with some pizza and invite you, Hank, and the kids over. Say you’ll come.”

“Please,” Ali stuck her bottom lip out in her patented pout.

Her cheeks already beginning to hurt from the huge smile she sported, Gwen looked to Sheridan and shook her head. “Not the pout. She knows I can’t resist the pout.”

Ali giggled, readily accepting Gwen’s congratulatory hug and kiss on the forehead.

“Count us in,” Gwen replied, including Sheridan in the hug. “Do you want us to pick up anything for dessert? Ice cream? I won’t forget the sprinkles,” she rushed to assure Ali.

“Colored sprinkles?” Ali’s blue eyes sparkled hopefully.

“Colored sprinkles,” Gwen conceded with a laugh. “Hank’s ego needs the comfort food anyway. We’ll see you in an hour. I can hardly recognize Sara underneath all that dirt.”

“See you then,” Sheridan waved. To Ali, she instructed, “You go tell Daddy and Cristian. I’ll get Hope.”


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



They’d made a picnic of it.

Still wired from the game, Sara chased Cristian and Max around the perimeter of the yard, breathless and barefoot.

Emily played dolls beneath the picnic table, absently licking at her vanilla ice cream cone. Miss Priss rubbed against her bare legs under the pretense of seeking affection, her blue eyes taking on a predatory gleam as she eyed the dripping ice cream and licked her lips.

Hank and Luis strategized for the next game while Ali and Jake perched on the edge of the tree house overhead, legs dangling and smiles abundant.

Ethan, who’d arrived unannounced with Beth just as the ice cream was being served, stroked Gizmo’s soft fur, wearing his usual expression of befuddlement over something he wouldn’t disclose.

The familiarity of the expression was endearing to Sheridan, and leaning more heavily against Gwen’s shoulder, she smiled fondly at him.

Wiggling her painted toes in the lush green grass, Gwen braced her—and part of Sheridan’s—weight with her arms behind her back and laughed. “You know that expression? I wouldn’t be surprised if he came out of the womb wearing that expression.”

Giggling girlishly, Sheridan mused, “Pilar used to warn him his face would freeze that way. Did he listen?” After a beat, her voice blended with Gwen’s voice. “No!”

Gwen nudged Sheridan with her elbow, tossing a look in Beth’s direction. “I think someone’s biological clock is ticking.”

Watching Beth with her baby daughter, Sheridan agreed. “Can you imagine Ethan as a father?”

Gwen laughed. “Oh yeah.”

Crouching down in front of them to snag the last two pieces of pizza for Luis and himself, Hank grinned lopsidedly. “I thought I told you girls to lay off the bubbly.”

“I thought you liked me better when I was tipsy, Bennett,” Gwen answered him flirtatiously.

“I plead the fifth on the grounds that whatever might leave these loose lips could prove incriminating,” Hank backed away slowly, pretending to be fear-stricken.

“Wimp,” Sheridan teased.

“Luis, Man,” Hank enticed Luis with the piece of pizza. “Tell your wife to lay off. You know how sensitive I am.”

“Sheridan,” Luis scolded playfully. He grabbed the pizza from Hank, taking a generous bite.

Beth smiled at their easy comraderie, scooping Hope up into her arms and making her way over to the blanket Gwen and Sheridan reclined on.

Hope fretted against Beth’s shoulder, exhaustion weighing heavily on her, but stubbornness keeping her from closing her heavy lidded eyes.

Dropping to her knees in front of the two friends, Beth presented Sheridan with her baby daughter. “I think it’s someone’s bedtime.”

Leaning forward and cradling Hope in the crook of her arm, Sheridan’s blue eyes were soft with love and her voice brimming with tender, motherly affection as she stroked the tiny palm comfortingly. “You’ve had a long day, haven’t you, Sweetheart?”

Looking on, Gwen smiled to herself as she, Beth, and the rest of Sheridan’s surroundings seemed to fade away from her as she sang her daughter to sleep with a heartfelt rendition of “Baby Mine.”

Letting her own eyes drift closed as a feeling of contentment enveloped her, Gwen observed Beth’s wistful demeanor and figured she hadn’t been too far off the mark with her earlier assumption.


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


Balancing Joshua’s dead weight on one arm, Miguel gave MJ a gentle push through the front door into a living room lit only by the flashing images of the television, arriving home late after an impromptu dinner date with his sisters, Whitney, and Simone.


Rising from the sofa when she’d heard them come in, Abby took Joshua from Miguel’s arms, ignoring his whispered protestations.

Joshua wrapped his arms loosely around Abby’s neck, sleepily murmuring, “Bee.” Abby’s kiss to his check elicited a soft, contented sigh, and his limbs were boneless, fluid as Miguel crowded close to Abby, slipping the toddler’s shoes off of his feet.

Miguel felt worry seize his heart when he looked into hazel eyes that were red and puffy from another bout of crying, and he touched his hand to Abby’s cheek, feeling the warmth of her tears against his thumb.


Shaking her head lightly at him, Abby let her eyes travel to MJ’s dark head, resting against her side, and small brown hands, clasped around her waist. “Let’s go change into our pjs,” she suggested.


For once, MJ dutifully followed her suggestion without complaint, trudging into the bedroom he and Joshua shared on heavy feet. Clumsy fingers fumbled with the buttons and belt of his uniform until Miguel took over, divesting him of the cumbersome clothes and laying them at the foot of the bed. MJ grumbled halfheartedly when Miguel instructed him to hold his arms up, slipping the plain blue cotton pajama top over his head. The bottoms were next, and the child allowed Miguel to usher him under the covers. “Dad?” his sleepy voice halted Miguel’s departure after kissing his forehead in goodnight.

“Yeah,” Miguel tucked the small arm that dangled from the bed’s edge underneath the light blankets.

“Don’t let Abby forget me,” he mumbled into his pillow.

“Like that would ever happen,” Abby commented across the room, gently disentangling herself from Joshua’s near-desperate embrace and tugging the ketchup stained tee-shirt over his head.

Miguel found himself smiling at the smile that curled the corners of MJ’s lips up, and he bent to kiss his son’s forehead a second time before straightening up and joining Abby in her awkward efforts to clothe Joshua without waking him up.

“What did you do after the game?” Abby grunted softly as she pulled Joshua’s limp little body to her breast. “Swing by Boston and run in the marathon?”

“Abby, I don’t…Something like that,” Miguel grinned at Abby when he realized she was only teasing, sliding Joshua’s legs beneath the covers once his pajamas were on while Abby gently laid him back against the pillows and tucked his teddy bear in beside him.

“Uh oh. I think you’re on to me,” Abby winked, brushing past him en route to MJ’s bed. She perched on the bed’s edge, feathering her fingers through MJ’s tousled dark hair.

The tender gesture made Miguel’s throat constrict unexpectedly, and he retreated to the safety of the shadows that lurked in the corner of the boys’ bedroom. He willed the consuming ache he suddenly felt for Kay to go away and leave him mercifully in peace, but he knew Abby’s misery would have company tonight.





~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


With the girls snugly tucked into their beds and Jake’s newest reign of terror most likely just beginning to get underway several miles away at Luis and Sheridan’s home, Gwen and Hank curled up comfortably on the couch, enjoying each other’s company more than the late night television show that flickered mutely on the screen.


Gwen stretched her long limbs out on the couch, resting her rumpled blond head against the arm tiredly, her folded arms acting as her pillow. Quiet, appreciative moans slipped past her lips as Hank gently but firmly massaged her aching feet. She cracked one golden brown eye open to discover Hank smirking at her, looking a little too pleased at the reaction his simple actions was extracting, and she smirked back at him knowingly. “You’re not just doing this out of the kindness of your heart, are you?”

“Babe,” Hank grabbed his heart as if an arrow had pierced its flesh, “I’m hurt.” Ignoring her quizzical stare, he returned to soothingly kneading her tensed muscles and trying to keep his face blank.

“Other men can talk to me, you know,” Gwen smothered a smile as she said this, guessing accurately that the source of Hank’s discomfort and his efforts to essentially butter her up was none other than Ethan and the whispered conversation they’d shared earlier in Hope’s nursery. “You never have this problem when Luis says hi to me, Bennett.” Her brown eyes danced as she teased him. She removed her feet from his lap and curled them beneath her as she scooted closer.

“You and Luis haven’t seen each other naked, Babe,” Hank grumbled. “It’s different.”

“Actually, there was this one time,” Gwen reminisced somewhat fondly, biting her lip to contain her laughter at the stunned expression on her husband’s face and the way his mouth opened and closed like a fish. Before his brain caught up enough to actually make a comment on that revelation, she hit him where it hurt. “You flirt shamelessly with Abby. All the time.”

“Babe,” Hank began to protest.

“Don’t give me that tired old line about her being the little sister you’ve never had, Bennett,” Gwen warned. “There’s an attraction there, but does it bother me? No,” she answered her own question, finally giving in to the urge to laugh when he sputtered beside her like a dying car. “Abby’s your friend. Ethan’s mine. And, I might add, we don’t flirt.”

“I just don’t want Boy Wonder to have an epiphany,” Hank grumped as Gwen wrapped her arms around his shoulders in a brief hug then rest her head against his chest, “about how big an ass he was back in the day.”

“You’re forgetting I knew he was an idiot all along,” Gwen reminded him as she slipped one hand beneath the cool cotton of his tee-shirt and traced distracting circles around his belly button with her nails. She smiled when she felt Hank shudder under her ministrations. She’d always loved to make him squirm. “Anyway,” she continued. “Ethan changed a long time ago. We made our peace and moved on. Me to you. Ethan to Beth.”

Shifting restlessly as his wife’s fingers toyed with the waistband of his jeans, Hank squeaked when he felt her pop the button open, his gripe about Ethan rapidly losing its importance, “This conversation’s not over.”

Climbing into his lap, Gwen smiled indulgently against his mouth, “I know it’s not. Help me get this damn shirt off, Bennett.”

Raising his arms eagerly, Hank and Gwen worked together to rid him of the annoying barrier, and it landed somewhere beyond the couch. “I know what you’re doing,” Hank told her, settling his hands on her jean-clad hips, “and it’s working amazingly well. Ethan who.”

“Exactly.” Gwen kissed away his trademark grin before pulling back to look at him and breathlessly making a suggestion. “Bedroom?”

“Dead bolts,” Hank nodded, taking the hand she offered him when she stood up.

“No Gus,” Gwen smirked over her shoulder as she led him down the hall.

“I just can’t…it’s a private performance, Babe,” Hank muttered, backing her gently through their open bedroom door as he made short work of her own tee-shirt. He fumbled awkwardly with the doorknob pressing into his back as they shared a lingering kiss.

Reaching around his back to lock the door for him, Gwen’s brown eyes sparkled. “Why do you think I locked him in the girls’ room and let Jake stay over at Ali’s? Hmm?” She looped her arms around his neck with a grin.

“I have a brilliant wife,” Hank returned her grin with a goofy one all his own when his legs bumped against the mattress, their positions having somehow reversed in the short distance from the door to the bed. “A brilliant, sexy wife,” he amended as his back met the mattress and said wife straddled his thighs, her fingers working at the bra clasp behind her back. “A brilliant, sexy wife who my best friend saw naked,” Hank raised up on his elbows as panic started to seize him with that jarring remembrance.

Shoving him none-too-gently back to the bed below, Gwen lowered her bare chest to his and ruffled his mop of unruly brown hair affectionately, laughing softly as she issued her order. “Shut up, Bennett. In case you haven’t noticed, your brilliant, sexy wife is trying to make love to YOU.”

Mollified by the statement for only a second, Hank broke off their passionate clinch, whining, “I can’t believe Luis never said anything to me.”

Shaking her head at her oblivious husband as she struggled to divest him of his jeans without his cooperation, Gwen blew a renegade strand of blond hair out of her face with a frustrated breath, giving the pants a savage yank until they were tangled around his ankles. Hank’s shoes dropped to the floor with a thud, and she tossed her jeans on top of them after shimmying out of them. “Luis didn’t say anything because he didn’t want to embarrass me,” Gwen mumbled against his skin as she planted kisses along his chest. “I’m the one that saw him naked, not the other way around.”

“WHAT?!” Hank practically roared, springing up in the bed and nearly knocking Gwen onto her ass on the floor below. “What the hell! When? How? Why?” he demanded, ignoring the way Gwen shook with laughter as she clung fiercely to his shoulders, trying desperately not to fall.

“When he nearly threw everything away by petitioning Sheridan for divorce and stayed here with us for awhile,” Gwen reminded him. “I accidentally walked in on him in the shower. It was completely innocent, and I didn’t really see anything. I swear,” she reassured, gently pushing Hank back down to the mattress with her body.

“His ---hole phase,” Hank recalled, melting into her welcomed touch again. “Am I glad those days are over.”

“You and me both,” Gwen murmured as she kissed the hollow of his throat, her hands at work elsewhere, slipping underneath Hank’s boxers to give his buttocks a playful squeeze.

“You and Tink just can’t keep your hands off my ass, can you?” Hank grinned with self-satisfaction, returning the gesture.

“Little sister you’ve never had,” Gwen stated pointedly, arching a brow at him and trying not to laugh as the perfect payback occurred to her.

“Lister sister I’ve never had,” Hank agreed, skating his fingertips over her collarbone. “Now. Where were we before I so dumbly opened my mouth?”

“You know, you have a cute ass and all, Bennett. But Luis’s ass?” Gwen struggled to keep a straight face. “Like a Greek god’s, and hard as a rock.”



“BABE!” Hank exclaimed, horrified. “Hard? How do you…Hard!? Innocent, my ass!” “Cute ass,” Gwen chimed in before dropping onto his chest like a blanket and bursting into uncontrollable laughter.

UAgirl
7.22.07, 7:47 PM
Chapter 14



It was morning when Miguel woke to a sensation both strange and hauntingly familiar. A woman slept in his arms, soft and feminine. Not just any woman but Abby. Her warm pliant body blanketed his, and Miguel found he couldn’t move, couldn’t remove her from his arms had he wanted to, and oddly, he didn’t want to. The night before had been a difficult one for the both of them, and he wanted to prolong the peaceful sleep she seemed to be enjoying as long as he could. So he willed his body to relax, each soft breath he took stirring strands of tawny silk beneath his nose, and gradually, his arms didn’t feel so awkward in their embrace. A cool breeze circulated through the sleeping house, fluttering the curtains and raising gooseflesh on Miguel’s skin. Unconsciously, he tightened the arm around Abby’s waist and let his rambling thoughts take over.

The faucet in the kitchen needed repaired, had for a while, but its steady drip-drip symphony was strangely comforting in its familiarity, and familiarity was scarce in the new world Miguel and the boys lived in.

MJ needed to go to the dentist. He had a new tooth coming in, prematurely and awkwardly, behind one of his baby teeth; the problem wasn’t a new one, just an overlooked one since MJ’s smiles were harder-won these days—even in Abby’s presence—and there was an unsettling knowledge in his dark eyes that shouldn’t be there yet, an oldness.

Miguel wished to restore his son’s innocence and little boyhood. Unfortunately, he didn’t possess the ability to travel back in time and change the fate that had befallen them. And the old-new problem of the floundering grades…Miguel wasn’t sure holding MJ back another year was the answer. He didn’t share Katie’s confidence in his own ability to make the right decision; he reached out with his heart and mind for Kay’s answer—she would know what to do, have the perfect answer—but her voice was silent, and he felt lost again, always adrift. He was desperately reaching for the nearest saving grace. And right now, for himself and especially for his boys, that saving grace went by the name of Abby. Miguel entertained the notion that maybe they were hers as well.

As if she knew his thoughts were of her, Abby stirred, stiffening momentarily and relaxing in slow increments until she was nearly returned to her earlier boneless state.

Miguel felt the fluttering of her eyelashes and her soft puffs of breath against his unclothed chest and wondered about her uncharacteristic silence. The earlier feeling of awkwardness was revisited, and he hoped she didn’t notice the erratic thump of his heart beneath her ear as he racked his brain for something to say.

Abby cut through the tension as only she knew how, with a muttered curse under her breath and an exaggerated groan. “S***! Your mother’s going to crawl my ass when she sees this mess.”

Evidence of their mutual session of wallowing in self-pity and depression was strewn everywhere throughout the living room: a half-eaten, puddling bowl of Rocky Road, a bowl of buttered popcorn undoubtedly overturned during Abby’s initial restless quest to mold his upper body into an appropriate body pillow, the beer he hadn’t been able to finish, and DVD’s scattered everywhere, mini-documentaries of his and Kay’s life together that had made Abby cry again and rendered the beer useless as a numbing tool. In short, the place was a disaster area, and his mother wasn’t going to be pleased.

Pissy Pilar really wasn’t Abby’s favorite person to deal with, and that wasn’t due to any outward rudeness on the Lopez-Fitzgerald matriarch’s part. On the contrary, Pilar could speak a thousand scathing words with one silent, disapproving glance. Sometimes, Abby thought a cane whipping would be more desirable punishment. “I’ll clean it up before she gets here. How many minutes do I have?”

No longer flustered, Miguel laughed as she snuggled into his side and yawned sleepily.

Lifting herself up on her elbows, Abby arched a tawny, challenging brow at him. “Don’t look at me in that tone of voice,” she grumbled. “And don’t laugh at me either. Can I help it that the kid’s hijacking all of my energy for itself? Just arguing with you is wearing me out.”

“Who’s arguing?” Miguel shrugged, causing Abby to huff out an indignant breath. “I haven’t said a word,” he smirked.

“Don’t give me that crap,” Abby sighed as she dropped her head back onto his chest wearily and closed her eyes. “Those brown eyes say it all. All you Lo-Fitz men are the same.” Flinging an arm across his waist, Abby muttered, “How the hell am I supposed to sleep with you squirming like a worm? Be still.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Miguel retorted dryly. “I can’t seem to feel my entire left side anymore.” He smirked as he said this, hearing Abby’s annoyed little huff.

“All right, funny guy,” Abby grumped as she elbowed him soundly in the aforementioned left side and threw a bare leg across his upper thighs in her efforts to get up, “I’m going. Up and at ‘em. You make a much better pillow when you’re comatose.” She bit her lip in consternation when it occurred to her how insensitive her comment might sound to him given the rehashing of memories the night before and looked down at him with apologetic hazel eyes, her fingers unconsciously tracing idle circles on his forearms, his hands having ended up resting clumsily above her knees when she’d straddled his lower body. “I always know just what to say.” she sighed, feathering her fingers through Miguel’s disheveled dark hair in a gesture identical in its tenderness and easy affection to the one the night before with MJ.
Miguel captured her hand before she could completely remove it and engulfed it in both of his larger hands. She was the only one that didn’t speak to him carefully, like she were walking through a minefield, and he appreciated that more than he could say so he gave her a smile of simple gratitude, letting her know everything was okay because he was afraid words might cheapen the sentiment.

Lowering her face to his with hazel eyes that were suspiciously bright, Abby searched Miguel’s brown orbs for several long seconds before she reflected his trembling smile with an understanding one of her own. “You’re sweet. You know that?” She pressed her lips to his forehead in a lingering kiss then climbed to her feet, taking with her much of the mess of the night before.


Miguel joined her, and Pilar, arriving with Paloma and breakfast nearly a half hour later, was none the wiser.


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Strolling into the Book Café a little past eight, Hank dropped into the seat opposite Luis and proclaimed, a little too loudly for Luis’s liking, “You’re killing my sex life, Man.”


Taking a moment to catch his breath and regain his sense of humor after choking on his morning coffee, Luis nevertheless set his mug down with a little too much force, still a little shocked by Hank’s morning greeting. Wiping up the hot brown liquid carefully with a napkin, Luis raised his brows in questioning surprise. “Really? That’s interesting. Jake’s not doing anything to help my love life either. The kid’s a regular peeping tom.”

“Must’ve got it from his mother,” Hank grunted, leaning back in his seat and crossing his arms across his chest before looking Luis squarely in the eye and finding recognition there.

A little uncomfortable with the memory himself but enjoying watching his old friend squirm, Luis couldn’t help but smile at the comparison. Taking a healthy gulp of his cooling coffee, he set the mug back down and regarded Hank in silence for a few seconds.
Before he knew it, Hank was grinning back at him, and Luis could easily guess why. As usual, it had been an interesting night to say the least with Jake sleeping just down the hall from his and Sheridan’s bedroom. The boy seemed to have an unerring special sixth sense when it came to interrupting intimate moments. “So we’re even?”

“Sheridan might beg to differ,” Hank smirked. “I’m sure she’d like equal opportunity to see me in the buff.”

“Now I know you’re just pulling stuff out of your ass,” Luis laughed. “You kissed her first, Buddy,” he reminded Hank, “and she wasn’t exactly bowled over by that Bennett charm you swear by.”

“Stop it,” Beth begged teasingly as she set a steaming mug of coffee down in front of Hank and served Luis a blueberry muffin. “I’m having flashbacks of junior high.”

“Beth,” Luis greeted with twinkling dark eyes.

Hank nudged the empty chair beside him with his foot, raising his eyebrows up and down in a weird little dance that had Beth giggling helplessly in a manner reminiscent with her schoolgirl days as he made a smirking suggestion. “We’re due for another walk down memory lane. Wanna revisit the Prom Queen Era?”

They did just that, making the Chief of Police more than a little late for work.


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




The Bennett charm wasn’t working any favors for Jake either. He was rapidly losing points with Ali over his behavior to Lissy’s intrusion on their morning. Not to mention he was already in the negative numbers with Lissy. Man, could she keep a grudge or what? That ugly little incident at the Youth Center was ages ago! Slumping his shoulders, he decided to go outside and see what Cristian was up to.

The morning was warm, the sun already high and bright in the clear blue sky.

Miss Priss was sunning herself on the picnic table, playfully swishing her fluffy white tail back and forth for Gizmo to chase.

Max barked somewhere on the outskirts of the yard, probably at some squirrel.

Jake wandered to the front of the house, following the sound of voices. He stopped short when he saw Cristian’s dark head peeking at him over the top of Sheridan and Luis’s SUV. A moment later he disappeared, and Jake walked around the car to see what was going on, his dark brows furrowed slightly in confusion.

Clad in a pair of cutoff jean shorts and a pink spaghetti-strapped top, Sheridan looked like an older version of Ali, her blue eyes sparkling with happiness and a dazzling smile lighting up her face as she crouched beside Cristian and a bucket of sudsy water.

Cristian had more bubbles in his hair and on his water-soaked clothes than he did on his rag, but he didn’t seem to care. He giggled as Sheridan once again lifted him into her arms and set to work scrubbing the rag over the top of the SUV. Until he saw Jake anyway. Then he flapped the rag in greeting sending droplets of water and bubbles spraying in his mother’s face. “Jake, I’m washing the car.”

Laughing, Sheridan set him back on his feet, sounding a little out of breath as she teased him. “You didn’t miss a spot, did you? Cause Hope would tell me if you did.”

For the first time, Jake noticed Hope, happily ensconsed in her bouncy seat under the shade of a nearby tree. He grinned when she seemed to recognize her name, flailing her chubby arms out and letting loose a joyful prolonged coo.

“Mommy,” Cristian failed to look perturbed at that little nugget, “that’s imposs-bul.” Then, explaining things as if he were the adult and Sheridan the child, he said matter-of-factly, “Babies can’t fly.”

“Oh,” Sheridan seemed to accept his answer with a nod. “I see. Does that mean little boys can?” She didn’t just rely on Cristian’s word; she looked to Jake for confirmation, her blue eyes twinkling wildly.

“Some of them can,” Cristian insisted before Jake could issue his own denial. “But only at night.”

“I get it now,” Sheridan smiled. “Like Peter Pan.”

“But Tinker Bell could fly too,” Jake pointed out, feeling strangely generous and willing to play along with Cristian’s little fantasy, even if meant making the almost embarrassing revelation that yes, he HAD seen the movie. Being a big brother to two sisters sure was a pain sometimes. He let Cristian digest that information while he walked a few feet away and retrieved the water hose.

Cristian, however, drew a whole other set of conclusions Jake wasn’t counting on, his brown eyes going comically wide a second later and preceding an outburst that had Jake snickering and Sheridan struggling not to laugh, lest she hurt his tender feelings. “Abby can fly! Do you think Dr. Nick knows?”


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




At that moment across town at the Harmony Hospital, just finishing his morning rounds, Nick was coming to the painful realization that maybe he didn’t know anything about Abby at all. At least he didn’t understand her, and if knowing and understanding were one in the same, he was simply clueless because he sure as hell didn’t understand her these days.

As to Katie, listening to him as he droned off orders in a seeming daze…well, to her, Nick’s eye-opening revelation was already old news. Taking into account the fact that men rarely ever truly understood women, she was willing to give him a little more credit, choosing to believe instead that the communications system between his head and his overprotected heart was a little rusty, and that he knew Abby about as well as he knew himself. Katie figured his head just didn’t want to acknowledge what his heart already knew. He was being too damn cautious, and she wanted to knock some sense into him, but the way he looked right now…well, it made it a little hard to handle the situation with the harshness she was beginning to think it deserved, if only to open his eyes before it was too late. Not that she was an expert on tough love, she just…dammit, the man was being such a hardhead. And Abby…Abby was giving him a neck and neck run for his money. Unable to stop herself, Katie blurted, “You look awful.”

Katie’s candor made a hint of a smile grace Nick’s lips, and he took the charts from her hands and started walking without any particular destination in mind, Katie following behind him. His reply was honest, to the point, and revealing. “I’ve never been more miserable in my life.”

Nodding knowingly, Katie matched her stride to his effortlessly longer one, and they walked in silence for a while, past elevators and down winding hallways. Their journey finally ended at the nursery where a symphony of newborn cries hailed them, and Katie felt an almost painful tug at her heart at the unbearable softness in Nick’s gray eyes as he gazed upon them through the viewing glass. Smiling, she murmured in a voice just as gentle as the look in his eyes an age-old question, hoping not to startle him. “Boy or girl?”

His gaze still trained ahead, Nick answered, barely above a whisper as he gave a slight shake of his head. “Ours. Hers and mine. Healthy. That’s all that matters.”

Simultaneously touched and baffled by his answer, Katie pondered how one man could seemingly be so blind to his own feelings.

“With her eyes.”


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Milk did a body good, and dammit if Pilar Lopez-Fitzgerald didn’t hold VERY strongly to that belief, Abby thought silently, her hazel eyes wide as Pilar pushed what had to be the sixth glass of milk of the day into her hands. Beside her on the sofa, Theresa giggled, and Abby frowned when she glanced around her and noticed the laughter lurking in both Paloma’s and Miguel’s dark eyes. “Really, Pilar,” she tried ineffectually to return the glass of milk to the older woman’s hands, “I have more milk in me than Betsy the Dairy Cow. I couldn’t possibly drink another drop.” Her child was going to exit the womb mooing, a true tabloid headline-grabber.

“It’s good for the baby,” Pilar insisted sternly, with a look in her dark eyes that dared Abby to voice any more complaints. Without another word, she crossed the living room to look outside the window at the boys, playing a game of catch with Martin and Chad, who, along with Theresa, had arrived shortly after breakfast.

Did these people not work, Abby wondered idly as she sipped compliantly at her glass of milk. For that matter, did SHE work anymore? The avoidance tactic she was taking with Nick was eating up all of her personal time. Hell. Would she have any time left to take for maternity leave? Would she even have a job to take maternity leave from when she finally decided to quit evading the man and whatever the hell kind of future that awaited them as parents? Oh God, ohhh s***. And that was the least of her concerns, the tip of the iceberg if she could still trust her instincts. When Miguel looked at her in concern, Abby flashed him a reassuring smile and forced herself to think of other things, like the trip to New York that Theresa had been chattering excitedly about ALL morning and was STILL practically bubbling over. It was a futile effort—Theresa was talking dizzyingly fast—and Abby quietly excused herself, heaving a giant sigh of relief when she made it to the relative solitude of her bedroom. She knew it was childish, but she kept her fingers crossed, praying no one would follow her, not even Miguel. Millions of questions and thoughts were swirling around inside her jumbled head, half of them without any obvious answers. She was so damn confused.

The curtains flapped in the breeze admitted through the partially raised window, and Abby could hear that MJ and Joshua were laughing, little boys again, and the sound brought a smile to her lips that quickly faded when her crazy thoughts caught back up with her.

They weren’t her little boys, no matter if she’d attended Miguel’s meeting with MJ’s teacher and sat at his side in what should have been Kay’s chair. No matter if she’d become a frequent visitor at Joshua’s therapy sessions.

Abby wanted desperately to help Miguel, but the responsibility for mending his broken heart wasn’t hers; they’d been moving past the point of awkwardness to a comfort zone that she much preferred to the disconcerting awareness that lurked in the depths of Miguel’s serious dark eyes with each passing day during which their co-dependency grew out of control like an untended garden.

That, and she’d already established that she was dangerously close to overstepping her own good sense when it came to MJ and Joshua.

Biting her lip, Abby closed her eyes against the truth she knew would break her heart and theirs. She was wading in too deep, and the water would soon be over her head if she weren’t careful.
It was time to go back home where she belonged.

Just as soon as she figured out a way to let them ALL down gently.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Jake may have only had ten years to his dad’s too many to count, but he was wise beyond his years. Way wise beyond his years. Wise enough to appreciate true beauty when he saw it. Even man enough to admit it when it took his breath away. And he was most definitely breathless, thanks to Ali.


But, Jake was a card-carrying He-Man Woman Hater, and letting Ali catch him giving her moon eyes would be like the kiss of death to his tough guy reputation, so he did the smart thing. He did the manly thing.

He let her take his breath away from the safety of the tree house, hidden and unnoticed, all the while keeping up the pretense of playing fort with Cristian.

Barefoot and lightly tanned, Ali had a restored healthy glow to her cheeks as she crowded close to Sheridan’s side, her pretty mouth open wide in a smile as she tickled her little sister’s tummy, making her squirm in Sheridan’s lap and cackle with delight. Lissy was snuggled close to Sheridan’s opposite side, her tawny hair spilling loosely over her shoulders, her fingers tickling Hope’s chubby little tummy, too, and Jake couldn’t help but feel sorry for the kid, all helpless and defenseless at the onslaught. But his good sense and reason was quickly restored. After all, gleeful and willful torture of one’s little brother, or in this case, little sister, fell under the older brother or sister’s unspoken bill of rights. Besides, a little tickling was harmless in the grand scheme of things. Unless you didn’t want to get peed on. Jake shuddered at the unsavory memory that thought brought rushing back and turned around to face Cristian. He couldn’t very well let Cristian tattle on him for staring at his sister, could he? Not that Cristian would actually be so spiteful. He just couldn’t keep a secret is all.

Playing fort alone wasn’t much fun, and Cristian released a noisy sigh when he realized he finally had Jake’s attention. “I’m bored.”

So was he, Jake thought grumpily, casting a longing glance down at the tight-knit group below them. It just wasn’t fair, he thought with a frown. Ali never paid any attention to him when Lissy was around. “Me, too,” Jake said, letting loose an equally loud sigh as he flopped down beside Cristian and matched his dejected pose, legs crossed Indian style, elbows propped on his thighs, and chin supported by his palms.

“We could play catch with Max,” Cristian suggested hopefully.

“Too hot,” Jake muttered, the idea not holding much appeal to him, as they’d already played twenty rounds of fetch with the eager golden retriever earlier.

“Yeah,” Cristian agreed. “What about fishing? We could go fishing.”

Jake’s brows rose at the suggestion as he wondered where exactly Cristian thought they could go fishing, especially when they were surrounded by girlie girls that would be horrified at the suggestion, but then a slow grin blossomed on his face as the perfect idea occurred to him, and he gave Cristian’s dark head an appreciative if not teasing tousle. “You know what Cristian? You’re a genius. That’s a perfect idea.”

Cristian’s tanned face nearly split in two with the proud wide grin he gave Jake in answer, and he followed Jake carefully down the rungs of the tree house ladder, jumping before he reached the last one, mimicking Jake’s own bravery as he leapt to the soft green grass below. Only Cristian tumbled to his hands and knees, the breath momentarily knocked out of him as he rolled to a sitting position in a complete daze. Not wanting to look like a baby in front of Jake, he climbed to his feet seconds later, brushing the blades of grass and smudges of dirt from his knees.

“Jeez,” Jake groaned, as he imagined the likely methods of punishment Uncle Luis would dole out to him if Cristian cried or even mentioned he were hurt because he had to copycat everything Jake did. “You alright?” Jake snuck a look over his shoulder, grateful that Sheridan hadn’t witnessed Cristian’s fall or his quickly formulating plan would be over before it was started.

“Yeah,” Cristian replied without so much as a pout.

Jake felt the faint stirrings of pride for the kid. So Cristian wasn’t a completely hopeless Mama’s baby case; there was still hope for him to toughen it up. But until then, Jake decided to take on the job of his protector, cause he was young and all. Cristian’s status as Ali’s little brother didn’t have anything to do with it. Nothing at all. With a jaunty step forward, Jake started whistling a nameless little tune, something he’d heard on television somewhere. Where, he had no idea. Probably one of his sisters’ stupid videos.

“Where we going?” Cristian wondered as he jogged to catch up with Jake, who was headed toward the house.

“We need something to dig with. A shovel. And a bucket,” Jake said decisively, slowing down so Cristian’s much shorter legs didn’t have to work so hard to keep up.

“What for?” Cristian asked, just the slightest bit puzzled. Fishing with his daddy and Jake’s uncle Sam never involved a shovel and a bucket, but what did he know. Jake was ten. Cristian was starting kindergarten in the fall. Jake was older and smarter, and he was just…Jake. His sand pail and shovel were somewhere in his room, probably under his bed. “I know where I can find them. What are we digging for?”

Jake rolled his brown eyes as he gently pushed Cristian inside the air-conditioned kitchen ahead of him. “Bait, you doofus. Worms. Creepy, crawly, slimy ones that the fish’ll just LOVE. Now hurry up and don’t mention anything about our trip to your mom or Ali and especially not Lissy.”

Cristian’s brow furrowed in confusion. “But why?”

“Because it’s a surprise,” Jake told him, grinning as his plan started to crystallize inside his devious Bennett mind. “And,” he added in a stroke of brilliance that made Cristian virtual putty in his capable hands, “your mom won’t say no if we already have the bait and everything, can she? Hurry up. I’ll wait for you out here.” He helped himself to a tall glass of lemonade while he waited on Cristian and his grin stretched even wider as his brown eyes took on a mischievous glint. You didn’t ignore Jake Bennett. You just didn’t. In fact, his dad always said it was dangerous to do so.

This was going to be fun.

UAgirl
9.2.07, 11:51 PM
Chapter 15





“At this rate, Little Buddy,” Hank smirked as he steered his scowling young son down Sheridan and Luis’s front walkway toward the waiting car, “you’ll be grounded until you’re thirty.”

Shrugging, Jake had only one thing to say in his defense. “They were just worms.”

“And girls are such sissies,” Hank played along. After all, he’d heard it all before, said most of it before actually. “But I think dropping one of them down the back of Lissy’s shirt was a little too much, don’t you?”

Rubbing at the shoulder that still smarted and probably would for a good while, Jake muttered under his breath, “She doesn’t hit like a girl.” He frowned as he cinched his seat belt over his hips.

Chuckling quietly, Hank mirrored his son’s actions then inserted the key in the ignition and cranked the car, pulling out of the driveway and steering the vehicle homeward. Silence reigned over the twosome for several minutes with Hank sneaking peeks at his disgruntled son while Jake steadfastly ignored him, searching the radio for a good station. Hank just smiled when, frustrated by the overabundance of drippy love songs and moldy oldies, Jake turned the radio back off and slumped further in his seat with an exaggerated sigh, the scowl on his face further deepening. “You know…I hate to break it to you, Little Buddy, but I think Lissy’s in it for the long haul.”

“I was here first,” Jake reminded his father.

“You and Ali go way back,” Hank agreed. “Ah, the Diaper Days,” he teased, reaching over to ruffle his son’s mop of brown hair. “I remember those days like they were only yesterday. All it took was one look at Ali’s Pampers and you were a goner.”

“Dad,” Jake warned.

“All right,” Hank backed down, biting back a knowing smirk. He’d quit giving the kid grief on his love life. For now. He continued to steer the car through the streets of Harmony, bustling with all the usual activity of summer and the warm day. Passing the Youth Center, he honked his horn at Theresa and Chad, walking arm in arm to Theresa’s sporty little car, and waved back when they raised their arms in salute. “Lobster Shack?” he questioned Jake, slowing the car as they neared the much-visited establishment.

“Pizza?” Jake suggested hopefully.

“What were you and Ali up to in that tree house, Little Buddy? We had pizza yesterday,” Hank raised his brows at his young son.

“Nothing,” Jake grumbled. “I’m just tired of burgers. And I don’t want any more of Aunt Grace’s meatloaf. Is that such a crime?”

“You’ve got a point,” Hank admitted. “I’ll hold off on having Noah read you your rights.”

“Thanks,” Jake muttered with enough sarcasm to make Kay proud.

Smiling at the idea of his niece smiling down at them from Heaven,
Hank again reached out to ruffle Jake’s hair, but this time his son artfully and skillfully dodged his efforts, squirming in his seat with a mischievous gleam in his brown eyes. Thwarted, Hank turned his attention back to the road, a smile still playing on his lips as he trotted out his last suggestion. “Hotdogs?”

“Dad,” Jake groaned. “Do you know what hotdogs are made of?”

“Since when do you listen to your grandmother?” Hank inquired.

“I don’t,” Jake protested. “But it’s kind of hard not to when she goes on and on.”

“And on,” Hank continued the thought, scratching his chin over their dinner-time dilemma. “Well, I’m all out of suggestions. Better think quick, Little Buddy, because right about now, Aunt Grace’s meatloaf is looking pretty good.” He glanced over at his son, certain he could see the wheels frantically turning in Jake’s brain. Finally, it seemed, a light bulb went off, and his quick-thinking son saved the day.

“Chinese,” Jake blurted. “Sara likes to play with the chopsticks.”

“And Emmy loves those egg rolls,” Hank grinned, flipping his blinker on and making a quick turn back toward the sole Chinese restaurant in Harmony. “I’ll tell Sally to throw in some extra fortune cookies for you. Maybe they’ll help you solve your GIRL problems,” he said with a wink as he stopped the car and killed the engine.

“Girl problems?” Jake rolled his eyes at his dad’s back as he climbed out of the car. “I don’t have no girl problems.” His left hand shot toward the key in the ignition, ready to turn the radio back on while he waited. His intentions really were innocent, but it seemed the stigma of crashing his mom’s car through grandma and grandpa’s garage way, way back would never be forgotten; his dad didn’t take any chances with his keys. “One day I’m going to have my own car, Dad,” he grumbled, “and then you won’t be able to take the keys away from me.”

Hank leaned in through the opened window, snatched the car keys from the ignition, and tossed them up in the air, catching them easily when they came back down. “You might want to get Mom to check your temperature when we get home, Little Buddy,” Hank spoke seriously before the features of his face drew up in a knowing smirk. “That’s a nasty case of denial you seem to be coming down with.”

Jake put an end to the conversation the same way he had started it: with a scowl.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




At the Lopez-Fitzgerald house, Jake’s reign of terror had already been forgotten. The entire family, with the notable addition of Lissy, were gathered in the kitchen where Ali’s favorite dinner of spaghetti was being prepared.

Luis, home from a long day at work, wrapped his arms around his wife’s waist from behind and pulled her back against his chest, noisily kissing her cheek then her neck, making the girls giggle and Cristian blush.

“Luis,” Sheridan relaxed into his arms for only a moment, a contented smile playing upon her lips, “you want this spaghetti to be edible, don’t you?” She laughed at the answering twinkle in his eyes and the way his arms dropped back down to his sides.

“That’s right. No distractions,” Luis stepped back, putting some distance between the two of them. “No touching,” he said with a sly grin. “We don’t want Mommy to burn dinner, do we?” he winked at the kids.

Lissy’s chocolate eyes narrowed. “You can’t burn spaghetti.”

“My mommy can,” Cristian piped up almost proudly, causing his parents and the rest of the room to laugh.

“Cristian,” Sheridan chided, wrapping her fingers around his thin wrist and tugging him close. “I’m hurt.”

Cristian worried for all of two seconds. That’s how long it took before his mommy had him spinning in her arms, a glorious smile on her face, dancing to music only she could hear, making him laugh breathlessly while everyone else looked on.

Then they were all dancing, as music filled the room (courtesy of a certain angel, perhaps?), and dinner was forgotten.

Until, of course, the smoke alarm started going off.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




MJ was dutifully loading the dishwasher when Miguel found him. That alone was enough to raise his suspicions. “Hey,” he said, taking a plate from the kitchen counter and rinsing it underneath the tap before he placed it in MJ’s waiting hands, “where’s Abby?”

“Tucking Joshua in,” MJ responded as he worked side by side with his father in a comfortable silence. Soon, the dishwasher was loaded, and its smooth rumble, along with the familiar drip of the faucet, filled the kitchen. “Dad,” MJ ventured as he followed his dad into the living room, turning off lights along the way.

Miguel glanced at his young son and contemplated his downcast eyes and his fidgety hands and knew whatever was bugging MJ had to be serious, at least to him. “If something’s bothering you, MJ, you know you can talk to me about it. Is it…is it about your mom?”
Miguel finished in a strangled whisper, praying it wasn’t. With the memories of the night before still fresh and smarting, he wasn’t sure he was up to playing the role of the comforting father that MJ deserved.

“No,” MJ replied in just as quiet and just as strangled a whisper.

Miguel could hear in his son’s voice every bit of his own pain, his own longing, and he reached out a hand to lay it on top of MJ’s restless hands, giving them an encouraging squeeze and waited. It was all, he was beginning to realize as the days continued to pass by without Kay in them, that he could do. But he wasn’t waiting on normal anymore, only something closely resembling it.

Finally, when Miguel was about to give up, MJ spoke, “Dad…I want Abby to stay.”

“MJ,” Miguel countered, “we’ve been over this. Abby’s only staying with us temporarily. Someday…MJ, she won’t always be here.” He hoped they were finished, he hoped he was preparing MJ for the reality of Abby leaving them one day when everything between her and Nick was settled, he hoped they wouldn’t revisit this conversation again, but MJ’s next words proved him wrong.

“You can’t let her leave us, Dad. You have to make her stay.”

“MJ,” Miguel shook his head, trying to talk some sense into his son, “I can’t make Abby do anything she doesn’t…”

MJ would have none of it, cutting him off. “You have to make her marry you.”

UAgirl
9.3.07, 12:27 AM
Chapter 16



“Marry ME?” Miguel sputtered after several seconds of stunned silence.

“You have to make her marry you so she won’t leave us,” MJ reasoned as if it made all the sense in the world.

“MJ,” Miguel sighed as he struggled to find the words to respond.

“Abby wouldn’t leave, Dad. I know she wouldn’t. Not if you married her. She’d stay forever because…because she just wouldn’t leave us if you married her and me and Joshua were her little boys,” MJ insisted.

Taking MJ by the shoulders, Miguel gently pushed him down onto the sofa, following him a moment later. “Your mom didn’t leave because she wanted to. You know that. Don’t you, MJ? She wanted to stay with us very, very much, but she had an accident, and…”

“I know,” MJ interjected, his voice small and wobbly as tears threatened at the back of his dark eyes. “I know. But Dad,” he entreated.

“What about the baby?” Miguel reminded MJ.

“Me and Joshua can be its big brothers,” MJ replied, doubt creeping into his voice as he offered further proof, “I’m a good big brother.”

“You ARE a good big brother. One of the best,” Miguel agreed, cupping his hand around MJ’s small chin as it trembled slightly. “Abby’s baby is going to be so lucky to have you and Joshua in its life, but not as its big brothers.”

“Why?” MJ cried, the first tears leaking from the corners of his eyes. “Why not? Abby loves us, Dad. I know she does.”

“She does,” Miguel answered his son with conviction. “She loves you and Joshua very much.”

“She loves you too,” MJ retorted.

“And I love her,” Miguel shocked himself with his own reply. Still, there was a difference between loving someone and being IN love with someone. Somehow, he hoped to make MJ understand, had to make him understand. “But MJ…”

MJ took his father’s revelation and run with it. “We love Abby, and she loves us. If you marry her, we’ll be a family. The baby will be ours.”

Miguel breathed a deep sigh, feeling his resolve to set his young son straight weaken the more excited he got.

“We’ll take care of it and feed it,” MJ picked up steam. “It can sleep in Abby’s room and Abby can stay in your room with you. It can have all my old clothes and toys.”

“You got it all figured out, don’t you?” Miguel pulled MJ into a half-hug, unwilling to dash his son’s hopes and break his heart tonight, even if it wasn’t the most responsible action to take.

“I don’t need them anymore,” MJ shrugged, letting his dad hold him close for only a little while before pulling away and standing up. “I’m not a baby anymore.”

Miguel felt a painful little tug at his heart even as he admired the fiercely independent streak that reminded him so very much of Kay and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and his chin on his folded hands. “You’re not,” he agreed, “but that doesn’t mean you can go to bed just any old time you want.” He glanced at the watch on his wrist and gave MJ a pointed look.

MJ just smiled and started walking in the direction of his bedroom.

“It can’t be that easy,” Miguel shook his head, narrowing his eyes at his son suspiciously. “It’s never that easy. Something’s up. MJ,” he spoke warningly. “You’ve never…not before…what’s going on?”

“Nothing,” MJ shrugged with a little grin playing at the corners of his mouth. “It’s just…”

“Just what?” Miguel encouraged, more than a little intrigued.

“Abby said she had to talk to you, and you have to talk to her…” MJ trailed off.

“MJ,” Miguel shook his head, “has anyone ever told you how impossible you are?”

“Yep,” MJ responded with a full-fledged grin. “Abby does. Every day. She says it’s part of my Lopez-Fitzgerald charm, but I have a special kind ‘cause I’m half Bennett AND half Lopez-Fitzgerald. So I’m even MORE impossible.”

“Goodnight, MJ,” Miguel laughed, thinking truer words had never been spoken.

“Night, Dad,” MJ yawned and took his leave with one last parting shot, “Don’t forget…”

More impossible indeed, Miguel thought as he sank back against the sofa’s cushions and waited.

Abby wanted to talk to him.

Why did that news fill him with so much dread? Was he afraid her words would disappoint MJ? Or worse…was he afraid she would disappoint him?





~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


Christopher had picked Lissy up shortly after their delightfully disastrous dinner, and the last stubborn little Lopez-Fitzgerald holdout was fast asleep in her nursery.


Luis turned the baby monitor on and set it on the nightstand then lifted the covers back from the bed and crawled in beside his wife, who seemed to be completely absorbed by the stack of documents resting in her lap. Leaning over her shoulder, Luis scanned the top page for a few seconds then sighed when he realized what Sheridan was reading.

Sheridan heard his sigh and looked up, guilt in her blue eyes. They’d agreed, even though it went against every investigative instinct Luis had ever had, to leave Alistair Crane in the past. Her father—and his dirty deeds—were dead and buried. No need to dredge him or them back up. But Ethan and Beth’s visit the other day hadn’t been purely for pleasure. Ethan had found the documents in one of her father’s safes and felt they might be of interest to her. She’d just spent the last half hour going over them, and two names kept appearing throughout, familiar names. “Lissy’s parents used to work at Crane Industries.”

Luis frowned, reaching for the documents so he could see them with his own eyes. “I wonder why he never mentioned it before.”
“Luis,” Sheridan said pointedly. “Your ill feelings toward my family aren’t exactly a secret.”

“Alistair was the only Crane I had a beef with,” Luis defended himself. When Sheridan arched a golden brow at him in disbelief, he hastened to remind her, “I married you, didn’t I? We have three beautiful children together. Obviously, my feelings have changed.”

“Obviously,” Sheridan smirked, dropping a kiss on his bare shoulder and watching his dark eyes, knowing his mind was hard at work, his suspicions raised. “So Christopher and his wife USED to work at Crane Industries while my father was still at the helm. That doesn’t automatically make them evil or morally corrupt.”

“No,” Luis conceded, handing the documents back to Sheridan, who slid them back into their manila envelope and leaned over him to place them on the nightstand beside the baby monitor. “It doesn’t.”

“Lissy’s a wonderful little girl,” Sheridan told him, sitting astride his thighs and encircling her arms around his neck. “I think that speaks to what kind of people her parents are. Were,” she added sadly, thinking of the way Lissy still longed for her mother, years after her death. In that aspect, she reminded Sheridan very much of herself.

“Okay,” Luis relented, allowing her to talk him down from the theories and reservations that had entered his mind as soon as he had learned of Christopher’s past connection to Alistair Crane. He did still believe in the innocent until proven guilty concept; he just had a harder time keeping a clearer head when his family was involved, Ali in particular because for so long it had been just the two of them.

“Luis,” Sheridan sighed, a note of recognition in her soft whisper, “I know you just want to protect Ali. I do too. Ali and Lissy have been friends for a while now; they’re a big part of each other’s lives. We’ve known Christopher through Lissy just as long. He’s a decent man that loves his daughter.”

“That used to work for your father,” Luis reminded her.

“Luis,” Sheridan sighed again, “haven’t you ever heard of the six degrees of separation?” She cupped his face in her hands as she smiled into the dark eyes that she loved so much. “If you look hard enough, there are connections between all of us, big or small. Don’t worry so much.”

Luis allowed her to soothe the furrow in his brow with her lips and her gentle hands, and he felt his worries receding to the background if not dissolving completely. His palms slid over the supple smoothness of her skin, inching the material of her cotton nightgown up her thighs with each sweep as she kissed his mouth, long and sweet. Leaning his forehead against hers when the kiss ended finally, he muttered, “I can’t help it. It’s who I am.”

“I know,” Sheridan rubbed her thumb over his lower lip with a small smile. “And I love you for it,” she said, taking his hand and bringing it to her lips, “but let’s not make a big deal out of this. Okay?”

“Okay,” Luis ended the conversation, letting his hand drift from her lips to her jawline, the fingers of his other hand shushing her when she started to protest in suspicion. “It’s really that easy,” he spoke her thoughts aloud with a teasing grin. “We’ve wasted too much time on this topic anyway. She isn’t going to sleep all night,” he added when Sheridan still didn’t seem to get the picture. “And Cristian is due for his glass of water in,” he mentally calculated the time that had elapsed since they had tucked their son in, “about an hour. We don’t have much time.”

Sheridan’s eyes twinkled as she helped him divest her of her nightgown and wrapped her arms around his neck as he placed his hands on her hips. “What happened to romance?”



*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Abby shut the door to the boys’ bedroom with a heavy sigh and hugged her arms around her waist as she walked down the hall to the living room on reluctant feet.

The local news was playing on the television; the five-day forecast didn’t look good.

“Look’s like it’s time to break out my string bikini,” Abby whistled softly as she settled on the sofa beside Miguel, tucking her legs beneath her.

One dark eye popped open, and a small smile played at the corners of Miguel’s mouth, but he didn’t say anything.

He never did speak much around her, Abby mused wryly. Why should he, she reasoned to herself. She flapped her mouth enough for the both of them. “Of course, I wouldn’t want to scare the boys. I know Dr. Russell’s SUPERDOC around here, but she hasn’t ever dealt with hysterical blindness before, has she?”

“I don’t think so,” Miguel agreed, no longer bothering to control the smile on his face.

“Give me that,” Abby grinned, leaning over and snatching the remote from its resting spot on Miguel’s thigh. The smile on her face froze when Miguel grabbed her hand and took the remote from it, turning the television off, shaking his head.

For one long, awkward moment, Miguel looked at her hand in his own then he cleared his throat, releasing her hand and taking the initiative before he lost his nerve, his earlier conversation with MJ still lingering in his mind. “MJ said you wanted to talk.”

“I did. I do,” Abby answered slowly. Now that the moment was here, she didn’t know what to say. Her goodnights to the boys tonight had been no more than a coward’s goodbyes because she couldn’t face them in the morning. Not that breaking their hearts then was any better. God, how could she have let this happen? All these months, Grace was right. She’d been so blind to the selfish path she’d been traveling. She couldn’t play mommy to two such vulnerable, fragile little boys when her heart dictated she belonged with someone else. Grace had obviously seen that and had wanted to save them all the pain of the inevitable. Abby found herself wishing again things with Nick weren’t so complicated, that she weren’t such a mess, and she hadn’t dragged the boys into her screwed up life. “The boys are too attached to me,” she blurted.

Stunned into silence, Miguel took a few seconds to respond. “You’re special to them. A friend—a connection to their mother.” Sighing, he looked up from his hands where they lay clasped in his lap and at her. “Grace means well, but she doesn’t understand that. She doesn’t understand…” he trailed off.

“She doesn’t understand what?” Abby gently prodded.

“That they…WE need you,” Miguel admitted softly.

Abby shook her head. “You don’t need me, Miguel. Not you or the boys. You only think you do. You’d do just fine without me.”

Miguel frowned. “What do you mean without you? Abby, what’s going on? You’re not…”

Abby recognized the exact instant realization dawned in Miguel’s dark eyes, and the potent flash of pain she saw in them stabbed at her heart like a knife.

“You can’t, you can’t. Not like this,” Miguel stammered, panic making his voice rise and his hands tremble as they grabbed at hers. He couldn’t deal with this right now, lose another person he cared for, another person that helped keep Kay real and alive for him. Kay was fading from his life in degrees, much the way her scent had ceased to linger on her pillow and the clothes he still kept at the back of their closet. If Abby left…

“I have to,” Abby’s answer was a mere whisper as she freed one of her hands from Miguel’s stronghold and cupped his jaw, the pad of her thumb brushing his skin in an attempt to soothe the worry lines around his mouth and eyes. “Before I can’t.”

“You don’t have to go,” Miguel protested.

He looked so much like MJ in that moment, so much like a lost little boy himself, Abby’s only thought was to comfort him as she brought her other hand up to his face and leaned her forehead against his. She didn’t see it coming until it was too late, and Miguel did the unthinkable...

He kissed her.

UAgirl
9.3.07, 12:45 AM
Chapter 17





“Miguel. Miguel,” Abby cried, pushing weakly against Miguel’s shoulders. “Stop.”

Miguel wouldn’t be deterred. Before Abby had a chance to protest further, he captured her lips again, this time in a desperate, bruising kiss.

Against her will and common sense, Abby felt herself respond to the desperation and hopelessness in Miguel’s kiss, but only for a few brief seconds. Guilt soon took over. There were several reasons kissing Miguel wasn’t right, Nick and her feelings for him the most glaring. She’d been on the receiving end of the fallout from one ‘goodbye’ kiss already; she couldn’t return the favor. Well, she couldn’t continue the favor. The favor was already done. Dammit! She pushed Miguel away a little harder this time, before she lost complete control of the situation. “Miguel, stop it,” she gasped for breath. “This isn’t us. This isn’t right.”

“Why isn’t it us? It COULD be us,” Miguel insisted, MJ’s fragile hopes and dreams spurring him on. “I could make you happy, Abby. We could make each other happy again.”

Abby closed her eyes against the tears she felt building and sighed, giving Miguel’s hands a gentle squeeze. “Oh, Miguel.” She knew, deep inside, he didn’t really believe what he was saying. He couldn’t. She couldn’t be a substitute for Kay. She wouldn’t. Besides, Kay was irreplaceable. Miguel knew that; she knew that. This was just…temporary insanity. That’s exactly what it was.

“Why not?” Miguel grew angry, the pain he was feeling making him lash out uncharacteristically. “At least I’d be here. I’m not the kind of man that gets a woman pregnant and disappears. You can depend on me, Abby.”

Abby recoiled, wrapped her arms around her middle protectively. “That’s not fair, and you know it. Nick…Nick’s lack of involvement in my life and this pregnancy is all thanks to me.” When Miguel started to protest, Abby made a painful admission. “He made a mistake. I guess that means he’s human. But I’m the one who f---ed things up with all my insecurities. He’d be right by my side if I just gave him the chance.” Abby smiled sadly with the admission, the truth of it finally sinking in, and the tears she’d been holding in slipped free, trailing down her cheeks.

Miguel reached out a tentative hand then thought better of the gesture, raking his hands miserably through his dark hair. “I’m sorry. I just thought…MJ wanted…I don’t want to go through the rest of my life this…this numb, and I thought you, you and I…we wouldn’t be so bad together.”

“You’re a great guy, Miguel Lopez-Fitzgerald. And yeah. Maybe we wouldn’t be so bad together. If there weren’t a Nick or had never been a Kay,” Abby dropped her voice to a whisper as she said her departed friend’s name. “If I were in love with you, and we both know I’m not. I love you, Miguel, but as my friend, a friend that will always be here for me—even if right now, even if we have to spend a little time apart.”

“There has to be another way,” Miguel dropped his head to his hands. “The boys…”

“The boys are why I’m doing this,” Abby interrupted. “Before I was ‘Mommy’s crazy friend Abby.’ Now lines are being crossed that weren’t meant to be crossed and roles are blurring. I’m not their mother, Miguel. I never will be. Kay will always, always be their mother. That’s the way it should be, and nobody should try to take over her place; the shoes are impossible to fill. If I stay, I’ll lose myself. I’ll become a poor Kay substitute, and the boys deserve better than that. You deserve better than that, and someday you’ll believe that. I have to go, Miguel.”

“I know,” Miguel muttered, threading his fingers through the hand she offered him. “I just don’t know…”

“Hey,” Abby shushed him with a finger to his lips. “Don’t sell yourself short. You’ll do just fine. You’re already doing a wonderful job. I’m just the moral support.”

“You’re more than that, Abby,” Miguel wouldn’t let her sell herself short. “We wouldn’t have gotten this far…”

“You’re a Lopez-Fitzgerald,” Abby grinned through her tears. “Pilar didn’t raise quitters. You’d have been okay. All that testosterone alone,” she joked, taking her hand from his and patting his arm.

A reluctant smile graced Miguel’s lips at her gentle teasing, but it was erased by thoughts of the boys, and the difficulty he knew lay ahead. “You’ll visit often?”

Abby sobered. “Not at first. It has to be a clean break. Lingering would only give MJ and Joshua false hope and make things harder for all of us in the long run. I need to keep my distance no matter how hard that is to do.”

“It’s going to be hell,” Miguel replied.

Not only that, Abby thought as she leaned her tawny head against Miguel’s shoulder and enclosed his hand in both of hers.

It just may finish their battered hearts off.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“Mommy?” Ali called into the darkness tentatively. When her mother was slow to rouse, Ali tiptoed across the bedroom and fumbled for the bedside lamp. Finding the switch, she twisted it, bathing her mother’s body in a soft yellow glow. “Mommy,” she called again, dropping one small hand to Sheridan’s shoulder to gently shake her awake.

“Ali,” Sheridan replied groggily, still caught between sleep and wakefulness, “what is it, Sweetie?”

“I couldn’t sleep. And neither could Roo,” Ali replied.

Sheridan opened her eyes, finding them locked with the identical blue sets of her daughters’ eyes, both sets wet with tears. Pushing herself into a sitting position, she held her arms out for Hope, brushing her lips against the dark curls in a comforting gesture as soon as she received her. She scooted over, inviting Ali to crawl into bed beside her.

Ali tucked herself under her mother’s arm and rest her cheek against her mother’s chest, letting the steady beat of her heart soothe her like it always did.

“Bad dream?” Sheridan dropped a kiss to the crown of Ali’s golden head. She was especially sensitive to Ali’s nightmares. Her baby had been through so much. She hated the nightmares, almost more than Ali did. Thank God they didn’t come as frequently as they used to, but they still did and she felt powerless to help her daughter, not knowing how much of a help she already was just by being there to hold her.

Ali nodded, burrowing deeper under the covers with her mother. She didn’t want to talk about the dreams. Not because she was afraid, because she always felt safe in her mother’s arms, but because she didn’t want to make her mother sad, and the dream was over and done with anyway.

“You want to stay in here, sleep with me?” Sheridan glanced to Luis’s side of the bed, finding it empty. She barely suppressed a sigh. It wasn’t unusual for him to be called out on police business. She knew she’d find a note on the fridge if she looked out there, telling her not to worry, but she never followed his directions. How could she not worry? She (the pot) had married the kettle hadn’t she? It was impossible, but she could put on a brave face for her baby. The years had given her lots of practice. “There’s plenty of room. It’s kind of lonesome in here without your daddy. It’s silly but I always miss him when he’s gone.”

“It’s not silly,” Ali reassured her, taking the fist Hope waved about frantically in her own small hand. Hope frowned and more tears welled up in her eyes. “I think she’s hungry.”

“I think you’re right,” Sheridan agreed, lifting her arm over Ali’s head. Unbuttoning a few buttons on her nightgown, she positioned Hope at her breast. Her fussing stopped immediately as she started to suckle greedily. Sheridan smiled when Ali giggled softly, rubbing Hope’s chubby cheek. She readjusted her arm around Ali, gathering her close again.

“It’s true,” Ali said. “Daddy says she’s his new spoiled princess.”

“He’s got three of those you know,” Sheridan just smiled. Ali didn’t
possess a selfish bone in her body, but she didn’t want her to doubt her place in Luis’s affections, not for a moment. “And he loves us all just as much.”

“Mom,” Ali rolled her eyes. “I know that.”

“I was just saying,” Sheridan laughed. ‘Mom’ didn’t sting quite so much anymore. Not with the realization that she was always ‘Mommy’ when it counted.

“Did you feed me like this when I was a baby?”

“I did,” Sheridan answered her inquisitive daughter. “Cristian too. Does it embarrass you?”

Ali took only a moment’s consideration. “No. I’m going to feed my babies the same way.”

Sheridan’s heart broke just a little at the thought of her baby having babies, but in a good way. “Babies? How many babies?”

“I don’t know,” Ali pondered the question. “But I can’t have one or three.”

“Why not?”

“Because Lissy never has anyone to play with and somebody’s always left out with Jake and Sara and Emmy. Four. I think I want four babies. That way they’ll always have somebody to play with, and they’ll never be sad,” Ali said, pleased with herself.

Sheridan found herself wondering what Jake would think of Ali’s plans, and the thought made the corners of her mouth twitch. The thought of Luis’s reaction to her thoughts made her smile grow, and she was still smiling when Ali dropped the bomb on her.

“Mom! You know what that means, don’t you?”

“Ali,” Sheridan groaned, realizing Hope was asleep and tucking her beneath her chin as she settled back against the pillows, wanting very much to follow her example.

“Mom,” Ali giggled.

“Go to sleep,” Sheridan ignored her giggles, reaching past her turn the bedside lamp off.
“I think I want another little brother this time.”

:blush2ey:

UAgirl
9.6.07, 9:44 PM
Chapter 18



Noah did a double take when he walked into the Harmony P.D. and saw Luis sitting behind his desk. “Hey, Boss. I thought sleeping in late occasionally was one of the perks of being Chief.”

“There’s no such thing as sleeping late with three kids in the house,” Luis answered him, closing out of the window he’d been working in and jotting down a few more thoughts on his yellow notepad. “Kendall should have taught you that.”

“Are you kidding me?” Noah protested half-heartedly, taking the seat opposite Luis. “Katie and I don’t have sleepovers.”

Luis gave Noah a disbelieving look.

“Correction,” Noah grinned. “Mom would like to think Katie and I don’t have sleepovers.”

Luis felt a smile tugging at his lips. “Wouldn’t all mothers? How is Katie, by the way?”

“Great,” Noah replied. “Fantastic. Pretty as a picture as always.”

“Somebody’s smitten,” Luis lapsed into the teasing big brother mode so familiar to him. How many times had he teased Miguel about Kay? Just like this. The thought of Kay made him sober a bit. “How’s Sam? Grace? Are they still…”

The grin on Noah’s face faltered a bit and his voice grew tight. “Uh, they’re…good. Things are good. Better anyway. Mom’s really throwing herself into helping Katie plan the wedding.”

“If she’s anything like Theresa…” Luis trailed off with a sparkle in his eyes.

“There’s nobody quite like your sister, Luis,” Noah laughed. “I’m sure she’s hard at work planning the wedding of the year.”

“Wedding of the century,” Luis chuckled, shaking his head. When he and Sheridan had gotten married, Theresa had acted like it was Charles and Diana all over again, with a much happier ending, of course.

“She deserves it. She deserves a good guy,” Noah said, remembering the wide-eyed dreamer from his childhood.

“She’s got one in Chad,” Luis said, pushing back from the desk and rising to his feet. His respect for Chad had grown steadily over the years; he was one Crane (his lovely wife notwithstanding) Luis didn’t mind welcoming into the family. “Even if he is a Crane by blood.”

“You married one of those Cranes,” Noah reminded Luis.

“I did,” Luis agreed with a small smile. “But Sheridan’s her own person. And,” he admitted almost embarrassedly, “she’s very persuasive.”

“Must be,” Noah grinned, “if she got you to fall in love with her.”

“Very persuasive,” Luis called back over his shoulder as he took his leave of Noah and retreated to the relative privacy of his own office where he tossed the notepad onto his desk and rubbed his hand over his face and jaw thoughtfully, contemplating what its pages contained—enough to further raise his suspicions about Lissy’s father and his connection, however tenuous, to Alistair Crane.

Noah was right; Sheridan WAS persuasive.

Just not persuasive enough.





~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




Nick jerked awake with a start.


Sunlight spilled in through the windows, and the rays were bright enough to tell Nick that he had done it again. After another restless night without Abby by his side, he’d tossed and turned until he’d fallen into a miserable, fitful state of limbo where he was neither awake nor asleep, until the weary hours had taken their toll. He dreaded the call he knew he had to make to the hospital, telling his staff he would again be late.

He pressed the heels of his hands hard against his bleary gray eyes as he swung his legs over the side of the sofa, grimacing when the action knocked over the remainder of the beer he’d nursed dolefully last night. Swearing softly, he quickly picked up the upended bottle and placed it on the coffee table then mopped up the mess with his balled up tee-shirt, rationalizing that it needed to be washed anyway.

To hell with washing the damn shirt, Nick thought as he reached the kitchen and stared at the dirty dishes piled up in the sink. He tossed the shirt and the empty bottle into the trash and crossed to the sink, transferring all of the dishes to one side so that he could run himself a glass of water.

Polishing off the glass of water, Nick put it into the sink with the others, promising himself he’d clean them up later tonight when he came home, and the hours until he had his work and his patients to keep his mind off of how badly he’d handled things with Abby wouldn’t seem so endless and empty.

Who was he kidding?

Nobody.

Least of all himself.

Lucky rubbed against the backs of Nick’s legs and meowed pitifully, and Nick sighed as he stooped to pick the animal up. “You miss her too, don’t you?”

Lucky gave another mournful meow in response and pushed his head against Nick’s hand, desperate for affection.

“I thought so.” Nick scratched behind the cat’s ears until he started to purr, a soft, comforting sound. “Hungry?” he questioned, carrying Lucky with him to the refrigerator. Peering inside, Nick didn’t find much suitable for human consumption, but there was a small amount of milk left so he took the container out and set Lucky down on the kitchen floor as he searched for a bowl to pour the milk in.

Lucky meowed impatiently and jumped onto the kitchen counter, lapping greedily from the dish as soon as Nick had it filled.

Raising a dark brow, Nick crossed his arms and regarded the cat with a level stare. “She’d hang you by your tail if she saw you now.”

“No,” said a soft voice, somewhere behind him, a soft voice that stopped his heart in his chest. “I think you have that wrong.”

Nick turned around slowly, disbelief making him blink his gray eyes at the welcome sight before him, the smirk on her lips and the twinkle that shone even through the unshed tears.

“She’d hang you.”






~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“Just one more measurement,” Theresa promised, pencil between her teeth, “and you’ll be free.” Straightening up, she scribbled some numbers on the pad resting on the arm of the sofa and smiled brightly at Sheridan. “Thanks again for agreeing to be my matron of honor, Sheridan. You have no idea how much it means to me.”


“You’re welcome,” Sheridan returned the smile as she turned to face her young sister-in-law. “Theresa, I’m so happy for you and Chad.”

Theresa beamed at the sincerity in Sheridan’s voice. “Thank you, because I’m happy. Happier than I think I’ve ever been.”

“Chad always has been able to put a smile on your face.” Sheridan nudged Miss Priss over and took a seat on the sofa, leaving room for Theresa to sit beside her.

“He has.” Theresa brightened even more with the realization, if that were possible. “It’s funny. He was always so supportive of me, you know, with Ethan. I never in a million years thought that I’d…that we’d…”

“I know,” Sheridan simply said, wondering at the thoughtful expression on Theresa’s face.

“I don’t think I even saw him as a possibility for me until…” Theresa trailed off, uncertain whether to continue or not.

“Until Ali,” Sheridan finished for her gently. No other words were needed. Both of them knew exactly what Sheridan meant, and their smiles disappeared as the mere allusion transported them both back to those few days that had taken so much out of both of them.

Tears threatened to spill from Theresa’s dark eyes as she grasped Sheridan’s hand in her own and squeezed. “Sheridan…”

Shaking her head slightly as she pulled Theresa into a tight hug, Sheridan cut off the apology on the tip of Theresa’s tongue. Rubbing Theresa’s back comfortingly, she whispered, “I forgave you a long time ago, Sweetie. You just need to forgive yourself.”

“I know,” Theresa admitted. “And sometimes I think it’s okay. That I CAN do it. But then…”

“No buts,” Sheridan placed a hand over Theresa’s mouth.

The stubborn set of Sheridan’s jaw and the determination in her blue eyes reminded Theresa so much of Ali she had to laugh. At least she did her best behind the hand clasped over her mouth. When Sheridan removed her hand, Theresa laughed some more before enlightening her on the source of her change of mood. “You and Ali are just alike.”

“So everyone delights in telling me,” Sheridan laughed along with Theresa.

“It’s true.” Theresa wiped at the tears that had fallen from her eyes with the force of her laughter. “Speaking of…”

“Ali!” Sheridan exclaimed in surprise when Ali scampered through the front door like a little whirlwind. “I thought Chad was taking you to the Book Café for breakfast.”

“He is,” Ali responded breathlessly as she ran into the kitchen and emerged with Hope’s diaper bag partially hidden behind her back. “We just forgot something.” Ali extracted one hand from behind her back and gave them each a quick wave as she sprinted for the door once more. “Love you, Mom. Love you, Aunt Theresa.”

“Love you,” Sheridan and Theresa chorused.

Sheridan waited a beat before she turned to Theresa, blue eyes twinkling. “How far do you think they’ll get before they realize there aren’t any bottles in the bag?”

“A mile. Maybe two,” Theresa shrugged.

Sheridan stood up and held out a helping hand. “Blueberry muffins. My treat.”

“He’s getting better,” Theresa defended with a grin as Sheridan closed and locked the front door behind them.

“If you say so.”

UAgirl
9.7.07, 11:26 PM
Chapter 19





Nick was still struggling to formulate words when Abby crossed the short distance between them and plucked Lucky and his dish down from the kitchen counter, setting them both onto the floor.

“Do I need to go over the rules again?” Abby questioned teasingly when it became apparent to her that Nick couldn’t, or wouldn’t, speak. “The coffee table, the television, the kitchen counter…they’re all off-limits. Lucky knows this. You know this. You have to stay firm, Gray Eyes.” Nick’s eyes softened at the nickname, and Abby felt her own throat tighten painfully with emotion for a moment. “I guess it’s going to be all up to me to discipline this kid. You’re obviously nothing but an old softie.”

“You cry when Bambi loses his mother too,” Nick reminded her, finally finding his voice.

Abby felt a trembling smile tug at her lips. “I thought we agreed. Some secrets are sacred.”

Nick stepped closer to her, but he didn’t touch her, something inside him afraid he’d disturb this fragile truce she seemed to be offering him if he did. “Some secrets just aren’t all that…secretive.”

Abby grinned then through her tears. Sometimes, they were such…teenagers. Fumbling, stumbling, angst-ridden teenagers who let all their ‘issues’ get in the way of getting it right. And this WAS right. Scary. But right. “As plain as the nose on my face? I have to tell you, Gray Eyes, your vocabulary suffers when I’m not around.”

“Well, what can I say?” Nick deliberately played it light when his heart wanted to tell her his vocabulary wasn’t the only thing that suffered without her. “Not everybody talks as much as you do.”

Abby’s mouth dropped open in surprise, and she laughed softly as he brushed past her en route to pick up the bags she’d left near the front door. “And I thought you were going to say something profound like you were lost without me. Not call me a Chatty Cathy.”

“That,” Nick hoped he let his eyes speak for his heart, “should be as plain as your not-so-plain nose.”

Abby swallowed past the lump in her throat and played indignant, lest she do something typically Abby-crazy and throw herself into the man’s arms and profess her undying love and devotion—confessions of his love be damned. “What about my nose? It’s a cute nose. Our kid could do a lot worse than my nose. A LOT worse.”

Nick grinned as he listened to her inane babble.

She really was home--exactly where she belonged.


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


“Chad,” Theresa shook her head disapprovingly as she pushed against Chad’s shoulders, “you know you can’t come up here.”

‘Here’ was the studio above ‘Over the Rainbow’ where Theresa was hard at work on the girls’ dresses, not to mention her own wedding dress.

“No fiancés allowed,” Sheridan teased.

“And no boys either,” Ali chimed in. “Right, Mom?”

“Do you hear that, Man?” Chad looked down to Cristian on the step beside him. “They’re tryin’ to form an all girls club on us. That’s sexism, T-girl, and it’s not fair.”

“Yeah,” Cristian cried, filled with a sense of injustice of his own. “It’s sex…it’s sexish…it’s sexy. And we don’t like it.”

Ali’s blue eyes grew big until her aunt Theresa and her mom erupted into girlish giggles then she joined them.

“Chad,” Theresa traced the collar of the tee-shirt he wore with her index finger, a broad smile on her face, “you know how it’s bad luck to see the bride before the wedding? Well, it’s all because of the dress, and you know you can’t come up here, because you’ll see the dress and everything will be ruined, and it’ll probably rain on our wedding day.”

By the time Theresa finished her tirade, her smile was all but gone, and the teasing was over. How she got rain out of him seeing her wedding dress, Chad didn’t know, but he did know that his bride-to-be believed in fate and destiny and a whole host of things. And he didn’t want to worry her or make light of her superstitions when he didn’t necessarily feel as strongly about them. So he relented. “Okay. Okay. Cristian and me…we’ll go on down to the Blue Note. I’ll show him around the studio, show him the works, while you all paint each other’s toenails and engrave wedding invitations. And we’ll have our own policy, won’t we, Cristian?” Chad looked to his frowning little friend. “No girls allowed.”

“No girls allowed,” Cristian wholeheartedly agreed.

“I get it,” Theresa answered, once again all smiles. “No girls allowed. Now go on. No peeking,” she warned, giving both Cristian and Chad a gentle nudge down the stairs.

“Let’s go, Cristian,” Chad held onto the boy’s small hand as they descended the stairs. “You can help me with Aunt Theresa’s surprise.”

Sheridan laughed at the expression on Theresa’s face when it appeared Chad’s words had had the desired effect, and she realized she’d been trumped. “He knows you so well.”

“That’s why I’m marrying him.”






~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“Hey Luis,” Beth greeted with a smile when the bells above the door tinkled and her old friend walked in to the Book Café. “You missed them. Sheridan and the kids left with Theresa and Chad a little while ago.”

Luis frowned slightly, disappointed that he’d missed them. He’d left so early this morning he hadn’t had the chance to say goodbye.
Recognizing his disappointment, Beth continued, “They mentioned something about ‘Over the Rainbow’ and wedding dresses. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if you joined them.”

“Theresa would flip,” Luis shook his head with a knowing grin.

“You’re not even the groom,” Beth laughed.

“Doesn’t matter,” Luis laughed with her.

“No, I guess it doesn’t,” Beth said. “Can I get you anything? Coffee? A muffin? I think Sheridan and Ali left at least one blueberry muffin…”

“Coffee would be great,” Luis cut her off. “Look, Beth,” he glanced over his shoulder before looking back at her. “I need to talk to you. About the break-in. Do you think we could…”

“Sure,” Beth grabbed the coffee pot and a couple of mugs and led Luis to a quiet table toward the back of the café. She sat in the chair Luis pulled back for her and poured them both a cup of coffee before giving him her full attention. “Have you come up with anything new?”

Luis shook his head regretfully. “Nothing.”

“Nothing,” Beth echoed incredulously. “How can that be? Are there no clues, Luis? No DNA or…something?”

“Nothing,” Luis repeated. “He’s good, whoever did this.”

“Or she,” Beth interjected.

“Or she,” Luis allowed, even though it was obvious he didn’t entertain the same ideas as Beth. “No fingerprints, no clues. Beth, the investigation’s at a dead end here. And since nothing was taken…I’m thinking of shelving the case,” he admitted. “Leaving it unsolved for the time being. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, Luis,” Beth gave his hand a reassuring pat. “I know you did your best. Like you said, nothing was taken. The Book Café’s fine. I’m fine. It’s okay. Really. Ethan’s having Crane security come over to put a new system in soon, and everything will be good as new. Better even. It’s not like I have to keep a lookout over my shoulder or something. It wasn’t personal. Some stranger broke in here, found out all I had to steal was a bunch of books, and a couple of day-0ld muffins, and wasn’t interested. There’s nothing to worry about. Let me get you that muffin and a takeout cup for your coffee. There’s no rule that says the brother can’t see the bride’s dress before the wedding, and I’m sure Theresa wouldn’t mind if you dropped in.”

“Thanks, Beth. I think I’ll do that,” Luis agreed distractedly, his own mind not so sure as Beth’s that they were dealing with a complete stranger here.

“Give that adorable baby a kiss for me,” Beth smiled, kissing Luis’s cheek as she handed him a fresh cup of coffee and a small bag containing a couple of blueberry muffins.

“Will do,” Luis promised with a proud smile. “Beth?” he paused at the door.

“Yes?” Beth answered questioningly.

“Take care. Okay?” Luis implored her.

“Okay,” Beth nodded, her voice soft with promise. “Bye Luis.”

The door closed behind him and his equally soft goodbye.





~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

UAgirl
9.10.07, 9:19 PM
Chapter 20





“Oh, Aunt Theresa,” Ali beamed as she twirled around in front of the studio’s mirrored walls, wearing her flower girl’s dress proudly. “It’s so pretty.”

“Fit for a princess,” Sheridan agreed, smiling fondly at her daughter.

“It’s a work in progress,” Theresa bit her lip as she considered the alterations she’d have to make before the dress would meet her standards of perfection. “But it is pretty, isn’t it?” she finally conceded, her dark eyes dancing with pleasure. “Especially on Princess Ali.”

Ali giggled and twirled some more.

Theresa dropped down to sit beside Sheridan, and the pair quietly reveled in the sight before them—Ali, alive and healthy with her flushed cheeks, pirouetting around the expansive room as if she were the only occupant. “She’s back,” she finally whispered, seeking Sheridan’s hand with her own.

“Yes,” Sheridan replied, her eyes suspiciously moist as she squeezed Theresa’s hand tightly. “She is.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


“Uncle Chad,” Cristian mumbled, his chin propped on his hands and his small feet kicking back and forth restlessly, “is this where you make your music?”


Chad crouched down eye level with Cristian. “Yeah. This is the ‘Blue Note.’ What do you think?”

Cristian looked around the room thoughtfully. “It’s little.”

“It’s small,” Chad acknowledged. “But you know what they say…”

Cristian’s lips twitched as Chad’s fingers skated across his collarbone then made their way behind his ear, lightly tickling. “What?” he asked, shying away from the feather-light touch.

“It’s not the size that counts,” Chad plucked Cristian from his perch in a sudden move that stole the boy’s breath and made him laugh. “It’s what’s in here,” he said, placing a hand over Cristian’s heart.

Cristian’s brow furrowed. “Like when Daddy says I’m little, but I have the heart of a lion?”

“Exactly, Little Man. Exactly,” Chad smiled proudly. “This place was built with hard work and a lot of heart. That’s how we’re going to make our music here, and everybody will be able to tell that we put our whole heart and soul into it. Cristian the Lionhearted,” Chad tried the new name on for size. “Has a nice ring to it.” The comment earned him a bashful grin, and he let Cristian recover his feet, ruffling his dark hair affectionately. “Why don’t you go see if your aunt Paloma’s here yet so we can get to work on aunt Theresa’s surprise?”

“I thought you said no girls allowed,” Cristian crossed his arms across his middle in the patented stubborn Crane-Lopez-Fitzgerald pose.

“Aunt Paloma’s no girl,” Chad waved him off with a grin. “Today she’s just one of the guys.”

That seemed to suffice; Cristian was off in a flash.






~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Ethan stepped into the Book Café, shutting the door softly behind him. “Beth?” he turned around to find the front counter empty. “Beth?” A few more steps and a quick scan around revealed that the entire establishment was relatively quiet, very unusual for Harmony in the early afternoon hours.


Julie finished topping off a customer’s coffee mug and approached Ethan with a warm smile. “Hi, Mr. Crane.”

“Julie, I thought we agreed,” Ethan frowned. “No more of this Mr. Crane business.”

“I know, Mr. Crane. I mean, Ethan,” Julie corrected herself with an embarrassed blush. “Sorry,” she apologized meekly. “You’re married to my boss. I can’t help it.”

The impact of Ethan’s laughter was softened with a kind smile. “Beth doesn’t mind. I promise.”

“Please?” Julie beseeched as she twisted a strand of her hair nervously around her fingers. “Let me call you Mr. Crane. It’d make me feel a whole lot better.”

“Okay,” Ethan relented, blue eyes twinkling. “Julie,” he placed his hands palm down on the counter as he looked into Julie’s bright eyes, “about your boss…” He tossed a glance over his shoulder, indicating Beth’s conspicuous absence. “I thought we were meeting for lunch.”

“Oh, right,” Julie waved the coffee pot in her hand around animatedly as she spoke. “I promised to tell you.”

“Tell me?” Ethan prompted, watching in amazement as she wielded the coffee pot like a wand without spilling a drop of the steaming liquid.

Julie crammed her free hand into her jeans pocket, extracting a crumpled sheet of lined paper a minute later and holding it out to him.

Ethan took the note from her hand and skimmed over it, keeping one ear tuned to Julie’s nervous babbling.

“Lunch is still on at the Lobster Shack. The Lobster Shack is great, don’t you think? Beth just had a few errands to run. Last minute stuff. She promised to meet you there, and if she’s not there by noon, just order for her. She said you’d know what she likes. You’re her husband, after all,” Julie finally paused to take a breath, beaming up at him. “I think it’s so wonderful, you know, that you know her so well to know what she likes. My boyfriend Jeff…we’ve been dating since sophomore year—that’s three whole years—and he still can’t order for me. But he’s nice. He’s really great. Not as great as you, but there’s only one you, and Beth’s so lucky to be married to you, because you’re such a nice man, Mr. Crane. You’re nothing like your grandfather. You or your aunt. Your aunt is SO nice, by the way. And those kids! Oh those kids! Isn’t it sad about the oldest little girl? How she had cancer and all? But she’s all cured now. Well, not cured. I don’t think you ever get cured from something like that, from leukemia or any kind of cancer. It just goes into remission and lurks until it comes back again.” At Ethan’s stricken look, she placed a comforting hand on his arm and changed subjects dizzyingly fast. “I think you should order the steak. I know it’s the Lobster Shack, and this is Maine, and hello, it’s a seafood restaurant! But the steak is really good. Scrumptious,” Julie promised. “I think you should have the steak. You can’t go wrong there, Mr. Crane. Mr. Crane? Bye, Mr. Crane,” she leaned over the counter to wave at Ethan as he gave her a quick smile and a polite goodbye and made his escape. “Nice talking to you!”

The customer from earlier approached the counter, holding out a couple of bills and tucking them into Julie’s hands.

Julie smiled brightly, taking the money and placing it in the register. Dropping some change into the man’s open palm, she thanked him and invited him to return to the Book Café soon.

Ethan’s wallet-sized likeness smiled at Julie from his vantage point beside the cash register.

“Such a nice man,” Julie mused, her smile taking on a dreamy quality as she picked up the picture for a closer look. His eyes really were quite…

“Thanks, Julie.”

Beth seemed to appear from thin air, and the sound of her voice, so close, had Julie whirling around and a small shriek escaping from her lips.

Beth only smirked, pried the picture from Julie’s nerveless fingers, and gave the girl a friendly wink. “Mooning over my husband again? Should I be worried?”

Julie blushed and busied herself by grabbing the tray Beth had abandoned upon her return from the upstairs apartment. Supremely embarrassed, she mumbled, “Right. Chief Lopez-Fitzgerald won’t leave his wife for me so I’m going after your husband. Not likely.”

The reminder of Julie’s previous crush on Luis made the smirk on Beth’s lips soften into a gentle smile. “Julie?” she placed a calming hand on Julie’s fidgeting hands.

“Yeah?” Julie placed the two cleaned and rinsed coffee mugs back onto their rightful shelf and waited for the other shoe to drop, Beth to tell her she was fired for lusting after her husband, the world to swallow her up whole.

“You’ve got good taste.”

Too stunned to speak, Julie simply stared at Beth as she left, a smile twitching at the corners of her mouth. She certainly hadn’t considered it that way.




~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“What?!” Katie exclaimed, the telephone receiver cradled between her ear and shoulder. “You can’t be serious!”

A couple of feet away from her, Ellie pretended to be busily at work, but the wheels of her chair squeaked and groaned a little under her weight as she scooted just a fraction closer.

Frowning at Ellie’s not-so-subtle attempts to eavesdrop, Katie turned her back to the other woman, dropping her voice to a hushed whisper as she again addressed Nick—her exasperation with him still loud and clear despite the diminished volume. “What are you thinking? What about your patients? You’re going to get yourself fired.” As Katie watched, line two lit up, indicating an incoming call, and she whirled back around and glared at Ellie when it appeared the other woman wasn’t going to make an attempt to answer the phone.

With a heavy, beleaguered sigh, Ellie stabbed at the offending flashing button, her voice dull as she intoned, “Pediatric Oncology. How may I help you?”

Katie let out a thankful breath that the voice on the other end of the line had engaged Ellie’s attention elsewhere and returned her own attention back to the task at hand, blasting Nick. “This is the third time in two weeks. Look. I know you’re taking the separation from Abby hard…What? She’s there?” Flabbergasted, Katie fumbled behind her for purchase, clumsily knocking over the first object she came into contact with—Ellie’s coffee mug. Wincing at the daggers of death the blunder earned her from Ellie, Katie mouthed ‘Sorry’ and dabbed at the lukewarm sludge with her jacket sleeve when a frantic scan of the desk top yielded no napkins.

Ellie replaced the phone on the receiver with a resounding thud and jerked the mug from Katie’s fumbling fingers, thundering down the hall, in the general direction of the break room.

Katie chewed on her bottom lip anxiously as the details of Nick and Abby’s ‘reunion’ reached her ears until one comment sent up red flags. “You’re not supposed to tell her she talks too much, you idiot,” she blurted. “Honestly, how hard is it to admit to her that you love her?”

Ellie returned just in time to catch the last part of that phrase, this time making no pretenses about eavesdropping.

Covering the receiver with one hand, Katie frowned. “Do you mind?”

Ellie huffed and rolled her eyes. “This is the children’s oncology ward. Not the Love Connection. Not Gossip Central. Some of us have jobs to do.” She scowled blackly when her mini-tirade garnered a response directly opposite of the desired one.

Katie nodded, her green eyes lighting up as she said, “Dr. Taylor says he’s glad you take your job so seriously, Ellie. Harmony Hospital just wouldn’t be the same without you.” While Ellie was preening over the ‘praise,’ Katie took the wind out of her sails. “Oh, and Abby wants to know if you got the flowers. She’s sorry they’re late. She felt bad about embarrassing you and wanted to apologize. The florist didn’t have any Venus flytraps. She hopes you weren’t disappointed with the daisies.”

Steam practically poured from Ellie’s ears, and she promptly grabbed a pitiful little bouquet of daisies and their garish vase and tossed them both into the small wastebasket beneath the desk. Grumbling under her breath, she grabbed the wastebasket and again marched away, spouting something about a REAL break.

“Poor Stu,” Katie sighed, some small measure of guilt licking at her conscience about the real giver of the flowers, one of their hospital orderlies. “He’s going to be so crushed. Although…I don’t know what he sees in her.” She twirled the phone cord around her fingers as Nick repeated his earlier message. “Okay. Okay, I’ll page him. I promise. I’m sure he won’t mind checking in on your patients one more time, especially since it’s actually for a good cause this time. Yeah. Just don’t screw it up, okay. Gotta go. Bye.” Katie returned the phone to its cradle and grabbed the mouse in front of her, one click of a button bringing the Harmony Hospital paging service to the computer screen. Her fingers tapping over the keyboard, she felt a happy laugh bubble forth, and she settled her chin in her palm and decided to stop fighting it, letting the ridiculous smile that had threatened throughout the latter part of her conversation with Nick escape and take over her face.

It was about damn time.




~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~





“How did you know about the daisies?” Nick asked as he seated himself on the sofa beside Abby, careful to keep a respectable distance between them.

“Oh,” Abby’s hazel eyes twinkled merrily. “I have my ways. The walls at Harmony Hospital have ears.”

“Oh,” Nick nodded in understanding. “I know the ears you’re talking about. The ones frequently seen around the Oncology Ward wearing the latest dangly fashion.”

“Dangly?” Abby sputtered. “Fashion? Aww…you’ve been watching my Tivo again.” She grinned at him as she brought her knees up, wrapping her arms around her legs. It felt good, not hating him. She didn’t know why she hadn’t tried it earlier. It took a whole lot less energy, and energy was something precious to her lately.

Nick shifted his body, facing her, drinking her in. “You know I don’t know how to operate that damn thing.” Then, just because he wanted to see her flustered, he leaned in closer, so close he could see the tiny flecks of gold in her eyes, and pressed a kiss to the tip of her nose.

Breathe, Abby. Breathe, dammit. He kissed your nose, not your…oh boy! Not going there. Shut up, shut up, shut up. It was SO not right to think such salacious thoughts about the man that only two days ago she would have sworn had his picture in the dictionary, directly under ‘bastard.’ “What the hell was that for?” she finally blurted.

Slowly, Nick returned to his original position, his head propped in his palm and smiled at her, his gray eyes dancing. “You’re right. It IS a cute nose.”

Abby tilted her head to the side, her tawny hair spilling over her shoulders as she searched his face and eyes. “I can’t believe it,” she smiled, unable to help herself. “You’re flirting with me.”

“Yes,” Nick smirked. “The evidence suggests I am.”

“You have been watching my Tivo! The evidence? Hello. C.S.I. Come on, Gray Eyes, admit it,” Abby wheedled, unconsciously relaxing and inching closer to him.

“Now why would I do a silly thing like that?” Nick teased, scooting closer to her as well, only stopping when their knees brushed together.

“Because you missed me?” Abby braved a whisper, her eyes suspiciously bright. She needed more than insinuations and cutesy words.

“That goes without saying,” Nick replied.

“Dammit!” Abby exploded. “Why don’t you just say it? For once, just give me a straight ans…” The rest of her outcry was cut off by Nick’s lips on hers. The kiss was gentle and demanding all at once, and when it ended, the distance between them was gone and somehow, she was in his arms.

Cupping her face in his hands, Nick kissed her again before staring into her glittering eyes and giving her a straight answer. “I missed you.”

“You missed me.” She meant it as a statement. Still it lingered in the air between them as a question.

Stroking her hair back from her face, Nick pressed a tender kiss against her forehead and drew her into a hug, tucking her tawny head beneath his chin before he answered her again. “I missed you.”

And she believed him.

UAgirl
9.10.07, 9:35 PM
Chapter 21






“There’s a rumor going around that this is a ‘No-Girls-Allowed’ Club,” Paloma greeted Chad with a smile and Cristian with a quick stolen kiss to his cheek.

Too polite to wipe her kiss from her cheek, Cristian unwittingly delivered a different blow. “You’re not a girl. You’re just one of us guys. Right, Uncle Chad?”

Paloma’s bright smile dimmed briefly, and Chad internally winced, but before he could make any apologies for the innocently spoken comment, Paloma’s smile was back, bigger and brighter than ever.

“Since I’m one of the guys, does that mean I get to be a part of your super-secret surprise?”

“Uh huh,” Cristian nodded, dark eyes happily alight.

“So,” Paloma clasped her hands together, her own dark eyes dancing, Cristian’s obvious excitement contagious. “What is it? What’s the surprise?” Silence stretched for several long seconds, and meeting Chad’s eyes over the top of Cristian’s head, Paloma arched a brow in question to which Chad just smirked.

Shoulders shrugging, nose crinkled in thought, Cristian bit his lip with a small frown, finally making a concession that had both Paloma and Chad unable to suppress their delighted laughter. “I don’t know. But it’s a good surprise. Right, Uncle Chad? Aunt Theresa’s going to like it?”

Chad grinned at them both. “I promise. Aunt Theresa’s going to love it.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~





Theresa hadn’t exactly welcomed his arrival, judging from her surprised shrieks of indignation and her frantic orders that Sheridan rush to cover his eyes. She hadn’t exactly kicked him out either. One of the perks of being the big brother, Luis decided as he let his daughter pull him deeper into the open studio while his wife effectively blindfolded him. He couldn’t control the grin that stole over his lips as he teased them all. “If I’d known it was a matter of national security…”

“Haha, funny guy,” Sheridan’s breath against his ear made him shiver as she slowly removed her hands from his eyes, trailing them across his broad shoulders in the barest of touches before stepping in front of him and voicing a gentle reminder, the humor of the situation reflecting back to him in her own twinkling blue eyes. “Luis.” Her lips twitched. “Be nice.”

“You’re not supposed to be here, Daddy,” Ali scolded him then, arms crossed across her chest and feet tapping impatiently against the floor. “It’s bad luck.”

Sidestepping Sheridan, Luis peered down at her miniature, unable to tamp down his smile at the likeness as he questioned her. “Why?”

Thinking it over for a second, Ali frowned then answered, “Because Aunt Theresa says so.”

“Because Aunt Theresa says so,” Luis tested the weight of the words on his own tongue, his grin only growing broader when his kid sister reappeared, looking bright-eyed and flustered and more than a little annoyed with him. As a peace offering, wanting to smooth her ruffled feathers, he smiled at Theresa and winked at his girls. “I guess that’s as good a reason as any.”

“It better be,” Theresa grumbled half-heartedly as she let herself be wrapped in the familiar comfort of Luis’s hug. Giving his shoulder a playful punch when he released her, she demanded some answers. “Luis, what are you doing here?”

Luis held up his hands in mock offense, capturing her small fist before she could strike again in her irritation. “What? I need a reason now?”




~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~





“Sorry I’m late,” Beth apologized, hurriedly kissing Ethan’s cheek before taking the seat he offered her. Unfolding her napkin over her lap, she glanced at her plate, brows knitting tightly at what she found there. “Ethan? What’s this?”

The corners of Ethan’s mouth twitched as he gently mocked her, “It’s the cow that started the Chicago fire.” When she looked unamused, he gave her a small appeasing smile. “I thought you’d like something different for a change. This steak comes highly recommended.”

Beth mirrored Ethan’s smile, and for the next few minutes, her attention shifted to the plate in front of her.

When the silence lengthened past the point considered companionable, Ethan cleared his throat and made another attempt at conversation. “Did you take care of all of your errands?”

Beth’s only answer was a blank stare.

“Earlier. At the Book Café,” Ethan elaborated. “I stopped by to pick you up for lunch, but Julie said you had to run some errands.”

“Oh,” Beth’s lips curved into a somewhat nervous smile. “Errands. That’s right.”

Shaking off the vague impression that she was keeping something from him, Ethan lay his own fork down, lifting one corner of his napkin to his mouth before speaking again. “So…Julie. She’s,” he racked his brain for the right word, finally settling on the most innocuous one that sprang to mind when he thought of the chatty young girl full of nervous energy, “nice.”

Beth tried to hide her laughter behind her own napkin.

Looking as befuddled as ever, Ethan frowned, the glass in his hands pausing mid-air just inches from his lips. “What? She IS nice. A little nervous maybe. Exceedingly talkative for sure. But still nice.”

Men could be so clueless sometimes, Beth mused as a little chuckle broke free. “Julie’s nice. I’m not saying she isn’t nice, Ethan.”

“Then what ARE you saying?” Ethan questioned, his glass still hovering close to his mouth. “And what is it that you find so funny?” he practically demanded, the color in his cheeks rising the more Beth’s mirth grew.

Leaning in close, Beth placed a comforting hand on Ethan’s thigh and a pressed a tiny kiss to his humorously sputtering mouth. “I love you, but you are so blind.”

“There’s nothing wrong with my eyesight,” Ethan insisted, the color in his cheeks traveling all the way to his ears when Beth kissed him again, smiling broadly the entire time.





~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“Biiiiiirrrrr!” Kendall cried, pointing at the tiny winged creature as it flitted across the sidewalk in front of them.


Shifting Kendall’s slight weight to his right arm, Noah wrapped his freed left arm around Katie’s shoulders, tugging her close and pressing a kiss to her hairline as they searched out the table he’d already staked out when he’d arrived earlier, intending to treat his fiancée on her lunch break.

“That’s right, Sweetie,” Katie smiled encouragingly at Kendall and his wide-eyed excitement. “Bird.”

“Bir!” Kendall exclaimed again, squirming in Noah’s arms.

Seeking permission from Katie with a quick look into her eyes, Noah dropped his arm from her shoulders and crouched low, setting the toddler onto his feet on the plush green blades beside the sidewalk.

After a wobbly start, Kendall took off at a breakneck speed, giggling breathlessly as the bird skillfully eluded his childish attempts to capture it in his arms. “No, no!” Kendall wagged his finger accusingly as effort after effort proved fruitless. “Bir, stay,” he ordered sternly. “Nowa,” he looked to Noah for help, sandy blond locks falling forward into his eyes.

“We really need to get him a dog after we’re married.” Noah’s silver eyes danced with amusement. Katie’s expression of surprise made him linger, and for a few seconds longer, Kendall’s requests for aid fell on deaf ears. Gently gripping Katie’s elbow with one hand, Noah used the other hand to tuck a flyaway strand of blond hair from her ponytail back behind her ear, his palm tenderly cupping her cheek. “What?” he wondered aloud, concern seizing him when he saw the suspicious sparkle of tears barely held back in her eyes.

Her heart full, Katie tried to smile as her eyes welled further, forcing a single tear to trickle down her cheek, and she ducked her head, laughing in embarrassment when panic flashed across Noah’s dear, handsome face. “Nothing. It’s nothing,” she insisted as he raised his other hand to her face, his thumbs brushing away the tears that continued to escape down her cheeks.

“I mention getting our son a dog once we’re married, and you start crying,” Noah searched her eyes for answers to his unasked questions. “No way is this nothing. Katie…talk to me. Dammit,” he swore softly when a shaky sob erupted from Katie. Resting his forehead against hers, he dropped his voice to a pained whisper, going over the last few minutes in his mind and wondering desperately what he had said or done to set this chain of events into motion. “At least tell me this…good tears or bad tears?”

Gripping Noah’s shoulders tightly, Katie mustered up her best smile, hoping Noah could see that it was genuine. “Good tears,” she sniffled. “Definitely good tears.” When Noah looked relieved but still confused, her tears turned to soft laughter, and she pressed her mouth against his in what she hoped was a reassuring kiss.

“Katie, I…” Noah frowned slightly when Katie’s finger to his lips stopped any questions he might have voiced. The frown only deepened when she shook her head, her green eyes still bright with tears as she breathed a question he’d never expected to hear from her.

“This is really happening, isn’t it?”




~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“Abby,” Nick called over his shoulder as he forked stir fry onto the plates in front of him. “Lunch is ready!”

At his feet, Lucky meowed plaintively, obviously trying to pull the pitiful act on him again.

The feline was a master at the act, not having to work too hard before Nick snatched up a morsel of meat and fed it to the little beggar while keeping an eye out for Abby. It wouldn’t do to have his ass handed to him on a platter not six hours after they’d effectively kissed and made up. Well, the kiss was a given, but the making up…at least they were on their way, which was more than he’d hoped for this morning when he’d woken up without her in his arms again. “Abby,” he called again, a small part of him worrying that she’d already changed her mind about him, about them, and snuck out of her bedroom window, escaping down the fire escape. When she didn’t answer again, he tossed Lucky a stern glare, warning him to even blink at the still steaming food, then he left the room in search of her.

Her bedroom yielded no sign of her, and the bathroom was just as empty.

He found her in the last place he expected to—his bedroom. Now the baby’s room.

Her head bowed, tawny hair spilling over her shoulders, Abby gripped the rail of the bed in her hands. At Nick’s touch on the small of her back, she relaxed her grip, flexing her fingers before lifting the small white teddy bear nestled amidst the blankets in her arms and hugging it close. She had tears in her eyes when she finally faced him, and with much effort she finally spoke. “I’m sorry. I heard you. I just…”

“Shh,” Nick soothed, gently taking her by the elbow and steering her toward the only other piece of furniture in the room, a rocking chair he’d purchased because the image of her sitting in it rocking their child to sleep with lullabies on her lips had been so strong, so real the scent of talcum powder intermingled with baby lotion and a familiar vanilla fragrance had assaulted his senses. Taking a seat in the chair, he opened his arms to receive her, his heart threatening to split wide when she acquiesced and relaxed enough to let herself be held. For a while, her quiet sniffles and the creak of the chair were the only sounds in the converted room, and Nick’s fingers tenderly stroked her silky hair, the gesture meant to comfort.

Her fingers tracing patterns on the soft cotton of Nick’s tee-shirt, Abby was the first one to break the silence, her voice barely more than a whisper. “Sometimes it still doesn’t seem real.”

“The baby?” Nick murmured against her temple.

“Our baby. My baby,” Abby choked out. “Nick, what if…”

“It won’t,” Nick cut off her painful question, unable to let her finish it. “Abby, I promise…no matter what happens with us, I won’t let any harm come to you or our child. I promise. Do you hear me?”

“Another man made me the same promise once, and he fought like hell to keep it, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t, and I never held her. I never got to say goodbye. I never got to kiss her and look for myself or her father in her little face. I don’t think I can do it again. I KNOW I can’t,” she said, fresh tears welling in her hazel eyes as her fingers slid from his shoulders to burrow in his dark hair. She inhaled a shaky breath as she pressed her forehead against his forehead, the tears in her eyes slipping free.

All out of answers for her, Nick cradled the back of her head and directed it toward his shoulder, offering the only thing he could—the comfort of his touch.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Ivy never had warmed up to conducting her business in the library—too many ghosts—so she’d spent the better part of the afternoon in the Solarium, studying the file her private investigator had built up on one Abigail Stone and trying to piece together the turn of events that had led to her and Antonio Lopez-Fitzgerald crossing each other’s paths.


Antonio had disappeared from Harmony around the same time as Martin. Deep down Ivy had always suspected Alistair’s involvement in Martin’s exile from his home, but would Alistair do the same to Antonio? Who had convinced Antonio to leave the mother and brothers and sisters that loved and needed him?

Questions whirled, unanswered, in Ivy’s mind, and she lifted a hand to her brow, frowning at the headache she felt building behind her eyes. Forgoing any further scrutiny of the file for the moment, she tossed it onto the table in front of her and picked up the crystal decanter to pour herself a drink.

Today, when she had spent so much time contemplating and searching through the past, she sipped brandy in Julian’s memory.

Ah, Julian.

He’d lived his whole life under his father’s thumb until the day he died a hero’s death and took the first steps in bringing a family back together.

Ivy wondered if she could have grown to love such a man over time. God knew she didn’t love him when she married him; her heart was Sam’s and no one else’s.

She wouldn’t lie. She had grown to care for him, almost without wanting to. Deep down, in their hearts where it counted, existed a common thread—a love for someone forbidden to them.

For a brief moment, she entertained thoughts of Julian’s reaction to learning Chad was the son he’d never completely given up as lost. She couldn’t help but think the two men would have found a way to forge a relationship as father and son.

Thoughts of fathers and sons led where they inevitably led, and she fingered the locket about her throat as her eyes grew sad.

What of Ethan and Sam? Was she any better than Alistair for keeping them from knowing each other as they should—as father and son?

Thoughts such as these left Ivy awash in feelings of regret, and she was tired of the feeling; she had made her choices and now had to live with them.

She finished off the brandy she’d been nursing and reached for the file with her other hand.

She had to live with them and move on and continue to protect the one she held most dear.




~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~






It was days like today where the reality of his little girl’s death slammed into Sam with all the subtlety of a Mac truck.

When Grace had called his cell phone earlier, he’d been in the middle of his morning visit to the Harmony PD. Retired or not, he couldn’t cut ties with the place completely, and though he’d never mention it to Grace, he relished the chance to get away from his thoughts and the memories tied up in their home that were a little too painful to relive with such startling clarity day after day.

Kay had lived and breathed in that house for most of her life. She’d played forbidden games of catch in the living room with Miguel over Grace’s objections and come to him for help gluing back together the shattered evidence of her indiscretions. She’d pleaded with him to spare her the well-meaning lecture welcoming her to womanhood that Grace had anticipated for years by taking her to the drug store and promising not to get out of the car when she made—in her words—“the most mortifying” purchase of her life. That house was where she shared her first kiss with Miguel; on the doorstep with him turning the lights on and off when things got a little too involved for his liking. And she had placed his first grandson in his arms in the kitchen, declaring it didn’t feel right taking him home without introducing him first to the place she’d grown up—the place she promised he’d spend many more days and nights to come.

Grace coped by immersing herself in the details surrounding Noah’s upcoming wedding to Katie. Sam himself coped by making frequent visits to his old haunt, escaping, if only for a little while, the place where he saw his daughter’s face around every corner. Miguel and the boys coped with the help of an understanding friend.

Until today.

Sam didn’t blame Abby for the fallout of what must have been a difficult decision; he even understood her motivations. He wished he could say the same for his wife.

Rocking their youngest grandson in her arms, his cries for Abby now hoarse, Grace’s blue eyes held nothing but anger.

At Kay’s death, for Abby’s abrupt departure, Sam didn’t know anymore, and right now, hours into a vigil he somehow felt wasn’t theirs to keep, he was too tired to care. He rubbed his hand over his face roughly when deeper into the house he heard the slamming of a door and sighed as MJ vented his frustrations in the only way he knew how. How were they were going to get past this?

If this was what the aftermath was like when the shock and numbness started to fade for real, Sam selfishly wanted to spare MJ and Joshua for a little while longer.





~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



With a pensive sigh, Hank flipped his cell phone shut and slid it into his jeans pocket, Miguel’s somberly delivered words remaining with him for several long seconds, seconds in which, one by one, three pairs of brown eyes lifted to his face and regarded his troubled expression with open curiosity.


“Dad?” Jake eventually prompted, frown lines deepening on his young face. “Dad,” he waved a hand in front of Hank’s face, finally garnering his attention, at least a small part of it.

“What?” Hank answered distractedly.

“Dad,” Sara rolled her eyes in exasperation.

It was Emily, tugging impatiently at his belt loops that finally brought Hank back to the present. “Can MJ and Joshua come play, Daddy?”

Lifting Emily easily onto his hip, Hank brushed a wayward strand of her long brown hair behind her ear with affection and answered her question with a shake of his head.

“But why?” Emily pouted.

“Does MJ have the yucky throw ups like Caleb?” Sara asked, looking concerned until she remembered a cast-aside piece of advice she’d given MJ at their last game. “I told him he’d get the cooties if he sat beside Caleb in the dugout.”

“No,” Hank’s reply was vague. “He’s not…sick. He just doesn’t feel like playing today.”

“What about Joshua?” Emily wouldn’t be deterred.

“Maybe HE’S got the cooties,” Sara muttered under her breath, kicking at a loose stone at her feet.

“Him either,” Hank responded, his earlier cheerful mood all but dissipated as he mulled over the brief phone call with Miguel. He was still having trouble believing what he’d been told.

“Maybe YOU got the cooties,” Jake shot his little sister a quelling look.

Narrowing her eyes at all three of them and mumbling something indistinguishable, Sara crossed her arms against her chest and impudently struck out on her own, leaving Jake to stroll beside his father and Emily in silence again.

“Hey!” Jake admonished when Sara quickly darted across the street a few minutes later, when the traffic lights changed and the coast was clear. He didn’t always make a big show of it, but he took his job as big brother just as seriously as the next guy. “You’re supposed to wait for me or Dad,” he reminded her, breathless from his own sprint across the street to catch up with her.

The proud smile Sara sported slipped away as she argued, “But I looked both ways! Just like Dad said.”

“You can’t cross the street by yourself,” Jake stood firm as they watched their father cross the street with their sister in tow. “You’re still too little.”

“Am not,” Sara stubbornly refuted.

“Are too,” Jake rolled his eyes. “You’re not even in kindergarten yet.”

“I’m going this year. Tell him, Dad,” Sara stood toe to toe with Jake, hands on her hips and brown eyes stormy, ready to do battle as Hank sidled up next to them, his own lectures on shooting across the street like a loose cannon dying on his lips.

It seemed the Little Buddy had already hit his highest points for him anyway, and Harmony wasn’t exactly the L.A. freeway during rush hour. But before he could warn Sar about rushing into the finer points of education like homework, afternoon nap time, and the occasional brush with detention, they were at it again. Placing Emily on her feet and cautioning her not to wander off, Hank took a deep breath and put on his much-used, tattered referee hat. He’d recognized early on that you trapped more flies with honey so he decided to lay it on thick. Turning to his irate little daughter, he gave her a thumbs-up. “Good job, Sar. You looked both ways just like I taught you.”

Jake’s mouth dropped open in disbelief. He started to stammer out a protest, desperate to wipe the smug smile off of his sister’s face when his dad continued.

“But your brother’s right.”

Now Jake wore the smug smile.

Hank struggled not to let his own smile show; playing the part of stern father was always a bit of a stretch for him, but he prided himself on his ability to fake it when he needed to. “I know you’re starting kindergarten this year, and you’ll officially be one of the ‘big’ kids…” Hank winked at Jake over the top of Sara’s messy brown mop of hair when he rolled his eyes, hoping he could get his son to play along. “But,” he stressed, earning a displeased scowl from Sara and a momentary glance of interest from Emily, “you’re not one yet. That goes for you too, Emmy.”

“Okay, Daddy,” Emily singsonged before returning to her previous activities.

Activities, that as far as Jake could tell, seemed to be twirling until she was dizzy and singing nonsense songs. Somehow, Jake had a feeling there’d be plenty of scuffles in his future; he was going to have to start working out soon.

“But Dad,” Sara protested.

“No ‘but dad’s’ to me,” Hank cut her off. “Looking both ways is fine, but it’s not enough. Until I say you’re old enough, you don’t cross the street alone. Either one of you,” he looked from Sara to Emily and back. “Cross only with an adult or Jake.”

“But Jake’s no grown-up,” Sara complained.

“No,” Hank acknowledged, taking Sara by the shoulder and waving a beckoning hand to Emily as they started moving along the sidewalk again. “But he’s your big brother, and that’s more than good enough.”

Jake, lagging behind, couldn’t wipe the goofy smile from his face.

“Who says we cancel the park plans and go visit Mom instead?”

UAgirl
9.11.07, 8:52 PM
Chapter 22





“So,” Hank began, perching on the edge of Gwen’s desk and grinning down at her in her high-backed leather chair slyly, “nice digs. Good view, too.”

Purposely ignoring his ill-concealed attempts at innuendo, Gwen responded with a thoughtful smile. “I’ve always enjoyed the ocean myself.” She smirked when she felt the toe of Hank’s shoe nudge her leg.

“Oops. Sorry,” Hank lied, brown eyes sparkling much like Jake’s when he was up to no good. “Nervous twitch.”

Leaning back in her chair, Gwen crossed her arms across her chest, shaking her head at him. “You really have to come up with some new material, Bennett.” Inspecting her manicured nails, she murmured, “I’m getting a little bored.”

“Bored!?” Hank played along with her little charade, even as his pride admittedly bristled a little bit. “Bored,” he scoffed, mirroring her pose and crossing his arms across his chest. Looking around at the spacious office Ethan had outfitted her with as his vice president, Hank wondered aloud, “What do you do for fun around this joint anyway?”

“The usual,” Gwen shrugged nonchalantly. “Brunch with the mayor, a few corporate takeovers before a late lunch with the governor’s wife, followed by tennis at the Club with his mistress, a game of solitaire here and there, and my regularly scheduled date with my husband over the phone.”

“Date?” Hank’s ears perked up.

“Yes, date,” Gwen’s mouth twitched at the corners. “He’s a little…” she trailed off, searching for the right word.

“Lost without you,” Hank helpfully inserted with a twitch of his own lips.

“Lost without me,” Gwen looked at him wonderingly. Holding his gaze, she felt the need to comment, “The long hours I’ve been working aren’t just hard for him.”

Employing one of his many reputable talents—the art of playing dumb, Hank schooled his expression into something more serious and sat up straighter as he delivered his reply, “The kids are adjusting.”

Beckoning him forward with a crook of her finger, Gwen leaned in until they were inches apart and whispered, “I’m not talking about the kids, Bennett.”

“Oh really?” Hank prodded as noses bumped and lips touched for the barest of seconds. “Are you saying…”

Rolling her eyes at his attempts at gaining a heart-felt confession from her, Gwen gave his shoulders a playful push before sinking her fingers into his hair and pulling him into a longer, more involved kiss. Breaking away, she pouted because she knew it’d bring the smile she’d fallen in love with back to his face. “I miss you, you big dope.”

“Phone sex not doing it for you?” Hank teased, earning himself a mock-outraged punch to his shoulder. Eyes twinkling he continued, “Because, Babe…I have to say…I was starting to find it a little bit of a turn-on.”

“You’d better find everything about me a turn-on,” Gwen wagged a finger in front of his nose good-naturedly until he teasingly captured it between his teeth. “Phone sex included,” she warned, albeit an octave lower.

“You know what I’d REALLY consider a turn-on,” Hank let her wonder at the possibilities, a leering grin on his face and a no-good sparkle in his brown eyes as they shifted back and forth from her increasingly incredulous face to the gleaming surface of her brand-new desk and back.

“Oh my…you’re not seriously suggesting…Bennett!” Gwen finally hissed, a deep red blush staining her cheeks as she tried to put some distance between his advancing mouth and hers. Holding her hands up defensively, she groaned as she felt his hot breath against her ear, “Hank.”

“Admit it,” Hank nipped at her earlobe with his teeth, chuckling when he felt a shiver run through her, “the idea’s crossed your mind once or twice.”

“Ethan’s office is just down the hall,” Gwen reminded him on a shakier breath than she would have liked.

“And?” Hank prompted as if that little tidbit of information held no importance for him.

“And our kids…”

“Are taking a tour with Shane,” Hank finished her thought for her. “I slipped him an extra 20 to take his time.”

“So you planned this?” No longer melting into an undignified pile of goo, Gwen straightened in her seat.

“Are you kidding, Babe?” Cluing in to his wife’s change of mood, Hank opted to shift gears, but his humor fell a little flat. “Nobody plans sex on a desk. It’s a spur of the moment type of thing.”
Gwen just looked at him, poker-faced.

“And there’s nothing remotely romantic about it,” Hank continued to backpedal furiously. “Sure, it’s hot…”

“Yeah,” Gwen deadpanned, “having my stapler tattooed on my bare ass is just so sexy. And romance? Who needs romance? Romance is over-rated. Twenty bucks, Bennett? Ethan tips the coffee girl more.”

“Come on, Babe,” Hank whined under her withering glare. “You know I’d pay a million to spend the night with you. Just so you could tuck me and the kids into bed.”

Softening a little bit, she slid her fingers underneath the collar of his shirt, gently massaging the back of his neck before she leaned in and kissed him briefly on the lips with a sigh. “I’m still not fooling around with you in my office.”

Feigning a look of disappointment that wasn’t all pretend, Hank offered up a hopeful suggestion that had Gwen dropping her head against his chest in helpless laughter. “What about that supply closet I saw around the corner?” His brown eyes gleamed with mirth and contentment as he held her close, winding strands of blond around his fingers, and teased her with a few more suggestions that put a blush on her cheeks and a wicked sparkle to her eyes.

That’s how Shane and the kids found them, nearly half an hour later.




~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




The park was surprisingly quiet for late-afternoon, but Sheridan found she was thankful for the relative peace.


After assuring Theresa that no details of her wedding garb would be revealed to Chad—not that he’d had a chance to see much anyway—Luis had suggested lunch. Naturally, he’d invited Theresa, and when they went to retrieve Cristian, the invitation was extended to Chad and Paloma.

A burger and fries was by no means the most nutritious combination out there, but the kids, even those of the grown-up variety, had enjoyed the good company and the summer sunshine, and it was with great reluctance that they’d parted ways; Luis to the police station, Theresa with Chad and Paloma back to ‘Over the Rainbow’, and Sheridan to her current location, cradling her dozing infant daughter in her arms while she watched Ali gleefully push Cristian higher and higher on his swing.

“Mommy,” Cristian squealed as each push from his sister took him closer to the puffy white clouds that seemed to dominate the blue sky, “I’m flying!”

“I see that,” Sheridan smiled at his enthusiasm, sharing a look of affection with her likewise beaming daughter. “Careful, Ali. We wouldn’t want to accidentally send your brother to the moon.”

Ali giggled softly and played along, slowing the swing’s progress, the
action brought on more from a need to catch her breath than any real fear on her part. “Then you’d have to rescue him.”

“Mommy?” Cristian’s mouth hung open in disbelief. “But what about Daddy?”

Merely holding the swing’s chains between her hands and swaying her little brother from side to side, Ali released one hand to playfully ruffle the dark spikes of Cristian’s hair. “Daddy can’t fly, silly.”

“Mommy can fly?!” Cristian’s eyes grew wide then they narrowed in concentrated thought, apparently wondering why he’d never caught her or Abby exhibiting this special shared talent of theirs. “Just like Tinker Bell?”

“No,” Ali teased, tickling Cristian’s sides and making him squirm away from her unexpected attack, “more like Superman.”

“Ali,” Sheridan gently chided, humor in her eyes as her little son eyed her with much skepticism, approaching her on the park bench on reluctant feet. “I think you mean Superwoman,” she winked. Wrapping one arm firmly around Hope’s warm weight, Sheridan beckoned Cristian with her free arm. When he climbed onto the bench beside her, she draped her arm across his small shoulders, hugging him to her side and kissing the crown of his head.

Wiggling his dangling sneaker-clad feet in front of him, Cristian turned inquisitive brown eyes on her. “Is it true, Mommy?”

Her own eyes were dancing as Sheridan answered him, barely keeping a straight face, “Yes, Sweetie. It’s true. Your mommy can fly.”

Peals of laughter escaped Ali then, and Cristian frowned, pouting slightly as he demanded to know the source of her complete loss of composure. “What’s so funny?”

“Airplanes, Cristian. Mom means airplanes,” Ali was kind enough to enlighten him between giggles.

If it were even possible, Cristian’s brown eyes grew even wider with this new revelation, seemingly even more impressed. “Really?”

“Really,” Sheridan replied.

“Wow,” Cristian breathed.

Sheridan simply smiled at his awe-struck expression.

“Big airplanes?” Cristian wondered.

“Sometimes,” Sheridan nodded. “Believe it or not, Kiddo, your mommy used to be cool.”

Still utterly enthralled, Cristian turned to face her, eyes shining with excitement. “Will you teach me?”

Taking a moment to consider his request, Sheridan quickly came to a decision, unable to face the thought of disappointing him and anticipating the chance to strengthen a bond unfairly neglected in the past year. “If it’s what you really want, and Daddy agrees that you’re old enough and responsible enough…yes. Yes, I’ll…Cristian,” Sheridan called after the little whirlwind presented her with a hug fierce enough to leave her momentarily breathless and an escape so quick the encounter could have been just a figment of her imagination. “Wait a minute.”

Cristian skidded to a stop, but only for a few seconds.

“Where are you going?”

“To tell everybody,” Cristian called over his shoulder. “I see Zac. And Carson.”

“Everybody,” Sheridan shook her head, laughing softly as she pressed her cheek against Hope’s sun-warmed curls. “What? Ali?” she questioned when she found herself under her eldest daughter’s gentle, almost proud scrutiny.

“Nothing,” Ali murmured, dropping down into Cristian’s abandoned swing and twirling, a small smile playing at her lips.

“Ali Katherine Lopez-Fitzgerald,” Sheridan persisted with an arch of her brow. She sighed in exasperation when her gesture was mirrored by her daughter, only with the addition of the tiniest of smirks that—if you asked her—was ALL Luis. “I’m still your mom, you know.”

“Mooomm,” Ali singsonged.

“Okay,” Sheridan conceded, but not without some small measure of disappointment. As far as she was concerned, it was a mother’s prerogative to be a little nosy. Still, she decided to drop the subject. “I can teach you too, if you want.”

“Maybe,” Ali assented. “But Cristian first, okay?”

Sheridan held her arm out, welcoming Ali into Cristian’s vacated spot at her side. “Has anyone told you what a great big sister you are lately? Because you are,” she murmured into the sweet smelling gold wisps of Ali’s hair. “You’re awesome.”

Ali smiled, laying her palm flat against Hope’s back, mesmerized for a moment by the gentle rise and fall the baby’s peaceful breathing created. “It’s because I have a cool mom.”

“Wow,” Sheridan felt herself growing misty-eyed as she studied Ali’s profile. “What is this? The mutual admiration society?”

“Mom,” Ali rolled her eyes good-naturedly.

Sheridan laughed, blinking away the happy tears stinging the corners of her eyes. “I guess I have proof that your halo’s on a little crooked.”

“Now you’re just being silly,” Ali giggled in accusation, curling her feet beneath her and leaning more fully against her mother’s side. After a few moments of companionable silence, she sighed then ventured to ask a question that had been bothering her for a long time. “Mom? Will I still be in Lissy’s class next year? Ella says I missed too much school, and I’ll have to stay back a year.”

“Ms. Kinsay doesn’t think so,” Sheridan reassured her. “She thinks you’ll be ready to start the new school year in the same class as Lissy. She’s confident your daddy and I will be able to catch you up this summer. But you’re going to have to work hard.”

Ali nodded in understanding, lightly tickling her fingertips across Hope’s chubby cheek when her round, liquid eyes blinked open sleepily. “Hey, Roo,” she breathed. “Think I can do it?”

Hope’s answering coo had the desired effect: Ali was all smiles.

“Well,” Sheridan declared with sparkling eyes. “I think it’s unanimous.”


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

UAgirl
9.14.07, 9:19 PM
Chapter 23






Each night brought a new dream to Abby, a wish unfulfilled.

In her dream, she saw a little girl, a little older than Ali, a little more slightly built, with a tangle of tawny hair. The curving slant of the handwriting on the paper before her was all hers, but the hands, the long, slender fingers that moved the pencil across paper were courtesy of her father.

The paper bore no name, but its title made Abby’s heart feel large and swollen in her chest, and when she pressed a kiss into the sweet-smelling mass of hair, she couldn’t help a little teasing about the family portrait. The baby, in particular, exhibited more than a few other-worldly qualities; obviously they needed to have the talk again. “How many times have I told you the baby is NOT an alien?”

The reply was swift and expected; sometimes Abby had to wonder at the wisdom of moving to the same neighborhood as Hank and his gaggle of misfits. “Jake says all babies look like aliens; their heads are too big for their bodies.”

“That’s because they’re growing so fast. And our baby’s? Isn’t,” Abby voiced a pointed reminder. Though she did have to admit…

“You’re just saying that because you’re the mom, and you have to be nice,” came the answering giggle.

Abby didn’t have to see her face to know she was rolling her eyes. That gesture? As Shane would say, definitely courtesy of her mother. “Did you brush your teeth?”

“Yes, Mom.”

Abby run through the mental checklist they covered every school morning. “What about your homework? Did you make sure it’s in your backpack?”

Painted toes wiggled in their flip-flops as slim shoulders heaved in a beleaguered sigh. But she didn’t have to waste her breath on a reply.

Entering the kitchen already dressed for work, Nick answered for her en route to the coffee pot. “I put it in your purple folder last night after I checked it. Smart girl,” he commended with a smile. “She only missed one algebra problem,” he nodded to Abby over his morning brew, “and just like her mother, she has a way with words.”

“Thanks. I think,” Abby muttered somewhat grumpily at the twinkle in Nick’s gray eyes as he approached her, slinking his arms around her waist and pulling her close to him for a morning kiss.

“Trust me,” Nick grinned at the way she melted into his kiss. “That’s a compliment.”

Abby smirked. “Are you insinuating I talk too much?”

“Did I say that?” Nick’s eyes continued to twinkle at her as he lifted a hand to her cheek, his thumb gently ghosting over the dark circles ringing her eyes. Parenting two spirited children was still a learning process for her, for them both, and it wasn’t without its sleepless nights and countless adjustments. “The baby’s asleep.”

“Finally,” Abby breathed in relief, a sentiment echoed by the small girl crouched before the back door, sending Lucky off to take care of his usual morning business.

Nick chuckled as he placed a kiss atop the crown of Abby’s head. “They warned us it wouldn’t be easy.”

“I never expected easy,” Abby retorted as she sidestepped him to run her fingers through her daughter’s tangle of hair, smoothing it into some semblance of order. “Getting you to profess your undying love for me was hard enough.”

“Please,” a small voice whined, ducking her head to avoid her mother’s attempts to tame her wild mane. “You’re making me sick. If you start kissing again, I’m going to puke.”

“How ‘bout I tell your mother I love her instead?” Nick teased, picking up the Bratz backpack and shouldering it along with his own bag. Grabbing his car keys from the kitchen counter, he tossed them into her waiting hands. “Wait for me in the car. Wouldn’t want to make you sick,” he winked.

She was gone in an instant, a blur of tawny hair and a quick wave of her father’s hands.

Turning his full attention back to Abby, he set the bags down again and framed her face with his hands, engaging her in a lingering kiss goodbye. He let his hands travel down her arms to her much smaller hands, encasing them in his own before bringing one to his lips, pressing a small kiss to the palm.

Curling her palm against his cheek, Abby felt a powerful tug at her heart when he pressed his lips to the precious metal that encircled her finger, recalling the admission that had finally bound her to him forever. “Go on,” she gave him a soft, serious look. “She already missed homeroom last week when we slept through the alarm. A couple more tardy slips, and she’ll be joining Jake in detention.”

“His teacher really didn’t appreciate his protest against the indignity of wearing tights in the school play, did she?” Nick grinned at the memory. He paused in the doorway, voicing a gentle reminder, “Get some rest while the baby’s sleeping. Okay?”

“Is that a polite way of saying I look like crap?” Abby arched a tawny brow at him in question.

Nick wisely chose to leave the question unanswered; his wife had a considerable talent for twisting his words, and he didn’t want to leave her on a sour note. Instead he smiled at her and adeptly changed the subject, “Don’t forget. Sheridan’s picking her up after school.”

Nodding, Abby’s eyes sparkled as she crossed her arms across her chest and pinned him with a look that stopped him in his tracks, even as a car horn sounded outside. “Where are you taking me?”
Impatience—apparently another quality her daughter had inherited from her.

Nick couldn’t control the smile that made the corners of his mouth twitch, and he tipped his head in the general direction of the car where several more beeps of the horn escaped. “You’re worse than her. How many times do I have to tell you? It’s a surprise.”

“Pilar has the phone number. I know you gave it to her in case of an emergency,” Abby threatened.

“Well,” Nick grinned as he carefully backed through the door and down the first couple of steps, his gray eyes twinkling at her in challenge. “Why don’t you just ask her then?”

Groaning in frustration, Abby threw her arms up as she advanced on him again, grateful his position on the steps put them eye to eye, almost. “I swear that woman was Sydney Bristow in a past life.”

Laughing at the mental image created by her comment, Nick slid his arms around her waist as she looped hers around his neck and pulled her flush against him. “She can keep a secret better than Father Lonagin,” he teased.

“Please,” Abby pouted. “Just a little hint. So I know what to wear.”

“No,” Nick refused, gently disentangling her arms from his neck as he kissed her lips in apology. “You’ll look beautiful no matter what. She’ll be late again,” he murmured against her hair as she changed tactics and snaked her arms around his waist, hugging him fiercely.

“Just a little,” came Abby’s muffled reply. Laying her palm over his heart, she nuzzled the hollow of his throat and whispered a truth that still broke her heart a little sometimes, so intensely did she feel it. “I love you. Both of you. Don’t go. Stay. You’re a doctor. You can write her an excuse.”

Kissing her temple, Nick wore a rueful expression as he let her go and bent to retrieve the bags he’d placed by the door earlier. “You’re acting like this is goodbye forever when it’s see you in a little while. She’s coming back, Abby; she’s just spending the night with Ali. I’m coming back. You’re not going to lose us, either one of us, ever again. Got that?”

“I think I’m starting to get it through my thick skull,” Abby forced a tearful laugh. She longed for the day when letting them out of her sight, even for a minute, became a little less painful. Until then, she’d just have to learn to muddle through somehow. “Go on,” she waved Nick off as she crouched down to pick Lucky up, gratefully accepting the cat’s easy affection. “I’ll be okay,” she promised. And if she wasn’t…well, Nick didn’t have to know that. She, like Pilar, was pretty good at keeping secrets.

“Don’t forget,” Nick called over his shoulder as he strode down the walkway, turning to her as he got into the car. “We have a date.”

“You better not be late,” she warned, waving at them as the car backed out of the drive. Two hands waved back, and as they traveled further from her sight, she realized with a pang that this morning was just like yesterday morning and the morning before that. All she could remember as they faded from her vision was a tangle of tawny hair.

Her daughter’s face was but a blurry memory.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Ali was in her bedroom, thumbing through “The Secret Garden” while Cristian was passed out, sprawled at the foot of his bed with Max keeping loyal watch when Luis padded down the hallway on bare feet. Raking a hand through his damp hair, he froze as a floorboard creaked underfoot just outside the nursery. Satisfied, the small noise hadn’t woken the littlest Lopez-Fitzgerald, he crept onward, arriving in the living room with a small triumphant smirk on his lips.


Raising one golden brow at him, Sheridan noted his attire, or lack thereof, and complimented him on his improving skills of stealth where their baby daughter was concerned. “You’re getting better at that.”

“Practice,” Luis grinned as he took a seat on the couch behind her, his hands immediately gravitating toward her shoulders.

Sheridan’s head lolled back appreciatively at the massaging motion, her eyes slipping shut blissfully as she murmured, “That feels wonderful.”

Brushing her blond curls aside, Luis leaned down to place a kiss at the juncture of her neck and shoulder. “What can I say?” he teased in a low voice. “I have talented hands.”

Reaching back awkwardly to swat at his arm, Sheridan rolled her eyes and laughed, “Luis, you’re terrible.”

“That’s not what you said last night,” Luis whispered into her ear, grinning at the very visible shiver his words sent through her. He laughed at the blush that stole across her cheeks as her mind recalled the stolen moments of the night before.

Twisting around to face him, Sheridan made a futile attempt at glaring at him. “Wipe that smug look off of your face right now, Luis Lopez-Fitzgerald, or I’ll…”

“You’ll what?” Luis challenged, enjoying the way her blue eyes sparked at him. “You won’t do anything.”

“Really?” Sheridan looked affronted. “Why is that?”

“Because I’m the father of your three beautiful children, and you’re madly in love with me.” Luis smiled as he watched her melt before his very eyes. He nodded to the scrapbooks and photographs scattered across the coffee table in front of her, to one picture in particular of a young girl, barely in her teens, standing before a small red airplane next to another child, a boy just a few years younger than she. “Is that you?”

Sheridan nodded as she handed them the photograph, watching his face as he studied it. “That’s Ethan beside me.”

“Must have been strange,” Luis mused. “Calling you his aunt when you two were so close in age.”

Sheridan shrugged as if she hadn’t given it much thought. “Ethan and I have always been close. I don’t know what I would have done without him,” she said, leaning back into Luis’s open arms as he slid down from the sofa to seat himself behind her on the floor.

Resting his chin on her shoulder, Luis pressed a kiss to her jawline, his breath fanning warmly across her skin. “What’s with the plane?”

“That,” Sheridan smiled, “is the first plane that I ever flew. This picture was taken after my first solo flight, which Ethan was brave enough to accompany me on.”

Luis laughed in disbelief, making no attempts to hide his smile even after his wife’s strategically placed blow to the arm that had taken up residence across her abdomen. “I’m sorry,” he apologized half-heartedly. “I just don’t think Ethan and brave belong in the same sentence.”

“Luis,” Sheridan chided with a barely perceptible smile. “Be nice.”

Luis wrapped his arms more firmly around her in response, stretching his pajama-clad legs out around her. Getting back on subject, he asked, “Why flying?”

“I don’t know,” Sheridan murmured softly, seemingly transported back to the past for the next several seconds. “I guess I liked the feeling of freedom it gave me. The way it made me forget…it made me feel closer to my mother somehow,” she admitted quietly as her fingers caressed the worn edges of the photograph. “That and I was always on the lookout for a new adventure,” she said, brightening up the dimly lit living room again with the light from her smile.

Smiling with her at first, Luis grew somber after a few moments of reflection, lifting one hand from its resting spot against her warm skin to sift through the photographs, coming to some of the Spanish landscape she’d traveled and been enraptured with before coming home and crashing into his life. “Do you miss it?”

“Sometimes,” Sheridan answered honestly, feeling him tense slightly behind her. “I met a lot of interesting people, visited some of the most beautiful places in the world, Luis.”

“Harmony pales in comparison,” Luis conceded, drawing on his own limited experience.

“In some ways,” Sheridan concurred, shifting in his arms again so that she could look once more into his eyes. “But Luis,” she began. “Harmony has something that nowhere else in the world has. You,” she whispered earnestly, cupping his cheek in her palm and trailing her thumb across his lips. “That makes it the most special place in the world to me.”

Luis pulled her closer and planted a firm but tender kiss on her lips, his eyes shining bright when he released her. He started to speak, but Sheridan beat him to it, turning back around with a grin on her lips.

“Raising three of your children is adventure enough for me.” She giggled when he pulled her back against him, attacking her neck with loud kisses and trailing wandering hands across her belly. “Children that just happen to be down the hall,” she pointedly reminded him when one hand got a little too adventurous. “Unless you’re ready to give Cristian the S-E-X talk.” She laughed outright when Luis snatched his hands away, placing them in the safest place he could think of—back on her shoulders. She moaned softly as he went to work on the tensed muscles there. Dropping her chin against her chest, she closed her eyes, letting his strong, capable hands work their magic. “He asked me to teach him today.”

“Hmm?” Luis hummed, his mouth pressed against her shoulder blade.

“To fly,” Sheridan answered, limbs liquid and voice breathless. “I told him I would. If you were okay with it, and we both decided he was old enough.”

Pushing down his immediate reaction to the idea, Luis tried to approach the situation more rationally, but he still had some reservations. “He’s too young. He’s never even been on an airplane. What if he doesn’t like it?”

Sheridan winced as his hands kneaded a particularly sore spot, her eyes squeezing shut at the pain. “He IS young,” she granted. “And he may not like it. That’s why I wanted to take him up with me a few times. See how it goes.”

Luis started to comment but realized her suggestions were reasonable, and any immediate refusals might lead her to believe he didn’t trust her with their son’s well-being when the truth was he trusted her with HIS life.

Seeming to read his thoughts, Sheridan reminded him with an amused laugh. “I got you to New Mexico in one piece, didn’t I?” Then more seriously, “I won’t do it if we’re not in agreement.”

“What about Ali?” Luis finally asked, his hands stilling on her shoulders.

“She wants me to teach Cristian first. I think she sees it as a way of making up to him all the time we spent with her at the hospital this past year,” Sheridan answered.

Luis felt the familiar guilt coursing through his veins, tensing against the almost physical blow he felt every time he was reminded of the way Ali’s illness had monopolized their time, shortchanging Cristian in the process. Logically, he knew they’d done the best they could, but that still didn’t lessen the self-reproach he felt. Responding to the need he knew Sheridan had, he gave his consent. “See how he likes it and go from there.”

Sheridan nodded, leaning back into him fully again and resting her head on his shoulder. Reaching out to the coffee table, she plucked another photo from the stack, laughing softly with Luis at the cross-eyed expression that Ali and Lissy had managed to capture on Hope’s pink-cheeked face. “You know…Ali’s already campaigning for another little brother.”








~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

UAgirl
9.14.07, 9:47 PM
Chapter 24





“Here are those files you asked for, Mrs. Bennett.”

Momentarily taking her eyes off of her computer screen as the files were placed on her desk, Gwen smiled a genuine smile at her eager-to-please intern. “Thanks, Erin. I appreciate you taking the time to look them up for me.”

Erin flushed with pleasure. “It was no problem, Mrs. Bennett. If there’s anything else,” she trailed off.

“Call me Gwen. Please,” Gwen told her. “Mrs. Bennett makes me feel old.”

“Oh!” Erin exclaimed in mortification. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Bennett. I didn’t realize…oh, I’m doing it again.”

Brown eyes dancing with amusement, Gwen let the young girl off the hook. “It’s okay. Really. You can call me Mrs. Bennett if you want to. I know my husband never gets tired of hearing it.”

Relaxing marginally, the young woman smiled at the mention of Hank. “Your husband’s a very nice man, Mrs. Bennett.”

“Yes, he is,” Gwen replied, her fingers ceasing their typing, and her gaze connecting with Ethan’s over the unsuspecting girl’s shoulder. “Good morning,” she greeted warmly when she noted a tall cup of coffee in each of his hands.

Erin whirled around in surprise, nearly upending the cups and necessitating a trip to the dry cleaners for her boss. “Mr. Crane!” her voice escaped her in an unflattering squeak. “I didn’t hear you come in.”

Ethan’s blue eyes twinkled as he teased, “I can be quite sneaky when I want to be.” When Erin didn’t seem to get the joke, he held out a cup of coffee in offering. “There’s cream and sugar in the employee’s lounge that Gwen showed you.”

Erin beamed, wrapping two hands around the steaming cup and stumbling over her thanks. When she’d finally managed to string together a few words of appreciation and the door had shut behind her, both Ethan and Gwen released a sigh of relief followed shortly by soft laughter.

“She’s new,” Gwen admonished Ethan when he continued to laugh, his cheeks and ears flushing pink in his merriment. “Ethan Crane,” she warned, scooping the files into her arms and tucking them safely away in a desk drawer.

Quieting finally, Ethan simply smiled at her, saying, “Mrs. Bennett.”

Rolling her eyes good-naturedly at him, Gwen walked around to the front of the desk and took the seat opposite him, curling her legs comfortably beneath her as she took the gift of caffeine that he offered. “A visit from the President,” she mused as she sipped the hot liquid carefully. “To what do I owe this honor?”

“Just checking how my Vice President was settling in,” Ethan answered her. “Shane said the kids seemed impressed last week.”

“Hank’s a little in awe of the helicopter pad himself,” Gwen smirked at the kid in the candy store look her husband had sported when they’d ended their own little tour in that particular destination. “He wanted to know if he could go out for a spin sometime.”

“I leave the flying up to Aunt Sheridan,” Ethan stated, getting up and walking toward the windows where he gazed at the whitecaps of the ocean in the distance. For several long moments, he seemed to be lost in thought.

“Ethan,” Gwen frowned. “Is something wrong?”

“No. Nothing’s wrong. At least I don’t think so,” Ethan responded, albeit distractedly. “Gwen,” he turned serious blue eyes on her. “Do you consider me a friend?”

Dumbstruck for a moment, Gwen refrained from answering at first, considering her feelings on the matter.

“I know I treated you badly. You and Theresa,” Ethan sighed regretfully. “I’m sorry, and I still don’t know how you found it in your heart to forgive me. And I can’t believe I’m asking you this, because how could YOU consider ME a friend? But I want you to know…whatever else happened between us in the past, I’ve always considered you to be one of the best friends I’ve ever had.”

Standing up and moving closer to him so she could look him fully in the eye, Gwen set her coffee cup down on her desk and took one of his hands in her own, squeezing it reassuringly. “You are a friend. We may have fallen out of favor with each other in the last several years, but we’re working to make things better again. God knows it’s not easy, but we’re doing it. If it makes you feel better, I don’t want to carry around a voodoo doll with your name on it and poke its eyes out anymore.”

Her comment seemed to bring a little more levity to the situation because Ethan laughed, a sharp, painful sound, but a laugh nonetheless.

“I’m not teasing,” Gwen raised a brow at him, brown eyes deadly serious even as they sparkled. “There was a time that I wanted to burn you at the stake. But I’m over it. I really am. I have Hank now. You have Beth.”

Ethan flinched at the mention of Beth and turned his back to Gwen, but the damage had already been done.

Voice laden with suspicion, Gwen gripped Ethan’s shoulder, turning him back to face her. “Ethan? Talk to me.”

“It’s nothing really,” Ethan tried to shrug off her concern. “It’s just…” he began, only to stop again, trying to formulate his thoughts into the right words. “Since the break-in, Beth’s been behaving…strangely.”

“Strangely how?” Gwen questioned in confusion. The woman’s place of business had been broken into. She reckoned she had a little room to be spooked and act accordingly, and she told Ethan that.

“No,” Ethan wouldn’t be convinced. “It’s not that. In fact, the strange thing is how calm Beth is about this whole break-in. And the errands. She’s always running errands, breaking our lunch dates, even working late. It almost seems like…”

“Seems like what, Ethan?” Gwen gently prodded, searching Ethan’s stricken blue eyes.

“Like she’s seeing someone else.”





~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“Oh there you are!” Ivy’s blue green eyes lit up when she saw Beth descending the stairs at the back of the Book Café. “Beth, Darling. I was wondering if you could join me for a cup of coffee?”


Beth nodded at Julie as Ivy took her by the arm and led her to a quiet, abandoned corner of the establishment, and the girl filled up two coffee mugs to brimming, painstakingly making her way to their side. When she had served them and went on her way, Beth turned inquisitive eyes on her mother-in-law.

Ivy dismissed the spark of suspicion in the younger woman’s eyes and took a dainty sip of her beverage before bestowing a mega-watt smile upon her. “I think the contractors did a wonderful job repairing the damage, don’t you?”

“They did,” Beth agreed, leaving her own coffee untouched as she leaned back in her seat, crossing her arms over her chest defensively. Sure, Ivy had always been civil with her, nice even, but deep down she couldn’t help feeling it was all an act, and always she waited for the other shoe to drop. “I could have paid for the repairs myself.”

“Nonsense, Darling,” Ivy demurred. “You’re a Crane now. Cranes take care of Cranes.” When Beth’s brows rose incredulously, Ivy was quick to amend her statement. “I mean now. All the bad apples are gone.”

Though Beth shared the same sentiment, she’d never ventured to declare it so publicly. At least not in front of a Crane, and especially not Ivy. “I’m sure you didn’t come all this way to chat about new security systems and repaired windows.”

Ivy’s lips twitched appreciatively at this bold new side to her daughter-in-law, and she decided there may be hope for the girl yet. “No,” she admitted as she opened her pocketbook and withdrew a handful of pamphlets that were disconcertingly familiar to Beth. “I didn’t.” Nudging the pamphlets forward, she kept her eyes carefully trained on Beth’s expression as she lobbed the ball back into her court with a regal arch of her brow and tap of her manicured nails.

Beth swallowed hard as her fingers closed on the pamphlets only to have them pulled just beyond her reach by Ivy.

“Care to explain these?”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“So,” Theresa commented offhandedly, holding up the three newest swatches of fabric she’d been considering for the suit Joshua would wear as her ring-bearer. “You’ve been spending an awful lot of time with my fiancé.”


Paloma rolled her eyes at the sheer ridiculousness of the possibility that her sister was jealous and shook her head when Theresa held out a swatch she didn’t particularly like. “Not that one. The other one,” she pointed to the one Theresa held in her right hand.

Ever curious and determined to get her way as always, Theresa persisted, bumping shoulders affectionately with her younger sister. “So?”

Knowing it would drive her crazy and laughing on the inside, Paloma remained tight-lipped, not giving Theresa the satisfaction of an answer. Instead, she changed the subject, fingering the satin sleeves of the gown she knew she’d be wearing as part of the wedding party. “What if I can’t fit into this gown when the time comes? What then? Who plans a wedding after Thanksgiving? Do you know how crazy you are, Theresita?”

Theresa giggled. “Are you planning to eat so much, Loma? You’ll never find a man that way.”

Paloma feigned insult. “Who says I need a man? Not every girl thinks Prince Charming was that much of a catch.”

“Paloma,” Theresa’s laughter died down. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”

“No,” Paloma looked at her sister oddly. “No!” her jaw dropped open in disbelief. “Theresa, I promise. My dislike of Prince Charming is not a result of lusting after Cinderella for myself.”

Theresa snorted unbecomingly. “Good to know. Not that there’s…”

“Theresa,” Paloma interrupted her with a quick elbow to her ribs.

“What?” Theresa rubbed at her side, bemoaning her ‘injury’ in looks if not words.

“Shut up.” Paloma tried to play it straight but couldn’t stop herself, dissolving into giggles of her own just seconds later. “I don’t need a man. I don’t want a man,” she lied. Whether it was convincing or not she couldn’t say.

“Don’t tell me you’re considering becoming a nun,” Theresa teased. Dropping her voice to a whisper and looking around in the paranoid way she had whenever she discussed things she’d rather her mother not hear come out of her mouth, she started to giggle nervously, like a schoolgirl. “It’s too much fun.”

“Seriously,” Paloma rolled her eyes at her sister again. “Are you in high school? I’ve had sex. I know what it is. This wedding business is leaching away your brain cells and making you stupid. Is this how you acted when you were chasing Ethan because some things are becoming clearer to me now.” Beside her Theresa stiffened, and her voice sounded really small, and Paloma officially felt like a heel. “Theresa, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…look, I’m sorry. Okay?”

Tears of hurt glimmered in Theresa’s large brown eyes before she looked away, withdrawing into herself. “I’m in love. I’m happy. And I guess I’m silly when I’m both of those things because I’ve never been both at the same time. Is it such a crime to want everyone else to be as happy as I am?”

“Oh, Theresa,” Paloma sighed, sliding her arms around her sister’s waist and squeezing her tightly until she yielded in her arms. “Don’t mind me. I’m just a grouch,” she muttered against Theresa’s shoulder. “I’m just jealous I don’t have someone that loves me as much as Chad loves you. Did I tell you he really is working on a surprise for you?”

“Really?” Theresa’s eyes lit up in excitement.

“Yeah,” Paloma grinned, Theresa’s enthusiasm contagious. “You’re going to love it.”




~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




Walking into the Blue Note and watching her son for a few moments undetected, Eve couldn’t help the smile that overcame her. Chad’s joy in music was pure and untainted, and it was obvious to her that here he was in his element. A woman’s voice, both familiar and unrecognizable to her, sung an old standard about life and love and longing, and the clarity of the emotion she heard tugged at something within Eve, making her eyes mist over at memories she thought she’d buried deep. Clearing her throat, she decided she’d hidden in the shadows long enough and announced herself, “She’s doing more than just singing the song.”


Startled to find he was alone no more, Chad relaxed when he realized the identity of his visitor. Turning the tune up with a nod of his head, he concurred. “She feels it.”

Eve crossed the small distance between them and took the empty seat beside Chad, closing her eyes as she listened. When she opened them, she found Chad staring at her with an unreadable smile on his face. Smiling somewhat nervously back at him, she remarked, “I think she has something special.”

Turning the music off with a flick of his wrist, Chad voiced his agreement. “I do too.”

Eve’s smile faltered as they drifted into a self-conscious silence, and she searched the recesses of her mind for something to say, all the while cursing the awkwardness of the situation she found herself in with her own son. While Chad had embraced Sheridan as a member of his family wholeheartedly, it seemed all he’d ever be able to approach her with was wary civility. Remembering the rocky start they’d gotten, and the short but tangled past they shared, she supposed it was all she could hope for in the present while working toward something more. “You said something about a surprise for Theresa on the phone?”

The ice broken again, Chad’s face erupted into a grin as he began to fill Eve in on the details.

Feeling herself being swept up in her son’s excitement, Eve couldn’t, wouldn’t disappoint him, not believing the words leaving her mouth as she agreed to do her part and realization began to slowly waken up her senses.

Maybe that something more wasn’t so unattainable after all.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“Good morning, Dr. Taylor,” Ellie batted her eyes prettily at Nick as he ambled past the front desk, whistling a cheery tune under his breath.


“Morning to you too, Ellie,” Nick inclined his head at her with a smile, looking at Katie wonderingly when he noticed her roll her eyes at him. “What?”

“Please,” Katie groaned. “Don’t encourage her.”

“I’m not encouraging her,” Nick looked puzzled. “I was just being nice to her. You should try it sometimes.”

Katie’s mouth dropped open in incredulity. “I have. I do. Sometimes,” she admitted somewhat sheepishly. “She’s not the easiest person to be nice to,” she finally huffed, crossing her arms across her middle as they walked further down the hall, en route to a patient’s room.

Pausing in front of the room at the far end of the hall, Nick rapped his knuckles against the closed door, waiting to be admitted. When muffled acquiescence reached his ears, he entered the room, Katie following behind him. “Good morning,” he greeted, smiling as he tugged at the bare toe peeking out from beneath the covers.

The owner of the exposed toe giggled, snatching her bare foot away and slipping it protectively beneath her blankets as she scooted to the edge of her bed, allowing Nick to perch beside her. Small fingers reached for the stethoscope around Nick’s neck, and an exuberant smile lit up her face when he allowed her to take it, gently placing the earpieces in her ears. “It’s time for Scooby’s check-up,” she announced, placing the instrument just below her stuffed Scooby’s collar.

Sharing a smile with the little girl’s mother, Katie moved behind her to take a listen at her lungs with her own stethoscope, sweeping her sparse dark curls over her shoulders. Handing her stethoscope to Nick when she was finished, she rubbed comforting hands over the child’s slender shoulders and told her, “Dr. Nick’s going to listen to how strong your heart is now, Lanie.”

Nodding her permission, Lanie’s dark eyes sparkled intently as she did the same with Scooby, her mother continuing to smile in the background. “You did good, Scooby,” she said, removing the stethoscope and giving Scooby a congratulatory pat between the ears as soon as Nick had removed his own stethoscope from her chest. “What about me, Dr. Nick?”

Tucking a curl behind Lanie’s ear, Nick assured her that she had just as strong a heart as Scooby, quoting a rate to Katie so that she might record it with the girl’s other vitals. He noted with satisfaction that the IV site on her arm showed no signs of redness or infection and his gray eyes twinkled at the smiley face drawn there. “Katie’s quite the artist, isn’t she?”

“Uh huh,” Lanie nodded her head vigorously, her dark curls tumbling over her shoulders as she pushed the covers from her waist to show him more of Katie’s handiwork. “Look.”

Hearts and more smiley faces adorned the bandages covering Lanie’s left leg, and Nick’s gray eyes perused the surgical site as he adorned gloves and gently unwrapped the bandages from the stump, looking for any signs of insufficient healing. “Looking good, Kiddo.” Meeting Lanie’s mother’s eyes across the room as he discarded his gloves in the small bedside waste basket, he gave her a smile of reassurance. “Have you met with a physical therapist yet?”

“I haven’t made the appointment for them yet,” Katie answered for her.

Looking at Lanie’s mother again, Nick waved off her worry that she’d done something wrong in not establishing contact herself. “Katie’s going to set you up with a therapist here at the hospital just as soon as she puts some fresh bandages on Lanie’s leg, and someone will come to talk to you about outfitting her with her new prosthesis later today.”

“What about Scooby?” Lanie tugged at Nick’s sleeve.

Inspecting the matching bandage on one of Scooby’s legs, Nick declared him ready to be fitted with a prosthesis as well, earning him a beaming smile from the little girl in front of him.

“Hear that, Scooby?” Lanie whispered into one of Scooby’s ears. “We’ll be twins.”

“You’re so good with her,” Lanie’s mother uttered tearfully as she gave him a heartfelt hug goodbye. “Thank you. Thank you for everything.”

“No problem,” Nick answered her, tugging once more at one of Lanie’s bare toes and making her giggle. “I think you’re really going to like Abby,” he told both Lanie and her mother. “She’s one of my favorite people in the entire hospital. Ask Katie,” he said, winking at his smiling nurse as he took his leave. “She can tell you all about her.”


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“Clear some things up for me, Tink, because I’m a little confused here,” Hank bumped shoulders playfully with Abby as he followed her to the back of the hospital’s cafeteria, away from the morning hubbub. “You went crawling back to Taylor? Not the other way around?”

Abby rolled her hazel eyes at Hank as she took a seat at an unoccupied table by the window. “I didn’t go crawling back. I decided to forget about my stupid pride and give him another chance. We all deserve second chances, right?”

Hank considered her words and couldn’t rightfully say that she was wrong, not without sounding like a complete hypocrite. Nudging at her foot beneath the table, he picked up a piece of bacon from his plate and stuffed it into his mouth before changing tactics, kind of. “So…I hope you’re still making him suffer.”

Returning his nudge with a more forceful kick to his jean-clad shin, Abby smirked when she saw him wince and reach beneath the table. “He’s sleeping on the couch. Not that my sex life is any of your business. Jeez. You’re worse than Shane.”

“Good,” Hank said before having the propriety to look a little embarrassed at prying into her personal life. “I mean, not that it’s really any of my business like you said, but I don’t want to see you hurt again. Shane’s falling down on his job as big brother. He’s being too easy on the jerk,” Hank elaborated when Abby arched a brow at him in question. “Come on, Abby. You can’t lie to me. Taylor broke your heart.”

“Just a little,” Abby admitted, stirring her spoon through her oatmeal absentmindedly. Grimacing at the colorless sludge as it dropped from her spoon in clumps, she gently pushed her tray away and hungrily eyed the bacon and pancakes on Hank’s own plate. “Are you sure you’re going to be able to eat all that?”

“I’m not holding your hair back if you get sick,” Hank warned, cutting the pancakes in half and sliding his tray into the middle of the table and setting hers on the table behind them. “Gwen will get jealous,” he winked, lifting another piece of bacon to his mouth and chewing with gusto.

Drizzling maple syrup over her half of the pancakes, Abby decided it was a risk she would have to take. She’d been deprived for way too long. Lifting her fork to her mouth, she closed her lips around the bite and moaned blissfully as soon as the sugary sweetness reached her taste buds.

“You’re not going to re-enact that scene from ‘When Harry Met Sally’ are you? Because I don’t want people getting the wrong idea about us,” Hank grinned.

Abby ignored him, digging into her pancakes with relish. Pausing to take a drink from her bottle of water, she asked, “Where are the kids?”

“The girls are spending some quality time at their grandparents’ house. Jake went camping with Sam and Noah. They thought it’d cheer MJ up.”

Screwing the lid back on her bottle of water, Abby found herself unable to meet Hank’s eyes.

“Look Abby,” Hank ventured. “Nobody’s blaming you. You did what you felt like you had to do.”

Shaking her head at him, Abby wouldn’t be convinced. “Grace blames me.”

“Grace needs somebody to blame,” Hank said. “She’ll get over it. She just needs more time.”

“I guess,” Abby tried to smile at him, thankful for his attempts to put a more appealing spin on the situation. Changing the subject, she asked, “How’d you convince Sara to make the trip to Rebecca’s?”

“It wasn’t easy. Let me tell you…”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




What Hank didn’t know was that the camping trip had been ditched at the last moment for male bonding of another sort: fishing. Or at least they had pretended to fish for the first couple of hours. Now, they simply drifted on the waves, sitting in quiet reflection.

Too quiet, thought Jake as he rolled his eyes at Noah, snoozing on the deck with the bill of his baseball cap pulled over his eyes, MJ sitting cross-legged beside him, apparently mad at the world. “Hey, Uncle Sam,” Jake called over his shoulder where his uncle loomed. “Have you ever actually caught any fish out here?”

Seating himself beside Jake with a slight groan, Sam’s immediate answer was a smirk.

When he shrugged and promised he’d caught a few, Jake knew he was putting him on. Glancing once more in MJ’s direction, Jake lowered his voice. “Are you sure this was such a good idea?”

Sam did a double-take at the maturity lacing Jake’s question, and he brought his arm down over Jake’s shoulders with a sigh. “Can’t pull one over on you, can I?”

“Nope,” Jake grinned, pushing away Sam’s hand when it ruffled at his mop of hair obnoxiously. “Hands off the hair. What’s with you people?”

Grinning back at him, Sam removed his arm from Jake’s shoulders, placing his hands on his knees as they lapsed again into silence. After several long moments had passed, he peered into his nephew’s brown eyes, shading his own eyes from the sun’s glare with a hand to his brow. “Your mom enjoying her new job?”

Jake shrugged. “I guess.”

“Crane Industries is a big place,” Sam continued. “I heard you got a tour last week. What did you think?”

“It was just another boring office,” Jake muttered, never one to understand why grown-ups liked work so much. “With creepy pictures. But the helicopter pad was cool.”

“Your dad liked the helicopter pad too,” Sam smiled. “What was so creepy about the pictures?”

Frowning, Jake recalled the way the cold eyes of Alistair Crane had stared right through him when he’d walked past his likeness in the hallway, and he wondered how it was possible for the old man to be related to Sheridan and Ali. “I dunno,” he finally answered. “They just…were.”

Sam nodded in understanding.

Spotting a small plane flying in the distance, Jake didn’t let the conversation lag for long. “Did you know Ali’s mom knew how to fly airplanes? Ali says she’s going to teach Cristian.”

Squinting into the sunlight, Sam looked beyond Jake’s outstretched arm.

“Do you think that’s them?” Jake wondered.

“Could be,” Sam didn’t deny the possibility.

“Uncle Sam?” Jake heaved a long-suffering sigh.

“Hmm?” Sam cast the boy a sideways glance.

“How much longer do we have to pretend to fish?”

Gripping Jake’s shoulder firmly as he levered himself up, Sam couldn’t help the smile that took up residence on his features, and
he winked at his disgruntled nephew. “Until we catch our dinner.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




Luis needn’t have worried; his son had taken to the skies like a pro.


Nearly an hour after they’d touched down at the airfield, Cristian was still reliving the adventure, chattering excitedly and barely pausing long enough to take a breath as he raced to and fro the different small planes housed in the Crane private hangar. Skidding to a stop in front a vaguely familiar-looking aircraft, Cristian’s brown eyes grew wide and his jaw dropped open as his small hand reached out to touch its red surface. “Mommy,” he turned around to face Sheridan, eyes still large with astonishment. “It’s the one in the picture.”

“It is,” Sheridan conceded, her blue eyes going soft as she regarded the craft fondly. If she closed her eyes and let her mind drift in memory, she could still picture the false bravado Ethan hadn’t been able to hold on to when they were alone, up in the air, with the heavens surrounding them and the ocean stretching on as far as the eye could see, her flight instructor’s voice over the radio their only connection to the world they’d left behind with their take-off. She’d longed to be closer to her mother; flying, somehow, had done the impossible for her—let her believe.

“Wow,” Cristian breathed. “It must be really old then.”

“Cristian,” Sheridan laughed sharply in surprise.

“I’m sure he didn’t mean that the way it sounded,” a new voice joined in.

Sheridan whirled around to face the owner of that voice, her eyebrow arching curiously as she held out her hand in greeting. “I’m sorry. I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Sheridan.”

Chocolate brown eyes studied her beneath likewise raised brows, and his hand held hers loosely for but a moment. “Sheridan Crane?”

“Lopez-Fitzgerald,” Sheridan corrected him automatically as she let her hand drop back to her side. Not having recognized him as a long-term Crane employee and realizing it’d been years since she’d frequented the place and her presence at it might look a little suspicious from his standpoint, she hastily added, “Actually, it used to be Sheridan Crane. I took my husband’s name when we married.” She watched his face as he digested the news, shrugging off a feeling of vague discontent.

“Lopez-Fitzgerald, huh? Went to school with some boys by the name of Lopez-Fitzgerald. Good guys. Which one did you marry?”

“My daddy’s the Police Chief,” Cristian announced proudly, finally overcoming his shyness and adding his two cents’ worth to the conversation.

“You married Luis.”

It was a statement, not a question, but Sheridan answered it as such anyway. “I married Luis.” Laughing softly, she asked, “How’d you guess?”

“Guy was always straight as an arrow. Even as a kid.”

“You knew my daddy when he was little?” Cristian fidgeted beside Sheridan, interest definitely piqued as he stared up at the tall man, his small hand reaching out to tug at the leather jacket he wore despite the warm temperatures.

“I left Harmony a long time ago. I’m sure he doesn’t remember me.”

“Luis remembers everyone and everything,” Sheridan laughed, only half kidding as she placed her hands on Cristian’s small shoulders and pulled him close to her.

“He knows all the presidents that lived in the White House,” Cristian informed him. “I know because I heard him studying with Ali once.”

Eyes twinkling, Sheridan told him, “Ali’s my daughter.”

“Hey, Mister,” Cristian continued, the excited edge to his voice becoming more punctuated with each word he uttered. “My mommy’s gonna teach me to fly airplanes. Just like that one,” he pointed at the small red plane looming in front of them.

“Airplanes, huh? You must be pretty brave.”

Cristian flushed with pleasure, tucking his face against Sheridan’s side, suddenly overcome with another bout of shyness.

“Brave, and it seems, for the moment anyway, mute,” Sheridan smiled indulgently. “We’re not starting lessons for another couple of weeks.”

“Hey!” Cristian’s dark head shot up, and his brown eyes looked at her accusingly.

“You still have T-ball,” Sheridan gave his hair an affectionate tousle. “And I can’t let Chad take over my job at the Youth Center. You like the Youth Center,” she reminded him.

“Okay,” Cristian muttered and bowed his head, some residual disappointment still lingering in his reply.

“I’m the director at the Harmony Youth Center,” Sheridan told their newfound friend, unable to understand why she felt strangely compelled to share so much with him. “My nephew’s been helping me out lately so I can spend more time at home with Cristian and the girls.”

“Girls? So…you have more than one daughter?”

“Two,” Sheridan said, smiling proudly. “Ali and Hope. I’d show you pictures, but Luis gave me so much grief about taking my purse with me everywhere that I left it at home. What about you? Do you have any children?” As soon as the question had left Sheridan’s mouth, she felt like kicking herself, especially after witnessing the stricken expression that flickered across his face. “Listen to me. Giving you the 3rd degree when I haven’t even asked your name. Cristian,” she squeezed Cristian’s shoulders lightly. “We promised Aunt Theresa we’d stop by before we met Nana for lunch. Think you’re about ready to tear yourself away from this place?”

Nodding, Cristian took the keys Sheridan fished out of her jeans pocket, giving an absentminded little wave before taking off in the general direction of the car.

Sheridan watched to make sure Cristian made it safely inside the SUV before turning her attention back to the man in front of her. “I’m really sorry about before.”

Brown eyes studied her face and found her to be completely sincere. “It was nothing. You mentioned flying lessons.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call them lessons. I promised Cristian I’d teach him,” Sheridan replied.

“How would like to take on a paying client?”

UAgirl
9.20.07, 9:59 PM
Chapter 25





Lightning zigzagged across the darkening sky in the distance, and gusts of warm air swept the tree branches back and forth in a frenzied dance, leaves rustling and limbs creaking against the unexpected force of the gales.

Humidity made the short blond strands of Sheridan’s hair curl around her face, and her skin was damp with sweat wherever they touched, making her shiver slightly with each new blast of air.

One particularly violent shiver had Luis tightening his arms around her. His lips brushed her forehead as he murmured, “Maybe we should go inside.” When Sheridan’s only response was to nuzzle her nose deeper into his neck, he opened the palm that rested against the small of her back, his fingers tracing absent patterns on the skin bared by his questing hands. “The storm’s getting closer.”

“Not yet.” She shifted against him, the hand cupping his shoulder moving to cradle the back of his head in her hands, and her nails lightly scratched his scalp as she feathered slow, languid kisses across the line of his jaw.

“Sheridan,” Luis groaned, feeling his blood start to heat in a familiar way at her touch. The whine of the hammock faded to the background as the sound of his own increasingly labored breaths filled his ears.

“Hmm,” she answered, her teeth catching lightly on his earlobe.

Luis’s fingers clenched in the thick material of the blanket they’d laid across the green blades of grass earlier, and he shuddered, feeling the drag of her nails across his naked chest, down to the waistband of the jeans he wore. “Sheridan,” he protested halfheartedly when he felt her hands slip beneath the waistband and travel around the back. “I’m getting too old for this.” Of their own volition, his hands had found their way to her hips.

“Too old, Luis?” Sheridan teased his mouth with kisses. Her blue eyes danced at him as she pulled away, her bare legs sliding across the heavy denim covering his thighs and her hands coming to rest again on his chest. “You’ll never be too old for this,” she smiled, dipping her head to kiss him again.

Losing himself in the sweet meeting and clinging of their lips, Luis felt all awareness of the gathering storm slip away. His hands moved from her hips to slip beneath the soft cotton of her tank top, and he grinned into the kiss when he felt the answering shiver the movement elicited. “No bra?” he teased when she broke away gasping. “The evidence suggests this seduction was premeditated.”

Drawing her bottom lip between her teeth, Sheridan couldn’t help letting her eyes flutter shut when the full force of the onslaught of sensation hit her. “Your mother…asked,” she sucked in a shaky breath when he switched tactics, sweeping the pale pink shirt over her head and tossing it onto the grass behind them, only to return his hands to her skin mere seconds later. “I couldn’t…I couldn’t say no.”

“Just can’t refuse a Lopez-Fitzgerald, can you?” Luis laughed, pretending to be hurt when she playfully smacked him in the shoulder. “Ouch,” he rubbed at the tender spot. “Kiss it better?”

Rolling her eyes at the hope he failed to disguise, Sheridan pressed a kiss to her fingertips then pressed them lightly against the wound, shrieking with laughter when he captured her hand and pulled her down to him, attacking her sides and tickling her mercilessly as he rolled them over until she was beneath him and gasping for breath, pleading with him. “Luis, stop. Stop. Uncle, okay? Uncle.”

“Now will you kiss it better?” Luis grinned, tucking a curl behind her ear and letting his hand linger there.

Blue eyes dancing wickedly at him, Sheridan smirked in response. “I can think of other places to kiss.”

Luis groaned when he felt the button of his jeans pop open and the warmth of her hand delving inside to hover along the waistband of his boxers.

“Now who can’t refuse a Lopez-Fitzgerald?”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


Ali was still giggling about her little brother passed out cold in their daddy’s old bed muttering about airplanes and clouds and Superman when Theresa plopped down beside her on the sofa, her own smile just as bright.


“I guess he liked the plane.”

“Guess so,” Ali grinned, curling happily against Theresa’s side when she held her arm open to welcome her. “I’m glad you’re staying tonight, Aunt Theresa.”

“Me, too,” Theresa replied. “It’s been too long since we’ve had a sleepover. Right, Loma?”

“Too long,” Paloma agreed, sitting down on the other side of Ali with a bowl of popcorn in her lap. “Mama says start the movie without her. She’s still trying to get Hope down for the night.”

Ali fished the remote control to the DVD player out from between the couch cushions and handed it to Theresa. “She’s afraid of storms,” she told Paloma, grabbing a handful of popcorn from the bowl and tossing a few kernels into her mouth. “Cristian usually is too.”

“Poor thing,” Theresa giggled. “Guess he’s just too tired to care.”

“Uh huh,” Ali nodded, stretching her legs out in front of her and wiggling her toes. “What movie are we watching?”

“Something about being 13 going on 30,” Theresa answered absently as she bumped shoulders with Ali. “I have some new pink polish if you want me to paint your toenails,” she told her niece.

“Okay,” Ali grinned so broadly her nose scrunched up.

It had to be, Paloma decided, one of the most absurdly cute expressions she had ever seen. Still she couldn’t let the moment pass without a little teasing. Her sister really did make it easy sometimes. “Great. Flip that around, and it could be your autobiography.”

“Ha. Ha,” Theresa said. “If we’d have let you pick the movie, we’d be watching ‘The Sound of Music’ right now.”

“Funny,” Paloma mused, scooping up a handful of popcorn in her palm. “I always thought the nuns could have been singing about you. You know that part where they’re trying to solve a problem like Maria? Should have been Theresa if you ask me.”

“Oh!” Theresa tossed a pillow in Paloma’s direction, missing by a good mile and a half and making Ali giggle helplessly. “Eat your popcorn and hush, Loma. The previews are almost over.”

“Fine,” Paloma huffed with a good-natured roll of her dark eyes. “Chicken,” she accused, tossing a handful of popcorn Theresa’s way.

“Oh, this means war,” Theresa’s eyes flashed as she grabbed another pillow from the armchair nearby and brought it down over Paloma’s head, making her squeal in protest and Ali scramble off of the sofa and out of the way, laughing so hard she could barely breathe.

“Girls!” The warning from Martin was yelled with humor and affection and paid absolutely no heed whatsoever. “Don’t make me come out there!”

“Come on, Mija,” Pilar shook her head slightly, arriving in the midst of all the hoopla. She took Ali’s hand, leading her into the relative safe haven of the kitchen. “We’re going to need more popcorn,” she muttered.

Now Ali could never be 100% certain, but she trusted those handy Lopez-Fitzgerald instincts her daddy had passed on to her. She could have sworn her nana just winked!




~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“I was a free man today, Babe,” Hank baited his wife over the remainder of Chinese takeout. “Aren’t you going to ask if I stayed out of trouble?”

Gwen rolled her eyes at him, closing the carton of sesame chicken and pushing it back across the table to him. “Luis didn’t call asking me to post your bail,” she muttered dryly. “I imagine you stayed out of trouble just fine.”

Hank feigned hurt, clasping a hand over his heart. “And here I thought I filled your every thought. Aren’t you even curious where I took Abby on our clandestine meeting? Come on, I know you’re dying to know all the details.”

“Hate to disappoint you, Bennett,” Gwen smirked, “but frankly, I don’t give a damn. How you choose to woo a woman impregnated by and hopelessly in love with another man is your business, not mine. Do anything else interesting today?”

“Damn,” Hank grinned proudly as he scooted his chair across the tiles and bumped knees with her. “I just love how secure you are in my feelings for you, Babe. Have I told you lately how sexy I think that is?”

“Once or twice,” Gwen tried valiantly not to smile but couldn’t help it when he tried, and failed spectacularly, to pick up some rice with his chopsticks and bring it to her mouth. “Hank,” she shook her head at him with twinkling brown eyes. “I’ve never really found someone else feeding me sexy,” she said, taking her napkin and wiping away the small mess he’d made.

“Not even chocolate covered strawberries?” Hank looked crestfallen, but then again, he was excellent in the art of fakery.

“Not even chocolate covered strawberries,” Gwen laughed, framing his goofy face between her hands and kissing him soundly. “I wouldn’t mind some wine though. Pour me a glass?”

“One glass of wine coming right up,” Hank mock saluted her, pushing his chair back from the table and standing up to fulfill her request. “Go on to the living room. I’ll put the leftovers in the fridge and be right out.”

“Are you sure you don’t mind?” Gwen bit her lip, brushing a loose strand of blond out of her eyes as she gazed up at his much loved face.

“I’m sure,” Hank answered her with a kiss to the forehead. “Go,” he shooed her away. “It’ll be the most interesting thing I’ve done all day.”

“Oh, Hank,” Gwen smiled, capturing his hand as he moved to leave and pressing a kiss to his palm. “I…”

“Yeah, Babe?” Hank smiled back at her, brown eyes dancing as the flashes of lightning flickered across his features.

“I was insanely jealous. Insanely,” she reiterated.

“Good.” He seemed pleased at the thought. “For a minute there, I was afraid I was losing my touch.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~





Lightning flared again in the distance, and Abby imagined she could see the tumultuous sea waters churning and roiling against the sand and rocks lining Harmony’s ocean front. She turned from the windows when she heard his voice.

“Won’t be long before the storm gets here.”

“It’s funny, isn’t it?” she wondered aloud, turning once more to face the spectacular scene displayed outside.

“Funny how?” Nick asked her, hovering just behind her, his hands fisted at his sides as he resisted the urge to touch her.

“How something so violent could be so beautiful,” Abby whispered, meeting his gray stare in the reflection of the windows. “Kind of like me,” she mused softly. “And her father.”

Nick tensed further at the mention of the daughter she’d lost and the relationship that had borne her, and he couldn’t help feeling things would have been different if he’d only known her then. He didn’t know how; he just knew it would have. Maybe…maybe there’d be a little girl with Abby’s eyes waiting to be tucked in for the night in the bedroom he’d come to think of as the nursery. Maybe there wouldn’t be a little girl at all. Either way, he liked to think the pained tightness of the voice she always used when she spoke of her past wouldn’t be there, would fade away into nothingness. It was moments like these he wanted to break free of the stranglehold his head had over his heart and tell her, tell her…tell her that he cared for her, more than he’d ever cared for any other woman in his life, and that he’d sooner die than lose whatever it was that they shared. But he was strong-willed. And stubborn to a fault. And he’d never experienced someone like her in his life before.

“Maybe…maybe,” she said, sounding lost and young and all the things that made his heart ache inside his chest, “maybe I didn’t deserve to be her mother. Things happen for a reason, right?” she turned to him, hazel eyes shining in the darkness. “Maybe He saw that and decided to take her away from me, and she’s in a better place. A place where that bastard can’t hurt her anymore, and her fool of a mother…”

“Shh.” His hands slid around her slender shoulders, pulling her trembling body close and tucking her tawny head beneath his chin. “Shh,” he soothed as he felt her arms wrap around his back, clenching fistfuls of soft cotton beneath his shoulder blades.

“Maybe…”

“No,” Nick cut her off, holding her shoulders even more tightly and pressing his lips to her hair. “No more maybes.” He only hoped she believed him.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


Thunder boomed loudly overhead, rattling the windowpanes and making the house shudder on its foundation as two sopping wet figures burst through the kitchen door, heads bowed against the driving rain.


Sheridan jumped as a particularly vicious strike of lightning lit up the night sky, and the lights they had left on in the kitchen flickered then died. “Luis,” she fumbled for his hand in the darkness.

“Right here,” Luis answered her, wrapping his fingers firmly around her wrist and pulling her along behind him. “You okay?” he questioned when he heard her softly uttered cry behind him.

“Fine,” Sheridan assured him. “Just found Cristian’s missing bat.”

Luis grinned in the darkness when he felt her wrap her arms around his waist from behind and shuffle her feet forward cautiously. “That bat was never missing. He just wanted you to think it was. I never thought I’d say this…”

Sheridan said it for him, softening the edges of her laughter with a gentle squeeze to his hands, “Cristian doesn’t like baseball.”

The now constant flashes of lightning were the only illumination they had as they made their way from the kitchen into the living room.

“There are other sports,” Sheridan reminded him when he remained silent. “Basketball. Soccer.”

“Soccer’s Jake’s thing,” Luis replied, swearing softly under his breath when he stubbed his toe on the coffee table. “Besides, from what I hear Cristian seems to like flying just fine.”

Sheridan reached one hand behind her and tossed a pillow aside when she felt her legs bumping up against the couch. Still holding onto Luis’s hand with her other hand, she smiled up at him even though she knew he couldn’t make out the expression on her face. “You should have seen his face.”

“I can imagine,” Luis’s free hand sought out her face in the darkness. Stroking his thumb across her cheekbone, he leaned in close and pressed his mouth to hers, the blind action just awkward enough to make Sheridan giggle girlishly when they bumped noses in the process. “Stay here,” he brushed his lips against her forehead. “I’ll be right back.”

Dropping down to the sofa below, Sheridan brought her legs up, wrapping her arms securely around them, and shivered without Luis’s welcome body heat nearby. “You were right,” she called, digging her bare toes into the cushions of the couch and chafing her hands over her goose-bump pebbled flesh.

“I’m always right,” came Luis’s muffled answer. “What was I right about?” he asked a few moments later, bending at the waist to light the candles on the coffee table.

How was it, Sheridan wondered, that her husband could make ratty, hole-ridden gray sweatpants look so attractive? Taking the plush towel he offered her, she rubbed it briskly over her hair. “We should have come inside sooner.”

“Come on,” Luis teased her as he collapsed onto the sofa beside her. “Where’s your sense of adventure?” His brown eyes eyed her appreciatively as she peeled her wet tank top from her body to replace it with the soft, equally worn out black tee-shirt she’d proclaimed her own early on in their marriage.

Sheridan let the towel slide to the floor with her wet clothes, promising herself she’d clean up later. Later, when the chill was gone from her skin, and her husband didn’t look so invitingly warm and cuddly. The thought made laughter bubble in her throat, and she couldn’t say what caused her to shake more: the cold or the thought of Luis as a uniform clad teddy bear.

“I’m not even going to ask,” Luis muttered, pulling her into his arms and tucking her head beneath his chin.

Burrowing deeper into his open arms, she pressed her cold nose in the crook of his neck and was rewarded with an answering shiver from her husband. “You wouldn’t appreciate the humor anyway,” she mumbled against his skin.

They lapsed into silence and watched the brilliant lightshow Mother Nature was putting on outside. Gradually, the lightning seemed to calm, but the rain still fell heavily.

Lulled to a relaxed state from the steady beat of the rain, Sheridan yawned and hugged her arms more tightly about Luis’s middle before letting her fingers dip into the waistband of his sweatpants and rest lightly there.

Giving her an answering kiss to the top of the head, Luis trailed his fingertips up and down the length of her arm. “So much for movie night,” he chuckled lightly, referring to the night of fun Theresa had planned for Ali’s sleepover.

“I’m sure your sisters have other ways of keeping Ali entertained,” Sheridan laughed. “She loves spending time with them.”

“She does, doesn’t she?” Luis mused.

Sheridan smiled to herself, knowing how much Ali’s close relationship with Theresa and her growing fondness for Paloma meant to him. “Luis,” she captured his hand with her own, threading their fingers together. “Have you given anymore thought to the trip?” She sighed when she felt him tense in response to her question before willing himself to relax.

“It’s too soon.”

“I know it feels like it,” Sheridan lifted their joined hands to her mouth and pressed a kiss on the inside of Luis’s wrist. “But it’ll be good for Ali to have a little fun after the year she’s had, and think of how Theresa will feel if you don’t let Ali go. Chad and Paloma are both going, and they’re taking Jake along.”

“I’ll think about it,” Luis said. “I’ll think about it some more,” he smiled when he felt and heard her exasperation. Changing the subject, he urged, “Tell me more about Cristian’s first flight.”

“Well,” Sheridan began, sitting up beside him, her blue eyes sparkling with humor in the candlelight. “He wants to be Superman when he grows up.”

Luis laughed, his fingers finding their way into Sheridan’s hair and stroking lovingly as she regaled him with the details of her day with their young aviator in training. “Superman. Last year it was Spiderman. What else?”

“A man approached me about giving him flying lessons…”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“Children don’t get to choose their parents.”

“Doesn’t seem fair, does it?” Nick murmured, his lips brushing against Abby’s forehead as he spoke. They lay lengthwise on the couch, Nick’s head resting against the arm, Abby’s tawny head nestled on his chest, a comfortable tangle of limbs. That’s where they had been for the duration of Abby’s earlier emotional outbreak, and that’s where Nick continued to hold her close, his hand stroking calmingly up and down her back, slipping occasionally beneath the soft cotton to splay against the small of her back and the sunburst design that served as a constant reminder of the past. “Nobody in their right mind would choose me.”

Abby raised her head, her hazel eyes boring into Nick’s unwavering gray gaze. “You can’t really believe that.” She traced the neckline of his tee-shirt with her fingers, finally cupping her palm around the curve of his jaw. “I’ve seen the way children react to you. They adore you. Ask Ali. Ask Lanie.” Her eyes sparkled, and the lightning illuminated the smile on her face. “Is it true? Am I really one of your favorites?” she teased, unprepared for the seriousness of his answer.

“THE favorite,” Nick covered her hand with his own, bringing her hand to his mouth and pressing a tender kiss to her palm.

Abby’s breath caught in her throat as his fingers slid into her hair, and he stared at her with an emotion she didn’t dare name in his gray eyes. Her thumb caressed the corner of his mouth, and her lips parted as they pressed sweetly against that same corner seconds later.

Nick stilled beneath her, through sheer force of will letting her take the lead. Only when he felt her gently sigh into his mouth did he respond in kind, letting the kiss build and build and fill him with aching warmth. He groaned when her soft curves settled more fully atop him, his breath escaping in harsh pants as she leaned her forehead against his own.

With Hank’s concerns and the memories of the resurrected past still whirling inside her mind, Abby felt as if she were freefalling, and she desperately wished to place her feet on solid ground again. But she couldn’t do that. Not if they continued on the path they were on, one already traveled. It had to be different this time—different than all the times before. There was too much at stake. “We can’t do this,” Abby frowned, fingers digging painfully into the bunched up muscle of his shoulders. “I need to keep my head. I need to do what’s best. For this baby. For me. For you. We can’t do this. We can’t complicate things with sex. I can’t think straight when...,” her hands slid up to cup his face again, and she implored him, “Nick, please.” She kissed him again, tears filling her eyes as she pulled back. “I don’t want to lose another child because I’m too weak to make the right choice, and I don’t trust myself to be strong here. Not when I can’t tell up from down or what you want from me or this relationship. We can’t do this. *I* can’t do this.” Her eyes pleaded with him to understand.

Wordlessly, Nick gently guided her head back to his chest and wrapped his arms tightly around her, offering what comfort he could afford her, a difficult choice decided in that moment, the only choice he felt he had the right to make. If Abby couldn’t be strong, he’d be strong for her. Even if it killed him.

UAgirl
9.30.07, 3:29 PM
New*New*New*New*New*New*




Chapter 26



Watching through the small window above the kitchen sink, Martin chuckled at the amusing spectacle of his wife and daughters fussing over securing Cristian in the backseat of Chad’s car while Chad waited patiently in the driver’s seat. He shook his head and dipped the rag in his hands back into the dishwater when a belated realization struck him. Beside him atop a small stool, Ali was unusually quiet, and the smile on Martin’s face slipped away as he pondered what was worrying her so. “You don’t have to help me with these dishes, Lass. I can handle them if you want to go finish your movie,” he said, referring to the movie that had been started and never finished last night when the storm had blown through, plunging the house into darkness and putting a premature end to the festivities Theresa had had planned.

Ali merely shook her head, biting her lip fretfully. She picked Hope’s baby monitor up and quickly put it back down when Martin held the plate in his hands out to her. “Grandpa Martin?”

“Hmm?” Martin answered, carefully transferring the wet plate to Ali’s waiting hands.

Drying the plate and rubbing it until it shone, Ali placed it on top of the growing stack before her on the kitchen counter and turned to face him with a furrowed brow. “What was Uncle Antonio like?”

Unprepared to immediately answer the unexpected question, Martin continued to rub at the last plate in the tepid dishwater with the cloth in his hands, albeit a little bit absently. Finally, he turned to face his young granddaughter, his expression thoughtful, or at least what he hoped passed for thoughtful; he didn’t exactly consider himself to be the authority where Antonio was concerned. He wondered what had brought on the question and deduced that Theresa and talk of the wedding had definitely played their part.

“Nobody ever talks about him,” Ali continued. “And Daddy gets upset whenever anybody mentions his name. Why, Grandpa Martin? Did he do something bad?”

“No, Mija,” Pilar answered softly, startling them both as neither had heard her enter the kitchen. Taking the stack of plates from Ali, she set about putting them away, her face carefully devoid of expression. “Your uncle did nothing bad.”

Flinching slightly at the condemnation in her dark brown eyes, Martin focused his attention on the dish in his hands, his shoulders and neck tightening as he felt the heat of his wife’s stare and a new tension slowly permeate the room.

Taking Ali’s small hand in her own, Pilar helped her down and led her to the kitchen table where she sat down, pulling Ali into her lap with a small groan. She stroked a hand through Ali’s wispy blond curls, marveling again at how the years seemed to be passing by so quickly and how hardly a trace existed of the chubby cheeked motherless cherub she’d nurtured and loved so dearly during such trying times. “Your uncle Antonio did nothing bad.”

“I don’t understand,” Ali frowned. “If he didn’t do anything bad or wrong, why did he leave?” Her trusting blue eyes searched her grandmother’s face for answers.

Shrugging slightly, Pilar gave her the only answer she could, the only answer she believed in. “He felt like he no longer belonged here in Harmony. That he needed to find his own place in the world.” Her eyes connected with Martin’s over the top of Ali’s head, and an uncomfortable, lingering silence descended on the room.

Sensitive to the change in mood, Ali looked from one grandparent to the other, finally settling back on Pilar’s face and uttering worriedly, “Nana?”

For a moment, Pilar didn’t answer her, the words seemingly frozen on the tip of her tongue, until she felt the gentle pressure of Ali’s hand in her own, squeezing worriedly, and the tickle of her hair against her cheek when she bent to lay her head against Pilar’s shoulder.

“Maybe Aunt Theresa’s right. Maybe Uncle Antonio will come home for the wedding, and we’ll all be together. We’ll all be a family.”

“Oh, Mija,” Pilar breathed, bittersweet tears stinging her eyes as she felt her heart swell painfully with love for her son, the child in her lap, and the man staring at her across the room with regret in his eyes. “I don’t…”

“Maybe she is right,” Martin interrupted before Pilar could say any more. “Maybe our son is coming home.”


~*~*~*~*~




Locking the doors and activating her car alarm with a touch of a button, Sheridan tugged her purse over her shoulder and began walking toward the Youth Center, head down as she sorted through the keys in the palm of her hand. Rounding the corner, she barely avoided a head-on collision, dropping her keys in surprise. “Oh my goodness! Lissy, I didn’t see you there.”

Tawny hair trailing down her back in braids, Lissy bent at the waist to retrieve the keys and offered them to Sheridan with an apology and a sheepish smile. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“You didn’t scare me,” Sheridan smiled back. “Just surprised me a little,” she said, fitting the appropriate key in the lock. It opened with a creaking sound that seemed much too loud and out of place for Sheridan amidst the cheerful singing of the birds and rustle of the gentle breeze that had arrived on the tail-end of the previous night’s storms. “What are you doing here so early?”

Lissy followed her in, hovering close to her side until she hit the light switch, chasing away the intimidating darkness. “Daddy had a meeting, and Grandpa had to go to therapy. I didn’t want to stay with the babysitter. I’m too big for one. I like coming here with you better,” Lissy muttered under her breath as an afterthought, ducking her head and avoiding Sheridan’s eyes.

Sheridan lifted the little girl’s chin with a gentle hand, struck with the memory of teary chocolate eyes and whispered wishes in her office in years past of a longing she safeguarded deep in her own heart. “I like having you here, Sweetie. You know you’re always welcome, don’t you?” She waited for the little girl to nod, finally coaxing a smile out of her. “And you’re not too big for a babysitter. Not to me,” she winked, giving one pigtail a fond tug and delighting in the reaction her words elicited as brown eyes rolled and just a hint of white appeared with the pleased smile that couldn’t be tamped down. “Come on. You can help me get things ready for the kids.”

Side by side, they walked deeper into the Youth Center, Lissy’s young voice echoing in the stillness. “Do you think you could teach me how to do that thing.”

“What thing?”

“That thing,” Lissy giggled, gesturing with her hands and moving to imagined music.

“Oh,” Sheridan nodded with an amused laugh of her own. “That thing.”


~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Fresh from her morning shower and scrubbed free of makeup, her skin shone in the mirror’s reflection. Her tawny hair hung in damp waves around her shoulders. Her hazel eyes were critical as they traveled down her length, her hands following suit. They fluttered briefly over her lace-encased breasts, and one brow arched back comically at her. If she wasn’t mistaken…Nah. Had to be wishful thinking on her part. She was forever doomed in that department, never was she going to gain a cup size. Just wasn’t in the stars apparently. Nope. It seemed the weight Maggie had insisted she’d gained had traveled straight to her waistline. Slowly she turned to the side, as she eyed her own reflection, her hands hovering over her abdomen. Yeah. Right…there. She jerked her hands and her eyes away at the unexpected sound of his voice, whirling around to face him.

“You have a bump.”

“It’s barely there,” Abby protested, narrowing her eyes at him in mock accusation as he entered her bedroom without her invitation, looking good enough to eat in his navy scrubs and setting off all types of alarms in her head. Dammit! What had she said about sex the night before? She couldn’t even look at him without wanting to…She groaned as she whirled back around and tried desperately to ignore the fact that she could literally feel the heat from his body as he came to a stop behind her and joined her in looking at the mirror’s reflection. Just why the hell was she standing here clad only in her underwear with the door to her bedroom wide open anyway? She was asking for it. Begging for it. And yet…She shivered as his hands came to rest lightly over her own, sliding across her skin and down to her belly with its barely there roundness.

“It’s right there,” Nick’s whisper was full of reverence as he stroked her skin absently with his thumb. “That’s our baby.”

For a second, just a split second, Abby let herself lean back into him, let him hold her, let herself believe in things she’d long ago written off as foolish dreams, but then their eyes met in the mirror, and the intensity of the moment overwhelmed her, making her slip free of his arms and snag the first article of clothing she could find and pull it over her head. “There,” she announced with a too bright smile. “Peep show over.”

Forcing himself not to show his disappointment, Nick smiled back at her and allowed himself just a glimpse of her bared legs before he turned around to offer her some small measure of privacy as she searched the messy room for a pair of pants, shorts, anything. “Your shirt’s on inside out.”

“Stop smirking,” Abby grumbled behind him, swearing when she stubbed her toe on the edge of her dresser. “It looks like a bomb went off in here.”

“I’m not smirking,” Nick lied, thankful she couldn’t see him. “And it’s your room. It was never this messy when…”

“Don’t even,” Abby warned, edging past him in a pair of blue running shorts, shirt still inside out. “It looked worse, with clothes everywhere and the bed…” she gestured wildly with her hands, unable in that moment to produce adequate words. “You’re going to have to learn how to control yourself or our kid will never set foot in our bedroom. It’ll get lost. Not to mention be horrified at the thought of its parents…you know,” she trailed off, only belatedly realizing what she had said. She was still floundering for words when Nick rescued her with a twinkle in his gray eyes.

“Me?! Lady…”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~








“It’s not everyday the owner of the store pulls double duty.”

Theresa handed the customer in front of her the rest of her change and a receipt and turned to Beth with a smile on her face. “This coming from the woman who’s never missed a day of work at the Book Café,” she teased.

“Good help is hard to find,” Beth smiled back at her, unloading her chosen items onto the counter for Theresa to ring up. “Sorry for stealing Julie back from you this morning,” she referred to the employee they both shared in common, “but one of the other girls had some last minute things to take care of with summer school, and Julie’s been there the longest. She can pretty much run the Book Café by herself in my absence.”

Theresa couldn’t hide the surprise on her face.

Beth’s lips twitched. “I had a doctor’s appointment. Nothing’s going on,” she rushed to assure Theresa when she noticed the worry in the younger woman’s brown eyes. “Just a routine check up,” she said.

“Good,” Theresa released a sigh of relief. “That’s good.” She held up a dress of lace and ribbons and material in a sky blue color and practically cooed, “Hope will look adorable in this.”

“I thought so too,” Beth agreed softly as she pulled her credit card from her wallet. She was thankful Theresa made no mention of the fact that most of her purchases were, in fact, for Hope. They’d all been guilty of spoiling Sheridan and Luis’s youngest since her premature arrival months ago, though Ethan often teasingly accused her of taking it too far.

Theresa’s hands stilled, however, when they came to a white christening gown that cost more than the rest of her purchases all together, and she looked to Beth curiously. “Beth,” she tilted her head to the side with a growing smile, “Are congratulations in order?”

Beth blushed and took the christening gown from Theresa’s hands with a giveaway twitch of her lips. Shyly, she answered with shining eyes, “I think congratulating Ethan for trying for a baby would embarrass him. Don’t you?”

One giggle escaped, then another, until the two women found themselves sharing in giddy laughter while curious patrons looked on in confusion.

“I can just imagine the look on his face.”




~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“Ethan.”

Ethan blinked as a hand appeared in front of his face, and his name was repeated, this time with a tinge of exasperation.

“Ethan, what is the matter with you?” Gwen sighed as she walked across the room, closing the door to his office behind her quietly and affording them a little privacy. “You hardly said two words the entire meeting, and just now…” she shook her head. “Did you know that was the fifth time in the last minute that I had called your name?”

Rubbing his hands roughly over his face, Ethan peered at Gwen with uncertain blue eyes, seemingly waging an internal battle with himself over whether to open up to her or not.

Gwen took the decision out of his hands, perching on the edge of his desk and crossing her arms across her middle as she met his uncertain look with an expectant one of her own. “Spill it. Friends talk,” she reminded him when the doubtful expression on his face lingered.

Covering his face with his hands again, he summed up the entire reason for his being so off-balance the whole morning in a few muffled words. “We’re trying for a baby.”

“Ethan, that’s wonderful news,” Gwen squeezed the hands that now rested awkwardly in front of her encouragingly. “Isn’t it?” she prodded gently, concerned when the smile he responded with was wan at most.

“I like children. I want children of my own, our own, but…”

“But?” Gwen prompted when he seemed loathe to continue. “Ethan, if this is about that conversation we had, don’t be silly.” When Ethan looked mildly offended, she rolled her eyes at him and shook her head, softly chastising, “Don’t you see? It all makes sense now. There never was anyone else, Ethan. The reason for Beth’s strange behavior is obvious.”

Ethan’s brows rose at her statement, and he leaned back in his chair, mirroring her earlier posture and crossing his arms across his chest as he waited for the rest of her explanation. Nothing about this situation seemed obvious to him. Then again, he’d never been an expert at understanding what made women tick, especially not the women he’d loved. “Really? If it’s so obvious, enlighten me.”

Smirking at the realization that the man in front of her had changed so much and yet not that much, Gwen took pity on him but kept her tone teasing. “Your wife’s not seeing another man, Ethan. Not unless you count her doctor. Beth’s been acting strangely lately because she’s been trying to find a way to clue you in to the fact that she wants a baby, and you’ve just been missing all the signals.”

“What signals?” Ethan regarded Gwen skeptically, frowning when she erupted into laughter.

Her laughter gradually calming, Gwen decided to make herself comfortable. Pointing out and explaining the signals, it seemed, was going to take a while.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


She’d missed this, Sheridan mused, glancing around at the hubbub of activity that swirled around her, the day at the Youth Center still young.

In a relatively quiet corner, Simone patiently oversaw a session of finger-painting with some of the younger children.

Beyond her little congregation and directly opposite from Sheridan’s own even smaller group, Dylan and a group of the older boys engaged in a spirited game of basketball on the court.

A little too spirited, Sheridan decided, sternly reminding the boys to play fair and avoid all the unnecessary roughness.

Lissy and a couple of the younger girls flanking her giggled.

“What?” Sheridan’s question was one of puzzlement.

“You used your mom voice,” Lissy grinned, chocolate eyes twinkling at her.

“So I did,” Sheridan’s lips twitched with humor. Clasping her hands in front of her, she allowed her smile to escape. Wondering again how she got roped into teaching a bunch of giggling preteens how to dance the tango, she nodded at Lissy. “This was your idea. Music or no music?”

Several hands went up in the air, chorusing along with Lissy. “Music!”

Someone started the CD player, and Sheridan’s smile was glowing as she remembered the first time she had danced to the song, here, in this place with Luis. Across the Youth Center, she caught Simone’s own knowing smile and noticed that their little group had captured the attention of the rest of the Youth Center’s occupants. Moving to the music, she explained each step as best she could to her rapt audience, Pilar’s voice patiently explaining the same steps echoing in her mind. She imagined Luis’s arms around, and his eyes staring intently into hers, but she felt silly dancing by herself. And she could see that the girls were having a difficult time ‘seeing’ what she tried—and failed—to find the words to describe. Letting a frustrated sigh escape, she started to turn off the music when one voice rang out loud and clear above all of the other protests and made everyone turn and stare.

“Don’t.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“You’re starting to show.” Katie’s comment as she walked up to Nick and Abby, saying their goodbyes, was delivered with the giddiness of a schoolgirl.

Giving the soft cotton tee-shirt she’d finally managed to put on right side out a self-conscious tug, Abby frowned at the bubbly young ponytail-sporting blond with her fresh-scrubbed face and thought she looked the world like a high school cheerleader. “I am not,” she muttered, thankful she’d at least recovered her wits enough after her embarrassing show of vulnerability this morning to change into more work-appropriate attire when Nick’s gray eyes smiled at her. The same softness that had made tears threaten this morning was back, and it was unnerving the hell out of her. “I am not,” she repeated with more force.

“Relax,” Katie bit back a grin. “I’m not calling you fat.”

“Then what are you calling me?” Abby crossed her arms across her chest, her hands itching to give her tee-shirt another self-conscious tug.

Nick finally jumped into the conversation, answering for Katie. “I think she’s trying to tell you that you’re starting to look…well…pregnant.”

“And whose fault is that?” Abby grumbled, her stomach flip-flopping at the grin he wore at her words. God, even the tiny crinkles at the corners of his eyes were attractive. Hers? Not so much. “Okay,” she said when the question only seemed to make his smile—and the matching smile on Katie’s face—grow that much more. “It’s creepy how much you’re both enjoying this.”

“Babies make me happy,” Katie shrugged unapologetically, green eyes twinkling. “You two getting along…that makes me happy too.”

“If you call me ‘Mom,’ I’m going to kick your ass,” Abby warned, launching an elbow at Nick’s ribs when the threat and Katie’s flippant response to it made him chuckle.

Nick fended off the blow by taking her arm firmly in his hand and tugging her close. Shooing Katie away with his free hand, he didn’t take his eyes off of Abby’s face as he reminded the young nurse, “Rounds in five minutes, Katie.”

“Meet you at the desk,” Katie responded, acknowledging his instructions. “Lunch?” she called to Abby over her shoulder as she left.

Abby opened her mouth to answer, but Nick beat her to it.

“Sorry, Katie. She’s got plans.”

“Plans?” Abby’s brows climbed to her hairline, and her hazel eyes narrowed.

“Yeah,” Nick smirked. “You’re having lunch with me.”

“Awfully presumptuous of you,” Abby muttered, trying not to smile. There was something wrong with her; against her will she found that irritating smirk of his sexy—and it was playing havoc with her insides.

“You are having my baby,” Nick reminded her.

“I am,” Abby agreed, an unbidden smile twitching at the corners of her mouth. How could she not smile when he said it like that? He looked so damn happy with himself that it was hard not to find him adorable. The thought was her undoing, and she laughed as she let him take her hand in his own and play with her fingers. “That hardly means I want to share every meal with you.”


“No,” Nick granted, “it doesn’t. You’ll do it because you like me.” Squeezing her hand before letting it go, he kissed the top of her head and stepped away from her.

He was halfway down the hall before Abby recovered her ability to speak. “Nick,” she called, and he paused, turning around. “What about you?” A slow grin transformed his handsome features, and Abby nearly melted on the spot.

“What about me?” Then, more softly, with a tender expression in his eyes, he made an admission. “I like you too.”

She couldn’t but think—hell, it had to be wishful thinking again—those weren’t the words he wanted to say.

UAgirl
12.16.07, 7:28 PM
Chapter 27



“Thanks, Simone,” Sheridan called over her shoulder with a smile as she entered her office. “I’ll make it up to you, I promise.” She closed the door behind her, and the sound of children’s laughter and excited chatter gradually faded away, leaving only a peaceful, lingering silence. Planting one hip atop her picture-cluttered desk, she stared at him with wonder in her blue eyes, finally daring to ask the question she’d been dying to ask from the very moment he’d swept into the Youth Center and charmed her into his arms, “Where did you learn to dance like that?” Without waiting for his answer, she continued, a becoming mischievous twinkle in her eyes, “You’re almost as good as my husband, but don’t tell him that.”

That comment earned her a smile. “I don’t think there’s any danger of that.” Looking beyond her, his dark eyes focused on a silver frame, and the blue-eyed angel that smiled back, minus a couple of front teeth. “Is that your daughter?”

Picking up the silver frame, Sheridan’s smile became softer somehow, more achingly tender, as she noticed anew the changes the last few years had wrought. The babyish chubbiness of Ali’s cheeks was all but gone now, and the missing baby teeth had long been replaced. Her pale hair had once trailed down her back; now short, wispy curls framed her pretty face. “That’s my Ali,” Sheridan placed the frame in his large hands, eyes shining proudly, “when she was about six or seven. She’s nine now, and her hair…it’s shorter.” Suddenly, she felt tears threaten, and her voice sounded strained and high to her own ears as she turned her back to him, struggling to recapture her composure. “I have some more recent pictures around here somewhere, even some with Hope. Lots with Hope,” she said, whirling back around and presenting him with another frame, this time displaying a photograph of three beaming, pajama-clad children.

Hope’s toothless smile brought smiles back to both of their faces. “They have your eyes. The girls,” he elaborated. “Cristian has Lu…your husband’s eyes, but the girls have yours.”

“Cristian is his daddy made over,” Sheridan agreed. She watched the play of emotions on his face and wondered again how well he knew Luis when he echoed the sentiment. “So,” she put the frame back in its rightful place when he held it out to her, “what brings you here today? Have you changed your mind about the lessons? I’m sorry for making you wait, but you have to understand, my family and my obligation to the Youth Center come first.”

“I haven’t changed my mind.” His answer was quick, delivered with a smile and shrug of his broad shoulders. “Guess I was just feeling a bit nostalgic. Spent a lot of time here as a young and stupid kid.”

“Really?” Sheridan perked up with interest. “So you tell me. Has this place really changed so little? Luis swears it hasn’t, but sometimes I think he’s too close to it to notice.”

Folding his arms over his chest, he leaned back in his chair and considered her question and his answer carefully, finally settling for a quietly spoken nugget of truth, hoping she wouldn’t press him for more details, “It’s changed. Everything changes. Some changes you just don’t notice until you gain a little perspective.” He decided, in the ensuing silence, that her eyes were what he liked about her best, for they clued him in to her thoughts, like the enigma she’d clearly decided him to be. He breathed a little sigh of relief when, without a moment’s notice, she abandoned the questions lurking in her eyes in favor of offering him a dazzling smile.

“I was thinking of dropping in on Luis at the station for lunch. You’re welcome to join us, do a little catching up.” The invitation extended, she slipped her purse strap onto her shoulder and indicated the door.

“I’m afraid I have to take a rain-check,” he said, genuine regret in his voice. At his full height, he was startled to realize, her blond head could comfortably fit beneath his chin. “I kind of already promised a friend I’d meet her for lunch,” he explained.

“Oh,” she answered. Her smile dimmed just the tiniest fraction before it brightened again. “Some other time then.”

He took the hand she offered and gave it a gentle squeeze. When he opened his palm, he was surprised to find a small slip of paper in it, a phone number neatly written there. Holding it up, he raised his brows in question.

“Call me in a couple of weeks. Or sooner,” Sheridan told him as she exited the small office, and he fell into step beside her. “We’ll set up those flying lessons, maybe a dinner between friends.” As she reached the bottom of the Youth Center steps, she turned around, a teasing smile on her face. “Tell your friend she’s welcome to come too.”

“It’s not like that.” Inexplicably, he felt the need to clarify himself. “We’re just…” he trailed off, realizing he owed her no explanations; even entertaining the notion was ridiculous. Now, his friend on the other hand…one glance at the watch on his wrist told him he was going to owe her more of an explanation than he was ready for if he didn’t get moving soon. “I’ll tell her.” The promise fell from his lips with surprising ease. Already, he was beginning to understand how it came to be that Luis Lopez-Fitzgerald had willingly married a Crane. At least this Crane.

“That a promise?”

Chocolate brown eyes twinkling back at her, he grinned. “It’s a threat.”


~*~*~*~*~*~


“Next week then?” Abby knelt in front of Mr. Homan’s wheelchair, a hand on one thin, knobby knee to balance herself as she searched his kind, weathered face for acceptance. Glancing up at the young woman patiently gripping the handles of Mr. Homan’s chair, she proudly told her, “We used the walker today.”

“That’s wonderful, Mr. Homan,” came the cheerful congratulations. “Lissy will be so pleased.”

The mention of his young granddaughter seemed to make the old man’s chest puff up with pride. “Told that girl I’d be running circles around her by Christmas.”

“Now, Mr. Homan,” the young woman began, only to be interrupted.

“Tell her, Kathy,” Mr. Homan looked to Abby for support.

Abby’s hazel eyes connected with the concerned eyes of Mr. Homan’s young caregiver, and she gave the other woman a small shake of her head, returning the affectionate squeeze that Mr. Homan gave her hand tenfold. “Maybe by Lissy’s birthday,” she suggested. “Didn’t you tell me you owed her a dance?”

“The child’s done had her birthday,” the old man frowned.

“Her next birthday then,” Abby smiled brightly at him. “Think of what a great present it’ll be.” She covered the hand Mr. Homan rest on her cheek with one of her own.

“She’s got your smile, Kathy. It’s really amazing, considering,” he mused, his faded eyes growing even more fuzzy and unfocused. “Janie-girl,” he tossed a disgruntled frown over his shoulder. “Where’s my lunch?” He looked at Abby again, his brows knit together in agitation. “This one would let me starve to death if I didn’t remind her. A man’s got to eat to keep his strength. You look awfully familiar. What’s your name again?”

Gently, Abby patted the hand that now rest in Mr. Homan’s lap. “You remember me, Mr. Homan. I’m Abby. Your therapist,” she offered helpfully.

“Abby,” Mr. Homan tried the name on for size. “That’s right. We have an appointment…”

When he struggled to remember, Abby voiced a soft reminder, standing up and rubbing her palms against the pants leg of her scrubs. “Next week. Same time, same place.”

“Same time, same place,” Mr. Homan echoed, dropping his hands to the wheels of his chair. “Don’t just stand there,” he cast a frustrated glance over his shoulder.

“See you both next week,” Abby waved as the elevator doors closed, and they were gone. Sighing, she glanced at the watch on her wrist, realizing that despite Mr. Homan’s tendencies toward disorientation, he was actually right about the time. It was lunchtime, and Nick was nowhere to be found. As if on cue, her pager chirped annoyingly, and she couldn’t contain her disappointment at the words that she read. “Dammit,” she muttered.

“I hope everything’s okay.”

“Eve!” Abby willed her heart rate to slow down, all the while berating herself for being so silly.

”I’m sorry, Abby,” Eve apologized softly, the smile on her face and the hand on Abby’s arm calming. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“It’s alright,” Abby replied sheepishly. Tapping her index finger against her pager screen, she said, “I was distracted.”

“Just a little,” Eve mused, eyes alight with amusement. “I hope everything’s okay,” she repeated sincerely, letting a laugh escape when Abby only grew more confused. “Your message,” she elaborated.

“Oh! Oh, it’s nothing,” Abby answered with a half-hearted smile.

“Hardly seems like nothing,” Eve declared, eyebrow raised.

“Really,” Abby insisted. “It’s nothing. Nick had to cancel lunch. His patients are really important to him.”

“Abby.”

Eve’s brow rose even higher, leading Abby to wonder how the hell she managed such a feat, and a furrow developed between her own brows as she tried to read the other woman’s eyes.

“You’re just as important to him.”

“The baby’s important to him,” Abby corrected her. “He likes me well enough, but he’s in love with this baby.” A fluttery feeling behind her ribcage confirmed for her that she’d spoken the truth. Why else would he have looked so absolutely besotted as they’d argued over the existence/non-existence of the ‘bump’ that was their child? Catching Eve off-guard with the change of subject, she was reminded once again of the lunch hour by the indignant growling of her stomach and blurted an invitation. “Want to grab lunch? I’m eating for two, you know.”

“I’d like that actually,” Eve responded. “Just let me make a few quick calls. I’ll meet you there?”

“Sure,” Abby smiled. “But don’t hate me if I start without you.”

“As a woman who’s been there, I promise not to be offended.”



~*~*~*~*~*~




“Ellie!” Katie hissed, trying without success to draw the other nurse’s attention away from the closed exam room door. “Don’t you have patients to check on?”

“They’re eating lunch,” Ellie waved her off.

“You know,” Katie said, crossing her arms about her middle, “it’s not professional to eavesdrop. But then…nothing else you do is really…professional.” She bit back a smirk when Ellie’s head whipped around, Exorcist style. She knew she was being childish, but in this instance, she couldn’t help herself.

“I thought you had lunch plans with the fiancé. What happened? He lose interest once the thrill of the chase was over?” Ellie sneered.

Narrowing her green eyes, Katie opened her mouth but the planned retort died on her lips with the abrupt opening of the door. Hastily grabbing the nearest object she could find, the chart of one of Ellie’s patients, she pretended to be wholly absorbed and kept her eyes down as Nick and a couple of the hospital’s higher-ups passed by her.

Ellie, meanwhile, huffily excused herself and headed back to the nurses’ station, her glare boring holes into Katie’s back.

“Thank you again for speaking with us, Dr. Taylor.”

Out of the corner of her eyes, Katie noticed Nick shake hands with both of the older gentlemen, but when she noticed Nick’s glance in her direction, she subtly turned her back to the three men, at least she prayed the action came across as subtle.

“In the short time you’ve been employed at this hospital, you’ve made a fine contribution, Dr. Taylor.” The voice this time was different, more rich in tone than the previous one.

Katie frowned. It sounded like…no, couldn’t be. Could it? She gripped the chart in her hand harder and fumbled through the pages, lest she look any more suspicious than she guessed she did.

“Our loss, Colorado’s gain.”

It was the first voice again, and the other voice soon joined in, echoing the sentiment, but Katie found her ears deaf to the rest of the conversation. She nearly jumped out of her skin when she felt the weight of a hand on her shoulder.

“You can stop pretending,” Nick said, relieving her of the chart and placing it back in its cubbyhole. “Katie,” Nick caught her eyes with his and held them, “I know you were listening.”

“I was listening alright,” Katie snapped, anger making her eyes glitter. “How, how could you?”

“It’s not what you think it is, Katie,” Nick defended himself. Under the heat of her stare, he continued, “I’m not gone yet.”

“No. You aren’t. But you’re already halfway there.” The realization only served to fuel her anger, and she jerked away from his touch.

“You don’t understand,” Nick sighed heavily, scrubbing his hands roughly over his face. “It’s complicated, this thing with Abby. I need to keep my options open. I want…”

“What do you want, Nick?” Acid practically dripped from Katie’s tongue, and she found some kind of perverse pleasure in the fact that Nick seemed to physically flinch at her biting words. “A life free of complications? Is that it? ‘Cause I hate to break it to you, but it doesn’t exist. Life isn’t easy. Love isn’t easy.”

“Katie, I…” Words failed Nick, and he looked away, but his reprieve was only momentary.

“Don’t,” Katie held a hand up. “Maybe that’s it. Maybe you really don’t love her.”

Nick’s jaw tightened at the accusation, but again, he said nothing, powerless to put into words what he felt for Abby. Distantly, he realized Katie was stalking away from him, and her words pricked and tore at his flesh like barbed wire that he couldn’t avoid.

“If that’s the case, go to Colorado. She’s better off without you.”

Unable to find his voice, Nick let her go and wondered just how and when things, with Abby, the conversation with Katie, had spiraled so badly out of his control.



~*~




“Whoa there!”

Strong hands clasped around Katie’s upper arms, and her green eyes snapped up in surprise when the delayed impact of colliding with another body finally registered. “I’m so sorry. I wasn’t watching where I was going.” Her apology softened to a whisper when she heard a familiar but rare sound, and her fingers unconsciously tightened in the soft cotton she still clenched.

Chuckling, Miguel let his hands fall from her arms. “That much is obvious.” The humor in his dark eyes gradually faded away at something he must have noticed in Katie’s own eyes and demeanor, and without thought, he lifted a concerned hand to her shoulder. “Hey,” his voice dropped a register. “Is everything alright?”

“Yes.” When it became apparent the knee-jerk answer hadn’t satisfied Miguel, Katie sighed in resignation. “No,” she admitted, her frown deepening. “Nothing’s alright. Nothing.” Belatedly realizing the placement of her hands, Katie released the bunched up fabric abruptly, made a half-hearted effort to smooth the wrinkles she’d created, and dropped her hands to her sides, turning her back on Miguel and the worry her words had dredged up.

“Is it Kendall?” Miguel’s fingers inadvertently brushed against Katie’s neck before landing back on her shoulder.

Katie suppressed the unexpected shiver that threatened at his touch, a grateful smile crossing her lips at his efforts to comfort her. Turning back around to face him, her green eyes flitted over his features and found him still troubled on her behalf, and she reached a hand up to squeeze the one still awkwardly resting on her shoulder. “It’s not Kendall.”

“Noah?” Miguel hesitantly questioned, casting his eyes toward his feet.

Biting her lip at his discomfort—suddenly, she could clearly see him as a shy, ten-year-old—she shook her head, grabbing the hand that had drifted again to his side and making him look at her. “No, Miguel. It’s not...Noah!” Katie stepped around Miguel and found herself gathered tightly in the arms of the man in question.

“Don’t know why she’s so surprised,” Noah shrugged, silver eyes dancing as they landed on Miguel. “I warned her I was coming. Miguel,” he reached a hand out.

Miguel shook the hand his former brother-in-law offered. “Noah,” he greeted, unable to stop his eyes from straying to Katie’s face.

Tucked snugly against Noah’s side, Katie shook her head slightly, her green eyes imploring Miguel to abandon the questions she knew he still itched to ask her. Tipping her chin up, she studied Noah’s handsome, much loved face, an easy smile coming to her lips as she teased, “Guess I forgot. Some of us actually work at our jobs.”

“You think all I do at the police station is drink coffee and eat donuts, don’t you?” Noah grinned, chasing the smile on her lips in hopes of scoring a kiss. Thwarted when Katie ducked her head in embarrassment and nodded in Miguel’s direction, Noah downplayed Katie’s concern with a wave of his hand, “Come on, Katie. If Miguel can’t handle seeing us kiss, he’s not coming to the wedding.” He laughed against her tightly drawn mouth and winked at Miguel. “Mom’s not going to be thrilled with this weird stage fright you seem to be developing.”

“Noah Bennett,” Grace chided as she joined them, Joshua perched on her hip, thumb gravitating toward his mouth and brown eyes melancholy. “Leave the poor girl alone.”

Mouthing a thank you to Grace, Katie left the security of Noah’s arms to stand in front of the quiet little boy, hoping to coax a smile out of him. “Hi, Joshua. Whatcha been up to? He had therapy today, didn’t he?” Katie looked to Grace. “How’d it go?”

“Okay,” Grace sighed. “The last couple of sessions have been…they haven’t gone quite the way we wanted since…” she trailed off, sneaking a look at Miguel out of the corner of her eyes.

Reading in her silence the words, the name she refused to give a voice, Katie found herself growing angry anew, but she pushed the feeling down and settled for nodding in acknowledgment. Feeling Noah hovering close by, she let his presence calm her, ground her. To Miguel, she reassured, wondering how much of her own words that she really believed, “It will all work out in the end. You’ll see.”

“I got a great idea,” Noah spoke up, settling his hands low on Katie’s waist. “Katie and I were going to grab a bite to eat. Why don’t you join us?”

“I don’t know,” Miguel started, only to be cut off by Grace’s eager acceptance of the offer.

“That’d be wonderful,” Grace’s smile returned. “Katie and I can talk about the wedding.”

Laughing at the grimace Miguel failed to hide, Noah clasped a hand on the other man’s shoulder and pulled him along behind the two women. “The price I pay to see her waiting for me at the end of that aisle.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“Chad.” Across town, sharing a lunch of hotdogs and potato chips with her fiancé as they walked Harmony’s sidewalks, Theresa pouted over Chad’s repeated refusals to open up about the surprise he, Paloma, even Cristian, had been hard at work on for much of the morning. “Please? Just one little hint?”

His grin growing exponentially the bigger her pout became, Chad merely shook his head and settled his arm low about her waist as they walked along, enjoying the slight breeze that had replaced the stagnant heat of the day before. “Might as well give it up, T-girl,” he teased. “Ain’t getting nothing out of me,” he jerked a thumb in his own direction, smirking when she practically flounced away. Catching up with her, he gently but firmly grasped her arm, “You’re not going to sweet-talk it out of Cristian, either.” He was laughing when she pulled away from him again, the truth of her intentions shining plainly in her large, dark eyes.

“I wouldn’t do that to an innocent little boy,” Theresa huffed, tossing the remainder of her hotdog in the trash receptacle in front of her then grabbing Chad’s own foil-wrapped lunch and disposing of it as well. “I hate surprises,” she said, effortlessly affecting a pout again. “You know that.”

“What I know,” Chad chuckled as he hooked his thumbs in her belt loops and tugged her to him, “is that you *love* surprises. Even more so when they stay surprises,” he said pointedly, watching the pout on her lips twitch traitorously. “And you’ll love this one that much more if you’ll just leave it to me, Paloma, and Cristian a little while later. Just until the wedding.”

“Just until the wedding?” Theresa whined. “The wedding is still months away. We haven’t even set a real date yet. Paloma’s right. Who plans a wedding after Thanksgiving? Oh my god,” her eyes grew round with the realization, “Chad, there’s still so much to do.” She was still babbling after Chad pressed a kiss to her mouth to quiet her. “I have to go,” she said, pulling away from him with a panicked but determined expression on her face. “I’ll see you tonight. Don’t forget to pick up cat litter,” she reminded him as she backed away.

“Cat litter for Smoky. Got it,” Chad replied, shaking his head in amusement when Theresa nearly plowed over an unsuspecting pedestrian in her haste. “Damn girl,” he muttered to himself with a helpless smile. He didn’t know what the hell had gotten into her and whipped her into such a panic, but it had definitely seized control of her coordination along with her common sense. “Watch where you’re going!” he warned her. Not missing a beat, he called, “Where are you going?”

“To see Whitney,” Theresa tossed back along with a wave and a kiss. “Chad, the wedding’s only…”

“I know, I know,” Chad waved to her with a grin, watching her hurry across the street with the handful of people returning to their jobs following their lunch hour.

The wedding was only a few short months away.


~*~*~*~*~*~



Whitney breathed a sigh of relief when she stepped through the door of the Book Café, and she was hit with the aroma of rich, brewing coffee. The day had already stretched on long and been one of the more hectic ones to date, and in an effort to preserve her sanity, she’d decided a brisk walk to the Book Café on her stolen lunch break in search of some revitalizing caffeine was in order. She smiled back at Julie when the young woman greeted her with a bright if harried smile.

“Your usual?”

“Please.” A sigh escaped Whitney without her bidding, and she and Julie shared a look of understanding.

“Long day, huh?” At Whitney’s ready nod, she indicated the three-ring circus at the back of the establishment and bit her lip. “I’ll bring it to you as soon as I take care of this order. Forgive me, Ms. Russell, but the last thing those kids need is more sugar. I don’t know what your sister is thinking.”

Whitney noticed, for the first time, Simone seated in the middle of the chaos, looking as tired and generally overwhelmed as Whitney felt. Feeling guilty for the evasion but knowing in her heart her sister would forgive her this once, Whitney ducked behind one of the taller bookshelves and waited impatiently for Julie to return. She held a hand to her heart when a small voice startled her.

“Can you hand me that magazine?” Lissy’s nose and forehead were scrunched in concentration as she raised on tiptoe to no avail. “I’m not tall enough to reach it.” Her small fingers closed around it gratefully when Whitney retrieved it for her. “Thanks,” she grinned, huffing at the strand of tawny hair that fell in her eyes. Poking her head around the bookshelf, she glanced again at Whitney as she said, “They’re never this loud with Ali’s mom.”

Chancing a glance for herself, Whitney had to agree. “Think they’re afraid of her?” she asked, her eyes straying to the front page of the magazine clutched in Lissy’s hands.

“Maybe,” Lissy shrugged, chocolate eyes narrowed in thought. “I think they might be more afraid of her dad. You know. Since he’s the Police Chief.”

“Could be,” Whitney agreed, waving to get Julie’s attention when she passed them by, frowning in confusion at Whitney’s apparent disappearing act. “I think now’s your chance to pay for that,” she tapped the magazine Lissy held to her chest with her index finger. “I’ll let you cut line in front of me,” she offered.

“That’s okay,” Lissy smiled, “I just want to look at it. They’re giving me a headache.”

“Me too,” Whitney admitted, lips pursed but eyes smiling at the grown-up tone of voice the wisp of a girl had adopted when speaking to her. “Have fun with your magazine, Lissy,” she said distractedly when Julie held up her coffee and smiled in her direction. She watched as the little girl slid to the floor and thumbed through the glossy pages. “I think your hiding spot’s safe a little longer.”

“Thanks,” Lissy called without looking up.

Realization dawned on Whitney when she was halfway back to the hospital, the memory of one of the titles making her heart ache a little inside her chest: “Growing up Without Mom.”



~*~*~*~*~*~




“This is the way rumors start.” Sheridan sighed as Luis’s fingers tickled up and down the bare skin of her arms.

“Hmm?” Luis murmured contentedly against her brow. Shifting slightly with her still in his lap, he winced at the way the wheels of his chair groaned under their combined weight.

“The door’s locked. The blinds are closed. It’s just you and me, alone, in your office,” Sheridan spelled it out for him with a teasing smile.

Luis took great pleasure in kissing the smile from her lips. When the kiss was over, he pulled back to look in her blue eyes and shrugged. “We’re married. Let them think what they want to think.”

“You really have loosened up in your old age.” Sheridan smirked at the way his dark eyes widened in shock, wrapping her arms around his neck tightly and muffling her squeal against his broad chest when he threatened to toss her from his lap for that remark.

They were both laughing and gasping for breath by the time Luis righted the chair, and the knock at the door and Quinlan’s concerned ‘Chief, everything okay in there?’ only served to make it that much more difficult to breathe.

Luis’s answering ‘Fine’ had Sheridan burying her face in the curve of his neck. “We have to stop meeting like this,” she finally pulled away with a smile.

“How’s that?” Luis found himself smiling back at her.

“I feel like we’re having an illicit affair,” Sheridan told him, eyes dancing at the expression on his face. She rolled those same eyes at him when he followed up by running a fingertip along the neckline of her shirt and giving her an exaggerated leer. “Luis, behave,” she groaned, stilling his wandering hands with her own. “Sometimes, you can be such a goof.” She cupped his face between her hands lovingly and pressed a kiss not to his lips, much to Luis’s disappointment, but to the tip of his nose.

Luis tightened his arms around her when she trustingly rest her golden head upon his shoulder. “I called Mama to check on the girls.”

Sheridan’s lips twitched; the gesture was so Luis. “And?”

“Papa said Hope’s sleeping the day away. You know what that means, don’t you?” His hands traveled up and down her back in broad sweeps.

“It’s going to be a long night,” Sheridan mused with a sigh. “What about Ali?”

“Papa said Mama took her to Lighthouse Park. They were going to meet up with Paloma and Cristian,” Luis informed her.

The mention of her sweet little son reminded Sheridan again of his unbridled excitement at taking to the skies and of the stranger that intrigued her so. “I ran into your friend again.” She frowned when she felt Luis tense beneath her, and his hand stilled on her back. Rubbing soothingly at the nape of his neck, she lifted her head to look deeply into his troubled eyes. “He dropped by the Youth Center. Helped me out with the kids,” she elaborated. “I invited him to lunch with us, but he already had plans.”

“Oh.”

Luis’s hand resumed its movements against her back, but Sheridan could tell he was distracted by thoughts he wouldn’t share with her. Forcing back a sigh, she changed the subject, pressing her lips to his cheek and combing her fingers through the dark hair at the nape of his neck. “Luis, take me dancing.”

“Dancing, huh?” Luis grinned at her with a ridiculous wiggle of his brows that had her laughing again.

“Yes, Luis,” Sheridan answered, forehead to forehead with her husband. “Dancing.”

“I don’t know,” Luis whispered against her lips. “Think I can manage dancing in my old age?”

UAgirl
1.30.08, 8:07 PM
Thanks to the lovely few that responded to the last chapter (I know you guys are reading, lol)! Your continued interest and support is, sadly, the only inspiration I have left besides Ann's daily postings of Shuis pics of old.

Much love.

And now, the new chapter. Chapter 29 will pick up soon after this one (when I get it written, hehe). You'll figure out why. ;)

Enjoy!








Chapter 28






“I don’t know, Sher,” Gwen called to the woman in the other room. “I still think Bennett is up to something. His voice sounded kind of…odd…on the phone.” Distractedly, she pried Hope’s tiny fingers from the strand of pearls around her neck and smoothed a hand over the baby’s dark curls when her lips jutted out in a disappointed pout, blue eyes growing bright.

Appearing in the hall just outside her bedroom, Sheridan deftly sidestepped her son as he torpedoed past, Max hot on his heels. “Cristian, what did Daddy say about running in the house?” she called, smiling at the sheepish apology that reached her ears seconds later. “Where’s your sister?”

“Right here, Mom,” Ali announced, giggling when her mother nearly jumped out of her skin at her sudden materialization behind her.

Gwen’s laughter joined Ali’s, and she balanced Hope on her hip as she stood up and approached the pair where they stood. Hope gurgled happily when Sheridan pressed a kiss to her forehead, rubbing at the lipstick mark left behind with gentle fingertips. “So…dancing, huh?” Gwen asked, when Ali had hugged Sheridan’s waist tightly and disappeared into the living room with a smile. “Nice dress, but I *love* the shoes,” she complimented, winking wickedly at the blush that stole across Sheridan’s cheeks. She was grinning as she followed Sheridan into her bedroom, unable to resist teasing, “Just what kind of dancing are you planning?”

Sheridan rolled her eyes at her friend’s suggestive tone and walked into the bathroom, Gwen following closely. Slipping on a pair of earrings that sparkled and pulling out a tube of lipstick to touch up her makeup, she met Gwen’s dancing brown eyes in the reflection of the mirror. “You and Hank…” she trailed off.

“Me and Hank what?” Gwen prodded, frowning slightly in concentration as she retrieved her necklace once again from Hope’s seeking hands.

“Nothing,” Sheridan smiled, whirling around and plucking her disgruntled daughter from Gwen’s hands before the frustrated tears welling in her eyes could spill over. Bending at the waist, she snagged a stuffed toy from the bed as she passed it by, snuggling it next to Hope’s cheek and making her smile again. “There you go, Angel.”

“Will you please stop it with the cuteness?” Gwen groaned, unable to resist cupping the tiny bare foot in her hand and making silly faces at the youngest Crane-Lopez-Fitzgerald offspring. “No wonder Beth has baby fever,” she muttered, meeting Sheridan’s knowing eyes. “Look at that face.”

“Maybe Beth isn’t the only one.” The suggestion lingered in the air between them, and Sheridan searched Gwen’s thoughtful expression for any hints of truth to the statement.

Gwen lifted her shoulder in a shrug. “Sometimes I wonder; that’s all. I’m more than content with the three monsters I have. They’re handful enough.”

Sheridan laughed, thinking nobody else except Hank could say the same with so much affection in their voice. “Speaking of handfuls,” she said, when a ruckus could be heard coming from the vicinity of the kitchen.

Max was still barking up a storm when the trio arrived. No doubt due to Her Royal Highness. From her perch high atop the refrigerator, Miss Priss alternately growled low in her throat and hissed tauntingly at the canine. Gizmo, meanwhile, lounged beneath a kitchen chair, seemingly unaffected by the commotion.

Ali and Cristian watched the whole thing with big eyes.

“Cristian,” Sheridan quickly took charge of the situation. Though the day was growing long, and dusk was approaching, she made a suggestion. “Why don’t you take Max outside until Beth and Ethan get here.”

Cristian obediently obliged, tugging on the golden retriever’s collar and pulling the whining pooch toward the door.

“Beth and Ethan?” Gwen remarked with a raised brow. “You didn’t tell me they were coming over.”

“Didn’t I?” Sheridan frowned, clasping Hope close she crossed the distance to the fridge and rummaged inside it, grabbing one of Hope’s bottles. The baby fretted when the bottle disappeared from her view but was soon distracted by her sister’s smiling face. “I mentioned our plans when I stopped by the Book Café, and Beth volunteered to watch the kids with Ethan. I thought I’d give Pilar a rest,” she said, winking at Gwen when Ali protested.

“I was good! Nana said she needs more grandchildren like me.” Ali’s blue eyes twinkled as they met her mother’s stare, and soon, both were laughing.

Removing Hope’s bottle from the microwave, Sheridan tested it. Satisfied with the temperature, she handed the bottle and, more carefully, the baby to Ali and shooed them off to the living room. “I’ll be right there. Hold her like I showed you,” she reminded.

“Good to see her spunk’s returning,” Gwen grinned, leaning casually against the kitchen counter and watching Sheridan putter around the kitchen, tidying up here and there. “Looks like things are getting back to normal, although I have to say, I never thought I’d live to see the day that this,” she glanced around at their surroundings, “would be normal for either of us.”

“Me either,” Sheridan answered her, a happy half smile on her lips. She absently stroked Miss Priss’s fur when the feline descended from her lofty perch in search of the affection that was rightfully hers. “It’s almost too good to be true. When Ali was sick,” she paused to look down at her feet, her voice growing painfully tight, “when Ali was so sick, I thought this is it, I’m waking up, and the dream is over.”

“Oh, Sher,” Gwen moved closer, pulling her friend into her arms.

Chin on Gwen’s shoulder, Sheridan clutched her tightly, tearfully murmuring, “Sometimes, I’m still afraid I’ll wake up, and this will all be an elaborate dream, and none of it will be real.” Pulling back, she stared into Gwen’s own teary eyes and made a painful admission. “I don’t think I’d survive if all of this was taken away from me.”

“You’re making me cry, dammit,” Gwen grumbled, rubbing her knuckles beneath her eyes and blinking against the sting of more tears. “Don’t say that. You’re one of the strongest people I know. You want proof that this is real? I’ll give you proof,” she said and proceeded to do just that, bursting into laughter at the resulting look of outrage in Sheridan’s blue eyes.

Rubbing at her arm, Sheridan was incredulous. “I can’t believe you pinched me!”

“You’re welcome,” Gwen grinned at her.

“Mom?” Ali’s concerned voice called.

“It’s nothing, Ali,” Sheridan responded, with a grin of her own creeping onto her face. “Don’t let Hope take her bottle too fast.” Turning her attention back to Gwen, she whispered her gratitude. “Thank you. I needed that.”

“What are friends for?” Gwen pulled her into another hug and quickly released her, reminding her of the real reason for her visit when Max’s joyful barking alerted them to both the timely arrival of Ethan and Beth and Luis. “You better put those files in a safe place. I wouldn’t want Ethan getting the wrong idea.”

Sheridan bit her lip, grabbing the files and tucking them beneath her arm as her eyes searched for an appropriate temporary hiding place. “Or Luis.”

Gwen held out a hand. “Here. I’ll find a place for them. I think you should pinch that husband of yours, make sure he’s real.”




~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“How’d it go with Whitney?” Chad asked, sliding his arms around Theresa’s waist from behind and pressing a kiss to the top of her glossy dark head.

“The way it always goes with Whitney,” Theresa leaned back against him with a sigh, readily accepting the kiss he bestowed upon her cheek. “I filled her ears with all my usual crazy talk, and she brought me back down to earth.”

“Crazy talk? Who said it was crazy talk?” Chad turned her around in his arms and lifted her chin, searching her luminous eyes.

“Nobody,” Theresa shook her head, sliding her arms around his waist in a hug. Mumbling against the fabric of his shirt, she admitted the source of her troubles. “She thinks I’m dreaming if I think Antonio is going to come home for our wedding.” Feeling him stiffen momentarily then relax in her arms, Theresa pulled back to look at him. “You do too, don’t you?”

“Maybe,” Chad reluctantly confessed. “But T-girl,” he reminded her gently, “a lot of your dreams have already come true. Who’s to say this one won’t?”

Reaching up on tiptoe to press a grateful kiss on Chad’s mouth, Theresa again circled her arms around him in a hug, squeezing tightly. After several seconds of yawning silence, she fisted the material of his shirt in her hand and affected a pout. “I’m hungry.” When Chad laughed in response, she could feel it reverberating beneath his skin. “What are you making me for dinner?” she batted her eyes beguilingly at him.

Hands on her shoulders, Chad held her at arms length and smirked at her expression. “I was thinking of something different.”

“Different?” Theresa perked up. “There’s a new Thai place in Castleton. Some of the girls at work have been, and they all say it’s wonderful.”

“Different than that,” Chad raised a brow, threading his fingers through hers when she held out her hand.

Theresa’s forehead scrunched up in thought. “Different how exactly?”

“How ‘bout a home-cooked meal?”

There was something about his expression that made Theresa incredibly curious. “I thought you weren’t cooking.”

“I’m not.” Chad scooped his keys from the kitchen counter and dangled them in front of her. “The good Dr. Russell is.”

“Whitney? Chad, Whitney can’t cook. Besides, she’s still at the hospital, said she had to pull a double shift,” Theresa crossed her arms across her middle. “You’re not talking about…you can’t be…” she trailed off in disbelief, and the beginnings of a smile began to tug at the corners of her mouth.

“Dr. Eve Russell invited us to dinner,” Chad divulged, unable to resist smiling back at her when her smile became a full-fledged grin. “Along with Whitney and Simone. I don’t think she realized Whitney had to work though.”

“Oh, Chad,” she cried. “That’s wonderful. I mean…what I meant was….oh,” she held a hand to her mouth. “I’m just so happy for you.”

“Don’t kid yourself, Theresa.” The warning was gentle but serious.

Theresa grabbed his hand again, squeezing it reassuringly. “Things might be a little awkward. Okay, uncomfortable,” she conceded. “But Chad,” she beamed at him. “It’s a step in the right direction.”

She looked so hopeful, so earnest, Chad couldn’t help but adopt her attitude. Tucking her beneath his arm, he led her toward the door. “C’mon. We don’t want to be late.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



She was grabbing a quick bite to eat from the cafeteria when she saw him, head in hands, brow furrowed, in an otherwise deserted corner. Quietly, her own tray in her hands, she wandered through the tables until she reached his and cleared her throat. “Would you like some company?”

“Whitney, hi,” Nick smiled in greeting, looking up from the source of his intense study.

Whitney’s eyes flickered to the official-looking paper before focusing back on his face, and she started to retract her offer when she realized Nick’s smile failed to reach his stormy gray eyes. Turning to go, she started, in an apologetic voice, “You’re busy. I’ll just…” Looking down when she felt Nick’s hand gently grasp her arm, she searched his face for any indication he was just being polite when he told her to stay.

“Stay,” Nick insisted. He rubbed a hand across his face tiredly, looking as if the weight of the world rested upon his shoulders. “I could really use the friendly face.”

She settled in the seat across from him, straightening her shoulders primly. “What?” she wondered, at the slight smile that touched his lips, more genuine than its predecessor.

“Is that all you’re eating?” Nick gestured toward her salad, and the small cup of fruit at the corner of her tray. “To Abby, that’s an appetizer.”

Whitney frowned. “She’s eating for two.” Picking at the lettuce with her fork, she soon abandoned the task, choosing a grape from her fruit cup instead. “How’s she doing?”

“Abby?” The expression on Nick’s face was conflicted, and he avoided meeting Whitney’s intelligent eyes. “She’s great. The baby’s great. We’re all great.”

Unconvinced, Whitney chose not to comment any further, and as silence descended upon them, she found herself watching the comings and goings of the different staff and visitors in the cafeteria. Finally, when she couldn’t stand it any longer, she spoke. “It’s late. Busy day?” Her eyes strayed again to the paper Nick couldn’t seem to take his eyes off of, and she could tell by the way he weighed his words that it was troubling him greatly. “Want to talk about it?”

“You mean you haven’t heard the rumors?” Nick’s laugh was hollow, harsh.

“I try to ignore them when I can,” Whitney answered him with another frown. There were, she knew, some pretty outlandish rumors about herself circulating this place, and the experience had taught her not to believe everything she ever heard, unless it came straight from the person in question. “You’re not bothered by silly rumors, are you?” she asked in disbelief.

“Some of them have an element of truth to them,” Nick sighed, scrubbing a hand over his face again. “But the details are all wrong. The motives.” When she looked slightly bewildered, he didn’t bother to explain, deciding it best that she be kept in the dark too, lest her view became biased. He wanted an honest, uninvolved opinion; she needed only the barest of facts.

“Nick, I’m not sure I’m following. Maybe I should go.” Whitney started to stand when Nick thrust the paper into her hands. Letting her eyes skim over the words, she fell back into her chair, her brow furrowing in confusion. Looking up at him, she shook her head lightly. “I don’t understand. What is this?”

“Look at the second page,” Nick instructed, gray eyes stormier than ever. “It might make things clearer.”

Whitney did as he requested, her dark eyes widening with each successive word. “A letter of resignation? Abby hasn’t mentioned…”

Dawning realization cut her words short, and Nick experienced a realization of his own. Her answer, it was obvious, wasn’t going to make him feel any better about himself. Softly, he made a shamed admission. “Abby doesn’t know.”

“Yet,” Whitney’s voice was firm as stood back up, her eyes void of understanding softness. “She doesn’t know yet.”

Nick couldn’t help wondering how much longer that would be true.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


“Yes, Shane,” Abby rolled her eyes as she spoke into the receiver. “I’m eating my vegetables.” Staring longingly at the orange sherbet she’d found herself craving on the way home from work, she ran her little finger through the melting dessert and sucked it into her mouth. “Hmm?” she asked distractedly, when she became aware of her brother’s voice at her ear again. “Carrots. I’m eating carrots. I know I hate carrots,” she grumbled irritably, rolling her eyes again. “No, I’m not rolling my eyes. I’m not,” she insisted, mightily resisting the urge. “Well, I can’t eat while I’m talking to you.” Sighing in relief, her voice softened, “Yeah, yeah. I love you, too. I’m sure he’ll be home soon. Bye. I gotta run,” she unfolded her legs and slowly stood up from the sofa when she heard the doorbell ring. “Someone’s at the door. I’ll call you tomorrow. Promise,” she vowed, disconnecting the line. The doorbell rang twice more before she reached the door, and she was scowling when she yanked the door open to find Katie outside, hand poised to knock.

“Noah,” Katie called over her shoulder. “She’s here.”

For the first time, Abby noticed Noah lurking in the hallway, wearing a sheepish smile.

“Is this a bad time?”

Glancing down at the short shorts and ratty tee-shirt that made up her attire this evening, Abby smirked at him, at the two of them, and with a lift of her shoulders that hinted otherwise—her sherbet was melting, dammit, said, “No. Come on in. Where’s the kidlet?”

Noah answered her, crouching down to greet Lucky with a scratch between the ears. “Mom’s got him. Took him over to Miguel’s to play with Joshua. He’s been a little…well, he’s not been himself lately.” The expression in his silver eyes when they met hers was a mixture of apology and faint reproach.

Finally, Katie spoke, a hand to her fiance’s arm. “Noah, I don’t think…”

“No, Katie,” Abby interjected, ignoring the pleading look in the other woman’s green eyes and meeting Noah’s assessing gaze head-on. “It’s okay. It’s okay to talk about them, mention their names around me. I’m sorry they’re hurting. I’m sorry I caused some of that hurt. But I’m not sorry for what I did, Noah, because it had to be done. I can’t take Kay’s place in their lives. It was wrong of me to even pretend to, no matter how much I wanted to make things easier. You don’t have to like what I did; I just hope you understand, just a little bit.” Sighing deeply, Abby closed her eyes then reopened them with a smile as she bent to retrieve the orange puddle that was her dessert. “Let a pregnant woman enjoy her ice cream, will ya?” Hazel eyes narrowed at Katie, she brandished her spoon as a warning as she plopped back down on the sofa. “If you say one thing about this not being good for me, I’ll…”

Hand to her lips, Katie made a zipping motion, green eyes sparkling as she seated herself beside her friend. With her encouragement, Noah claimed the armchair as his own, relaxing in a casual slouch that had both women smirking.

“There’s more in the fridge if you want some,” Abby offered, spoon scraping against her bowl. “In fact,” she grinned winningly at him, “you can get me some more when you fix your bowl. Just a teensy bit.” She laughed as he rolled his eyes good-naturedly at her and climbed to his feet to do her bidding. “You’re training him well, Katie,” she remarked, just loud enough for Noah to hear. Burrowing her cold toes between the couch cushions, she turned to Katie with a raised brow, a hand resting low on her belly as she tucked a pillow beneath her head. “Spit it out,” she prodded. “You looked like a woman on a mission when I opened that door, and I know you weren’t delivering Lover Boy to my doorstep to make my every wish come true.” When that comment failed to get a reaction—neither girlish giggles nor the shy flush of Katie’s cheeks, Abby straightened up, wrapping her arms protectively around her legs and propping her chin on her knees. “Katie, you’re starting to make me a little nervous here. Please say something.”

Ducking her head, Katie couldn’t meet Abby’s eyes as she said what she was about to say. “There’s something you should know.”

“Something I should know?” Abby frowned, taking hold of Katie’s fidgeting hands. “Katie, I’m afraid you’re going to have to spell it out for me. I’m a lot of things, but mind-reader, regretfully, is not one of them.”

“It’s about Nick. And you. It involves you both. At least it should,” Katie blurted, at last raising pained green eyes to Abby’s (for once) serious face. “I don’t know how to say this. I…” she broke off again as she searched for the right words, and the lingering silence was soon filled with Noah’s purposeful footsteps and authoritative voice.

Snapping his cell phone shut, Noah answered the unspoken questions in both women’s eyes, but not before apologizing for cutting their visit short. “That was the station. Somebody spotted a suspicious-looking man matching the description of the Book Café vandal lurking along the docks. I’m going to have to check things out.”

“Go on, Katie,” Abby encouraged, though not without a little bit of frustration, especially when she saw what looked to be a sigh of relief escape the young blonde. “We’ll talk later.” Following the pair to the door, she promised to lock up behind them, rolling her eyes and brushing aside their worries. “I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself. Now you,” she patted Noah’s chest teasingly while giving Katie a one-armed hug, “are just a wee wittle wookie so don’t go out there saddles blazin’. This one’s counting on you to make an honest woman out of her, right Katie?”

“Right,” Katie replied. If Abby noticed her answering hug was a little tight, she didn’t say anything, and Katie found herself thankful for small miracles even as worry for Noah started to invade her thoughts. “You sure you’ll be okay?” she lingered in the doorway as Noah’s feet beat a hasty path toward the elevator.

“I’ll be fine,” Abby waved her concern off. “Nick should be here soon. Go. He’s waiting,” she said as the elevator dinged loudly and Noah stepped inside, holding the doors open for Katie. “Go fight some crime,” she jested, giving the younger woman a friendly push. “You know I can kick your ass, don’t you Katie?”

Holding her hands up, Katie backed away, laughing even as the elevator doors started to close in front of her. “I’m going. I’m going.”

When the doors had closed completely, Abby shut her own door, making sure the locks were engaged and secure before turning her back on it with an uneasy frown.

Laughter hadn’t hidden the guilt in Katie’s green eyes.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




With a glance over her shoulder to make sure no one was looking, Lissy pulled the magazine out from under her shirt and held it close. Fear and adrenaline made her heart pound in her ears and it got harder and harder to breathe the farther she got away from the Book Café. What if she were wrong, and Julie really had seen her? What then? What would her dad think? Her grandpa? Ms. Sheridan? The thought of Ms. Sheridan finding out what she had done made Lissy’s stomach lurch. Panicked tears started to fill her eyes, blurring her vision so much so that, when she turned a corner on the docks, she didn’t see the man until it was too late.

Large, gentle hands helped her up, and the perplexingly comforting scent of leather lingered in the night air around the stranger.

Blinking back her tears, Lissy apologized, raising guilt-ridden chocolate eyes to a handsome face, a face she was startled to find out she recognized. “I’m sorry. I didn’t see you. I didn’t mean to…you’re the man from the Youth Center.” Tucking her tawny hair behind her ears, she worried her lip between her teeth as more tears obscured her vision. “Ms. Sheridan’s friend.”

Hurried footsteps, more than one set, clattered in the distance, and the eyes that stared back at Lissy darkened with alarm.

Lissy felt that same feeling of dread intensify inside herself, and she glimpsed the fallen magazine at the stranger’s feet. Her mouth grew dry and her palms sweaty, her voice scraping her throat in a whisper as her guilt spilled forth, “They’re coming for me. They’re going to take me away from my dad and put me in jail.” All because she had stolen a stupid magazine! As bad as being motherless was, the thought of now losing her dad was even more horrible, and Lissy couldn’t contain her sobs.

Voices grew nearer and footsteps louder.

Lissy was vaguely aware of a pair of strong, muscular arms lifting her up and cradling her protectively close before she found herself in darkness, with only the stranger’s kind eyes glittering at her. She didn’t dare breathe as his hand settled over her mouth, and she wrapped her arms around his neck tightly when he removed that same hand, supporting her weight as he held her.

“I won’t let them take you to jail, but you have to be quiet. Think you can do that?”

Lissy nodded, hiding her face in the crook of his neck. She gasped, whimpering when they both heard the whine of a police siren. “Don’t let them get me,” she whispered into his ear.

The voices were disturbingly close now, and recognizable, for the man stiffened along with Lissy when, over a static-filled channel, one voice cut through all the others.

“Noah, this is Luis. Can you give me a pinpoint on your location?”

“I want you to hold on tight. Understand?”

Lissy felt two arms tighten reflexively around her as she followed his instructions.

“It’s time to get out of here.”

Then they were moving, and the world around Lissy was nothing but a blur.
















Oh, a cliffhanger! Haven't had a real one of those in a while, have I?

LOL!

The whole world seems much bigger and scarier to kids (Lissy), doesn't it?

Katie's efforts to tell Abby the truth were thwarted. Does this mean Nick will get another chance to own up and be a man?

Thought it was time Chad and Eve started moving in a positive direction.

What are Sher and Gwen up to? And Hank, being the sly devil that he is, is definitely up to something. You just know he is.

Any guesses?

:)

Until next time.

Thanks for reading!!!


P.S. Mistakes are mine. Let me know where they're at (especially if they're enormously distracting) so I can clean them up.

iLoveET
2.1.08, 2:02 PM
Lissy's whole "they're going to put me in jail" was so sincere, but I don't understand why Antonio would help her out, and why he would have broken into the Book Cafe.

I think Nick will fess up that he had put in resignation, but will also tell her that he has retracted it, to stay with her and the baby.

Chad and Eve making amends is a nice start - I didn't know Whitney followed in her mom's footsteps and was a doctor, too. Was it mentioned before? I don't think I would have missed that.

Sheridan and Gwen....dancing....I think they are taking "special dancing" lessons, like with a pole??? No, I really have no idea.

Hank bought some land? Or he is starting/buying a business?

Shae - next chapter please!!!!
PS I didn't see any mistakes, looking good as always!

iLoveET
2.14.08, 1:39 PM
Just reread the last chapter and noticed, what are Gwen and Sheridan hiding from Luis and Ethan? Or is it supposed to be Hank?
Again, I can't help thinking that Beth and Ethan should move into the house that was once Luis and Sheridan's, now Gwen and Hank's.

Please Shae, I am missing my favorite story, and can't wait for more!!!!

UAgirl
3.17.08, 1:03 AM
So sorry for the long wait. As I explained in a post on the new FF boards, things have been hectic and I've been a little rundown lately (that yucky junk going around didn't help); also, a recent death in the family delayed the chapter further.


That said, the new chapter has officially arrived, and before moving on to it, I wanted to say a quick thanks to the lovely readers that replied to the last chapter on both boards. You guys continue to be an inspiration to me to finish this story, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate you.

I hope you enjoy.
Not my favorite chapter, but it's a long one. :D




Chapter 29



“You think your mom will notice it?”

Jake eyed the ugly painting that now hung crookedly on the wall at the end of the hallway and wondered how anyone, least of all his mom, could miss it, sighing, “Maybe we should just tell her the truth. How mad can she be?”

“Mad about what?” a familiar voice behind them asked.

Busted, Jake thought, following his dad’s example and whirling around to face his mom. With a glance at his dad out of the corner of his eyes, Jake held back a sigh—he was really too big for this kid stuff—and stepped forward with the biggest, most charming, rascally grin he had tucked up his sleeve and wrapped his arms around his mom’s waist in a breath-stealing hug. “Mom! You’re home!”

Automatically, Gwen’s arms lifted to return Jake’s embrace, the needling feeling of suspicion she’d been nursing the entire evening growing more insistent in the pit of her belly. Combing her fingers through the mop of her son’s brown hair, she narrowed her eyes at her husband and his apparent reluctance to look her fully in the eyes for more than two seconds. “Hank?”

“Didn’t hear you come in, Babe.” Hank matched Jake’s grin, throwing in a teasing wink for good measure. “How’d you sneak past Gus?”

“Living in this house has taught me a trick or two,” Gwen answered, releasing Jake and stepping around her husband. Or at least she tried to. For the next several seconds, the two of them engaged in a dance that recalled her youthful days at boarding school and those dreadful lessons until she managed to slide past him, her mouth dropping open in horror. “Bennett,” her voice was low with warning. “What have you done?”

“Nothing,” Hank replied innocently, “just thought such a work of art deserved a better place than the back of our bedroom closet.” Elbowing Jake for rolling his eyes, Hank carefully schooled his expression into a neutral one when Gwen glanced back at him, aghast.

“You can’t be serious.” Swallowing in shock, she searched for something further to say but words eluded her, and her eyes were drawn back to the monstrosity covering her wall. Finally, she blurted, hand shielding her eyes, “It’s a picture of pigs!”

“A token of Becs’s affection,” Hank deadpanned. Beside him, Jake choked back a laugh, ducking his head and hooking his thumbs in his belt loops when he felt the heat of his parents’ stares. Swallowing back his own chuckle with difficulty, Hank placed comforting hands on Gwen’s shoulders and gave Jake a look that plainly said cool it. “Like Becs herself, the picture grows on you.”

Gwen groaned, covering her eyes again. “Hank Bennett, so help me God…” she began, only to be cut off by the sound of the front door opening and slamming shut.

Barreling down the hallway at a breakneck pace, Emily and Sara were chattering a mile a minute, the excited words leaving their mouths barely distinguishable as part of the English language, except for a few recognizable Mommy’s and Mom’s scattered throughout.

In a much more sedate stride and overall manner, Jonathan Hotchkiss approached his daughter, a twinkle in his eyes as he nodded at his son-in-law and young grandson. “It really does grab your attention.”

Emily, having only just recently viewed Charlotte’s Web, piped up, “Look, Mommy! That one looks like Wilbur!”

Showing none of the restraint Hank and Jake had fought for so valiantly, Sara smirked then let loose a naughty giggle, exclaiming, “It’s the ugliest picture I ever saw!”

“Now, Sar,” Hank failed miserably in his efforts to keep a straight face, “that’s not a nice thing to say.”

“Well, it is,” Sara stubbornly insisted, feet spread wide and stance challenging him to deny the truth. “Mom thinks so too. Right, Mom?” Under her breath, she mumbled, “The hole was much cooler.”

“I…I…wait a minute,” Gwen’s head whipped around when her mouth had finally caught up with her brain. Quickly honing in on her daughter’s suddenly impassive face, she questioned, “Did you just say hole?” Eyes snapping to Hank’s equally blank face, she practically growled, “Bennett?”

Jonathan’s lips twitched when Jake piped up in doomed rescue.

“The pole! She meant the pole.”

Clearing his throat, Hank couldn’t quite keep the smirk off of his lips and ducked his head to avoid the heat of the glare his wife was aiming at him. “Sorry, Babe. I didn’t think it was appropriate to…you know...in front of the kids. Although…I hear it’s an excellent way to stay in shape.”

“Daddy?” Gwen pleaded.

“Your mother wants me to check into having one installed for her.” Jonathan chuckled when Jake covered his ears, seconds too late, and his daughter cringed. Hank, meanwhile, hung his head even lower, all traces off his earlier humor gone.

“Now that was a mental image I could have done without.”

Recovering her ability to speak, Gwen sweetened her approach, scooping Emily up in her arms. “Emmy,” she twirled one brown braid between her fingers, “can you tell Mommy about the hole?”

Small fingers tangling in the pearls at her mother’s neck, Emily bobbed her brown head, and Jake groaned, muttering something about the weakest link as he beat a hasty retreat to his room before the you-know-what hit the fan. “Uh huh.” Letting go of the necklace, she pointed a finger at the eyesore that was the center of everybody’s attention.

Not trusting herself to look, Gwen glowered at Hank over the top of their daughter’s head, and Hank guiltily stepped forward, Jonathan falling in line to assist him. Staring into Emmy’s shining brown eyes, Gwen whispered, “Is it a really big hole?”

Mouth parted, features uncharacteristically solemn at her mother’s demeanor, Emily nodded slowly.

Glancing at Sara, Gwen was distantly aware of a gentle breeze caressing her face as she asked, “Am I going to be mad at your dad?”

“Real mad,” Sara grinned. “Grandpa said he’s gonna have to turn his house into a ‘fugee camp.” Frowning slightly, she muttered, “Whatever that means.”

“Daddy?” Gwen ventured without looking in his direction. “How bad is it?”

“You might want to take a look yourself, Sweetheart,” Jonathan suggested gently.

Frozen in inaction, Gwen could only stare in her daughter’s brown eyes, until Sara tugged excitedly at Emmy’s dangling foot and practically squealed.

“Emmy! Emmy! Look! A squirrel!”

“Bennett!”


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“Need any help?” Ethan asked from his position in the nursery doorway.

On the changing table, Hope pouted, blue eyes welling, as Beth carefully removed her wet diaper. Kicking her small feet out and flailing her bunched fists, she voiced her displeasure with small whimpers and fat crocodile tears that slipped into her dark curls.

Ethan didn’t wait for an answer, moving deeper into the room and easily falling into the role of Beth’s assistant. Between the two of them, they made short work of outfitting Hope in a fresh, clean diaper, the scent of talcum powder tickling at their noses. With a pleased grin on his face, he told her, “We make a pretty good team.”

“Practice makes perfect,” Beth colored with embarrassment, murmuring against Hope’s forehead as the baby fretted in her arms. “I’m a little rusty.” When Ethan raised a brow at her in question, she explained, “I did a lot of babysitting in high school.”

“That should come in handy,” Ethan declared. With a hand at the small of her back, he led her to the rocking chair in the corner and watched as she seated herself. “My experience with children is pretty much limited to Ali, Cristian, and this one,” he rubbed Hope’s tiny shoulder comfortingly when she continued to cry.

“Ali and Cristian!” Beth remembered and started to get up. She gave Ethan a puzzled look when he took her by the shoulders and gently pushed her back into the rocking chair.

“Relax,” Ethan smiled. “They’re fine,” he assured her. “I left them in the living room playing Candy Land. Ali’s letting Cristian win.”

“That’s sweet of her,” Beth smiled back at him, feeling lulled herself by the peaceful rocking motion of the chair. “What?” she asked when she noticed the twinkle in Ethan’s blue eyes.

“Ali’s a great big sister to Cristian, yes, but she’s also Luis’s and Aunt Sheridan’s daughter.” Elaborating on his thoughts, he stated it plainly, “She’s very competitive. I had to promise I’d play Monopoly with her later.”

“Well,” Beth digested that tidbit with a smile that quickly morphed into a grin. “Nobody’s perfect.” She fell silent, her eyes widening momentarily with the belated realization that all was quiet. Dropping her voice to a whisper, she looked up at Ethan, “I think she’s asleep.”

“Not quite, but almost,” Ethan whispered back, cupping a palm over the base of Hope’s skull. “Let me,” he held his hands out to receive the baby, and with painstaking care, the transfer was completed within seconds.

Beth stood up slowly, shushing Hope when she fussed, and holding her breath waiting to see if it’d worked. Connecting eyes with Ethan, she nodded at Hope’s crib, hand resting on his upper arm as he lowered the baby from his shoulder and into her bed. Leaning her chin against Ethan’s shoulder, Beth watched the flutter of the curly black lashes and lost herself in the reassuring rise and fall of the tiny chest as Hope settled down. She had tears in her eyes when she slid her hand down Ethan’s arm to tangle their fingers together. “I can’t believe we’re really going to do this.”

“Me either,” Ethan brought their hands up to his mouth, kissing the back of hers. He turned around, his back to the crib, and followed Beth to the window when she disengaged their hands. Her face was pale in the moonlight, contemplative. “Beth?”

“What changed your mind?” When that question only seemed to further stir Ethan’s confusion, she made a clarification. “You weren’t exactly sold on this idea when you first saw those pamphlets. I’m getting older. You’ve always said our age difference doesn’t matter, but it does in this. It’s going to be a lot harder for me to get pregnant now than it would have been if I were twenty. We both know that. Yesterday, earlier today,” she stared into his unblinking blue eyes, “it was like your mind wasn’t completely made up. But now you seem sure, confident. What’s different now? What or who changed your mind?”

“Gwen,” Ethan blurted. “Gwen changed my mind.”

Shaking her head, Beth frowned. “I’m not following. What does Gwen have to do with us having a baby?”

“Nothing,” Ethan was quick to say. “At least not directly.” Taking Beth’s tightly fisted hands between his own once more, he squeezed them gently, dropping his gaze. Shamefully, he admitted the source of his previous reservations. “You’ve been different, distracted, lately. I thought maybe you were seeing another man—that you wanted out of this marriage.”

“Ethan,” Beth tugged at her hands but he refused to let them go, and she willed herself to relax and look him in the eye as she spoke, even though her heartbeat was gaining force and speed behind her ribcage. “What made you think such a thing?”

“The errands for one,” Ethan answered. “The errands and the phone calls and the late nights.”

Addressing the most damaging evidence, Beth reminded Ethan, “Most of my girls are still in school, Ethan. Some of them, like Julie, even have other jobs. They’re kids and they deserve to have some time to be kids. I’m perfectly capable of closing the Book Café so they don’t have to.”


“I know you still work at the Book Café because you enjoy it. I understand that and appreciate it,” Ethan replied. “But Beth,” he looked imploringly at her. “It’s a job.” Gently, he told her, hoping he wouldn’t offend her, “It’s not your life anymore.”

“No,” Beth conceded. “It’s not.” Sighing, she placed their clasped hands against Ethan’s chest and whispered an apology. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry if I made you feel…”

Ethan cut her off with an apology of his own. “I was wrong to think what I did. I know now I should have trusted you, that we have no secrets between us.” Letting go of one of her hands, he guided her head to his shoulder and wrapped his arm around her, holding her close. After a moment, he pulled back to grin at her. “Want to come watch a nine-year-old take me to the cleaners?”

Beth traced her fingertips over the edges of his smile and leaned in to kiss his cheek. “In a minute.” Picking up the nearby baby monitor and handing it to him, she let her gaze wander toward the crib and the sleeping child inside. “I just want to make sure she doesn’t wake up and wonder where we’re at,” she murmured, trailing her fingers down to his collar and straightening it. “In a minute, I promise,” she returned his smile, shooing him from the room.

“Beth,” Ethan lingered in the nursery doorway again.

“Hmm?” Beth turned to acknowledge him.

“You’re going to make a great mom,” he said, then left.

Alone, in the shadows the moonlight didn’t reach, Beth covered her face with her hands and allowed her smile to slip away. In her pants pocket, her phone continued to vibrate, unanswered.


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“More mashed potatoes, Theresa?” T.C. held up the bowl in offering.

Theresa wasn’t sure she wouldn’t turn into an Idaho potato if she ate anymore, but she didn’t tell T.C. that, only lifted her plate with a big smile. “Please.”

Behind her napkin, Simone’s lips twitched, and her large eyes shone with humor as they connected across the table with Chad’s eyes. Feigning a cough, she grabbed her glass of water and looked down at her own plate to find her dad had replenished her supply of mashed potatoes when she wasn’t looking. “Daddy,” she complained.

“You’re getting too skinny,” T.C. retorted, “chasing all those kids down at the Youth Center.”

“How was the Youth Center today, Sweetheart?” Eve joined the conversation mid-stream, carefully setting a steaming peach pie down in the center of the table.

“She needs a real job if she’s going to stay in Harmony, Eve,” T.C. interjected. “I know you’re doing a good thing for Sheridan and those kids, Sugar Bear, but volunteering won’t pay the rent.”

“She’s welcome to stay here as long as she wants,” Eve interrupted her husband before he could get carried away. Frowning, she prodded, “Tell her, T.C.”

“What your mom said,” T.C. sighed, digging into the peach pie and whistling when the first distracted bite scalded his tongue.

“Careful,” Eve chastised with a meaningful look. “It’s hot.”

Watching the interplay and glancing at Chad out of the corner of her eyes, Theresa bit back a smile, leaning forward and making a suggestion. “You could work at Over the Rainbow. A couple of the girls are going to be leaving for college out of state soon, and I could use the extra help.”

“Thanks,” Simone said. “I’ll keep that in mind.” Turning to her mother, she made an effort to get their conversation back on track and draw Chad out of his self-imposed shell in one-shot, knowing what she had to say would be of interest to him. “The Youth Center was fine, Mom. A couple of the kids wanted Sheridan to teach them how to tango, and it wasn’t going too well until one of Luis’s old friends dropped by and danced with her. He wasn’t as good as Luis, but he was pretty close. The kids loved it. It was all they could talk about the rest of the day.”

Her interest piqued, Theresa blurted a question before Chad could comment. “One of Luis’s old friends? Really?”

Simone nodded. “I didn’t catch his name, but there was something familiar about him that I couldn’t place. Sheridan seemed pretty comfortable with him.”

Theresa failed to notice the way T.C.’s brows rose at that particular statement, but Chad didn’t, shifting beside her uncomfortably. He smiled tightly and nodded when Eve offered him a piece of pie, immediately attacking it with his fork. When Theresa rest her hand upon his thigh and squeezed, Chad interpreted the signal for what it was and blurted the first safe thing he could think of to say. “Auntie’s a pretty good dancer. She should give lessons.”

Thinking about how well-loved Sheridan was by the children, Simone agreed, “She should.”

“She really should,” Theresa agreed as well, beaming as the beginnings of an idea began to form inside her head.

Uh oh, Simone thought, stifling a groan. The long years Theresa had been Whitney’s best friend meant she knew exactly what that smile forecast: another Theresa dream in the making. Glancing at her mother, Simone knew that she recognized the look as well and was doing her best to hide her own knowing smile as Theresa practically bounced in her seat.

“It’s perfect. I don’t know why I didn’t think about this before.”

“Think about what?”

T.C., it seemed, was the last person to clue in to Theresa’s train of thought as Chad was already indulging her whims with a patient grin, gently reminding her that Sheridan more than had her hands full at the moment. “T-girl, Hope’s four months old.”

“Almost four months old,” Eve corrected him with a smile.

“Close enough,” Chad conceded the point. “Point is…” he sighed, train of thought stalling at the way Theresa’s bright smile was wavering uncertainly.

“I’ve been wondering what to do with the studio, and Sheridan would be the ideal person…”

Surprisingly, it was T.C. to the rescue, fork paused in front of his mouth. “Right now those babies need some time with their mama just as much as she does with them.” It was exactly the right and the wrong thing to say; their conversation stalled to a complete stop as everyone mulled the words, and the past year, over.

The room sprang back to life, though, when Simone picked one word out of the thread of conversation and spun it off in a completely new direction. “Speaking of babies…”


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Babies, Abby would admit only to herself, she loved; pregnancy not so much. Groaning, she pulled herself to her feet, swaying just slightly, and flushed the toilet before grabbing a cloth from the shelf at her side and holding it under the running faucet. There was a tiny tremor in her hand as she raised it to her face and blotted at her feverish skin with the cloth. Her face was pale and her eyes stared tiredly back at her in the reflection of the mirror as she lowered her hand. Closing her eyes, she took a deep steadying breath and willed her heart to cease its pounding and return to a normal rhythm. They opened slowly at the nearby sound of his voice.

Moving into the small confines of the bathroom, Nick took the cool cloth from her hand and gently moved it over her skin, his other hand anchoring on her hip and helping to hold her upright. “I thought the worst of this was over.”

Huffing a small laugh, Abby leaned into his tender touch, her smile wry. “Me too. Guess your kid doesn’t like the smell of garlic. Too bad, too,” hazel eyes blinked up at him. “I was trying to make you dinner.” Unconsciously resting against him, she tracked his movements as he squeezed some toothpaste onto her toothbrush—predictably from the end and not the middle—and held it up in offering. “Trying to tell me something?” she raised a teasing brow at the gesture, swallowing back the wave of nausea when she stuck the toothbrush into her mouth. Finishing the task as quickly as possible, she spit the toothpaste from her mouth and rinsed with the glass of water he pushed into her hand, resisting the overwhelming urge to be sick. “I hate you, you know,” she muttered into his side when he tucked her under his arm and walked them both out of the bathroom and into the living room.

“I know,” Nick’s smile didn’t quite reach his eyes as he settled her on the couch, pulling at the blanket tossed into the corner when he noticed the shiver she couldn’t control.

Tugging her legs up and tucking them close to her chest, Abby hugged her arms around her knees and shook her head, feeling the sting of bile rising in the back of her throat. “I’m not cold. I…” she paled again, eyes snapping shut and fingers clenching and unclenching, her knuckles whitening. “Could you…” A slow inclination of her tawny head indicated the kitchen, and the tone of her voice was pleading.

“I’ll be right back,” Nick promised, disappearing from her sight. Several minutes passed, and when he returned, her color was a much more human shade, her position a little more relaxed. “Better?” he questioned, easing onto the couch beside her and opening his arms. He brushed a kiss to the top of her head when she tucked herself around him, laying her head over his heart.

Letting the even beat of his pulse soothe her, Abby nodded after a few seconds’ hesitation. It was better. Releasing a slow breath, she cuddled further into his arms. “What did you do with it?”

Nick tensed momentarily then relaxed, a sheepish laugh escaping as he admitted, “I threw it away.”

Slapping at the hand that sought her fingers in mock-outrage, Abby grumbled, “Shows what you think of my cooking.”

“Well, I’m not the one it was making sick,” Nick teased, combing the fingers of his other hand through her soft hair. “No more spaghetti or garlic bread until baby says so, okay?”

“No more,” Abby muttered, swearing softly under her breath when just talking about it made her stomach muscles clench.

“Want to watch some tv?” Nick kissed her again, this time on her forehead, the touch sweet and lingering. Glancing at the remote on the coffee table, he hoped she said no; he was loathe to disturb the simple moment of peace between them, reluctant to let the evening lead him into a conversation he realized he wasn’t ready for, not tonight anyway.

“Mind if I just use you as a pillow for a while?” Abby yawned against his shoulder, unconsciously seeking his hand and lacing their fingers together as she shifted into a more comfortable position. “So tired,” her words started to slur as her heavy-lidded hazel eyes drooped.

“Sleep,” Nick told her, staring ahead at their distorted reflection on the blackened screen of the television, a lump forming in his throat at the trust she still showed him, even though he’d yet to be as giving with his own heart. “I’ll be here when you wake up.”

Abby sighed and relaxed completely against him. “Better be.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


“Katie.”

Miguel sounded as surprised as Katie herself felt to find herself here, crying on his doorstep. Thankfully, he didn’t mention the tears that she brushed away carelessly with her knuckles, only stepped aside to usher her in.

Katie’s green eyes took in the worn-looking sofa and the toys littering the floor, and the general absence of children’s voices didn’t register with her until Miguel spoke again, chasing away the silence.

“Grace took them,” he informed her, bending and grabbing toys by the handful, clearing a pathway as they went further into the house. “She mentioned calling you, checking if you minded Kendall spending the night with her and Sam.”

Shaking her head slightly, Katie finally spoke. “I left my cell phone in the car with Noah.” Off Miguel’s confused look, she continued by way of explanation, “He’s on a case.”

“How…” Miguel began, only to falter, chiding himself that it was none of his business. Instead, he offered her something to drink and found himself surprised when she nodded and followed him into the kitchen. He was aware of the intermittent drip-drip of the faucet and the ticking of the wall clock as he searched his cabinets for a clean glass. She took the glass he filled for her, wrapping both hands around it and staring into its depths. He didn’t know who was more startled, him or her, when she suddenly seemed to find her voice again, answering his unfinished question.

“I walked here. From the Book Café. I couldn’t stand the waiting, so I left, and somehow I ended up here.” She lifted reddened green eyes to his face and kept them there, attempting and failing to form an apologetic smile.

“You thought Kendall was here.” Miguel meant it as a statement of fact, but it came out sounding much more like a question.

“I thought Kendall was here,” Katie confirmed with a little, rasping sigh. Repeating herself, she looked away in embarrassment and held the glass out to him, “I thought Kendall was here, and he isn’t. And I’m so sorry to come in here like this, and…I’ll just…I’ll just go.”

Miguel took the glass in one hand, held her motionless by the wrist with the other. Swallowing hard at the sparkling sheen of tears in her green eyes, he let his fingers slide down until they touched hers and gave her hand a tiny tug, leading her back into the living room. When she was settled on the couch, he took a seat beside her, and waited for her to talk. “Are you,” pausing to clear his throat, he continued, “are you upset about Noah?”

Katie’s only response was a quizzical look.

“Kay,” Miguel forced her name from his lips past an emotion-tightened throat, “always said the waiting was the worst. Being the child of a police officer gave her a better appreciation for how short life really is. It also gave her a new sense of respect for her mother. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to never know…”

“If he’s coming back?” Katie finished for him in a whisper. Then, more quietly, “Yes, you can. You know exactly how hard.” The tears collecting in her eyes spilled over, and this time, she didn’t bother to wipe them away. She sucked in a shaky breath when she felt the fleshy pad of Miguel’s thumb brush across her dampened cheek.

“Tell me what’s wrong,” Miguel implored gently, concern in his warm brown eyes.

Biting her lip, Katie captured his hand and squeezed it gratefully, lowering it to her lap. “No,” she said resolutely. “You’re sweet to worry, but I shouldn’t be bothering you with this.” When she stood, Miguel joined her, and Katie realized their hands were still clasped. Reluctantly, she withdrew her hand from his, instantly missing the warmth of his touch.

“Is it about today?” Miguel ventured a guess. “At the hospital,” he elaborated. “You were upset about something, before Noah came.”

“Today,” Katie finally managed a tiny smile, finding her voice. “Yesterday, and the day before that. I guess I’m letting my own past experiences have too much influence over my feelings about situations that are really none of my business.” Her smile broadened and lightened with affection when she noticed the bewildered expression he wore, and she stood on tiptoe to press a kiss to his cheek, her hand lingering on his shoulder as she pulled back. “Thank you, Miguel,” she said softly.

“For what?” Miguel returned her smile, eyes clouded with confusion and concern. “I didn’t do anything.”

“You did plenty,” Katie disagreed, her own green eyes still wet and glistening. Glancing over his shoulder at the door, she murmured, “I better go.”

Walking her out, Miguel stuck his hands in his jeans pocket and shrugged bashfully when her kiss inadvertently brushed the corner of his mouth in lieu of his cheek. He was blushing as he told her, “The offer still stands. Anytime you want to talk…”

“I know where to find you,” Katie nodded. “You’re a good guy, Miguel. Take care of yourself.”

Miguel watched her go, hoping she’d do the same for herself.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


Leaning through the rolled down window, Luis reached for Sheridan’s face, cupping her jaw in his palm. Meeting and encouraging her kiss, he pulled back with a sigh and a promise. “I’ll be right back. Call the club, see if they can push back our reservations.”

Sheridan watched him go, tugging at the collar of his shirt and unbuttoning the top two buttons as he approached Noah and a couple of other officers standing beside a squad car. She waved at Noah and Quinlan when they nodded at her in acknowledgement, then fished through her purse for her cell phone. Its screen reflected the flashing strobe-like red and blue lights as she scrolled through the phone book and selected the correct number. Lifting the phone to her ear, she flashed Luis a quick smile before speaking to the voice that answered. “Hi, this is Mrs. Lopez-Fitzgerald. I’m afraid something’s come up, and my husband and I are going to have to cancel our reservations. I’m sorry too,” she couldn’t help releasing a small sigh. “Thank you for your understanding. We will.” Lowering the phone from her ear, she returned it to her purse after noting she had no new voicemails and deciding it wouldn’t exactly be a vote of confidence in Beth’s and Ethan’s combined abilities to watch her children if she kept calling and keeping tabs on them. Instead, she withdrew her day planner from her purse and flipped through its pages idly.

T-ball practices occupied most of her upcoming afternoons, with days at the Youth Center taking up much of her days. Hope’s pediatrician wanted to see her soon, and Cristian’s flying lessons were due to start at the end of the month if all went well.

Sheridan wore a soft, fond smile whenever she thought about Cristian’s flying lessons. Her little son was more excited than she had ever seen him, and she was looking forward to spending some more one on one time with him. In fact, it was something they both sorely needed. Soaring through Harmony’s blue skies had proven to be a welcome release she hadn’t realized she’d lacked, and she’d felt a certain kind of peace knowing that she was passing on something she loved to her little boy. Her musings were interrupted when Noah appeared at her window.

His smile was sheepish and his silver eyes were rueful. “Sorry.” His long, blunt fingers wrapped around the door’s edge and he ducked his head. “I know you guys had plans.”

Sheridan dismissed his regrets with a wave of her hand. “It doesn’t really matter what we do in the time we spend together,” she said. And it was true, the years lost to her had taught her that. “Besides, I kind of like seeing him in action. As long as he’s not writing me a ticket.”

Noah matched her smirk, tossing a look over his broad shoulder. “He’s one of the best. Ranks right up there with my dad. But don’t tell him I said that,” he warned, his grin making his silver eyes dance as Luis approached.

“Are you flirting with my wife?” Luis looked askance at Noah as he opened the driver’s side of the SUV and climbed in beside Sheridan.

Noah merely pressed his lips together and winked at Sheridan when he thought Luis wasn’t looking. “So what if I am? I think the missus looks very…”

“Don’t finish that thought,” Luis cautioned, turning the key in the ignition and making the SUV’s engine rumble to life.

Undaunted, Noah forged ahead, both sincere and teasing, “…beautiful tonight as always.” Picking up Sheridan’s hand, he decided to lay it on thick, pressing a noisy kiss to her smooth skin and causing her to erupt into helpless laughter when Luis’s long arm swept past her to push Noah bodily out the window.

“Cool it, Casanova,” Luis rolled his eyes, a smile threatening at the corners of his mouth. “You have witnesses to question, work to do. Quinlan promised to lend a hand so he could get home to his family and you could take Katie home at a decent hour.”

“Say hello for me,” Sheridan requested, re-fastening her seatbelt low around her hips when Luis put the vehicle in reverse and Noah started to backpedal to the squad car.

“I’ll do that,” Noah assured her. Saluting Luis, he turned to go, “Chief.”

“Get to work,” Luis ordered gruffly, feeling Sheridan’s palm hover over then settle upon his own. “And you,” he playfully squeezed her fingers, refusing to let go of her hand, “stop encouraging him by looking so damn beautiful.”

Blue eyes twinkling at him in the darkness, Sheridan ran her free hand down the skirt of her dress and played coy. “So you like my dress?”

Teeth gleaming white, brown eyes hungry, he returned his attention to the road in front of him with extreme difficulty while she did her best to stir up mischief an arm’s length away, knowing damn well he liked her dress. “Someone else sure seemed to like your dress,” he remarked knowingly.

Beneath the smirk run a current of unfounded jealousy, and Sheridan softened her teasing, a new sincerity in her demeanor as she lifted their joined hands and lay her cheek against them, murmuring his name.

“I don’t like your dress,” Luis responded, finally chancing a glance in her direction.

Sheridan held her breath and waited, wondering if she’d taken her earlier teasing a little too far. But Luis’s next words were all the reassurance she needed.

“I love your dress.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


The docks weren’t safe, for the moment the Book Café was off-limits, and anywhere else familiar meant his chances of being seen by the wrong people were too great. He was all out of options, and his lungs burned with the exertion of trying to flee the inevitable—with a sobbing child in his arms.

The beach seemed like the safest place, and the water pulled and swirled around his ankles, washing his footprints away.

The girl’s iron grip never lessened, not even when he collapsed against a craggy wall of rock, the ocean’s cool spray misting over them. She curled into the shielding comfort of the jacket he wrapped around them both, tears hot against the skin of his neck.

“I think we lost them,” he spoke into her soft, disheveled hair. Tawny strands tickled at his chin with each breath that he dragged in, and her small chest heaved against his own. “Come on, sweetheart,” he tried to soothe. “Don’t cry. We lost them. Nobody’s going to take you away.” Coaxing her to look at him, he felt his heart twist when she raised her head enough for him to stare into her teary chocolate eyes.

Chin trembling, she relaxed her desperate hold on his neck just enough to grab handfuls of his collar.

Then she whispered the first words he’d heard her speak since this whole crazy game of cat and mouse had begun, words that reminded him she belonged to somebody, and if he didn’t safely return her soon, he’d be in a helluva lot more trouble than he’d bargained for when he’d dared set foot in this place again. In that moment, she looked more like five than the nine or ten years he’d guessed her to be.

“I want my daddy.”

“I know you do, sweetheart. I know you do,” he murmured against her brow, carefully shifting her weight to his other arm. Wincing at the pins and needles sensation that traveled up and down the newly unburdened extremity, he placed it between her shoulder blades, tracing slow, calming circles there. “I’ll get you home to him soon,” he promised. “What’s his name?”

Her sobs had gradually faded into sniffles, and her answer was muffled against his neck. “Christopher.”

“That’s a good name,” he said, easing them into a more comfortable position and using the weather-hewn rock as a bench of sorts. “You never did tell me yours.” He’d heard her name at the Youth Center, of course, but, admittedly, he hadn’t been paying much attention to the children. “Wait, I think I remember.” Lynnie? Libby? Lizzie? “Lissy?” Trying the name out, he was relieved to find his memory wasn’t as faulty as he’d previously surmised when she moved her head in a slow nod. “Pretty name. Is it short for something?”

“Alyssa,” she mumbled and lifted her head again, the ocean winds whipping her tawny hair about her flushed face. “But only Mommy called me that.”

Her eyes glittered at him in the darkness, and he prayed the tears wouldn’t make a return appearance. Thankfully, they didn’t, and she dropped her head tiredly to his shoulder, shivering in the cool night air. Unconsciously tightening his arms around her, he turned slightly, protecting her from the elements with his body. Gazing up at the stars that lit the navy sky, he forced himself to relax, to settle in, and wait. “Sleep. I promise I won’t let anything happen to you, Lissy.”

“You can call me Alyssa if you want,” Lissy half-sighed, half-yawned, burrowing deeper into the warmth he provided.

“Alyssa.” He smiled at the honor, and the name displayed on his vibrating cell phone when he retrieved it from his inside jacket pocket. Playing it safe, he waited until the vibrations stopped and listened to the voicemail for the familiar voice before releasing a breath of relief, knowing their wait would soon come to an end. Calling the number back and leaving a message of his own, he closed the phone, placing it back inside his pocket and sneaking a glance at the child that slept so trustingly in his embrace.

Lissy barely stirred as he made an offer of his own.

“You can call me Tony.”
















Hope I wasn't the only one that got a giggle out of the Bennett family scene. LOL! I thought, and apparently a scarily like-brained reader of mine (you know who you are...I swear you're reading my mind, or maybe I'm just that predictable) thought it was well overdue. But my sense of humor can be a little strange sometimes. Remember School Daze?


Beth and Ethan have cleared the air. Or have they? What's the verdict on what kind of parents they'll make?

Dinner with Eve and T.C. Awkward much? Poor Chad sure does have a twisted family tree. And Theresa's just dreamin' all kinds of new ideas.

Uh oh! Gray Eyes missed another chance to come clean. Methinks he better act soon, don't you?

What's up with Katie? And poor Miguel. Have I tortured the poor soul enough yet? ;)

Sheridan and...Noah? Nah. LOL! Sorry, girl has to play sometimes. I'm not too pleased with this section of the chapter, couldn't quite get it to go the way I wanted to, but if I'd waited until I was completely happy with it...well, you still wouldn't have a new chapter. Jealous Luis can be kinda fun though.

And the ending! Who called it from the get-go? Like I said, I can be pretty predictable sometimes (and I've been hinting around at him making his debut in this series for what seems like foreeevvveeerrrr). What do YOU think? Who's his friend?

Your thoughts and feedback are much appreciated and treasured. :D

Typos are all mine.

As always, thanks for reading!!!

UAgirl
5.19.08, 8:07 PM
I'm cheating because I'm only posting half of the chapter I wanted to post, but since it's been over two months (egads!) already, I didn't want to make you guys wait any longer.


So sorry for the snail's pace. I just haven't managed to recapture the inspiration that made me begin this series in the first place; the fact that I haven't watched/enjoyed the show in years probably doesn't help (I'll cling to my memories/fantasies, thank you very much).

I'm trying though, and I have a long weekend coming up. Maybe I'll hit paydirt? If the right kind of inspiration comes along, lol.

So...sorry again for the long wait.
Enjoy the chapter.








Chapter 30




They were arguing.

Lissy forced her eyes to stay shut, scarcely dared breathe at all at the realization.

“I thought I told you to keep a low profile. Going to the Youth Center …”

“Nobody recognized me.”

Lissy recognized the low rumble of the man’s words, designed to soothe and ease his conversational partner’s worries.

“Well, it wasn’t the smartest idea. Practically stalking her isn’t the smartest idea either,” came the resigned sigh. “I thought you didn’t want anybody to know you were back.”

“I don’t. Not yet. And I didn’t mean to involve the kid. I turned a corner and literally crashed into her. What was I supposed to do? Something had her scared to death.”

“And having her chased by the police helped?”

“Again, what was I supposed to do? She was scared, and there wasn’t any time. I couldn’t just leave her there, Beth.”

The identity of the female voice revealed, Lissy couldn’t help but draw in a sharp breath, and the two adults went silent. It was only when she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder, and Beth’s soft voice near her ear that she gave up trying to feign sleep and let her eyes blink open.

“It’s okay, Lissy. I know you’re awake.” Beth’s smile was equally as soft as her voice, and she helped Lissy sit up on the sofa, pushing a pillow back behind her shoulders.

Lissy curled into herself, drawing her knees tightly to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. Her chocolate brown eyes stared over Beth’s shoulder, focusing on the stubble-darkened face of the man that had rescued her last night, the kind eyes, and the strong, gentle hands. Guilt made it difficult to meet Beth’s eyes, so she studied her own small, white-knuckled fingers as she spoke. “Mr. Tony was only trying to help me.” Oblivious to the look of surprise that passed between the two adults, Lissy continued, mumbling, “Don’t be mad at him. Be mad at me.”

Sighing, Beth lifted Lissy’s chin with her fingers. “I’m not mad at either one of you. You just had me worried. What were you doing out that time of night all by yourself?” When Lissy failed to answer her, Beth climbed to her feet, combing her fingers through her hair as she paced and thought aloud. “Your father must be worried sick.”

“I bet he hasn’t noticed I’m gone,” Lissy muttered miserably. She loved her dad dearly and knew that he loved her, but sometimes he got carried away with his work and taking care of her grandpa and didn’t have much time for her. She hadn’t needed to sneak out of her bedroom window the previous evening; it’d been much too easy to walk out the front door without anyone stopping her. “He probably thinks I’m at Ali’s anyway.”

“Ali? Isn’t that…”

“Ali and Lissy are friends,” Beth interrupted with a nod.

This time, Lissy didn’t miss the significant look that passed between the two, and she frowned in confusion as she corrected Beth, “Best friends.” Suspiciously, she noted, “I thought you were a friend of Ali’s dad.” Her tawny brows pinched together and she looked to Beth when her comment seemed to gather no response from the man she knew only as Mr. Tony.

Beth’s eyes widened momentarily before she answered the question for him. “He was. He is.” She smiled reassuringly and lowered herself to the sofa beside Lissy. Coaxing the girl’s hands into her own, she gave them a gentle squeeze.

“Then how come…”

“I’m sure there’s more than one Ali living in Harmony, Lissy,” Beth reminded her.

Lissy just ducked her head sheepishly, hiding her face behind a veil of tangled tawny hair. “I guess so,” she murmured, pulling her hands from Beth’s hold and wrapping them back around her knees. She didn’t say anything as Beth got up, and the sofa cushion shifted from the movement. She didn’t say anything more until Beth had left, promising to return with breakfast for the three of them, and her curiosity got the best of her. It was just the two of them, and her question was practically a whisper released into the too-quiet room. “What did she mean when she said you didn’t want anybody to know you’re back?”




~*~*~*~*~




“Kids up?” Sheridan questioned sleepily and stretched beneath the tousled covers, blinking against the early morning sunshine beginning to peek through the drawn blinds. She felt the bed dip beneath Luis’s additional weight then the warm cocoon of his body and something else as he fit himself against her back. With a blossoming smile on her face, she slowly rolled over to face him, only to find a tiny pair of feet pushing into her abdomen and a pair of eager, equally tiny hands reaching and tugging at the front of her nightgown.

“Ali and Cristian are still out cold, but I found this one having quite the animated conversation with Gizmo,” Luis grinned as he scooted over in the bed, settling their daughter between them. “I think they’re planning on making a break for it.”

Hope chose that particular moment to coo loudly at her parents and launch her youthfully uncoordinated body closer to her mother.

Sheridan’s fingers played with the buttons down the front of her nightgown, and her blue eyes lingered on Luis’s face as he replaced her hand with his own, slipping the buttons free one by one. Cradling Hope’s curly dark head in her palm, she gathered her even closer, watching her with a tender expression as she began to suckle greedily and make little snuffling noises. Smile still on her lips, she shifted her gaze to her husband, watching him watch her nurse their daughter, and teased, “It isn’t always easy being the baby of the family.”

“Looks pretty easy to me,” Luis smirked, leaning over and capturing her lips with his own when she rolled her eyes in response. Drawing back, he let his gaze rest back on Hope for a few seconds before giving his wife an apologetic look. “I’m sorry.”

“Hmm,” Sheridan hummed distractedly, trailing a gentle finger across Hope’s chubby cheek. “What are you sorry for?” she asked, transfixed when her daughter opened her blue eyes and wrapped her small fist around that same finger seconds later. “We danced.” The smile curling her lips upward turned wicked. “We just didn’t have any music.”

“Mrs. Lopez-Fitzgerald,” Luis chided with a grin. He kissed her laughing mouth before bending to place a kiss to Hope’s fuzzy-curled head. Tossing one of her oft-muttered protests back at her, he reluctantly crawled from the warmth of the bed. “Not in front of the baby.” Catching the stuffed toy she hurled at him in mid-air, he admonished, eyebrows raised in amusement, “Behave.”

“Me?” Sheridan pretended to be affronted. “Always, Buster, and you know it.”

“Never,” Luis scoffed good-naturedly, stepping into his pants. Slipping a white muscle shirt over his head, he then shrugged on the familiar, wash-faded brown shirt that made up the rest of his Harmony PD uniform and started methodically fastening the row of buttons. “And I’ve got the mug shots to prove it.”

“You just like me in cuffs.” Sheridan’s eyes danced as she teased her husband, and she slid her hand into his hair when, placing a knee onto the bed and bracing an arm just above their lazily content baby daughter’s head, Luis breached the small distance between them, his face hovering just inches above hers.

“Are you trying to torture me, because I think it’s working,” Luis growled gruffly.
Groaning, he didn’t let the awkward angle deter him from giving her a goodbye kiss she felt all the way down to her toes. Breathing hard, he pulled back to stare at her, unable to speak for several seconds due to the well of intense emotion she inspired in him. With blinding clarity, he knew in that moment that there’d be no recovering from losing her again, and the notion seized his heart, bringing unwanted, stinging moisture to his eyes as he gazed at his innocent little girl, completely oblivious to the selfish turn of her father’s thoughts.

Sheridan must have read the worry and the guilt in his eyes, for she touched her hand to his chin with a reassuring smile. “We’ll be waiting for you when you get home. Go, or you’ll be late for work.”

He lingered in the doorway, his reluctance to leave rooting his feet firmly to the floor. “Sheridan?” He felt his throat tighten further when she answered him before he could utter another word.

“Love you too.”




~*~*~*~*~




Bathrobe still tied loosely around her waist, Gwen tilted her head to the side and considered their new window to the outside world. Her brows furrowed and her eyes narrowed shortly before a tiny startled gasp was torn from her throat. Recovering her ability to speak, she hissed as she heard her husband’s cautiously approaching footsteps, “Bennett, what the hell…”

“That,” Hank said, scratching absently at his bare chest as he stifled a yawn, “is Simon.”

“Simon?! Bennett, it’s a…”

“Chipmunk,” Hank grinned. “Exactly. You should see Theodore. He’s the girls’ favorite.” Piping down his amusement at her answering glare, he held out the mug in his hand as a peace offering.

Resistant at first to his efforts at charming her, Gwen couldn’t withstand temptation long. As a thin curl of steam rose from the mug and the heady aroma of the brew assaulted her senses, she started to relax, but only slightly. She still jumped in surprise when another small—too rodent-esque for her—head appeared, and she lifted the mug to her lips, muttering under her breath, “Midlife crisis, and he goes extreme home makeover on me.”

Hank’s expression was a little sheepish as he protested, “It’s not a midlife crisis, and if you think this is extreme…”

Reluctant affection tempering her tone, Gwen couldn’t help but soften toward him. “Then explain it to me, Bennett. If it’s not a midlife crisis, then what…” she waved her arm at the hole in their wall, at a temporary loss for words. “It’s a little low for a skylight.”

“We need more room.”

“We need...” Gwen started to nod her head then stopped, slowly turning to face her husband. “What?!”

Hank repeated himself slowly, as if talking to a child, and held up his hands defensively to fend off any physical action she might take against him—past experience really should have told him not to attempt his little home makeover during this particular time of the month. “We…need…more…room.”

“Really?” Gwen dragged in a few deep breaths in an effort to calm herself. “You can sleep in the backyard then.”

“Ouch,” Hank winced, a low whistle escaping his lips. “Babe, you wound me.”

“Flesh wound,” Gwen snapped. “What were you thinking? Were you thinking?”

“I was thinking we’d outgrown this house before we ever moved in it,” Hank was quick to retort. “It was too small for Sheridan and Luis and their two children at the time. Babe, we have three.” Undaunted by the exaggerated roll of his wife’s eyes, he doggedly continued to explain himself. “The girls aren’t always going to want to share a room. Sar already hates the pink walls that Emmy adores.”

“And a can of paint wouldn’t have sufficed?” Gwen raised a brow at him, challenging him to shoot down her perfectly reasonable suggestion though—and she wasn’t about to let him off the hook so quickly, dammit—she was rapidly beginning to sway to his line of thinking. After all, it wasn’t hard to see the merits in an argument she had already raised herself. The worst thing, however, was that he knew perfectly well she had previously entertained the idea of adding on to the house, and that this dispute would ultimately end in his favor. Sighing, she conceded defeat, but only a partial one. “Couldn’t you have called some contractors?”

“Yeah,” Hank drawled, lips twitching desperately to smile. “I could have,” he admitted. “But where’s the fun in that?” Prepared for her imminent attack, he caught her wrist in his hand before she could do any damage (with what he called her love taps) and pulled her to him, slipping his other hand beneath her loosened robe and wrapping his arm around her slim waist. He smirked when she only struggled for about a minute before relaxing in his embrace and draping an arm across his shoulders. “You’re not planning on pouring that down the back of my shorts, are you?”

“The thought briefly crossed my mind,” Gwen replied as snottily as she could manage with the smirk threatening to emerge traitorously on her own face. She carefully removed her arm from his shoulders and cupped the coffee mug in both hands while Hank slipped both arms underneath her robe and around her waist. “Teach you better than to parade around in your underwear,” she told him, a decidedly naughty glint in her brown eyes.

“I like it when you threaten me,” Hank grinned, swooping in and stealing a kiss from her mouth before she even had time to protest. “Still mad at me, Babe? Can Daddy close his ‘fugee camp?” he asked, recalling Sara’s words of the night before.

“Yes and yes,” Gwen answered him, melting when he pulled out those damn puppy dog eyes of his and the pout their son, unfortunately, had inherited. “But just a little.”

“I can live with just a little,” Hank said. “Think of it as my last hurrah before the girls leave me in the fall.”

“Oh, Hank.” Love and pity warred within Gwen, and she leaned forward to plant a lingering kiss on his bittersweet smile, watchful of the steaming mug still cradled in her hands. “They’ll never really leave you; they adore you.”

“I know,” Hank mumbled against her mouth, returning her kiss with one of his own. “Who wouldn’t adore me?” he quipped. Forehead resting against hers, he pressed another kiss to the corner of her mouth. “Want to have some fun before you have to get ready for work?”

“Depends on what you’re suggesting,” Gwen bit her lip as she saw his brown eyes gravitate toward the subject of their now settled (more or less) argument. “Bennett, where are you going?” she asked when he released her abruptly, taking her coffee mug with him. “What on earth…”

“The hammer’s still around here somewhere.”



~*~*~*~*~


Abby woke to warm sunshine on her face, and Nick’s dark head resting lightly against the tiny bump of her pregnant belly, his gentle inhalations and exhalations tickling her bare skin. Sleepily, she noted, “You’re still here. Wherever here is.” Combing her fingers through his thick, dark strands, she turned her head to the side, squinting against the morning brightness to make out the alarm clock on her nightstand. She relaxed when she saw that it was still early. “I don’t remember coming to bed.”

“I carried you.” Each word spoken caused Nick’s lips to brush against her skin and Abby to subsequently shiver. “You were pretty out of it.”

“Out of it enough to forget you undressing me?” Abby smirked, resuming the absent movement of her hand through his hair. “What did you do to my shorts, Gray Eyes? I’m feeling a little naked here.”

Nick bit back a smile at her resulting groan when he dipped his fingertips below the waistband of her panties to rest them against her hip, deciding to play it cool. “Just what are you insinuating, Lady? That I took advantage of you?”

Saucily, Abby inquired, “Did you?”

Rolling fully over and bracing his elbows on either side of her hips, Nick rest his chin and his large hands low on her belly and lifted intense gray eyes to her face. “If I wanted you naked, you’d be naked.”

Abby swallowed hard, shifting her legs restlessly against the mattress and cursing herself when they made contact with his own gloriously bare, sun-warmed skin. “Maybe I would,” she huskily admitted. “That doesn’t give you the right to gloat about it.”

Her honesty made Nick chuckle, but he didn’t speak, content instead to study her in the golden glow of the sunlight.

Flustered, Abby grumbled, “What’s so damn interesting down there anyway?” Flinging an arm behind her tawny head, she missed the way Nick’s gray eyes darkened and the way his breathing seemed to grow uneven. In fact, by the time she returned her irritable gaze back to his handsome face, it was like he’d had no reaction at all, and his non-reaction made her hands itch to slap him, or at the very least pinch him for having the nerve not to be affected to their close proximity. She’d said no sex, and it appeared he was taking her request to heart. Why, then, did she feel such a suffocating feeling of disappointment? She opened her mouth to rail (unfairly) at him when he bent his head to her stomach, and started to…kiss it? “What the hell are you doing?”

Slight embarrassment coloring his cheeks, Nick shrugged as he sheepishly replied, “Saying good morning.”

“To the…” Abby bit her lip, sudden tears filling her hazel eyes. “To the baby?” Mortified at her emotional reaction at his slight nod, she covered her face with both hands, unable to stop a small sob from escaping her lips. She turned her head from side to side in a thwarted effort to avoid his concern when he shifted on the bed, crawling up her body and prying her hands away.

“What is it?” Nick whispered. “What did I do now?” Cupping his large hand around her jaw, he wouldn’t let her look away. His thumb caught one of her tears as it slipped down her cheek, and his gray eyes grew stormy at the thought of hurting her again, however unintentional. “Abby,” he breathed, dropping his forehead to her forehead. “What…” he began, only to be interrupted when she found her voice again.

“You do love it.” One of her hands found its way into his hair again, and other curled over his heart. He was so close that she could see the striations in his pale irises. He felt like an extension of her own body, and the thought scared her so much so that, against her will, she began to cry in earnest.

“It’s ours, Abby,” Nick followed the path of her tears with his lips, his body resting in the cradle of her thighs. “We created it, you and me. Why wouldn’t I?”

Because you don’t love me, Abby’s heart cried as she let herself be swept up in his comforting embrace, powerless to stop him. No matter his inability or reluctance to voice feelings of love for her, he loved their baby, and she found herself falling even harder for him than before.














Verdict?


At least half worth the wait?

LOL!

Not too happy with the first two sections (they were so much better in my head, hehe), but I particularly enjoyed writing Hank and Gwen this time.

What about you guys?

Any favorite parts?

Thanks, as always, for reading!!!

Here's hoping the continuation of the chapter won't be as long coming.
Shae

UAgirl
6.29.08, 7:29 PM
Hi all.

So sorry this is so late, but I've had some, er, difficulties with my internet connection in the last month. It's never been super-reliable, but it certainly hasn't been the best since a little incident with some lightning (eek!). Not to mention I've just returned from vacation so...yeah.

I'm sorry for the taking an eternity to post the remainder of the chapter; I hope you guys can forgive me.
Read on and (hopefully) enjoy.











Arms crossed in front of him on the kitchen counter, MJ stared silently ahead, his young face unsmiling. His feet dangled freely from his barstool perch, and from time to time, the muted sounds of his bare feet thudding against the wall could be heard over the sizzle and pop of the bacon frying on the stove top.

At the kitchen table, Harmony Herald opened in front of him while Grace finished with breakfast, Sam sat, a boy balanced on each leg, Kendall’s sandy head tucked sleepily beneath his chin with Joshua’s much darker head lolling against his opposite shoulder.

Setting a steaming plate of bacon and eggs in front of her husband, Grace reached over the paper’s edge to gently pry Joshua’s thumb from his mouth. “MJ,” she called over her shoulder. “Breakfast is ready.”

“I want to sit here,” MJ grumped, daring someone to protest. He scowled when no protest came and grunted in reply when the only reaction he received was a question about what kind of juice he wanted to drink with his breakfast. He knew neither Abby nor his mom would have let such behavior pass, neither would his grandma Grace if she didn’t feel so sorry for him and Joshua, and he couldn’t help it, even though he tried. In that second, he hated her just a little bit for not saying no. For not being Abby. For not being her. He glared at the plate set in front of him and picked up his fork to stab it into the eggs.

Pain flickered and retreated in Grace’s blue eyes, and she tried to smile as she lifted Joshua from Sam’s lap to place him in his booster seat. She took the seat beside the small boy and looked away when Sam sent a look of concern in her direction. With forced cheerfulness, she filled Joshua’s own fork with eggs, encouraging him to eat by making silly airplane sounds and waving the utensil in the air. When Joshua only stared at her with big, solemn brown eyes, lips not budging, Grace lowered the fork in defeat and began to pick at her own food.

Trying to lighten the overall somber mood, Sam made an announcement, “I almost forgot...Jessica called while you were out yesterday. She said if things work out, she, Reese, and the kids might sneak in a visit soon.” Unfortunately, his good intentions were overlooked in favor of his unintentional slight.

Dropping her fork to the table, Grace pushed her chair back from the table and stood. “Our daughter calls and you don’t even mention it to me. Sam,” she shook her head disappointedly.

Perplexed by her reaction, Sam merely frowned and sighed her name. “Grace.” When she started to pace restlessly through the kitchen, three pairs of young eyes watching her in worried confusion, he repeated her name in admonishment. “Grace.”

Stalling in front of MJ, Grace ignored Sam’s pleas and stared into her defiant young grandson’s face for a moment before hugging her arms around herself and leaving the kitchen.

Moving to follow her, Sam paused in indecision before electing to take Kendall with him. “Keep an eye on your brother.”

The hastily spoken request sounded more like a warning to MJ, and he grumbled but complied nonetheless as he slid from his lofty perch and plopped down into the chair directly across from Joshua.

Joshua merely stared back at him with sad eyes, plugging his small thumb back into his mouth while elsewhere in the house, the arguing voices escalated in volume and a door slammed with enough force to make MJ wince and cover his ears.

On the table before them, breakfast grew cold, forgotten as the morning hour stretched on.




~*~*~*~*~*~*~




Across town, Miguel lay on his back, Kay’s old pillow clutched to his chest in a desperate grip, and struggled to swallow over the golf ball-sized lump lodged in his throat at the realization that even the barest hints of her scent no longer clung stubbornly to the well-used item. Sunlight spilled in through the curtains he’d forgotten to pull closed the night before, lighting the path of the solitary tear he allowed to trek his stubble-lined cheek. Closing his eyes tightly against the unforgiving harshness of daylight, he rolled onto his side, forcing himself to take a deep if somewhat shaky breath. When he opened his eyes again, the rest of the bed, the side that she had always slept on, seemed to be an insurmountable expanse he couldn’t breach or even approach, and just for a moment he let himself wallow in the longing and loneliness that inevitably washed over him anew each morning in this moment, the moment he woke to find it wasn’t all a bad dream after all—the moment he realized this was his life now. Just for a moment, he promised himself. Then he would pull himself together again.

Not for the first time, he entertained the notion of buying a new bed, a smaller one that didn’t seem as empty.

Not for the first time, he quickly dismissed the idea and hauled himself out of bed to start the day.

In the shower, he picked up her ridiculous green loofah, even opened up the bottle of shampoo she’d barely used just to breathe in the scent, before he put them both back and let his hand close over his own bar of thick, white (boorrinnng, Kay had always teased) soap and absently lathered up a washcloth. He moved automatically and efficiently through the mundane task of bathing, and when he was finished, he stood before the bathroom mirror, navy towel knotted around his waist as he wiped at its fogged up surface with his fist, her chastising Miguel echoing in his ears.

Robotically, he shaved and brushed his teeth and soon enough, he was dressed and completing the chore he’d abandoned the night before with Katie’s unannounced visit. As he resumed picking up the toys the boys had left scattered all over the living room, he couldn’t help but remember the look on her face.

For the briefest of moments, Miguel let his thoughts linger on the tears she hadn’t been able to hide, and he found himself wondering again what troubled her so greatly, what secrets she found she couldn’t reveal to Noah.

Confused and alarmed by the extent of his own concern for Katie’s predicament, Miguel willfully abandoned that train of thought and walked into the kitchen, intent on accomplishing as much as he could with the boys still with Sam and Grace.

It was past time to start work on Kay’s list.




~*~*~*~*~*~*~




“Any luck locating our guy?” Luis stepped to the side, allowing an elderly woman to walk through the door he held open before making his own entrance.

Emitting a soft sigh of frustration, Noah followed Luis into Book Café, matching Luis’s nod to Beth before joining his boss at a table tucked into the far back of the establishment, away from any ears that might be listening. “I got nothing.”

Luis wore a disbelieving frown. “Nothing?”

“Nothing,” Noah repeated. “Neither does Quinlan. It’s like our guy just disappeared into thin air.”

Unconsciously, Luis nodded, accepting the coffee and muffin Beth delivered to him with a wordless smile.

Noah’s silver eyes widened appreciatively when a similar treat was bestowed upon him. “Thanks, Beth.” He blew gently on his coffee before taking a hearty gulp then attacked his bagel with a gusto that made the smile on Luis’s face morph into a grin.

Sharing a laugh with Beth, Luis teased Noah about Katie’s culinary skills, or apparent lack thereof.

“Watch it,” Noah warned with a twinkle in his eyes. “That’s my fiancée you’re talking about. Besides, we didn’t have time for breakfast.”

“Oh really? And why not?” Beth joined in on the good-natured teasing, disarming Noah enough to make him blush as Luis’s cell phone started to ring.

“I’m sure Katie didn’t mind.” Luis got in one more parting shot before leaving to answer the call.

Beth slipped into Luis’s vacated chair, elbows planted on the table in front of her as she shared a benign smile with Noah. “Wonder what that’s about?” she commented.

Noah shrugged, swallowing another mouth full of coffee before properly explaining himself. “What Luis said…it was just another long night on the job. None of our witnesses actually saw anything, and I barely got home before I had to leave again. That’s all I meant.”

Something in Beth’s smile changed, became more genuine, and she picked up the coffee pot to top off Noah’s mug as she stood up. “Relax, Noah. He was just teasing. So was I. That’s the thing about being happy. It makes you an easy target.”

Noah ducked his head sheepishly then grinned charmingly at her. “So I’m wearing a big bulls-eye, right here?” He jerked a thumb toward his forehead.

“Right there,” Beth agreed, glancing over her shoulder at Luis, beckoning his young rookie from the open doorway. To Noah, she commented, “Looks like duty calls. Have Julie pack that up for you before you go,” Beth indicated his unfinished breakfast. “It’ll take two seconds.”

“Thanks, Beth,” Noah voiced his appreciation in lieu of goodbye.

Beth watched them both go, her fingers tightened painfully around the coffee pot’s handle, hoping a reversal of their fortune was still a ways off.


~*~*~*~*~*~



“Are you a bad man, Mr. Tony?”

Her eyes, when she asked the question, were hidden behind a veil of tangled tawny hair, and her small fingers picked and pulled at the muffin that made up her breakfast. Only her voice sold the question for what it was, a question borne out of innocence, and he took his time answering her. Finally, he settled on an appropriate approximation of the truth. “Some people might say I am.”

The chocolate eyes that stared back at him thankfully held no judgment.

“What do you think, Alyssa?”

Tucking her knees beneath her, she planted her elbows on the coffee table and seemed to study him for a moment as if considering him.

He released a deep breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding in, feeling like he’d passed a test of sorts, at her answer.

“I think you’re a good man. Just misunderstood.”

A rich laugh vibrated beneath his breastbone as he watched her cram the remainder of her muffin into her mouth and reach, wide-eyed, for the milk Beth had brought for her to drink. “Anybody ever tell you not to bite off more than you can chew?”

Coughing and sputtering after taking a generous gulp, Lissy nodded, oblivious to the white milk mustache that lingered on her upper lip. “All the time.” Twirling a long strand of tawny hair around her index finger, she regarded him with a mischievous twinkle in her dark eyes. “But I never listen,” she shrugged semi-apologetically. For several seconds, she regarded him across the coffee table that separated them before reminding him, “You never did answer my question.”

She was sharp; he had to give her that. And not as easily distracted as he’d hoped. Still, he had to give it one last try. Wiping his thumb across his own lip, he said, “You’ve got something…yeah…right there.” A toothy grin stole traitorously across his face as he watched her first search futilely for a napkin, then wipe her lip off with the back of her hand.

“Did I get it?” Nose scrunched and lips pushed out in a pout, she demanded a straight answer. “Maybe you’re not so misunderstood, after all,” she muttered under her breath, slumping back against the back of the sofa and crossing her arms over her now updrawn knees. She rolled her eyes at him. “If you think I’m going to forget just because I’m a kid…”

“I don’t think that at all.”

“You’re hoping though,” Lissy accused. “Why? Why does it matter?”

“Let’s just say…those same people, the ones that think I’m a bad man, won’t be throwing me any welcome home parties.”








So...not super long, but I hope it was somewhat entertaining nonetheless. I admit, I find it one of my more *gasp* boring chapters, but I'm building here, and unfortunately, I seem to be building brick by brick.


That Bennett bunch + Miguelito are still taking Kay's death pretty hard, huh?

How long do you think it'll take Luis and Noah to figure out Beth's just a little too interested in the *failure* of their investigation?

What about Tony and Lissy? Like Ali, I thought it was time to start giving Lissy back her spunk. ;)

Thoughts, comments, questions?
Thanks for reading!!!

UAgirl
9.15.08, 4:57 PM
*ducks and tries to hide then waves sheepishly*


Hi.

I'm back--after a lengthy absence that I cannot possibly defend, but the gist of it is this: work, work, work, vacation, more work, the Olympics that ate my brain in-between work, writer's block, lack of inspiration, work, computer problems, bad weather, and more work.

So...didja miss me?

;)

I (selfishly) hope so.

Well, this is a new chapter. It's a pretty long chapter, and I actually had ideas to make it longer, but now I can't make up my mind whether to pick up with 31 part B or just plow ahead to 32.

We'll see what I decide.
Until then, enjoy.

















Chapter 31




“Miguel!”

Simone’s voice, so near, startled Miguel, and he grimaced as he pushed himself up on one elbow, craning his neck around the open cabinet door to track her progress and swiping a hand across his brow.

“Sorry,” came Simone’s sheepish reply. Biting her lip, she held up a white bag in apology. “I brought you breakfast.” Fidgeting in place for a moment, she thrust the peace offering at him. “Last muffin,” she told him, her large, dark eyes shying away from his naked torso. “So,” she glanced around at the kitchen, as if noticing, for the first time, its utter and perfect stillness, “where are the boys?”

Groaning as he pushed himself to a sitting position, Miguel let himself lean against the cabinet frame for a second to lament an opportunity lost; it seemed his brief stint as a plumber was over before it really began. He couldn’t rightly say he felt any real disappointment at the thought. “Over at the Bennett’s.” With a quiet sigh, he climbed to his feet, dusting off the seat of his pants before taking the bag from Simone’s hands. “Thanks,” he smiled, waving a hand at the kitchen table. “What about you? Get you anything?”

Simone only shook her head, taking the seat Miguel offered her without a word and dropping down into it with a sigh. The smile she offered Miguel wavered when she met then looked quickly away from his eyes. “No. No, I’m interrupting. You were busy. I should go and let you…” she trailed off at the slightly awkward touch of his hand on her arm.

It was in that moment Miguel realized, to his complete dismay, that her eyes had filled with tears. “Simone…it’s okay. You’re not interrupting. Not really. If I made you feel…”

“No!” Simone grasped the hand that he tried to withdraw, squeezing it in hers. “No,” she repeated more softly, tears spilling silently from her eyes. “You didn’t do this. It’s not your fault. It’s just…I woke up this morning, and…” She looked down, seeming to lose her train of thought as she studied their interlocked hands. “I woke up this morning, Miguel, and I realized something I think I was ignoring before.”

“What? What did you realize?” Miguel gently prodded when it seemed she would say no more, only to watch her slowly begin to crumble before his disbelieving eyes.

“Just how much I still miss her.”




~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“You’re gonna get me fired, you know.”

“Me?” Nick’s lips quirked. “How am I going to get you fired?” Casually leaning a shoulder against the tree that cast shadows across this edge of the rippling pond, he smirked as he watched her toss the remainder of the bread crumbs at their overzealous little feathered friends.

Hazel eyes rolled at him, and Abby lifted her tawny hair from her shoulders then dropped it back down again. Eyeing him with suspicion, she cocked her head to the side as if considering a puzzle, a Nick-shaped puzzle, and commented, “Forget about me for a moment. Don’t you need to be at work?”

Praying she couldn’t read the truth in his eyes or notice the way his shoulders tensed before he forcibly relaxed them, Nick shrugged and answered as nonchalantly as he could manage. “I was due a day off.”

One tawny brow lifted incredulously, and Abby scoffed. “And this is how you want to spend it? You’re no Ferris.” She started to walk away from him when one large hand settled low on her hip, and seconds later, she was reeled in by his fingers tugging on the belt loops of her shorts. Hands resting against the hard plane of his chest, her eyes snapped to his in surprise, and she huffed in annoyance at the stubborn strand of hair spilling into her eyes with his abrupt maneuver.

Nick tenderly swept her hair behind her ear, letting his fingertips linger on her face, and his voice dropped to a low whisper, his other hand claiming the small of her back and hauling her even closer to him. “I think we both know where I’d prefer to be right now.”

Abby’s blood sang in her veins as he captured her mouth with his own in a kiss of seductive possession that left her clinging to his neck with both arms and panting when it was over. “What are you trying to do?” she tunneled her hands through the dark hair at the nape of his neck, searching his gray eyes questioningly. “Get us arrested for public indecency?” Reluctantly, she peeled herself away from him and stepped back on wobbly legs, unaware that a million different emotions were broadcasting themselves on her face at that moment and in eyes flecked with gold. Finally trusting that her breathing was under control, she inwardly cursed the throaty quality of her voice when she called him out on his little stunt. “What was that? I thought we had a deal.”

“That?” Nick couldn’t quite tamp down his smirk no matter how hard he tried. “Lady, last I checked that was just a harmless kiss.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“Pilar,” Sheridan chastised, gently prying one of Hope’s tiny sleepers from the older woman’s hands and placing it back on top of the laundry piled in the basket beside the coffee table, waiting to be folded. “You don’t have to do that.” Gesturing to the sunny day outside where Ali and Cristian were keeping Paloma entertained, Sheridan smiled. “It’s a beautiful day. I think we should join them.” Slipping her arm through Pilar’s own, she maneuvered them toward the door with a laugh. “They’ll still be here when we get back. Unfortunately.” The smile on Sheridan’s lips stretched ever wider when Pilar joined in her laughter and allowed herself to fall into step beside her.

Outside, Ali and Cristian attempted to pass a soccer ball back and forth: attempted because Max wouldn’t be ignored and from the first moment the ball had appeared, had insinuated himself into the children’s game.

From a blanket spread out beneath the looming shade of the tree house, Paloma kept one eye on the comedy of errors while tugging playfully at one of Hope’s wiggling toes. Bending to place noisy kisses on the soles of the tiny feet, Paloma delighted in her niece’s easy smile, straightening and glancing at Sheridan when she lowered herself to the blanket beside her. “That smile,” she marveled with a touch of humor in her voice, “is going to give my brother many gray hairs in his lifetime.”

“It already is,” Sheridan declared.

The pair soon found their eyes drawn back to the raucous game before them, and neither was surprised to find Pilar acting as referee.

“All she needs is a whistle,” Sheridan quipped.

Mi hermana,” Paloma laughed, as her mother sternly but affectionately scolded Max and delivered the ball back to her young grandson, “I do not think Mama needs a whistle.”

“Okay,” Sheridan couldn’t help but laugh herself. “Maybe I’m the one that needs a whistle. Happy now?” she grinned, nudging her shoulder against Paloma’s own before being distracted from Paloma’s positive answer by her exuberant little son.

“Mommy!” called Cristian. “Look at me!”

Scooping her tiny daughter into her arms, Sheridan directed Hope’s bright blue gaze toward her big brother, proudly displaying his soccer skills, much to everyone’s amusement. “Wanna clap for Cristian?” Covering each tiny, chubby hand with her own, Sheridan brought them together, causing Hope to gurgle happily. “Let’s clap for Cristian. Yay, Cristian!” she cheered.

Watching her young nephew flush with pleasure when she, Mama, and even Ali joined in the cheers and basking in the glow of Sheridan’s joy in the company of her children, Paloma was overcome with a sense of peace she’d been searching for since coming home. She was happy, and she wasn’t willing to give that feeling up anytime soon.


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“Sorry, Whit,” Theresa apologized breezily, reappearing at her side as if she had never left. “Monique wanted my input on a few things.”

“Monique?” Removing her gaze from the impressive floor to ceiling windows that lined the studio and focusing it on her energetic best friend’s expressive face, Whitney furrowed her brow in concentration as she attempted to recall why the name was vaguely familiar to her.

“From the Boston store,” Theresa supplied helpfully.

“Right,” Whitney nodded, smiling as she remembered the brief meeting she had had with the likable young woman, one of Theresa’s most trusted employees—and fast-made friends—over the years that she’d made her home elsewhere. “Is everything okay?”

Theresa warded off Whitney’s worry with a beaming smile. “Everything’s fine.” Grabbing Whitney’s hands in her own, she gave them an enthusiastic, grateful squeeze. “I’m so glad you came.”

“Why wouldn’t I?” Whitney asked, letting herself be drawn into the center of the studio where Theresa seemed to root her feet upon the ground and scan her surroundings in consideration. Whitney followed Theresa’s example and glanced around the spacious area. “So,” she blew out a breath. “Theresa,” she prodded gently. “What are we looking at?”

Theresa, for her part, seemed to be lost in a pleasant daydream, a soft smile flitting across her lips as her brown eyes positively danced. “Can you hear it, Whit?”

Stifling a groan as she felt warning bells start to sound inside her brain, Whitney was outwardly a paragon of patience, waiting for the big reveal of whatever grand plans her best friend had for this place. Theresa didn’t disappoint, though her answer was somewhat cryptic.

“The music.”

“The music? Theresa, honey, I’m not following.” The furrow on Whitney’s brow deepened, and she cast another searching glance around the large room. “I thought we were going to make some alterations to my dress, not…” Changing tactics when she realized she had regained Theresa’s full attention, Whitney decided the direct approach was best, especially when that smile, the one that said you just don’t get it, do you, was on Theresa’s face. “Okay. Tell me about the music.”

That’s exactly what Theresa did—for the better part of an hour.




~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



One look into his brother’s stormy blue eyes, and Hank was relinquishing his hammer. “Here,” he settled the heavy weight in Sam’s palm. “It’s therapeutic.” Glancing around at the assortment of tools that were the sum total of his home improvement experience, he spotted another, smaller hammer and wielded it as his replacement. “Looks like you need it more than me.”

Sam’s smile looked more like a grimace as he replied. “Thanks.”

“So,” Hank ventured sometime later, after the frustration level in the room had dialed down a notch and the noise of their labored breathing roared in their own ears. “Tough day?”

“Tough year,” Sam grunted, placing another satisfying blow to the crumbling wall.

“Tough year,” Hank echoed his brother’s sentiment in agreement, his keen eyes taking in the new lines around Sam’s blue eyes and the dour set of his jaw. Really tough year, he thought to himself, his own enthusiasm for the job at hand waning, much as Gwen’s then the kids’ had earlier that morning. The hole, once easily if not conspicuously disguised with Bec’s ugly pig picture, was not so easy to dismiss now, and the reality of diving directly into the deep end to drive the much-needed change forward was looking more daunting than it had the day before. Still, Hank wouldn’t back down from the challenge; after all, it was a trait he’d learned from his big brother. Squinting at the sunlight streaming in through the dismantled wall, he hoped Sam would get his deeper meaning when he spoke. “Might not seem like it now, but things are going to look better.” Placing a firm hand on Sam’s shoulder, Hank tossed a look over his shoulder. “Got a couple of cold ones in the fridge.”

“Hank,” the corners of Sam’s mouth twitched into a real smile, “it’s not even lunch.”

Shrugging, Hank merely grinned. “How’s that song go?”

Sam rolled his eyes. “Which one?”

“You know the one I’m talking about,” Hank gamely insisted.

“Don’t you have T-ball practice?”

“That’s tomorrow,” Hank rebutted. “What’s the matter, Sammy? Scared?”

“Hank,” Sam leveled a stare at him, blue eyes unflinching with only the hint of a twinkle in them.

“Yeah?”

“Shut up.”

“It’s five o’clock somewhere.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Letting herself into the Bennett home when her knock went unanswered, Eve held a hand to her chest in surprise when she noticed the small boy seated on the sofa, the controller to a video game clenched in his fists. “Hi, MJ,” Eve greeted with a kind smile that garnered little if any response. “I’m here to see Gra…your grandma,” she corrected herself hastily. “Is she around?”

MJ shrugged in answer, his demeanor sullen, his fingers never stopping their flight over the controller.

“Okay,” Eve answered herself. “I’m just going to go on up and see if she’s in her room.”

MJ’s response was a non-response, his dark eyes were glued resolutely to the television screen in front of him, and he gave no indication of hearing or caring what Eve said.

Eve resisted any further urges to engage the little boy and crossed the living room to the staircase, where she followed the racket she was surprised she hadn’t noticed earlier. “Grace?” she called out when she stood at the top of the stairs. Using the noise as her guide, she soon found herself outside of the girls’ old bedroom. Peering around the doorframe, she quickly discovered the source of the sounds.

In the middle of the floor, on hands and knees, Joshua and Kendall had, it seemed, uncovered Noah’s boyhood stash of cars and fire trucks and trains, complete with bells and whistles and sirens.

It was, Eve decided, the most animated and boisterous she had seen either boy to date, and it brought a smile to her face even as her ears protested the assault. Lowering herself quietly onto one of the twin beds, she watched them, unnoticed, for several minutes until she realized something wasn’t quite right with the picture. Something, or someone, rather, was missing. Glancing around the room, she frowned at the discovery of Grace’s absence. It wasn’t like her to leave a child unattended, especially of such a young age. Standing and carefully circumnavigating the boys’ area of play, Eve let her eyes do another, more thorough perusal of her surroundings, and it was only then that she noticed something she hadn’t before: the girls’ closet door was slightly ajar, a sliver of light spilling out. With a tentative hand, she reached out and grasped the handle, her voice soft. “Grace?”

Knees updrawn and arms woven tightly around a pink and purple scrapbook, Grace stared back at her wordlessly, tears silently spilling down her cheeks.

Moving into the small space to pull her friend into her comforting arms, Eve could barely force words out of her own, tear-tightened throat. “Oh, Grace.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~




Though the years of imposed exile (both self and not) had changed him, Martin had to concede the Crane Mansion itself hadn’t changed much, not in his estimation anyway.

There still lurked the invisible specter of evil. The stain of Alistair Crane wouldn’t be washed out.

Force of habit kept all of Martin’s senses on high alert as he followed the young maid through the winding, ornate corridors. His mind’s eye showed him the ghosts of their youthful pasts behind the numerous closed doors. When he was deposited at the Solarium, muscle memory carried him through the entryway. He kept his expression blank as he greeted her before she could acknowledge him. “Mrs. Crane.”

Rising from her seat, Ivy addressed him with the more familiar, “Martin.” She clasped her hands together before extending them and offering him a seat, no matter how fruitless she knew the gesture to be. “Won’t you sit?”

“I’m not planning on staying long,” Martin answered tensely.

“Oh.” Ivy’s normal eloquence deserted her as the (admittedly) tight smile she had worn upon his arrival morphed into a deep frown. “Is there something I can do for you, Martin? Something you want?”

“Not for me,” Martin leveled his gaze on her. “For my wife. My daughter. My granddaughter. You claim to care for them, as friends and family.”

Ali’s innocent face sprung to mind, and Ivy’s reply rang with the truth of her genuine affection for the little girl. “I do. Martin,” she queried, “what is this about?”

“Don’t stand in his way,” Martin’s plea was fervent.

Turning from him, Ivy proclaimed, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s ridiculous to think…” She knew he remained unconvinced when next he spoke.

“We both know what I’m talking about, Ivy.”

Her given name crossing his lips compelled her to face him, to be honest and forthright. “I’m not the one that drove him away, Martin.”

“Maybe not,” Martin conceded as he turned to leave. “But protecting your own interests hasn’t helped bring him home to his mother either. Think about the woman you call friend and wonder would she do the same if she were in your position.” He held up a staying hand when it appeared she would follow. “I’ll see myself out. Place hasn’t changed all that much.”

His words still resonating within her, Ivy could only watch him go.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



It was nearing noon, and he was being subjected to a round of twenty questions by one helluva tenacious little girl. Currently, they were discussing the merits of being a spy versus a police officer, in part due to the question posed to him some fifteen minutes ago.

“Are you a spy like in the movies, Mr. Tony?”

“What movies you been watchin’, kid?” Before the question was fully out of his mouth, he decided he didn’t want to know. Deeply disturbed at the thought she had seen any of the James Bond flicks, he tried to change the subject, but only succeeded halfway because the next thing that came out of her pouty little motor mouth almost floored him. It didn’t exactly compute with the Hank Bennett he remembered.

“Jake Bennett says his dad used to be a spy before he married his mom, but I don’t believe him.”

Part of him wanted to ask her why not, but it had already been too long of a day. Instead, he looked directly into her enormous chocolate eyes and reminded her of her father. “Shouldn’t you go home?”

Lissy, of course, had a perfectly reasonable answer ready for him. “He’s at work. Ms. Beth let me call him.”

“And where does he think you are?”

“With Ali at the Youth Center,” Lissy shrugged, flipping through the channels of the television boredly for a moment before fixing her unflinching gaze back on him.

Groaning, he tried to get her on the defensive, but she proved to be unflappable, the previous night’s lapse seemingly just that. “You shouldn’t lie to your father.”

Twirling a strand of her long tawny hair around her finger, Lissy bit her lip. “Well…I didn’t. Not exactly. I am going to the Youth Center with Ali. Just not yet.”

He watched, fascinated, as she began to curl and contort her legs beneath her. The stray thought that she reminded him of a tiny human pretzel reminded him just how long this had gone on—long enough for him to grow hungry again. Her next question, though, caused a different kind of gnawing sensation in his gut.

“How do you know Ali’s dad?”

“We grew up together,” he answered. In the same house, in the same room, he silently added. Impatiently, he went on the offensive, this time asking her a question, although it wasn’t a very polite one. “Do you always talk this much?” The answer she gave him, glib in a way he wasn’t used to seeing in a child, still made guilt settle low in his belly.

“Only to people I like.”

Deciding to play her little game—hell, it wasn’t like he had anything better to do at the moment—he quizzed, “Got any brothers or sisters?”

Shaking her head, Lissy replied in the negative and turned the question back onto him. “You?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah,” Lissy rolled her eyes. “Is that all you’re going to say?”

He couldn’t help but grin. “Have some respect for your elders, Alyssa.”

“At least tell me which one,” Lissy whined.

He relented because okay, the kid was cute. That and he couldn’t wipe the memory of her frightened tears of the night before from his mind.“Both.” Rubbing a hand over his face tiredly, he grumbled, “Are we about finished here?”

“Just one more, I promise,” Lissy said, uncurling her limbs and standing to stretch.

“Okay,” he reluctantly assented. “Shoot.”

“What about kids?”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“Sometimes I can’t remember the sound of her voice,” Simone admitted. “I have this voicemail…saved on my cell phone…that she left me, and all she says is Call me back, but I play it, over and over again, just to hear her again.”

Beside her on the sofa, knee brushing against hers, Miguel made an admission of his own. “I used to use my cell phone to call the house just so I could listen to her on the answering machine.” With a grimace of a smile, he reminded her that he no longer used that answering machine.

“I catch myself wanting to call her all the time,” Simone sniffled. “Just to ask her opinion on stuff.” Out of the corner of her eyes, she noticed Miguel was nodding, and she twisted in her seat, studying his profile. With a pang she realized the youthfulness he had always exuded so easily had all but disappeared. He looked older in a way that saddened her, so she made one last attempt to change the topic to something more positive. “Theresa offered me a job.”

“At the store?”

Simone nodded, discreetly brushing a tear from her cheek.

“You should take it,” Miguel encouraged. “If it’s what you want.”

“I’m thinking about it,” she murmured. “I want to stay. I need to stay, you know. I can’t explain it, but I do.”

“Because it’s home?” Miguel suggested.

That made sense, but Simone knew it wasn’t the primary reason, the reason that kept her here, that kept him tied to this house, and she told him so. “Because it’s where all our memories are.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“Finished playing with other people’s children?” Abby smirked, not bothering to hide the approval in her hazel eyes as she watched Nick’s approach.

Grasping the chains to the swing she sat in, Nick gave them a playful tug and shot her a smirk of his own. “Hey, I offered to push you first.”

“And deprive you of your fun?” Abby teased, digging her heels in the sand and grinning up at him. “We don’t have to play this game of Rent-a-Kid. There are people out there that actually pay you to play with their kids. You might have heard of it. It’s called babysitting. Get this…some even let you do it for free.”

Nick’s gray eyes twinkled at her as he yanked the chains toward him, causing her to squeal in indignation and surprise. “Smartass.”

Laughing, Abby let him pull her to her feet and wrap his arms around her waist.

“No money exchanged hands,” Nick defended himself. Backing up, he lowered himself into the swing next to Abby’s vacated swing, his arms still holding her loosely. His large hands cupped her hips, his thumbs brushing against the hint of skin bared between her tank top and shorts. “I don’t know. Girls just seem to like me.”

Rolling her eyes at him, Abby fought the uncontrollable shiver his touch aroused and braced her hands on his broad shoulders. “Sure they do.” That was exactly why they were in this mess.

Gray eyes dancing, Nick tugged her closer, upsetting her equilibrium and making her wrap her arms around his neck. “Wanna swing, little girl?”

Playing along, Abby settled awkwardly in his lap, holding on tight when he sent them into motion. She held on, even when it became obvious they were making a spectacle of themselves, and by the time they slowed to a stop, she had her face buried in the crook of his neck and she was shaking with laughter. “Don’t let go,” she warned between helpless bouts. “I’m slipping!”

Hand in her hair, Nick made a promise he had no intention of breaking, no matter the tough road he knew lay ahead of them. “I won’t.”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



“You want to turn this place into a dance studio?” As she asked the question, Whitney smoothed her hands over the skirt of the dress she was currently modeling for Theresa, the dress that—in a few short months’ time—she would wear as Theresa’s maid of honor.

Taking the pencil from between her teeth, Theresa nodded in the affirmative as she scribbled a note on the notepad in her left hand and nudged Whitney to do a half turn. “Whitney,” she scolded, the frown on her face easily imaginable given her tone, “have you been eating at all?” Walking around to face Whitney, she crossed her arms across her middle and dived right into a lecture that was becoming commonplace over the course of the last few weeks. “It needs taken in again, Ms. Work-a-holic. You should know better, Doctor Russell.”

Whitney’s rebuttal was quick but half-hearted. “For your information, I do eat. When I have the time,” she added under Theresa’s intense glare. Steering the subject away from herself, she interrupted any retort Theresa might have by saying, “What does Sheridan have to say about all of this?” When Theresa ducked her head sheepishly, Whitney’s eyes widened. “Theresa! Sheridan doesn’t know, does she?”

“Not yet,” Theresa hedged. “But she will. Whitney, she will. I know she’s busy right now…”

“Don’t you think that’s an understatement?” Whitney questioned gently. “I think she needs time to catch her breath, don’t you?” Watching Theresa deflate before her very eyes, Whitney placed a friendly arm around her shoulders and spoke to her softly. “Maybe she’s not the only one.”

Theresa’s smile fell completely away, and her large brown eyes avoided Whitney’s intent gaze, looking instead ahead, out of the towering windows and to the buildings and street below.

“Theresa, honey…are you getting cold feet?”



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



But for the hum of the refrigerator and the steady, nervous shuffling of Ali’s feet, the kitchen was quiet, lunch at the Lopez-Fitzgerald house well over and Cristian half-way across town by now en route to his grandmother’s home with said grandmother and Paloma. The baby monitor positioned on the kitchen counter assured Sheridan that Hope was sleeping soundly in her nursery, and the absence of Max’s excited barking meant Miss Priss was taking it easy on the pooch for the time being. All in all, all was well, and unnaturally quiet.

At least until Ali’s exasperation got the better of her, and she blurted, “Mom!”

Startled, Sheridan nonetheless faced Ali with a smile. “Congratulations, Sweetie. You passed.” Her smile grew at the way the tension seemed to drain out of her young daughter. “But it’s just the first test.” The gentle reminder didn’t do much to sober Ali’s good mood; she seemed to actually welcome it as a challenge, and Sheridan felt her heart swell with pride. “We’ll have Daddy check your math tonight. Why don’t you go take a break before we go to the Youth Center?” she suggested. “Hope won’t sleep much longer.”

Ali was out of her seat, throwing her arms around Sheridan’s neck in a quick but fierce hug, and on her way to her room in just seconds. “Mom,” she poked her blond head back around the kitchen doorway before disappearing.

“Yeah?” Sheridan swiveled around in her chair to face her.

“Lissy wants me to spend the night with her tomorrow. Can I call her and tell her you said yes?” Ali bit her lip before smiling hopefully.

“We’ll see,” Sheridan answered, stacking and organizing Ali’s schoolwork in front of her and closing the laptop that kept them in constant touch with Ms. Kinsay. “Peek in on your sister, ‘kay? I have some paperwork to look over before we leave.”

“I will,” Ali promised. “Love you, Mom.”

“Love you,” Sheridan echoed, standing up and rubbing the back of her neck where the muscles were knotted with tension. She chewed on her bottom lip in thought for a moment before crossing to the kitchen counter and placing the papers and the computer beside Hope’s monitor. With a glance over her shoulder—that made her feel silly and secretive and irrationally guilty—she checked to make sure she was alone, and when she was positive that she was, she retrieved the files Gwen had procured for her from Ali’s backpack, telling herself a little curiosity wasn’t a bad thing. Even if Luis thought otherwise, and his warnings seemed to taunt her as she skimmed through the files’ pages.

It was curiosity that killed the cat.













Thanks for reading!!!


Feedback is much loved (and pretty much the only thing that keeps me plugging along with these stories no matter how much I love the characters still).

Thoughts, comments, questions?

Favorite parts or characters?
I'm dying to know. ;)

UAgirl
12.1.08, 1:54 AM
Chapter 32





Scrubbing his hands over his face, Sam groaned when the rough action seemed to further aggravate his too-sensitive nerve endings and peered critically at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. The dark circles and deep lines etched in his face made him look haggard, like the years had caught up with him and passed him by, and the smile he tried to force physically hurt to achieve. Sighing, he abandoned the effort, and began to dry his hands on the hand towel, internally berating himself for his behavior the previous day. If his skull felt like it were splitting apart slowly and agonizingly, he had only himself to blame, Hank’s involvement notwithstanding. He winced at the heavy scrape of glass across the counter and looked up to find Grace’s blue eyes on him.

Taking one of Sam’s large hands between her own, Grace deposited a couple of aspirin in his palm. Without a word, she reached around him to straighten the crooked hand towel and tidy up the already immaculate space.

If she felt his eyes upon her, she gave no indication, and Sam used the opportunity to study her, to really look at her

The terry robe that had always been a bit big on her now practically swallowed her thin frame whole. Her pale skin seemed almost transparent. Her normally auburn hair was a limpid, dull strawberry. And her eyes…it appeared the sadness in her tear-swollen blue eyes had staked a permanent claim.

Sam felt a well-spring of protectiveness wash over him and her name scraped past his lips hoarsely and full of emotion. “Grace,” he curled his fingers around her frail wrist. “Grace,” he repeated, feeling moisture sting his eyes as he remembered the night previous, when they’d lain in bed, beside each other but not touching, unable it seemed to offer comfort or be comforted. She stared at him silently, but Sam could feel her fluttering pulse quicken beneath his fingertips, and he sought the courage to find the right words as he enclosed her other wrist within his hand and pulled her close. He settled for an all-encompassing apology that felt trite falling from his lips. “I’m sorry.”

Pressing her lips together to keep them from trembling, Grace twined her fingers through those of her husband and squeezed hard. Tears filling her eyes, she stepped into his waiting embrace and rest her cheek against his cotton-covered shoulder. She’d thought there were supposed to be good days and bad days, but lately, all she’d had were bad days and even worse days where she felt like an imposter in her own life, lying to her husband and children, pretending for her grandchildren’s sake that everything was fine when it wasn’t. That was before; this was the after. Feeling the fleeting pressure of his kiss against the top of her head, she voiced a scary admission. ““There’s this awful, growing emptiness inside of me, Sam. I’m not sure I can find my way out of it.”

“Then take my hand,” Sam answered, kissing her knuckles then her tear-stained cheeks and mouth when she lifted her face. “We’ll find our way back together,” he promised, wrapping her up in a fierce hug.




~*~




“How’d she do?” Sheridan asked when she noticed Luis place Ali’s math homework behind a magnet on the refrigerator. Turning her attention back to the eggs in the skillet in front of her, she caught Cristian sticking his finger into his mouth out of the corner of her eye. “I told you it’d burn if you didn’t wait for it to cool off.” Hiding a smirk at Cristian’s apparent surprise at being caught, she advised, “Let Daddy finish the toast. You can set the table.”

“Just missed one,” Luis picked up their earlier thread of conversation after opening the kitchen cabinet and carefully handing Cristian a stack full of plates. Jokingly, he teased, “Sure you don’t want me to scramble the eggs instead?”

"No shells,” Sheridan smirked. “Promise.”

Presenting a platter for her to spoon the eggs into a minute later, Luis remarked, “Forgive me. It’s not everyday I’m treated to your famous scrambled eggs and toast. Something you want to tell me?”

Remembering the files once again tucked safely within Ali’s backpack, Sheridan tensed momentarily before realizing Luis’s attention had already strayed elsewhere, to their newly awakened daughter crying in her nursery.

Turning the baby monitor off, Luis called over his shoulder, “Hold that thought.”

“Where’s Ali?” Sheridan quizzed Cristian, placing the food-laden platter in the middle of the kitchen table before crossing back to the cabinets to withdraw glasses from within.

"I dunno,” Cristian shrugged, nudging Gizmo aside as he took a seat at the table and folded his small hands on its surface. His large brown eyes tracked his mother’s progress across the kitchen, and they lit up with the appearance of the aforementioned sister. “There she is!” he pointed.

“Going somewhere, Alicat?” Luis commented on the bulging pink duffel bag hanging from her slender shoulder and the pillow she hugged to her chest.

“Mom,” Ali’s blue eyes stared at her accusingly.

"Ah,” Luis raised a brow at Sheridan as he transferred their wiggling daughter into her waiting arms. “It all makes perfect sense now. And here I thought you were making me breakfast because you loved me.”

“To distraction,” Sheridan quipped with utmost sincerity before kissing him soundly.

“Speaking of distraction,” Luis chuckled, looking from her to Ali and back.

"Ali,” Sheridan busied herself with straightening Luis’s collar, one-handed, “is spending the night with Lissy. I’m dropping her off after T-ball practice.”

"But Mom,” Ali protested.

“After T-ball practice,” Sheridan reiterated, pausing to kiss Hope’s clumsily waved little hand as it batted at her chin. “Lissy’s dad won’t be home from work before then anyway. Now put your things away so we can eat breakfast with Daddy.”

“You didn’t mention anything about this last night,” Luis said under his breath, frowning slightly.

“You had a late night,” Sheridan answered easily. “Besides, she’s spent the night with Lissy before, and you didn’t have a problem with it,” she reminded him. “Do you have a problem with it now, Luis?” she whispered in a low voice as Ali disappeared from the kitchen only to return momentarily sans her pillow and duffel bag.

Luis didn’t answer her. His sole attention was on their eldest daughter.

"We still have school work to catch up on before we go to the Youth Center, then T-ball practice. I told you all this yesterday, Ali, before I said yes,” Sheridan handily recapped their conversation, seating herself and Hope at the table. “And you know your father has to say yes, too.”

With a disappointed sigh, Ali slumped into the chair beside Cristian and crossed her arms over her middle. She only perked up when her father grabbed her by the shoulders and kissed her loudly on both cheeks.

“You’re so pretty when you pout, Alicat,” Luis teased, ruffling the soft, wispy blond curls atop her head.

“Daddy,” Ali couldn’t help giggling, righting herself and patting her hair back in place. “I can go to Lissy’s then?”

“You can go,” Luis consented. “But I want you to be on your best behavior, and I want you to take your mom’s cell phone so you can call us if you need anything.”

“Daddy,” Ali rolled her eyes.

“Luis,” Sheridan chastised.

"Fine,” Luis shrugged, taking a seat himself. “She can take mine. I still want her to call us if…”

“She’ll take my cell phone,” Sheridan said. “She won’t need it, but she’ll have it.” Pushing her glass of juice out of Hope’s reach just before the baby’s uncoordinated movements managed to topple it, she looked to Cristian, resting his chin on his clasped hands. “Cristian, it’s your turn to say grace.”

Just like that, the disagreement was settled. For the time being anyway.




~*~


"Would you have any objection if I ditched this damned thing for the duration of this pregnancy?” Abby grumbled as she entered the living room, topless except for the offending article of clothing she clasped against her chest.

Nick bit back a smile when she came to a stop in front of him, presenting him with her naked back and sweeping her long tawny hair over her shoulder to give him an unobstructed view. “But I like this one,” he teased, deftly fastening the clasps that held the scrap of maroon silk and lace together and moving his palms up and over her shoulders. Sweeping her hair back over her shoulders so that it trailed down her back, he lowered his lips to her temple and murmured, “In fact, I think it might be one of my favorites.”

Her legs threatening to turn into jello, Abby pushed herself away from his solid presence behind her and turned to face him, her fingers busily working with the drawstring of her scrub pants. “Then you wear it,” she challenged, drawing her bottom lip between her teeth in frustration at the realization that her pants were just a bit more snug than they were the week before. “It hurts,” she whined, unconsciously bringing her hands up to cup her breasts. “They didn’t feel this big and sore before,” she muttered, belatedly blushing when she felt the heat of his avid stare. “Stop ogling me,” she rolled her hazel eyes at the smirk he didn’t care to hide. “Jeez.”

“I saw that smile,” Nick accused with a grin as she walked away from him, disappearing into the bedroom. “The lady doth protest too much.” When she returned just moments later, tawny hair pulled high in a messy ponytail and donning a form-fitting scrub top, he whistled at her and held out his hand.

Abby placed her palm in his and allowed him to entangle their fingers. “Enough with the catcalls,” she said. “I know I’m one hot mama.”

"A modest one at that.” Chuckling, Nick stole a kiss from her smiling, protesting mouth.

“I thought I told you to stop doing that,” Abby scolded half-heartedly, snagging her purse from the coffee table with her free hand and pulling him toward the door with the one he still had ensnared in his firm grip. “C’mon, I gotta get a move on if Maggie’s going to be able to work me in at lunchtime. You’re coming, right?” Considering the possibility that he might not make it made her frown, and she sought out his eyes.

“I’m coming,” Nick reaffirmed their plans.

"Good,” Abby released a deep breath. “Good,” she repeated, and the furrow between her brows lessened somewhat as she told him, sincerely, “I’m glad you want to be a part of...things. It means…I’m just relieved, I guess.”

“I’m glad you’re glad,” Nick spoke with a gentle smile, tucking a thick strand of tawny hair behind her ear and letting his hand linger on her face, “because I’m going to be there with you, every step of the way.”

Tears pooled and threatened to spill from Abby’s hazel eyes, and she pulled her hand free to knuckle them away, smiling reassuringly at Nick as she did so, muttering, “Damn hormones. Get that fine ass of yours in gear, Gray Eyes. We’re going to be late. Lock the door,” she reminded him as the door swung shut behind them.

“Door’s locked,” Nick grinned.

Halfway down the hallway en route to the elevator, Abby stopped cold in her tracks, nearly causing Nick to collide with her, but fortunately for her, he was quick on his feet, deftly sidestepping her and placing one large hand low on her hip. “Dammit! I forgot to feed the cat.”

“I fed Lucky while you were in the shower,” Nick reassured her, gently guiding her the few feet remaining to the elevator.

“If I can’t even remember to feed the cat, how the hell am I going to manage with a baby? Oh God, Gray Eyes. We should really sue that birth control company. I think we could probably win,” Abby babbled, hazel eyes wide as Nick steered her through the open elevator doors.

Nick was sure her babbling voice could be heard long after the doors shut.




~*~



“I can’t believe you’re thinking of starting a family with Ethan Crane. Hell. I still can’t believe you’re married to Ethan Crane.”

Beth frowned at his incredulous tone, shakng her head at him. “A lot of things have changed since you left.” Methodically, she cleared and rinsed the assortment of dishes that had accumulated in the apartment the previous day, stacking them on the tray she would later take back downstairs, opportunity knocking. “You wouldn’t even recognize Ethan.”

“Damn straight I wouldn’t recognize him,” Tony retorted. “The snot-nosed kid spent his entire childhood in boarding school.”

“I’m not that much older than him,” Beth huffed, slightly offended.

“Now you’re just putting words into my mouth,” Tony accused. “Seriously, Ethan Crane? What happened with you and Luis? I always figured I’d come back to find you two married with a basketball team full of kids.” Immediately, he knew it was the wrong thing to say by the near-violent way she bristled at his words.

“Life happened. Your father leaving, you leaving, happened,” Beth snapped.

“Look, Beth,” Tony laid a tentative hand on Beth’s shoulder, finding it tense and frighteningly rigid, “Just ignore me. It was a stupid thing to say, okay? I’m sorry.”

“You should be sorry,” Beth shrugged his hand away. “You should be. Do you have any idea what your leaving did to them? How much it hurt them? How much it still hurts them? What reason could you possibly have for putting the people you claim to love the most through that kind of hell?”

Tony visibly flinched, retreating to the heavily curtained window across the small space to steal a glance outside. His answer was a low, pained growl of a defense, “I had my reasons.”

“Fine, you had your reasons,” Beth said, acknowledging the fact that he wasn’t, at least not right now, ready to reveal them to her. “If you’re not going to tell me why you left, the least you could do is tell me why you decided to come back after all this time. Don’t you think you owe that much to me? I mean, I’m only lying to my husband, my friends, your entire family. You’ve been gone God knows where all this time, and you choose now to come back. Why, Antonio? Why now? And how does Sheridan fit into all of this?”

“Beth, I…”

“You know what? Never mind. You know where to find me when you’re ready to talk. I need to get back,” she breathed a sigh of disappointment. “It wasn’t fair of me, leaving Julie to deal with the morning crowd all by herself.”

“Beth,” Tony called softly, before the door closed completely behind her. “I want to tell you. I want to tell you everything. But I can’t. Not yet.”

Nodding, she disappeared, the door closing with a soft click.

Turning back to the window, Tony held the slats of the blinds apart just in time to witness a familiar brunette scurry across the street, cell phone to her ear, and he wondered if she, in particular, would appreciate the tortured path fate had led him along to get here.



~*~




“You look well, Ivy.”

Stifling a startled gasp, Ivy instead took a deep breath and turned around slowly, a small but genuine smile touching her lips. “I could say the same for you, Shane.” Shane’s smile deepened, but Ivy was surprised to learn how disappointed she was to discover his eyes no longer seemed to regard her with any sort of affection. Just as well, she thought to herself, I can’t be sidetracked by maudlin feelings of guilt or misplaced loyalty.

“I’m doing all right for myself,” Shane replied. “Putting in a lot of hours,” he glanced around at their surroundings. “I figure the more time I put in now, the better I can spoil that little niece or nephew when it gets here.”

“How is Abby?” The twinge of guilt Shane’s excitement had caused to arise made it somewhat easier to feign genuine interest. Ivy silently hoped Ethan would arrive soon though, because she was a damn good actress, but Shane, unfortunately, had her number where his sister was concerned. It was especially evident in the skeptical fashion he answered her inquiry.

“She’s…Abby’s Abby. She’s proud and brave and so damned independent she makes me want to shake her sometimes. Frankly, I’m amazed at the amount of involvement she’s allowing Nick to have with this pregnancy.”

Without meaning to, Ivy found herself reaching for Shane’s hand. “Shane, I…” she began, only to be interrupted by Ethan’s timely arrival.

“Mother!”

Ivy’s blue-green eyes connected briefly with Shane’s eyes as she withdrew her hand, finding herself swept up in Ethan’s enthusiastic embrace. By the time Ethan had released her and she’d exchanged hello’s with Gwen and a couple of other members of the Crane Industries staff, Shane, not surprisingly, was gone. “I know I’m late, Ethan, but your sister called…”

“Say no more,” Ethan quickly dismissed the apology, a twinkle in his blue eyes as he turned to Gwen. “Who is he?” he grinned. Turning to Gwen, he asked, “Remember good ole Daniel?”

“Twelfth in line to ascend to the throne Daniel,” Gwen smirked in recognition.

Ivy fought back a smile. “Wrong sister, Darling. I spoke to Miranda.”

“I haven’t seen Miranda in ages. Ivy, how is she doing?”

Taking Gwen’s arm in her own, Ivy launched into a full disclosure of the morning’s conversation, hoping, with each step, to put some much-needed distance between herself and the man that served as the embodiment of her conscience.




~*~




“Mind if I join you? I was walking by and I saw you out here.” Bottle of water in hand, Sam lowered himself to the stone bench beside Katie without waiting for an answer and followed her gaze straight ahead, to a tree that was barely more than a branch with leaves reaching valiantly for the sun. At the tiny tree’s base a piece of granite rest, a name etched in its stone of a loved one lost too soon. Closing his eyes briefly, Sam recited a silent prayer for those left behind.

“That’s Rory’s tree,” Katie told him, green eyes shining. “I took care of her last year. Sweet little girl.”

Sam cleared his throat, but his voice still sounded gruff to his own ears. “What happened?”

“Inoperable brain tumor,” Katie murmured. “Over the months her personality changed, but just before…she was herself again.” She clasped her hands over her knees, and, studying her chipped nail polish, said, “It was good for her parents. To say goodbye to the little girl they’d raised and loved. To have that one last chance.” A weighted silence followed her comment, until Sam cleared his throat again and spoke.

“She never woke up after the accident.”

The pain in that quiet comment drew Katie’s gaze to Sam’s face, and she read heartbreak in every line and shadow she saw there. “I remember,” she whispered softly, taking his hand.

“Do you know,” Sam’s bloodshot blue eyes drifted to the small hand that covered his, “I don’t remember what her last words to me were? Something about the boys--take care of the boys. I don’t even remember if I told her I loved her.”

“She knew,” Katie assured him, tears stinging her eyes. She didn’t know the man she’d someday call her family all that well yet, but she’d learned enough about him to know he didn’t often speak of his feelings, instead letting his actions speak for him. The trust he was showing in her touched her heart, and compelled to lighten the heaviness of his own, she told him, “She knew you and Grace and Miguel and those beautiful little boys loved her. How could she not know?” She squeezed his hand softly.

“Grace was in the kitchen when she left that night. She didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye,” Sam revealed. “She thinks if she could go back to that night, say goodbye this time, make Kay wait just those few seconds longer, somehow things would change, things would be different. Right now, she’s inside spilling her heart out to some therapist neither one of us knows, because she can’t talk to me about it. Because I got to say goodbye. Funny thing is, I don’t remember what I said. Shouldn’t a father remember what his words were to his daughter the last time he saw her alive? Shouldn’t he remember her last words to him?”

Desperately wanting to offer him absolution, Katie found she couldn’t find the words he needed to hear. So she held fast to his hand and let him talk while a gentle breeze fluttered the tiny green leaves of Rory’s tree.




~*~



Gently grasping Theresa by the elbow, Chad nudged her inside Sheridan’s office and closed the door behind them. “Okay, T-girl,” he declared, steering her to the chair behind the desk and coaxing her to sit. “I’m waitin’.”

Opening and closing her mouth, Theresa stared up at her fiancé with large, confusion-filled eyes.

Crouching down before her chair, Chad balanced his hands on its arms and leveled the playing field just a little bit. “Something’s eating at you, girl. I can tell.”

Ducking her head, Theresa mumbled, “It’s that obvious, huh?” Tracing the corded muscles of his forearm with her fingertips, she kept her eyes downcast until Chad lifted one hand from the armrest to cup her chin.

“Talk to me,” Chad encouraged. “That’s what I’m here for.” Releasing her chin, he replaced his hand on the armrest and said, “We can talk about anything you want. I’ll go first.” Standing up, he stretched his legs before perching himself on the edge of Sheridan’s desk and grinned down at her. “I think Smoky’s got himself a girlfriend.”

Stifling a giggle, Theresa couldn’t help but match his grin with one of her own.

“Thought that one would make you smile,” Chad remarked.

“Who?” Theresa wondered.

“Snooty little Persian next door,” Chad said. “I tried to warn him.”

“Oh?” Theresa raised her brows.

“There’s a slight family resemblance,” Chad divulged. “Distant relation to Miss Priss maybe.”

Shaking her head, Theresa bemoaned Smoky’s bad luck in love. “Poor Smoky.”

“Poor Smoky,” Chad echoed, watching her as she reached past him to pick up the framed picture of Sheridan and Luis’s smiling brood. He didn’t speak, instead waited for her to sort through her thoughts.

“This last year has really been…” she trailed off awkwardly, every descriptive word she could think of completely inadequate for the year they had experienced thus far.

Taking the picture from her, Chad admired Hope’s toothless smile before setting the picture aside. “A lot has happened.”

“We’re not just having a wedding, Chad,” Theresa said earnestly. “We’re getting married. You’ll be my husband. I’ll be your wife.”

“Just now realizing that?” Chad teased, gathering her hands in his own and soothing away the tightly clenched fists she wasn’t aware of making. On a more serious note, he continued, “And someday, when the time is right, we’ll be somebody’s parents.” Lifting a hand to her face, he tucked her hair behind her ear and told her, “T-girl, cold feet are normal. Been a little chilly myself lately.”

“Really?” Theresa’s expression was one of immense relief.

“We’re getting married,” Chad smiled, his answer matter-of-fact. “I’m stuck with you for the rest of my life.”

Theresa’s dark eyes sparkled as she smiled back at him, letting him pull her to her feet. Not to be outdone, she replied, “Well, I’m stuck with you.” She slid her arms around his waist, her heart warmed by the affection in his gaze.

Chad mirrored her posture and pressed a short, sweet kiss to her lips. “Feel better?”

“Much,” Theresa whispered.



~*~




Her nose buried in Abby’s medical file, Maggie entered the small examining room, a pleased smile on her lips. “Looks like you’re gaining weight nicely.”

“Nice to see you too,” Abby muttered sarcastically, giving the watch on her wrist a discreet glance. “Thank goodness I skipped lunch.”

Closing the file in her hands, Maggie put it on the small counter that lined one side of the room and removed a pair of gloves from a cardboard box that rested there, dropping them into the pocket of her lab coat. “Skipping lunch is not good for the baby.”

Taking the gentle reprimand on the chin, Abby promised, “I’m eating lunch with a handsome man as soon as I leave here. Happy?”

“Ecstatic,” Maggie replied dryly, placing the earpieces to her stethoscope in her ears and giving Abby’s heart a listen. For good measure, she also instructed Abby to take several deep breaths in and out, making sure her lungs were clear, before she lifted her gaze to Abby’s lively hazel eyes and asked, “And just where is said handsome man?”

Abby was saved from replying by Nick’s timely arrival.

“Sorry, I’m late,” Nick apologized, shrugging off his white lab coat and laying it across the counter. Taking a seat on the rolling stool Maggie indicated, he sought out Abby’s hand with his own, oblivious to the smiles the action elicited, and asked, “Did I miss anything?”

“Didn’t miss a thing,” Maggie reassured him. “We were just about to do the ultrasound,” she told him, her focus shifting to the machine that resided on the opposite side of the examining table. Donning her gloves, she advised, “Abby, if you’d make yourself comfortable and lift up your shirt.”

Temporarily letting go of Nick’s hand, Abby lay back, shivering lightly as she bared her abdomen to the chill of the room. Her fingers entwined with Nick’s again when Maggie lowered the lights in the room and she flinched when the doctor picked up a tube of gel, squirting a generous portion onto her skin.

“Sorry,” Maggie murmured, “damned stuff’s cold I know.” Gently she tugged the waistband of Abby’s scrub pants lower over her hips and pressed the wand in her hand firmly against Abby’s skin, rolling it across her belly to determine the baby’s location. A smile curled the corners of her mouth upward upon hearing Abby’s sharp intake of breath when she hit pay dirt and the grainy image materialized onscreen. “Say hello to your baby.”

“It’s tiny,” Nick said, so completely mesmerized by the image of his child he failed to notice that Abby’s eyes were now solely concentrated on him and not the screen.

“It’s about the size of an avocado,” Maggie told him with a grin. “Would you like a few pictures?” Without waiting for an answer, she captured a few images to print off. “Everything looks great. It’s too early to tell the sex, but it shouldn’t be long before you’ll know if you’re having a son or a daughter. That is, if you want to know,” she amended as she lay the wand aside to wipe the gel from Abby’s abdomen with a small towel. Taking her gloves off, she brightened the lights with the touch of a switch and bent to retrieve the pictures. Depositing the pictures in Nick’s waiting grasp, she crossed the room to the sink to wash her hands. “Your new doctor should be able to find out by your next appointment.”

Pushing herself into a sitting position, Abby was so intent on straightening her clothes, she almost didn’t catch Maggie’s comment, but the way Nick stiffened before her inexplicably made her heartbeat quicken, and she couldn’t write the statement off as a mere slip of the tongue. With a sickening feeling of dread, she looked into Nick’s gray eyes and felt butterflies begin to bombard her ribcage at the guilt he failed to disguise quick enough. “I’m sorry,” she said, her head unconsciously shaking in denial. “Maggie?” The name clawed its way past her parched throat, both as a prayer and a curse. “What do you mean my new doctor?”




~*~




“Are those work papers, Mommy?” Cristian innocently queried, seemingly materializing out of thin air to stand beside her chair and rest his rumpled dark head against her arm.

Kissing his forehead, Sheridan lifted her arm without thinking, allowing him to wedge his small body across her lap and tuck his head beneath her chin. “No, Sweetie,” she began, only to think better of the answer poised on her tongue. “Sort of,” she corrected herself, reaching out with the hand that wasn’t supporting Cristian’s back to flip to the next page. She smiled when her son’s small fingers sought out the necklace around her neck and pressed another kiss to his forehead. “No good cartoons on?”

“No,” Cristian answered, cuddling almost impossibly closer.

“Ali still doing her homework?”

Nodding against her shoulder, Cristian pouted, “And Max and Hope are snoring.”

With just the barest traces of humor lacing her voice, Sheridan offered a suggestion. “How about cleaning your room?”

“It’s not dirty,” Cristian retorted.

“That’s right,” Sheridan agreed, recalling the previous night when Ali had gone above and beyond in seeking her final approval to the sleepover with Lissy, even going so far as to venture into the war-zone that was her little brother’s room. “It isn’t,” she said. Looking down into her son’s shining dark eyes, she teased him as her fingers tickled his sides, “Are you sure I don’t need to go check under your bed?”

“Yes,” Cristian giggled, squirming to elude her hands.

Mercilessly, Sheridan continued her shenanigans, forgetting all about the manila folder that had captured her attention and preoccupied her for the last hour. “Are you extra sure? Extra, extra?” she asked, her fingers chasing Cristian’s most ticklish spots as he attempted and failed to wiggle away from her, sending the papers on the table and the pencil she’d been using to make notes in the margins flying to the floor.

“Yes,” Cristian shrieked with laughter. “Mommy, stop,” he begged breathlessly, helpless tears running down his flushed cheeks. “Mommy, stop. Please,” he giggled. “Ali, help me,” he pleaded, spying his big sister in the kitchen doorway.

Blue eyes bright, Sheridan beckoned her daughter, “Help him, Ali.”

“No,” Cristian cried, recognizing instantaneously the mischievous twinkle in Ali’s blue eyes as she advanced on them. “Stop, stop, stop,” Cristian beseeched them both as an all-out tickle war against him was launched. “Nana, Grandpa Martin,” he entreated when his grandparents arrived, looking just a little bit bewildered and a lot amused. “Help!”

Over Cristian’s frantic giggles, Hope could be heard crying, frightened awake by the ruckus, and Pilar left Martin’s side to retrieve her, shaking her head with a small but unmistakable smile on her face.

“Looks to me,” Martin couldn’t help but chuckle, “like you ladies have an unfair advantage on the wee lad. I’ll take care of Ali if you get your mama,” he told Cristian with a wink.

“Grandpa Martin,” Ali held up her hands. “Grandpa Martin,” she cried out in protest again, erupting into helpless giggles when his fingers found their target. “Cristian, I’m sorry. Make him stop,” she begged, just as breathlessly as her brother before her.

From the kitchen doorway, Hope cuddled to her chest, tiny fist sucked into her mouth, Pilar watched it all, muttering a fond if exasperated “Dios mio” en route to the refrigerator. Withdrawing a bottle and tending to warming it up, she looked into Hope’s glistening blue eyes and shrugged her shoulders as, behind them, the tickle war continued. “Mi hija, what are we going to do about them?”



~*~




Hearing a key fit into the lock and the doorknob turn slowly, Tony replaced the picture he held in his hands in his wallet and stood up from the sofa, an apology on his lips as he turned to face the door. “Listen, Beth, I didn’t mean to be so…”

“Hi,” Lissy waved brightly.

Pointing an accusing finger, Tony cursed under his breath before sighing loudly. “Back so soon, Chatty Cathy?” Crossing the room to her, he pushed the door shut and locked it, but not before checking to make sure she was alone. “Let me guess. Your dad’s at work again.”

Strolling past him, Lissy quickly made herself at home on the sofa Tony had recently vacated, clasping a pillow to her chest and tucking her knees underneath her. “He took Grandpa to the doctor.”

Still shaking his head, Tony muttered, “Tell me you didn’t pickpocket that key.” At the hurt expression on her pretty face, he swore and turned his back on her, pacing the length of the room. “Of course you didn’t. I’m sorry. Beth gave you the key.” Raking a hand through his dark hair, he cast a glance in her direction only to find her large chocolate eyes tracking his every move. “Didn’t I tell you that you shouldn’t come back here?”

“She said you needed the company,” Lissy replied, lifting the end of one long tawny braid and inspecting it. “And the Youth Center’s boring without Ms. Sheridan or Ali. Chad was too busy kissing Ali’s aunt Theresa to even notice I was gone.”

Tony narrowed his eyes. “Who was kissing Ali’s aunt?”

Frowning at him in confusion, Lissy nonetheless answered his question, matter-of-factly, “Her boyfriend. They’re getting married, and I’m invited. What do you want to know about him for?”

Instead of giving her the response she was looking for, Tony seized the television remote from her small hand before she could channel-surf her way back to the Disney Channel in a replay of the previous day. “Give me that.”

“Maybe you are a bad man,” Lissy grumbled, unfurling her legs and standing up to snoop around the small apartment. Before Tony had a chance to think about stopping her, she had her small hands on the wallet he’d forgotten on the coffee table.

“Alyssa, don’t,” Tony warned, even as she opened the wallet and a photo with well-worn edges fluttered to the floor. “I’ll get it,” he told her, to no avail.

Lissy’s fingers had already grasped the picture, and her enormous chocolate eyes stared at him in accusation.

“Lissy,” he held out his hand.

“Why do you have a picture of Ms. Abby in your wallet?”



~*~

UAgirl
7.13.09, 8:36 PM
Don't know how many are still following this story, but here is a new chapter.

Hope you enjoy!

P.S. Thanks to those who replied to the last chapters. :)




Chapter 33




“I don’t want to go to practice today, Dad.”

MJ’s announcement wasn’t exactly a surprise, but the quiet, adamant delivery had Miguel looking up sharply. “Why not? You know your uncles will be disappointed.”

MJ merely shrugged, reiterating his wish with a fervent, “I just don’t want to.”

“MJ.” He frowned when his persistent prodding yielded no results and gratefully welcomed the distraction his youngest son offered from the sense of helpless disappointment that threatened to wash over him in waves when MJ only seemed to retreat further into himself. Smoothing a fond hand over Joshua’s sleep rumpled hair, he found his disappointment quickly replaced with guilt when he realized the little boy was still in his pajamas, and it was well past noon. “We’ll talk about this later,” he assured MJ, handily scooping Joshua up into his arms and pressing a quick kiss to the head that tucked itself trustingly beneath his chin. His lips close to Joshua’s ear, he murmured, “Let’s get you out of these pjs and into the tub.”

“Baff,” Joshua nodded in response, tightening his arms around Miguel’s neck as they traveled down the hallway. When Miguel set him on his feet in front of the bathtub and reached out a hand to start the water, Joshua’s solemn dark eyes followed his movements.

Satisfied with the water temperature, Miguel felt his heart twist when he laid eyes on his serious little son. With a pang, he realized he couldn’t remember a time when either of his boys had looked at him with real, unmitigated joy in their eyes; the last semblance of happiness they’d managed to hold on to after Kay’s death had seemingly evaporated in the face of Abby’s departure. Hoarsely, his throat tight with emotion, he said, “Up.”

Joshua obediently complied by raising his arms, and soon the pjs and his Spiderman underwear lay in a tidy little pile beside him. He patiently waited for his father to remove the small device behind his ear and place it in a safe place to avoid getting it wet.

Miguel deposited the little boy into the tub with a splash and patted his soft cheek reassuringly. “Close your eyes real tight,” he instructed, demonstrating his wishes and smiling at the child’s exaggerated efforts and the wrinkling of his nose as he felt the first trickles of warm water down his neck and bare shoulders. Carefully, he applied a small handful of the gentle baby shampoo to the fine dark strands and soothingly massaged it into Joshua’s scalp.

“No soap.” One dark eye squinted at him, the other still tightly clenched shut while small fingers signed emphatically.

“No soap,” Miguel promised, cupping his hand around the base of Joshua’s neck and easing him back slightly as he poured warm water from a cup to rinse the last of the shampoo out. “All done,” he said when he was finished, squeezing one small shoulder to gain the toddler’s undivided attention. “Wash,” he signed to his son.

“Play,” came Joshua’s quick answer, his little fingers greedily reaching for the assortment of bath toys lined up along the tub’s opposite edge.

Miguel shook his head, insisting, “Wash.” Softening with Joshua’s pout, he compromised, “Then play.”

Seemingly satisfied with his answer, Joshua allowed Miguel to help bathe him, even going so far as tolerating him washing behind his ears, a truly unfortunate though necessary evil. His reward of a long interlude of playing with his father finally came to an end when his fingers were pruned and his small frame trembled with shivers from the cooled water. He went willingly into Miguel’s arms when he held out a big, fluffy towel in invitation, curling against his side and clinging to his neck.

Miguel suppressed the weary sigh that wanted to escape his lips when he saw MJ lingering in the bathroom doorway, blocking his exit, his face dour, the expression in his dark eyes reflecting a bleakness a child shouldn’t know. Feeling his grip on Joshua start to slip, he hugged him closer and expelled a frustrated, “MJ.”

MJ simply stepped aside, following his father to the room he shared with his kid brother like a moody little black cloud, and he kept his fingers clenched in fists on either side of his legs as he sat on his bed’s edge and watched his father awkwardly dress his brother as if he were a still, silent doll. The end result wasn’t pretty, and MJ being MJ couldn’t resist comment. “That shirt’s stained.”

Miguel regarded the faded but prominent ketchup stain smeared across the front of the cotton tee and promptly swept it over Joshua’s head, making his dark hair stick up in wet, fragrant spikes and replaced it with the nearest shirt he could get his hands on. “Better?”

MJ, arms now crossed across his chest and dangling feet restlessly kicking back and forth, shook his head. “Nope,” he declared. “That one has a hole in it. Under the arm. See?” he pointed.

Miguel did see, and he whipped the shirt over Joshua’s head, on a mission that, long minutes and several shirts later, with a squirming, unhappy toddler and scowling, disapproving MJ, proved to be fruitless, his options clearly exhausted. Massaging the back of his neck with a rough hand, he willed himself to calm down; his inability to dress his son for the day wasn’t exactly the end of the world—though, in that moment, it felt like it was—and there wasn’t any reason why he should feel such a suffocating sense of failure—still, he did. He was at a complete loss for what to do. He knew it, and MJ knew it. Hell, he was sure even Joshua, as young as he was, was aware that he was treading water with his head barely above the surface, and he felt something inside of him snap when MJ looked at him with something akin to disdain and spoke the words that sent Miguel sinking into the deep waters he’d tried so valiantly to conquer.

“Mom wouldn’t have let this happen.”

Before he could censure himself (because MJ, for all his grown-up ways, was really not that much older than Joshua, not really), Miguel bit back, harshly and with brutal honesty, momentarily forgetting he was speaking to a child, a grieving child. “No. Maybe she wouldn’t. But she’s not here, MJ. She’s never coming back. I’m it. All you’ve got, and you’re stuck with me. And if I decide your brother is going to wear a stained shirt, then he’s going to wear a stained shirt. Understood? Your mom is gone, and it’s time you faced that.” He felt his heart squeeze painfully at the tears filling his young son’s eyes but found he couldn’t stop himself from continuing, from voicing the agonizing truth. “It’s time we all faced that.”

Tears spilling down his flushed face, MJ’s young voice held just as much anger, just as much hopeless heartache as he screamed a shamefully guarded secret that he couldn’t help but feel, “I wish it was you! I wish you were gone, and Mom was still here with us! I wish it was you instead of her!”

Stricken, Miguel clenched his eyes shut in anguish and slumped onto the bed Joshua cowered on, wincing as he heard the echo of slamming doors in MJ’s wake. Me too, he thought silently, willing the knot of emotion strangling his throat to ease and the tears burning at the corners of his eyes to disappear.

His efforts turned out to be for naught though, because a tiny hand crept across the mattress and small fingers pushed and signed against his palm—I love you, Daddy.

One tear turned into many tears then sobs that couldn’t be controlled, and the mere minutes spent without Kay overwhelmed Miguel all over again, exposing him for the broken man that he was.

That’s exactly how Simone found them.



~*~



Setting her tray down on the table in front of her, Whitney settled herself primly in the seat across from her mother and aired her suspicions, “Theresa told you I wasn’t eating, didn’t she?”

“Theresa?” Eve feigned ignorance. “What does Theresa have to do with me asking you to lunch? Maybe I just wanted to enjoy the company of my daughter for the afternoon.”

Whitney’s lips twitched then blossomed into a fully realized smile when her mother quickly folded under her skeptical stare.

“Okay,” Eve admitted as she unwrapped her sandwich and brought it to her mouth to take a small bite, “she told me.” Sipping from her bottle of water, she regarded Whitney with warm but evaluating eyes. “She’s right. You are too skinny.”

“Mom!” Whitney protested.

“Not that I don’t enjoy your company,” Eve gentled her criticism with a smile. “Honey, you really are working too hard.”

Sighing, Whitney refrained from comment and picked at her salad. “If this turns into a lecture about how I need to get out more…”

“No lectures,” Eve promised. “Just advice.”

Whitney groaned. “Mom.”

“A girl as beautiful and talented as you,” Eve began, only to leave the rest unsaid under her daughter’s warning glare. “Okay,” she relented. “Change of subject. Tell me about the wedding. I’ve tried asking Chad, but he said a wedding’s a wedding.”

Whitney couldn’t help but smile. “Mom, it’s Theresa. It is not just a wedding.”

Eve smiled knowingly. “So it is the big production your sister keeps insisting it is.”

“Bigger,” Whitney claimed, eyes dancing with humor as she lifted her fork to her mouth. “The only thing that would make it bigger…”

“What?” Eve prodded.

“Let’s just say I’m glad Theresa’s grown out of that double wedding business.”

“I’m sure Noah and Katie appreciate that too,” Eve laughed softly. Screwing the lid back on her bottle of water, she mused, “Speaking of Katie, Sam and Grace seem awfully fond of her. I’m glad they have something to be happy about, with the engagement and helping plan the wedding.”

"She seems nice,” Whitney agreed absently, her attention straying and focusing on a point somewhere beyond her mother.

“Whitney, honey,” Eve protested, turning slowly in her seat to see what fascinated her daughter so, “what are you looking at?” No sooner had she asked the question did she realize it needed amended. It wasn’t what, rather who, had captured her daughter’s interest, and she found that the expression on her daughter’s face puzzled her just as much as the scene they, and a growing crowd of visitors and hospital employees, were witnessing. Several feet away, Abby and her Dr. Taylor appeared to be in the middle of a very heated, very public argument, and it seemed her daughter wasn’t as clueless as the rest of the onlookers about the argument’s cause. “Whitney,” she queried, “do you know what that’s about?”

Nodding hastily, Whitney stood up, her mother following suit, two simple words escaping.

“She knows.”



~*~



“Let go of me!” Abby hissed, flinching away from Nick’s attempts to touch her, to soothe her somehow. She was fully aware that she was making a scene, they both were, but she just didn’t give a damn right now. Right now, in this moment, she was so angry she couldn’t see straight. In fact, she was so livid they might as well have been the only two people that existed.

“Abby, please,” came Nick’s useless plea. “This wasn’t how I wanted you to find out.”

When he had the audacity to look like he was the injured party in the unholy mess that was their relationship, Abby saw red. Biting the inside of her cheek so hard that she tasted the metallic tang of her own blood, she whirled around, the look on her face murderous. Her head was shaking in disbelief and her hands were clenched unconsciously in fists at her sides as she seethed, “Oh really. Exactly how did you plan on telling me you were moving halfway across the country? By postcard? Wish you were here, Abby. Maybe you were going to have me drop you off at the airport and drop the bomb then. Unless, unless you never planned to tell me at all.”

“I planned to tell you,” Nick insisted, grabbing her by the arm and pulling her out of the way of a trio of nurses staring at them with big eyes and straining to listen with open ears as they made their way to the cafeteria lines that seemed to be doubly long today; it seemed everyone populating the hospital had gathered to witness his miserable comeuppance for not being honest with her. “I just didn’t know how.”

“Try this on for size,” Abby said, wrenching her arm free. “Abby, I got another job. That’s not all. I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to make it to the delivery of our child because you know what? The job’s in Colorado.”

“I had no idea you were pregnant when I took the job,” Nick retorted before he could think better of the revelation. He watched in horror as her hazel eyes brightened with pain before they turned glassy and unreadable, and he felt a sickening tightness in his chest at the realization that she was jumping to all the wrong conclusions.

“That’s the only reason you’re still here, isn’t it? The baby? You’d already be gone if it weren’t for…”

“No!” Nick cut her off, grabbing her forcefully by the shoulders and refusing to let go of her no matter how much she struggled. “No,” he repeated more calmly. “You weren’t talking to me. You wouldn’t see me,” he reminded her. “I…I couldn’t stay here knowing that I had messed things up so badly between us that you couldn’t even look at me. I couldn’t bear it, Abby. Life wasn’t much good to me here if I didn’t have you in it. I needed…I had to leave. I had to, and I was. But that was before you told me you were pregnant. Once I knew you were carrying our baby,” his hands slid up to cup her face, “once I knew, yes, it changed things.”

"You’re a responsible man,” Abby answered him in a thick voice. “You felt obligated to the baby. And me.”

“Yes,” Nick agreed. “I mean no.” Caressing her cheekbones with his thumbs, he laid it on the line for her, as best he could, but he could tell the bare bones truth wasn’t enough for her, not when he knew she yearned to hear those three little words. “I’m not with you out of obligation, Abby. I’m with you because I want to be. You have to believe me.”

“No,” Abby shook her head, a deep yearning in her eyes before she closed herself off to him completely and pushed against his chest with her small hands, causing his own hands to fall to his sides, “no, I don’t. And you know why?”

Distantly, Nick noted the presence of a few familiar faces—Katie, Sam Bennett, Dr. Russell, and Whitney, that damned Christopher, and he read pity, confusion, sadness in their eyes when he couldn’t begin to identify what the woman standing before him was feeling. He found his voice no longer worked, and it was just as well, for he had no words to deny what she pointed out to him and no right to purport her words as lies. He would be a fool to claim otherwise.

"Because you kept your options open,” Abby told him sadly. “You were still going to leave. Just like everyone else.”

“Abby,” he called out softly as she turned to go, shrugging off the hand that gripped his shoulder, ignoring the soft warning Whitney gave him as he grasped at Abby’s small hand, only to have her fingers slip through his. “I wanted to stay. I still want to.”

“Do you really?” Abby gave him a tremulous smile. Not waiting for his answer, she told him, “I think it’s better if you don’t come home tonight. Okay, Gray Eyes?”

“Abby, don’t do this,” Nick pleaded, not caring about their audience or how weak and close to begging he was. “Just…don’t,” he beseeched as he watched her walk away, her tawny head down, and be approached by and led off by that damned man, who probably thought he had a chance with her now. Hell, maybe he did, and it was all his fault. “Abby, please,” he called, feeling the ache of regret settle like a stone in the pit of his belly as a familiar voice put a stop to any move he might make to go after her.

“No, Nick,” Katie warned. “Let her go.”



~*~




Chocolate eyes still staring up at him expectantly, Lissy warned, “I’ll know if you’re lying to me.”

Intrigued, and more than a little disbelieving that someone so small could make him feel like he was under the microscope, Tony carefully schooled his expression then made a grab for the picture. “Oh really? How’s that?” He cursed under his breath when Lissy snatched the picture just out of his reach, putting the coffee table between them.

“Grown-ups always change the subject when they don’t want to talk about things, and when they want kids to forget what they asked in the first place,” Lissy replied, matter-of-factly, dancing around the corner of the sofa when he made a counter-move that brought him inches away from her. She giggled at his frustrated expulsion of air, her tawny braids whipping behind her as she easily eluded his efforts to capture her. “Kids aren’t stupid, you know.”

“I never said they were stupid,” Tony responded, mentally calculating his best recourse. Not only was the kid a virtual motor/smart-mouth, she was damned quick on her feet. As he gave chase to her in a ridiculous game of indoor tag, he inwardly chastised himself for his weakness for damsels in distress, even the littlest ones (especially the littlest ones). Deciding a change of tactics was called for—and that he wasn’t as young as he once was, he suddenly stopped in his tracks and sized her up, noting with a helpless sense of pride (where had *that* come from?) the suspicion in those wondrous eyes. “Who says I have to tell you? Maybe it’s a secret.”

Caught completely off-guard, Lissy slowed to a stop herself and stared at him with earnestness replacing her doubt. Softly and seriously, she told him, “You can tell me. I’m real good at keeping secrets.”

Tony didn’t doubt her claim. Still, he hesitated. A kid was still a kid. Sighing, he lowered himself to the sofa and grabbed the television remote. Seconds later, the muted images of the local news flashed across the screen. Contemplating his choices, he decided to turn her question around on her, a different tactic if you will than a change of subject. “How do you know Ms. Abby?”

“She’s my grandpa’s doctor.”

Tony’s head whirled around at her answer, effectively ruining his attempt at nonchalance. “Doctor?”

“Yeah, silly,” Lissy rolled her eyes. “My grandpa had a stroke last year, and Ms. Abby has been helping him with his exercises.”

“Oh,” Tony said simply. “She’s your grandpa’s therapist.”

“She’s what?”

Tony bit back a smile at the way the kid’s brows furrowed, and the cute way her nose scrunched up when she was confused. She’d moved closer, hands gripping the arm of the sofa, and if he was quick and managed to surprise her, he’d have his picture back. Something kept him from making the move, though, and he shocked himself with the realization that he was enjoying the back and forth with her. “Never mind. It’s not important.” Relaxing into the sofa’s cushions, he casually slung an arm across the back, careful not to scare her off; she was already acting like a skittish animal, ready to bolt at the first sign of danger. “That still doesn’t answer my question. How do you know her?” The fingers of his other hand snagged the water bottle he’d abandoned earlier, and he twisted the cap, taking a generous swallow of the lukewarm liquid. That turned out to be a bad decision, because mere seconds later it was coming back up, and he found he couldn’t speak for choking.

"She’s going to be my new mom.” In an instant, Lissy was by his side, concern written all over her young face. “Are you okay? Ali’s dad showed us how to do the Heim…Heim…whatever it’s called at the Youth Center one time. Just say something so I know if you’re okay or not.”

Finally finding his voice, Tony hoarsely croaked, “No need for heroics, Sweetheart.” As an addendum, when she still didn’t look convinced, he patted her arm comfortingly. In the process, he also managed to lift the picture from her possession. “I’ll live.”

“Hey!” Lissy cried. “You tricked me!”

“No, I didn’t,” Tony replied, tucking the picture safely back in his wallet. Eyebrow arched at her, he inquired, “You say Ms. Abby is going to be your new mom?” Watching her pretty face fall, he almost felt guilty for asking the question, but he had to know. “Alyssa?” he prodded.

“She’s not,” Lissy admitted. “It’s just…my dad likes her. And I do, too. And it’d be really nice to have a mom,” she finished wistfully. “I barely remember what it feels like.”

Hell, Tony thought. Now he did feel guilty for asking the question. Without realizing he was doing it, he placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. The next thing he knew, the kid was cuddled against his side, sniffling into his shirt and making his heart ache for her. “Don’t cry,” he implored her. “Come on,” he sighed, twisting one tawny braid around his index finger. Biting the bullet, he found himself blurting, “Ask me a question. Any question. I promise I’ll tell you the truth.” Tony could practically see the wheels turning in that clever little brain of hers, and he held his breath to hear what she would ask, regret beginning to churn in his belly.

“If so many people think you’re a bad man…and no one’s gonna be happy about it…why did you come back?”

“Any question but that,” came the automatic answer.

“Mr. Tony,” Lissy prompted in an impatient whine. “You promised.”

Exhaling, Tony rationalized that, in this case, a partial truth would have to do; the kid was too tenacious to let this whole thing go, not to mention the fact she had the uncanny ability to hone in on when he was snowing her. His motivations were far too complicated for someone so young to comprehend, his reasons plenty, but he owed her an answer, even if wasn’t the whole answer. “Because,” he met her chocolate eyes, “all roads lead home.”

~*~



“Aunt Theresa!” Ali followed Cristian’s example, throwing her arms excitedly around her petite aunt’s waist and squeezing tightly. “I didn’t know you were here!"

“Why so surprised, Squirt?” Chad teased, grinning when he’d successfully coaxed a high-five from Cristian. “She’s just visitin’ me.” Reaching over, he ruffled an affectionate hand over Ali’s wispy blond curls and soon ended up with two slender arms looped around his waist. “You wouldn’t miss me so much if youvisited me more.”

“She visits you all the time,” Sheridan laughed, pressing a kiss to her nephew’s cheek while his arms were otherwise occupied and thanking him with her next breath.

“Anytime, Auntie.”

“Sheridan,” Theresa smiled as the two women exchanged hugs, the kids and Chad looking on. “Where’s Hope?”

“With Nana,” Cristian piped up. Tugging at Sheridan’s shirt, he looked up at her with large, pleading eyes, “Is it okay if I go play with Caleb, Mommy?”

“Go ahead,” Sheridan consented. Turning to Ali, she said, “You too. I know you want to find Lissy.”

“Thanks, Mom,” Ali grinned, scooting after her brother, in a dignified manner, of course.

Unconsciously gripping Sheridan’s hand and squeezing it, Theresa commented, “She sounds so grown-up.”

“That,” Sheridan rewarded the pair with her full attention, “is exactly why you two need to hurry up and get married—before she graduates from flower girl to maid of honor.”

“You better not let my brother hear you talking that way or he’ll…” Theresa trailed off when said brother materialized behind Sheridan, holding a finger up to his lips before he slipped his arms around Sheridan’s waist from behind.

“Hmm,” Relaxing into the arms that held her, Sheridan winked at the pair in front of her, making Theresa suppress a giggle and Chad smirk. “My husband would be so jealous if he saw us now.” When she felt Luis go still behind her and start to pull away, she wrapped her arms more firmly around his, refusing to let him go, her silvery laughter alerting him to the fact that he had most definitely been had.

“How?” Luis grumpily queried.

“No one else fits as well as you do,” Sheridan soothed his ruffled feathers. “Besides,” she continued, turning in his arms and smoothing a fingertip over the mouth that still held a hint of jealousy, “your sister’s face is an open book.”

“Sorry, Luis,” Theresa apologized with a sheepish smile.

“She had you, Man,” Chad grinned. “Go look in the mirror,” he chuckled, “because you still have the same look on your face.” When Luis failed to look amused, he took Theresa by the arm and gently maneuvered her in the direction of the door. “C’mon, T-girl. Lunch is on me. See you, Auntie. Luis,” Chad more saluted than waved.

Bowing her head and giving in to her laughter, Sheridan only realized Luis still didn’t see the humor in the situation when his arms fell to his sides, and he cleared his throat. Fitting her hands in his and placing his hands low on her hips, she searched his serious gaze with twinkling blue eyes, finally sighing and pressing a kiss to his stubbornly set lips. “Luis, it was a joke,” she murmured against his mouth. Leaning back to study him, she finally asked, “Who did you think I thought it was? You have to know there’s no one else but you, Luis.”

Relenting the tiniest little bit, Luis lifted a hand to her face, tucking a blond curl behind her ear. “Go easy on me. Every husband with a beautiful wife knows the feeling.”

“What feeling?” Sheridan whispered teasingly. “Jealousy?” When Luis sheepishly ducked his head, she followed him, forcing him to meet her eyes and making him laugh at himself.

“I know. I’m being…” Luis paused as he searched for the right word, ducking his head again when Sheridan easily supplied him with a plethora of options.

“Silly. Ridiculous. Absurd. A total teenager.” She squealed with laughter when he hauled her against him, kissing her breathless and effectively ending his torture at her hands.

“You had to go there,” Luis growled discontentedly. But his eyes were twinkling back at her. “Speaking of teenagers…” he told her.

"They see everything,” Sheridan finished the thought for him, disentangling herself from his arms, but not before bestowing one last, quick kiss to his mouth. “Must not be a busy day at the Harmony PD,” she said, snagging him by the hand and leading him to her office.

“Don’t close the door,” Luis warned, brown eyes now positively dancing at her.

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Sheridan grinned back at him, leaning casually back against her desk. “Couldn’t wait to see me at practice, could you?”

Her question elicited a grin from Luis. “The station’s in good hands.”

“Quinlan is past due for a promotion.”

“Yes, he is,” Luis agreed, “but we can’t have two chiefs, and I can’t afford to lose him.”

“Because Harmony’s a hotbed for activity,” Sheridan smirked.

Lips twitching, Luis wisely refrained from commenting.

“A fact for which I’m very thankful,” Sheridan responded more seriously seconds later. “So…” she said in an effort to fish for information.

“So…” Luis echoed.

“Luis,” Sheridan groaned. “Just spit it out.”

“I was thinking…”

“Think faster,” came Sheridan’s rapid-fire response.

Luis smiled inwardly because he knew the suspense was killing her, and the fire in her blue eyes reminded him of times long ago in this same setting, though their current circumstances were much changed. “Ali’s staying the night with Lissy. Mama and Papa already have Hope. I’m sure Hank and Gwen wouldn’t mind taking Cristian home with them after practice.”

“Luis, what do you have in mind?”

Luis touched his fingertips to hers briefly before grasping her wrist and tugging her close. “Me. You. Those sexy heels of yours and a promise I made.”

Sheridan melted into his arms, her blue eyes soft and loving as they gazed upon his dear face. “Luis, you don’t have to.”

Luis cut her off with a slow, languid kiss. “I know,” his lips found the corner of her mouth, then her cheek. “I want to,” he said, kissing her again until she broke away, offering a token protest, weak though it was.

“The kids.”

“The kids,” he agreed, pressing a chaste kiss on her forehead and squeezing her hand in goodbye. When he looked to her open door, all the young faces save two were studiously ignoring them, or at least pretending to, and Luis had to laugh at how obvious they were. “After practice, you’re all mine.”

Sheridan rolled her eyes, but she made no attempt to deny him. “All yours.” She lifted a hand to her mouth and smiled as she watched him kiss Ali and tousle Cristian’s hair on his way out. “All yours,” she repeated into the empty room.


~*~






So...thoughts, comments, questions?

Poor Miguel and the boys. They're so lost. Maybe Simone can help, huh?

Uh oh! Abby finally knows. Looks like Nick is in some deep poo. What do you think? Does he deserve it?

Sorry for the Sugar-Sweet Shuis at the end. Hope it doesn't reach tooth-rotting proportions, but I was (personally) in need of a fix.

LOL!

Feedback is much loved and adored!

Thanks, as always, for reading!!!

Until next time. :)

UAgirl
3.14.10, 1:26 PM
I last posted a chapter of this fic in July?!

Wow!

Sorry guys. Real life has totally cut into my writing time. It hasn't made me forget my stories, though, so I'll keep posting (slowly but surely new chapters will appear, lol).

Here's the new one.

Things are moving along.

Enjoy!















Chapter 34









“Is everything okay?” Sheridan asked Gwen when she returned, reclaiming the seat beside her on the metal bleachers and stowing her cell phone in her purse.

“Yes,” Gwen answered then thought better of it. “No.” Letting her brown eyes drift toward the small baseball field where Hank and Luis were lining up the children and going through their usual routine of warm-ups, she explained herself. “Simone answered. Miguel…the boys…they’re having a pretty rough day. They’re just going to skip practice today.”

Was it this way when Luis and Ali thought they lost me, Sheridan wondered, not for the first time, and a dull ache seemed to slowly spread from her heart throughout the rest of her body. She squeezed Gwen’s hand gratefully when she offered it and exhaled shakily. Her words felt inadequate when she spoke. “One practice won’t hurt.”

“I told her Luis and Hank understand,” Gwen chimed in. “So,” she said a second later, instantly lightening both of their moods with some friendly (who else but a good friend could get away with it?) teasing, “I hope you plan on practicing safe sex tonight.”

“Gwen!” Sheridan exclaimed, her outcry loud enough to capture her husband’s attention from several feet away and her cheeks more than a little red. She gave Luis an embarrassed little wave to let him know she was okay then elbowed the laughing blonde beside her. “I can’t believe you said that.”

Gwen was merciless, but she did lower her voice, just enough so the scattering of busybody mothers at the other end of the bleachers couldn’t hear their highly personal conversation. “Everybody knows dancing is foreplay for you two. And I’m sure Luis wouldn’t object to another little Crane-Lopez-Fitzgerald or two. That man was put on this earth to make beautiful babies.”

Her cheeks flaming, Sheridan couldn’t help but laugh, “Does Hank know you lust after my husband?”

Grinning, Gwen defended herself. “I’m not blind to the obvious. That doesn’t mean I lust after Luis. Besides, Abby’s not here to say it. I felt like somebody had to.”

“Thanks,” Sheridan responded dryly, her smile growing wider by the minute. “Dancing is more than foreplay for us, you know.”

“If you say so,” Gwen remained unconvinced. “Luis already put Cristian’s bag in the car. You’re not the only one looking forward to tonight.” She wiggled her brows suggestively at Sheridan, making her friend giggle, and found she couldn’t keep a straight face herself.

“Your mother’s right,” Sheridan wiped the tears from the corners of her eyes when she finally calmed down. “Being married to Hank has corrupted you.”

“At least you don’t make it seem like a bad thing,” Gwen smiled with fond exasperation at the thought of her mother and her mother’s feelings toward her man-child husband.

“How is Rebecca, by the way?”

“Up in arms over Hank’s latest home improvement endeavor,” Gwen told Sheridan. “Mind you, she hasn’t seen it yet. Daddy promised to keep her away until we at least figure out a way to keep the chipmunks out.”

“I think Cristian’s a little nervous about the chipmunks,” Sheridan admitted.

“He can’t be more nervous than Gus,” Gwen said. “We had to start him on Valium.”

“You’re giving your dog Valium?” Sheridan was a little disbelieving.

“Are you forgetting Mother picked him out?” Her point made, Gwen went on. “It’s just until the renovations are done.”

“Any idea when that’ll be?”

“With Hank, who knows,” Gwen shrugged.

Hank seemed to sense he was the current topic of the two friends’ conversation, looking up and shooting a leering but (somehow) endearing grin in Gwen’s direction.

“My husband,” Gwen quipped. “Don’t you just love him?”

In response, Sheridan blew Hank a kiss, and Luis, who just happened to catch the gesture, nearly gave himself whiplash jerking his head around to glare at his good buddy. The seconds-long sequence of events renewed the women’s laughter and earned them even more curious looks. Sobering, Sheridan urged Gwen to do the same. “Half of Harmony already thinks I’m not fit to be the Police Chief’s wife.”

Gwen rolled her eyes, letting Sheridan know right away what she thought about that. She did as asked, though, filling Sheridan in on her conversation with Ivy earlier that day. “She said she had spoken with Miranda.”

Sheridan grew thoughtful at the mention of her niece. “Do you know…it must have been years since I last saw her. I can’t even remember the last time she stepped foot in Harmony.”

“Yours and Julian’s funeral,” Gwen answered her quietly. “That was it. You can’t remember the last time she was in Harmony because you weren’t here. She came home for the funeral.”

Sheridan raised stricken blue eyes to Gwen’s face and found that all earlier traces of humor had vanished from her countenance. “When I think of what I put you guys through…”

Gwen cut her off with a gentle shake of her head. “You didn’t do anything. You know that. We all know you would have found a way home if you could, and you did, the first chance you got.”

“Actually,” Sheridan laughed softly to herself, “Ali found me.”

“Yeah,” Gwen smiled. “She did. Speaking of that little angel of yours,” Gwen looked over her shoulder, toward the playground that all but teemed with children, in search of one little blond in particular. “Where is she?”

“Lissy’s dad picked her and Lissy up early from the Youth Center,” Sheridan explained. “It’s a good thing too, since Jake’s not here.”

Gwen answered her unspoken question. “He’s off bonding with Daddy.” She smiled as she remembered her father’s excitement over spending time with his only grandson and fondly recalled how close the pair had been in Jake’s earliest years, before she’d owned up to the fact that she loved Hank and wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of her days with him. Casting a glance at Sheridan, she further explained, “Daddy actually surprised Mother with a trip to the spa, so it’s just the two of them, Daddy and Jake. It’ll be good for them. And us. School’s not Jake’s favorite thing in the world, but at least it keeps him occupied. The novelty of playing demolition derby with his dad is starting to wear off, and he’s been going a little stir-crazy lately. A bored Jake is not a good thing for anybody.”

“No,” Sheridan agreed with a tiny smirk. Though her experience on the matter was not quite as extensive as Gwen’s, she knew her friend wasn’t exaggerating. “Definitely not.”

The pair lapsed into a comfortable silence, watching the goings-on on the baseball diamond (small children and organized sports was something of an oxymoron, for organization was difficult if not impossible to achieve and the effort proved many times to be a comedy of errors), and the older kids and their coaches were arriving, baseball bags on their shoulders and hats tucked on their heads, when Gwen remembered something, a question she’d wanted to ask since Sheridan had called her at her office, asking her for a special favor and promising her she wouldn’t ask if it weren’t important. “Those files you wanted, the ones on Lissy’s dad…just what is it that you’re looking for?”

“That’s a good question,” Sheridan told Gwen, “because I still haven’t figured it out myself.”





~*~




Abby could tell, from the looks on Ali’s and Lissy’s young faces, that she wasn’t pulling it off, was failing rather spectacularly at pretending everything was okay (when everything was falling apart…again) actually, and she let loose a sigh of relief when Christopher rose from the sofa, grabbed the pizza box from the coffee table, and instructed both girls to follow him.

“But Dad,” Lissy’s brows knit in confusion, “you never let me eat in my bedroom.”

“Tonight’s a special occasion,” Christopher ushered the girls down the hall. “Right, Ali? It’s been a long time since we’ve had the pleasure of your company.”

Christopher’s charm worked its trick on Ali, and she smiled, uttering a shy thanks.

“Why don’t you guys pull out the old karaoke machine, dust it off, maybe put on a show for us later?”

“Daddy,” Lissy barely refrained from rolling her eyes.

Christopher shrugged his shoulders in silent apology and held up his hands. “Go,” he entreated. “Do girl things.”

Abby’s small smile when he returned was genuine if fleeting. “Karaoke machine?”

“Christmas present a couple of years ago,” Christopher told her. “Lissy can’t really carry a tune, but she loves to sing so I figured why not.”

“Me too,” Abby answered. Clarifying when he looked confused, she said, “I love to sing, but as Nick would say, it’s not exactly a talent of mine.” She took a deep, shaky breath when she realized she’d just spoken his name, aloud, for the first time since Christopher had taken her arm in the hospital, and she’d asked him, no, begged him, to take her anywhere Nick wasn’t. She couldn’t go home because she knew Nick (today’s episode notwithstanding); he’d be there, asking for forgiveness she wasn’t ready to give (didn’t know if she could) with those damned gray eyes that had done her in from hello.

“I’m sure you sing just fine,” Christopher told her.

Abby bit her tongue, telling herself he was just trying to be nice, and he really was, although the truth of the matter was, she wished he’d quit trying quite so hard. She mentally scolded herself for her thoughts. Maybe if Nick had put forth half as much effort…she was sure it said something about their relationship that she had been the one doing all the heavy lifting, and tried to shake her head clear of the troublesome thought. “I should go, stop intruding on your evening.” She barely recognized the words coming out of her mouth (they weren’t her ), and neither did Christopher, apparently, because he frowned and grabbed her hand between both of his own. When she tried to stand up and ended up sinking back against the couch cushions, a wave of dizziness making her legs as unsteady as a newborn colt’s, he lifted a concerned hand to her face and tucked her hair behind her ear.

“You should eat,” Christopher said earnestly. “You barely touched your pizza.”

Abby didn’t tell him that the first whiff of the pizza had made her feel slightly green around the gills, or that she had no appetite to speak of. Instead, she nodded, and whispered, “Okay.” Breathing in and letting out the breath slowly, she told him, “I have some crackers in my purse. I think I left it in your car.” She felt a curious sense of relief when Christopher dropped his hand from her face and stood up, and she sagged back into the pillows, letting her eyes drift tiredly shut. They snapped open again when Mr. Homan’s salty voice filled the room, and she straightened in her seat to regard the wheelchair-bound old man.

“Kathy, you’re as pale as a ghost. Gotta take care of yourself, girlie. You know what the doctor said…stress isn’t good for you or the baby. Need I remind you what happened last time?”

“Mr. Homan,” Abby kept her voice soft and gentle, “it’s me. Abby. Dr. Stone.”

Mr. Homan’s confusion-clouded eyes narrowed at her but showed no recognition of the name. “You’ll be wise to remember gifts like our Lissy don’t come along very often. You lose this one you might not get another second chance.”

Inexplicably, Abby felt as if a fist were squeezing around her heart. The old man’s words may have been directed to the dearly deceased daughter he’d wrongfully mistaken her for, but they just as easily could have been meant for her. “Mr. Homan, what are you…”

“Mr. Homan,” Janie burst into the room, apologies spilling from her lips as Christopher rejoined them, Abby’s purse in hand, “Dr. Stone, I’m sorry. I was on the phone, and I didn’t realize…”

Christopher silenced her with a shake of his head. “You don’t have to apologize, Janie. We all know how Dad is.” Handing Abby her purse, he nodded his head toward the old man’s room and took the handles to the wheelchair in hand. “You’ve had a long day. Shouldn’t you be getting some rest?”

Abby couldn’t make out Mr. Homan’s response as they disappeared from her sight, but she could distinctly hear his indignation ringing clear, and a tiny smile flirted with her lips. She was nibbling on a cracker, that hint of a smile still on her lips, when Christopher returned, lowering himself to the couch beside her.

“Sorry about that,” Christopher apologized. “He gets pretty confused sometimes. He’s convinced you look like my wife.” He looked away from her awkwardly and elaborated, “His daughter.”

Abby could tell she surprised him with her next question. “Do I? Do I look like Kathy?”

Clearing his throat, Christopher responded, without meeting her eyes. “Kathy’s hair was shorter, darker than yours, and her eyes were different. But she was about your height, maybe a little taller, and she had pretty much the same build. So yeah…yeah, you do look like Kathy, enough that I can understand why he gets you two confused sometimes.”

“So Lissy got her eyes?” Abby deduced, catching his eyes, eyes she’d never paid much attention to before now. They were a murky-looking green, so different from the melted warmth of Lissy’s chocolate eyes that Abby was convinced the girl’s mother’s genes had to have been the dominant ones. Not waiting for him to answer, she offered an apology of her own, for her prying questions. “I’m sorry. None of this is really my business.”

“It’s okay,” Christopher assured her. “After the way I treated you so rudely when we first met, I think you deserve a few answers. Not to mention my sincerest apologies. It isn’t your fault you look like her, and it isn’t your fault that that fact stings, just a little. What is your fault, though, is somehow, someway, you’ve made me like you.” He stopped to grin at her. “Really, really like you. So much so I don’t particularly give a damn if you’re carrying another man’s baby. I just want to spend time with you and maybe convince you to give me a chance.”

“Christopher,” Abby began gently, but he wouldn’t let her finish.

“I know you’re in love with him,” Christopher interjected. “But I also know he’s a first-class jerk, and he’s not worthy of you. Not like I am.”

Unable to look at him (the synapses in her brain had quit firing and her emotions were nothing more than a tangled wreck by this point), Abby stared at her hands and softly murmured, “I don’t know what to say.”

Christopher cleared his throat and reached a hesitant hand out to pat the knee that nervously bounced in place. “You don’t have to say anything. You don’t even have to think about it right now. Right now, all I think you should do is lie down, close your eyes, and try to get some rest.”

“That bad, huh?” Abby wryly questioned.

“No,” Christopher answered, standing up and offering her his hand. “I just remember how tired Kathy stayed when she was pregnant with the baby, and I figured it was probably the same with you.”

Abby took his hand and let him pull her to her feet. With her free hand, she unconsciously rubbed her gently rounded belly, and the affection in the gesture was evident. “I shouldn’t be taking advantage of your generosity like this,” she sighed a protest.

“If anyone’s taking advantage, it’s me,” Christopher admitted honestly. “My motives aren’t completely unselfish.”

Neither, Abby realized, were hers. She could have sought comfort from any of her other friends, yet she chose to let Christopher invite her into his home, already knowing (on some level) how he felt about her. She knew no one else could get under Nick’s skin quite like this man, this man she found herself following into his darkened bedroom. She hesitated at the door, feeling silly when Christopher seemed to read her thoughts.

“I spend most of my nights on the couch anyway,” he shrugged. “It’s quiet back here, the girls and Dad won’t bother you, you can even lock the door if it makes you feel better.”

Feeling the toll of the emotional day weighing down on her, Abby found herself nodding and murmuring a soft thank you as she eased herself down onto the mattress. She toed her shoes off, curling into herself and gratefully accepting the blanket Christopher tucked around her slender shoulders. “Maybe I will take a nap,” she told him, her heavy hazel eyes following him across the room, watching him close the blinds that covered the windows and darken the room even more. “Just a little one,” she yawned, tucking her hands beneath her head.

Christopher pulled the door shut with a knowing smile.

Abby was fast asleep already.




~*~




“Abby!” Nick called as he let himself into the darkened apartment, hoping against hope he’d find her inside, praying for the chance to start making things right. “Abby,” he called again, turning the lights on and ignoring Lucky when the cat appeared at the front door to greet him with a pitiful meow. Scooping the cat up absently in one hand, Nick carried him through the living room into the kitchen, dropping his keys and the meager contents of his pockets onto the coffee table as he passed through. Finding the cat’s bowl empty, he withdrew some canned cat food from the cupboards to feed the hungry little monster. Sighing as he watched Lucky attack his dinner, Nick admitted the truth he’d so desperately wanted to deny. “Looks like it’s just you and me, Pal.”

“Actually,” a timid, faraway voice answered.

Nick turned around slowly, to find Whitney lingering at the door he’d so carelessly left open.

“I hope you don’t mind,” Whitney apologized. “It was open,” she explained. “And I wanted to make sure you were okay.” Clutching her purse nervously in front of her, she accepted his unspoken invitation, stepping inside and softly shutting the door behind her. Guilt made her cheeks burn slightly, for she wasn’t being completely honest with him. She was worried, and she did want to make sure he was okay, but she wasn’t here completely on her own reconnaissance. Her loyalties divided between her two friends, Katie had implored her to come in her stead. “Are you?” Whitney found herself standing just a few feet away from Nick now. “Okay, I mean?”

Nick’s gray eyes were bright, and he shook his head, tired of the lies and mis-directions. “No. I’m not.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” Whitney murmured.

The only person Nick wanted (needed) to talk about it to wasn’t here. “No. Not really,” he answered, crossing to the fridge and pulling it open. Finding what he was looking for, he pulled out a beer for himself and looked to Whitney. “Want one?” When she declined that offer, Nick shut the fridge and started opening cupboards. “I think there’s still some wine around here somewhere.” Finally procuring a bottle, he ignored Whitney’s half-hearted protests and poured her a glass. Soon, they found themselves settled on the sofa, or rather, Nick slouched back against the cushions while Whitney primly perched on its edge, casting worried glances in his direction as he took a long drag from the chilled bottle in his hand. Before he realized what he was doing, Nick started talking. “She makes me crazy, you know.”

Whitney didn’t have to ask who he was referring to, there was no doubt whatsoever judging from the affection that lit up his gray eyes.

Appreciating Whitney’s silence (and letting it put him at ease), Nick continued, “She’s the last person on earth I ever imagined falling for. And having a baby with? If you would have told me, years ago when I first set foot in this town, that Abby Stone was the only blond I wanted, no, needed, in my future, I would have said you were nuts.” Meeting Whitney’s dark eyes, Nick was surprised to find himself laughing. “I thought she was an outrageous, flirtatious flake when I first met her. And when she nearly blinded me with pepper spray and attacked me with a wine bottle like the one over there,” he indicated the wine bottle they’d abandoned in the kitchen, “I should have run in the opposite direction.”


“But you didn’t,” Whitney reminded him.

“I didn’t,” Nick mused. “Something about her drew me in. She has this quality, I can’t describe it, it’s just her, really, Abby, and she bleeds into your senses, ingrains herself into your body and heart, and the next thing you know, you can’t imagine your life without her.”

“You love her.”

Nick neither confirmed nor denied the truth of Whitney’s simple statement. He just took another generous drink from the bottle cradled in his hands and swallowed, leaning forward to snag a piece of paper off of the coffee table and hand it to Whitney.

“Is this…” Whitney left the rest of her question unspoken.

Nodding unconsciously, Nick replied, “Our baby.”

“It’s tiny,” Whitney breathed. Love transformed Nick before her very eyes, and she wondered at the ease with which he let himself love the child he and Abby had created when he was so hesitant to lay voice to his obvious feelings for her. “How far along is Abby?”

Nick found himself transported back to that night in Boston when he’d first realized that what he shared with Abby transcended the mere physical, that his heart was most definitely involved, and he found himself saying, “Almost sixteen weeks.”

Mentally doing the math, Whitney smiled when she reached a realization. “A Christmas baby.”

Nick found himself smiling back at her. “Maybe.” Gradually, he sobered, and, setting his unfinished beer on the coffee table, he placed his elbows on his knees, cradling his head between his hands. “I’ve really f---d everything up, haven’t I?” Looking up when he felt the gentle, hesitant touch of Whitney’s hand on his back, he tried for a smile to let her know how much he appreciated the gesture, but it came out looking more like a grimace.

“It’s not too late,” Whitney tried to be encouraging.

If it’s not too late, Nick suppressed the terrible urge to yell, why do I feel so damn hopeless? Instead, he took her words in, tried to convince himself they were true. Sighing, he straightened, causing Whitney’s hand to fall away, and looked around the apartment, shrouded in shadows and silence, and it felt a thousand times worse than it had those weeks, months after he’d made his first blunder (kissing Jenny/Sheridan goodbye). It didn’t feel like a foregone conclusion yet, but it was pretty damn close. He couldn’t stand back and let Abby’s absence be permanent this time. But he knew he couldn’t do anything about it tonight either. She needed time, and, much as he hated to do it, he had to give it to her. Standing up, he looked down at Whitney, his face the picture of grim determination, and said, “Tell Katie I’m fine, or at least I will be. I won’t do anything stupid, like chase Abby down and make her listen to me. Not tonight anyway. I can’t make any promises about tomorrow, though. I need that lady in my life, any way that she’ll have me, and I’ll make her see that. I’m not going to let anyone or anything else come between us.”




~*~




“Who’s in the picture?”

Tony slid the worn photograph back into his wallet, tucking it into his jeans before turning from the window and facing Beth. With a small shrug of his shoulders, he forced an air of nonchalance. “Just someone I used to know.”

Beth crept closer, her arms wrapped protectively about her middle. “She must be someone pretty special.” When his dark eyes narrowed at her in confusion, she admitted, “That’s not the first time I’ve caught you staring at that picture.” Taking a seat before him, she relaxed her defensive posture, placing her palms upon her knees. “Tell me about her,” she entreated.

Cautiously, Tony moved closer to her, and when she scooted over on the sofa to give him room to join her, he lowered himself with a sigh, thankful she was speaking to him again after the angry words they had exchanged that morning. Without really thinking about it, he started talking. He felt he owed her some small measure of honesty for putting her through this whole mess, even if he couldn’t tell her the whole truth, not yet. “Her husband’s band used to play the bar I tended.”

Beth’s eyes widened slightly but she didn’t say anything.

“Guy was a real piece of work—selfish, arrogant, a boozer, a junkie,” Tony told her, “chased anything in a skirt. At first, he was real sneaky about it. Before it was over with though, he didn’t give a damn, cheated on her right in front of her. I don’t know why she put up with it.”

“Because she loved him,” Beth supplied.

Shaking his head in disbelief, Tony had to admit she was right. “I guess she did, love him, I mean. I never could figure out why though. That bastard had a mean streak a mile wide.”

Beth’s brows pinched with worry. “You mean…”

Nodding, Tony continued, “I never had any hard proof.” Not until it was too late, he thought to himself. “She kept coming to see him play. We’d talk. A lot of times I found myself trying to distract her with small talk. I wasn’t trying to save his sorry ass; I was just trying to spare her from a world of hurt. It didn’t work, but something else happened. She and I became friends. When the band went on tour, she kept coming to the bar. Next thing I knew we started spending time together outside of the bar.”

“And you became more than friends,” Beth surmised.

Tony didn’t outright answer her. “She was lonely. I missed my family, my friends.” He stopped to look at Beth, surprised but heartened when she fit her hand in his own.

“We missed you too, Antonio,” Beth squeezed his hand. “We’ve always missed you.”

Tony knew she hadn’t forgotten their argument, hadn’t changed her mind or the way she felt about his leaving so many years ago, and he didn’t expect her to. But her being here, holding his hand as he spilled his guts…he couldn’t find the words to tell her how grateful he was for her willingness to put that all behind her, if only for the moment, and be the friend he’d missed so much. “I’ve tried to tell myself I was the better man, but in the end, I hurt her even more than he did, Beth. Maybe not physically. But emotionally? She would have been better off if she’d never met me.”

Beth spoke to the contrary, though the identity of the woman in question was still a mystery to her. “I hardly think that’s true. It’s obvious you still care about her.”

“Vincent left because he didn’t love her,” Tony rubbed his hands roughly over his face.

“And what about you?” Beth waited, not really expecting an answer but asking the question anyway. Her eyes followed Antonio as he stood up, making his way back to the window.

“I left because I did.”

Beth looked at him for a long moment before saying the only thing that seemed fitting. “Wow.” Standing up, she joined him at the window, reaching for his hand. “This woman…is she the reason you came back?”

What had he told Lissy? All roads lead home? Tony’d had no idea how true that old adage would prove to be once he’d started on this journey—one that had felt a thousand years long. Beth really had no idea. He’d never expected to see Abby again, at least not until after, when he’d reclaimed everything that was rightly his. Somehow he knew her being here was just another one of the cruel coincidences the old man had engineered. The puzzle pieces were falling into place, piece by frustrating piece. “A big part of the reason,” Tony replied. Though not quite in the way you’re thinking, he silently added.

“And Sheridan?”

Sighing, Tony turned to face her. “You’re not going to let that go, are you?” Beth didn’t answer him; the stubborn expression on her face said it all. With a wry smile, Tony told her, “Maybe I just want to get to know my family better.”

Rolling her eyes at him, Beth dropped his hand. “You’d get to know them a lot better if you weren’t sneaking around. Your sister-in-law and all the kids.”

“All the kids?”

“All the kids,” Beth repeated, absently picking up around the small apartment as she talked. Holding up a purple ribbon, she smirked. “Yours?”

Snagging the ribbon between his fingers, Tony shook his head, his voice a low grumble. “She left this so she’d have a reason to come back.”

“Be nice,” Beth warned. “Lissy’s a sweet kid.”

“Are we talking about the same kid?” Tony retorted. “About this high,” he demonstrated with his hands, “blond, with heartbreaker eyes, and a mouth that won’t quit?”

“You’re not fooling anybody,” Beth shook her head at the grin he didn’t realize he was sporting. “You always were a sucker for blondes.”

In an effort to change the subject, Tony ignored her teasing. “Tell me about these kids.”

Beth smiled at him knowingly but let him get away with his diversionary tactics nevertheless. “You already know about Ali, Cristian, and Hope?”

Tony nodded.

“Miguel’s got two boys,” Beth revealed. “MJ’s the oldest.”




~*~





His knees pressing into the soft earth, blades of velvety green grass clenched between his fingers, MJ stared straight ahead silently, at the large, smooth stone that bore his mother’s name. He didn’t cry, but the corners of his eyes itched and burned and his throat felt like somebody big (like his dad or his uncle Luis) had both hands wrapped around it, making it hard for him to swallow. Behind him Simone waited patiently, and she didn’t try to tell him it would be alright or say that it was okay that he’d been so mean to his dad, and MJ appreciated that. Because he knew the truth; you didn’t have to be a grown-up to see that. Maybe you did have to be a grown-up to understand how God picked who went to Heaven and who didn’t, because he couldn’t wrap his young brain around one thing. Just a few feet away was a stone that read a familiar name, one of someone very much alive. “It’s not fair,” he decried.

Softly, Simone murmured, “What’s not fair, Honey?” She knelt by MJ’s side, wanting to open her arms to the grief-stricken little boy, but not wanting to lose the tenuous strand of trust MJ had gifted her with when she’d ushered him out of the house and brought him here, to the one place where he still felt a connection to his mom. “MJ,” she encouraged.

Chin stubbornly refusing to quiver, MJ turned to her with tears in his dark eyes. “It’s not fair how Ali’s mom got to come back and mine didn’t.”

This time Simone did sweep the little boy into her arms, and the tears came, slowly at first, then faster, until they were lung-crushing sobs. “I know you miss her. I miss her too.” Rubbing his back comfortingly, she pressed a kiss against the head tucked beneath her chin. “So does your dad.”

“I know,” MJ sniffled into her neck.

“And Joshua,” Simone reminded him.

Pulling back, MJ looked at her, his dark lashes spiked with tears. “But he’s so little.”

“That doesn’t mean he doesn’t miss her,” Simone gently knuckled away MJ’s crystal tears. “You’ve got a pretty important job, you know.”

“I know,” MJ sighed, withdrawing slightly from her to mutter, “take care of Joshua.”

“That is a very important job,” Simone assented, “but it’s not the job I was talking about.”

MJ’s dark eyes regarded her curiously.

“I’m talking about your dad,” Simone told him. “He needs someone to take care of him.” When MJ didn’t look convinced, she tried to explain. “Do you remember how long it took your dad to go ahead and let the doctors do your brother’s surgery?”

MJ nodded.

“Your dad was scared, MJ. He and your mom were always a team, best friends, for as long as I can remember.”

“Like Jake and Ali?” MJ queried.

“Yeah,” Simone smiled. “Like Jake and Ali.” Knowing she had MJ’s avid attention, she continued, “They never made a decision without talking to each other first. They took care of you guys like a team, and when your mom…when she went to Heaven, your dad was missing part of his team, and he felt a little lost.”

“But mom wanted Joshua to have the surgery.”

“I know that,” Simone stated. “And your dad knew that too.”

Tears still glistening on his cheeks, MJ frowned, “If he knew that, why was he so scared?”

Biting her lip, Simone searched within herself, trying to find the right words to make MJ understand the scary place Miguel had found himself thrust into when Kay had been abruptly taken from them all. “Remember when you first learned to ride your bike without the training wheels?”

Confusion furrowing his brows, MJ nonetheless nodded.
“You were brave, but you were still scared.”

“No, I wasn’t,” MJ refuted, though his dark eyes told another story. Relenting when Simone looked skeptical, he said, “Okay. But only a little bit.”

“Just a little bit,” Simone agreed with a small smile. “You felt better knowing your dad was there to catch you in case you fell, didn’t you?” She saw the beginnings of understanding light in the little boy’s expressive eyes. “Your dad doesn’t have anyone to catch him anymore. It’s just him, and he’s gonna fall a few times.”

MJ grew quiet, ducking his head guiltily.

Cupping his chin in her palm and making him look at her, Simone said, “You know you can talk to me, right MJ? I know I’m not your mom, and I know talking to me isn’t the same as talking to Abby, but your mom and me were friends for just as long as she and your dad were. I loved her very much, and I love you and your brother and your dad too.”

MJ took his time before answering her, and when he did, the words came in a torrent of renewed tears. “I don’t really wish he were gone. I just want my mom back.”

Gathering him close again, Simone squeezed him back just as tightly as his arms were clutching her. “I know, Honey. I know.”




~*~




Capturing Sheridan’s hand in his own before she could knock on Miguel’s door, Luis looked at her with apology in his deep brown eyes. “Sheridan,” he began, only to have her silence him with her fingers upon his lips.

“It’s okay,” Sheridan told him, squeezing his hand reassuringly. “Your brother needs you.” Replacing her fingers with her lips, she kissed him softly before gently removing her hand from his grasp and rapping on Miguel’s heavy wooden door. She felt her heart throb painfully within her ribcage when the broken man posing as her brother-in-law answered the door several minutes and bouts of knocking later. Joshua lingered in Miguel’s shadow, his tiny thumb firmly rooted in his mouth, clad in rumpled, mismatched pajamas.

Stepping aside to let them enter, Miguel, much like his brother, offered an apology, rubbing a weary hand over his own head. “Look, Luis, I’m sorry MJ missed practice.”

Scooping Joshua up in her arms, Sheridan hugged him close and shared a brief look with her husband before wandering toward the kitchen.

“Don’t worry about practice, Bro,” Luis told his kid brother, taking in his blood-shot eyes and the tight lines of sadness around his mouth. “MJ didn’t miss much. You know how the kids are,” he said, following Miguel into the living room, amidst scattered toys and other odds and ends. He unearthed MJ’s worn baseball glove when he pushed a pillow aside to take a seat beside Miguel on the sofa, and before he could stop it, the ball nestled inside it rolled out and into the floor.

“Leave it,” Miguel told him. “I’ll get it later.”

Luis did as he asked and silence fell between the two brothers.

The only sounds came from the kitchen, pots and pans clanging, glasses sliding across the kitchen counter, water filling up the sink.

Sheridan reappeared around the corner, Joshua perched on her hip, his head lolling against her shoulder. “Miguel, have you eaten?”

It spoke to Miguel’s state of mind that he didn’t rush to assure Sheridan his belly was full (like days gone past), and Luis couldn’t help a little teasing, hoping to lighten the somber mood that seemed to permeate the entire house. “I hope you still like pasta.”

“I heard that, Luis!” Sheridan called from the other room.

Luis caught a fleeting glimpse of a smile on his brother’s lips (that was as far as it went) before it disappeared again, and he was stricken anew by the changes Kay’s death had wrought on him. He’d aged seemingly overnight, and his eyes didn’t hold the quiet happiness that’d been ever-present since he and Kay had become inseparable friends on a baseball field so long ago. A familiar, long-buried ache seized Luis’s own heart, and he wanted to tell Miguel breathing would get easier again, smiles wouldn’t feel so much like betrayals, and love wasn’t just pain. But he knew, from experience, his kid brother wasn’t ready to hear him, and so he offered only his silent support. Digging the television remote out from between the sofa’s cushions, he filled the house with another sound, and lured by the sounds of the game, Joshua soon crept out of the kitchen to sit at his father’s feet.

Simone called to let Miguel know she and MJ were on their way, and by the time the seventh inning rolled around, she was there, depositing MJ in the living room with the rest of the boys and joining Sheridan in the kitchen just in time to help her put the finishing touches on their spaghetti dinner.

“Just this once,” Sheridan said, installing MJ and Joshua in front of the television and placing their plates on the coffee table while Simone delivered Luis’s and Miguel’s food. “Promise not to tell on me to Cristian and Ali?” She tickled Joshua’s tummy, and his pearly white teeth made a rare appearance with his smile.

MJ accepted her affectionate tousle of his hair and grudgingly gave his word.

The game went into extra innings and spaghetti was topped off with ice cream courtesy of Simone (she gave all the credit to MJ). For a little while, it almost seemed like any other day, any other family enjoying each other’s company.

Almost.

It was well past the boys’ bedtime when Simone saw herself out, promising she was only a phone call away should Miguel need anything, and it was only then Luis noticed his wife’s curious absence. He found her in the kitchen, Joshua drifting off to never-never-land in her arms, a lullaby on her lips as she gently swayed in place. Wearing a tender smile as he approached her, Luis carefully circled his arms around her waist, and his nephew’s heavy-lidded eyes blinked sleepily at him before fluttering shut once more. “Not quite the kind of dancing you had in mind, huh?”

“I’m dancing with two handsome men,” Sheridan murmured against Joshua’s temple with a smile. “I can’t complain.” She moved deeper into Luis’s loving embrace until the two of them were doing nothing more than shuffling from foot to foot, the sleeping toddler between them. “Help me put this one to bed?”

“I can do even better than that,” Luis replied. “Give me a few minutes, and it’ll be two for the price of one.” Kissing her softly, he promised he wouldn’t be long, returning to the living room with MJ’s name on his lips. The scene he inadvertently walked in on changed his plans though.

In the darkness of the living room, Miguel and MJ sat, side by side (they might as well have been worlds apart) on the sofa.

Only the flickering pictures playing on the television screen offered any illumination, but they provided enough of a glow to allow Luis to see the tears on both faces, and the sight made him hang back, change his course, and he held his breath, waiting for something he couldn’t name, waiting for one of them to bridge the gap on their own. He watched with pride as his brother did just that.

Without uttering a word, Miguel placed a loving hand on MJ’s dark head, sliding it down to the boy’s neck, and pulled him to his side, pressing a hard kiss to his forehead and wrapping his arms around him tight. The action turned MJ’s silent tears until gasping sobs, and he wound his arms around his father even tighter in return, what sounded like apologies tumbling from his lips.

Luis crept into the boys’ bedroom mere minutes later with a lump firmly lodged in his throat, and when Sheridan softly called his name, her back to him as she tucked the covers around Joshua’s slender shoulders, he found himself incapable of answering her. When she repeated his name, her beautiful blue eyes full of concern and looking right at him, he caught the hand she offered and pulled her to her feet and into his arms. He hugged her, so tight he was sure he was squeezing the breath right out of her, but she didn’t complain, and so, he didn’t loosen his grip.

They were still holding each other like that when Miguel finally darkened the bedroom’s door, MJ’s shoulders beneath his hands. “Say goodnight,” Miguel gently prodded MJ, steering him in the direction of his own bed, the covers already turned down and waiting for him.

“Night, Aunt Sheridan. Night, Uncle Luis,” MJ obeyed, his jaw stretching with a sleepy yawn as he climbed into his bed and allowed Miguel to pull the covers over him.

“Night, Sweetie,” Sheridan smiled down at him then kissed Miguel on the cheek. “You should bring the boys over sometime, let them play with Ali and Cristian. Bring yourself too. I know I’m not much of a cook, but I love having you.”

Another brief smile appeared on Miguel’s lips. “You cook just fine. Better than me.”

“No offense, Baby,” Luis teased her with a twinkle in his eyes, “but it doesn’t take much.”

From his bed, where he had almost drifted off, MJ giggled, and in an unguarded moment, he let Sheridan kiss him goodnight, as an apology of sorts, of course.

“You liked my spaghetti, didn’t you?”

MJ merely nodded and burrowed deeper into his covers.

“Your spaghetti’s Ali’s favorite.” Luis tried to make amends as they left the boys’ bedroom and its occupants behind, in a much better spirits than they had discovered them in. He was soon back to teasing her, though. “That could be because her taste buds don’t know any better.”

“Luis!” Sheridan cried, though she couldn’t help laughing herself. “Gwen was so far off the mark.”

“Gwen? What about Gwen?”
















Thanks so much for reading!!!

Mistakes are mine.

Until next time.

UAgirl
9.17.10, 12:53 PM
Can you believe it?

I'm finally posting a new chapter. :D

This is for you, Lynne (and Pam and divinelyfine and Bree and everyone else out there still reading).

In this chapter: Abby/Lissy, Sheridan/Antonio, Beth/Gwen, fun at the ballpark with Bennett families and Shuis (lol), Abby/Beth/Lissy/Ivy/Ethan, Miguel/Chad, and some Jake/Ali cuteness.

Hope you enjoy!




Chapter 35




Time, in Abby’s experience, didn’t always heal all wounds. Sometimes, it only enabled them to fester. In this particular case, with each passing day, Abby’s hurt and anger at Nick grew. So much so, that when Christopher extended an offer for her to stay with him and Lissy and Mr. Homan (as long as you need), she grabbed hold of it with both hands. After all, running away was what she did best (she learned from the master). And it wasn’t like she could show up on Miguel’s doorstep again—that wouldn’t do any of them any good. Neither could she bunk with Shane. No, her brother seemed too willing to give Nick (not Vincent, not even Tony) the benefit of the doubt. That left Christopher. Thankfully, he’d given her some much needed space. So much space, in fact (and trust), that he’d left her in charge of his young daughter (Janie and another sitter were alternating shifts with Mr. Homan) for the weekend while he was away on business. Nick, on the other hand…Abby sighed as she turned her cell phone off without answering it. Then she pasted a smile on her face and looked up at little girl who’d just entered the room. “Yes, Lissy?”

“Ms. Abby, I was just wondering…”

The little girl ducked her chocolate eyes shyly, and the smile on Abby’s face grew more genuine. Gratitude aside, her feelings for the little girl’s father were still largely undefined, and Mr. Homan’s continued bouts of confusion around her were making her more and more uneasy. But Lissy...it was different with Lissy. In the course of her two weeks here, she’d felt more and more drawn to the child. Like MJ and Joshua before her, Abby recognized something of herself in the motherless little girl, something more even. She couldn’t explain it, nor did she care to. Trying to assign neat, pretty little labels to the people in her life had always gotten her into trouble before. Holding a patient hand out to the child, she softly murmured, “You’re hiding something behind your back. What is it?”

Bashfully, Lissy let Abby coax her into showing her a bottle of cotton candy pink nail polish.

Abby’s lips twitched, and she scooted back further into the cushions of the sofa to make herself more comfortable, patting the empty space beside her before making the little girl an offer that had her beaming. “I’ll do yours if you do mine. You first.”

Bouncing onto the sofa beside Abby, Lissy toed off her sandals and presented her right foot first. “I wanted something cool like blue or green or purple,” she revealed, watching Abby unscrew the top from the polish, “but Daddy wouldn’t buy it for me unless I got pink.”

“Well,” Abby huffed, arranging herself sideways on the sofa to better face Lissy, “that’s not fair.”

“I know,” Lissy cried, sensing a kindred spirit in Abby. “That’s what I told him.”

“Purple is so much cooler,” Abby replied seriously, barely keeping her smile in check. “Remember,” she reminded Lissy when she voiced her animated agreement, “don’t wiggle them too much.” Carefully, she stroked the tiny brush over the small toes, acutely aware that the little girl’s gaze had never left her face. Finally, she told Lissy with a quirk of her lips, “Whatever it is, just spit it out. I promise not to bite.” She leaned back, grinning at Lissy’s sheepish look. “Lissy?” she prodded. The smile on her face faltered at what came out of the little girl’s mouth next.

“If I tell you a secret, will you promise not to tell anyone?”

“What kind of a secret, Lissy?” Abby asked softly, with trepidation.

“It’s not a bad secret, Ms. Abby,” Lissy rushed to reassure her. “I swear.”

Abby felt herself relax somewhat, though, in her opinion, even secrets of the seemingly harmless variety had the power to hurt. She told Lissy that, then she forced herself to take a deep, steadying breath and focus her attention back on the job at hand. A quick glance at Lissy’s indecisive face had her releasing a sigh. “Lissy,” Abby began, “I can’t promise I won’t tell, not without knowing what the secret is and whether you’re in trouble or not. If you still want to tell me…”

“I have a new friend!” Lissy blurted.

Abby jerked slightly in surprise, smudging the pale pink polish across Lissy’s toes. Dabbing at the polish with a crumpled tissue, she cast a teasing glance in Lissy’s direction. “Is this new friend a boy?” Once again, the little girl’s answer set off her internal alarm bells, and she discarded the tissue and recapped the polish, leaning over to set it on the coffee table.

“Not a boy,” Lissy told her. “He’s a man.”

“Lissy,” Abby chastised shakily, “You know you shouldn’t talk to strangers, especially strange men. This is definitely not a good secret,” she said, pushing herself up from the sofa and pulling out her cell phone. Her hazel eyes searched their immediate vicinity for the short list of phone numbers Christopher had left for her just that morning, and coming up empty, she scrolled through her own address book until she saw Luis’s name.

“But Ms. Abby,” Lissy protested, standing up as well. “He’s not a bad man. He’s not,” she insisted. “He knows Lissy’s daddy, and he knows you.”

In disbelief, Abby disconnected her phone, Luis’s tinny voice on the other side, and stared at the indignant little blond, holding out something, something that looked a whole lot like a photograph. “What did you say?”

Lissy repeated herself, pushing the photograph into Abby’s hands. “He knows you, Ms. Abby. I took this picture from his wallet.”

“Lissy?” Abby faltered for words. The person in the picture was her, the her from before, the girl-woman that had no clue that in a few short months’ time her whole world was going to go to Hell in a hand basket.

Misreading Abby’s expression, Lissy rushed to defend herself, the shame of the stolen magazine still burning a hole in the pit of her belly. “I didn’t steal it. Honest. I just borrowed it.”

It couldn’t be. Could it? Only one of the two people that could possibly have that particular picture in their possession knew Luis, and it sure as hell wasn’t Vincent in his tiny windowless, barred dwelling. “You borrowed the picture. I got it, Lissy,” Abby cut the little girl off before she could defend her innocence once more. “His name, Lissy. Tell me his name,” she demanded, past lips that were having trouble forming coherent words in that precise moment.

“I can’t,” Lissy shook her head, reclaiming the picture and backing away warily from Abby, whose bright hazel eyes were staring at her from an unnaturally pale face. “I’m sorry, Ms. Abby. I promised.”

“Lissy,” Abby reached out for the child, but she evaded her grasp, hurriedly sliding her feet back into her sandals and racing for the door.

"I promised!” Yanking it open, Lissy barely spared Abby a backward glance before escaping outside.

Grabbing her purse and scribbling a note to Janie, Abby did the only thing she could do. She took off after her.



~*~



High above the Harmony coastline, a radiant smile on her face and blue eyes shining with appreciation for her new pupil’s aptitude, Sheridan praised, “You’re a natural, Brian.”

Tony’s eyes fluttered closed briefly at the false name that flowed so readily from her lips, and he deftly deflected her accolades with a compliment as sweet as honey but nevertheless true. “You’re a good teacher.”

“I don’t know about that,” Sheridan laughed modestly, thinking over her last lesson with her little son, and his awestruck inability to do much more than hang on and enjoy the ride. “At least Cristian’s having fun.”

“He’s learning,” Tony reassured her. “Trust me. He’s taking it all in. Me, on the other hand…I think I’m going to leave it to the Master to land this bird.”

“Brown-noser,” Sheridan cried, blue eyes twinkling as she did just that. Back on solid ground, she took the hand he offered, hopping down from the small craft and lifting a hand to her wild blond hair. She laughed at the smile he gave her. “Don’t even pretend I look okay,” she warned, laughing. Her laughter gradually died away when he lifted his hands to her hair with a smile, in a futile attempt to tame her locks.

“Sorry,” Tony apologized, dropping his hands awkwardly when he realized she’d stopped laughing, stopped breathing altogether it seemed. Clearing his throat, he attempted to tease a smile back on to her beautiful face. “It seems there’s nothing I can do. You’re a hopeless case.” He breathed a sigh of relief when the light returned to her crystal eyes, and the uncomfortable moment passed.

“Luis has been telling me that for years,” Sheridan told him, deftly stepping around him and walking toward the hangar to collect her things. Glancing at the watch on her wrist, she exclaimed over the advancing hour. “I’m going to have to hurry if I’m going to make it the game. Thank goodness, there’s only a few left,” she babbled on her way to her car. “My son didn’t inherit the Lopez-Fitzgerald fondness for the sport. He’d rather be at home, playing chase with Max in the yard.”

“Or flying toward the heavens with his mama,” Tony supplied with a grin. He had no doubt that was what it felt like to his shy little nephew. It wasn’t much different for him.

The smile was back. “Or that,” Sheridan said. “You should come. Luis will be there, Miguel and Hank too. It’ll give you a chance to catch up.”

“Maybe,” Tony answered, opening her car door for her when they reached it. He waited for her to slide inside before he gently eased it closed. “I’ve got…”

“People to see, other places to be,” Sheridan cut him off knowingly. “If I didn’t know better,” she remarked, “I’d think you were avoiding Luis.” At his stricken expression, she felt the need to apologize. “I’m just kidding, Brian. I didn’t mean…”

Tony didn’t allow her to finish the thought. “No harm done,” he assured her.

“I really didn’t mean that the way it sounded,” Sheridan bit her lip in embarrassment.

“Sure you didn’t,” Tony teased her lightly, enjoying the gentle flush that suffused her cheeks. Tapping the face of her watch with his index finger, he reminded her of the hour, “You don’t want to be late.” Removing his hand, he stepped back from the car and offered her a smile. “Same time next week?”

Nodding as she turned the key in the ignition and started the car, Sheridan returned his smile with one of her own as she put the car into reverse. “Same place.”

Tony waited until he was sure her car was safely out of sight before he let the smile drop guiltily from his face.



~*~



An automatic smile came to Beth’s face when Gwen swept into the Book Café, Jake hot on her heels. “Let me guess,” she asked the harried-looking blond, “the meeting ran over and you’re late for the game.”

“Oh, the meeting’s still going,” Gwen answered her, directing Jake to make it snappy instead of dawdling in front of the treats on display. “Try to pick something out that won’t rot yours or your sisters’ teeth out completely.” Her gaze landing back on Beth, she gave her an apologetic smile, “I just pulled the guilt card, convinced Ethan to cover for me and let me leave early.”

“Ah,” Beth nodded knowingly, “the guilt card. There’s still a lot of mileage left on that one.”

Gwen defended herself. “I use it sparingly.”

“Are you kidding?” Beth’s lips curled as she asked the question. “Take advantage of it while you still can.” Sobering somewhat, she told Gwen, “I know Ethan regrets his past treatment of you and Theresa. He feels he’s gotten off too lightly.” She lowered her voice on the last statement, though it was really an open secret amongst all involved. The tentative renewal of friendship between her husband and the woman standing in front of her, filing through her purse to locate her wallet, inspired gratitude in her everyday.

Withdrawing a slim piece of plastic and handing it to Beth, Gwen instructed Jake to run ahead to the car in one breath, then distractedly told Beth in the next, “Debit.” Punching in her pin number, she admitted her feelings toward Ethan had softened. “I can’t be mad at him anymore. Not when things turned out the way they did.” Sliding her debit card back into her wallet and zipping the wallet up in her purse, she started laughing when they both heard the racket outside, courtesy of her young son. “I’m where I’m supposed to be.” Warmly, she said her goodbyes. “Take care, Beth. If the meeting doesn’t go too long, maybe we’ll see you at the game.”

Beth remembered the inconspicuous little bag tucked beneath the counter and the fact that Julie was already closing the Book Café up tonight. Asking her to come in even earlier would feel like she was taking advantage of her kindness, and if things went the way she hoped they would tonight, she’d rather save and stockpile her favors. “Maybe some other time,” she offered. “Ethan and I kind of have plans.”

“And I ditched him in the middle of an important meeting,” Gwen frowned. “Why didn’t he say something?”

Beth quickly alleviated her guilt. “He didn’t say anything because they’re a little spur of the moment.”

Her inside knowledge made Gwen a little suspicious. As she backed out of the Book Café, Jake having renewed his efforts to capture her attention and remind her just how late they were, she couldn’t help but ask, a curiously Hank-like twinkle in her brown eyes, “Beth, are you…"

Beth couldn’t tamp down her hopeful smile. “Maybe? I don’t know yet. I wanted to wait for Ethan.”

Gwen found herself grinning at the other woman. “I’ll be sending good thoughts your way.” She groaned when Jake renewed his efforts to speed her along by laying on the car’s horn. “Although…” she let the unspoken thought stay that way as she tucked her purse beneath her arm, waved, and hurried outside with a stern expression on her face that practically dared Jake to try any additional funny business.

Beth was still laughing several minutes later when the door to the Book Café practically slammed open and Lissy scampered through, her chocolate eyes looking more than a little frantic. “Lissy, is everything okay?”

Darting a glance furtively over her shoulder and scanning the Book Café quickly to make sure they were alone, Lissy blurted out, “Where’s Mr. Tony?”

Momentarily struck dumb by the little girl’s question and the panic and guilt etched into her young face, Beth found she couldn’t answer her immediately. In fact, it wasn’t until the child started for the back stairs that Beth recovered the power of speech. “Lissy, Mr. Tony isn’t here.” She knew, because she’d found the apartment empty herself not even two hours earlier. It’d taken the better part of an hour before she’d reconciled herself to the fact that she could in no way control Antonio’s behavior, even more than that before she’d accepted that he’d once again blatantly refused to follow her advice and struck out on his own, in broad daylight, risking alerting everyone to his whereabouts. It’d taken that hour and then some for her to decide she wasn’t going to allow him to ruin what had the potential to be one of the best days of her life. And with Lissy’s arrival, it’d taken only seconds to undo all of that hard work and plunge her back into worry for the man they both considered a friend. “Lissy, what is it? What’s wrong?” she cried, grabbing the little girl by the arm before she could go any further.

Biting her lip, Lissy hesitated only slightly before pushing her hand into the pocket of her shorts and withdrawing what looked to be a photograph.

“Lissy,” Beth let the child’s arm go and held out her hand. “It’s all right. Let me see,” she insisted, releasing a relieved breath when the child reluctantly complied. Her eyes widened in recognition, and she looked back up to the nervously babbling girl.

“I showed it to her. I took it from Mr. Tony’s wallet, and I showed it to her, and now I’m going to be in so much trouble.”

Beth’s first thought—she wasn’t the only one—was followed closely by another, incredulous one: Abby?! Abby was the woman in the picture? Glancing up and seeing tears welling in those big chocolate eyes, Beth lay a comforting hand on Lissy’s arm and attempted to pull her closer. “Who,” she gently asked Lissy, “who did you show the picture to?”

Lissy drew in a shaky breath and started to answer her, only to lose all of her courage with the opening of the Book Café door and the tinkling of the welcoming bells. A tear spilled from her enormous eyes to trickle down her cheek when she followed Beth’s gaze to the new arrival.

Abby’s hazel eyes were bright with questions and accusation, and even before she spoke, Beth had her answer.

“Me. She showed the picture to me.”



~*~



With a smile on his face, Luis crouched down before the stroller where his youngest daughter was currently cooing and gurgling happily, blowing the occasional drooling raspberry while she kicked her feet out restlessly. Covering her wispy dark curls with one of his large hands, Luis leaned forward to press a kiss to the baby’s pillow soft cheek before straightening back up and directing his smile toward his mother. “Thanks for watching her, Mama. Sheridan should be here soon.”

Pilar returned her son’s smile and squeezed the hand of her eldest granddaughter, curled into her side and giggling at her father when he repeated his actions from a moment earlier, ruffling her own blonde curls and kissing her noisily on the cheek. “We had a good day, didn’t we, Mi hija?”

“We did,” Ali agreed with a nod, flapping her hand in an enthusiastic wave when she saw her aunt Theresa and Chad approach from the crowded parking lot. Activity buzzed around them at the other two baseball fields and the adjoining playground, but Ali was content to stay by her nana’s side. She beamed at her grandfather when he appeared before them and handed her a sweating cup filled with soda.

“Martin,” Pilar scolded.

“So,” Luis winked at his AliCat. “Our suspicions were right all along. You and Papa do spoil them.”

“Thanks, Grandpa Martin,” Ali murmured, her blue eyes twinkling as she watched her daddy’s good-natured teasing of her nana. She nibbled lightly on the end of her straw before taking a sip.

“Yo, Luis!” Hank called, steering a squirming Emmy toward the dugout and nodding at Cristian and a few of the other kids spilling from the field. “Potty time.”

Ali giggled again. Before every game, her daddy and uncle Hank and sometimes some of the moms, lined up all the kids and made sure they didn’t have to go to the bathroom. The way uncle Hank always announced it, though, made it sound like he was calling it “Party time.” Much less embarrassing if you asked her. This time, since her mom and Gwen weren’t here yet, Mrs. Hotchkiss got roped into helping out. When Sara and another little girl promptly dug in their heels and refused to follow her to the restroom, Ali set down her soda and volunteered to help. Thankfully, her aunt Theresa decided to go with her, making the worried expression on her daddy’s face disappear.

Emmy appeared in front of them, pulling at the front of her pants and shifting from one pink cleat to another. “I gotta go real bad,” she whined.

“You better listen to her,” Sara warned, brown eyes big and serious, “or she’ll pee her pants.”

Ali exchanged a wide-eyed look with her aunt Theresa, and before she knew it, her aunt Theresa had snatched Emmy up in her arms and made her way to the front of the bathroom line, apologizing and declaring the situation an emergency. By the time Ali and company had made it inside the small, three-stalled bathroom, Emmy was at the sink, singing to herself as she washed her hands and Aunt Theresa tugged her belt tight around her skinny waist.

Sara merely rolled her eyes and pushed into an empty stall to take care of business.

When Theresa, Ali, and the trio of little girls emerged from the bathroom, Gwen and Ali’s own mother had arrived.

Emmy broke from the pack, scampering to her mother and gleefully exclaiming, “Mommy!”

Gwen hugged Emmy and reached out to smooth Sara’s wayward brown hair down, but it was a hopeless effort. Like her brother, she had inherited Hank’s hair, and too often, it seemed to have a mind and will of its own. Glancing over at Sheridan, she remarked with a shrug that made everyone but Sara smile, “She’s going to be wearing a helmet anyway.”

Ali patiently waited her turn before asking Gwen, “Did Jake come with you?”

Gwen gave her daughters a gentle push toward Luis, who was passing by with Cristian firmly in hand. She rolled her eyes at the look that came over Luis when he spotted his wife and shared a quiet laugh with Theresa. “Pathetic much?”

“Jealous much?” Sheridan threw back, leaving them to catch up with her husband, but not before reminding Ali, “Don’t forget to check in, Sweetie.”

Finally, Gwen gave Ali her undivided attention and told her, “He’s waiting by the swings.” For good measure, she repeated Sheridan’s reminder before sending Ali on her way. She quirked a brow at Theresa’s grin, “What?” She rightfully took Theresa’s ensuing comment for the compliment it was.

“You are such a mom.”

“Can’t be too careful with my future daughter-in-law.”



~*~



From his vantage point on the bleachers beside Miguel, Chad marveled at the friendly interaction between his fiancée and her former nemesis, “Never thought I’d see the day.”

With a half-smile curling his lip, Miguel agreed, “Me either.”

On the bleachers, in front of the two men, Joshua played with a tiny black and white police car, clanging it loudly on the metal and scooting it roughly back and forth.

He’d drawn the curious stares of several of the neighboring parents and fans, but so far, no one had complained, and Miguel had let him be, content to let him entertain himself.

“Let me guess,” Chad chuckled. “Present from Chief Bennett?”

“Actually,” Miguel corrected him, “Chief Lopez-Fitzgerald.”

Luis, hearing his name mentioned, reluctantly broke his kiss with his wife to tease, “What’s that? My ears are burning.”

“That’s not the only thing burning,” Chad muttered under his breath. “What about his lungs?” His dark eyes twinkling wickedly at his aunt, Chad couldn’t resist a little teasing of his own. “I thought this was tee-ball, Coach. Not tonsil hockey.”

“Chad,” Sheridan spoke warningly.

The bright pink blush that crept toward the neckline of her low-cut shirt made it hard to take her admonition seriously, and Chad merely grinned at her. He started laughing again when she left Luis’s side in an exaggerated huff and sought Pilar out. “She makes it so easy.”

Miguel couldn’t help but smile himself.

“It’s good to see you smile, Man.”

Miguel’s eyes were drawn back to Chad’s steady gaze.

“I know times have been tough, but it’s okay to let a little sunshine peek in from time to time. Kay herself would tell you that,” Chad said. “Maybe not in such nice words,” he allowed after a few seconds’ reflection.

“You steal that off of a Hallmark card?” Miguel deadpanned.

Chad choked out a laugh, and Joshua looked up from his solitary game of cops and robbers to stare at him curiously. “Hear that, kid? I think your daddy just attempted a funny.” To Miguel, he said, “The execution was damn-near perfect. Your content could use a little work though.” Growing more serious, he reminded him that his family and friends weren’t putting a rush on his grief for Kay. “You take all the time you need, Man. We’ll all still be here when you’re ready.”

Turning his gaze toward his son taking the field with his cousins, Miguel could only nod.

The Santa-like umpire squatted behind Emmy, strategically placed in her latest position of catcher by her uncle Luis, yelled, “Play ball,” and the game began.

When his sister joined them and Joshua grinned at them with nacho cheese covering the majority of his face and MJ hit a triple in the top of the second inning, Miguel’s half-smile returned and even crept into his dark eyes. He’d missed the feel of the sun on his face.




~*~



Abby cleared her throat. “Does anybody want to tell me what is going on? Lissy?” she entreated. “Beth?”

Beth’s throat worked but nothing would come out, no words, nothing, until the bells tinkled again, and Ethan and Ivy entered the Book Café, Julie just behind them. Beth’d never been happier to see either of them before. And Julie…at this particularly awkward moment, Julie was an absolute godsend. Still, she couldn’t help herself. “Julie, your shift doesn’t start for another hour.”

“I called her.” Ethan waved Julie off when she would have answered Beth and moved toward his wife wearing a boyish smile. If he’d noticed Abby, he’d given no indication.

Ivy, on the other hand, studied the petite blonde with cool, suspicious, blue-green eyes. “Darling,” she kept her eyes on Abby as she addressed Beth, “are we interrupting something?”

Abby’s attention wavered from Lissy and Beth and focused on Ivy. She narrowed her eyes at the older woman’s calculating expression. “And if you were?”

Ivy merely arched a slim brow in challenge.

The temperature in the small establishment had dropped sharply, but Ethan and Julie appeared to be completely ignorant of the change, and Beth felt completely helpless, caught in the crossfire. She cast furtive glances between the two women having an icy, silent standoff in the middle of her store then turned to look at Lissy, only to discover the little girl had seized the opportunity to disappear. She didn’t have time to contemplate Lissy’s whereabouts before her eyes were drawn back to Ethan’s eager face. He’d begun to speak again.

“…the meeting went well. So well, in fact, I wanted to celebrate. Mother suggested the Seascape, but I told her we’d let you decide.”

Tearing her eyes away from Ivy and Abby with difficulty, Beth bit her lip fretfully and looked at her husband in protest. “I’m not dressed for the Seascape.” Not to mention, the Seascape was on the opposite end of Harmony, making it much more difficult for her to head off any potential trouble with Antonio and Abby. She still couldn’t wrap her brain around the fact that Abby was the woman in Antonio’s picture, the woman he’d loved and left. God, this didn’t just have the potential to be a mess anymore. It was virtually ensured to be a disaster of nuclear proportions. “Besides, I can’t dump the store on Julie again. She does so much for me already.”

"I don’t mind,” Julie insisted, tying her apron around her waist. “The place doesn’t look all that busy anyway,” she said, making her way toward Abby. She smiled when she recognized her. “Can I get you anything Ms. Stone? We have plenty of non-caffeinated drinks to choose from that won’t bother the baby at all. Oh! Look at you. You’re really starting to show. You’ve got the cutest little belly. How far along are you? Dr. Taylor must be beside himself.”

Beth and Ethan wore expressions of sympathy. Even Ivy had the grace to look embarrassed at Julie’s faux-pas.

Abby smiled wanly at the young girl’s effusive words and guileless face. Just her luck. She would run into the only person in Harmony who didn’t know about her and Nick’s latest estrangement on a day that was already on a rapid decline. Still, she forced herself to be polite. “Eighteen weeks.” She looked back to Beth and Ethan, Ivy, the empty space where Lissy had stood, and felt a sudden weariness settle heavily over her shoulders. She wasn’t getting the answers she sought tonight, at least not from any of them, and she really didn’t want to have to interrogate a little girl, provided she found her (oh God, she had to find her…it wouldn’t do to lose somebody else’s kid). Maybe a drink wasn’t a bad idea. Too bad it wasn’t of the alcoholic variety. “You know what Julie,” she tried for a brighter smile, “I think I will have that drink. What do you got?”

As Julie recited the Book Café’s entire non-caffeinated menu, Beth felt the walls closing in on her, inch by inch, and decided maybe it was time to let Antonio fight his own battles. “Maybe we can go to the Lobster Shack?” she suggested. “That way we won’t be too far if Julie needs me.”

“The Lobster Shack is fine,” Ivy answered for her son. “Isn’t it, Darling?”

“The Lobster Shack it is,” Ethan easily agreed.

“Just let me get my purse,” Beth said. Walking around the counter and grabbing her purse, she stuffed the bag she’d safeguarded for the majority of the day inside and zipped it closed. When she looked up, she found herself staring into an unnerving pair of hazel eyes.

“If you see Lissy,” Abby began.

“I’ll send her your way,” Beth replied. “Abby…”

Abby shook her head, cutting Beth off before she could say anything more in front of Ivy, who watched the entire awkward encounter with extreme interest. “Now, Julie,” she turned her attention back to the young waitress, happily chatting her employer’s husband up as he waited for his wife. “I’ve heard all of my choices, but what do you recommend?”

"Do you like strawberries? I’d definitely suggest the Strawberries and Cream.”




~*~



Having reached the swings, Ali was disappointed to discover they were occupied, with Jake nowhere in sight, and the sunny smile she’d been wearing in anticipation of seeing him fell. “Jake?” she turned around slowly, scanning the bustling playground for him. “Jake, where are you?”

“Looking for me?” Jake grinned at the startled little squeal she gave in response to his surprise approach, and he knew she wasn’t too mad (even though she pretended to be) when she frowned at him and shook her pretty blonde head.

“Jake Bennett, what a mean thing to do,” Ali crossed her arms over her middle and tried to look unforgiving, which ended up being a total waste of time. She knew it and Jake knew it; Uncle Hank called her a true bleeding heart.

Still, Jake felt bad. Ali had that effect on him. It sure was a good thing he’d come prepared—even though this wasn’t quite the situation he’d expected to be in (despite the fact he was always apologizing to Ali for something).

For the first time, Ali noticed Jake’s hands weren’t empty, and her blue eyes lit up with pleasure when he presented her with a peace offering. “Is that for me?”

Jake handed the cupcake over with a nod. “I know it’s not your favorite, but it’s good.”

He was grinning at her again, and Ali ducked her head to hide her smile when she noticed a tiny dot of white frosting in the corner of his mouth. “Thank you,” she murmured softly. Jake groaned, and Ali looked up at him with questioning blue eyes.

“You going to smile at it all day? Eat it.” He rolled his eyes at her when she took a dainty, girly bite and turned to go. “C’mon.”

They left the swings behind, walked past the monkey bars, briefly considered the slides, and found themselves at the merry-go-round where Ali promptly sat, drawing her knees up to her chest and bringing the cupcake to her lips again with a blissful sigh.

Jake watched her in awed silence—until she managed to get a small swipe of frosting on her nose. A slow grin crawled across his face, and he laughed when Ali looked at him questioningly.

“Oh,” Ali giggled when Jake touched a finger to her nose, coming away with white frosting. “Eww,” she cried out when he stuck his finger in his mouth and sucked the icing off. “Jake, that’s just gross.”

If she thought that was gross…she was such a girl. Besides, icing was icing. Jake shook his head at her, standing up and giving a mighty push. When Ali squealed again and clutched the bar closest to her, Jake started moving faster, pushing harder, and before long, he started getting dizzy himself, from Ali’s breathless giggles, the playground and entire world spinning round and round, and he threw himself onto the merry-go-round beside her and held on tight. For a little while, there was nothing but blue skies, big white, fluffy clouds that reminded Jake of marshmallows, Ali laughing beside him, and the funny little tumble in his stomach (he told himself it was the merry-go-round, but then he remembered the beaming smile Ali had given him at church the other day, and he felt a little sunk). Gradually, the merry-go-round began to slow, and the world around them felt less like a shifting kaleidoscope and more like one of those fuzzy around the edges paintings his mom was always trying to convince his dad was real art. Jake lay back against the sun-warmed metal, his rumpled dark head close to Ali’s crown of wispy curls and her hand in his own, and decided maybe his mom was right. Wait a minute! Ali’s hand? In his own? He was holding Ali’s hand? He couldn’t be seen holding a girl’s hand, even if that girl was Ali, especially not in front of Dylan and his gang. Jake was a chivalrous guy, but the fact remained that he was still a guy, and guys didn’t do hand-holding stuff, unless they were well and totally whipped (like his dad and Uncle Luis). He had to find someway to safely extract himself from this situation, without hurting Ali’s feelings of course. “Um, Ali?”

Ali looked over at Jake expectantly.

Jake cleared his throat awkwardly, helpless under the magic of those sparkling blue eyes, and he held in a sigh of great relief when Ali seemed to read his mind with a gentle smile, releasing his hand and laying her own low over her stomach. From the direction of the baseball fields they heard wild cheering and his grandma’s distinctive voice yelling one of his sister’s names, and Jake said, “They must be winning.”

“Must be,” Ali agreed, pulling herself upright.

Her blonde hair was a mess, but Jake liked it, so he didn’t say anything, just pulled himself upright beside her and pretended not to watch her out of the corner of his eyes. “Mom says you might get to be in my class in the fall.”

“That’s what Ms. Kinsay says,” Ali shrugged, conflicted between happiness at the thought of spending more time with Jake and disappointment at the possibility of being separated from Lissy.

“You must be real smart to be able to skip a grade.”

Ali smiled at his roundabout praise.

“I bet you get it from Uncle Luis,” Jake said, completely oblivious to the mine-field he was venturing into with his innocent statement. Besides his parents, of course, his uncle Luis was one of the smartest people he knew. He knew he’d stepped into it big time with her next question.

“Who says I didn’t get it from my mom?” Ali challenged. “She can speak Spanish and French, fly airplanes, and she never loses an argument with my daddy.”

Now Jake was still a kid, but he was a smart kid, and he could guess at why Sheridan never lost an argument with his uncle Luis. They were two of the mushiest married grown-ups he’d ever known. And Uncle Luis was always making googly-eyes at her. It didn’t take a genius to figure this one out. After all, his mom and dad had already had the talk with him. Yeah, Jake was a smart kid, a real wise(ass) kid, but he was beginning to pick up a few things from watching his parents in action; one of the most important being—never tell a lady she’s wrong. “Well, then, you’re double smart. That explains it.” He didn’t like how Ali’s blue eyes twinkled at him like she knew some sort of secret, but he figured he was safe for the time being (disasters avoided and all that) and let it go, falling into comfortable silence with her again. He let one of his feet trail along the ground, pushing every once in a while and setting the merry-go-round into lazy motion.

Ali held onto the bar closest to her, resting her cheek against it and closing her eyes in contentment. With the warm sunshine and the knowledge that Jake was only an arm’s reach away, she started to drift, only stirring when Jake’s voice interrupted her sleepy daydreams with a question.

“Who’s that man?”

Ali blinked her eyes open, and just along the periphery of the playground, in the protective shadow of the trees that lined the outer edge of the park, stood a man, tall and dark and…he was staring straight at them, her and Jake, and it wasn’t until Ali felt Jake grab her by the arm that she was able to tear her own eyes away. “Jake,” she protested.

Jake didn’t like how the man was staring at Ali, not at all, and he pulled her away from the playground, back toward the safety promised by Uncle Luis and his dad and the whole crowd of people watching the game without a care in the world who caught him holding Ali’s hand. “Ali, c’mon.”

Ali turned back to the trees and the man and felt her heart jump within her chest and her palms grow sweaty at what she saw, or rather, what she didn’t see.

The man was gone.






Feedback is much loved (much, much loved) and appreciated!

Sorry for ending the chapter there, but I had to.

Shouldn't Sher be hearing little internal alarm bells? What do you think?

Luis/Ali/Hope--aww moment. Man loves his girls. Course he loves his boy too, but there's just something about his girls.

Jake the protector. :D Little Cassanova in the making.

What in Beth's bag, huh Lynne? LOL!

Still haven't decided whether I'll pick the next chapter up right where this one ends or not.

Any suggestions?

:D

UAgirl
10.9.11, 11:21 PM
OMG!


Has it really been over a year?


:redfacey:


I'm so sorry, guys.


And slightly embarrassed.


I hope this is worth the wait.


Posting this in a bit of a hurry because I have a really early start tomorrow so there might be some typos, etc.


Just remember all mistakes are mine.


And feedback is love, love, love (thanks so much, Tracey! And Lynne, wherever you are. ;)).


Enjoy!











Chapter 35





Noah shook his head as he approached Luis, telling his boss without words that he and Quinlan had found nothing out of the ordinary along the edges of the park.

“Marty,” Luis acknowledged Noah’s more experienced counterpart.

“You know how popular those walking trails are,” Quinlan responded. “There are footprints all over the place.”

“What are you thinking, Noah?” Luis met Noah’s silver blue eyes, waiting for the younger man to add his opinion to the mix.

“I’m thinking,” Noah paused to expel a sigh, “I’m thinking Jake just got a little spooked is all. You know how protective he is of Ali.”

Noah left it unsaid, the history that made Jake and pretty much everyone else that loved Ali that way, but Luis read it loud and clear nevertheless. They were all, to varying degrees, guilty of it, with he himself being, perhaps, one of the worst offenders. Still, that knowledge did nothing to thwart the small twinge Luis felt in his gut telling him maybe Jake had a right to be spooked. He drew in a deep breath, though, and reasoned with himself that he needed more than a gut feeling to go on here; he needed evidence, and right now, he just didn’t have it. He nodded and thanked Noah for his time. “Get out of here, Noah. You’ve more than paid your dues this week. Say hi to Katie and Kendall for me.”

“Will do,” Noah nodded. He glanced at Quinlan and set off for the parking lot and the police cruiser he and his colleague had left there when they’d responded to Luis’s call.

“Kid’s probably right, Boss,” Quinlan made an attempt to allay Luis’s unspoken anxiety about the situation. “Tell the little princess she’s got nothing to worry about; we’re all looking out for her.”

Luis took in Quinlan’s statement with some small measure of relief and much gratitude and told the other man so. “Thanks, Quinlan.” A smile coming to his lips as he noticed Noah waiting impatiently by the locked cruiser, he continued, “Don’t keep the kid waiting. He’s got a fiancée to get home to.”

Quinlan grinned back at Luis and shook his head. “To be that young and in love again,” he remarked.

"I don’t know about the young part, but I’m still just as in love with my wife as the day I met her,” Luis revealed with a twinkle in his dark eyes.

“Really?” Quinlan kidded. “You could have fooled me that day with all the ranting and raving you did.” He chuckled. “I’ll never forget your first encounter with the lovely Miss Crane.”

Luis’s smile stretched into a grin. “Neither will I. Beat it, Marty.”

“Will do, Boss.”

Luis watched Quinlan jog over to join his young (sometimes) partner then returned his gaze to the line of trees at the edge of the park. His brown eyes searched their mysterious shadowy depths for clues, and finding none, met back up with Hank, standing a few feet away, the remainder of the team’s equipment at his feet.

“They find anything?” Hank questioned as Luis approached, shouldered a couple of the heavier bags, and led the way to the parking lot and the lone vehicle remaining, Luis and Sheridan’s SUV.

“Nothing overly suspicious,” Luis answered him as he worked with Hank to load the equipment in the back. “Noah thinks Jake just got spooked.”

“He’s probably right,” Hank agreed, cinching his seat belt across his hips after climbing into the SUV opposite Luis. “You know how the little buddy is about Ali.”

“Noah said that too,” Luis responded, putting the SUV into reverse and backing it up.

“But you think there’s something more to it,” Hank correctly surmised as Luis signaled and turned onto the highway that would take them to their families and the ice cream joint across town where the rest of the team were celebrating (courtesy of Theresa and a surprisingly charitable Becs) their latest win.

“I didn’t say that,” Luis hedged, his eyes focused solely on the road.

“C’mon, Man. You didn’t have to,” Hank told him. “I know you and those gut instincts of yours. They’re telling you something’s fishy, aren’t they?”

“They’re telling me to be careful,” Luis reluctantly admitted. “To keep the ones I love close and not take any chances.”

Hank whistled beneath his breath. “You gonna put a detail on Sheridan and the kids?”

“I’m not going to go that far yet.”

“Good,” Hank smiled somewhat. “Because you know how much she likes those.”

Luis let himself relax enough to smile at Hank’s all-too-true statement. “I do.”

“If your gut’s telling you to be careful, I trust it,” Hank turned to glance outside the window at the scenery they were passing then looked back at Luis, an uncharacteristically serious expression on his face. “It’s never been wrong before.”

“No,” Luis said more to himself than Hank. “It hasn’t.”


~*~




"Beth?”

Beth nearly toppled her glass of water when Ethan lightly touched her on the arm, pulling her attention away from the unlikely pair that had just entered the Lobster Shack.

Ethan righted the glass for her, using his napkin to mop up the small mess she’d made, and smiled at her apologetically. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“Darling,” Ivy leveled Beth with a suspicious blue-green stare, and a smile that set Beth even further on edge. “You were a million miles away.”

“Mother’s right,” Ethan agreed, gently teasing, “What’s gotten in to you?”

“Nothing, nothing, I…” Beth’s eyes were helplessly drawn back to the couple (no, that couldn’t be right) that the young hostess had just seated a couple of tables down from them, and she unconsciously shook her head in disbelief, causing Ivy to glance over her shoulder and see for herself what had transfixed her daughter-in-law so.

“It would seem that the young Dr. Russell is every bit as opportunistic as her mother,” Ivy remarked upon spying Whitney with (Abby’s) Dr. Taylor. She raised a brow as she sipped at her sparkling wine, the slight smile on her lips morphing into a Cheshire grin with the new nugget of knowledge. “They make a striking couple, don’t they?”

“Mother,” Ethan chastised with a frown. “I’m sure it’s a completely innocent dinner between friends.”

“Ethan’s right,” Beth jumped in, finally rediscovering her voice. “Whitney and Nick work together. They’re friends. That’s all. Anyway, it’s none of our business.”

“Absolutely none of our business,” Ethan echoed her. “Hear that, Mother?”

“None of our business,” Ivy simpered in agreement, taking another sip of her wine and regarding Beth curiously. “Still, one can’t help but wonder with his pregnant lover moving into another man’s home. And that strange little scene back at the Book Café,” Ivy mused.

“Abby was behaving a little…odd,” Ethan allowed.

“Odder than usual, you mean, Darling?” Ivy smiled at the waiter when he set her food in front of her, unfolding her napkin over her lap.

Fueled by an unexpected compulsion to defend Abby, Beth spoke up. “You said it yourself, Ivy. She’s pregnant. Her emotions are all over the place.”

“And with Dr. Taylor accepting the job in Colorado,” Ethan let the thought hang heavily in the air.

“Without telling her,” Beth added, meeting Ethan’s steady blue gaze.

“I think it’s understandable that anyone in her situation might behave similarly,” Ethan finished, his thoughts bringing him full circle. Capturing Beth’s hand in his own, he squeezed it in emphasis. “I don’t know what I’d do if I found out you or Mother either one were being so deliberately untruthful to me. There’s really no excuse for such secrets in a family, and that’s what Abby and Dr. Taylor became the moment an innocent child entered the picture.”

Beth thought of Antonio and Abby and the paper bag she’d unceremoniously stuffed behind her checkbook and swallowed past a thick tongue that wouldn’t allow her to speak, offer Ethan false reassurances. She settled for squeezing the hand in her own and offering him a wan smile, hoping he would understand when she found the courage to make her admissions to him, not here, not now with the audience they had, but soon. Soon, she vowed to herself silently as she leaned into the kiss he pressed against her forehead and soaked up the quiet acceptance he’d always offered her. “You’re right,” Beth finally managed, her response whisper soft. “You’re absolutely right,” she repeated, her gaze drifting over to Ivy and finding the other woman wearing a mirror of what she supposed her own expression looked like, thinly veiled guilt. Beth knew the moment Ivy recognized her guilt for what it was, and she felt dread coil up inside her belly as her mother-in-law seemed to consider her anew, taking her precious time before she voiced her own thoughts on the matter.

"Of course he’s right, Darling. Secrets have no place in a family.”

“I’m glad you both feel the same way,” Ethan decreed, nodding at the waiter in acknowledgment when he arrived with his and Beth’s food. “Things have a way of working out as they should, with or without us, so I say we quit worrying over things we have no control over. This evening is supposed to be a celebration. The meeting went even better than expected. We should have a brand-new deal by tomorrow morning. How about a little toast?”

Ivy lifted her glass of wine up in salute, waiting for Beth to do the same.

Beth did, lifting her own untouched glass of wine up to clink against Ivy’s and Ethan’s glasses.

“To a job well done,” Ivy praised her son.

“To a job well done,” Beth reaffirmed, sharing a smile with her husband. She brought her wine glass to her lips but didn’t drink, a fact that didn’t, she was disappointed to discover, escape Ivy’s notice.

"Beth, Darling. Is there something you need to tell us?”

Beth’s smile melted away at her mother-in-law’s next words, and she sought out Ethan’s blue eyes, clouded over with confusion. This wasn’t at all how she’d hoped to tell him, but Ivy was forcing her hand. Beth opened her mouth to say something, blurt out the truth threatening at the tip of her tongue, but divine intervention prevented her from doing so, and it arrived in the unlikeliest of forms—that of a sandy-haired toddler.


~*~



“Would you relax?” Gwen sighed as she seated herself across from her best friend. “I’m sure you’re worrying yourself about nothing.”

“Gwen’s probably right, Sheridan,” Theresa joined the two women, easily picking up the thread of the conversation and running with it after sharing a knowing look with Gwen (that day that her memory never left far behind felt so close today, so real, so now, and just as frightening as it had been all those years ago). “Ali’s right over there, safe and sound, and none of us are going to let anything happen to her.”

“They’ll have to go through Jake first.” Placing his hands upon Sheridan’s shoulders, Chad leaned down to press a reassuring kiss against her temple before easing himself into the chair beside her.

“And there’s a long line after that,” Gwen reminded her with serious brown eyes.

“A very long line,” Theresa agreed softly, giving her sister-in-law her biggest, brightest, most encouraging smile.

Directly in front of Sheridan, Ali and Jake sat, Cristian close by, quietly enjoying their ice cream while the rest of the team laughed and chattered around them. It didn’t escape Sheridan’s attention that Jake’s hand held fast to Ali’s, unconcerned, for once, with who might see. The faint remnants of fear in Jake’s brown eyes were too adult of an emotion to be held in such a young body, and Sheridan forced herself to smile reassuringly at Jake when she caught his watchful gaze. She looked to Gwen, Theresa, glanced over at Chad, and straightened in her seat, pushed back at the uncertainty tugging maliciously at her insides, and acknowledged that Gwen did, in fact, have a point. “I know she’s safe, here with us, I just…”

Gwen covered Sheridan’s unsteady hand with her own, looked deep into her shining eyes, and softly let her off the hook. “I know.” Reclaiming her hand, she nodded at the colored sprinkles floating in the melting pool of Sheridan’s vanilla ice cream. “Now,” she chastised with a slight smirk. “Look at you, letting perfectly good ice cream go to waste.”

“Yeah, Auntie,” Chad teased gently. “I’ve never known you to pass up dessert.”


"I guess I’m not very hungry,” Sheridan sheepishly admitted, not resisting when Chad made a move to claim her ice cream as his own with her comment, offering Theresa a spoon.

“Sheridan,” Gwen scolded.

Sheridan gave Gwen an apologetic look and pushed her chair back, delving inside her purse to find her cell phone. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to call Pilar and Martin, check up on Hope.”

Theresa lowered the spoon from her mouth, resting it on the napkin to her right, and watched Sheridan go, step outside into the lengthening evening shadows, away from the growing chaos created by several small celebratory children currently cresting a sugar high. Her brown eyes were welling with concern as she looked at Gwen and her fiancé in turn. “Guess she’s more rattled than she first let on.”

“Can you really blame her?” Gwen commented, pushing her own chair back and leaving their company to check up on her own children, in the face of Sheridan’s own (warranted, she figured, if Luis’s own immediate action had anything to do with it) worry.

“No,” Theresa admitted, softly, miserably, for she shared some of Sheridan’s unrelenting unease. “Can you?” she looked up to Chad, grabbing on to the comforting hand he offered and holding it tightly.

“The past’s the past, T-girl,” Chad soothed, rubbing his thumb over her lifeline and squeezing her hand emphatically. “Ain’t nothing happened yet for you or Auntie or Gwen to worry so much over, and we ain’t gonna let it. You hear me?”

Theresa nodded, her brown hair falling in waves about her face as she slid her other hand across the table, folded it within Chad’s, and repeated after him. “The past’s the past.” She closed her eyes and willed herself to forget something she’d come to suspect a long time ago.

Like it or not, their pasts set them on the winding paths to their future; only their presents were (briefly) their own.





~*~



"Mi hija, Hope is fine,” Pilar reiterated. “She is with Martin and Joshua and Paloma in the living room. They are looking at old picture books, and Martin and Paloma are doing all of the voices.” Paloma appeared in the doorway to the kitchen, and Pilar mouthed Sheridan to her youngest daughter before responding to something Sheridan had said on the phone. “I promise, mi hija, I will call if something comes up. Do not worry so. We’ll see you and Luis and the children later.”

Paloma watched as her mother hung the phone up with a sigh and moved deeper into the kitchen without a word, until she blurted out a thought she had long held inside, for fear of dredging up her mother’s own feelings on a situation so similar yet so different to the situation with the brother she barely remembered from her childhood, Antonio. ”It must have been so scary, losing a child like Luis and Sheridan thought they had lost Ali.” As she spoke, she withdrew a package of cookies (kept in the house solely for her nieces’ and nephews’ visits—and her father’s occasional sweet tooth) from the cupboard, along with a small plate, and piled the cookies high on it, skillfully ignoring her mother’s solemn dark eyes and raised brow. When Paloma had gathered enough courage to face her mother, she found her waiting expectantly.

“It was,” Pilar told her. “It is.”

The pained admission was so soft, full of such open vulnerability that Paloma felt the need to wrap her mother up in her comforting arms. All she managed was a gentle squeeze of her mother’s work callused hand. “Oh, Mama. I shouldn’t have said anything. I didn’t mean to upset you.” Paloma’s dark eyes were drawn to the lone candle still flickering in the window sill, and she was hit anew with the power of a mother’s unrelenting love for her child, in this case, her mother’s love for her own long-lost brother. “I don’t know how you do it, keep hoping. I really don’t.”

“You never give up on your children, mi hija,” Pilar looked deep into her daughter’s searching eyes. “Never. Someday, when you have babies of your own, you will understand that.”

“Yeah, sure,” Paloma said, feeling the age-old loneliness she kept at bay, hid from her friends and family, pricking at her skin, sinking its claws into her and holding on even as she fought to shake it, turned to shield her mother from its ugliness. “Someday.”

“Paloma,” Pilar reached out in concern.

“It’s nothing, Mama,” Paloma painted a bright smile on her face before she turned back to face her mother. “Really.” When her mother didn’t look convinced, she relented enough to admit, “Someday just feels so far off right now.”

Lifting a hand to Paloma’s face, Pilar combed her dark hair back behind her ear and murmured, “You never know, mi hija. Someday might be closer than you think.”

"Now you sound like Theresa,” Paloma groaned, all but sagging into her mother’s affectionate touch.

Pilar’s lips quirked at her daughter’s comment, and she admitted, “Maybe so.” She lowered her hand from Paloma’s face and turned, opening the refrigerator and withdrawing the milk. Silently, she filled the glasses Paloma presented to her, and even snatched a cookie for herself. “Your sister’s always been right about one thing.”

“Yeah?” Paloma questioned, balancing the tray of cookies in one hand and a glass of milk in the other as she followed her mother out of the kitchen. “What is that?”

“There’s nothing wrong with having a little hope.”




~*~







Hope was something Abby was in short supply of at the moment, hope of finding Lissy before darkness fell in Harmony, that is. Sheridan had sounded so distracted on the phone when she’d tried gauging her knowledge of the little girl’s whereabouts without alerting her to the fact that the child was, indeed, missing, that Abby had quickly given up the ruse, saying her goodbyes and disconnecting the phone. Now, as she wandered along the little town’s paved sidewalks, she grew increasingly lost in thought.

Tony—Antonio, was here, in Harmony.

Abby didn’t know why she was so surprised, not truly. She’d always known, deep down, that he would return someday to the town he grew up in. A part of her would even go so far as to admit how much of a role that knowledge had played in influencing her decision to settle in the small New England hamlet when she’d left New York and the ghosts of its memories behind. The more she thought about it, the more it made sense.

Nothing, no one, stood in his way anymore.

Tony was free to reclaim the family he’d yearned for so, and the apparent secrecy of what should have been a triumphant act, his homecoming, mystified Abby.

The old man was long dead, his evil deeds providing endless fuel for Hell’s eternal fire. His threats, his manipulations were empty of their power now, had been for years. Still, Tony hid himself, protected himself.

Why? Surely not from her.

Abby rest a hand upon the life safely guarded within her womb, overwhelmed with the feelings aroused by such a thought. Like New York, she’d left the bleakness behind, the reality forever altered by Vincent and the loss of her baby at his destructive hands. Tony had arrived too late to save her daughter, but he’d saved her, and even in her unbearable despair, that had counted for something. She’d clung to it desperately, until she’d woken up, and he’d been gone. In some small way, Tony had led her back to her alienated brother, paved her path first to Luis and Sheridan, then Kay and her brave little boys, the family that had welcomed her as one of their own, and finally to Nick, this baby she carried.

No. Tony had nothing to fear, at least not from her.

That’s what Abby willed herself to believe when she rounded a corner and collided, head-on, with her past, and felt the world as she had come to know it start to crumble beneath her unsteady feet. Staring back at her were a pair of chocolate brown eyes—Tony’s eyes.


~*~




A startled shriek tore Katie’s eyes from Nick’s unreadable gray gaze, and she hurried across the Lobster Shack, to the scene of commotion, only to find Kendall staring up at Ivy Crane with eyes rounded with tearful fear. “Mrs. Crane, I am so sorry,” Katie rushed to apologize, finally noticing the growing wet patch on Ivy’s fine clothes. “I took my eyes off him for one second.”

Ivy dabbed at the dampness with her napkin, waving off the waiter that hovered nearby in an attempt to assist her, not answering Katie right away or accepting her apology. When Beth left her seat to reassure Kendall, she finally looked up, granted the girl and her son a reprieve when she noticed the fat, frightened tears rolling down the child’s cheeks. “Don’t be silly, Darling. At least it’s not red wine.”

“Still,” Katie persisted. “I’ll pay to have it cleaned. It’s my fault. If I had been watching him like I should…”

“Katie, it’s okay,” Ethan stepped in, urging his mother with his eyes to echo his reassurances. “Really. It was an accident.”

Ivy regained her composure and smiled at the young mother. “Ethan’s right. It was an accident.” She searched her memory for the little boy’s name, finally grasping onto the right one as she reached out a reassuring hand to the child Beth now held in her arms. “Right, Kendall?” Kendall turned his teary face away from her, pressing it against Beth’s shoulder, but not before Ivy was struck with the strangest feeling, a fleeting sense of familiarity.

“I’m still sorry,” Katie continued to apologize. “He knows better. I know better. I should call Noah and tell him I’ll pick up some takeout instead,” she said, resting a consoling hand upon her son’s small back as he soaked Beth’s shirt with his tears. “I’m sure he’s just as tired as this little man.”

Beth combed the little boy’s soft, sandy hair back from his fevered face and met Katie’s green eyes. “Have you had a long day, Kendall?” she murmured into the child’s ear, breathing in the scent of baby shampoo that made her heart clench in the most painful, delicious sort of way. “I think I have some Kleenex in my purse,” she told Katie.

Katie turned her attention from them, but before she had a chance to look inside Beth’s purse for the tissues, Ethan had helpfully decided to assist in the search and had already stumbled across a rather surprising discovery, judging by the befuddled expression on his handsome face.

“Find them?” Beth asked softly, speaking to him with her eyes, willing him to give her the chance to explain, later, when they didn’t have an audience.

“I’ll take him, Beth,” Katie offered, holding out her arms to receive her son as Beth went to Ethan, quickly retrieved her purse and the Kleenex from her husband.

“Hey, hey, Kiddo,” Noah slid an arm around Katie’s waist, cradled the back of Kendall’s blond head with his big hand. “What’s with the waterworks?”

Katie leaned into the comfort of Noah’s unexpected embrace and pressed her lips against her son’s forehead as Ivy Crane watched them with a disconcerting amount of intrigue in her blue-green eyes. “Noah, I didn’t realize you were here.”

“I’m not surprised,” Noah quipped as he took Kendall from Katie’s arms and tucked him close. “I just got here. Anyone care to explain what’s going on?” he asked, taking in Ivy’s avid stare, Ethan and Beth’s apparent wordless conversation, and the general atmosphere of unease surrounding them. “Anyone?”

Katie dragged in a deep breath and said, “I’m not sure where to start.”



~*~



“That was weird,” Whitney murmured softly as Nick held the door to the Lobster Shack open for her, and she stepped out into the warm, evening air.

“It was,” Nick agreed, falling into step beside her as they reached the sidewalk and left the little outburst of chaos inside the Lobster Shack behind. “Are you sure you really want to leave? We can go back. I know I promised you dinner.” He released a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding when Whitney declined his offer with a definitive shake of her head.

Whitney glanced at the man beside her out of the corner of her dark eyes. It was obvious, to her at least, that Nick had seized the opportunity afforded to him by Katie’s distraction and removed himself from the questions he knew were forthcoming and the censure in her green eyes. He’d been uncomfortable, being discovered in her presence by his and Abby’s mutual friend, however innocent the situation, and Whitney didn’t wish to further complicate the situation so she told him so, letting him off the hook. “It’s okay. I’ve already told you. You don’t owe me anything.”

Nick didn’t agree. “You’ve been there, these last couple of weeks, been a friend to me when I’ve needed one, let me spill my guts and not once judged me. A nice, quiet, uncomplicated dinner between friends is the least I owe you.”

Whitney smiled at him. “Uncomplicated? Everything about you is complicated.”

Nick conceded her point and clarified himself. “It’s my turn to return the favor, let you pour your heart out for once. You already know all my secrets. What about yours?”

“I don’t have any secrets,” Whitney told him. “Everybody in this town knows my sordid history.”

“Sordid?” Nick questioned, a dark brow arching in disbelieving interest. “Really?”

"I guess you wouldn’t know,” Whitney realized.

“Wouldn’t know what?” Nick pressed.

“Before Theresa loved Chad, I…”

“Loved Theresa?” Nick teased, making Whitney blush.

It took Whitney a moment to regroup herself, and she blurted out her shameful secret. “I loved Chad. Or at least I thought I did. I had no idea he was my brother, that Julian Crane and my mother had...,” she struggled to finish the thought aloud. Weakly, she defended herself, waiting for the familiar horror to fill Nick’s gray eyes. “I didn’t know.” She looked at him wonderingly when it didn’t come, and all she saw was his compassion.

“You didn’t know. You couldn’t have,” Nick said simply. “How was I to know that Jenny, who I had taken care of for years, fallen in love with, was really Sheridan? Ali’s mother? Luis’s wife? I couldn’t have known, not without all the facts. You didn’t have all the facts, Whitney. That’s no reason to punish yourself.”

“Is that what you think I’m doing?” Whitney asked. “Punishing myself?”

“Yes,” Nick answered her honestly. “You’re a beautiful woman, a woman that deserves a full life, love.”

“I have love,” Whitney insisted. “I have my friends. It’s taken a while, but I have my family back too.”

Nick slowed to a stop, taking her by the hand. “That’s not what I mean, and you know it.”

“What do you mean then?” Whitney pretended not to understand, didn’t want to, if she were being completely truthful with herself.

“You know exactly what I mean,” Nick said, raising a hand to tuck a wayward curl behind her ear.

The caring gesture coupled with the intense gray hue of Nick’s eyes made Whitney shiver. “No. I can’t. How can I trust myself again when I didn’t even know, didn’t even realize…”

“You can’t,” Nick told her with a gentle smile. “Love’s a leap of faith. That’s why they call it falling. Let yourself fall in love again, Whitney.”

“What about you?” Whitney challenged.

“It’s too late for that,” Nick’s gray eyes took on a pained sheen when he realized he couldn’t make the admission to Whitney. She was the wrong person, the wrong woman. “We both know why.”

“You’ve already fallen.”

“Flat on my ass.” It was as much as Nick would allow himself to give her.

It was still more than enough.




~*~




“That’s it, Hope. Come to Mommy,” Sheridan encouraged, snuggling her daughter close when she waved her chubby little arms out for her.

Luis took Hope’s diaper bag from his mother, nodded at his father. “Thanks, Mama. Papa.”

“Luis, Mi hijo,” Pilar questioned softly, once Sheridan had moved away from them, just out of ear shot, “did you find him? Did you find the man?”

Luis sighed, glanced back over his shoulder where his wife and children were gathered with his sister and Joshua, before answering her. “We’re not even completely sure there was a man. All we found were footprints, dozens of them. That trail is pretty popular. If Jake was right, and there really was a man watching him and Ali, it could have been anybody.”

Martin rest a supporting hand upon his wife’s shoulder at her quiet cry of dismay. “You keep an eye on them, Lad.”

“You don’t have to tell me that, Papa,” Luis said. “I will,” he promised, accepting the hug his mother offered him and the hand his father held out. “We better get going. It’s been a long day, and Hope’s up way past her bedtime as it is.”

Everyone was buckled in, and all was quiet on the way home, Cristian and Hope dozing in their booster seat and car seat respectively, when Ali set Sheridan’s nerves even further on edge with a soft revelation. “He was staring at me like he knew me.”

Sheridan’s blue eyes sought out Luis’s startled gaze, and she took comfort in the hand he rest upon her knee.

“What do you mean, AliCat?” Luis asked, casting his young daughter a glance in the SUV’s rear view mirror.

Ali shrugged, continuing to stare outside the window to her right at the glowing lights of Harmony at night as they traveled the path home. “I don’t know, Daddy. It just felt like he knew me.”

Luis watched the shadows and lights play across her pretty face, her short, wispy blond curls pale and glowing in contrast, and he repeated his question from earlier, at the park. “Describe him to me, Ali. What did he look like?”

Ali sighed. “I already told you, Daddy. He was there; then he wasn’t. I don’t really remember much besides that.”

“Try, Sweetheart,” Sheridan quietly urged.

Ali knotted her fingers together, her brows pulled tight in thought.

Luis decided to help her. “What color was his hair?”

“It was dark,” Ali answered. “Almost as dark as yours, Daddy.”

“Good. That’s good,” Luis responded. “What else? Was he wearing an uniform, anything else that made him stand out to you?” Luis watched Ali’s blue eyes grow round with excitement; he could tell she had remembered something, and he could barely quell his own desire to further pressure her for answers. Still, his patience had its limits, and he couldn’t resist asking, “What is it, Ali? Did you remember something else?”

“I did,” Ali announced triumphantly.

Sheridan twisted in her seat against the constraints of her safety belt, searched her young daughter’s mirroring blue gaze as Luis turned the SUV down their street. “What else did you remember, Ali? What was the man wearing?” Her heart beat skipped a beat in anticipation of her daughter’s answer.

“Answer your mother, Ali,” Luis said, killing the SUV’s engine once they’d reached their driveway and joining his wife in facing their daughter. “What was the man wearing?”

Ali qualified Sheridan’s trepidation with a simple, condemning statement, and Sheridan’s heart started pounding in her ears as she remembered all the little clues that should have set off red flags and hadn’t, until now.

“A jacket, Daddy. He was wearing a leather jacket.”



~*~


They’d parted ways with his mother at the Lobster Shack, and Ethan had had little if anything to say in the short ride from the restaurant to the Book Café. He’d remained silent while Julie helped Beth close up for the night, and it wasn’t until the door was locked behind Julie, leaving them finally, blessedly, alone that he ventured to speak. His simple question twisted Beth’s heart with guilt, and her eyes fluttered shut as she felt him creep closer, hover behind her, so close but not touching.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were pregnant?”

Beth took a deep breath and answered him, with the truth this time. “I didn’t know. I still don’t. Ethan,” she breathed his name out on a sigh as she turned around to face him, look into his confused, hurt blue eyes, “I haven’t taken the test.” She watched some of the hurt visibly leach out of him and braved stepping closer to him, reaching out for his hand.

“So,” Ethan expelled a quick breath. “You’re not pregnant.”

It was a statement, but it sounded more like a question to Beth’s ears, and she smiled a little at the disappointment she glimpsed in his expression before he schooled it into what amounted to a blank page. “I didn’t say that,” she told him, placing a hand against his chest and smoothing out the wrinkles of his rumpled shirt. His day had been just as long as hers, she could tell by the tired crinkles at the corners of his eyes, and she decided, for both their sakes, not to beat around the bush any longer. “Weren’t you listening?” she teased lightly. “I haven’t taken the test. Yet,” she added, waiting for him to catch up to her.

“You’ve been waiting for me,” Ethan realized with a slow-blooming smile.

"I’ve been waiting for you,” Beth returned his smile with a hopeful one of her own. “I didn’t want this to be a big deal.”

“Only it is,” Ethan interrupted her.

“It is,” Beth agreed. “I wanted you to be there, either way, whether we get a plus sign or not.” She looked away from him then, over to the counter and her purse, with the unopened test still inside.

“How late are you?” Ethan questioned as he took her by the hand, tugged her with him, toward the inevitable.

Beth bit her lip when they reached the counter, and Ethan’s free hand reached inside her purse, closed around the ordinary looking little bag that was going to change their lives together, in one form or another. “Late enough,” she answered, her feet stubbornly refusing to budge and her heart hammering erratically inside her chest. “What if I’m not pregnant?” she finally voiced her unspoken fears as Ethan withdrew the small box from the bag and furrowed his brow as he started to read the instructions on the back.

“We keep trying,” Ethan absently answered her.

“Ethan,” she tugged on his hand, brought his gaze back to hers, stared into his dear blue eyes. “What if I am?”

"Then that’s a little easier, or harder, depending on how you look at it,” Ethan told her with a twinkling smile.

Beth waited (im)patiently for him to continue.

“We become parents.”


~*~



The first thing Abby registered when she opened her eyes was that it was dark, much darker than it had been only moments (hours?) ago. The second and third things she noticed were the strong arms that held her close and the achingly familiar scents she’d carried with her in her memory for more than ten years, of his cologne, of the butter-soft leather jacket that was as much a part of him as the stubble that dangerously darkened his jaw. The fourth thing that came to Abby’s attention was that they were sitting on the ground, backed up against a brick wall and hidden in the safety of the shadows, and her ass was starting to go numb. She moaned at the pin-prickle sensation of reawakening nerve endings as she stretched and shifted within the circle of Tony’s arms, then she caught him off-guard with a long-deserved, long-planned punch to his muscle-tautened gut.

Antonio caught her small fist in his own, cast sparkling chocolate eyes down into her own, and stifled a smile at the expected reaction, no matter how warranted.

“If you don’t let me go right now, I’ll,” Abby’s threat stalled between gritted teeth when she realized she didn’t know what she’d do now that she’d taken out some (a tiny bit) of her decade-old frustrations on him through her fists.

“You’ll do what?” Antonio murmured, sliding his free hand down her back to the tiny hollow he’d claimed and memorized an eternity ago, and he teased her, his voice gruff with memory and long-buried affection as she glared up at him, rising up on her knees. “Pummel me to death? I’m bigger and stronger than you. I think I can take you. In fact,” his eyes glowed at her in the darkness. “I know I can.”

Abby’s nerves hummed at the unwitting sensual undertones to his threat, and her damned (unfulfilled) pregnancy hormones swelled insistently, heating her blood, drugging her senses until all her anger, her disappointment in his abandonment of her, just fell away, and she relaxed her fist, wormed her fingers between his, held on tightly to his hand as she brought her face closer to his, looked into those eyes that had saved (broken) her so many years ago. She felt herself freefalling into their depths and unwilling to stop the maddening descent into their shared past as he used her own hand to pull her ever closer. “What took you so damned long, Antonio?” she finally asked, breathed out against his full, parted mouth. “What took you so damned long to come home?” she whispered the question against his lips as he fisted her tawny hair in his free hand, cradled her skull.

Antonio kissed her then, a greedy, passionate feast of lips, teeth, and tongues, before the reality of passed years gentled it into a soft pressing of tender, swollen lips against lips, and he pulled her into a tight, desperate embrace.

Abby allowed the hug, breathed deeply of him until she felt her lungs fill back to capacity, her heart calm. She twined her fingers with his fingers and pressed her forehead against the juncture of his neck and strong shoulder, wetting the supple skin with the tears of her regret, their shared regrets, while Antonio lifted a shaking hand to her hair to comfort her.

She sobbed against him, and Antonio felt his heart twist in two when her grief further pushed the gently rounded swell of her belly against him. What was it he had told Lissy? All roads lead home? He just hadn’t expected them to lead him to her, like this. He lay a hand against the baby that had just started to visibly strain against her flesh and feathered a soothing kiss against her forehead. “I hope this one’s father’s more deserving,” he murmured softly.

Abby shifted in his arms, stared into his dark eyes, cupped a tender hand around his unsteadily working jaw, and smiled sadly as she thought about Nick, his gray eyes, and the slow to crumble walls he kept trying to fortify around his bruised, vulnerable heart. “That’s debatable.”

Her laugh was a painful sound, and Antonio was quick to realize real hurt lay down that road so he wisely chose not to travel down it. Instead, he combed his fingers through her tangled tawny hair, drank in the welcome sight of her, and he marveled at how much and how little she had changed. “Worse than me?”

Abby lay her head back against his shoulder, slid her arms around him beneath his jacket, and held on, whispered her answer into the soft material of his black tee-shirt. “I don’t know if I’d go that far. He’s still here. For now, anyway.”

“Abby,” Antonio protested. “I…”

“Don’t,” Abby cut him off, lifted her head. “I’m glad to see you. You can’t know just how much. But that doesn’t mean I’m not still angry at you, I’m not still hurt. You left me, Tony, in that hospital all alone. I woke up and you were gone and I had nothing. I woke up and you were gone and she was dead, Tony. She was dead,” she pounded a punishing fist against his back before clutching, clawing at the cotton stretched across his skin, in an effort to stifle the building sob she felt threatening again.

The stalwart effort was futile. Her hazel eyes glittered with the light of a thousand unshed tears, and Antonio didn’t think before he spoke, he merely acted in an effort to comfort her, free her of the sadness he knew she’d carried for well over a decade. The words were out before he could recapture him, the truth he’d worked for the better part of ten years to disprove. “You’re wrong, Abby. She wasn’t.”

Abby quit breathing then.

Antonio felt her go completely still in his embrace, and he feared he’d made her heart go still inside her chest, much as his had when he’d first made the discovery, when he’d first realized the old man had played them and played them good. He felt her nails bite into his skin through the thin fabric of his shirt, but he ignored the pain because he knew his next words were going to turn her world upside down, even more than it had been when he’d fallen in love with her in the first place.

“Tony, you better be careful what you say to me, because I can’t promise you I won’t…”

Antonio cut her off, curled his hands around her shoulders, forced her to look him in the eyes so that she might recognize the truth he was telling her. “You’re wrong,” he repeated, his voice low and strained to the breaking point.

“Tony, don’t,” Abby pleaded with him.

“Our daughter didn’t die, Abby. She lived.”








Feedback is love!

Thanks so much for reading!!!

UAgirl
10.15.11, 11:47 AM
Sorry guys.

That last chapter obviously should be chapter 36.

Oops!

I told you I was posting it in a hurry.

Shae

UAgirl
6.26.12, 9:57 PM
Have no clue who's actually still following this story, but here's the latest chapter.

Hope you enjoy!

Chapter 37






Antonio's jaw snapped back from the force of her slap, and he gritted out a curse at the unexpected reaction.

Tears again fell from Abby's reddened hazel eyes, and her voice was choked, gutted as she growled out her denial. "You're lying. You're lying."

"Abby, I'm not…"

She cut him off, pushing her fists sharply into his midsection, struggling to stand up, put some distance between them, but he held on, wouldn't let her go. "Why?" The single word, the question, tore from her strangled throat, awash in anguish. "Why would you say something like that to me? When you know…when you know. She died. Vincent…" Abby shook her head violently, tumbling her tawny hair wildly about her shoulders, and she grew still with it, the renewed memory of him and his vicious, unrelenting rage that night. Her fingers blanched as they dug into Antonio's biceps through the soft leather of his jacket.

"Vincent's rotting in prison for what he did to you, not to our daughter."

A tear slipped down her cheek, clung to her lip, fell to his tee-shirt where the dark cotton soaked it up, and just like that, Abby was back there, felt the phantom pain of her broken bones, tasted the faint aftertaste of blood in the back of her throat, remembered the rippling, shuddering clench of her body as it fought to expel her daughter from a refuge that wasn't safe anymore. She shook, trembled uncontrollably in Antonio's arms as she fought to reconcile his words with the truth she knew (the truth she was told). "You were there," she finally managed the needless reminder. "Tony, it isn't possible."

"I was at the hospital," Antonio corrected. "Not in the room where you delivered her. They wouldn't let me in."

"No," Abby wouldn't allow herself to be convinced. "When I woke up in that hospital bed, the doctors told me that she had died, that there was nothing that they could do, that she was too early, that Vincent…" She trailed off, unable to even contemplate the possibility that he was right, that what he was telling her was the truth, because if it was…if it was, the last ten years of her life had been nothing but a lie, and there was only one person conceivably evil enough to orchestrate that lie. Her hazel eyes held a grim knowledge as she relaxed her grip on his upper arms, searched his own eyes as she spoke the old man's name. "It was him."

Antonio nodded, his own jaw tight with renewed anger, and his hands stroked up and down her sides, restless to soothe her, even in his own agitated state, for he had had years to come to terms with this information. Abby had only had a matter of minutes, and he could tell she was struggling mightily to digest it.

"Why?"

Antonio's dark eyes flashed as he answered her question with a question of his own. "Who could ever understand that sadistic son of a bitch's motivations? I don't know. If he wasn't already dead, I'd kill him to find out."

"You'd have to go through me first," Abby swore before taking a shaky breath and looking deeply into his eyes. He really believed. "Tony," her voice dropped to a wavering, hopeful whisper. "Do you really think our daughter's alive?"

"I don't think," Antonio answered her with conviction, his large hands framing her face, his own eyes glassy with emotion. "I know."

Abby's fingers tightened again around his arms, and she had trouble speaking past the lump of dread and expectation lodged firmly in her throat. "How can you know such a thing?"

"Because she's here, Abby," he said simply. "Right here in Harmony."



~*~




Mindful of the little ears still likely listening down the hallway, Luis pushed the bedroom door shut and leveled a hard gaze on his wife, irrationally angry all of a sudden that he hadn't pushed her harder for details earlier, that he hadn't been able to see past his own jealousy to question the coincidental timing of this friend's return to Harmony, the oddity of his (un)familiarity. "Tell me everything you know about this Brian person."

Worrying her bottom lip between her teeth, Sheridan was hesitant to meet his intense gaze. "He said he knew you from when you two were boys, that you even went to the same school."

"And you believed him?" Luis questioned. Shaking his head shortly, he plowed ahead, down another avenue of questioning. "What does he look like? How did he act around the children?"

Sheridan shifted on the edge of the bed, feeling a little bit like a suspect under interrogation. Playing the part, she confessed somewhat guiltily, "He had dark hair and eyes. He's only met Cristian, not Ali, and he seemed fine. You know how shy Cristian can sometimes be. He wasn't like that with Brian, at least not the usual extent. He was…comfortable. I was comfortable. I really don't think he means any of us any harm."

"You don't think he means any of us any harm?" Luis scoffed. "You're the one that told me about the jacket. You didn't seem to think he was so harmless when you blurted out that little piece of information."

"I panicked," Sheridan defended her earlier outburst. "I jumped to conclusions just like you're doing now. I'm sure it's nothing more than a coincidence."

Luis's dark eyes narrowed. "Why are you so intent on giving this guy the benefit of the doubt? You don't even know him. Hell, I don't even know him. You're too damn trusting. So is Cristian. That's it. I'm having Noah put out an APB on this so-called long lost friend of mine. If he's as innocent and harmless as you claim," he turned to go, to leave the bedroom, but Sheridan's slender hand caught him by the arm, effectively stopping him in his tracks and stalling his train of thought.

"Luis," Sheridan pleaded. "Please don't. Don't drag Noah or the rest of the force into this. There's another way."

Slowly, Luis turned around, and he sighed, because it was clear, and not just to him. Sheridan had him right where she wanted him, and all it took was one look into those earnest blue eyes. Begrudgingly, he encouraged her to reveal her own plan, because the one currently forming in his madly racing brain involved a little too much violence for the leader of the Harmony Police Department. "I'm listening."

"Brian and I have another lesson next week."



~*~



Beth rest a hand over her lower abdomen, sighing deeply, disappointedly, as she stared out of the Solarium's windows at the stars twinkling mockingly down at her in their happiness. She startled when she heard a door shut behind her, and whirling around, scolded Ethan for following her when she had expressly told him she needed some time alone, some time to think, some time to deal with the setback of essentially failing one of the biggest tests she would ever take. His name died on her lips, though, when she saw it was not the son, but the mother approaching her, wearing an expression foreign to everything Beth had ever learned about her on her aristocratic features. "I'm sorry. I thought…"

Ivy gave her a smile full of understanding sympathy, or at least a fair approximation. "I know what you thought. Alas, it's only me, Darling. Care if I join you?" Not used to being denied, she didn't wait for Beth to give an answer, merely moved across the room on silent, slippered feet. "You couldn't sleep either, I see."

Shaking her head in acknowledgment, Beth again turned her attention to the stars, but only briefly. Her curiosity soon compelled her to turn back around, and she hugged her arms about her waist as she crept cautiously forward to get a better look at the massive book Ivy held awkwardly in her silk-encased lap. "Is that…"

Ivy lifted a brow at the unasked question hovering on her daughter-in-law's reluctant tongue and opened the book, wrinkling her nose as a fine layer of dust plumed in front of her in the process. "It's a photo album, not a tome of secrets or spells." Her blue-green eyes twinkled with humor at the expression on Beth's face, and she patted the empty space beside her on the sofa, which Beth finally took, drawing her knees up high and playing absently with the cotton hem of her pajama pants. "Even us Cranes are capable of nostalgia, although I'd appreciate it if you didn't let anyone in on that fact."

The corners of Beth's mouth twitched in response. "Your secret's safe with me." Gradually, she relaxed enough to scoot closer to the older woman, craning her neck to get a better look at the first photograph. "Is that…" she trailed off incredulously.

"Yes, Darling, it is," Ivy grinned. "I once threatened to release these photographs to the public during a particularly nasty fight between Julian and I. Julian destroyed the original. Poor fool didn't count on me making copies, virtually dozens of them. Pompous little thing, wasn't he? So proud of the family jewels."

Beth's amusement got the better of her, and she laughed. "He couldn't have been more than three years old."

"If I'm not mistaken, that picture was actually taken at his birthday party," Ivy revealed.

"He looks so innocent," Beth breathed.

"Looks, as we all know, can be deceiving," Ivy interjected, flipping ahead several pages to a photograph of a much older Julian gazing down at a tiny Sheridan with an unreadable expression on his face, but his eyes…they told another story altogether.

Beth's breath caught in her throat. "He loved her. It's there, in his eyes."

"Yes," Ivy murmured quietly, caught off-guard by the revelation brought forth by the new pair of eyes. "It truly is." More pictures followed, of Sheridan, Julian less so. One in particular, lapsed both women into contemplative silence, for it was a snapshot, a forgotten fragment of stolen time, placed haphazardly between the album's pages, a picture of a young Pilar, an even younger Antonio lurking just in the background of a posed Crane family portrait.

"I've never seen that picture before," Beth finally remarked softly, and something in the way Ivy reacted niggled at her consciousness, but she didn't have time to consider why because suddenly Ethan was there, hovering in the doorway, confusion clouding his blue eyes.

Ivy shut the album with a resounding, final thud and safely stowed it away as she rose to join Beth.

Holding out her cell phone to his wife, Ethan barely spared his mother a second glance. "It's the hospital."

"The hospital?" Beth could literally feel her throat closing up on her as the shock of Ethan's words started to sink in. "What? Who? Ethan, who is it?"

"It's Lissy."




~*~



Noah groaned into Katie's mouth when a cell phone started ringing. "Ignore that," he murmured into her kiss, tucking her blond hair behind her ear and starting to trail his lips down the column of her throat. "It's probably a telemarketer."

Katie laughed and struck out a hand to fumble for the phone, knocking it to the floor in the process. "This late? What if it's something important?"

"It isn't," Noah mumbled against her collarbone, opening the top two buttons of her pajama top and slipping a stealthy hand inside. He grinned against her skin at her answering, breathy moan. "You're not on call, are you?"

"No," Katie shook her head, gasping when he got a little too playful in his ministrations. She rebounded with a little trick of her own, and soon they were both sans shirts and panting into each other's mouths. Mercifully, the phone stopped ringing, long enough at least for things to resume on their natural path. Katie was just kissing a path down to Noah's navel when a thought occurred to her, one which had Noah swearing in frustration. "You're not on call, are you?"

"Marty and I worked something out." Noah flexed his legs beneath her, slid his large hands beneath the thin cotton shorts she wore as she slid forward and teased the edges of her lacy underwear with his fingertips. "Look. They'll call again if it's really important. Can we please go back to…you know?" His brows rose and fell meaningfully. "I had to read Kendall five bedtime stories before he finally zonkered out."

Katie smirked, rubbing her hands up and down his muscled chest absently. "Which one was his favorite tonight?"

"I really don't see the appeal of Elmo," Noah answered simply. "I really, really don't."

"Elmo's cute," Katie smiled as she leaned down to kiss him again. "Just like you."

"You finally noticed," Noah grinned into the kiss. His hands rose to the waistband of her shorts and tugged. "What are you waiting for? Why don't you take these things off?"

Katie kissed him again, lying down and pressing herself close. "I'm sorry I've been so distracted lately," she murmured into his jaw, just beginning to darken with a five o'clock shadow.

"You're a good friend," Noah responded. Resting a hand momentarily in the small of her back, he kissed her forehead as he teased her. "I can't complain. Too much."

Katie giggled into his ear, then moaned breathlessly as his hand slid lower. "Because whining's so attractive." Hitching her thigh higher, she moved restlessly against him, making them both groan, and Noah had just flipped her beneath him, tossed her shorts halfway across the room, and was making short work of her tiny scrap of underwear when her cell phone started trilling insistently again, startling them both.

Noah flopped over onto his back resignedly at the exasperated look in Katie's green eyes. "Poor Kendall. Forever doomed to be an only child."

Katie looked at him oddly as she crawled over him to hang onto the edge of the bed, reaching desperately for her ringing phone, and she was still having a hard time coming to terms with his lightheartedly spoken little dagger of a statement when she finally succeeded in snagging the offending phone from the floor. "Katie."

A lazy smile bloomed on Noah's handsome face; he was really enjoying how off-balanced his simple comment had made her. "Who is it?" he mouthed as she straightened astride him, planting a hand against his chest to push herself up and out of the bed. He frowned when she ignored him and started pulling open random drawers, keeping the phone between her ear and bunched up shoulder. When she yanked a random scrub top from the closet, he had his answer, and he was already out of bed, pressing his lips against her hairline when she hung up the phone. "Let me guess. They need you at the hospital."

"The ER's backed up, and they've already called in all the call people," Katie told him apologetically. "It's just a few hours. They even offered me the day off tomorrow."

"We'll take Kendall to the park on my lunch hour," Noah responded agreeably.

"Are you sure you don't mind?"

"Think of this as our trial run," Noah said. "Call me in the morning. I'll come get you."

"You don't have to," Katie started to protest, sliding her arms around his back and clinging to him and his enviable warmth.

"I know. I want to. Go."

Katie lingered at the bedroom door. "I really do love you."

Noah grinned and shooed her out the door with a warning. "You'd better."




~*~




Whitney yanked the curtain to the small cubicle back and stormed inside, oblivious to the presence of her mother and her sister, focused only on reaching her father's bedside. "Thank God! Daddy, what happened? Is everything okay?"

T.C.'s arms slowly lifted to wrap around his daughter's slim form, and he met Simone's welling dark eyes knowingly over Whitney's shoulder. "It's okay, Sweetheart. I'm okay. It was just a false alarm."

Straightening up and pushing her hair back behind her ears, Whitney frowned, slightly confused at her father's words. "What do you mean, just a false alarm? You're in the emergency room." Glancing at her mother, she demanded a more satisfying answer.

"After dinner tonight, your father started having chest pains," Eve started to explain.

"Your mother overreacted," T.C. cut in impatiently.

"As all good doctors do," Simone added her two cents.

"As I was saying," T.C. continued, "Your mother and your sister overreacted, bodily dragged me to the car, and broke about ten different traffic laws getting us here."

"We thought you were having a heart attack, Daddy," Simone interjected again, her chin going up stubbornly. "We did what we had to do."

"And I thank you," T.C. smiled gently at his youngest daughter, taking her outstretched hand and giving it a thankful, reassuring squeeze, "but it turned out to be completely unnecessary."

"Unnecessary?" Whitney's brows furrowed. She looked to her mother again then back at her father. "Then why…" she let the question trail off and started scanning their immediate surroundings for her father's chart. "Mom?" she asked distractedly. "Help me find it."

"I've already read it," Eve attempted to alleviate her daughter's anxiety. "It seems," she began, only to be interrupted by a strong, clear voice, and a hand pulling the curtain back again.

"Mr. Russell, I'm Scott," the clean-cut young man offered T.C. his hand. "I'm here to take you down for your scan."

Whitney turned around, gave Scott and wheelchair in front of him a long, considering once-over. "I'm Dr. Russell," she introduced herself. "I don't think we've met."

"Scott Steele, Ma'am. I've seen you around. I'm your dad's mode of transportation for the night." Glancing around Whitney to meet T.C.'s eyes once more, he apologized, "Sorry for the wait, Sir, but as I'm sure you can tell, we're pretty backed up tonight."

"No need for apologies, Scott," T.C. nodded in acknowledgment. "I'm sure I'll live."

Incredulous and still not liking knowing just what was going on, Whitney cried out, "Daddy!"

"Sweetie," Eve quickly shadowed her daughter. "Relax. Scott here is just going to take your father downstairs for a quick scan to see if we can confirm Dr. O'Connell's suspicions."

"They think it's Daddy's gallbladder," Simone supplied helpfully. "Love you, Daddy," she said, kissing T.C.'s cheek in goodbye as Scott moved to lower the rail of the stretcher he was on and assist him into the wheelchair.

"Seems my eating habits leave a lot to be desired," T.C. groused, just the slightest bit embarrassed. "Is this," he indicated the wheelchair before him, "really necessary?"

"I could have told you that," Whitney remarked, her earlier panic deflating somewhat as she lightly scolded her father. "And yes. It is."

"'Fraid Dr. Russell is correct, Sir," Scott looked sympathetic.

T.C. looked up to first his wife, then over to his daughter, and finding them both wearing the same adamant expression, he heaved a huge sigh and sank into the wheelchair without another complaint.

"Might I suggest you ladies head over to our fine cafeteria, grab a bit of a late-night snack?" Scott suggested. "This could take a while."

Humor danced in Eve's eyes at the young man's generous endorsement of a cafeteria she, and he, she was certain, found sorely lacking. Still, she had to appreciate his efforts, and her smile more than let him know. "C'mon, Whitney," she took her daughter's arm. "Simone," she held out her other hand. "Your father's going to be just fine. He's in good hands. See you later, Honey."

"I'll be fine," T.C. reiterated when it began to look like his wife was going to have to bodily drag their daughters from his sight. "So…Scott. Tell me something about yourself, since it seems like we might be spending quite a lot of time together tonight," he could be heard saying as they exited the ER and disappeared down the long hallway leading to the elevators.

"Where've you been?" Simone eyed her older sister with interest as their mother steered them in the opposite direction, toward the aforementioned cafeteria. "On a date?"

"It wasn't a date, Simone."

"Anyone we know?" Eve couldn't resist asking.

"Mom," Whitney sighed before repeating herself helplessly. "It wasn't a date."





~*~




The young girl was frantic, practically beside herself, and Nick sighed resignedly before patting Lissy's small hand and standing up. "Julie," he looked into the girl's wild eyes. "Julie, look at me," he said calmly. Grabbing her firmly by the shoulders, he repeated her name again, this time raising his voice slightly, if only to get through to her. "Julie. Snap out of it."

"I swear, Dr. Taylor. I wasn't texting or anything," Julie's eyes begged him to believe her. "All of a sudden she was just…there. And I slammed on my brakes and I tried to stop, but…" Unable to continue, Julie crumpled into another bout of tears. "Lissy, I am so sorry. So, so, so sorry. I didn't mean to. I promise."

"Lissy knows it was an accident. Right, Lissy?" Nick looked over to the little girl in question, looking tiny and defenseless on the stretcher, sporting a few scrapes and bruises and a not so-pretty but small and definitely manageable gash at her hairline, but otherwise okay. She was damned lucky, and looking into her wide, guilty chocolate eyes, he was certain the child knew it.

"It was my fault, Julie," Lissy spoke softly. The rest was lost in a mumble of words, because Beth and Ethan arrived, and Julie promptly threw herself in Ethan's arms, sobbing away.

"Mr. Crane, it was awful!"

Beth and Ethan exchanged a look, and Beth stepped forward while Ethan pulled Julie aside, allowing her to tell re-tell her story, and hopefully, Nick prayed, compose herself.

Fat tears welled in Lissy's eyes at the sight of Beth, and her lower lip trembled as she looked up into Beth's concerned eyes. "I'm sorry. Julie didn't have Abby's phone number," she rushed to explain, "and I didn't want to scare her so we called you instead. I'm okay. I really am."

Nick nodded at Beth but otherwise remained mum.

"Sweetie," Beth gave Lissy a soft smile. "We're still going to have to tell her. Your dad, too."

Shamefaced, Lissy rested her chin against her chest. "I know." She looked up only when Beth gently combed her tangle of tawny hair back from her forehead.

"You sure you're okay?" Beth questioned the little girl. "Looks like you might need some stitches." Glancing over her shoulder at Nick, she confirmed her suspicions with a question. "How many?"

"A couple," Nick shrugged. "Three or four at the most." Sliding his palm across the top of Lissy's bare foot, he gave it an encouraging squeeze. "You're a very lucky young lady, Lissy. It could have been much worse. Next time, pay better attention when you cross the road. Especially at night. Okay?" He waited for Lissy's remorseful nod of agreement before turning to Beth. "I'm going to see if I can track down our Plastics resident on call so she can take care of those stitches for you."

"Okay, Dr. Nick," Lissy whispered. "Thank you."

Pulling the curtain closed around the cubicle behind him, Nick paused only long enough to peruse Lissy's chart, note her allergies, before moving on, but it was more than enough time to hear a little nugget of information he might have otherwise missed.

"Lissy." The scolding undertone in Beth's voice could clearly be heard, even from a few feet away. "What were you thinking?"

"I had to find Mr. Tony. I had to. I had to before Ms. Abby did."




So...there you have it.

This isn't actually the entirety of the chapter I meant to post for you guys, but if I'd waited for it to be completed, well, it could have taken even longer, and it's been months. And very, very long.

;)

I hope you enjoyed the chapter.

As always, feedback is love!

Thanks for reading!

P.S. Mistakes are all mine. Be sure to let me know if there are any particularly distracting ones. :D