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UAgirl
4.27.07, 8:27 PM
I hope I'm doing this right. Feel free to tell me if I'm not.

















Prologue



In his twenty-odd years on the job, he’d never seen anything like it.

Black skid marks zigzagged wildly across the asphalt, leading to what was left of a mangled, and in this case, ineffectual guardrail poised on the precipice of a steep drop-off.

The pungent odor of burnt rubber filled his nostrils as he peered into the deep ravine, barely able to assimilate that the piece of twisted metal wrapped around the base of the massive tree in a sickening embrace was the remains of a car. Orange flames licked at the car’s crumpled hood, and a black plume of smoke rose up in a mushroom-like cloud, the acrid smell grabbing him by the throat and making him choke.

Amidst the sizzling snap and crackle of the flames he heard a sound that made his blood, pounding furiously through his veins, turn cold—a woman’s agonized screams.

Common sense, logic told him he should wait for back-up, steel his heart, deafen his ears to the sound; experience told him differently.

There was no time.

He had at least one survivor in there—maybe more. It could be minutes before his call to the emergency crew garnered any results. Minutes he didn’t have. His guys were good. They never left a call for help unanswered. But sometimes, sometimes even they were a minute too late, and from the sounds of the screams, which had only grown more wrenching and hard to ignore as valuable seconds had ticked by while he’d waged his internal battle, he didn’t have that minute to spare.

His decision made for him, he half slid, stumbled down the ravine to the scene, the heat of the growing flames making his face flush and sweat pop out on his brow. Reaching the passenger side of the car, he tried the handle and swore loudly when the door didn’t immediately give. Scrambling around to the car’s other side, he nearly cried out in relief when the door opened, but his joy was short-lived when he saw the driver’s bloodied remains. It wasn’t until he heard a voice hoarsely sob the question that he realized the screams had mercifully ceased.

“He’s dead, isn’t he?”

The brown eyes he met with his own were large and filled to brimming with unshed tears, and unable to voice a lie neither one of them would believe, he gave a short nod in response, even as he reached a hand out to grasp her thin shoulder. “I’m going to get you out. I’ve called for help. Can you move?”

A single tear slipped down her cheek as she bit her lip and shook her head, a strand of dark hair falling into her eyes. “I think my legs are stuck.”

For the first time letting his eyes drift down her torso, he tried to keep his expression neutral as he took in the gentle swell of her belly and the bloodied legs that disappeared beneath a hopeless twist of metal, and said a silent prayer. Swallowing down the lump of emotion lodged in his throat, he instead attempted a smile. “Got a little one on the way I see. Girl or boy?”

“I…we,” she bit her lip as more tears started to fall, “wanted it to be a surprise.” Her hands were tense and white-knuckled on her abdomen. “But I know my husband wants,” her breath hitched painfully in her throat, and she dragged in several gasping breaths before she could continue. “Ethan wanted a little boy.”

“Nothing wrong with sons,” he answered her, ghosting his hands over every inch of skin he could reach, making a mental note of each particular spot that made her wince, suck in a deep, rasping breath, cry out when the pain was too much to stand. “Got a daughter myself. I’d say she’s about your age.” He frowned as his eyes traveled down to her legs once more. “You can’t be a day over eighteen.”

“Just a few days,” she gave him what might have passed for a teasing smile had the situation been drastically different. But there was certain look of understanding in her eyes, a growing acceptance of a truth he’d tried and failed to hide from her. “They’re not going to make it in time.”

His eyes clenched shut momentarily, and he pondered voicing the weak denial poised on the tip of his tongue but found he couldn’t lie to her, not even to give himself the cheap false comfort. When he opened his eyes again, he saw that she had stretched one arm out, clutching her husband’s lifeless hand, while the other hand rest protectively on her belly as she whispered a broken apology and tearfully lamented the cruelty of the twist of fate that had led them all to this point on such an ordinary, beautiful day.

In the distance an ambulance’s sirens wailed.

“Do something for me.”

She didn’t beg; she didn’t have to. He couldn’t save her, but he hoped he could give her some peace. “Sure, sweetheart.” His hand found its way into her hair, and he tucked the thick dark strands behind her ear just the way he used to tuck his own daughter’s hair behind her ear each night when he tucked her into bed with a kiss to her forehead and a softly murmured, “’Night, love.”

“Make sure,” her face crumpled, but only for a moment before she seemed to gain strength from her own words. “Take Anna home.”

“Anna?” his dark brows drew together. “I don’t understand,” he shook his head. The sirens loomed nearer, but he could see the reflection of the growing flames in her tortured brown eyes, and he knew that time had simply run out. “Where is home?”

“Harmony,” she said, infusing the single word with so much love and such regret that it took her another long moment before she could continue. “Just…go. Go. And take my baby home for me,” her voice broke on a sob as she squeezed his hand hard and pushed him away.

There was shouting, there were flashing lights, and suddenly there were hands, pulling him away.

And there was Anna staring up at him from a wrinkled photograph with her too blue eyes and her tumbling dark curls, and he did something he’d never done during his twenty-odd years on the job: he laid his head in his hands, collapsed to his knees, and cried.

UAgirl
4.27.07, 8:50 PM
Chapter 1




“It was a good practice.”

Sheridan whirled around at the familiar voice, the action toppling orange globes from her arms and sending them bouncing across the Youth Center floor. “Hank,” the startled smile on her face transformed into a genuine grin. “You’re back.” Frowning, she propped one hand upon her hip and looked at him accusingly. “I didn’t know you were back.”

“Easy there, Princess,” Hank relieved her of the remainder of her burden, transferring the basketballs into their rightful cart. “It was a last minute type of thing. You,” he looked at her pointedly as he joined her in her efforts to retrieve the rest of the scattered equipment, “are the only person that knows I’m here.”

“In that case, I guess I can forgive you,” she teased him fondly, juggling the basketballs again in her arms as she rose to her feet.

Shaking his head as he assisted her, Hank was disbelieving. “What’s the matter with those kids? Passing up the chance to help a pretty lady like you? Maybe we should have a man to man talk.”

“They’re ten,” Sheridan nudged the cart forward. “Girls still have cooties.”

“But not Miss Sheridan.”

Laughing, Sheridan answered, “Miss Sheridan too.” Placing the cart next to the bleachers against the gymnasium’s wall, she gave Hank’s appearance another glance. Smirking at the standard uniform of leather jacket, worn jeans, and slightly wrinkled tee-shirt, she couldn’t resist comment. “Not your typical James Bond getup.”

“You kidding?” Hank bumped shoulders companionably with her as they meandered across the court to what was and always would be Luis’s domain—the office. “I’m way cooler than James Bond.” He raised a brow at the sleek new computer resting atop the desk and the comfy-looking leather chair which Sheridan promptly took a seat in. Only the ratty-looking sofa in the corner retained any sense of familiarity for him. “Doesn’t really go with the new décor of the place, does it?”

“Luis had the new one delivered to the cottage,” Sheridan replied, frustration evident in her voice. “Sam finally convinced him the computer could be useful.”

“Ah,” Hank nodded, perching himself on the desk’s edge and looking down at her as she ran tired hands through her short blond hair. “Still being a regular old pain in the ass, is he?”

“Pain in the ass doesn’t even begin to describe it,” Sheridan muttered, her words muffled by the hands covering her face. “When he can stand to spend more than ten minutes in a room with me. If you hadn’t have told me differently, I’d swear…” When Hank said nothing, only waited for her to continue, she picked up a pen tucked beside the keyboard and twirled it nervously in her fingers. “Sometimes, Hank, I’d swear he wished...”

Alarmed that she would even hint at such a thing, Hank jumped in to defend the obstinate man he’d called his friend for almost his entire life. “Luis would never wish that. Do I have to tell you again how frantic he was to get to you in time? He was a man possessed trying to rescue you. If you don’t believe me, ask anybody in this town and they’ll tell you the same thing.”

“He sure has a funny way of showing it,” Sheridan answered him, voice tight. Tapping the pen in her hand against the desktop, she glared at Hank when he snatched it out of her hand. “It’s been over four years, Hank. Whatever Luis felt for me then doesn’t exist anymore. It ended when I lied to him and kept him in the dark about the plan.”

“Feelings like that don’t just die, Princess,” Hank lay a comforting hand over hers.

Pulling her hand free, Sheridan refused to meet Hank’s sympathetic brown eyes, the set of her jaw stubborn. Molding her palm over the wireless mouse in front of her, she brought the computer screen in front of her alive with one click of a button, studiously ignoring him. “You say that, but he hasn’t forgiven you either.”

“He just needs more time,” Hank said, knowing he didn’t sound the least bit convincing. “He’ll come around. He always has. This time…this time’s just taken a little bit longer than the others.” He looked up when he felt the gentle weight of her hand in his once more and smiled just a little bit when he saw compassion reflected back to him in the blue of her eyes. Finally, he ventured a question when the silence stretched on uncomfortably and the emotions their conversation had dredged back up were too much, even for him. “What?”

“Have I ever told you how much I hate the nickname ‘Princess’?”


~*~


The letter was dated three months ago, and her daughter’s flowery handwriting filled the pages with snippets of a life Pilar could only pretend to imagine. She trailed her fingertips again over the passage that detailed Anna’s fascination with shoes of all kinds and smiled when she glanced again at the photograph that had accompanied the letter: her granddaughter in a diaper, a floppy-billed hat, pink feather boa, and Audrey Hepburn sunglasses perched on the tip of her button nose, her tiny feet adorned with appropriately pink high heels.

“Is that her?”

Pilar startled at the childish voice, folding the pages of the letter back up and stuffing them quickly into the pocket of her apron. She blinked to find the owner of the voice mere inches away, elbows resting on the same counter the picture now rested on.

“Hope,” Grace chided from the other room. “I thought I told you not to bother Pilar.”

“I’m not bothering Pilar,” Hope answered, propping her chin in her hands. Blue eyes curiously peering at the picture, she wrinkled her freckled nose as she considered something. “Kay says I’m only a half aunt. How’s that different from a whole aunt?”

Grace appeared at her young daughter’s side before Pilar had time to formulate an answer, and Pilar found herself inordinately thankful for the timely interruption.

“I’m sorry, Pilar,” Grace apologized. Smoothing a motherly hand over Hope’s chin-length ginger hair, she quietly admonished the child once again. “I thought I told you to put flowers in all of the rooms.”

Unruffled, Hope replied, “I did.”

“Did you make sure all the guests had mints?”

After a brief pause, Hope nodded. “Uh huh.”

“Hope,” Grace eyed the little girl suspiciously, grasping her chin and searching her blue eyes. “Say ‘ah’.”

Groaning, Hope blurted a premature confession, “I didn’t eat all of them. I promise.”

Lips twitching, Grace’s attempt to be stern fell a little flat, but only Pilar seemed to notice. The women shared a knowing smile, and Grace sent Hope on her way to deliver the mints, for real this time. “Sorry,” she apologized once more. “She’s so much like Kay sometimes,” she mused. “Always asks the hard questions.” Grace’s fingers hovered above the photograph. “May I?”

Pilar watched the play of emotions across her friend’s face as she studied the picture.

“She has Ethan’s eyes,” Grace finally whispered. “Bennett eyes.” Offering the worn photograph back to Pilar, her smile was more genuine. “She’s adorable.”

“Thank you,” Pilar murmured, regarding the picture for a moment longer. She looked up questioningly when she felt Grace’s light touch on her arm.

“It won’t be forever. Harmony’s still her home.”


~*~



Glass of brandy in hand, Julian hovered in the doorway, reluctant to cross the threshold into the room he’d come to think of as his wife’s ‘Ethan Memorial.’ Watching her smooth imaginary wrinkles out of a garment laden with more lace and bows than he deemed savory, he felt pity well up inside of him even as the mean-spirited remark spewed from his mouth almost against his will. “I don’t know why you bother buying things for a child you’ve never met, a child you would have never seen a picture of if Sheridan hadn’t been such a softhearted fool.”

Ivy remained silent, but her blue green eyes were fiery as they acknowledged him then quickly turned elsewhere.

Daring to take a step into the room, Julian’s own eyes were drawn to a photo displayed on the mantelpiece several feet in front of him. The quality of the copy was grainy, and the cropping was crudely done, but it was still a fine rendition of the boy he’d raised into a man holding his infant daughter in his arms. Glancing away uncomfortably when it became evident that he’d been caught staring, Julian cleared his throat and gazed toward one of the open windows on the other side of the room, letting his attention focus on the draperies fluttering in the warm evening breeze.

Sighing, Ivy folded her arms across her chest and demanded, “Was there something you wanted, Julian?”

“The mayor and his wife are joining us for dinner tonight,” Julian raised his glass to his lips, the corners of his mouth twisting in a parody of a smile. “Just wanted to make sure you remembered to act your part and not further embarrass the Crane name. And for God’s sake,” he indicated the silk robe wrapped around her shoulders in disgust, “change out of that damn thing. Pick something more appropriate. You have a closet full of absurdly expensive clothes bought with my money. At least put them to good use.”

“Anything else?” Ivy questioned, her tone icy.

“As a matter of fact,” Julian answered back, just as icily. “Move on. This,” he indicated the room with a sweeping gesture of his arm, “is pathetic.”


~*~



“You wanted to see me, Sam?” Luis eased the door to Sam’s office shut behind him then crossed the small room to Sam’s desk, standing at attention.

“Take a seat, Luis,” Sam suggested, leaning back in his own chair.

Luis followed Sam’s instruction, sitting down and resting his palms against his thighs. When Sam made no further attempt at conversation, Luis’s gaze drifted over the various personal effects that littered Sam’s desk, including a picture of Charity and Miguel taken on their wedding day a little over a year ago. The young couple had been traveling ever since, making their way from small town to small town. Eventually, the silence grew to be too much, and Luis cleared his throat. “Did you see the new postcard?”

“Connecticut,” Sam nodded. “The Bed and Breakfast there reminded them of home.”

“How’s Grace doing, by the way? And Hope? Man, she’s growing up,” Luis tipped his head toward the little girl’s likeness proudly displayed in numerous instances all over Sam’s desk.

“Grace is doing fine,” Sam answered, “and there’s never a dull moment with Hope in the house. But you know that. I’m sure Pilar’s told you.”

“I want to thank you again, Sam, for letting Mama help out at the Bed and Breakfast. It was good for her to get out of that house. Away from the Cranes,” Luis spoke vehemently of his mother’s former employers.

“Thank Grace,” Sam said, leaning forward in his chair and letting his elbows rest on his desk while he folded his hands together in contemplation. “Luis, I didn’t call you into my office to make small talk about our families. There’s something more serious I want to address.”

Luis’s brows rose expectantly.

“There’ve been some complaints.”

“Complaints?” Luis frowned in confusion. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“You’re one of my best detectives, Luis,” Sam began, stalling until he could figure out the best way to phrase what he wanted to say. “But lately…”

“Sam, does this have anything to do the argument I had with Sheridan?”

“Which one?” Sam quipped, continuing when Luis looked sufficiently chagrined. “Sheridan was trying to do a nice thing for the kids, Luis. Raking her over the coals in front of half a dozen children and a couple of parents wasn’t the most sensible thing you’ve ever done. This isn’t about the argument with Sheridan. At least not *just* that argument. It’s about all the arguments with Sheridan. All your very public tirades and airing of prejudices against the Cranes and people like them, Luis. Your handling of Gwen Hotchkiss’s arrest for one.”

“Her blood alcohol level was over the legal limit,” Luis protested. “She resisted all of my attempts to subdue her.”

“From where I was standing it looked like she was having a very public, painful breakdown,” Sam stated. “Your approach only added to her humiliation. I’m sure your personal feelings about her involvement in the whole mess with Ethan and Theresa had nothing to do with anything, did they?”

Luis felt his irritation and defenses grow. “Are you accusing me of being unprofessional, Sam?”

Sighing, Sam repeated his earlier statement. “You’re one of my best detectives, Luis. I’m not saying you’re unprofessional. I’m just saying…”

Frustrated, Luis cut him off. “What are you saying, Sam?”

“You’ve changed, Luis. You’re so full of anger and bitterness that you’re not even seeing the world straight anymore. I’m saying wake up before you reach a point of no return.”

Indignant, Luis opened his mouth to dispute Sam’s charges against him, but Sam wouldn’t allow it.

“I’m not just saying this as your police chief, Luis,” Sam’s expression was serious. “I’m saying this as your friend. As of this moment, you’re on indefinite leave. Show me that you’ve undergone a serious attitude adjustment or that you’re at least beginning to, and I’ll let you come back. Until then, you’re not to step foot in this building. Understood?”

“Perfectly,” Luis said blackly, jaw set in stone as he laid his gun and his badge down on Sam’s desk. “Anything else?”

“That’s all,” Sam shook his head. Watching Luis’s retreating back disappear, he whispered, “I’m doing this for your own good, Luis.”

UAgirl
4.27.07, 9:04 PM
Chapter 2




The cottage hadn’t changed much, Hank mused, thumbs hooked in his belt loops as he wandered toward the fireplace and Sheridan’s collection of mementos of those near and dear to her. Unsurprisingly, the photographs were of a select few people, Ethan and a dark curled little girl featured more prominently than anyone else.

“Hank?!” Calling out to him from the kitchen where she gathered plates for the pizza they’d picked up along the way, Sheridan’s voice was muffled but still distinguishable. “What do you want to drink?”

Distractedly, Hank answered her. “What are my choices?” Startling when he felt the distinct sensation of being watched, he placed the silver frame in his hands back on the mantel, and turned to face her fully. “Sorry,” he apologized sheepishly. “Guess I didn’t hear you.”

Arms crossed across her chest and shoulder leaning against the doorframe, Sheridan simply smiled in response. “That’s one of my favorites.”

Judging by sheer numbers present on the mantel alone, Hank guessed she had a lot of favorites. He kept his teasing gentle when he answered her; there was something slightly heartbreaking about the smallness of her circle of loved ones. “How many favorites do you have?”

Rolling her eyes at him, Sheridan disappeared back into the kitchen only to return seconds later with two paper plates and two ice-cold beers clinking together in her hands. At his expression, she shrugged, “Beer goes with pizza.”

Taking the plates from her hands and one of the condensation covered bottles, Hank carried them to the coffee table where heady aromas wafted from a cardboard box that was still warm. “Beer goes great with pizza,” he agreed, lifting the lid of the box and snagging a piece for her, mozzarella stretching then hanging loosely in strings below the paper plate he presented to her. “You dusted off the fine china too.”

“I’ve learned a few things volunteering at the Youth Center all these years,” Sheridan boasted lightly, plucking a piece of pepperoni free from her slice of pizza. “Sometimes paper plates are just more practical.”

“Oh, I see,” Hank grinned. “You’re older and wiser now.” Holding up a defensive hand, he staved off her would be attack, sinking his teeth into his own piece of pizza and taking a generous bite. “Trust me, I mean that in the most flattering way.”

“Yeah right,” Sheridan muttered, slumping further down into the sofa’s cushions and resting her head on Hank’s tee-shirt clad shoulder. The minutes ticked by, no words spoken, until Sheridan sighed and gave the hand that rest upon her knee an affectionate pat. “You can stay here for the night, not worry about checking into the Bed and Breakfast for the night. I got clean sheets and an extra pillow with your name on it.”

“Are you propositioning me, Princess?” Hank wiggled his brows at her suggestively.

“In your dreams,” she scoffed, giving his wandering hand a playful shove as she climbed to her feet and looked down at him with playfulness in her blue eyes. “The couch. Take it or leave it. No negotiations.”

“On one condition,” Hank bargained, enjoying the way her lips twitched with the effort it took to suppress her smile.

“And?”

“Got any ice cream for dessert?”


~*~



“Race you,” Hope challenged, darting past her older sister on a pair of secondhand rollerblades that were still a good size and a half too big for her.

“Hope,” Kay made a belated, halfhearted grab for her little sister, but it was too late. “Hope, come back here,” she called, wincing as she watched Hope nearly collide with a neighbor out walking his dog. “Sorry,” Kay offered, jogging past the disgruntled man in an attempt to catch up with the willful child. Slightly out of breath, she reached the unrepentant girl’s side. “I thought I told you…”

“Aww, Kay,” Hope whined, nose scrunching up and mouth looking pinched. “You’re no fun. You never want to race, and you’re always making me wear these sttttuupppiddd knee pads.”

She drew the words out with such exasperation Kay had to laugh. The knee pads did look stupid, and the helmet dwarfed her head, only a few strands of red peeking out. Not to mention the extra pair of socks she’d had to pull over wiggling toes so that the skates would even stay in place. “I am too fun,” she finally said, calling upon her inner child to make the words echo Hope’s earlier tone. That, along with a teasing tweaking of Hope’s nose, earned her an ear to ear smile.

“Okay,” Hope sighed dramatically mere minutes later. “I promise not to go too fast.” She glided forward, muttering under her breath.

Kay smiled to herself when she thought she heard the much uttered ‘grownups’ and resumed the leisurely pace she’d set when they’d left the house half an hour earlier. As she strolled along the sidewalk, her attention would stray from time to time from the image of her little sister hurtling herself forward on wobbly legs to the houses that lined the street. Already she’d passed the Russell house. Finding it dark, she’d made a likely assumption—Dr. Russell worked long hours at the hospital, even longer now since the revelation that her failed relationship with Julian Crane had borne a child had driven a wedge between her and Coach Russell. And, with both Simone and Whitney away and no longer calling Harmony home, Coach Russell spent much of his time at the high school. So much had changed in the past four years, Kay realized. If it weren’t for the frequent weekend visits she made from school, it’d all be hopelessly unrecognizable to her. “Hope,” she cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled at the girl that was but a distant figure to her now. “It’s getting dark. We should head back soon.”

Hope gave no indication that she heard her, continuing to scuttle forward, rounding a corner and disappearing from sight.

“Hope!” Kay felt her heart lurch inside her chest when the little nuisance was no longer visible, and she wondered, not for the first time, how she could be so attached to a child that had been such a contradiction, both the blessing and the curse that had kept their parents’ marriage alive when the revelation of her father’s youthful indiscretions might have destroyed it completely. Making a sharp turn at the corner she’d last seen Hope, she skidded to an abrupt stop, hand to her panic-tightened throat at the scene she happened upon.

Spread-eagled and unmoving, Hope lay beneath a swinging FOR SALE sign, one skate dangling off her socked foot. Above her, a golden retriever whined, dropping its head to sniff at her flushed, freckled face.

“Oh my God,” Kay finally found her voice and her feet again. “Hope, say something. Are you okay?” Her question met with silence, Kay feared the worst until a familiar sound had her rolling her eyes then smiling in exasperation.

The golden retriever was licking her face, and Hope squealed with laughter. Small fingers buried in the dog’s soft yellow fur, she tried to dodge the affectionate assault with little success. “Kay,” she finally struck a hand out. “Help me,” she giggled.

Dragging the kid to her feet, Kay also bent to pick up the dislodged skate. “Told you not to go too fast,” she grumbled, shaking her head. “Tell the dog goodbye. If we’re late for dinner, Mom’s not going to be happy.”

Pressing a reluctant goodbye kiss between the dog’s ears, Hope complied, slipping her hand in Kay’s hand and limping unevenly along.

A couple of awkward feet later, Kay slowed to a stop and crouched down with a long-suffering sigh. “Climb on, Doggy Breath.” Groaning as she stood back up and adjusted the arms wrapped around her neck in a stranglehold, Kay set off again for home, Hope’s feet bouncing and her giggles resounding in her ears. “When’d you get so heavy?”

“When I turned four.”


~*~


“I’ll get the dishes, Mama,” Luis covered Pilar’s hand with his own when it moved to gather up the plates and silverware they’d used for their small meal. “Go into the living room. Put your feet up.”

“Thank you, mi hijo,” Pilar pressed a kiss to the top of Luis’s dark head, her hands warm on his face. Her movements were slow, tired, and a little sad as she followed his advice, leaving him alone.

Sighing, Luis pushed himself to his feet, stacking the dishes on top of each other and crossing the short distance to the kitchen sink. He scowled at the three flames flickering against the dusk darkened window above the sink, barely resisting the urge to put them out with one mighty breath. Turning the tap on, he tested the water temperature then added some detergent.

In the living room, he heard the muted sounds of the television.

The rhythmic motions of scrubbing and rinsing the dishes were eventually enough to lull him into a calmer state, but Luis’s mind was far from worry-free. He’d struggled during dinner to find the opportune time to admit to his mother that he’d let her down, but he hadn’t been able to force the words out, and now, he wondered if it were such a good idea to admit the truth to her at all. No need to worry her over nothing, right? All he needed was a weekend to convince Sam he’d had a change of heart, and he’d back at work, nobody save Sam and he the wiser. It should be simple.

It was anything but simple.

As much as he hated to own up to the fact, Sam was right. His behavior toward Sheridan as of late had been uncalled for, and he’d bordered on unprofessionalism when he’d slapped a pair of handcuffs around Gwen Hotchkiss’s wrists at the latest benefit profiting the new Harmony clinic in the early stages of development.

Drunk and bordering on hysteria, the woman had gotten underneath his skin.

Sam had been wrong about one thing though.

His personal feelings about her involvement in the leaking of Ethan’s paternity to that dirty tabloid and Theresa’s subsequent departure from Harmony not long after hadn’t been the compelling factor in his demeanor when he’d arrested her. No. That hadn’t been it at all.

It’d been the brief flicker of devastating, festering pain and regret in her brown eyes.

It was like looking in the mirror at an image he couldn’t bring himself to face, and so he’d felt he had no other choice. In some small way, he’d punished her for making him face his own feelings, never mind the fact that her blood alcohol had later proven to be twice the legal limit. Never mind the fact that she *had* resisted his lame attempts to calm her.

She’d been broken and bleeding and begging for a brief respite from it all.

And what had he done?

Nothing.

The knowledge burned and settled like a bitter stone at the base of Luis’s stomach.

He’d done nothing.

UAgirl
4.27.07, 9:07 PM
Chapter 3


Eyes ringed with black circles and bleary from lack of sleep—reluctantly sharing a bed with a restless four-year-old tended to have that effect on some people—Kay padded out of her old bedroom the following morning on bare feet and quietly pushed the door shut behind her. Across the hall, her dad had just emerged from Charity’s old room, looking even worse for wear. “Dad,” she acknowledged.

“Kay.” Sam’s voice sounded an octave higher even to his own ears. Rubbing a hand through his wayward hair uncomfortably, he couldn’t keep his eyes from darting down the hall where Grace had yet to materialize, and he rambled off the first excuse that came to mind. “I…uh, I didn’t want your mother to catch the cold I have.” He coughed for added effect. “You know she hasn’t been feeling well exactly.”

Kay didn’t buy his excuse for a split second, but she remained mum on the subject, her only answer the arching of a thin black brow.

Coughing awkwardly again, Sam motioned for her to precede him down the hallway. “Come on,” he fell into step behind her, wincing as the top step creaked beneath first Kay’s weight then his own. “I’ll make you a cup of coffee. You look like you need it almost as much as I do.”

“Thanks, Dad,” Kay muttered dryly, feet thudding lightly against the stairs as she descended them. A few minutes later, she slumped into a chair at the kitchen table, hooking her ankles around its legs and drumming her fingers absently against the tabletop while Sam puttered around the kitchen, scratching his head in thought as he searched the cabinets for the last of the coffee.

“How’s school?” he asked the oft-asked question as he measured the coffee beans and placed them in the machine.

“School’s school,” Kay shrugged noncommittally. “How’s work?” she asked her own standardized question. Somewhere along the way she’d stopped being daddy’s little girl, and he’d stopped being her perfect father figure. She mourned the loss. Still, she accepted the change. People grew up, grew apart. Families dissolved. Even hers it seemed, despite her parents’ attempts at keeping up appearances.

“Work’s work,” Sam sighed, clinking two coffee mugs together as he withdrew them from the cupboards. Settling them and the creamer and sugar onto the table in front of her, he frowned when he noticed where her attention had drifted—to Charity and Miguel’s latest postcard tacked onto the refrigerator next to Hope’s newest crayola masterpiece. “Connecticut,” he answered the unspoken question in her eyes. “Pretty, isn’t it?”

“Looks like something I saw on t.v. once,” Kay replied, giving him a too bright smile. Tucking her hair behind her ears, she resisted meeting his eyes, not wanting to see the pity there. It’d taken a hard smack of reality upside the head to make her realize Miguel would never love her *that* way. Unfortunately, the moment of proof hadn’t been a private one. Remembering the tears she’d shed and the pleas she’d made a little over a year ago, Kay wanted to crawl beneath the nearest rock and hide. It was a little unnecessary when every last one of the short list of people she’d called friend had moved away and left her far behind. She was still tracing the pattern of the red and white checks on the tablecloth when her mother entered the kitchen, Hope’s arms draped over her slender shoulders. She watched her mom transfer the sleepy little girl into her father’s arms, careful to avoid any unnecessary contact, and the air in the small kitchen suddenly grew too stifling, her lungs short of oxygen. Blurting out the first silly excuse that came to mind, she escaped from the kitchen to the back yard and curled her legs beneath her on the creaky old swing, steadfastly ignoring the chill in the morning air as she wiped at the tears she felt stinging the corners of her eyes with the back of her hand.

No one ran after her.

She hadn’t expected them to.


~*~



It was just another thing they didn’t talk about—not with words anyway.

They let their actions speak for them.

Every couple of months a package arrived in the mail. Sometimes it was just a bundle of letters. Other times, there’d be pictures. Once, there’d even been a videotape, but only the once. Never was there a return address.

Luis hadn’t mentioned the fact that he’d had some guys at the station take a look at the videotape to see if they could pinpoint a location, anything that might give him a clue where Ethan and his little sister were, but he had a feeling his mother knew by the dejected slump of his shoulders when his efforts had yielded no results.

A package would come in the mail, his mother would pore over every word, trace her fingers over every inch as if by touching Theresa’s words she could somehow physically touch Theresa herself, and memorize them, and a few days later, the letter, the picture would magically appear where Luis would stumble upon it.

This morning his niece’s blue eyes had stared at him over a pair of ridiculously large sunglasses from the dashboard of his jeep.

It’d taken several miles before the aching tightness in Luis’s throat had lessened, and it only disappeared in agonizingly slow-passing increments of time when he’d pushed the jeep door open, his feet shifting in the night-cooled sand as he sought out the water’s edge.

“Dear Mama…” Theresa wrote.


~*~


“You better not be reading porn,” Hank warned as he wandered into Sheridan’s kitchen, dressed in boxers and the same wrinkled tee-shirt from the day before.

Bare legs peeking out from beneath the pink silk robe wrapped around her body, Sheridan was completely engrossed with something on the screen of her laptop.

Hank being, well, Hank, had to find out what was so fascinating that she’d not bothered to respond to his baiting with a smart-aleck remark or barb of her own. Sidling up behind the barstool she was perched on, he peered over her shoulder, slightly disappointed to discover she was only perusing her email. Most of them, it turned out, were from Ethan. “Damn,” he swore softly as he spun on his heel, searching through her cupboards for a clean glass. “Thought I had caught you in the act.”

“Hank,” Sheridan muttered.

“Yeah, Princess?” Hank replied after downing his glass of orange juice in one long gulp.

“Shut up.”

“Touchy,” Hank cracked a grin, picking up the morning newspaper from the kitchen table and skimming its pages as he paused in front of the picture window to stare at the Crane Mansion, looming forebodingly in the horizon and appropriately blocking out the morning sun’s brightest rays. “What’s for breakfast?”

Arching a disbelieving brow at him, Sheridan indicated the toaster next to the refrigerator. “There’s bread. Make yourself some toast. I don’t care much for scrambled eggs anymore.”

Wincing slightly, Hank doubted she realized the sting of her own words. “Any new pictures of the munchkin?” When Sheridan waved him off with an impatient hand, he muttered under his breath, “Somebody sure is grumpy today.”

“Dammit, Hank!” Sheridan finally snapped.

“Whoa, hold up now,” Hank felt his anger rising then abruptly fading into concern when he noticed the ashen pallor her face had taken on. “Sheridan?” Crossing the room to her in three easy strides, he took the trembling hand she blindly struck out. “What the hell are you looking at that has you so…”

“Hank,” her voice escaped in a strangled whisper as the hand he held encased in his own clutched convulsively at the fabric of his tee-shirt. “Hank,” she pleaded, her eyes begging him to tell her she was seeing, imagining things. “Tell me…it’s not true. Tell me it’s not true,” she keened as he pulled her away from the computer and into a tight embrace.

Hank felt the world drop out from under him as he registered the words on the screen.

There had been an accident.

UAgirl
4.27.07, 9:19 PM
Chapter 4





It’d taken using every contact he had, but Hank had finally tracked down a voice to go along with the impersonally typed words, and actually hearing the words hadn’t made the situation seem any less surreal.

Ethan and Theresa were dead, victims of a fiery car crash that had taken place over two weeks previously and left their young daughter orphaned.

Anna, Hank had finally finagled the information out of a sympathetic secretary, had entered the child services system until a suitable legal guardian could be located.

Hank glanced into the Crane living room where Sheridan hovered nearby Ivy Crane and sighed heavily. As much antagonism as he’d felt through the years toward the woman who’d robbed his brother of his claim to his first-born son, he’d never wished *this* on her.

It had taken Julian’s own phone call and stunned repetition of what Hank already knew in his gut to be true to break through Ivy’s steadfast denial, and that moment wasn’t something Hank wanted to relive anytime soon.

Denial had quickly turned into desperation as Ivy had launched herself at Julian, clenched fists striking with no real aim and cried and screamed until her voice escaped in a raw rasp and her fingers grabbed at the lapels of his jacket numbly.

Sheridan had finally intervened, prying Ivy’s nerveless fingers loose and leading her to the sofa; Julian had gruffly excused himself, striding stiffly toward his study and shutting the door only moments later.

That had been an hour ago, Hank estimated as he gave the watch on his wrist a cursory glance en route to the foyer where a small commotion could be heard. Surprise flickered across his face at the scene he encountered: his brother trying without success to convince the housekeeper to give him admittance. Guilt coiled in his belly when he realized what his preoccupation had caused. He’d forgotten to contact one of the most important people affected—his own brother. “Sam? Who…”

“I called him.”

Hank met Julian’s steely gaze and nodded appreciatively when, at Julian’s instruction, the housekeeper allowed Sam to cross the threshold.

“Go,” Julian indicated the living room when Sam’s blue eyes searched his face. “She needs you.”

“Why’d you do that?” Hank questioned, after Sam had left them and Ivy’s tears could be heard once more.

“He’s,” Julian stopped as if the realization of Ethan’s passing had just washed over him anew. “He was Ethan’s father,” he answered simply. He continued after an awkward lapse of silence, “If you’ll excuse me, I have some business to attend to.”

Shaking his head as Julian once again disappeared into his study, Hank compelled his reluctant feet to take him forward. Lingering in the doorway to the living room, he met Sheridan’s reddened eyes and nodded.

Leaving Ivy in Sam’s capable care, Sheridan wordlessly pressed a set of keys into Hank’s waiting palm and let him lead her out the door, his hand ghosting over the small of her back.


~*~


With his sister’s letter folded neatly and placed in a pocket over his heart, Luis stood just inside the doors of the local mall, indecision written all over his face as more people than he’d thought possible in a town so small milled about. He felt just as much like a fish out of water as he had the last time he’d braved such a place—to replace Sheridan’s compact.

Swallowing down the unwelcome regret he felt as the memory of giving that compact to her flickered before his closed eyes, he turned to go, deciding the little detour he’d taken on his way home to tell Mama the truth had been a mistake, when a little girl with a dark ponytail whizzed past him.

An older version of the little girl smiled at him with apology in her brown eyes, and when she caught up to the child, she pointed in his direction, gently nudging the slim shoulders forward. “What do you say to the nice man?”

“Sorry,” the little girl mumbled, eyes downcast shyly as she twisted the hem of her pink tee-shirt between her hands. “Mommy, can I go see the kittens now? Please.”

“She loves the pet store,” the woman told him as they watched the little girl scurry excitedly to the store just a few short feet away. Brown eyes focusing back on Luis’s face, she graced him with an amused smile, “You look a little lost.”

Clearing his throat, Luis returned her smile with a sheepish one of his own. “I guess I am.”

“Girlfriend?”

“Actually,” Luis produced Anna’s picture from his wallet and held it out, “niece.”

“She’s adorable.”

“Thank you.” Luis took the picture back from her and tucked it safely into his wallet.

“Are you looking for anything in particular? The toy store’s just three stores down from the pet store,” she pointed it out to him.

“Actually,” Luis began, “I was thinking of shoes.”

“I know just the place.”

Some twenty minutes later, Luis stood before a wall of shoes in every color, style, and size imaginable. His fingers curled around the edge of Anna’s picture as he sighed. Sizes hadn’t entered his mind until faced with the myriad of possibilities. Again, the thought that this little foray had been a mistake crossed his mind, and once more, he turned to leave—only to run directly into the path of Gwen Hotchkiss.

Sunglasses askew, Gwen muttered under her breath as she crouched down to retrieve the box that had fallen from her grasp upon their collision, but her fingers hovered uncertainly over the picture instead. Her brown eyes looked up in surprise when Luis’s thumb brushed against hers as he picked up the picture and stood, offering her the box in his other hand. After a moment’s hesitation, Gwen rose to her feet and took it, voicing an awkward word of gratitude.

“I’m sorry,” Luis apologized. “I wasn’t watching where I was going.”

“Neither was I,” Gwen continued to avoid his eyes, tucking a flyaway strand of blond hair behind her ear as she fussed with the zipper of her purse.

“Gwen,” Luis reached out but thought better of it, his hand drifting back to his side. “I…”

Shaking her head, Gwen worried her bottom lip between her teeth as she adjusted her sunglasses back on the bridge of her nose, shielding her eyes from his view. “Don’t, okay. Just...” she trailed off, shifting her gaze to the display of children’s shoes and letting her manicured fingers trace a path down the row until they came upon a tiny pair of Mary Jane’s. “Here,” she plucked the box from the shelf and handed it to Luis. “Try these.”

Tucking the box under his arm, Luis opened his mouth to say something, to offer his thanks, but Gwen held up a staying hand, her mouth twisting into a brittle smile.

“I think they’ll earn the Theresa seal of approval.”


~*~


“I can’t take you anywhere,” Kay groaned as she held the door to the Book Café open, allowing Hope to trudge inside, chin held high and arms crossed stubbornly across her middle, frayed shoelace trailing behind her. “Tie your shoe,” she insisted.

“I can’t,” Hope huffed as her attempts fell frustratingly short. “My fingers are being stupid.”

“Your fingers aren’t being stupid,” Kay pushed the small fingers away, replacing them with her own nimble fingers. Looking up into Hope’s blue eyes, she sighed when she saw the telltale glint of moisture still lingering on her lashes. “Cheer up.” She tapped the chin that wobbled just so with her index finger. “That boy at the park was being a real doofus.”

Frowning, Hope wouldn’t be placated. “I hate my hair. Why does it have to be red?”

Affectionately mussing the silky strands, Kay bit back a smile when her kid sister shrugged away from her touch and scowled. “But you still shouldn’t have kicked him.”

“He called me Carrots!”

“There are worse nicknames,” Kay told her, pulling her to her feet as she rose to her own and made her way to the bookshelves. “Coach Russell used to call Simone ‘Sugar Bear’.”

Hope’s nose crinkled in disgust. “Yuck!”

“Told you,” Kay gave the small hand a squeeze. “Why don’t you pick us out a table and tell Beth what you want?”

“Can I get anything I want?” Hope played with Kay’s fingers, refusing to meet her eyes.

“If you promise not to blab to Mom,” Kay replied.

“Promise,” Hope grinned, quickly hugging Kay about the waist and scampering off.

Threading her fingers through the belt loops of her jeans, Kay wandered down the aisle with a small smile on her lips, fingers trailing over the glossy pages and lingering on paperbacks that looked marginally interesting until a voice from the past startled her.

“Personally, I’d go with science fiction. Plenty of action, adventure, interesting plots. And heroes intelligent enough to recognize that romance isn’t everything.”

Behind the glasses he wore, Reese Durkee’s blue eyes were serious even if his goofy grin pretended to be anything but. Kay was annoyed to find that she was speechless and a little unnerved by his open scrutiny. She finally found her voice when Hope’s excited squeal summoned her. “Over here, Hope.”

Her sister appeared at the end of the aisle, arms wrapped around the neck of a curiously familiar golden retriever, tail happily thumping against the floor.

“Look who found me!”

UAgirl
4.27.07, 9:29 PM
Chapter 5





The dog, Sadie, trotted ahead of them on the sidewalk, Hope happily skipping along beside her while Kay and Reese hung back, sneaking awkward glances at each other.

Actually, Kay snuck awkward glances, only to find Reese’s blue eyes watching her each time she looked. Floundering for something to say—a predicament she’d found herself in since they’d crossed paths in the Book Café, Kay blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “Seriously. Sadie?”

Reese’s blue eyes twinkled back at her behind the wire frames of his glasses, and a ghost of a smile touched his lips as he made his reply. “I rescued her from the shelter. She came with the name.” He let Kay digest that information before he wryly inquired, “Why?”

“Just never pictured you having a dog named Sadie,” Kay muttered, sipping at the iced latte Reese had refused to let her pay for back at the Book Café. She ducked her head, tucking her hair behind her ears when the smile on his lips grew exponentially. She groaned when Hope skidded to a stop in front of them, fingers releasing Sadie’s collar and flying to her own tee-shirt. “Hope Bennett,” she spoke warningly.

“Uh oh,” Hope mumbled, bracing her small shoulders for whatever lay ahead. “I didn’t mean to. Honest.”

“Didn’t mean to what…” Kay trailed off as the little girl slowly turned around. “Oh, Hope.”

“It’s okay,” Hope reassured as Kay took the napkins Reese offered and dabbed ineffectually at the large blue stain that gradually expanded across the soft cotton. “I didn’t like this shirt much anyway.” What was left of her blue raspberry slushie dangled precariously from her right hand, dripping onto the concrete sidewalk only to disappear seconds later with greedy swipes of Sadie’s tongue.

“Mom liked it,” Kay reminded her with a sigh. “I knew you didn’t need blue raspberry,” she cut her eyes in Reese’s direction.

Reese held up his hands in deflection.

“It’s not Mister Reese’s fault,” Hope spoke up. “You said I could have anything I wanted.”

“Mister Reese,” Kay rolled her eyes, snatching the slushie from Hope’s sticky fingers and thrusting it in Reese’s general direction.

“You said she could have anything she wanted,” Reese parroted Hope, making the little girl grin at him, pearly whites and lips stained blue.

“Mom’s going to faint when she takes one look at you,” Kay grumbled, steadfastly ignoring the fact that she was being double teamed. “You look like you’re suffering from frostbite.”

Planting her hands on her hips, Hope rolled her blue eyes incredulously and crinkled up her freckled nose. “You’re just being silly. It’s not even cold. Tell her, Mister Reese.”

“It’s not even…” Reese blushed under the intensity of the look of warning Kay cast him. Clearing his throat, he stammered the first random thing that came to mind. “Did you know that Baskin Robbins once made ketchup ice cream?”

A look of disgust passed over Kay’s face before Hope’s equally repulsed ‘Eww’ escaped. Crumpling up the napkins in her fist, Kay climbed to her feet, nudging Hope forward without another word. Though he had a new sort of confidence about him, Reese, it seemed, was still Reese after all—a fountain of odd bits of trivia.

Reese rubbed a hand through his hair, making the short blond strands stand on end. “Sorry,” he sheepishly said.

Kay’s cheeks hurt from the effort it took not to smile at the expression on his face, and she cast her eyes to the ground, studying her sneakers. She kicked at a small pebble with the toe of her shoe and resumed walking. “You don’t have to walk us to the Bed and Breakfast, you know. We’re not a couple of helpless maidens,” she said as Reese fell in step beside her.

“What’s a maiden?” Hope inquired, shuffling her feet backward as she focused on her sister’s face, the palm of her hand resting on Sadie’s back as the dog loped ahead.

“Like the princesses in the fairy tales Mom reads to you,” Kay answered, her eyes straying once again to Reese as his pace faltered.

“I like the girls in the books Sheridan gave me better,” Hope replied. “They don’t whine as much.”

Laughing, Kay made an apology of sorts to Reese. “Don’t mind us Bennett girls. We just like our independence. Right, Hope?”

“Right,” Hope chirped, though the meaning of the word wasn’t altogether clear to her. Her red hair flew behind her as she took off at a sprint once the Bed and Breakfast loomed into view, the golden retriever galloping after her.

The apology seemed to work, and Reese carried on, offering Kay’s latte back to her. He kept the slushie, sniffing suspiciously at its contents before sampling it himself and grimacing.

“Hope Bennett!” Kay yelled, the warning in her tone having no effect. “She’s going to fall and break her neck one day,” she muttered, “and there’ll be a double funeral in Harmony. If something were to happen to her…”

“Nothing will happen to her. You’re good with her.”

Reese spoke with much more confidence in her abilities than Kay herself felt. As they neared the Bed and Breakfast, they slowed, and Kay turned to face Reese, allowing herself to finally really look into his eyes. Moved by the sincerity she found there, she swallowed convulsively and offered him a small smile. “Thanks,” she indicated the latte in her hand.

“My pleasure,” Reese smiled back, hooking his fingers around Sadie’s collar when she dutifully returned to his side and whined. “Tell Mrs. B. I said hello,” he told her with a nod of his head.

“I will,” Kay promised. She watched as he traveled the stretch of concrete ahead, disappearing around the corner. She jumped when she heard the gate to the Bed and Breakfast creak open behind her, and the apology for Hope’s disastrous appearance fell silent on her tongue when she whirled around and took in her mother’s own appearance.

Grace’s blue eyes were bloodshot and visible tear tracks maligned her cheeks. A balled up piece of tissue was clutched in one hand, and the other shakily reached for Kay’s hand.

“Mom?” Kay questioned as the ice-cold fingers threaded through her own. Looking over Grace’s shoulder, she noticed for the first time Pilar sitting forlornly on the swing, Hope curled up in her lap, patting her hair worriedly. “Mom, tell me what’s going on. Is it Dad? Did something happen to Dad, Mom? Is he okay?”

“It’s not your father, Kay,” Grace finally answered, pulling Kay close. She let go of Kay’s hand and tucked her dark hair behind her ear with a sad but reassuring smile that quickly faded. “It’s your brother.”

“I don’t understand,” Kay’s chin trembled as worry for the unknown seized her. “What happened to Noah? Why is Pilar so upset?”

“Noah’s fine. It’s Ethan. He was…he and Theresa were…” Grace faltered, tears beginning anew as her gaze drifted to Pilar.

“What?” Kay grew impatient. “What happened to Ethan and Theresa?”

“There was an accident,” Grace admitted, expression now composed but grave.

“An accident?”

“Ethan and Theresa are dead.”


~*~


Still unsettled from her run-in with Luis, Gwen had blindly wandered through the throngs of people in the mall until she’d reached the first available exit, breaking free and escaping to her car.

The silence in the vehicle was welcome, soothing to her nerves. Draping her arms across the steering wheel, she let her forehead rest against the sun-warmed leather, willing the disappointed clench of her throat to ease up and allow her to breathe normally again.

She’d known Ethan and Theresa shared a daughter. Despite years of trying, she hadn’t been able to make herself blind, deaf, and dumb to the cruel world around her. Holding the distinction of being one of the town piranhas hadn’t made her immune to being hurt. And that picture? Hurt like hell.

Her chest tightened painfully, and the lump in her throat worsened until she struggled to draw oxygen into her lungs. The blaring of a car horn behind her was the only thing that saved her from going into a full-blown meltdown.

Slipping her sunglasses back on, she put the car into reverse and slowly backed out of the parking space, leaving the mall for the streets of Harmony.

She crept past the idyllic home fronts and quaint little stores that made up Harmony’s middle class, her thoughts wandering without her consent.

If things had worked out differently with Ethan, would she have called this section of town home? Would that be her taking a stroll down Harmony’s sidewalks on a sunny day? Would there be a little girl with blond hair holding her hand? Would Ethan be following them, perhaps pushing a baby carriage, a little boy with his blue eyes cooing up at him?

The thoughts weren’t new; they plagued her every second of every day.

Her mouth set in a tight line, she wished, not for the first time, that she’d never lain eyes on that stupid letter.

Shaking her head to clear it of the depressing thoughts, she made a turn, the picture-book houses and happy families passing in a blur behind her.

The patronage at the Seascape was light this time of the day, and Gwen found herself grateful. The same gossip rags that’d reported Ethan’s true paternity had called her plight “The Downfall of a Debutante” and splashed photos of her drunken exploits across the fronts of their pages, but aside from the legal action her father had sought against them, she had never taken action against them herself.

Shrugging her light jacket from her shoulders to let it drape across the back of her barstool, she crossed her legs and acknowledged the bartender with a nod of her head.

“The usual?”

In the main dining area, Gwen heard the clattering of plates, the muted sounds of business carried out over a late lunch, the clinking of crystal. She acknowledged the question with another nod. She took the glass he slid across the bar to her and swallowed the burning liquid quickly, brown eyes stinging. Coughing slightly, she nudged the glass forward.

“Might want to slow things down there,” the bartender remarked but filled the glass anyway. He shook his head lightly, muttering something about rich types under his breath.

A protest formed on Gwen’s lips, but she took another drink to quell it, instead glaring at him with a haughty toss of her head. Following a bead of condensation across the glass with her finger, she didn’t look up again until he spoke.

“Got a little company this afternoon,” he commented, indicating the lone hunched figure at the opposite end of the bar.

Gwen followed his gaze, doing a double take when she recognized the man as Julian Crane. Frowning, she gathered her jacket and glass in her hand and slid from the barstool.

Julian lifted a brow at the shadow that loomed over him, raising his glass to her and causing the overfull beverage to slosh over the sides. “Gwen.” Gulping another drink, he slurred slightly as he extended an invitation, “Why don’t you join me?”

Sliding into the seat next to him, Gwen braced herself for the expected lecherous comment when her thigh brushed against his thigh, but none was forthcoming. With a puzzled expression on her face, she allowed him to clink their glasses together and watched him finish the drink off, hailing the bartender for another. When the bartender simply shook his head in refusal, a gesture all-too familiar to her, Gwen cast another long look Julian’s way and finally made a pronouncement. “You’re drunk.”

Julian’s dark eyes glittered not unkindly at Gwen over the top of his glass, his mouth twisting into a mockery of a smile. “You would know.”

Gwen bristled at the insinuation but refrained from commenting.

“Are you going to drink that?” Julian pointed at her forgotten drink.

Gwen pushed the glass across the bar to him, ears protesting at the scraping sound, and watched in disbelief as Julian downed it too, meeting her eyes when the last drop had been drained with desolate eyes of his own. Concern licked at the edges of her consciousness with the recognition of that look and compelled her to place an uncertain hand on his arm. Over the years, she’d borne witness to several times in which Julian Crane had had too much to drink. This was different somehow in a way she couldn’t quite explain. “Julian,” she ventured quietly. “Did something happen?”

“Order another drink,” he evaded her question.

“No,” she refused. “You’ve had too much already.”

“I haven’t had enough.”

“I’m not ordering another drink until you answer my question.” Gwen snatched the glass from Julian’s hand. “Julian,” she spoke warningly when he suddenly stood, stumbling on unsteady feet. “You’re in no condition to go anywhere. Julian,” she said, grabbing him by the arm and not letting go. “Something happened.” She searched his haggard face, wondering how it came to be that he’d aged so. In a low whisper, she told him, “I’m not letting you leave here until you tell me.” She watched as, before her very eyes, the life went out of him, and his eyes shone wet and bright. His response left her cold and wishing she’d never asked the truth.

“Ethan’s dead.”

~*~

Luis muttered a curse under his breath as he pulled his jeep in the driveway, parking it behind the convertible that could only belong to one person. He wasn’t in the mood to deal with her, especially not today.

The door opened under the slight weight of his hand, the lock already disengaged, and the aroma of coffee, strong and black, permeated the small kitchen. At the table she sat, blond head bowed and slim shoulders slumped, graceful hands wrapped around a chipped blue coffee mug.

Luis stiffened further as Hank stepped into his line of sight. The scowl already present on his face deepened as he watched his old friend squeeze Sheridan’s shoulders lightly before leaning down to press a kiss to her cheek. Before he could protest Hank’s presence in his house, tell him to get the hell out of there, he had excused himself to the living room, leaving Luis more puzzled than ever. “Decide to try your hand at breaking and entering?” The question came out more than a little harsh. “I could arrest you. Take you down to the station,” he said, withdrawing a carton of milk from one of the plastic bags he’d set on the kitchen counter and placing it on the top shelf of the refrigerator.

“I believe you’ve already done that,” Sheridan murmured, fingernail scratching at the chip on her mug. “Besides,” she continued, “it isn’t breaking and entering when you have a key.”

Hank, Luis realized with a sigh. Withdrawing a loaf of bread from one bag, he placed it on the counter next to the jar of peanut butter he’d already set aside. Three fat, shiny red apples joined the oranges in the fruit basket, and a new container of coffee creamer sat next to the small pink box. Picking up the creamer, Luis set it on the table in front of Sheridan and continued to put away the meager supply of groceries he’d picked up on his way home. Arching a dark brow at her when she failed to sweeten the steaming brew, he glanced at the clock on the opposite wall and frowned. “Shouldn’t you be at the Youth Center? There’s a game in less than half an hour.”

“The game’s canceled,” Sheridan said, blowing cool air gently across her coffee.

“Canceled?!” Luis was incredulous. The team and games had been a compromise they’d agreed upon—after much (sometimes irate) discussion—to bring in revenue and donations to keep the Youth Center afloat without the aid of Crane blood money.

“Canceled,” Sheridan repeated calmly. “I canceled it. Something,” her voice shook slightly on the word, “something came up.”

“Oh, I get it,” Luis’s smile was dark. “Your partner in crime dropped into town, and you had to catch up because he’s more important than the kids. Right?”

Sheridan’s chair scraped loudly against the floor as she pushed it back roughly. “I didn’t come here to pick a fight with you, Luis.”

“Really?” Luis stepped closer to her, noting how she tensed at their close proximity but didn’t look up. In fact, he realized, from the moment he’d walked into the kitchen to find her sitting there, she hadn’t met his eyes once. “Then why the hell are you here?”

Sheridan winced visibly at his heated tone, stepping around him. Bracing her hands on the kitchen counter, she also braced herself for the devastating words she didn’t know how to deliver. She gasped when she felt Luis’s hand close around her upper arm, just above her elbow.

“Look at me, dammit,” Luis demanded as she whirled her around to face him, “and tell me what’s going on.” The angry clench of his jaw relaxed marginally when she lifted red, tear-swollen blue eyes to his face and placed distancing hands upon his chest. “Sheridan,” his voice softened.

“I can’t. I can’t,” Sheridan repeated as her face crumpled before him and her fingers dug painfully into his sides. Like a dam that had been broken, tears sprung from her eyes, slipping down her cheeks as his big palm cupped her jaw, the touch more intimate and caring than anything they’d shared in years.

“Hank,” Luis wondered questioningly as he saw his longtime friend re-enter the room out of the corner of his eye, “Buddy…somebody give me a clue here.” His hand kept the contact with Sheridan’s soft skin, and his eyes never strayed from hers as he sought his answers, a growing pit of worry expanding in his belly.

“It’s Theresa,” Hank answered.

“Theresa?” Luis’s brows furrowed in confusion. “What about her? Sheridan?” he asked, feeling the truth creep up on him, degree by horrifying degree, his gut never lying to him.

“Luis,” Sheridan covered his hand with her own. “Luis, there was an accident.”

UAgirl
4.27.07, 9:40 PM
Chapter 6




“I’m a terrible person,” Kay sighed into her hands as the swingset groaned under the addition of Reese’s weight. “I can’t even cry.” Curling her fingers around the wooden seat, she scuffed the heels of the sensible black shoes she’d borrowed from her mom’s closet earlier that morning against the ground and turned her head, propping her chin on her shoulder and searching his profile for hints of his personal feelings on the matter.

“Maybe you’re still in shock,” Reese offered helpfully, pushing his glasses further back on his nose with his forefinger.

Finding a strange sense of comfort in the familiarity of the unconscious gesture, Kay nodded. It was possible, and she knew it was the excuse her mother had used when well-meaning friends and family had asked how she was holding up at the memorial service that morning, but Kay didn’t entirely buy it. “Maybe,” she conceded. “Or maybe I just didn’t know him well enough to care.”

If her comment surprised him, Reese didn’t let it show. Instead he smoothed his palms across the material of the dark gray pants he wore then tugged absently at the tie around his neck. Frowning at the small smile with which Kay studied the design, he opened his mouth to comment but was interrupted by the sound of a door opening then closing.

Kay arched a dark brow in acknowledgement to the new arrival, a nameless face that had introduced herself much earlier as an old high school classmate of Theresa’s, and she waved off her concerns when she fretted about taking a few moments to satisfy her nicotine addiction. A thin curl of smoke wafted toward them, and the pungent odor made Kay’s nostrils sting. Meeting Reese’s blue eyes, she made a suggestion. “Walk?”

Jessica’s teary blue eyes followed them as they pushed themselves through the crowded household, and Miguel’s brows rose in surprise over Simone’s shoulder. Charity circled her arm comfortingly around her husband’s back when Simone pulled back from the embrace to track their progress.

Kay felt like a bug under a microscope and was thankful to reach the relative safety of the landing where her mother was fussing with Hope’s tangled red hair, her fingers fumbling clumsily with a ribbon that refused to stay put.

“But I don’t want to wear it,” Hope whined, squirming and making the likelihood of progress even more impossible.

“Hope, be still,” Grace finally snapped, giving the little girl’s hair an aggravated tug. When the rough action brought tears to the child’s blue eyes, Grace’s fierce expression fell away, and she folded Hope into a tight embrace, pressing her face into the tiny shoulder and letting a small sob escape.

“Mom,” Kay gently disentangled Hope from her mother’s stranglehold. “Mom, I’ll take her,” she insisted, sliding her arms beneath Hope’s legs when they wrapped around her waist hanging on for dear life, her tears hot and wet against Kay’s neck. “We’ll go for a walk, and she won’t feel so cooped up. She’s been shut up in this…this funeral home for three days, Mom.”

“Mrs. B.,” Reese placed a reassuring touch on Grace’s elbow. “Just around the corner, I promise. I got my cell phone on me if you need anything.”

“Okay,” Grace sniffled, granting Reese a watery smile. “I’m gonna…I’m just going to check on Pilar,” she said, indicating the other woman, seated beyond them on the living room sofa, fretfully twisting a lace handkerchief between her hands. “I’ll call. If I need anything, I’ll call.”

Kay released a pent-in sigh of relief when they made it out the front door, tightening her arms around Hope in a consoling hug and thanking Reese with her eyes. She followed where Reese led, holding the gate open for her to pass and pointing out the way. They walked in silence for several minutes, the gentle afternoon breeze making Kay’s long black skirt swirl around her ankles. Hope whimpered when Kay shifted her weight in her arms but didn’t loosen the choking hold she had on her sister’s neck. “What? She’s heavier than she looks.”

Carefully coaxing Hope into his arms, Reese wrapped a strong arm around the little girl’s bare legs, letting her sandal-clad feet dangle freely. Her red hair tickled Reese’s chin as she lay her head against his shoulder, and her small fingers played with the tie at his neck.

“Daddy calls me his Ladybug sometimes.” The revelation escaped in a sniffle.

“That’s not the only thing he calls you,” Kay teased, tickling behind the nearest vulnerable spot, a skinned knee all patched up with a Tweety Bird band-aid. Predictably, Hope squirmed away, but she smiled, and Kay was grateful for the change in her earlier mournful expression. As they rounded the corner, the FOR SALE sign Hope had literally crash landed into only a week earlier came into sight, and Kay pulled up short when the first niggling sense of awareness started to seep in. “Wait a minute. Reese, you don’t…this isn’t…this is your house.”

Tapping the FOR SALE sign with his hand when he passed it and making it swing lightly back and forth, Reese began walking up the shrubbery lined sidewalk that led all the way to the front door of the house, a modest, well-kept two story affair, and said, “Not for long.”

Inside the house, Sadie barked excitedly, and Kay thought she saw movement behind a pale blue curtain.

Reese set Hope down and reached inside a crudely made clay pot resting on the porch rail to procure a key, wiping the dust from the silver object off on his pants leg while Hope bounced on the balls of her feet, her hands impatiently twisting at the doorknob.

“Hope,” Kay chastised lightly. “Give him time to unlock the door. You’re in the way.”

“Am not,” Hope frowned as Reese fit the key in the lock and started to turn it. “Tell her, Mister Reese.”

This time, Reese wisely refrained from answering, but he didn’t have to. Hope scampered through the unlocked door as soon as it swung open, and Sadie’s excitement increased tenfold, effectively drowning out any reply he might have uttered.

Kay wouldn’t have listened anyway. Her attention, by that time, was occupied with something else. Someone else, who was returning her stare with equal surprise. A very pretty someone else who was holding out her hand.

“Hi. I don’t think we’ve met.”

“Kay,” Reese cleared his throat as Kay hesitantly took the offered hand in her own. “This is Sara.” His smile was fond as he continued, “My girlfriend.”


~*~


“I don’t like this, Sam. I don’t like this one bit,” Luis muttered darkly under his breath. The tiearound his neck felt constricting, but not as much as the atmosphere in Julian’s study, where they’d been summoned for the reading of Ethan’s and Theresa’s last wishes. “This should have been handled in a lawyer’s office. Not this place.”

Sam understood Luis’s feelings on the sensitive matter; he even agreed with him in this case. But Ivy had been Ethan’s mother, and crippled by the reality of her favorite son’s death, she’d not even made it to the joint memorial service held earlier that morning with Father Lonagin officiating. In some small way, Julian was trying to do right by his wife. Regardless of whether holding the reading of the will here, in this place, gave him the home field advantage. Sam didn’t like to admit it, but he understood Julian’s vantage point too. Clasping his hands together, he let his blue eyes survey the somberly decorated study and the people gathered therein.

Standing primly in the far corner, Whitney Russell kept her arms wrapped tightly around herself, chafing her hands up and down her sleeves. Her eyes were downcast, and her cheeks were wet. She was a quiet entity unto herself.

On the sofa, her white knuckled hands tightly clutching Ivy’s trembling hands, Sheridan was whispering something that made Ivy smile through her tears. She shook her head when Julian offered her a drink, biting her lip as she watched her brother through worried eyes.

Lingering in the shadows, Gwen Hotchkiss had yet to utter a word, stunned into silence by her surprise inclusion into the proceedings.

Sam found her most difficult to read of all. Luis was another story. His friend was shattered, reeling in the face of losing yet another member of his family, but denying himself the humanity of breaking down. Sam watched him give the tie at his neck another frustrated tug then unbutton the top button of his shirt. His hands stilled their nervous movements, however, as the lawyer burst into the room, briefcase tucked beneath his arm.

“Sorry, sorry.” The lawyer, who looked as if he’d sat for the bar just last week, set the briefcase on top of the desk and opened it, withdrawing a thick stack of papers. “I’ve been on the phone with the authorities regarding custody of the child,” he explained. “I’ll get to that later.” Glancing around the room, he frowned. “Someone’s missing.”

“I’m representing my mother, Pilar Lopez-Fitzgerald,” Luis stepped forward, angry impatience burning in his dark eyes. He shrugged off the restraining hand Sam placed on his arm and braced his arms against the desk, glowering at the lawyer, who had the grace to look embarrassed for misspeaking when Luis practically growled, “And I want to get one thing straight. The child’s name is Anna, and we’ll get to her now.”

“What Luis is trying to say,” Sheridan appeared at Luis’s side, blue eyes earnest as they soothed the lawyer’s ruffled feathers, “is that none of us are interested in money or things.” There were nods around the room at her comment. “Ethan and Theresa are gone, and the most precious thing they left behind is a little girl, and we’re all here today because we care about that little girl and what happens to her. We’re here because of Anna.”

“And you would be?”

“Sheridan Crane. Ethan’s…” Sheridan struggled for the words to define their relationship, but it was Ivy that answered for her.

“Ethan’s best friend.”

The lawyer smiled, setting the thick stack of papers aside and visibly relaxing. “Then Mr. Winthrop made a worthy choice naming you one of the caregivers to his daughter.”

“She can’t take my niece,” Luis protested, hands bunching into fists once more and setting everyone on edge. “She’s a Crane. Anna’s not a Crane.”

Hurt flickered in Sheridan’s blue eyes before they filled with anger, and she stood tall, chin set stubbornly as she turned to Luis in challenge.

“Wait a minute,” Sam jumped in before things could get more heated. “You said she was one of the caregivers. Who did Ethan and Theresa make Anna’s other guardian?”

“Ethan and Theresa wanted the two people they loved most to raise Anna and give her a loving, stable home.”

Nobody dared breathe as they waited for the identity of Anna’s other caregiver to be revealed.

“They wanted you, Mr. Lopez-Fitzgerald,” the lawyer leveled unflinching gray eyes on Luis’s disbelieving face, “and Sheridan Crane to raise their daughter. Together.”

UAgirl
4.27.07, 9:50 PM
Chapter 7




Kay hovered in the doorway to the kitchen, watching Sara move about Reese’s things with a disconcerting familiarity.

Only the top of Sara’s blond head was visible as she bent before the refrigerator, brows furrowed in contemplation. Withdrawing a pitcher of lemonade, she focused quizzical blue eyes on Kay. “Does Hope like chocolate pudding? I’m afraid there’s not much else.” Taking out a couple of pudding cups at Kay’s nod, she placed them on the granite countertop next to the lemonade and busied herself with gathering glasses for everyone. “I keep telling Reese it’s impossible to exist on pudding alone, but he won’t listen, says he’s not going to be here long enough to need much. But he still needs to eat, right?” Sara smiled at Kay.

Kay responded with an uncertain smile of her own, taking the glass of lemonade Sara held out to her and taking a small sip. More sweet than tart on her tongue, she answered Sara’s unspoken question with a tiny white lie. “It’s good. Do you have any milk? Hope’s not in love with lemonade,” she explained.

“Sure. Top shelf. I’m just gonna...” Sara indicated the living room with a shrug of her shoulders.

Sitting cross-legged in front of the television, Hope was happily scraping her spoon against her plastic pudding cup, chocolate dotting her freckled nose when Kay joined them in the living room. She wiped the smudge from her nose with the back of her hand before Kay had time to protest and gulped greedily from the tall glass she could barely wrap her hands around. The frothy white mustache that resulted and Sadie’s startled bark even had Kay cracking a smile.

Scooting closer to Reese’s side to make room for Kay, Sara patted the empty expanse beside her. “When Reese told me Sadie had made friends here in Harmony, I expected them to be of the four-legged variety,” she laughed.

On her knees now, Hope was giggling as Sadie enthusiastically licked her face. Wriggling free, she scrambled, on all fours, to the opposite side of the living room, ducking behind an overstuffed armchair and engaging in an amusing game of peek-a-boo with the dog, inciting more barking.

“Yeah, well, they seem to have a lot in common,” Kay muttered sarcastically before reprimanding Hope for her behavior in a low voice.

Levering herself up off of the floor and doing an admirable job of *pretending* to be sorry, Hope pushed her red hair back from her face and apologized on a sigh, “Sorry, Mister Reese.” Then, biting her bottom lip, she tugged uncomfortably at the front of her dress, shifting her weight from foot to foot. “Kay,” she whined, casting a pointed look in Kay’s direction and squeezing her knees together as she gave her dress another pull.

“Reese,” Kay set her lemonade on the coffee table and stood up, nudging Hope forward with a guiding palm between her shoulder blades. “Where’s your bathroom?”

“It’s upstairs.”

Sara lay a restraining hand on Reese’s arm when he started to stand up and offered to show them herself. “Follow me.”

Reese beckoned Sadie and curled his fingers around her collar. “I’m going to take her outside.”

“Okay,” Sara pressed a kiss to his cheek. “We’ll meet you there.”

In the landing, Kay studiously avoided meeting Sara’s measuring gaze, focusing her attention instead on the sounds coming from behind the bathroom’s closed door. She lifted her head in surprise when Sara braved the awkward silence, bestowing an unexpected compliment.

“Reese said you were good with her. He was right.” Sara smiled at the expression Kay wore.

At a loss for words, Kay settled for the bare bones truth. “She’s my second chance.” Her eyebrows still raised in question, she looked at Sara wonderingly.

“He’s been keeping me updated. I have to say…Harmony seems like a pretty interesting place to call home. I can’t believe he doesn’t want to hold on to this place. It’s where his history is. Where his friends are.”

Kay ducked her head in embarrassment, her dark hair falling in front of her eyes like a concealing curtain. She fiddled with the clasp of the silver bracelet around her wrist and whispered, “I wasn’t a very good friend then.”

“I know,” Sara issued the simple answer. Her stare was unflinching when Kay again looked up.

“Kay!” Hope’s voice was muffled behind the heavy wood.

“I better see what she needs,” Kay said, hand hovering over the doorknob. “She still needs help sometimes.”

Sara nodded.

Watching her go, Kay released a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding and twisted the doorknob, stepping inside the bathroom where Hope stood on tiptoe before the sink, arms outstretched. “What now, Pest?”

“I can’t reach the soap,” Hope huffed woefully. “This bathroom is not made for little girls.”


~*~


“Together!” Luis bellowed. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?!”

“That’s not possible,” Sheridan was pale with shock.

“Surely you can’t be serious,” Ivy cut in, hand to her throat in dismay. “They can’t even stand to be in the same room together.”

“What about Anna’s grandparents?” Sam gripped Luis’s shoulder hard. Beneath his palm, Luis’s muscles were tensed, like a snake coiled up and ready to strike.

The lawyer’s answer was quick and not without a little bit of sarcasm as he shuffled through his thick stack of papers. “Which set?” His demeanor softened, and he glanced at each of the room’s shell-shocked occupants with sympathy in his eyes. “I assure you that Ethan and Theresa didn’t make this decision lightly. They put a lot of careful consideration into the process, and they recorded letters for each of you detailing and explaining their feelings.”

Ivy grew subdued when an envelope bearing Ethan’s handwriting was pressed into her hands.

Whitney wiped her tears with a shaky hand, taking her envelope with the other.

“I trust you to give this to your mother, Mr. Lopez-Fitzgerald.”

Luis roughly grabbed the envelope from the lawyer’s hands, stuffing it inside his jacket without a word. He watched as, one by one, the lawyer deposited the letters into the hands of their rightful recipients, conferring with and dismissing them—some more reluctant (Sam and Ivy especially) to leave than others—until only he and Sheridan remained.

An uncomfortable, tension-fraught silence lingered in the study, and starting to feel as if the walls were closing in on her, Sheridan began to pace the room, willing the claustrophobic atmosphere to recede a bit.

“Stop it, dammit!” Luis finally snapped. “You’re giving me a headache.”

Casting a baleful glare in Luis’s direction, Sheridan continued to pace but her steps were slower, thoughtful. “When you say together,” she looked to the lawyer, “what do you mean?”

“Together can be defined as a lot of things,” the lawyer acknowledged with a slight smile. Rifling through his briefcase, he removed a nondescript folder and handed it to Sheridan. “Ethan and Theresa’s definition of together is outlined in there,” he indicated the stapled grouping of pages Sheridan held in her hand. “There’s a copy for you too, Mr. Lopez-Fitzgerald.” His eyes drifted back and forth between the pair as they scanned the pages, their eyebrows climbing higher and higher. “I assure you it’s all perfectly legal. A bit unconventional,” he conceded. “But legal.”

“What happens,” Sheridan finally found her voice, not daring to risk meeting Luis’s eyes, “if we don’t follow these guidelines to the letter? Some of these…they’re unreasonable.” She ignored the derisive snort Luis issued in response to that particular statement and continued, “Surely some modifications can be made.”

The lawyer shook his head regretfully. “Ethan and Theresa were very clear in their wishes. If, within the allotted year, you or Mr. Lopez-Fitzgerald are unable to meet all the conditions of their daughter’s guardianship, the child will become a ward of this state, giving other members of her extended family the opportunity to petition the court for custody. Your close relationship with the child’s father notwithstanding, your chances of winning custody of the child on your own are negligible compared to that of a blood relative of the child.”

“Anna,” Sheridan said softly. “Her name is Anna.”

“You face an uphill battle as well, Mr. Lopez-Fitzgerald,” the lawyer voiced his assessment, aware that the man in front of him didn’t want to hear it, but doing it anyway. “Your unmarried status works against you. Not to mention the dangerous nature of your chosen occupation. And there are others, particularly Mr. and Mrs. Crane, with a higher, more influential social standing in this community. Agreeing to and abiding by the guidelines Ethan and Theresa outlined in these documents is the best chance either one of you has of playing a major role in Anna’s upbringing. Would you really let your past differences jeopardize that?”

Twisting the rings around her finger nervously, Sheridan bit her lip in uncertainty, her eyes straying to Luis’s dark form as he moved to stand toe to toe with the other man, his anger simmering beneath the surface barely controlled.

“I’ll take my chances,” Luis bit out. “Because there is no way in hell that *I* am going to marry *her*.”

UAgirl
5.9.07, 9:49 PM
Finally!

Finals are over. :) I have less than 2 weeks off from academic torture, and I'm going to try to make the most of it, lol.

Here's the new chapter.

Hope you enjoy.





Chapter 8




Stepping into the darkened house with a heavy sigh, Pilar let the strained smile fall from her face as she pushed the door closed on the outside world with a soft click.

Miguel and Charity meant well but their hovering only served as another reminder to the purpose of this day: saying goodbye to Ethan and her Theresita.

Filtering through the curtains, the beauty of the fading day mocked her, and the injustice of knowing her daughter would never again look upon such a sunset pulled a hoarse sob from Pilar’s throat. Lowering her head in her hands, she sank into a chair at the table and allowed herself to cry the tears she’d kept pent in the entire day.

As the long minutes ticked away on the clock, the shadows shifted and the moon crept into the dusky sky.

Wiping her tears with the lace handkerchief clenched between her hands, Pilar moved to stand and felt something hard crunch beneath the toe of her shoe. Crouching down, she gingerly trailed a fingertip over a jagged shard of glass.

“Dios mio.”

She winced as a droplet of blood appeared on her finger and straightened, crossing the room to the sink and discarding the offending piece of glass along the way. Her eyes drifted to the window sill as the cold water washed over her hand, and she felt her heart go still inside her chest at what she saw there.

Two unlit candles remained, their weak flames doused; the third was conspicuously absent, a white envelope propped against the window pane in its place.

With a shaky hand, Pilar shut the water off and reached for the envelope, her throat tight as she recognized the handwriting. Closing her eyes, she broke the envelope’s seal and withdrew the lined pages. She smiled through her tears as she read the first line.

“I love you, Mama.”


~*~flashback~*~


“Look at her, Ethan,” Theresa whispered, leaning back into her husband’s embrace. “Isn’t she the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?”

Pressing a kiss to Theresa’s temple, Ethan’s breath stirred the dark hair there as he murmured his agreement. He tightened his arms around her slender frame, holding his breath as Theresa trailed her fingers across their sleeping newborn daughter’s cheek and only releasing it when the action failed to disturb her.

“I wish Mama could be here,” Theresa sighed sadly. “See her. Hold her.” She tested the weight of one of the stars that hung from the mobile in her palm and let her brown eyes travel the room they’d spent hours decorating as her pregnancy had neared its end. Stars, clouds, the Man in the Moon…it was a place where dreams came true; dreams had played such a large part in bringing them together, after all.

Pressing another kiss to her hair, Ethan settled his hands on her hips. He guided her to the rocking chair that occupied the place of honor, in front of a tall window that overlooked a sea reminiscent of home. Sitting in the chair, he pulled her into his lap, tucking a hand beneath her knees and set the chair into creaking motion. “One day,” he promised her. “She’ll hold her and fall in love with her just like we did that very first moment. But until then we’ll send her pictures. You can even send her the one of me changing my first diaper if you like.”

Theresa giggled and pressed a kiss to his grinning mouth. “At first I thought you were completely hopeless. You’re only partly hopeless now,” she teased, combing her fingers through his dark blond hair.

“Hey,” Ethan pretended to be offended. “Changing diapers wasn’t included in the Crane family handbook. We had nannies.”

“You miss being one of them,” Theresa said quietly. It wasn’t a question. It was a revelation she’d gradually come to accept in the years since their leaving.

“I was never *really* one of them,” Ethan answered. His eyes fluttered shut at the gentle touch of her hand on his face, and he covered her smaller hand with his own.

Remembering the look in Julian’s eyes that night that seemed so long ago now, Theresa begged to differ. “They loved you, Ethan—each of them in their own ways. You *were* one of them.” She placed a finger to his lips when he tried to speak, if only to convince himself. “You’re always telling me it’s okay to miss my family.” Winding her arms around his neck, she pressed a kiss to his cheek and made no mention of the curious dampness she found there. “It’s okay to miss yours, too.”

“I have my family right here,” Ethan whispered, tightening his arms around her.

They stayed in that rocking chair until the moon climbed high in the midnight sky. Then—kissing their sleeping baby girl—they retired to their own small bedroom down the hall.

They dreamed of home.


~*~end of flashback~*~



“Hey, Ladybug,” Sam bent to kiss the top of Hope’s red head.

Barefoot and pajama clad, Hope knelt in front of the coffee table, happily scribbling away with a yellow crayon. “Like my picture, Daddy?”

Ruffling Hope’s hair with his big hand, Sam pressed another kiss to her temple, peering over her small shoulder and narrowing his blue eyes before pasting an appreciative smile on his face. “Mmm hmm.” Dropping onto the sofa beside Kay with a tired sigh, he scrubbed a hand over his face before meeting the concerned eyes of his eldest daughter.

“That’s Sadie,” Kay told him, hugging the pillow in her arms more firmly to her chest and curling her legs beneath her.

“Sadie? I don’t think I’ve met this Sadie,” Sam mused. “Tell me about him,” he deliberately misspoke.

“Her, Daddy,” Hope dropped the yellow crayon in disbelief. “Sadie’s a girl.” She tucked a stubborn lock of red hair behind her ear and turned back around, but not before Sam caught a glimpse of her rolling her blue eyes at him. Choosing a red crayon that was but a nub from the pile she had gathered before her, she painstakingly set out to recreate the letters Kay had drawn out for her earlier on her own sheet of paper.

Sam’s smile this time was more genuine as he teased her. “Looks good, but what are we going to do about Shrek? I thought he had the place of honor on the fridge.”

Kay bit back a smile at the reference to the hapless amphibian Hope had previously been infatuated with and labeled hers. She still remembered the evening she’d taken the trash out only to discover the neighbor’s cat enjoying quite a feast. Though there had never been any definitive proof that it had been Hope’s beloved Shrek, they’d felt the need to protect the little girl anyway. As far as Hope was concerned, their Shrek had met his very own Fiona.

“Dogs are cooler than frogs,” Hope shrugged. “Shrek wouldn’t mind.”

“I’m sure he wouldn’t,” Sam chuckled.

“Daddy?” Abandoning her artwork, Hope turned to him, worrying her bottom lip between her teeth and scrunching her nose up as she placed her small hands on his knees and scrambled into his lap.

“Hope,” Sam dropped his voice an octave as she looped her short arms around his neck and nestled her head on his shoulder. He knew exactly what was coming.

Tracing her fingertips around the open collar of Sam’s shirt, Hope continued to chew on her bottom lip for several seconds then looked up at her father with large luminous eyes. “Can I have a puppy, Daddy?”

“We’ve had this conversation before,” Sam sighed, sliding an arm beneath her knees and cradling her to his chest much the way he had when she was a baby, not much smaller than he imagined Anna to be now.

“Many times before,” Kay said, tugging playfully at one of Hope’s toes as she scooted closer, her shoulder brushing against her father’s shoulder.

“And many, many times before that,” Sam shared a meaningful look with his eldest daughter.

“And did I ever get a puppy?” Kay retorted, dark brow arched in challenge. “Face it, Hope-less,” she tickled the soles of her kid sister’s feet, making her squeal and squirm in their father’s arms. “A puppy in the Bennett house? No way.”

“But she could sleep in my bed,” Hope pouted.

“YOU sleep in *my* bed,” Kay scoffed.

“Not tonight,” Hope stuck her tongue out. “I’m sleeping with Jessica.”

“Boo hoo.” Kay pretended to wipe away a tear.

“Girls,” Sam spoke warningly. The corners of his mouth twitched.

“Please, Daddy,” Hope poured on the melodrama, clasping her hands in a prayerful pose and batting her blue eyes at him.

The significance of the day and the memory of another pair of less familiar blue eyes stalled the tried and true answer in Sam’s throat, and his stalwart resistance to the idea melted, just a little bit. “Maybe,” he said. “Maybe when you’re older.”

“One day older?” Hope’s smile was buoyant and blindingly bright.

“Older than that,” Sam chuckled, sliding her from his lap when Jessica appeared in the doorway to the kitchen, Grace’s slender form visible behind her putting away the multitude of dishes they’d collected throughout the day as somber well-wishers had dropped in to voice their condolences. Giving Hope a gentle push in Kay’s direction, he stood up. Winking at Kay, he told Hope, “Keep your sister out of trouble. I’m going to help your mother.”

“Yes, sir,” Hope saluted him with a giggle, clambering onto the sofa beside Kay and practically gluing herself to her side.

Shaking her head, Kay crossed her arms, marveling at her already considerable skill in the art of parental manipulation. “You little con artist.”

“Huh?” Hope’s face crinkled in confusion, making it appear as if it had even more freckles. “Hey!” she cried when Kay tousled her hair, and Jessica made her approach from the kitchen. “Jessica, guess what?” she practically bounced in place, raking her red hair back from her face impatiently.

Jessica smiled, unable to hazard a guess before Hope plowed on.

“Daddy’s getting us a puppy!”



~*~


Luis lifted his hand to knock at the cottage door, the white gauze and tape stark against his tanned skin. He bit back a wince as his tender knuckles rapped against the wood, peering through the window and pulling back abruptly when he saw Hank emerge from the depths of Sheridan’s home. A black scowl was firmly in place on his countenance when Hank answered the door, having the gall to sound annoyed.

“If you’re here to take another shot at her…”

“Where is she, Hank?” Luis shouldered his way inside, ignoring the implications of Hank’s trailing words.

Hank’s brown eyes skirted the periphery of the cottage, and a smart-assed smirk was on his lips as he ambled by Luis on his way to the sofa. “Not here.”

“I can see that,” Luis bit out impatiently. “Listen, Hank, I need to talk to her.”

“You mean yell at her some more?” Hank’s look turned dark and just as dangerous as the look Luis currently wore. “Not going to happen.” He settled himself on the sofa, throwing his arms possessively across its back. “Look, Man. If you want to be miserable, fine. Be miserable. Don’t go taking it out on everyone else.”

Luis glowered at Hank, stalking around the cottage’s living room like a caged tiger.

“And another thing,” Hank leaned forward, his pose a little more casual but still tension-filled, “Sheridan didn’t come up with those guidelines. If you ask me, those guidelines have your sister written all over them.”

Luis bristled at Hank’s defense of Sheridan and all-too-true estimation of the situation, staying silent. Theresa’s part in this whole mess simultaneously filled him with reluctant affection and unrelenting exasperation. Life wasn’t a damn fairy tale; in the end, the pre-maturity of her death had spoken to that. If she were here, he’d shake some sense into her. But Hank knew that, and she wasn’t.

“I know you, Man.” Hank’s voice was closer this time. “I know you came here thinking you’d make her see the light.” When Luis didn’t so much as flinch at the accusation, he continued, “You’re stubborn that way. It’s the way you work. But you’re forgetting something. Sheridan is just as damn stubborn, if not more so, and she’s not going to give up that baby without a fight.”

Rounding on Hank, Luis snapped, “She’s not hers to give up.”

Hank forged ahead, ears deaf to his friend’s claims. “She’ll fight tooth and nail. You know why? Look around, Luis,” Hank swept his arm out in an arching motion. “She loved Ethan and that baby. Just as deeply as if they were her blood.”

For the first time, Luis noticed the pictures. Everywhere his eyes landed were pictures. The pictures he memorized in private, Sheridan displayed for all the world to see. She loved Anna freely, openly, wide open; he kept his love a tightly held, cherished secret in his heart. Guilt made the line of his shoulders soften.

Loving Anna shouldn’t be that way; she deserved more.

Reaching around Luis, Hank plucked a silver frame from the mantelpiece and offered it to Luis.

Luis’s big hands closed around the frame instinctively, and he felt a lump begin to grow in his throat as he studied the picture.

“This is one of her favorites,” Hank told him in an emotion-filled whisper.

Anna, just a few months old, with her tuft of dark curls and blue eyes two sizes too large for her face, rest against Theresa, her head beneath her mother’s chin. Theresa, dark hair disheveled and tousled by an unseen breeze, had her mouth open in joyful laughter while Ethan bent his head over Anna’s pink feet and made her smile toothlessly, pressing kisses on every inch of skin he could reach.

“They’re happy she said. They’re in love. They’re a family,” Hank leveled his dark eyes on Luis’s unreadable face. “They’re *her* family, Luis.” He placed a firm hand on Luis’s shoulder. “They’re her family just like they’re yours, and Anna’s all that’s left. Think about that, Luis.” He squeezed Luis’s shoulder in emphasis and left him alone, his footsteps fading in the distance to be replaced by those of another. His heart cried as she hesitantly called out his name.

“Luis?”




















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Thanks so much for reading!!!

P.S. Thanks to everybody that has responded to this story so far.

P.P.S. Let me know if there are any outlandish typos. :) I can deal with the itty bitty ones (well...sorta).

UAgirl
5.24.07, 6:54 PM
Chapter 9




Groaning as Hope wedged her body more tightly against the small of her back, Kay flung an arm out, fumbling for the lamp chain and finally succeeding in dousing the bedroom in a weak yellow glow.

Hope merely moaned in her sleep, burying her red head beneath the fuzzy purple pillow she managed to keep close no matter where she slept.

Rolling onto her back, Kay gently pushed the yielding little body over a few inches, breathing a sigh of relief at the scant distance the maneuver afforded her.

Even as a baby, Hope had always snuggled impossibly close, always keeping that point of contact regardless of how small, as if she were afraid that having any one of them a finger’s breadth away would allow them the opportunity to disappear.

Kay understood that feeling; it was the same feeling she got whenever she thought of leaving Harmony and striking out on her own. Would the family she left still be there when she returned? She wondered how long her parents would continue to keep up appearances when they had only Hope in this house, a child who didn’t know the parents Kay had known growing up, parents untouched (although that had NEVER been completely true) by the actions of the past. They wore the strain of their lies like a brand, invisible only to the outside world, but they weren’t fooling anybody that didn’t want to be fooled. Sometimes she wished for the luxury of the denial Jessica seemed to be firmly and happily rooted in.

Hope whined softly, her feet kicking out restlessly, and flopped onto her back, eventually rolling onto her side to face Kay again.

A small, resigned sigh escaped Kay’s lips as her kid sister tossed an arm about her waist and molded her small body against her side, her breath puffing warmly against Kay’s collarbone. Shifting her eyes to the nightstand, she searched out the alarm clock, unsurprised to find that it was well after midnight and that sleep continued to elude her. Too much was on her mind. Her inability to cry for Theresa and Ethan, her dad’s revelation earlier that night of the contents of the will, the surprise meeting of Reese’s girlfriend…for reasons she couldn’t fathom herself, meeting Sara had left her more unsettled than all the other events of the day.

Sara was pretty, nice, smart, and *blond*. She could easily pass for Charity’s cousin, more easily than Kay herself.

Whether she was more troubled by her similarities to Charity or her very existence in Reese’s life, Kay couldn’t say, and her initial, instinctive yet irrational dislike of the girl worried her. So much so, that sleep, she’d already determined, was impossible for her tonight. Combing her fingers through Hope’s sweat-dampened tangled hair, she thought back to that afternoon, the four of them playing catch with Sadie in Reese’s front yard, and the way Sara’s blue eyes followed and seemed to study her. It had been unnerving to say the least, and when her mother had made good on her promise to call, it had been an unexpected relief.

Hope wiggled again, whimpering in her sleep, due no doubt to a bad dream. Her forehead crinkled and the corners of her mouth turned down in a pout as she blindly sought out Kay’s hand with her own small one.

Squeezing her hand between hers reassuringly, Kay soothed her with the low hum of her voice close to her ear and a kiss to the crown of her head. Extinguishing the lamp so that only the moon lit the room through the half-open curtains, she banished all thoughts but Hope’s comfort from her mind and lay there quietly, in the hopes that sleep would eventually claim her.


~*~


Luis focused on the drip-drip of the coffee maker in the background and the feel of the kitchen countertop digging into his side, anything but Sheridan’s eyes as they flickered across his face searchingly. He knew she was looking for some clue, some indication of what he was feeling in that moment, but through sheer force of will he kept his face expressionless, his emotions carefully under wraps. He couldn’t do what he was about to do if she caught even the slightest glimpse of weakness in his countenance. Retreating to the kitchen had been Sheridan’s idea, and for that he was thankful; the bright smiles, happiness cut short, and reminders of all they had lost—he could no longer convince himself that his grief, his mother’s grief, Sam’s and even Ivy’s grief were the only ones of true significance—haunted him and gripped his heart painfully. Here, at least, their eyes didn’t follow his footsteps, didn’t judge his words. Only her blue eyes did. She had, Luis realized, started crying again. His hands ached to comfort her; his mouth had other ideas. “Your accomplice skip town? He never was any good at sticking around when the going got tough.” She turned her back to him, but not before Luis caught the flash of anger his comments had inspired.

“He thought we needed some time to talk.” She set two coffee mugs down on the counter with a thud and yanked another cabinet open, her shoulders tight and back ramrod straight. “I’m out of everything. You’re going to have to drink it black,” she poured then plunked a steaming mug down in front of him.

Luis grimaced, swearing under his breath as the liquid sloshed over the rim of the mug and scalded his abused skin. “Dammit,” he hissed, cradling his hand close to his body, the white bandage soaked through. He flinched away when Sheridan reached for his hand. “Don’t touch me. You’ve done enough damage.”

Sheridan’s hand dropped back to her side and her voice lowered to a whisper. “It’s never going to be enough, is it? I said I’m sorry, Luis. I’ve said it a hundred, a thousand times. What’s it going to take?” She flattened her palms against the kitchen counter and watched as he struggled to remove the bandage one-handed. Making a decision and daring him with her eyes to stop her, she moved to stand at his side, taking his hand in both of hers and gently removing the stained gauze. “Oh, Luis.” Her fingers hovered over the angry, reddened flesh. “These…they’re bad.” She coaxed him to the kitchen sink, holding his hand underneath cool water. “What did you do?” she murmured, tracing her fingertips gently over the wounds. Turning his hand over, she noticed for the first time, his raw, bruised knuckles.

Luis didn’t answer her. Disentangling his hand from hers, he awkwardly dried his hand with the clean dishtowel she offered, refusing to meet her concerned blue eyes or to acknowledge the electricity that seemed to crackle like a live wire between them. When the bar was safely between them again, Luis found his voice, denying her insistence that he see a doctor. “I don’t need stitches. It looks worse than it is.”

Sighing, Sheridan shook her head in censure. “Stop being so damn stubborn. At least let me put something on it. I have a first aid kit around here somewhere.”

Luis followed her out of the kitchen, protesting the entire way. When she disappeared down the hall, he decided it was an exercise in futility and dropped wearily to the sofa, leaning his head back tiredly against the pillows. His eyes open to half-slits, he watched her as she knelt on the floor between his knees and took his hand again in her own. “Sheridan, what are you…” he began, only to break off, hissing and jerking his hand away. “That burns, dammit!”

“Baby,” Sheridan chastised, gripping his hand firmly and blowing gently on his skin. “I have to clean it first,” she rolled her eyes at him when he glared blackly at her.

Luis watched, achingly aware of her position and the warmth of her touch, every muscle in his body tightened in tension. Her fingers were agile and her demeanor worked hard to seem detached, but underneath it all there ran a current of caring that he didn’t deserve, hadn’t deserved in a long time. Of its own volition his hand tightened around her wrist when she moved to stand and he was strangely pleased when her breath seemed to stall between her lips at his touch. He wanted to thank her but what came out instead was, “You didn’t have to.” Bending forward, he searched the depths of her blue eyes for answers—how could she find it in herself to show him kindness after the myriad of ways he’d proven himself unworthy over the past years, the entirety of his knowing her—and felt something within him shift at the unnamed emotion he saw glimmering there for the briefest of seconds before she cast her gaze to their touching hands.

“There are other ways to punish yourself, Luis.” The fingers of her other hand lingered at his pulse point. Whatever else she’d wanted to say was lost in the breath between them as Luis cupped the back of her head with his uninjured hand and pulled her into his kiss—desperate, sloppy, and scorching hot. She surrendered to the bruising pressure of his mouth on hers, giving him the control he so franticly sought in the tailspin from which they found themselves powerless to escape. When the kiss ended, her lungs scrambled to replenish themselves, and her chest heaved with the effort. Sinking back on her heels, she closed her eyes at the loss and the intensity of the feelings still rushing through her.

Luis’s hand shook as it combed through her short blond hair and ghosted over her cheek. His fingers clenched in the black material covering his thigh, the denied need to keep touching her sweet torture in itself. And he admitted to himself that this time, she couldn’t have been more right. “We can’t stay here.” He’d be damned if he lived right under Alistair Crane’s nose.

“Anna needs her own bedroom.” Sheridan’s eyes were bright as she left the rest unspoken, covering his hand and squeezing hard. “We can do this.”

“For Anna.”

“For Anna,” Sheridan echoed.


~*~


The letter, it had turned out, hadn’t been much of a letter at all. Just three words scrawled on a piece of plain white paper in Ethan’s simple, uninspiring handwriting.

“I forgive you.”

Irrationally disappointed at first, Gwen had thought the words to be some sort of joke. Surely, she’d reasoned, it wasn’t as simple as that. Three words—no preamble, no beating around the bush—just there. She’d sifted through the contents of the envelope, and finding another, smaller envelope within, had hurriedly slid her fingernail underneath the seal, eager to discover what was inside.

Photographs—some wallet-size, some larger—that recorded the various highpoints of their failed relationship stared back at her.

She choked back a laugh at seeing one of the first pictures of them as a not-couple—awkward and unsophisticated; they’d moved in the same social circles, their families had haunted the same boarding schools. Looking back, their introduction had no doubt been orchestrated as a means of furthering the strength of their family businesses. But their relationship had been more than that: they’d grown to be friends. And slowly, they’d grown to love each other. Yet, if she were being brutally honest with herself, she’d admit to the fact that she couldn’t recall a single moment where they fell IN love with each other.

She still carried her pain too close to her heart to admit to *that.*

College socials, Ethan’s law school graduation, stolen lunch dates in between meetings at her father’s company, some quiet moments interspersed—they were happy. They were even content. The camera had captured some great smiles, some genuine moments of affection.

But not glimpses of a grand-scale love affair.

So her heart ached even while it wanted to soar.

She was forgiven. She should feel peace. But it wasn’t as easy as that, she realized, knees pressing into the moist, soft earth and eyes staring straight ahead at two names forevermore linked in her mind and the minds of others; Theresa’s and Ethan’s love affair had been cut tragically short.

And she could find no peace in forgiveness wrought by Death’s cruel hand.

UAgirl
8.10.07, 10:35 PM
New chapter, friends.

It's shorter than the last several, and in my opinion, it sucks (lol), but after the trouble I had getting it written, I'm not going to complain too much. Obviously, you need a chapter 10 before you can get to chapter 11, and if all goes as I plan it, chapter 11 should be much more interesting. :D

All that being said, I hope you enjoy the new chapter.












Chapter 10




“Did I ever tell you how beautiful my wedding was, Mama? Just me and Ethan and the sun rising over the ocean and a dress that made me feel like Cinderella at the ball. It was perfect, Mama, in every way but one: you weren’t there.”

Theresa’s recalled regret was Pilar’s own, and though she had her reservations about the expediency of the hasty union Sheridan and Luis had pledged to enter into, she wasn’t about to be absent yet again. Where two days before, she’d gathered with friends to mourn their shared losses, activity bustled.

“I always thought when I got married it’d be in a church, Mama, with you and Luis and Miguel there. Paloma’d be there too, and so would Papa. He’d come home to us, and he’d give me away. Ethan would take my hand—it was always, always Ethan, Mama—and he’d smile at me, and I would be so busy smiling back at him that Father Lonagin would have to repeat my name to get my attention. I wasn’t married in a church, Mama, but it didn’t matter. God was still there, and I could feel you there too, holding my hand when my nerves started to get the best of me and I stumbled over my wedding vows.”

Sam and Grace’s small but tidy yard was hardly a church, and the scattering of folding chairs lining the perimeter of a crudely approximated aisle weren’t pews, but Pilar could still feel God’s presence, in the brilliant blue of the cloudless sky and the banding together of those she counted as her friends and loved ones to help Sheridan and Luis see this through, down to those people in her life that defied classification, including Ivy Crane.

“I missed you, Mama. All of you. But you know who else I missed, Mama? I missed Ivy. I missed Ivy because Ethan missed her, and whatever else she might be to me, she’s Ethan’s mother and I know that she loves him even if I don’t agree with her way of showing it.”

Excusing herself from Charity and Jessica’s pleasant company, Pilar made her way across the small distance that separated her from Ivy, her steady steps faltering uncertainly when, after years of mutual separation, the two women suddenly found themselves sharing the same space again.

“We disagree about so many things, Mama, but having Anna has made me realize we’re not that different, Ivy and me. We both love Ethan, yes, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I don’t agree with the choices Ivy made—maybe I never will—but I understand them better now.”

Skillfully applied blush could not cast away the sickly pallor of grief from Ivy’s cheekbones and rose lipstick did nothing to detract from the downward tug of Ivy’s lips. Only her blue-green eyes remained bright, but it was with the sheen of carefully held-in tears. She greeted Pilar with a tight nod of her head, not trusting her own voice.

“I understand them better because I’m a mother, and mothers don’t always love with reason.”

With the whisper of her daughter’s words in her ears, Pilar inhaled deeply as the truth of them settled and took up residence within her very bones. Breaching the void the past had wrought between them, she extended her hand to Ivy.

“But you already knew that. Didn’t you, Mama?”

Ivy hesitated slightly, but her reaction proved to be just the encouragement Pilar needed. Taking Ivy firmly by the hand, she led her inside, her voice softened around the edges with the pain she knew they both shared, as mothers. “Come. It will please Sheridan to know you are here.”


~*~


“I thought you were supposed to wear white to weddings.”

Sheridan smiled in response to the apologetic look on Grace’s face and the glare of censure Kay shot Hope before dragging her bodily from the small bedroom, protesting all the way.

“What?” Hope’s voice could still be heard clearly from the hallway. “It’s not a real wedding if you don’t wear white. Mom said so.”

“I didn’t…Sheridan, I hope you don’t think,” Grace lowered her eyes from Sheridan’s frozen smile, biting her lip fretfully. Looking back up at the younger woman, she exhaled slowly and explained. “I told her that once when she said she wanted to get married in a purple wedding dress because it was her favorite color.”

Sheridan’s features relaxed a bit, and she smoothed her hands over the skirt of the pale pink strapless dress she’d chosen that morning (with Hank’s reluctant help) in lieu of a more traditional gown. “That would have been a sight,” she agreed, turning to study her reflection critically in the floor length mirror that stood in the corner of the room.

Over Sheridan’s shoulder, Grace smiled and clasped her hands together. “I think you look lovely.”

Turning her back to the mirror, Sheridan embraced Grace warmly. “Thank you, Grace. For everything. I know you and Sam don’t exactly agree with what Luis and I are doing.”

“We just don’t want you to get hurt. Either one of you,” Grace emphasized as she held Sheridan once again at arm’s length. Over the years she’d come to regard the woman standing before her with growing affection, recognizing in the course of their knowing each other a giving, kind heart too easily and too often hurt, often at Luis’s hand. She feared this arrangement they were entering into for Anna’s sake spelled nothing but trouble for both of them. She knew from experience the price of ‘faking’ a marriage. “A wedding and a marriage are two totally different things, Sheridan. Are you sure you’re ready for this?”

“I have to be.”

“Okay,” Grace gave the hands in hers an encouraging squeeze. “It’s almost time.”

Sheridan’s smile was tremulous at best as she let go of Grace’s hands and nervously smoothed her skirt one more time. “Show time.”


~*~


Shoulder to shoulder with Luis, Sam watched his daughters take their seats, Kay pulling Hope into her lap and straightening the blue bow that drooped in her red hair while Jessica placed herself beside them and beckoned Charity and Miguel to join her. In the row of chairs parallel to them sat the unlikely trio of Gwen, Pilar, and Ivy. Sam felt every muscle in his body tighten with tension when Grace hurried down the aisle and slipped into the only remaining seat—beside Ivy. Keeping his expression carefully neutral, Sam muttered, “I think you’re taking that attitude adjustment we talked about a little too far.”

Luis’s reply was terse. “I won’t have Anna raised in that house. I’d marry the devil himself to keep that from happening.”

Whistling under his breath, Sam gripped Luis’s shoulder firmly and directed Luis’s attention to a point beyond the scattering of guests. “Hardly looks like the devil to me.” Quietly, he excused himself, Father Lonagin taking his position behind Luis.

Luis was none the wiser, his eyes irresistibly drawn to one person.

Like a deer ready to bolt at the first hint of danger, Sheridan stood at the end of the aisle, her blue eyes wary. Smiling at something Hank leaned down to whisper in her ear, she patted his arm gratefully and kissed his cheek before slowly making her way toward them. As she took her place at Luis’s side, Father Lonagin began to speak.

“We are gathered here today…”
















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UAgirl
8.12.07, 6:37 PM
Well, I can tell you guys are reading (or at least looking) by the number of views the last chapter got. Pretty inspiring. :) Just think how much more inpired I would be if you...nevermind. :D

Well...here's chapter 11. Twice as long as chapter 10.

Hope you enjoy it.










Chapter 11



“We had a wedding at my house today, Mister Reese.” Hope scratched Sadie between the ears, and the dog’s tail thumped happily against the porch steps as the little girl slid her arms around the its neck to press her cheek against the golden fur.

“You should have come.” Kay’s voice was soft, a mere whisper beneath the evening song of the crickets, too soft she thought in the long moments it took Reese to acknowledge that she had even spoken at all. Turning her body so that she faced Reese more fully, she leaned her back against the porch railing and brought her knees to her chest, regarding him with unspoken questions in her eyes.

“Yeah,” Hope twisted her neck to shoot a grin in Reese’s general direction. “Uncle Hank called it a half-cocked shotgun wedding.”

Kay covered her eyes from Reese’s view with a small groan as Hope continued.

“But I don’t remember seeing any guns.” Hope’s grin morphed into a thoughtful frown as she considered the incongruity of it all, and she failed to notice the twinkling of Reese’s blue eyes behind his glasses or the amused smile that her sister couldn’t tamp down. “Where were you, Mister Reese?”

Hope’s curiosity-laden question jolted Kay back into responsible older sister mode. “Hope Bennett, that’s none of your business!”

“It’s all right,” Reese finally spoke for the first time since they’d arrived at his doorstep over a half hour earlier under the pretense that Hope just had to visit Sadie or die a horrible death from missing her.

Recalling her kid sister’s melodramatic pleas even now put a smile on Kay’s lips, and she half-shrugged at Reese apologetically, not daring to admit to herself that she shared some of Hope’s curiosity.

“Someone came to look at the house,” Reese told them, pushing his glasses further up on his nose.

“They weren’t interested were they?” The question escaped Kay’s mouth without her permission, and ducking her head in embarrassment, she backpedaled furiously, thankful for the twilight that hid her cheeks’ blush. “I’m sorry. That’s not what I meant. You just…the FOR SALE sign is still there, and I just thought…” she trailed off awkwardly, blessing Hope for choosing that moment to blurt another probing question, even if the subject inexplicably made her feel as if a ball of lead were settling in the bottom of her stomach.

“How come Sara’s not here? Did she have to go home to her house?”

Squatting down in front of Hope, Reese reached out to ruffle Sadie’s gleaming coat. “She had to go back to school.”

“School?” Hope’s nose crinkled in disgust, the connotation of the word for her not a positive one as it inevitably took Kay away from her for long stretches of time that felt interminable in her little girl view. “I’m never going to school. Ever.”

“Ever’s a long time,” Reese stated thoughtfully as he lowered himself to the step alongside Hope, Sadie content between them.

“I’m a Bennett,” Hope shrugged. “Tell him, Kay.”

Chin propped in her hand, Kay delivered the oft-repeated saying with a quirk of her lips. “Once a Bennett sets her mind on something, it takes an act of Congress or God to change it. Least that’s what Dad says.”

Reese seemed to carefully digest her words before returning his full attention back to Hope. “Tell me more about this wedding.”


~*~


The house was much too quiet without Hope in it, Grace realized, looking around and finding her heart hurting with the discovery of so much…emptiness.

Jessica was gone—her middle daughter catching a late bus back to school and the place Grace knew she now thought of as home, and the last guests from the wedding, Charity and Miguel, had left nearly an hour ago with Pilar. They planned to stay with her in the long, lonely night ahead, delaying their own departure until morning.

The thought of asking them to spend the night here, in this house instead, had occurred to Grace, but the notion had quickly faded, leaving her cold over her own selfishness; now she busied herself with the mundane task of clearing and cleaning up the kitchen to chase the residual guilt away.

“Use some help?” Sam hovered in the doorway, his arms crossed across his middle, waiting for her answer. Taking her slight nod as his cue, he advanced deeper into the room, his elbow brushing against her arm as he came to a stop beside her and picked up the clean dish towel from the kitchen countertop. Rubbing the plate she handed him until it shined, he worked in silence, and if he noticed how she stiffened at the innocent touch of his skin against her own, he didn’t acknowledge it.

Grace willed her racing heart to slow down and forced her hands to remain steady as they fell into a routine borne in the early years of their marriage, she washing, he drying.

“We have a dishwasher, you know,” Sam remarked as he took another plate from her hands.

Grace’s shoulders tensed at his comment. Always, and Sam knew it well, she washed the dishes by hand when something was bothering her. It may seem silly to other people, but she’d worked out many a frustration during their twenty-plus year marriage at this sink. Ivy Crane’s simple presence, no matter how fiercely she had tried to pretend otherwise today, was the biggest frustration of all. “Sam, you don’t have to…”

Sam cut her off with a strong hand on her arm, gently turning her to face him. “Grace, I know Ivy being here today upset you.”

Grace avoided his intense gaze, focusing instead on her feet. “Water’s dripping all over the floor, Sam,” she told him, pulling her arm free of his hand and trying to turn away from him again.

“It’s water,” Sam snapped in exasperation, trapping her with his arms. “I’ll clean it up later,” he added in a softer tone. “Grace, we need to talk. Grace,” he implored. “Look at me.” His hands moved to rest on her hips, and he ducked his head to try to look in her eyes.

His hands on her were so familiar, his scent one she could pick out in a crowded room. Grace felt the weight of the distance she’d forced between them come crashing down on her shoulders, and suddenly, it was too much. Tears filled her eyes as she finally honored his request, and her lips trembled when his hand came up to cup her jaw. “I’m not upset, Sam. I…”

Sam’s other hand rose of its own volition, and he cupped her face in the palm of his hands. “You’re lying. Be honest with me, Grace,” he said, sighing regretfully when his words had an unintended effect, and she recoiled from his touch, shrugging away from his attempts to keep her close.

Grace’s laugh was hollow as she held her husband off with a staving hand. “You’re telling me to be honest?”

“Grace,” Sam protested, but this time she was the one to cut him off.

“No. No,” Grace shook her head firmly. “You have some nerve, pleading with me for honesty, when it was your own dishonesty that brought us to this…” she swept her hands out at a momentary loss for words, “this place we’re in right now.”

“I’ll admit I made the first mistake in not telling you about my past with Ivy,” Sam’s blue eyes glittered with anger, “but you can’t put the sole blame on me for the state of our marriage right now, Grace. You can’t. You’re just as much to blame as I am. Only you refuse to take the responsibility for your actions.” The small measure of satisfaction Sam felt at finally getting those words off of his chest was instantly dwarfed by the ever-present guilt that consumed him whenever he witnessed that flicker of hurt in her blue eyes. He lowered his voice to a pained whisper. “We can’t go on like this, Grace. It isn’t fair to either one of us, and it sure as hell isn’t fair to the kids.”

“What are you saying, Sam?” Grace cried, the dread at his answer making it difficult to get the question out over the lump lodged in her throat.

Sam’s answer was weary, hardly an answer at all. “I don’t know what I’m saying, Grace. I don’t know anything anymore.”

“Let me make it easy for you then, and ask the question nobody wants to ask.” Grace’s voice was quiet, and now it was Sam who avoided her eyes. “Sam,” she began, unaware of their audience hovering in the same doorway Sam had occupied earlier.

“Grace, don’t,” Sam pleaded, watching as Kay tried without success to coax Hope back into the living room but the little girl’s feet stayed stubbornly rooted to the floor.

But Grace continued, oblivious still to the little ears listening, and it was too late, the question hanging heavily in the air.

“Do you want a divorce?”


~*~


It was still early, it’d take a couple hours yet for Jake’s to live up to its status as the busiest bar in Harmony, but a few people milled about inside getting a head-start on the rush.

“What a surprise to see you here,” Hank smirked as he eased himself onto the barstool next to one patron in particular.

A few tendrils of blond hair had escaped from their pins, curling slightly in the humid atmosphere, and brown eyes narrowed at him over the top of her glass. “I’m not front page material anymore. Why not? What are you doing here?”

Sheridan had freely offered up her cottage to him, but without her there, it seemed wrong for him to stay. Staying at the Bed and Breakfast would be too much like spying since Luis and Sheridan were making it their temporary home until something more suitable came along, and Hank didn’t feel much like checking into a cheap motel, which somehow added up to his being here, in Jake’s, without a place to crash and without a plan for his foreseeable future, except taking too much enjoyment out of bugging the blond socialite beside him. Wait, he corrected himself silently. The jilted debutante, who looked to be well on her way to living up to her reputation. “How many of those have you had to drink?” he indicated, the glass at her lips.

“None of your damn business.”

The instant, smart-assed reply made Hank grin, and he hailed the bartender over. “I’ll have what she’s having. Keep ‘em coming,” he said, laying down a wad of cash that made Gwen’s brows raise in surprise. “What?” he held up his hands defensively. “Can’t let you have all the fun.”

A few drinks later, equally dispersed between the two of them, Gwen twisted on her barstool to face him, their knees bumping awkwardly. A wry smile on her lips, she made an accusation that hit a little too close to home. “You’re in love with her, aren’t you?”

Nursing the beer in his hand, Hank laughed her off, lifting a hand and ordering them another round.

“Admit it,” Gwen leaned in close, resting her hand on his thigh for balance as she searched his brown eyes for the truth he wouldn’t say.

Finally, Hank gave her a non-answer, picking at the peeling label on his bottle. “She’s in love with him, always has been, always will be.” Sliding another bottle in Gwen’s direction, he finished off the beer in his hand. He arched a teasing brow at her when she spoke again, her voice just the slightest bit incredulous with discovery.

“You’re trying to get me drunk.”

“Who says I have to try?” he said, and his eyes drifted to where her hand still rested on his thigh. He grinned at her belated realization of its location and the way she snatched her hand back and decided to risk wearing a tattoo of her hand on his cheek with his next comment. “Babe, you’re doing all the work for me.”

Gwen leaned back, crossing her arms across her middle and letting the new beer bottle dangle from her fingers as she regarded him coolly. “Why? What possible reason…”

Hank watched her jump to conclusions, enjoying the newfound fire in her brown eyes. He just continued to grin as she started railing at him, her beer bottle hitting the bar with a resounding thud.

“No. No way. Not in a million years,” Gwen vowed.

“Why not?” Hank asked, unashamedly admitting to himself that the idea gained more appeal by the second, especially (and Sam—hell, Luis too—would call him on his perverse logic if he were here) after witnessing the passion with which she refused the very suggestion.

“Why not?” Gwen was aghast. She tried to get up, to leave, but the smallness of the space between the barstools worked to her disadvantage, and she found herself trapped, Hank’s arm handily blocking her exit. She sucked in a deep breath of surprise when she realized his other hand was resting on her hip.

Hank wanted to laugh at the shiver she couldn’t suppress, but he knew that move might earn him a strategically placed knee. Schooling his features into a perfectly calm, expectant expression, he waited for her to calm down and give his proposition some more thought. Her second round of protests, thankfully, was much more subdued, halfhearted even.

“How could it possibly be a good idea for me and you to…we’re both in love with other people,” Gwen stated the obvious.

Hank shrugged, his thumb unconsciously rubbing patterns against her hip. “She’s married. And he’s dead.” The reminder came out more gently than he’d intended. “Maybe it’s not the best idea,” he acknowledged. “But it’s a better idea than drinking ourselves to oblivion.” His other hand dropped to her waist, and he gave her a hopeful look, the smirk returning to his mouth when he felt her lean into his touch, just slightly. “Come on, Babe. What do you say?”

Snagging the beer bottle from the bar and slinking out of his arms, Gwen paused just a few steps away, her voice barely audible over the increasing crowds of people milling around them. “Get your ass in gear, Bennett, before I change my mind.”

Nearly stumbling in his haste to catch up with her, Hank drawled, “Yes, Ma’am.”


~*~


Sheridan let the curtain drift closed with a sigh, wrapping her arms protectively around her and resting her forehead against the cool glass of the window. Moonlight washed over her in a silver glow until a sliver of yellow replaced it, and Luis’s towel-clad image was reflected before her. She felt her heart beat faster when his footsteps approached and her senses were filled with his clean scent. Dragging her lip between her teeth, she worked up enough courage to turn around and face her new husband.

Crisp white towel knotted around his waist, Luis rubbed vigorously at his wet hair with another towel, frowning slightly when his eyes met hers.

“Maybe it would be better if I moved my things into the extra room at the end of the hall,” Sheridan suggested, remembering the other room Grace had talked about before fitting the key to this room into her palm. She watched as Luis’s brows knit more tightly together, and his dark eyes sparked at her.

“No,” Luis dismissed the idea, turning from her and bending at the waist to pull a pair of pajama bottoms from the open suitcase on the floor. “We already talked about this, Sheridan,” he said, giving her a significant look as his fingers worked at the knot in the towel.

Heat filled Sheridan’s veins as she whirled around, and she clasped her hands together, worrying the ring on her finger, a family heirloom he’d surprised her with during the wedding ceremony. The words he’d whispered to her after, just before he’d pressed his mouth to hers in a short, hard kiss, echoed in her mind before Luis even repeated them.

“We have to make this look real,” Luis’s voice sounded closer.

Sheridan jumped as he reached around her to turn the bedside lamp on.

Luis looked at her oddly. “You okay?” he asked, padding across the room to turn on the television in the corner. He turned it back off without waiting to hear what was being said when their images flashed across the local newscast. “This is only temporary,” he reminded her, pulling a pillow from the bed and tossing it into the floor, where the beginnings of a makeshift bed lay. “Once we find a place, we’ll have our own rooms. You won’t have to pretend you can stand the sight of my face anymore.”

Anger welled up inside Sheridan at the thought that he was deliberately baiting her, but she tamped it down, taking a calming breath before she steered the subject back into what she thought was more neutral ground. “I’ve had my real estate agent draw up a list of available properties fitting our requirements,” she knelt before her own suitcases, withdrawing a bulging folder from one and standing back up to offer it to him with a proud smile. The smile on her face fell when he scanned through the folder’s pages, abruptly thrusting it back into her hands with a black scowl.

“No. These are all wrong.”

Sheridan’s mouth dropped open in shock for a moment before her earlier anger returned tenfold and her blue eyes flashed fire at him. “What do you mean they’re all wrong? Each of them has at least three bedrooms, one for each of us. All of them have big, open yards so Anna will have lots of room to play; a couple of them are even within walking distance of Lighthouse Park. I made sure all of them were within a reasonable distance from the police station,” her voice escalated as she ticked off reason after reason on her fingers without a change in his obstinately held demeanor. “They’re near the best schools, the best daycare centers, the safest neighborhoods. How can they possibly be all wrong?”

The expression on Luis’s face grew even darker, and the fire in his eyes flamed to match hers. “The safest neighborhoods?” he scoffed. “You’re talking about the neighborhoods on the other side of the tracks, right?”

“No. No,” Sheridan repeated more vehemently as soon as she realized his implication. “That’s not what I meant at all,” she objected.

Luis yanked the folder back from her hands and opened it, running his finger down the first page. “Two miles from the Harmony Country Club.” He flipped a couple of pages further, and his mouth was drawn in a mean line as he said, “These two aren’t that far from the Seascape. This one,” he flipped to the last page and ripped it out to wave it in front of her face, “is practically in Alistair’s backyard.” He tossed the piece of paper at her and rounded on his heels, pacing the confines of their room like an angry tiger, before advancing on her, backing her up until the sharp edges of the antique vanity bit into her flesh and made her wince.

There was real menace in his eyes mixed with the vaguest shadows of hurt pride, and Sheridan found herself wanting to apologize, but her stunned mind lacked the words. She placed one hand on his bare chest to stop his advance, and the other fumbled behind her for purchase. She vaguely recognized the distant sound of shattering glass as he spoke again.

“Let’s get something straight right now,” Luis growled. “Anna is not going to grow up into a spoiled rich princess too good to mix company with the people on the other side of the tracks. My people,” he emphasized. “People like Mama and Sam and T.C.—people like Theresa.”

Sheridan felt her throat grow tight at the enormity of his misunderstanding of her intent and her feelings. “Luis, I didn’t mean…”

“No,” Luis stopped her with a finger to her lips. “This little charade doesn’t have a chance in hell at working if all you’re interested in is erasing that side of who Anna is, if you’re not able to accept who she is.” The fight and the fury left his eyes, and they become unreadable as he watched her shakily stoop before him to gather up the shattered pieces of glass, the scent of the spilled perfume permeating the air around them only then reaching his nose. “Leave it,” he sighed, crouching down close beside her and stilling her trembling hands with his own before she accidentally cut herself on the jagged shards.

Sheridan didn’t trust herself to look up at him so she kept her eyes focused on their hands, her throat closing up at the matching wedding bands. Grateful for the welcome distraction of a rapping knock at the door, she slowly rose to her feet without a word. She felt more than heard Luis’s solid presence behind her as she answered the door and choked back a gasp at what she saw.

Julian stood before them, a dark-curled child sleeping in his awkward embrace.









So...what did you think?

Proofed but not perfect.

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UAgirl
10.21.07, 7:44 PM
Not thrilled with this chapter myself, but I hope you enjoy it nonetheless. :)








Chapter 12




“Careful,” Julian groused as, no longer frozen in disbelief, Sheridan moved to take Anna from his arms.

“She’s a baby, Julian.” The lingering scent of baby powder and the warm puff of air Anna exhaled into the crook of her neck as she settled sleepily against her almost paralyzed Sheridan. She felt an unbearably sweet ache blossom inside her chest as she stroked the sweat-dampened dark curls. “Not a bomb.”

Luis finally found his voice, questioning his newly acquired brother-in-law suspiciously. “How did you…”

“I didn’t violate any laws, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Julian answered in a superior tone. “I merely expedited a process that was already in progress. Contrary to your beliefs, the Crane name is not always used for nefarious purposes.”

Both men’s eyes fell on Sheridan, and the picture she made, holding Anna protectively close, rendered each of them silent until her whispered words restored their capabilities of speech.

“Thank you, Julian.”

Julian’s voice turned gruff with embarrassment over the unaccustomed praise, and he turned stiffly toward the door, intent on making his exit, “Yes, well. I thought it time to bring her home where she belongs.”

“Julian?” Luis stopped him before he could disappear completely. “Thank you.” The words left his mouth with great reluctance.

“She’s all yours now. Take care of her,” he advised, stepping aside to let the chauffeur bring the few possessions that had made the journey to Harmony with Anna inside. His eyes lingered on the pair across the room, the message in their dark depths coming across loud and clear.

Sheridan looked up then and offered him a tremulous smile, and shock rendered Luis powerless to reply as a surge of unexpected protectiveness coursed through his very marrow with one look into eyes of teary blue.

“Take care of her,” Julian repeated.

Then he was gone, and it was just the three of them, and one thought kept running through Luis’s mind.

‘She was his now.’

Hours later, with dappled sunshine making Sheridan’s blond hair a golden halo upon its snowy white pillow, Luis was still reeling from the reality of the new world he lived in as he watched the pair before him sleep.

Anna slept on her belly, the thick terry sash of Sheridan’s robe clenched between her tiny fingers. Her full pink lips were parted, and a droplet of moisture clung to the corner of her mouth. The fuzzy pink blanket she’d clung to so desperately the night before rest at her feet, kicked off during her restless night.

Though the early morning’s bright rays spilled through the thin curtains, the coolness of the previous night lingered within the four walls with just enough bite to make a chill travel up Luis’s spine. Moving from the armchair where he’d taken sentinel after Anna’s last bout of frightened tears, he crouched beside the bed, one large brown hand hovering over Anna. Thick, curly black lashes fluttered briefly against her cheeks when Luis gently recovered her, only a small whimper escaping when he gave in to the urge to fit his palm against her small back. He startled when Sheridan spoke, looking up when she covered his hand with her own to prevent him from removing it.

“It’s okay,” came the whisper. “You’re not going to wake her.” As she spoke, her thumb traced unconscious patterns against Luis’s skin, and she only became aware of her actions when Luis pulled away from her touch, the gentleness in the action solely an effort not to wake the sleeping child. Biting back her own disappointment, she settled her hand against the tiny girl’s back in his stead, the rhythmic rise and fall reassuring and welcome after such a difficult night. She watched Luis move across the room and slip a black tee-shirt over his head. “Luis?”

“Go back to sleep.” The suggestion sounded like an order, even to Luis’s ears, and he made a deliberate choice to soften his next words with not-quite-feigned concern, his dark eyes intent on her as she propped herself up on one elbow to protest. “You’ve had a long night.”

“All of us have had a long night,” Sheridan answered sensibly, her hand falling from Anna’s back as she twisted slightly beneath the covers to track his progress across the room. “Luis, take a look in the mirror,” she indicated the dark circles under his eyes. “You’re dead on your feet. Luis, are you even listening to me?”

Luis swallowed, tearing his gaze from the naked shoulder exposed to his eyes when she had shifted in the bed, and let his eyes meet hers briefly before looking away uncomfortably as a heavy awareness suddenly sparked and flared between them. For several long seconds he said nothing, closing his eyes when he heard movement again. When he next opened his eyes and dared glance at Sheridan, she was the one who could not, would not meet his gaze, and the robe was pulled high and tightly closed. Clearing his throat, he picked up a pair of jeans and headed toward the bathroom. “I have some things to take care of down at the station.” Re-emerging just moments later, he assured her, “I won’t be long.” What he didn’t say was that he wanted to check Julian’s story out, make sure they now had custody of Anna on legitimate terms.

Sheridan read between the lines anyway. “Julian didn’t…”

“We don’t know what your brother did or didn’t do,” Luis cut her off, palming the keys to his jeep. Repeating his earlier statement, he promised, “I won’t be long.”

Sighing as the door closed behind him, Sheridan lay back against the pillows and curled around Anna once more. “We’ll be here.”


~*~


Strands of red silk tickled Sam’s nose, but he didn’t dare move, didn’t dare breathe in case the necessary action jolted Hope from her hard-fought sleep. Tucked beneath his pillow and consequently, Hope’s head, his left arm prickled with the pain of a thousand knives; his other arm was draped across his daughter’s sleeping form, wrapped within her own arms and stretched across the scant space she’d allowed between him and Grace the night before. The fingers of his right hand twitched uneasily against the curving slant of Grace’s hip, and his eyes mapped a slow route across her body only to find her blue eyes staring back at him intently. In them, he found his own regrets about the previous night reflected.

“No!” Hope erupted, shrugging Kay’s hands from her shoulders and stepping forward. Her small hands fisted at her sides, and her chin trembled dangerously as she glared at her mother for even daring to ask such a terrible question, though her young mind didn’t yet understand all of its implications. “Daddy can’t divorce us. He loves us. Tell her, Daddy. You love us. Don’t you?” Hope looked uncertainly from one parent to the other, shrinking back into Kay’s supporting arms when both adults still seemed frozen in shock.

“Kay,” Grace pleaded with her eldest daughter in a choked voice. “Take her...take her upstairs. Hope, it’s past your bedtime.”

“Daddy?” Hope’s question escaped again—this time in a thin, plaintive wail. “Don’t you love us?” Her wet blue eyes welled and spilled over, the tears making rapid tracks down her freckled cheeks.

Without another thought, Sam scooped her up with his hands beneath her shoulders and clutched her close in a fierce, breath-stealing hug. “How can I not love you?” he whispered against her soft hair as she wrapped her arms and legs tightly around him, his eyes straying to Grace’s own tear-filled eyes. “You’re my ladybug.”

“What about Mom?” Hope mumbled against his neck then pulled back to stare into his eyes, roughly swiping the back of her hand against her nose. “Don’t you love her?”

“Grace.” Sam winced when her name came out louder than intended, and he frowned when she shook her head silently, frustration building within him. When she nodded at Hope though, a finger lifted to her lips, he felt the frustration start to dissipate, just a little.

“No. Don’t go,” Hope moaned in her sleep, rolling over and burying her face in Sam’s chest then kicking one sock-covered foot out and atop the covers.

Sam brought his free hand up to cup the back of Hope’s head, stroking her hair soothingly until she calmed in his arms. Pressing his lips against her forehead and sharing a significant look with his wife, he made a solemn promise. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Sam,” Grace warned, rubbing her own hand comfortingly up and down Hope’s arm until the girl sighed and gradually relaxed the iron grip she had around Sam’s neck. Lacing her fingers together with those of her daughter, she shifted closer until she was a warm, solid presence against the child’s back, sharing the same pillow as her husband.

Reaching out and placing a tender hand along Grace’s jaw, Sam felt his throat grow tight with the realization that his words had done little to chase away the doubts in her pretty blue eyes. He was going to have to do something about that. “I’m not going anywhere,” he repeated thickly when her desire to believe betrayed her misgivings and she leaned into his touch, just the tiniest bit, breaking his heart by slow degrees. “I’m right where I belong.”



~*~


She was wearing his tee-shirt. For reasons Hank couldn’t fathom, the thought made him inordinately happy. Scrubbing his hands over his sleep-fuzzy eyes and face before making a cursory detour through the mess that was surely his bed-head hair, he cleared his throat, quickly hiding his smirk when she whirled around to glare at him, spilling water all over herself and the floor in the process.

“Dammit.” Gwen muttered the curse, tugging self-consciously at the tee-shirt that flirted with her thighs as she crouched to clean up the mess. When Hank bent to help her, she waved him off. “I was hoping you were a figment of my imagination,” she grumbled.

Hank just grinned. The whole situation was surreal. He’d experienced a similar feeling of disbelief mere minutes ago, waking up tangled in silk sheets that still bore her scent. Last night had given him more than a new appreciation for her perfume; he was seeing the woman that wore it in a whole new light as well. Brown eyes traveling up her long smooth legs when she straightened, his smile only grew bigger when Gwen snapped her fingers, and he saw that the glare had morphed into certain daggers of death. Nope. It hadn’t been the alcohol talking. The morning after and she still had some seriously great legs.

“My eyes are up here,” Gwen growled a reminder.

Deciding to tone down the gleeful grin a notch—children would be nice someday, Hank schooled his expression into a blandly apologetic smile, scratching absently at his chest. His witty response stalled in his throat when Gwen’s brown eyes narrowed at him suspiciously, just before she whirled back around, presenting him with her lovely backside. He wondered if she realized that the tee-shirt provided precious little cover when she raised up on tiptoe like that and tried (and failed) to grab another glass from the cupboard. Hooking his thumbs in the belt loops of his jeans, he slouched back against the kitchen counter and enjoyed the show.

Finally giving up, Gwen huffed in frustration, eyes flashing at him and hand held to her aching head. “At least put some clothes on,” she complained.

“In case you’ve forgotten, Babe, that’s my shirt you’re wearing.”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Gwen answered with a haughty toss of her head that clearly made pain lance through her pounding skull. “It was the only thing clean.”

Ouch, Hank winced. With the hangover she surely had, that had to hurt. Belatedly, her last comment registered with him, and he looked at her in disbelief. A small smile twitched at the corner of his lips; he’d heard better excuses made up on the spot by preschoolers. “If you wanted it for yourself, you could have just asked,” he couldn’t resist teasing.

“Get over yourself, Bennett,” Gwen sneered at him, arms crossed over her chest. “I fired the cleaning lady last week.”

Glancing around at their surroundings, Hank noticed, in the stark light of morning, a few things he hadn’t much cared to pay attention to last night, stumbling through the front door with his lips happily attached to the curve of her neck and his buzzed brain past caring. Now that she mentioned it, the place was an unqualified mess—it actually bordered on looking like a disaster zone. “Oh.”

“Oh?” Gwen raised a very dangerous looking brow.

“Nothing,” Hank shrugged, scolding himself for finding that brow so sexy. “Just…it explains a lot.”

Gwen rolled her eyes at him and turned around again. “If you want coffee, you’re going to have to make it yourself.”

“Let me guess,” Hank stepped closer to her, their shoulders bumping as he familiarized himself with the contents of the open cupboard in front of him, the inkling of an idea starting to form in his brain. “The cleaning lady made the coffee. Did this cleaning lady have a name?”

“I like you better when you’re not talking,” Gwen snapped irritably, stalking out of the room.

“Really? That’s funny,” Hank called after her. “Because you are a lot more fun drunk!”







































Thanks for reading!!!

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UAgirl
1.1.08, 8:10 PM
Finally!


A new chapter!

Sorry, guys, for the glacier-like pace of this story (and my updating); I'm having to sit on my hands not to rush things, lol.

Thanks to those that responded to the last chapter.

I hope you enjoy this one.
Happy New Year!!!






Chapter 13




“Luis,” Quinlan, hot on Luis’s heels as he zigzagged through the cluttered, mostly unmanned desks en route to Sam’s office, called. “Lopez-Fitzgerald,” he clamped a strong hand down on Luis’s shoulder just outside Sam’s closed door. “What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be on your honeymoon or something?”

Meeting the other man’s eyes, Luis was able to read another, underlying, message there. He knew. “Relax, Quinlan. I’m just here to see the boss, talk to him. I promise I’m not here to cause any trouble.”

Quinlan straightened, the wary set of his shoulders relaxing marginally. “The Chief’s not here,” he informed Luis, letting his hand drop back to his side. “He took the day off to spend some time with his family. Isn’t that what you should be doing?” Under Luis’s intense stare, his cheeks reddened, and his eyes strayed to a point beyond Luis’s shoulder as he cleared his throat. “No offense, but if our places were switched…”

“Quinlan,” Luis spoke warningly.

“All I’m saying is you’re a lucky man,” Quinlan continued uncomfortably, “and I don’t understand why you’re here when you could be…there.” He cleared his throat again and let his eyes flicker across Luis’s face before looking away once more. Only when Luis began to talk did he release a sigh of relief.

“I promised Sheridan I wouldn’t be long.” Deciding to switch tactics, Luis forcibly relaxed his stance and schooled his expression into an earnest one. “Look, Quinlan. Marty,” he amended, hoping to use their familiarity with one another to his advantage, “you know me. Would I be here now, would I willfully violate a direct order—the day after my wedding, if it weren’t important?” Luis watched, pleased, as the tension seemed to melt from Quinlan’s shoulders, and the suspicion in his eyes transformed to mere curiosity.

“I guess not,” Quinlan decided. Rubbing a hand over his chin thoughtfully, he considered his next action for only a moment before pushing the door to Sam’s office open and preceding Luis inside. When they were alone, the door closed once more, he turned to Luis, arms crossed across his middle and voice sure. “Okay, Lopez-Fitzgerald. Something’s up. Lay it on me.”

“Sheridan and I had a surprise visit from her brother last night,” Luis began.

“On your wedding night?” Quinlan interrupted incredulously.

Shaking his head, Luis refused to let the other man veer off track of the conversation. “He had Anna with him.”

Now it was Quinlan’s turn to shake his head, in confusion. “Wait a minute. Your sister’s kid? How did he…I thought...” He broke off as he watched Luis cross the necessary distance to Sam’s desk and pick up one of several frames that lined the perimeter of the boss’s desk. A closer glance afforded him a glimpse of Theresa Lopez-Fitzgerald’s smiling brown eyes and the child they all knew only through pictures, at least until now. “You don’t think he went through the proper legal channels,” Quinlan deduced, the fog of confusion lifting abruptly.

Returning the picture to its rightful place, Luis acknowledged Quinlan’s line of thinking with a rhetorical question. “When have the Cranes ever thought they weren’t above the law?”

Quinlan thought about reminding Luis he was married to a Crane now but thought better of it. The circumstances behind Luis’s introduction to his wife of but a day notwithstanding, Sheridan Crane was different, and they both knew it; Quinlan had faith in the fact that Luis wouldn’t have married her otherwise. “Unusual wedding present,” he tried to joke.

The humor was lost on Luis.

“Ever occur to you that he meant it as nice gesture for his sister?” Quinlan put the suggestion out there. “Excuse me for saying this, but you’re not the only one who lost someone. Maybe he finally figured it out: life’s too short.” Deciding to let Luis chew on that for a little while, he walked around the boss’s desk, placing both palms flat on the cool surface as he looked Luis in the eyes, hoping he hadn’t overstepped the bounds of the comradeship they’d shared in their years spent on the force together.

Finally, Luis spoke. “Anna belongs with her family. I don’t want anything to jeopardize that.”

Settling into the chair behind him, Quinlan accepted Luis’s words with a nod of his head. “I’ll look into it—make sure everything’s above board.”

“Thanks, Quinlan,” Luis voiced his gratitude.

“No problem.” Quinlan grinned at Luis when he hovered in the doorway. “Don’t you have somewhere to be, Lopez-Fitzgerald? Sheesh, you aren’t acting like any newlywed I’ve ever known.” He chuckled when that finally seemed to spur Luis into action, and the other man turned to walk out of the office. “What?” he crossed his arms over his middle and arched a challenging brow at Luis when all but his head had disappeared around the corner.

“Nothing,” Luis smirked. “Just wouldn’t get too comfortable in the Chief’s chair if I were you. You and I both know he’s married to this place.” Quinlan’s retort was snappy and all too true, and Luis was hit again with the realization of all the changes that lay ahead for him and Sheridan on this path that they had chosen to keep Anna in both of their lives.

“That makes two of you.”


~*~


Hope’s sneakers made wet impressions in the shifting sand, and when Sam and Grace finally came to the end of the trail of their youngest daughter’s footprints, they discovered her poised atop a jagged outcropping of rocks, arm stretched out before her and voice high with excitement.

“Daddy! Look, Mom!” Hope’s blue eyes were wide, standing out in her pale face as her red hair whipped about in the bluster of the sea winds. “You can see the lighthouse from here. Isn’t it amazing?”

Grace couldn’t see the grin on her little girl’s face, couldn’t recognize the beauty in the view, for the sudden icy grip of terror she felt in looking upon Hope’s precarious position. When her vocal cords refused to cooperate with her mind’s demands, she clutched Sam’s upper arm in a bruising hold.

Sam gave Grace’s hand a gentle, reassuring squeeze and stepped around her, infusing his voice with a calm he knew Grace needed. “It is amazing,” he agreed, holding out a beckoning hand to his reluctant daughter. “You know what’s even more amazing?” he let a knowing smile twitch on his lips when Hope regarded him skeptically. “C’mere, and I’ll show you.”

Hope slipped and slid her way back to them, and Grace held her breath with every step that she took. When the child lost her balance, pitching forward with hands held out in front of her, Grace felt as if her heart had stopped beating altogether. Only when she saw Sam snatch Hope up in his strong arms, enveloping her in a fierce hug, did she feel the aching muscle resume its skipping beat. “Hope Bennett,” the air escaped her lungs in a panicked stream of unheard words, “you know better.”

Arms slung low over Sam’s shoulders and cheek pressed to his, Hope stared back at her with eyes that were bright and blue and filled with a bravery Grace was ashamed to admit she’d never really possessed. “Did you see it, Mom?”

Sam’s voice was a low, reassuring hum near Grace’s ear, his large hand cupping the back of Hope’s head as he commanded her attention. “She saw it, Ladybug.” He couldn’t resist a smile at his daughter’s beaming expression, but one glance at Grace out of the corner of his eyes had him sobering up. “But next time, don’t you think you should wait on your mom or me before scaling mountains?” The comment earned a tinkling giggle from Hope. Then, more seriously, he told her, “Mom was a little scared, seeing you up so high.”

Though she’d been well within her rights to worry, Grace silently chastised herself when the smile on Hope’s freckled face fell. She busied herself re-tying the trailing laces of her daughter’s shoes when she couldn’t bear to face her disappointment, wiping the gritty sand from her fingers against the rough denim of her jeans when she was finished. She had to swallow back the lump in her throat when Hope’s skinny arms looped around her neck in an apologetic hug, her previous joy all but gone. Clearing her throat, she returned the hug, and tucking Hope’s red hair behind her ears, pulled back to remind her, “Your dad promised you something even more amazing. I’d hold him to that.”

At Grace’s words, Sam lifted his daughter in his arms, smiling at the excited sparkle generated in her eyes by his actions. With some effort—Grace’s and his own—and much surprised squealing from Hope, he settled her on his broad shoulders, wrapping his hands around her small knees.

“Daddy, you better not let me fall,” Hope cried, squirming to gain purchase and unintentionally pulling at her father’s hair in the process. “Mom, look how high I am now.” Her face lit up with pleasure, she braved letting one hand go long enough to hold her wind tousled hair away from her eyes.

“Very high,” Grace agreed, realizing with a start the position of her hands and noticing, for the first time, that Sam’s eyes had never left her face. Lowering her eyes from Sam’s intense blue gaze, she focused on brushing particles of damp sand from the navy cotton of his shirt, steadfastly ignoring the way his breath stuttered and stalled at her light touch. “She’s getting sand everywhere,” she explained in a soft voice, letting her hands drop from his chest in embarrassment when she dared lift her eyes again.

“Grace,” amusement colored Sam’s answer and his eyes twinkled kindly at her when he again found his own voice, “we are at the beach.”

Hope chose that moment to wriggle again, grabbing healthy handfuls of hair with one hand and nearly blinding her father with the other.

Sam frowned accusingly at the twitching smile Grace was too slow to hide from him. “What’s so funny?” he asked, gentling Hope’s hands between his own and steadying her once more.

“Nothing,” Grace replied, ducking her head and veering back to the path they’d been on before they’d put their heads together to trace their elusive young daughter. “How’s the view?” she turned back to them, allowing another glimpse of the smile she wore.

Freezing mid-wince, Sam continued to rub at his ‘injured’ eye and smiled disbelievingly at the note of teasing he detected in her voice, following in her wake. “What do you think, Ladybug?” he tossed the question to Hope, happily admiring the lay of the land from her prominent perch.

“Amazing. Super amazing. Super-duper amazing fantastic!” Hope giggled, the sound rising up and floating above the constant push and pull of the waves.

She had no way of knowing, Sam reasoned, that her thoughts echoed his own.


~*~


Chin propped in hand, Kay eased a nail beneath the page of the catalog lain open before her and perused the varied selection of cookware advertised. She sighed heavily as a fresh wave of boredom crashed into her, closing the catalog and pushing it aside. Picking up the pen nestled between the pages of the Bed and Breakfast’s guest log, she twirled it between her fingers, her eyes becoming unfocused as she stared off into space and remembered the events that had led to this—her volunteering to man the front desk while her mother and father attempted to escape the real world for a few hours and spend the day with Hope. She was vaguely aware of the faint noise of the swing creaking to and fro outside, and the rustle of leaves in the breeze. She jumped in surprise, though, when a distinctly recognizable bark sounded, and a familiar shadow darkened the Bed and Breakfast’s door.

“Hi.” Reese’s greeting was soft, his smile somewhat shy as he lingered in the doorway. “Sadie and I were out for a walk and thought you and Hope might like to join us.”

Sadie issued another lively bark and wagged her tail invitingly when Kay bent to comb her fingers through her golden fur.

Straightening, Kay gave the canine one last pat between the ears and informed Reese, “I’m afraid Hope’s not here.” She bit her lip and glanced back at the empty desk. “And seeing how Mom left me in charge of this place…” she trailed off, inwardly kicking herself for the disappointment she saw briefly flare to life in Reese’s eyes.

“Oh. Oh,” Reese repeated, hooking his fingers in Sadie’s collar and turning to leave. “You’re busy then. Maybe some other time.” He nudged his glasses further back on his nose with a finger and turned to leave.

Kay imagined she saw a tiny slump in his shoulders, and Sadie whined in protest at being led away. “Wait!” Acting on impulse, she called out to them, letting the door to the Bed and Breakfast bang shut behind her. “Don’t go.” Recognizing the indecision on Reese’s face, she softly entreated, “Stay. I’m bored out of my mind, and you’re the first real-live humans I’ve spoken to since Mom and Dad left this morning. Please stay.” She offered him what she thought of as her best smile.

Reese’s blue eyes danced behind the lens of his glasses. “I didn’t know you considered dogs to be human, Kay.”

Mouth dropping open, Kay scoffed at him and rolled her eyes. “You know what I meant, Reese Durkee.” The raised brow of warning she gave him looked a little less menacing when Sadie was upon her, happily bestowing her affection. Gently pushing the golden retriever aside, she led Reese to the swing and offered him a seat. Soon, the wooden bench swayed under their combined weight, Kay sitting sideways to face Reese and Reese studiously ignoring the suspicious look with which she was studying him, staring straight ahead.

“Didn’t Mrs. B ever tell you it’s not polite to stare?” Reese finally blurted.

Bursting into laughter, Kay touched a fingertip to the reddened ear in front of her, belatedly realizing the tinge of color was, in fact, traveling. “You’re blushing,” she accused. She giggled some more when Reese squirmed away from her touch and turned around to face her, his posture defensive. “All right,” she finally sobered. “Relax. I promise. No more teasing. See? Pinky promise.” She crooked a finger at him and smiled when he returned the gesture. They fell into a comfortable silence, and Kay was sure she must have dozed at some point, eyes closed and breeze fluttering against her face. She opened her eyes again when she felt the gentle touch of Reese’s hand on her face.

Reese tucked the renegade strand of dark hair behind her ear then pulled away, the expression on his face unreadable.

Ignoring the baffling quickening of her heartbeat, Kay reacted on instinct and grabbed Reese’s hand in her own, giving it a friendly, reassuring squeeze to let him know everything was okay. Almost a whisper, she pleaded, “Tell me how you met Sara.”

“It was at one of those convention things.” Reddening again when Kay stifled a giggle, Reese nevertheless began to weave his tale.


~*~


“Sheridan.” Arms full, Luis nudged the door shut behind him with his foot. “Sheridan, you in here?” he called again, his heart skipping a beat as his eyes traveled over the bed she’d occupied just that morning, finding it empty and newly made. “Sheridan.” Luis winced when he picked up the note of panic in his own voice and deposited the entirety of his collection of bags at the foot of the bed before heading toward the adjoining bathroom. The door easily gave way under his touch, and Luis was greeted with the sound of soft, melodic music just seconds before he was met with a most unexpected sight.

In the claw-foot tub in the corner of the small room, covered in frothy bubbles with her black curls piled atop her head, Anna shrieked with laughter.

Creeping further into the bathroom, Luis discovered the source of her laughter.

Sheridan’s fingers danced over and under Anna’s chin, skittering across her protruding little belly, then flitted underneath the small arms as Anna squirmed to elude her touch. Her other arm held tight to the tiny body, the gleam of the ring on her finger catching Luis’s eye. She, too, was covered in foamy bubbles and laughing—until she noticed Luis.

Clearing his throat awkwardly, Luis looked away sharply, focusing all of his attention on the small radio placed somewhat precariously along the window sill. In a gruff voice, he scolded, “This shouldn’t be in here.” He turned it off and unplugged it, removing it from the sill and placing it on the top shelf of the linen cabinet. “It’s dangerous. Not to mention the fact that it could have been anybody walking through that door.” He knew he was blowing things out of proportion—even if Kay and Reese had barely noticed him as he’d walked past—but dammit, something about the woman made logical thought fly right out the window. For the first time since entering the room, he met Sheridan’s eyes.

“It wasn’t anybody, Luis,” Sheridan placated. “It was you. Now calm down. You’re scaring her.”

His drummed-up anger fled him when Luis realized a worrisome effect of his tirade; her giggles quieted, Anna was completely silent, clinging to Sheridan’s neck and staring up at him with huge blue eyes. Cursing underneath his breath, Luis grudgingly looked to Sheridan for help when he took a step forward and the action made the tiny girl hide her face from him.

“Anna,” Sheridan gently pried Anna’s arms from her neck. “Don’t be shy, Anna Banana,” she whispered in one ear. “It’s just Luis. He won’t hurt you.”

Luis’s eyes flew to Sheridan’s face when he heard the nickname. Hearing it and seeing it on paper were two completely different things, and he was hit anew with the realization that his baby sister was gone, just like that, and the little girl clutching at Sheridan in desperate fright was his now to love and keep safe. He swallowed hard with the knowledge that the only other person who knew and felt the same awe-inspiring responsibility was staring deeply into his eyes with naked understanding. Speaking of naked…feeling a familiar heat start to course through his veins, blooming and settling in the pit of his belly, Luis once again looked away uncomfortably and moved to go, only stopping when he felt her touch against his leg. “I should go.”

“Stay,” Sheridan said firmly, giving his pants leg an insistent tug. She shifted in the tub, Anna cradled against her, and a line of bubbles slipped down her bared shoulder. “Come closer,” she beckoned with a teasing smile, giving his pants leg another, directing pull, “I promise we don’t bite.”

Rolling his eyes at her, Luis obeyed her instructions, crouching down then seating himself beside the tub. With a hesitant hand, he touched the soft curls atop Anna’s head. When the little girl didn’t shrink away from his touch in terror, he wound a curl around his forefinger and leaned in closer to her face. “Hey, Anna,” he whispered, a tiny, non-threatening smile on his lips. The move, he belatedly noticed, also brought him disconcertingly closer to Sheridan’s own face, so close he could feel her breath warming his skin, and irresistibly, he found himself drawn to the blue of her eyes. Lost in her fathomless gaze, he only had a second’s warning, her mischievous smile the only clue at what was coming next.

Pressing her lips against Anna’s forehead, Sheridan freed one of her hands to scoop up some bubbles and cried, “Watch this, Anna.”

When Luis blinked his eyes open, foamy white bubbles sliding down his face and off of his chin, Sheridan’s mouth was wide open with infectious laughter and her eyes were alight; Anna, grinning and showing off her few perfect, pearly teeth, was held in front of her like a shield. Lifting up a hand to flick the bubbles back at Sheridan, Luis couldn’t resist returning her smile, but the glint in his dark eyes was decidedly dangerous.

“You wouldn’t,” Sheridan smirked. Still, she scooted backward until one of Luis’s hands wrapped around a slender ankle, refusing to let her retreat any further. “Luis,” she warned, as he pulled her closer.

Dipping his other hand beneath the warm suds, Luis arched a dark brow at Sheridan in challenge as he echoed her earlier words, “Watch this, Anna.” Then he smeared his own mountain of bubbles across her face, her neck and shoulders, trapping Anna between them. “Thought I wouldn’t do it, didn’t you?” he grinned at her when she glared at him in outrage. “See that, Anna Banana?” his wolfish grin softened as he looked down into the little face, her wet, soapy body soaking the front of his shirt and his sleeve. “She thought I wouldn’t do it,” he repeated, his triumphant gloating dying to a whisper as awareness slowly dawned, and his senses were overwhelmed with the slippery slide of the warm, smooth skin of Sheridan’s back beneath his open palm. “She thought…” Unable to finish because of the intensity in the blue eyes that stared back at him, Luis swallowed hard when Sheridan whispered back to him.

“Thought what, Luis?”








Any mistakes are mine. Let me know if there are any particularly glaring ones.


So...Q is Quinlan. Bet some of you were going 'WTH.'

Favorite parts? Favorite lines? Favorite anything?

LOL!

Feedback is LOVE!
As always, thanks for reading, and happy new year again!!!

SHUIS_4EVER
1.22.08, 8:34 AM
I'm so loving this fanfiction. please update soon i have loved youe shuis fanfic for years and glad to see you are still a shuis fan. i forgot my password years ago but i just had to post a comment on this fanfic so i registered again. keep up the good work.

iLoveET
2.14.08, 1:31 PM
Shae, updates! Updates please!!! I am dying here!! It is getting really really really good!!!!!

Lynne

SHUIS_4EVER
2.15.08, 8:46 AM
Shae pls come on girl you are killing us here keeping us in suspeense, its killing me pls come and update soon.:read:

UAgirl
3.3.08, 12:04 AM
So, so sorry for the long(er) wait. I've been super busy at work, not to mention sick with this terrible crud (I know, real scientific word, huh?) that's been going around, and a dear member of my family has been very ill, and haven't had nearly the time or energy to write as much as I've wanted to lately.

I'll try not to make you all wait as long next time.

Here's the new chapter.

I hope you enjoy. There's a little something for everyone in here. ;)












Chapter 14



Mentally shaking some sense into himself, Luis forced out an answer, dragging his eyes away from hers with great difficulty. “Nothing. Thought nothing,” he repeated, carefully replacing his hand at his side and levering himself up from the floor, both hands on the tub’s rim. Snatching a towel from the nearby rack, he held it open to receive Anna, snuggling her close when she whimpered in protest at leaving the safety of Sheridan’s embrace. Burying his nose in the sweetly scented dark hair, he turned his back to give Sheridan some modicum of privacy, his eyes snapping shut at the sounds of splashing water and rustling fabric as she pulled a towel from the rack for herself.

“Luis?” Sheridan’s voice was soft, too close.

“Get dressed,” Luis ordered gruffly, ignoring the unspoken question and edging closer to the door, putting some much needed distance between them. “Sheridan,” he snapped with impatience when she took another step forward, erasing the miniscule gap, and he could literally almost feel her behind him, though no parts of their bodies touched. “Not now. I said put some damn clothes on,” he growled in a low, strained voice.

Sheridan’s retort was clipped, and she tugged the drifting towel higher and tighter across her breasts. “Unless you want to give me the shirt off your back, I can’t.” Blue eyes icy when they met the angry fire in his gaze, she lifted her chin and indicated the door. “I left them in the bedroom. And before you say anything, I wasn’t expecting you. I had no idea when to expect you,” her voice took on a sharp, defensive edge, the earlier softness gone, “since you were so hell-bent on getting out of here earlier.”

Unconsciously tightening his arms around Anna, Luis glared at her. “I told you...” he began.

“You had business to take care of down at the station,” Sheridan interrupted him, stubbornly refusing to back down, unaware that Anna’s eyes grew more round and frightened with the delivery of each angry word. “Why investigate my brother? He brought her to us, Luis.

“Since when are you Julian’s champion?” Luis sneered. “That man…”

“Is part of Anna’s family,” Sheridan interjected again, feeling her heart clench beneath her ribcage at Luis’s disbelieving look. “Julian may not have been Ethan’s biological father, but I know my brother loved him as a son.”

“Loved?” Luis scoffed, a harsh laugh escaping unbidden. “What do Cranes know about love? It’s not just a word, and it’s definitely not having a fat bank account at your disposal to buy expensive things for the people you love.”

Bristling at the underlying message of Luis’s mocking words, Sheridan lifted her chin proudly. “Is that what you think, Luis? That I’m trying to buy my way into Anna’s heart?”

“I don’t know,” Luis shot back angrily. “You tell me.” He backed up a step, one big hand dwarfing Anna’s small back. “It fits with your m.o.”

Sheridan’s eyes were curiously bright when she answered, and she couldn’t disguise the smallness of her own voice when she gave Luis the answer she thought he wanted. “You’re right. Besides, I’d have to have a heart to be truly capable of love, and there’s nothing but a big, black hole where mine’s supposed to be. Because I’m a Crane, and we’re nothing but heartless, soulless creatures that were spawned and not born, right Luis?”

Before his very eyes, Luis could see her carefully restructuring the slow-to-crumble walls between them, and her name escaped his lips on a regretful sigh. “Sheridan.”

“No. Don’t.” Sheridan held up a hand, though she couldn’t look into his eyes just yet. Tucking her chin close to her chest, she took a fortifying if shaky breath and let her eyes focus on a point in front of her where the fading wallpaper was beginning to peel. Sighing herself, she closed her eyes, a deep furrow developing between her brows at the headache she felt coming on, and shook her head. “Lying doesn’t suit you, Luis.”

Luis opened his mouth to dispute the statement, but the words felt false on his tongue, and Anna chose that moment to let loose a loud wail, big blue eyes overflowing with tears. Guilt consumed him when he realized this newest episode of terror owed much to the bitter words of their heated exchange. Cupping her curl-covered head in his palm, he pressed his lips to the small forehead, gently shushing her, “It’s okay. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.” The softly murmured words proved to be a useless plea, and Luis’s senses were soon flooded with Sheridan’s clean scent, her very nearness as her hands touched and soothed and finally cradled the little girl close. When next he spoke, the damning emotion filled his words with a gentleness that their previous conversation had been lacking and the whispers were almost too soft for Sheridan to hear. “Stay here. I’ll get her blanket.”

When he returned, Sheridan noticed, he had not only the fuzzy pink talisman in his hands, her robe was draped over one strong arm.

Crouching before their toilet seat perch, Luis lifted the blanket to Anna’s flushed cheek, his arm brushing against Sheridan’s bare knee.

Sheridan rest her cheek against the baby’s dark curls, trying and failing to convince herself it was the coolness of the air against her damp skin and not Luis’s innocent touch that had sent an uncontrollable shiver up and down her spine. She watched him intently, wondering how a man could be tough and thoughtless in one moment, so tender in another.

Sucking her fingers into her mouth, Anna rubbed her tear-stricken face against Sheridan’s breastbone, her sobs dwindling to hiccupping breaths as Luis tucked the blanket around her tiny shoulders.

There was still a fine tremor in Sheridan’s movements, several quiet moments later, when she breached the scant distance between them, fingertips skating over the cotton that stretched snugly across Luis’s chest. “You’re all wet.” Goosebumps pebbled her skin when his fingers brushed against her own before placing her hand back in her lap.

“And you’re cold,” Luis leaned forward, unfolding the thick terry and draping it across the slender shoulders. His hand strayed toward Sheridan’s chin, but in the end, it gravitated toward Anna’s frowning brow, and he watched the curly black lashes flutter as her heavy lidded eyes blinked slowly, her tears fading. He lost himself, staring at Anna, listening to Sheridan breathing so close to him, and startled when she spoke again, losing himself all over again in the vivid blue of her irises.

“We can’t keep doing this, Luis.” Interspersing each softly murmured word with a kiss to Anna’s crown, Sheridan searched Luis’s eyes and allowed herself a small measure of comfort at the remorse displayed there even as she vowed never to let her own vulnerability be used against her again. “From now on, if we fight…”

Of its own volition, a tiny smile quirked the corner of Luis’s mouth at the word if and mentally, he exchanged it for the much more apt when, before interrupting her with a decision they could both wholeheartedly agree upon. “Not in front of Anna.”

“Not in front of Anna,” Sheridan echoed.

Pushing himself to his feet, Luis kept his eyes on Anna, and held out his hand, hoping, praying Sheridan would understand the gesture for what it was, the apology that couldn’t find a voice. He closed his eyes when Sheridan’s fingers slid through his, very briefly, and she brushed past him, her unspoken words just as clear.

She’d allow him his weaknesses, maybe even forgive them (for Anna’s sake), but she couldn’t forget them.


~*~



“Can they really see the light, Daddy? All the way at the other end of the ocean?” Hope’s eyes were round and full of awe, and she didn’t wait for his answer before she was posing another question, her small fingers tightening around the thin but strong metal rails as she raised on tiptoe to gaze out into the horizon at the boats bobbing along the whitecaps. “Can they see us?” Evidently deciding on her own answer, she turned to Sam, all bright eyes and eager smiles. “Wave to them, Daddy. You too, Mom.”

“What are you waiting for?” Sam nudged Grace’s shoulder with his own shoulder, turning sideways to better watch their young daughter as he instructed his wife with twinkling eyes. “Wave.”

Sheepishly, Grace did as requested, the tiny hint of a smile on her lips at Hope’s expression. Worry chased it away, though, when Hope lifted one sneaker to the rails in an attempt to elevate her position. “Hope Bennett,” Grace spoke warningly. “Remember what I said.”

“But I’m too short,” Hope grumbled under her breath, red hair falling into her downcast little face as she pouted at the ground. Frowning further with the revelation that her shoelaces were untied (again!), she crossed her arms over her middle with a huff and turned her back on them. “I hate being little!”

Sharing an amused look with Grace, Sam stepped around her and engaged Hope on her level. “Really? Because I was just thinking. Sometimes, I really hate being grown-up.”

Out of the corner of her eyes, Hope looked at him skeptically. “You’re just saying that.” Glancing up at Grace, she repeated, for her mother’s effect, “He’s just saying that.”

“No, really,” Sam insisted, fingers moving over the bothersome laces while he talked. “Too much work, for one.”

“But Kay says you’re married to your job,” Hope wouldn’t be convinced, one reddish brow lifting in a manner eerily similar to another redhead in the family. Turning around to face her father fully, she planted her hands on her hips and turned the tables on him, asking a question that revisited the scene from the previous night. “Can’t you just divorce your job, Daddy, and keep us?”

“Hope,” Grace scolded, her discomfort with the wild left turn the conversation had taken showing in the flush of her cheeks. “Your daddy loves his job.”

“It’s okay,” Sam met Hope’s intent stare head-on. “It’s a fair question.” Holding out a beckoning hand, he said, “C’mere.”

Reluctantly, Hope followed his instruction, her freckles standing out in stark relief on her pale face as she regarded him seriously, her hands clasping in front of her and fingers knotting together nervously.

Behind them, Grace was still, silent.

Sam weighed his words carefully, with the sinking realization that proving his commitment to his family was going to be harder than he’d originally thought. Finally, frustration led him to run his hands through his hair then drop them to take his young daughter by the arm and pull her closer. “Is this about last night?” he questioned, the ball of lead in the pit of his stomach dropping further still at Hope’s hesitant nod.

“Hope.” Grace crouched down beside Sam, her slender hand reaching out to tuck the little girl’s wind-tousled hair behind one ear. “Is there something you’d like to talk to us about?”

Hope half-nodded, half-shook her head, dragging her lower lip between her teeth. Emboldened by her parents’ encouragement, she grasped onto the hand her mother offered and stepped closer to her father, casting her eyes to the ground and her newly tied sneakers. “What’s a divorce mean? And why were you,” she lifted accusing blue eyes to Grace’s carefully blank face, “asking daddy if he wanted one?”

“Your mom was upset,” Sam answered for Grace when it became clear she was struggling to formulate a response that wouldn’t further upset their daughter. “She didn’t mean it.” The lie, Sam knew, would be easier for him than Grace, and much easier to forgive than his omissions of the past if it meant protecting their daughter.

“You didn’t answer my question,” Hope stubbornly persisted.

“A divorce is when two people that are married decide they don’t want to be married anymore,” Grace finally found her voice again.

Eyebrows shooting upward in alarm, Hope looked at Sam with hurt in her blue eyes, her next question high-pitched with panic. “You don’t want to be married to mommy anymore? Why?”

Smiling inwardly, Sam marveled at the fact that, when push come to shove, his daddy’s girls were all equally on the side of their mother and protective to a fault. “I never said I didn’t want to be married to mommy anymore.”

Hope frowned. “But…but she thought…”

Sliding an arm around Hope’s waist and pulling her close, Sam soothed the worry lines between her brows with the pad of his thumb. He felt some of his tension melt away when a skinny arm draped itself over his shoulder. “She was wrong.”

“You’re not going to leave?” Hope still looked doubtful.

Grace, Sam knew without looking, looked even more so; that made the shock of her words have an even greater impact, leaving Sam with the hope that saving his marriage wasn’t impossible after all.

“Daddy’s not going anywhere. He promised.”

“And Daddy always keeps his promises,” Hope pressed her cheek to Sam’s cheek, linking her mother’s and father’s hands. “Like my ice cream,” she singsonged, an infectious grin stretching across her cheeks.

Tightening his fingers around the hand in his own, Sam stood, fitting his free arm under Hope’s legs and tucking her giggling, wiggling self close to his heart. “I don’t know about that,” he hedged, his manner teasing and his wink not quite secretive. “You’ll ruin your appetite for dinner.”

“Aww, Mom,” Hope whined, arms woven tightly around Sam’s neck. “Please.”

“Just this once,” Grace relented, earning herself a happy cheer. “But you can’t tell Kay.”

“It’ll be our secret. Right, Daddy?”

“All ours, Ladybug,” Sam returned her exuberant smile with a more understated smile of his own, his eyes drifting toward the hand still encased in his own. “Lead the way.” He felt his heart swell when he felt the light pressure of Grace’s hand gently squeezing in response. “I’ve got a promise to keep.”


~*~




”I’ve been thinking…” Pausing to take a bite of the egg roll Reese offered her, Kay slapped his arm away when he raised a disbelieving brow. “Hey! I know it hasn’t always seemed like it, but I do have a brain in here,” she pointed a finger at herself.

Reese just grinned and looked down at the small cardboard carton in his hand, attacking his lo mein noodles awkwardly with his chopsticks.

“As I was saying,” Kay huffed, snatching a noodle for herself and quickly chewing it before continuing, “I’ve been thinking. About maybe taking some time off from school.”

“How much time?” Reese reached for the sweet and sour chicken on the next step, his arm brushing lightly against Kay’s arm in the process. His blue eyes, behind the lenses of his glasses, regarded her intently.

“I don’t know,” Kay lifted her shoulders in a shrug, rubbing her hands up and down both arms briskly. She wasn’t cold, the slight chill of the fast approaching evening notwithstanding. Still, goosebumps pebbled her pale skin, and she was grateful for the welcome warmth of Sadie pressed against her side, tail wagging lazily. “A year maybe?”

“If it’s what you want,” came Reese’s answer.

Sighing, Kay muttered, “I don’t know. It’s not like I have a plan or even a major. My advisor keeps saying I’ll figure it out, but I’m not so sure.”

“He’s right,” Reese replied supportively.

“She,” Kay corrected, plucking a piece of chicken from the box Reese held and holding it between her fingers. She took a small bite and chewed thoughtfully, carefully avoiding meeting Reese’s inquisitive eyes as she made her next admission. “Other people have all these dreams for their future. Like the time Theresa wanted to be a fashion designer. Or Whitney wanted to be a famous tennis player. Well, maybe that was Coach Russell’s dream more than hers, but that’s not my point. My point is, I never had any of those kind of dreams. All I ever wanted was to marry my best friend.” She swallowed and glanced at Reese out of the corner of her eye, noticed that his gaze was unwavering. In a low whisper, she voiced a painful truth. “Only he didn’t want to marry me.” Clearing her throat of the knot of emotion she felt threatening, she offered the half-eaten piece of chicken to Sadie, combing her fingers through the golden fur when the dog had carefully taken the meat from her grasp. “He never did.” Kay turned back to Reese to find his eyes had never left her face. Finally, his unflinching stare became too unnerving, and she dropped her eyes to her own feet, watching her toes flex and relax at the end of her sneakers. “Then everything started falling apart,” she sighed, hooking one arm over Sadie’s neck and resting the other against her upraised knees, “and I didn’t know where to go from there. I still don’t.” The conversation ebbed, and Kay reached up to scratch Sadie between the ears when she sniffed at her palm, looking for another treat such as the last. Silence lapsed between them, one Kay was loathe to break.

It was Reese that finally spoke, reaching into the tall paper bag to his left and digging around. “Maybe I can help.” Behind his glasses, his blue eyes twinkled just slightly, and his closed fist hovered over Kay’s hand.

Kay rolled her eyes, unable to help her smile when he dropped a plastic wrapped fortune cookie into her waiting hand. “This is supposed to help me make plans for my future? What’s next? A magic eight-ball?”

“There’s nothing magic about probabilities,” Reese pushed his glasses further up on his nose before holding up his own fortune cookie. “I’ll go first,” he volunteered, carefully pulling the plastic apart and breaking the cookie open. The expression on his face was quite comical as he read, “A truly wise man never plays leapfrog with a unicorn.”

Kay suppressed a giggle, tearing the wrapper off of her own fortune cookie while Reese continued to mumble beside her. “A closed mouth gathers no feet.” Shrugging, she conceded that the sentiment certainly made sense, but wasn’t half as amusing as the one Reese had received. Snatching up another fortune cookie from the pile resting between them (and silently wondering why there were so many), she opened it, quickly pulling out the tiny paper within. She snorted when she read the message, holding it up for Reese to see. “Those of you who think you know everything are annoying those of us who do.”

Reese frowned at her raised brow and read his own fortune. “The light at the end of the tunnel is probably an oncoming train.”

“That’s good to know,” Kay quipped, zipping off another zany quote and finally pulling a laugh from Reese’s lips. She joined him in laughter, and the two of them worked on the remaining cookies, until the pile diminished and their smiles ran rampant. The sun was a huge orange ball flaring and burning out in the distant horizon, and a cool breeze whispered along, gently lifting Kay’s hair from her shoulders and tickling across each of their cheeks. By Kay’s side, Sadie snuffled stray wrappers with her wet nose, her occasional whine the only sound that disturbed the peace that had settled upon them, besides the resumed creaking of the swing and the occasional noise of a passing car. Letting her eyes drift closed, Kay knew if she concentrated hard enough, she could smell the sea salt in the air.

“Penny for your thoughts?”

When she opened her eyes, the dying sun burned golden against Reese’s hair and glinted off the lenses of his glasses. Kay smiled, gently teasing, “Is that all they’re worth?” Sobering at the look that flickered briefly across his face, she placed her palms against her jeans legs and glanced away, announcing, “Closing time. I hadn’t realized it was so late.”

“Think your parents are back yet?” Reese questioned as he helped her gather up the spoils from their meal. Sadie slowly stood up, stretching on all fours before loping toward him and waiting patiently at his side, the pair of them following Kay with their eyes as she disappeared then reappeared from the Bed and Breakfast, a ring of keys in her palm.

Locking up before turning back to face them, Kay descended the steps behind them with sure feet, wrapping her arms around herself for warmth. “I don’t know. Maybe,” she shrugged. “I hope…” she wouldn’t let herself finish the thought aloud, too afraid it might make the disappointment that much more. When Reese echoed the unspoken declaration, Kay felt the overwhelming urge to hug him but settled for giving him a beaming smile. “Thanks.” For the food, for the talk, for being the friend I don’t deserve.

“You’re welcome,” came the simple reply, wrapped up in a smile. Holding out his hand, Reese nodded at the sidewalk that stretched before them, and Sadie barked in eager anticipation. “Walk you home?”

Kay hesitated for only a fraction of a second before answering and falling into step beside him, Sadie taking up the lead. “This time,” she acquiesced. “But I’m still not a helpless maiden.”


~*~


Sunglasses perched atop her blond head, brown eyes squinting against the setting sun’s last gasp, Gwen stalked past the doorman into her apartment complex, casting a suspicious glance over her shoulder once she’d reached the interior lobby, wondering if it were just her imagination or if the man was smirking at her. Deciding it was the former, as she was still fighting the after-effects of the morning’s lingering hangover from Hell, she turned back around, straightened her back proudly, and entered the newly arrived, open elevator.

The ride up to her floor was non-eventful, a welcome relief from the rest of a day that had seemed endlessly long and littered with disaster, small and large.

First of all, she’d been late. Firing the cleaning lady, Gwen was quickly coming to realize, hadn’t been her best idea. This morning, hunting through the mismatched pieces of her remaining clean business attire, she’d made the deduction that her dry-cleaning was even farther behind than she’d dared imagine. Hiding the coffee stain on her blouse had meant wearing her jacket all day, the jacket in question being one of her least favorites, an itchy, ill-fitting material that had made her skin damp with unbecoming perspiration.

As a direct consequence of being late, she missed a morning meeting with an important client, which, she had to admit, hadn’t been as much of a disappointment to her as it had been to her father. Disappointed was really an understatement. In all of her adult life, she’d never seen her father lose his composure like he had that morning, his tight control slipping and leading to yelling she was sure could be heard across the equator. Needless to say, that hadn’t helped her skull-battering headache.

Attempting to dwindle the mountainous pile of paperwork on her father’s desk as penance further proved to be an ill-advised decision, as did lunch (thanks to her still rolling stomach) with another, no-less important client (later to become another former client) who had tried to get a little too familiar for her liking.

Add all that to the fact that traffic had been as bad as she had ever seen it in Harmony, and, Gwen thought, sighing as she fit the key to her apartment in her door, she still had next to nothing in her refrigerator resembling human sustenance. Her day, she decided as the door slowly swung open and light from the switch infused the room, couldn’t possibly get worse.

Sadly, she was mistaken.

Cutting off her own scream with her hands, Gwen needed a moment to recover from a most unwelcome shock.

Bare feet propped on her coffee table, arms crossed behind his head, Hank Bennett grinned at her from his lounging spot on her sofa. “Long day at work, Babe?”

Blinking rapidly, Gwen moved unthinkingly forward, shoving his feet from her coffee table roughly and glaring at him. “Why.are.you.still.here?!” Each word was clipped, dripping with disdain, and all she could see was red, and his brown eyes twinkling infuriatingly at her.

Slouching forward, Hank fingered the lapels of her gaping jacket. “Not quite the welcome I was expecting.” Winking at her, he let her go, but not before commenting on her attire. “Nice jacket.”

Shrugging the jacket off and slinging it into his smirking face, Gwen stomped in the direction of her bedroom, her voice muffled but her fury easily recognized. “That’s it! I’m calling security.”

Hank chuckled to himself when she whipped back into the living room seconds later, brown eyes flashing angrily at him as she tore the cushions from the couch and the armchair looking for her cordless telephone. “Don’t you have a cell phone?” he goaded.

“My damn battery’s…wait a minute,” she growled, realizing her mistake. “I’m not talking to you.” A beat later, she hissed, “Where did you put it?”

Arm raised, Hank pointed across the room, tilting his head. “It’s on the charger.” Watching her snatch the phone up, he smiled as she started punching numbers. “That Charlie’s a pretty nice guy. Used to work on the force with Sam years and years ago. He and Old Jim are friends from way back.”

Disconnecting the phone when she realized she’d dialed the wrong number, Gwen tried again, her frustration leading her to make the same mistake. “Charlie? Who the hell is Old Jim?”

“Charlie works dayshift for security,” Hank’s reply was matter of fact as he stood up, creeping closer. “Old Jim is your doorman, has been for almost five years.” Gently, he took the phone from her hands and replaced it on the charger. “And the cleaning lady does have a name. Maria says she trained under Pilar at the Crane Mansion ages ago. Small world, isn’t it?” he remarked, pulling her along by the hand she reluctantly let him take. Peering curiously at her tired, bloodshot eyes, Hank decided to go easy on her and not tease as much. “Really has been a long day, hasn’t it?”

“Why are you still here?” Gwen repeated her earlier question, though with much less venom.

Shrugging, Hank watched suspicion light her eyes as he delivered his answer. “Thought you might like to come home to a smiling face for a change, not to mention a clean apartment.”

Gwen noticed, for the first time, the near miraculous changes in her abode. Neat, gleaming, and even smelling fresh, it looked so different than she’d left it this morning that she had a hard time believing she’d opened the door to the right apartment. Swallowing, she fixed her eyes on Hank’s watchful face again, wandering what his motives were. Crossing her arms across her chest, she regarded him dubiously, her brown eyes narrowing to near slits as realization started to dawn on her. “Your smiling face, perhaps? That’s it. You don’t have a place to stay and you want to…” she trailed off, slightly horrified and incapable of completing the thought.

Grinning winningly, Hank rocked back on his heels and offered her his hand.

Ignoring him, Gwen covered her eyes in with a disbelieving groan as he spoke, completely unfazed by her reaction.

“I heard you’ve been looking for a new cleaning lady.”












Verdict?

I hope it's good, lol.

What about the little dance Sher/Luis have going on? One step forward, two steps back, huh?

And Grace and Sam? I'm getting strangely attached to their part of this story; I hope you guys are enjoying it.

I actually found Kay and Reese's fortune cookie sayings on a website (boredom is my only explanation), so none of them belong to me. Not sure who they belong to exactly, since it wasn't listed, but know the sayings aren't mine, and I'm not trying to pretend otherwise. I'm enjoying writing these two as well. Not sure I'm doing a good job of it, but their growing friendship (?) is a lot of fun for me to explore.

Lastly, Hank and Gwen...I can't help but love Hank and Gwen. Whaddya think? Is Hank a shoe-in as the new cleaning lady?

LOL!

Thanks for reading!!!

Any (all) typos/mistakes are mine.

UAgirl
7.17.08, 10:12 PM
OMG!

It's an update!

No one's more surprised than me, lol. I've had such terrible writer's block with this story.

Thanks to everyone that's still reading this story. I am so, so, so sorry it's taken so long to update it (it's actually fallen off the first page of the *old* boards...now *that* is BAD, hehe).
This one's 3000+ words; hope you enjoy it.






Chapter 15





“Mom? Dad?” Kay called as she shut the door gently behind her. “Anybody home?”

They’d seen the lights on as they’d traveled the sidewalk, she and Reese, and with a wave and flickering smile, Reese had said his goodbyes, long fingers wrapping around Sadie’s collar and pulling the reluctant canine along. Their figures, loping toward and rounding the street corner, had disappeared into the purple dusk mere moments ago.

Now, Kay was standing in the middle of the empty living room, listening to the lonely echo of her own voice. “Hope-less! Anybody here?!” As before, no one answered, but this time Kay picked up on something she hadn’t registered before: the faint noise of running water. Crossing to the staircase, she curled her palm around the banister and made quick work of the steps, wincing reflexively when the top step creaked and groaned underneath her feet. “Mom?” she called out tentatively, ears listening for a response. She let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding when her mother’s voice finally answered her.

“Kay?” Grace’s voice, though raised to be heard over the running water, was still slightly muffled. “In the bathroom.”

With her first glimpse of Hope, a smile twisted Kay’s lips. “Been eating ice cream without me again?”

Blue eyes large and guilty, Hope tried to deny the accusation, but with chocolate smeared across one cheek and a curling, winding line disappearing up her arm and beneath a sleeve, such an attempt was an exercise in futility. Her red brows knit together and her lips compressed before she blew out a frustrated breath. “How did you…it was supposed to be a secret!”

Smirking, Kay edged into the small bathroom and captured the evidence of her kid sister’s indiscretions with her fingers as soon as her mother deftly swept the stained cotton up and over Hope’s head. “Oh, I have my ways.” Meeting Grace’s amused blue eyes over the top of Hope’s rumpled head, she joked as she placed the article of clothing into the dirty clothes hamper, “Another one bites the dust.”

For once, Hope dutifully stood still as their mother unbuttoned then pulled her jeans down her short, skinny legs. Her sticky fingers grabbed and held on to the slim shoulders before her for balance, and she stepped out of the pool of denim to scowl at Kay with not a stitch on save for her purple princess panties and socks.

There was, Kay was amazed to discover, another long smudge of chocolate traveling from her collarbone to her bully button. Catching her mother’s laughing eyes again, Kay settled herself onto the closed toilet seat, knees tucked together to keep from bumping into the much smaller redhead with fire in her eyes. “What’d she do? Paint herself with it?”

“And your father,” Grace smiled, testing the bath temperature with her fingers. “Socks off,” she instructed after Hope had wiggled out of her underwear. “Hope,” she cringed when her daughter entered the tub with a splash, soaking the front of her own tee-shirt and a portion of the bathroom floor, making the shirt virtually transparent and the floor a sopping mess.

“Manners, Flipper,” Kay reminded when Hope re-emerged, her chin length hair dark with water and plastered to her skull, her freckles standing out in her pale face. She watched Hope chase a slippery bar of soap around the tub’s edge with a slight smile on her face and asked a tentative question, conscious always of the woman standing just outside her periphery, placing the rest of Hope’s soiled clothing and her own shirt into the hamper. “Where is Dad? Did he…did you…have a good time?”

Straightening self-consciously, Grace’s eyes hesitantly connected with Kay’s in the reflection of the bathroom mirror before she lifted a towel to hide her face from her daughters’ inquisitive eyes. “We had a nice time. Didn’t we, Hope?”

Hope’s pale face flushed with excitement and the remembered pleasure of their excursion. Climbing onto her knees with a splash that sent yet more water sloshing over the sides of the tub, she gripped its edge with white-knuckled small fingers that were already starting to prune. “We went to Lighthouse Park, and I climbed all the way to the top of the lighthouse and waved at the sailors and they waved back!”

“Sure about that, Ladybug? Because I seem to remember carrying you the last thirty steps.”

Kay tried to pretend she wasn’t watching the two of them, but she couldn’t miss the way her mom tensed and covered herself up with the towel in her hands at the sound of her dad’s voice, and the she couldn’t miss the note of disappointment he couldn’t quite hide as he indulged Hope’s fancies and supported her claim that the sailors had waved back.

“They waved back,” Sam insisted, his blue eyes twinkling to life again as he stepped into the small bathroom and stood just inches from his wife. “Guess I missed the memo that there was a family meeting in here tonight.”

Kay rolled her eyes at her dad’s attempt at humor and stood up, grabbing the nearest towel and opening it up for Hope. “You better be clean because there’s barely any water left in that tub.”

Hope’s answer: another splashing dive to escape.

Chuckling, Sam snaked an arm around Grace, placing a steadying hand on her hip when the brief contact startled her and induced an involuntary shiver that she tried and failed to hide from him. “Just grabbing my toothbrush.” Staring into her eyes for a moment in the reflection of the mirror, he tossed a nod in their daughters’ direction and smiled as he took a careful step back over the threshold. “Good luck hooking that one.”

Grace watched him leave, frozen in place until she remembered to breathe, Hope’s peals of laughter flooding the room, and she recovered the power of speech. “Hope Bennett!”




~*~



“Drunken sex, now angry sex,” Hank mused, dropping back against the sofa with a sated, gloating grin dancing upon his lips. He winced when he felt the sharp sting of her slap across his shoulder and she roughly shoved away from him, standing up on shaky legs and readjusting her skirt with a pointed glare. “Correction,” he whistled under his breath as Gwen stalked across the pillow, clothes littered living room toward the general vicinity of the bathroom, one hand sliding her bra strap back onto her shoulder. “Not just angry sex. Hate sex.” She reappeared minutes later, after a last minute detour through the kitchen, amber-colored drink in hand and brown eyes glinting as they gave him the once over.

“There’s medication for that, you know.”

The dirty grin on Hank’s face slipped as he swelled with indignation at her below-the-belt remark, and he sputtered futilely for an equally cutting comeback before she cut him off with a clarifying comment.

“Do you always talk to yourself or do you only do it around me?” She didn’t wait for him to answer her. “And for your information…I don’t hate you.” Before that self-satisfied, knowing grin of his could return, she stated, matter-of-factly, “I just don’t like you very much.”

“That,” Hank indicated the drink in her hand, “isn’t going to help your headache.”

“Neither are you,” Gwen scowled, bending down to snag his tee-shirt with her fingers and toss it at him. “But since I can’t seem to get rid of either one of you…” Folding herself into the armchair opposite him, she eyed him with disdain.

Pulling his tee-shirt over his head, Hank decided to kill her with kindness—and a liberal dose of sarcasm, meeting her look with an affable grin. “Bet Maria wasn’t as fun or dedicated as me.”

“Maria wasn’t…” Realizing she was only playing into his hands, Gwen muttered, “Oh, go to hell,” and tossed back the rest of her drink. “Zip your fly first,” she ordered when she had drained the last drop from the glass, glowering at him from a couple feet away.

Caught you looking, Hank immaturely thought but did as requested. Putting on one of his most charming grins, he left the sofa and bent to start cleaning up the unholy mess they’d created. Straightening when he was done to find her brown eyes pretending not to be watching him, he retraced her earlier steps, making a quick pit stop by the bathroom first. When he reached the kitchen, he immediately set to making as much noise as he could—as he fixed her dinner, of course. Hiding his smirk when he sensed her presence by keeping his back to her, he puttered around her kitchen like he knew what he was doing. He didn’t, not really, but like a lot of things, he was good at faking it. “Hungry?” he asked.

Gwen didn’t answer, just watched him work. Hopping onto the kitchen counter and crossing her legs, she studied him, wondering why in the world she hadn’t thrown him out on his ass yet.

Hank Bennett wasn’t tall—she was, she’d previously discovered, taller than him with her heels on, and he wasn’t overly muscular, but he was fit and comfortably filled out the wrinkled gray tee-shirt he wore, and the way he looked in his jeans, she grudgingly admitted to herself, wasn’t half bad either. Most of the Harmony Police Department boasted better asses, but they were the Harmony Police Department. Besides, he had nice, soft hair and disturbingly appealing bare feet, and his eyes, brown (thank God they weren’t Ethan’s blue) and always lively, had not once regarded her with pity.

Reluctantly, Gwen admitted to herself that her earlier words had been true; she couldn’t find it in herself to hate him. Neither, though, could she honestly say that she liked him. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, she decided, to not be alone. Clearing her throat, she uncrossed her legs and let them swing freely. “Just so you know,” she began, “you’re not sleeping in my room.”

Turning around to face her, Hank kept his face carefully blank. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”

“No more…whatever the hell that was in there,” she stretched an arm out to point to the living room.

“Certainly not,” Hank agreed seriously.

“I’ll expect you to actually clean.” A twinkle of mischief in his brown eyes made her frown, and she rolled her eyes at his answering comment.

“Maybe Grace has an apron I can borrow.” Hank crossed his arms across his chest, and with considerable effort, tamped down the urge to play the funny guy. “What about cooking?”

“I don’t eat breakfast,” Gwen answered, jumping down from the counter and walking to the other end of the kitchen to sort through the pile of mail lying on the table. “Maria usually cooked dinner.” Discarding most of the mail as junk, she turned back to face him, wishing, in that moment, she’d had the foresight to cover herself for this conversation. Then again, she should have had the foresight not to have sex with him a second time, especially when it had been a spectacularly bad idea the first time. At least she had the alcohol to blame that time. This time she had to be out of her mind. There was no other explanation. “I don’t even know if you can cook.”

“I’m pretty good in the kitchen,” Hank couldn’t resist winking. He thought of the dessert he’d enticed Maria to fix for the both of them and grinned.

“Sure you are,” Gwen groaned, covering her face with tired hands. Raking her hands through her disheveled blond hair, she muttered, “I don’t care. I don’t care. All I ask…” A beleaguered sigh escaped. “I’m not interested in meeting Harmony’s volunteer fire department.”

“You sure?” Hank quipped. “I’ve heard they’re a pretty good bunch of guys.”

Having had enough for one day, Gwen snapped, hand held to her aching head. “Bennett!”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Hank mock-saluted, knowing that this was as close to official as she was going to make it. Opening the fridge, he offered her a bottle of cold water and placed a couple of small pills in her unwilling palm. “Drink up,” he ushered her out of the kitchen. “I’ve got work to do.”

Slumping onto the sofa, Gwen winced as she took a gulp of the water, and thought, I have officially lost it.



~*~



Dinner was simple, strained, and silent.

Wrapped in her pink blanket, Anna slept fitfully between the soft barrier of two pillows on the bed while the pair who had come together in her name struggled to meet each other’s eyes.

When Sheridan rewrapped her sandwich and set it aside after barely eating more than two bites, Luis discovered his own appetite had fled him as well. Wiping his hands on a napkin, he started to speak, but Sheridan beat him to the punch, her voice nothing more than a quiet murmur.

“Does your mother know?”

She didn’t have to elaborate; Luis understood her question perfectly well. Shaking his head, he posed a question of his own. “Does Ivy?”

Gathering her legs close to her body and twining her arms around them, Sheridan answered with a softly uttered, “No.”

Luis found himself (again) distracted by the expanse of bare, golden skin, just as he had when he’d emerged from the bathroom nearly an hour before to find her dressed in a pair of tiny navy shorts that made her already long legs appear to go on forever. The additional knowledge that there was nothing but soft, equally bare skin beneath the worn-out Harmony Hellcats tee-shirt she wore was even harder to ignore with the recollection of the mischief in the bathroom still fresh. Needless to say, guilt and the stifling tension she always seemed to effortlessly arouse within him had made it impossible to maintain eye contact with her for more than a few, fleeting seconds, and still, the night loomed long before them. His gaze strayed to the television, its muted images flickering across the screen. “Anything good on?”

Resting her cheek against her folded arms, Sheridan shrugged. Then, softly, “I don’t want to wake her.”

With the gentle glow of lamplight cast upon her, she appeared, to Luis, to be the sunlight in an otherwise dark room. Disgruntled by the direction his thoughts had taken, he cleared his throat, standing up abruptly.

Sheridan tracked his progress across the small room, unfolding her limbs and taking the rolled up newspaper he held in his hand when he returned to stand before her. The paper rustled and its pages whispered against each other as she thumbed through it, quickly finding the classifieds. He had, she discovered, circled a small selection of properties under the housing column in red ink, and she sought out his eyes, one slender brow raised.

Luis stated the obvious. “We can’t stay in the Bed and Breakfast forever.”

Her pride still stinging from the memory of their first major argument as husband and wife, Sheridan passed the paper back to him. “Why are you showing me this? I thought you didn’t want my input.”

Anger momentarily made Luis’s jaw tighten and his eyes darkened before he bit out, “Fair enough.” Glancing away, he forcibly calmed himself before continuing in a more reasonable tone. “Do I need to remind you that we are doing this for her?” As he spoke of Anna, he neared the bed, looking down on the sleeping child that had already turned his entire world as he knew it inside out. “You read those damn guidelines just like I did, and as much as I object to some of the crazy things my sister and Ethan come up with,” he failed to notice Sheridan flinch under the force of his heated words, “I’m going to do everything in my power to keep Anna where she belongs.” He turned back around to face Sheridan, but she had retreated to the shadows, and some unseen force kept his feet rooted to the floor. Her response was delivered in a voice suspiciously husky.

“It has to look real.”

Removing one of the pillows from the bed, Luis made sure Anna didn’t stir before tossing it to the floor to join the quilt Sheridan had already lain out for him. “It shouldn’t be that much of a stretch for you. I’m sure growing up in that house,” he spoke derisively of the Crane Mansion, “gave you plenty of practice in pretending to be a realfamily.”

Lifting a hand to her face, Sheridan was thankful Luis kept his back to her and wasn’t witness to the tear that escaped with his unintentionally (God, she hoped so) cruel words. She mentally shook herself when she realized he was still talking.

“You’re a pretty good actress. That whole business with Hank and the Drug Cartel. I actually thought…”

Thought what, Luis, she wanted to say but didn’t dare. Instead, she watched, without a word, the flex and strength of him as he tugged his shirt up and over his head, the action temporarily muffling his words. The muscles of his back rippled as he draped it across the foot of the bed.

“Anyway, I was wrong.”

Only the pale yellow slice of light the lamp emitted remained when Sheridan cut the television off with one touch of a button. The side of the bed opposite Luis, thankfully, fell just beyond its reach. Crossing the distance without a sound, Sheridan gently removed the other pillow from Anna’s side and pulled the covers back, throwing shadows in Luis’s wake.

As if waking up from a fog, Luis seemed to freeze, his eyes drawn magnetically to the outline of her slender figure in the darkness, and the bitter bite of his tone mellowed. “You didn’t have to turn it off. Leave it on if you want.”

With considerable effort, Sheridan kept her voice even as she replied, “I’m tired, Luis. I just want to lie down and close my eyes.” Breathing a sigh of relief when the lamp light died at Luis’s own hand a minute later, she murmured her thanks and crawled beneath the cool sheets, pressing her nose to Anna’s fragrant curls as she gathered the tiny girl close to her aching heart. In the darkness, she could hear Luis shifting around to find a comfortable position to sleep in. It wasn’t too hard to imagine him pounding his pillow into submission.

“A couple of those places are in the same neighborhood as Sam and Grace.”

“Hmm,” was the only indication she gave that she heard him.

“We’ll check them out,” Luis promised. “But tomorrow we call them and Mama.”

“And Ivy,” Sheridan breathed.

“And Ivy,” Luis relented.

“Sleep, Luis.”

“Sleep.”












So...verdict?

Worth the wait?

Favorite parts?

Can you tell I like writing kids? LOL! Hope just seems to write herself these days, even when the rest of the characters refuse to say a word. Sam and Grace sure are tiptoeing around each other, huh?

Not so with Gwen and Hank. ;) Gwen just kind of jumped him, didn't she?

And ouch! Who thinks Luis is being an ass? *raises hand* Poor Sher. But (don't tell anyone) I'm a sucker for angst. Anyone else?

Thanks as always for reading!!!

Feedback is love.
P.S. I just managed a glimpse-over of this since I have a very early morning ahead of me, and I didn't want to wait 'til the weekend to post this. Forgive me if any atrocious typos/grammar errors managed to slip through. I try to clean things up, but I'm not always successful.

UAgirl
2.9.09, 5:19 PM
Wow!

The last chapter of this was in July?

OMG, I am so sorry. :o

I've had such bad writer's block, but it seems to have gotten better (with this fic at least) because I managed to write 5,000+ words for this chapter--and I could have gone on longer, but I thought this ending/moment was the most fitting.

I hope you'll agree with me. ;)

In this chapter, we have a little something for everyone, I hope: Kay/Grace, Gwen/Hank, Sheridan/Luis/Anna, Kay/Reese/Hope, Sam/Hank, and Pilar.

Enjoy!





Chapter 16





For the second morning in a row, Grace had woken to her husband sharing her bed, their young daughter curled up between them. This time, though, she’d slipped from the covers before either of them could wake and quietly dressed in the low light of morning. Short minutes later, creeping into the kitchen on near-silent feet, she startled at the sight that greeted her, unconsciously bringing a hand up to cover her racing heart.

“Getting an early start?” Kay’s smile was wry over the top of the cup of coffee she nursed, but her eyes were soft with apology for the fright she’d surely given her mother.

Willing her runaway heart to calm, Grace covered the frown caused by the disappointment of her thwarted escape by coaxing the cup of coffee from Kay’s indignant hands and scolding, “No wonder you’re not sleeping.” She busied herself with replacing the caffeinated beverage with a tall, cold glass of orange juice, placing it in Kay’s reluctant hands before pouring one for herself. “And all this time,” she mused, “you’ve been blaming your sister.”

“You and Dad have been her personal teddy bears for the past two nights,” Kay lifted a thin, dark brow in accusation as she sipped from her glass. Tucking a rumpled lock behind her ear, she took one look at the bruised skin beneath her mother’s eyes and surmised the situation with a slightly mocking, “You know.” Still, while Hope and Insomnia were on familiar terms with each other, Kay doubted they alone were disturbing her mother’s sleep. Choosing to play nice, she said nothing further. Her parents’ problems were their own, and much as she’d like to have a say in how they resolved them, she’d learned the hard way it wasn’t her place.

“I think it’s sweet that you miss her.” A small smile twitched on Grace’s lips as she raised her own glass to her mouth, taking a half-hearted drink. Gathering her keys up in her free hand, she emptied the glass in the sink and rinsed it before placing it in the dishwasher beside a lonely bowl.

Kay rolled her eyes, picking at and studying the blue satin cuff of her pajama sleeve, her reply sarcastic but lacking in bite. “How can you miss your shadow?”

“She worships the ground you walk on.”

“Don’t you mean the quicksand?” Kay scoffed, shrugging her shoulders and stretching her neck in an attempt to work out some of the stiffness in her protesting muscles. It was strange, considering she’d had the entire bed to herself, but she’d basically hugged the edge the whole night, quick to wake at each and every barely perceptible noise, so sure was she that the little pest would make an unannounced visit. It spoke to the depth of Hope’s insecurities that she hadn’t abandoned her watchful post, and Kay felt a tug at her heartstrings as she recalled the tearful blue eyes and stricken expression the moment that dreadful word divorce had finally been spoken aloud. Momentarily forgetting her earlier good intentions, she stood up, copying her mother’s previous actions, and pondered the wary set of her shoulders, her guarded expression. “Guess family bonding is over then,” she murmured, watching, out of the corner of her eyes, her mother bend her head and finger the keys in her hands.

“Kay,” Grace protested tiredly.

“Forget it,” Kay answered hastily, remorsefully. “So,” she exhaled an exaggerated breath as she took a step back, raking her fingers through her messy dark hair. “Say hi to the newlyweds for me.”

"You can say hi yourself,” Grace replied, “when you bring Hope over later. Let her sleep for a little while longer first, okay? And don’t bother your father. You and I both know he didn’t get much rest last night.”

"Sure,” Kay responded, sharing a knowing if subdued smile with her mother.

“Kay?” Grace lingered in the doorway, her voice soft.

“Yeah?”

“It’s…it’s just going to take some time. You know that, right?”

“I know,” Kay whispered, wanting to hug her mother but settling for hugging her arms around herself instead.

“He promised,” Grace told her. “He doesn’t break his promises if he can help it.”

“No, Mom,” Kay answered, throat thick with emotion as she moved closer to her mother, laying a trembling hand on her arm, “he doesn’t.”

Turning around and cupping a hand around Kay’s jaw, Grace pressed her lips to her eldest daughter’s forehead, smiling at Kay’s uncharacteristic acquiescence of the gesture. Smoothing her hair down as she had so long ago when she was just a little girl, she took her trembling hand in her own and squeezed it reassuringly. “I’ll see you later. Maybe for a late breakfast?"

“Maybe,” Kay shrugged noncommittally.

“There might be a blueberry muffin in it for you,” Grace bargained and turned to go.

“Oh goodie,” Kay muttered, shadowing her mother to the front door. “I’ll be there; with bells and whistles on.”

“While I appreciate your enthusiasm,” Grace said with a gentle smile, “I’ve never really understood that expression.”

Kay frowned. “Come to think of it…”

Grace interrupted her daughter’s contemplation with a reminder. “It’s okay if you let your sister pick out her own clothes. Just make sure they’re clean.”

“Got it,” Kay answered with a smirk. “Free expression, as long as it’s not dirty free expression.” Sobering, she called after her mother as she started down the sidewalk to make the short trek to the Bed and Breakfast. “Do you think we could talk? After breakfast?”

Faltering briefly in the face of Kay’s serious expression, Grace regained her focus and her composure with the return of Kay’s smile, one that both reassured her and further piqued her curiosity. “After breakfast,” came the promise. “Kay?” she called when, slowly, Kay started to close the door.

“Mom?” Kay answered, hanging on the door for support and shifting on her bare feet.

Grace issued the warning she knew her eldest daughter would surely ignore as soon as she faded from sight. “No more coffee.” A small laugh escaped her lips when the door closed on Kay’s exaggerated groan.



~*~


"Oh, I wanna dance with somebody.”

Flopping gracelessly onto her back, Gwen grabbed her pillow, covered her face with it, and barely resisted the urge to scream before tossing the pillow aside and sitting up amid the covers tangled around her lower body. Kicking the covers off, she stumbled out of the bed, scowling at the trail of clothes leading to her bathroom and the unwelcome squatter she discovered shaking his ass in her shower. “For God’s sake, Bennett,” her voice escaped as a snappish growl. “Whitney Houston?” Even with the distortion of the frosted glass, she could make out his infuriating grin as he paused only briefly before continuing to belt out the insufferable song. “You have your own shower,” she reminded him, loudly. “There’s no reason you should be using up all of my hot water.”

“That phone booth?” Hank stopped singing long enough to scoff at her suggestion. “Come on, Babe. The only thing that compares to it in this apartment is the coat closet you call my bedroom.”

“Oh really,” Gwen grumbled around her toothbrush. “I do have a name, you know, and it is most certainly not Babe.” She supposed it was only logical that he hadn’t used his own shower, considering he’d quickly broken the first rule she’d made for him, the bed she’d supplied him with staying cold and empty the night before. She watched her nose wrinkle with disgust in the reflection of the bathroom mirror at the realization that she was, again, wearing one of his tee-shirts. Spitting out toothpaste and watching it circle the drain, she found herself momentarily horrified with the idea that he might have used more than just her shower and quickly grabbed the bottle of mouthwash from the counter, tossing her toothbrush unceremoniously into the small wastebasket that resided beside the toilet. “Tell me you’re not using my loofah.”

“You mean that fluffy pink thing that smells like a garden?” Hank goaded. “Do you think they sell those things in a more manly blue? It was much less abrasive on my sensitive skin than…” he could only grin and shield his most sensitive parts with said loofah when the door to the shower was yanked open, and he encountered a blond that was arguably more steaming hot than the water that rained down across his shoulders and back. “Good morning, Sunshine,” he greeted cheerfully.

Gwen merely glowered at him, arms crossed protectively across her chest and foot tapping impatiently. Her eyes flickered, of their own accord, below his waist and back when he held the loofah and his hand out to her in invitation.

“Do you think you could wash my back?” Hank bit back a smirk, feigning innocence as he turned to present his back to her. “I can’t really reach it,” he explained, “and some of those scratches hurt like hell.” He winced as the hot water pelted against his skin;at least that part was the truth.

Biting her lip, Gwen couldn’t help but feel somewhat guilty as she regarded the telling marks. Without realizing she was doing it, she reached out, gently tracing her fingertips across the abused skin and sucking in a deep breath at the gooseflesh that pebbled in the wake of her touch. She pulled her hand away, though, when she felt the weight of his brown eyes on her, only to have it captured between both of Hank’s when he turned fully around, giving her a slight tug forward into his personal space. “You’re getting me all wet,” she complained, resisting meeting his eyes until his hand settled low on her ass.

“Is that right?” Hank’s brown eyes twinkled at her, and his fingers started tracing the edges of her lacy underwear, teasing.

“Everything is an innuendo with you, isn’t it?” Gwen muttered, blinking as he pulled her deeper into the shower, more directly under its spray. The water was rapidly soaking her hair, flattening it to her skull, and she imagined she must look really attractive in that moment, but surprisingly, she didn’t much care, because Hank’s roaming hands were inching her shirt up her ribs and without her volition, her arms were raising to aid him in tugging it off. “If you make me late for work, you’re a dead man,” she vowed, shivering as his hands returned to her waist once the shirt was gone, fingers hooking into her underwear and slinking them down her legs.

“There are worse ways to die,” Hank told her with a shrug of his shoulders, kissing the corner of her scowling mouth. “Does this count as against the wall and shower sex?” he mused, backing her into the shower wall and lifting one of her long legs over his hip.

Gwen’s brown eyes glittered at him, and she dug her nails into the skin of his lower back in warning. “Bennett?” she growled, evading his attempts to fuse his mouth to hers.

“What, Babe?” Hank settled for capturing her sensitive earlobe between his teeth instead, grinning against her neck when the action caused her to hiss in pleasure.

"Shut up.”



~*~



“You still have nightmares.”

It wasn’t a question; it was more of a revelation, and Sheridan found herself unable to meet Luis’s searching brown eyes, so she shrugged his discovery off as something inconsequential. There was simply no reason for him to know because he didn’t truly care. He didn’t care for her beyond the care that a person naturally cares for another human being, and she didn’t want to burden him with the events that haunted her dreams. The bloody hands had long been replaced with suffocating darkness, reality altered into horrible what-ifs. What if something had happened to Hank? What if Luis never found out the truth about the scheme to catch the drug cartel? What if Eve had made one tiny miscalculation? What if… Shaking her head to clear it of such morbid thoughts, she murmured, “It’s nothing.”

“Didn’t seem like nothing to me,” Luis muttered, frowning as he remembered her restlessness during the night, the heartbroken tears seeping beneath the fringe of her lashes. “You kept me and Anna up half the night. Why do you think she’s still asleep?” Luis cringed inwardly at his own insensitivity when she looked at him with guilt-ridden blue eyes, the emotion seeming to accentuate the darkness of the circles ringing her fragile skin.

“I’m sorry,” Sheridan apologized softly, gazing outside the window at the early morning shining golden and sparkling with dew. She knew, had there not been Anna, she would have already renewed the prescription for sleeping pills Eve had insisted would help. “When did you say Pilar was coming?” she asked, standing and making her way to the window to touch her palm to its cool glass.

“I didn’t call her,” Luis answered, then elaborated when Sheridan looked to him in confusion. “She’ll be here soon, anyway, to help Grace with breakfast and the rooms. It’s not something I wanted to tell her over the telephone. Besides, I thought it’d be a nice surprise for her.”

“Theresa would have wanted her to meet Anna first, I think. Ethan, too,” Sheridan replied, moving away from the window and easing herself onto the bed where Anna dozed. Combing her fingers though the silky dark curls, she gazed down at the tiny girl and felt her heart swell with an impossible love. “We shouldn’t overwhelm her with everybody at once.”

“I’m surprised Julian hasn’t already told Ivy,” Luis remarked, pacing restlessly across the room to avoid looking at Sheridan watching Anna with that look on her face.

“Why?” Sheridan wondered. “When he’s so good at keeping other secrets? Julian and Ivy don’t have that kind of marriage, Luis. I believe, deep down, my brother cares for Ivy, but the years living with Father have conditioned him to care for himself more. He won’t tell her, Luis. He might want to, but he won’t do it.”

Luis nodded in reluctant understanding. Despite his best intentions, he found his gaze again irresistibly drawn across the room, to her, tucking the fuzzy pink blanket around a back so small, his large hand practically dwarfed it. Lost in studying her and Anna together, his pretend family, he almost didn’t realize that Sheridan had begun to speak, again.

“When do you go back to the police station?” Sheridan asked, so softly the question was almost a whisper. Turning her head to consider him, his dark eyes unreadable to her, she reassured him, “This won’t look any less real if you have to cut our honeymoon short. Times are tough, and you gained two extra mouths to feed virtually overnight. Even the lawyer can’t argue that.” Taking his silence as a sign that she’d said something wrong, Sheridan backpedaled a little bit. “Not that you actually have to provide for me. I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself and helping with Anna. I can even get a job. Of course, you might have to find someone else to volunteer at the Youth Center, but…”

“No,” Luis cut her off. “No one is going to believe this is real if you do that. The only job you need is taking care of Anna.”

Sheridan bristled at his act of chauvinism, well-intentioned as it was. “Isn’t that a little sexist?”

“Maybe,” Luis made no apologies, “but to have this look real, we’re going to have to do things my way, and that means your place is with Anna.”

“Then there’s no chance in hell this is going to look real, Luis,” Sheridan argued, though her building fury was quietly controlled for Anna’s sake. “No one, no one that really knows me, is going to buy that this marriage is legitimate if I’m relegated to the part of happy homemaker. That’s not me, and it never will be.” Her eyes flashed angrily at him, and his jaw hardened in response. They were at a stalemate, and both of them knew it, each of them too stubborn to offer a compromise, at least yet. In this case, however, Sheridan was the first to back down for the moment, if not capitulate completely. “We promised not in front of Anna,” she sighed. “I need to change before Pilar gets here anyway.” In the course of their disagreement, she’d managed to stand and close the distance between her and Luis, and now she found herself standing practically toe to toe with him. She closed her eyes, willing the magnetic pull she felt towards him despite her anger to lessen, and when she opened them, he had gone, and her eyes met only the bright sun. She found him, crouched over Anna’s still sleeping form. She swallowed hard at the sense of longing that swept through her, watching him gaze lovingly at the tiny being, the only thing worth the struggle they currently found themselves in.

“I’ll watch her,” Luis volunteered.

“I won’t be long,” she promised, over the knot of tears clutching desperately at her throat.


~*~



“Kay,” Hope frowned down at her sister, currently tying the laces of her shoes into double knots to save them both the frustration of tying them again and again later. “Do you think Sadie will be upset that I got my Hello Kitty shirt on?” Without waiting for Kay to answer her, Hope propped her hands on her hips and huffed, “Maybe I should change.”

“Oh no you don’t,” Kay reeled her back in by the belt loops of her shorts before she could slip out of her grasp a third time. “For the last time, Sadie won’t care who’s on your shirt. She’ll just be glad to see you.” Considering the purple plaid shorts that clashed unfortunately with her kid sister’s red hair, though, Kay had to wonder if maybe she hadn’t allowed the pest a little too much free expression. Deciding Hope was tough enough to handle the teasing, and knowing she wouldn’t let it go too far herself, Kay just had to ask, “Who says we’re going to see Sadie today anyway?”

“Nobody,” Hope shrugged. “I just know.”

“You just know, huh?” Kay smirked. “How’s that?”

“Mister Reese and Sadie like us, that’s how,” Hope declared, wiggling free from her sister’s clutches.

“They like you,” Kay corrected her, following close behind her as she scampered outside the front door, all knobby knees and wide smiles. “Wait a minute,” she called. “Aren’t you forgetting something? Did you tell Dad bye?”

“Didn’t have to,” Hope singsonged in answer. “Daddy said he’d see us later.”

Kay’s eyes widened at the revelation. “He’s not going to work?”

“Nope,” Hope grinned at her, blue eyes happily alight. “He said he wants to spend the whole day with us. Isn’t that great?”

Unable to resist the kid’s beaming smile, Kay found herself responding in kind, despite her more cynical nature. “Yeah,” she agreed, ruffling her soft red hair affectionately. “Hope,” she warned when the child skipped along ahead of her. “Don’t go far.”

“I won’t,” Hope promised, even though she broke the promise seconds later, a familiar golden retriever and master appearing in the distance. “Mister Reese!” she exclaimed excitedly, racing headlong to meet her friends. “Sadie!” she cried, dropping to her knees and flinging her arms around the dog’s neck and accepting its exuberant kisses to her freckled face. “I missed you!”

“Hope-less,” Kay panted out, having jogged the remaining the distance to them, “It’s only been a day.”

“A really long day,” Hope answered back.

“A really, really long day,” Reese agreed with her, blue eyes twinkling at Kay behind his glasses. “Sadie’s missed you, too,” he told Hope, making the little girl flush with pleasure. “She came to see you yesterday, but you were out having fun with Mrs. B. and Chief Bennett.”

“Mom and Dad,” Kay clarified with a laugh when Hope looked puzzled.

"She came to see me?” Hope asked with wide eyes. “Kay,” she accused when Reese nodded. “You didn’t tell me.”

“That’s my fault,” Reese came to the rescue. “You see, it was supposed to be a surprise, but you weren’t there. So Kay and I decided we’d surprise you today. Surprise.”

Kay bit her lip, helpless to do anything but smile in the face of Reese’s geeky grin when Hope relinquished Sadie, only to throw her arms around his waist.

“Good surprise?” Reese questioned.

“Best surprise ever,” Hope affirmed. “Thank you, Mister Reese.”

“Yeah, thanks, Mister Reese,” Kay teased, secretly delighting in the blush that crept across Reese’s neck, all the way up to his ears. “We’re headed to the Bed and Breakfast. Wanna come or are you sick of the place? I was told there would be blueberry muffins,” she cajoled.

“Please come, please,” Hope pleaded, fingers curled around Sadie’s collar. She giggled when Sadie barked her own appeal.

“Blueberry muffins happen to be a favorite of mine,” Reese announced, eyes dancing with amusement when Hope did a little celebratory dance of her own, causing Kay to roll her eyes.

“Blueberry muffins? Really?” Kay asked later, when the Bed and Breakfast was in sight, and Hope and Sadie were a blur of movement as they raced each other to the gate.

“Not really,” Reese admitted, hands in his pockets and smile curling his lips.

“Reese Durkee, you faker,” Kay decried half-heartedly. “You give in to her way too easily.”

“Not just her,” Reese murmured, waving back at Grace and obeying her beckoning hand.

Kay simply watched him go, mouth agape.



~*~



“Thanks, Maria. You really are a lifesaver. Ms. Hotchkiss loved it. Yeah, well, she’s not really good at expressing her feelings…her happy feelings,” Hank quickly amended with a smirk, remembering the message she’d practically hissed onto the answering machine when she had, in fact, been late to another board meeting after their extra-curricular morning activities. Listening to his unwitting cohort in crime continue to chatter, Hank held up a hand to silence Sam when the front door swung open before he could knock, and it wasn’t until he disconnected the call and slid the phone into his jeans pocket that he spoke, “What is this? Casual Friday at the Harmony PD?”

Glancing down at the worn pair of jeans that hugged his waist and the gray tee-shirt he’d thrown on literally just before he’d opened the door, Sam smirked at the realization that his ensemble virtually mirrored that of his younger brother’s. Crossing his arms across his chest, he ignored Hank’s curious question to ask one of his own. “Maria, huh? I didn’t know you were sticking around.”

“Yeah, Maria,” Hank grinned. “She’s beautiful, cooks a mean casserole, and has three cute little grandkids that she and her husband Rafe spoil rotten.”

Chuckling, Sam shook his head, blue eyes dancing with humor. “So? You had a crush on Pilar all the way through high school.”

“Still do,” Hank deadpanned.

“If Luis heard you,” Sam smiled.

“Luis knows.”

“And he’s okay with it?” Sam was dubious.

“He was. Before,” Hank shrugged, wearing a slight smile that was quick to fade. “Now he’s notokay with me. Or Sheridan. What we did behind his back. He still…” Sighing, he paused, only to continue a moment later, “There’s not much Luis is okay with these days, Sam. We both know that.”

Frowning, Sam found himself nodding in agreement.

Sensing a change in subject was in order, Hank cleared his throat and gave his brother the once over one more time. “Back to my original question…”

“I’m not going in to work today.” Ignoring his brother’s incredulous expression, Sam explained himself. “I’m spending the day with Grace and the girls. In fact, I was just on my way to the Bed and Breakfast.”

“Perfect.” When Sam merely raised a brow in response, Hank decided to enlighten him. “I wanted to check on Sheridan.”

“And I’m your excuse,” Sam replied knowingly.

Placing his hands in his pockets, Hank squinted into the sun then refocused his brown eyes on his brother’s face. “This way I don’t give Luis one more reason to hate me.”

“He doesn’t hate you,” Sam told him.

This time, it was Hank’s turn to look skeptical.

"He doesn’t hate you,” Sam repeated, matter-of-factly. “You’re his brother just as much as you’re mine. Biology doesn’t change that. It’s impossible for him to hate you.”

“For someone that doesn’t hate me, he’s doing a damned good job of pretending,” Hank said.

“I didn’t say he wasn’t pissed at you.”

Sam’s smile was full of understanding, and Hank recalled a conversation they’d had in years past, along a similar vein, concerning Grace and the apparent shambles that the revelation of Ethan’s paternity had left his brother’s marriage in. The arrival of Hope may have stemmed the bleeding, but the wound had never fully healed. That wasn’t to say it couldn’t be healed though, and for the first time in a long time, it looked like his brother was buying into that belief. Like Luis, Grace had legitimate reason to feel wronged and every right to make Sam work to restore her faith in him, just like Luis did with him. And it looked like she was finally allowing him to make his case. Hank only wished that someday, Luis would do the same. Smiling a little bit, he agreed. “Man, is he.”

“Come on,” Sam led the way. “If he says something, I’ll tell him it was my idea.”

“My hero,” Hank quipped.

“You didn’t answer my question earlier,” Sam commented as they fell into step beside each other, traveling the sidewalk and waving at the passersby and the cars that crawled on past in the sleepy street.

“What question?” Hank wondered.

“If you’re sticking around,” Sam clarified.

“That wasn’t a question,” Hank argued.

“It was.”

“It was not a question,” Hank objected, easily falling into his time-honored routine of taking up the contrary stance where his brother was concerned. “It was more like a statement.”

“So…are you?” Exasperation was one of Sam’s familiar friends, had been since shortly after Hank’s birth—to be fair, though, they’d only really gotten close when his kid brother had learned to babble sentences and had been harder to ignore.

“What?” Hank tried to hide the smile in his voice, but it was virtually impossible. He was being an insufferable smart ass, and he knew it. And it felt good.

“Sticking around?”

A pair of brown eyes hiding a world of hurt flashed inexplicably before his mind’s eye, softening Hank’s acerbic tongue and making his revealed smile more contemplative. “Maybe,” he answered, leaving Sam to stare at him in complete and utter bafflement.

“Maybe? That’s your answer?”

Hank just shrugged, his smile morphing into a grin as he wheedled his big brother. “Maybe not.”



~*~




Arms laden with freshly laundered towels and bedding, Pilar turned the corner leading to Sheridan and Luis’s shared room and glanced down at Hope, marching purposefully beside her. The child’s canine friend, thankfully, was currently guarding the front entrance of the Bed and Breakfast and lapping up the easy affection of an elderly gentleman and his wife, passing through on their way to visit their daughter and grandchildren farther upstate. “Mi hija,” she prompted the little girl to knock on the door. Smiling her thanks at Hope when she heard movement inside, she gave her unspoken consent for her to run along and enjoy the fine day, and Hope had just skipped back around the corner when a familiar deep voice called out.

"It’s open.”

“Clean towels, Mi hijo. And fresh sheets for the bed,” Pilar explained, entering the room with her mountain of laundry and failing to notice Luis’s lack of response immediately. “Have you eaten breakfast yet?” she asked as she placed the neatly folded sheets at the foot of the bed and started for the bathroom. “There are muffins. Just like you like them.”

Luis, finally spurred to speech, held out his hand, covering her elbow. “Mama, you don’t have to wait on us. Put down the towels. Sheridan or I will take care of them later.”

“Nonsense, Mi hijo,” Pilar protested. “It is my job.”

“Give me the towels, Mama,” Luis gently coaxed, freeing Pilar of her burden and steering her to the small chair that sat in front of the vanity. “Sheridan is in the bathroom,” he offered by way of explanation when she frowned at him uncertainly.

The downward turn of Pilar’s lips was remedied with his simple statement, but her expression was still one of perplexity. “Why did you not just say so, Luis?”

Placing the towels atop the sheets, Luis turned to face her again, his own countenance guarded. “Mama, I want to talk to you. About something important.”

Pilar swallowed, her throat suddenly dry and tight, and nodded at him to continue, clasping her hands tightly together when her son moved to kneel at her feet. Nervousness made her speak out, though, when it seemed Luis could not find his words. She remembered how he had tortured himself with the decision to move out and make his home with Sheridan, and Anna when she made it safely to Harmony. “It’s okay, Mi hijo. Grace, she pays me more than she should. And Mrs. Crane, Ivy, she has made me an offer I do not think I can refuse.” Before Luis’s inevitable complaint could even be voiced, Pilar lay her fingers against his lips, silencing him. “She is lonely, Mi hijo, in that house, and I think, so am I.”

“Mama.” Luis’s eyes reflected the pain of what he regarded his ultimate failure, his inability to honor his responsibilities to his mother.

“I am not telling you this to hurt you.” Pilar’s fingers were soft, tender against his chin as they lifted it. “I am telling you this because it is the truth, and it has been for a very long time.” She smiled at him lovingly, hoping to blunt the sting of her words. “We wish for the same things: understanding, companionship. But Ivy feels that she can only buy them, and she has made her offer to me. What does Alistair Crane care of such an arrangement between two old women?”

What did Alistair Crane care of anything, anybody, Luis wanted to argue. He cared nothing for his daughter, still he made her life a living hell. The steel in his mama’s eyes wouldn’t allow him to disagree, at least verbally. He doubted, too, the reciprocity of a relationship with Ivy Crane, when she did all the taking, but he knew his mother had known Ivy for a significant portion of her life, and though he found himself blind to any redeeming qualities she might possess, Mama had always seen something in her that he and others didn’t. Knowing it was ridiculous to warn her against entering any such alliance with that family again when he had married into it, Luis exercised his last reserves of restraint as he searched for a response; the time would come later for exorcising that family’s evil from their lives, if he had anything to say about it. Grasping her hands between his own, Luis painted on a smile. “You’re not old, Mama. You’ll never be old.”

Held-in tears made Pilar’s brown eyes glisten and the smile on her lips trembled.

Kissing her hands, Luis stood up, pulling her to her feet to join him and his smile became more genuine. “I worry about you, Mama. But that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about.” In the reflection of the vanity’s mirror, he saw Sheridan standing in the open doorway to the bathroom, Anna cradled in her arms, tiny thumb sucked into her mouth. With his imperceptible nod, Sheridan left the entryway, the pale blue skirt of her sundress rippling around her tanned legs as she approached, and the movement was enough to capture Pilar’s attention and cause her mouth to fall open in surprise and her brimming tears to spill onto her cheeks. “Mama, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

Smiling at Pilar with tears in her own eyes, Sheridan dropped a kiss onto Anna’s dark curls and carefully placed the baby into Pilar’s waiting arms. “Shh,” she soothed Anna’s fretful whimpers, sliding her own arm around the older woman’s waist in a supportive hug. “Don’t cry,” she softly murmured, helpless to heed her own words.

“Mama,” Luis’s voice was gruff with emotion. “Meet Anna.”

Oh, Theresita, Pilar thought, as she stared into eyes as blue as the ocean, her hands and her heart, in that moment, full. Oh, Theresita. She’s beautiful.






Feedback is loved and adored!

Thanks so much for sticking with me this long.

iLoveET
2.16.09, 9:54 PM
How the heck did I miss a new post!?!? Love it!!!

UAgirl
1.21.10, 6:04 PM
Oh my gosh, it's been almost a year!

What can I say? I've had writer's block, real-life drama, lack of inspiration (is anybody reading the CR boards anymore?), you name it.

But I finally managed to finish a new chapter.

It's a little Bennett heavy for all of you Sheridan and Luis lovers following the fic, but I think there's something in it for you guys too. ;) I'm having to force myself to pace things out a bit; I keep wanting to jump ahead to smut, lol.

Appearing in this chapter: Kay/Hope/Sam/Hank, Sam/Grace, Kay/Reese, Julian/Hope, Sheridan/Hank, with brief appearances/mentions of T.C. and Luis. Plus, someone else meets Anna. ;)

Hope you enjoy!











Chapter 17








Taking in the matching ensembles of her dad and her uncle Hank, Kay tore off another wedge of the blueberry muffin nestled between her hands and remarked, “You know, that stopped being cute decades ago.”

Hank just grinned at her, pilfering part of her muffin for himself and popping it into his mouth. “Thanks,” he mumbled.

Hope appeared at the top of the steps just behind Kay. “Mom says you’re not supposed to talk with your mouth full.”

“Mom’s right,” Kay’s nose wrinkled when Hank greeted her with a stolen hug before grabbing Hope in a similar stronghold. “It’s disgusting.”

Upon seeing Sam, Hope wiggled free of Hank’s arms and launched herself at her father. “Daddy!”

His arms clasped behind Hope’s knees, Sam acknowledged his eldest daughter with a smile and downplayed her teasing banter about him basically calling it in for the second day in a row. “Where’s your mom?” he questioned Kay, tossing Hope across his broad shoulder and making her giggle uproariously when her world turned topsy-turvy, her red hair cascading like a waterfall in front of her freckled face.

Kay shrugged, biting back a smile at their silly antics, and warned her father, “You got clean-up duty if she gets sick.” When Hank merely raised his brows at her, once Sam and Hope were gone, Kay insisted, “I’m not kidding.”

“I didn’t say you were,” Hank smirked, taking a seat beside her on the steps. Stealing another bit of her muffin, he popped it into his mouth, then asked, “How’s life treating you?”

One dark brow raised, Kay practiced a tried and true method of deflection, turning the question back on him, “How’s life treating you?”

Hank stared at her for several long seconds before his face split into a grin, his brown eyes twinkling at her. “So that’s the way you’re going to play it?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Kay grinned back at him when he bumped shoulders with her. She shrieked with unexpected laughter when Hank wrestled her into a headlock and playfully tousled her hair. “Uncle. Uncle!” she finally cried, much to Hank’s (and Reese, who watched them both nearby with Sadie at his side) amusement. Catching Reese’s blue eyes when Hank released her, she surprised even herself by saying, “I’m good. Things are…good.”

Hank’s brown eyes narrowed momentarily as they studied his niece’s expression, but when he blinked, what he thought he saw in her eyes was gone, and she was looking at him expectantly, waiting, he realized, for whatever smart-assed retort he came up with, and he didn’t disappoint, unable to resist teasing, “My brother’s paying out of his ass for tuition, and that’s the best you can come up with? I’m buying you a pocket thesaurus for Christmas.”

Kay rolled her eyes at him. “Why don’t you impress me with your vocabulary, Einstein?”

Grinning again, Hank told Reese as he hauled himself back to his feet, “She does her dear, old uncle proud.” Clapping a firm hand over Reese’s shoulder, he then scratched Sadie between the ears and waltzed off in search of Sam, Grace, and (maybe) a muffin of his own.

“Thanks for the high praise, Secret Agent Man,” Kay called to his retreating back before landing eyes on Reese again and finding him watching her with an unreadable expression on his face. “What?” she questioned, a nervous smile playing on her lips. Holding out a hand, she beckoned Sadie and took comfort in stroking the dog’s silky fur when Reese did not answer her, only offering her an enigmatic smile for her trouble. Dropping her voice to a stage whisper for his benefit, she hugged the content canine close. “I think someone needs to remind her master it isn’t polite to stare.” She laughed softly when Reese blushed in response to her gentle chiding. Kay watched his mouth work futilely to find the words to defend himself, and his failure to string the necessary words together was still a source of amusement to her when Hope reappeared from seemingly nowhere, scampering toward her and Sadie and lavishing the dog with affection. Taking pity on Reese and turning her attention back on her kid sister, Kay made an inquiry, “Where’s Mom?” When Hope gave no indication she had heard the question, Kay waved a hand in front of the little girl’s face and singsonged, “Hope-less.”

Waking up from her puppy-kisses induced daze, Hope peered at Kay with confusion clouded blue eyes and shrugged, “Dunno.”

“Thanks a lot,” Kay muttered under her breath as she pushed herself to her feet. “You’re a lot of help. Reese?” she tossed out, her intentions clear.

“I’ll keep an eye on her,” Reese promised, moving forward to shadow Hope and Sadie.

Kay entered the Bed and Breakfast, pausing at the threshold to let her eyes adjust to the relative dimness of light afforded inside compared to the beaming sunshine that made Hope’s red hair glow like a jeweled crown outside. Finding the front desk abandoned, she frowned and stepped deeper inside, calling, “Mom?” She literally jumped, her heart beating a staccato rhythm inside her chest, when her uncle reappeared, seemingly from nowhere (it had to be genetic), with scone in hand, and would have laughed at her overreaction had Hank not taken advantage of the opportunity to do what he did best: tease the hell out of her. “Knock it off,” she warned. “I mean it,” she insisted when Hank responded with a grin that was anything but apologetic. Sighing, she demanded more than asked, “Well, have you seen her?”

Kay’s irritation-filled glower put Hank in mind of a certain blond, making his grin grow, and he chuckled to himself at the thought that it was a tight race between his niece and Gwen as to who had patented the best pissed-off expression. Taking another bite of the warm scone in his hand, he chewed thoughtfully for a second before answering her, “I’m not sure, but your dad’s with her.” His arm struck out, his hand latching onto to Kay’s wrist when she moved forward, intent on continuing her search, and he shook his head, sliding his hand down to encase hers when he caught one glimpse at the worry that flashed in her eyes. “Give your dad his chance to crash and burn on his own.” Squeezing her hand comfortingly, he continued, “It’s their marriage, not ours.”

Carefully pulling her hand free, Kay regarded her uncle with grudging understanding. He was right; she knew it, she even felt the same. That didn’t mean she had to be happy about it. “Thanks, Dr. Phil.” She turned around, pausing only when she was at the door to give him a slightly reproachful reminder. “They’re not the only ones.” A mere second later, she clarified herself, “Technically, it is still their honeymoon.”

Hank read the judgment in her eyes and inwardly winced. “She’s my friend. Luis is my friend,” he defended. “You telling me it’s wrong to care?”

Kay softened. “I’m just saying…they deserve their chance too.” Pushing the door open, she called over her shoulder, “Point Mom in my direction when you see her.” Stepping outside, she gently closed the door and found a pair of blue eyes watching her. Hope and Sadie, she distantly noticed, were playing a spirited game of tag beyond, on the Bed and Breakfast’s tidy green lawn. Grumbling beneath her breath, she claimed the seat beside Reese on the top step as her own, feeling heat crawl up her own neck. “You’re supposed to watch her, not me.”

Reese cleared his throat awkwardly. A beat later, he defended himself, saying, “Sadie’ll keep her out of trouble.”

“Are you serious?” Kay scoffed. “Trouble is that one’s middle name.”

“Hey! My middle name’s not trouble,” Hope protested. She squealed when her distraction awarded Sadie the chance to catch her off-guard, nudging her forward with her nose and barking joyously. “Look what you did,” Hope accused. “She caught me.”

“And she’s going to catch you again if you keep standing there,” Kay told her. “Go,” she instructed, prompting her irate kid sister into action. Glancing at Reese out of the corner of her eyes, she remarked, “I think she does the whole moral outrage thing well, don’t you?” Covertly eyeing his profile, Kay considered him, their past relationship as teenagers, and the surprising enjoyment she and Hope had gotten out of spending time with him, and she decided he’d never been more of a mystery to her than he was now. Yeah, Hope was the innocent one in all of this, but she wasn’t, and when she’d told Sara she hadn’t been a good friend to Reese in the past, what she should have said was that she’d been a really bad friend. After the way she had mis-treated him, she didn’t know what he could potentially stand to gain from being friends with her again, and she found herself struggling to understand what his motivation could possibly be. Unable to restrain herself any longer, she blurted, “I don’t understand you.”

With a wry smile, Reese remarked, “Nobody really does.”

Frustrated, Kay frowned. “No, I mean…” Reese looked at her searchingly, but Kay found she just couldn’t spit out the words. It was a welcome relief when she heard her uncle Hank clear his throat behind her, and she whirled around to find the elderly gentleman from earlier that morning and his wife smiling down at her. Without thinking, she took the hand Reese offered, letting him pull her to her feet, and she held out a hand to take the woman’s small suitcase. “Here, let me get that for you.”

“That won’t be necessary, Dear,” the woman protested. Still, she beamed and relinquished the suitcase to Reese’s able hands when he politely but firmly insisted. “Such a nice young man,” she praised. “Both of them,” she amended, graciously including Hank, who was already loading the rest of the couple’s bags in their trunk, under her husband’s instruction.

With a sly grin, Kay couldn’t resist commenting, “Obviously you don’t know my uncle very well.”

“Don’t listen to her, Mrs. Mitchell,” Hank warned upon his return, capturing her frail hand and kissing it. “Let me escort you to your vehicle,” he persisted, taking her arm and carefully helping her descend the Bed and Breakfast’s steps. When Kay raised an incredulous brow at him, he merely winked at her, a rakish grin upon his lips.

“Why thank you,” Mrs. Mitchell twittered.

Watching Hank safely deposit their departing guest in her car beside her waiting husband, Kay shook her head in disbelief, muttering, “I don’t know how he does it.”

Having newly rejoined her, Reese shrugged his shoulders and offered a sheepish suggestion. “Bennett charm, I guess.”

“Bennett charm?” Kay’s lips twitched.

“Yeah,” Reese’s blue eyes twinkled at her behind the lenses of his glasses, and when Hope called out to him, he started down the steps, eager to escape her scrutiny.
“And what, exactly, is this so-called Bennett charm?”

“Ask Hope,” Reese answered, trying and failing to hide his grin from her. “She has it in spades.”

The smile on Kay’s face grew and grew with her dawning realization: Reese Durkee was teasing her.




~*~





Sam found her upstairs, staring out of a window with shimmering blue eyes. “Grace?” He hesitated at the open door, loath to enter without her permission, and pretended not to notice when she discreetly knuckled away a few tears that had traitorously escaped.
Grace turned on her heels, scooping up a mound of dirty linen, and deposited it into a basket at her feet. “Sweet couple,” she murmured, not meeting Sam’s eyes as she went about tidying up the room in the wake of Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell’s departure, “married straight of high school and still together.”

Sam took encouragement in the very fact that she was speaking to him and stepped inside the room. He crossed the room to her without a word when she lifted the basket in her arms, intent on relieving her of the burden. “Here. Let me get that.”

Grace’s eyes snapped to his face when their hands brushed, and she swallowed hard, uncomfortable with the emotion her husband made no effort to hide from her. Dropping her gaze, she carefully withdrew her hands and directed Sam where to put the basket while she continued with her work, grabbing the stack of freshly laundered towels she’d brought into the room with her and disappearing into the bathroom with them. When she returned, having put them away, Sam had stripped the bed of its remaining fitted sheet, and she automatically took up the position across from him, pulling its replacement taut and tucking it around the bed’s corners.

Silently, Sam mirrored her actions, and he would have been content simply to be there, in her presence, until he realized she had spoken. Her hands were fussing nervously with non-existent wrinkles in the sheet, and her eyes were once again hidden from him, looking anywhere, it seemed, except at his face.

Sighing, Grace repeated herself. “What are you doing here, Sam?”

“Spending the day with my girls,” Sam answered simply, gritting his teeth in frustration at her responding comment.

“Last time I checked, Kay and Hope were downstairs.” Grace bent to gather the rest of the bedding in her arms. “Jessica isn’t even in the same state,” she reminded him, still without meeting his eyes, then set about quickly and efficiently making up the bed. She froze, though, mid-motion when Sam rest a hand on her arm, patchwork quilt draped over his other arm. His nearness surprised her, and she felt her heart throb painfully in her chest at the proximity.

Offering the quilt to her, Sam uttered a reminder of his own, a painful one, because he was only just realizing the true extent of the damage caused by his inability to do something so simple as to be honest with his wife. “Used to be, you were my number one girl.”

Their fingertips were touching, just barely, and Grace ached inside to tangle their hands together, bask in the memory of their good times, for there had been good times, but she couldn’t let herself be so easily swallowed by sentiment, not if they had any chance of doing as Sam professed he wished: moving on, truly being the family they pretended to be for the benefit of the outside world. Sadly, she told him, “I was never your number one girl, Sam. I came into the game a little too late for that.”

“Grace,” Sam protested, lifting a hand to her face. He closed his eyes against the pain he felt at the flinch she failed to hide from him. Removing his hand from her face, he dropped wearily to the bed below, and he was surprised to feel the mattress dip with the addition of her slight weight when she followed him a second later. “Just because Ivy was first doesn’t mean…”

“I know,” Grace cut him off. And, logically, she did. But her heart still had its doubts, and she didn’t know how to chase them away. She didn’t think she could. Only the man at her side could do that, and right now, he looked to be as confused, conflicted, and hurt as she felt. She wanted so much to make this work, for the children, for Sam, for herself; she just didn’t know how. The only thing Grace knew for sure was wishing it true wouldn’t make it happen. Salvaging what was left of their marriage was going to be a lot harder than that. Selfishly, she knew, today especially, she couldn’t bear to meet him halfway. Giving his hand an awkward pat, she stood up, her back straight and tall, and returned to the window, in time to see Julian and Ivy emerging from a parked car and hesitating at the gate outside. A sharp knock at the door refocused her attention, and she watched Sam rise to meet Luis.

“Grace. Sam,” Luis tipped his head in acknowledgment. “Sorry to interrupt.”

“Luis, can this wait,” Sam began, firmly and apologetically all at once, but Grace’s gentle hand on his arm and the depth of the emotion in Luis’s dark eyes gave him pause.

“Go with Luis, Sam,” Grace encouraged. “Something tells me you’ll want to hear what he has to say.” She gave her husband a soft smile that she knew didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Go on.”

Reluctantly, Sam left with Luis, and the sound of their combined footsteps receded until they faded into nothing.

Lowering herself back onto the bed’s surface, Grace snagged a pillow between her hands, hugged it to her chest, and closed her eyes.





~*~





Eyes narrowed, and spine stiffened, Kay demanded to know what was going on. “What’s she doing here?” Ivy Crane lingered uncertainly at the gate until Julian opened it for her, prompting her into action. “She’s not welcome here. Neither is he.” Shaking her head, she started to descend the steps to cut the pair off, but a strong hand captured her arm, her father’s hand. Leveling an accusatory look at her father, she angrily charged, “It was you, wasn’t it? You invited her here.” Kay wrenched her arm free, and in the process, realized her father wasn’t alone.

“Sam didn’t call her, Kay,” Luis said. “I did.”

Kay experienced a momentary pang of regret for jumping to conclusions. Still, she didn’t apologize for her second-nature distrust. Refusing to meet her father’s eyes, she stepped around him, retreating into the Bed and Breakfast in a renewed search for her mother. She found Sheridan and Pilar instead, just inside, and a tiny dark-curled child in Pilar’s arms staring at her with a pair of striking blue eyes. Wordlessly, she followed the solemn trio back outside, and the expressions of wonder and sheer surprise on Ivy’s and her father’s faces were ones she’d likely never forget. A gentle hand on the small of her back had her sucking in a shaky breath, and she blinked hard against the moisture that had started to sting her eyes, able only to acknowledge Reese’s gesture of support with a barely perceptible nod of her head. She was simply incapable of speech as she witnessed Anna being introduced to her grandparents for the first time.

Using both arms to draw each woman near, Sheridan did the honors, smiling at Sam’s awe-struck demeanor as he crept forward to join Ivy and Pilar, a hesitant hand reaching out to cup Anna’s tiny foot. “Ivy…Sam…meet your granddaughter.”

Unable to help herself when Pilar carefully handed Anna over to her, Ivy hugged the baby tightly, pressed her face against her dark curls, and started to sob.

Watching her father pull Ivy to him in an instinctive effort to comfort her was like a knife plunging deep into Kay’s heart. She found herself suddenly thankful that she hadn’t been able to locate her mother; she shouldn’t have to bear witness to this. Unconsciously, her hand sought out Reese’s hand, and she squeezed it gratefully when it tangled with her own. “Get me out of here,” Kay turned to him, pleading. “Now.”

Reese barely blinked at her request. “Okay,” he nodded.

But for a stop to entrust Sadie into Hank and Hope’s combined care, they didn’t delay, and Kay numbly followed where Reese led, the sidewalk stretching before them. She stopped in her tracks, though, when she realized their destination. “The Youth Center?”

Reese looked at her uncertainly. “We can go somewhere else. I just thought…” he paused to clear his throat uncomfortably, and continued in a slightly different vein, color suffusing his neck and cheeks. “There are basketballs.”

A smile begged to form at his awkward blabbering, and a laugh escaped at his next suggestion. Kay found it was all she could do not to throw her arms around Reese in a hug and thank him for lightening her mind and her heart, just by being himself.

“You can even throw one at me if you want.”

“Why,” Kay giggled, “would I want to do that? Is that some kind of new sport?”

With her laughter, Reese blushed an even deeper hue of crimson and let out an embarrassed chuckle of his own before he tried to explain himself. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but some people actually think it’s therapeutic to throw things to relieve strong emotions.” In a quieter, more hesitant voice, he said, “Baseball was your and Miguel’s thing and dishes are too messy. I figured basketballs might be…fun.”

“Maybe,” Kay smiled at him. Conversationally, she told him, “I’m not very good at basketball.”

“Neither am I,” Reese shrugged, holding the Youth Center door open for her and following her inside. “Coach Russell,” he greeted once there.

“Reese,” T.C. acknowledged. “Kay,” he nodded. He had a ring of keys hooked around his thumb, and he regarded them curiously.

Clearing his throat, Reese made small talk. “I didn’t know you worked at the Youth Center again.”

“I don’t,” T.C. answered. “I’m just helping out until Luis comes back from his honeymoon.”

Kay’s smile fell away. T.C. might have grown to grudgingly accept Sheridan into the periphery of their fold over time, but he obviously still held onto to his convictions where the rest of the Cranes were concerned, and it showed in the distaste in which he viewed Sheridan and Luis’s marriage, the motivation behind that union notwithstanding.

“What are you two doing here?” T.C. questioned. “The Center’s not officially open for several more hours. I was just checking everything out during my free period.”

“Nothing,” Kay shook her head.

At the same time, Reese said, “We wanted to shoot some hoops.”

His eyes widening comically, his mouth stretched in a disbelieving smile, T.C. looked to Kay. “Shoot some hoops? Are those the words I just heard coming out of that boy’s mouth?”

Kay’s smile returned. She had to admit she fully understood (and shared some of) T.C.’s amusement. Only when Reese started to stammer like the boy she knew of old did Kay speak up. “We’ll put everything back where we found it.”

T.C. considered Kay’s promise. He finally relented. “You’ll have to answer to Luis if you don’t.”

“I’m not too worried about Luis,” came Kay’s quick reply. “I’m pretty friendly with his wife.”

T.C. chuckled, offering the keys to Reese. “Lot of good that’s going to do her.”

Kay raised a brow at his comment. “I wouldn’t underestimate Sheridan.”

“Neither would I,” T.C. admitted with reluctant respect. “You kids lock up here when you’re finished. I have to head on back to the high school.” To Kay he said, “Say hello to your dad for me.”

“I will,” Kay assured him.

Reese finally rediscovered his voice. “See you later, Coach Russell.”

T.C. acknowledged him with a nod and a wave of his hand.

“Well,” Kay clapped her hands together and turned dancing eyes back on Reese. “What are you waiting for? Let’s go shoot some hoops.”

Reese groaned at her teasing. “What else was I supposed to say?”

“Best out of three, Durkee,” Kay challenged.

“This should be interesting,” Reese muttered.




~*~







A warm breeze tickled mercilessly at his face, birds were twittering obnoxiously, his Ice Queen wife was melting at a furious pace somewhere on the premises of this quaint little establishment, and Julian was making the acquaintance of one overly-curious Hope Bennett and her Alpo-breathed companion. Disdainfully, he nudged Sadie with his free foot, the other one currently buried somewhere beneath golden fur. “Go on,” he encouraged. “Up. Up.”

Across from him, positioned at the edge of a chair with her feet swinging back and forth, Hope peered at him with avid intrigue. “She likes you,” she cheerfully informed him.

“Well,” Julian harrumphed. Resigning himself to the fact that the canine was going nowhere, he settled back in his own chair and studied the child that was staring at him so unabashedly. “Haven’t your parents taught you it isn’t polite to stare?”

“Sorry.”

The child looked genuinely apologetic for about a second before she resumed the activity with a focus that seemed scarily unnatural to Julian. Uncomfortable under her scrutiny, he glanced away, searching for other candidates for her to pester. Finding no one (that blasted Hank Bennett had abandoned them to sniff out his sister), Julian withdrew his handkerchief from his jacket and dabbed at the little beads of nervous perspiration that had begun to form on his brow. He was looking into the face of a miniature Grace Bennett, but there was no denying she was her father’s progeny. There was a certain, unnerving intensity about her. “Hannah,” he began, only to have the little girl frown.

“It’s Hope.”

“I apologize,” Julian started anew. “Shouldn’t you be off somewhere, having tea parties? Playing dress-up? I’m just a boring old man. You don’t want to hang out with me.”

Hope’s expression became even more serious. “You’re not boring. Just grumpy,” she pronounced. “Besides,” she singsonged slightly, “my uncle Hank told me to watch you. That way neither one of us could get into any trouble.”

“He did, did he?” Julian grumbled under his breath. “What else did your uncle Hank say?”

“That Daddy and Missus Crane and Pilar need time with Anna without any of us butting in,” Hope declared, “because they’re her grandparents.” Her red brows knit together in confusion then. “But what about you and mommy?”

Hope’s innocent question seized Julian’s ill-used heart, and he found himself unable to answer her. He needn’t have worried, though, for the child was quickly off on another tangent.

“Did you know I’m Anna’s aunt?” Hope’s small chest puffed up with pride.

“You’re rather small to be someone’s aunt,” Julian responded.

“My daddy says I’m growing like a weed,” Hope defended herself.

“I’m sure you are,” Julian soothed her ruffled feathers. “Where did your sister go? Kay? I’m sure she’s missing you.”

Hope shrugged her small shoulders. “Somewhere with Mister Reese,” she offered. “She was sad. I hope Mister Reese cheers her up.”

“Me too,” Julian shocked himself by agreeing. “Are you okay?” he asked mere moments later, watching Hope fidget in her chair and pull at those atrocious shorts she wore.

Hope nodded then shook her head.

“Well,” Julian impatiently prompted. “Which is it?”

Hope scrunched up her freckled nose and shook her head back and forth, her chin-length red hair flying.

“Out with it, Child,” Julian demanded, wishing a moment later he hadn’t been so insistent when the child blurted out the reason for her apparent discomfort.

“I gotta go to the bathroom!” Worrying her bottom lip between pearly white teeth, she asked, more quietly, “Will you go with me? Pretty please?”

Julian renewed his earlier search for capable adults, preferably one related to the little girl, who was now doing a comical dance from foot to foot, but his efforts proved fruitless once more. “I thought we established you were a growing girl.”

His comment was enough to make Hope pause in her restless movements, at least momentarily. “Huh?”

Heaving a sigh, Julian elaborated, “You’re a big girl. Can’t you go to the bathroom by yourself?”

“But I’m supposed to watch you,” Hope protested. “And I might need help.”

Julian’s eyes widened with panic. “What if I told you I eat small children?”

Hope rolled her blue eyes at him, fitting her small hand in his larger one and giving it a mighty tug. “I don’t believe you, now c’mon.”

With dismay, Julian realized he was running out of excuses, and the dreadful mutt had relinquished its lazy guard, rising up on four feet and watching him them both expectantly. “Okay,” he sent up a figurative white flag. “I’ll stand outside the door.”

“But…”

“Take it or leave it,” Julian scowled.

“Take it,” Hope answered, literally pulling him along and into the Bed and Breakfast, where she didn’t let go of his hand until they were deep into the recesses of the old place, in a hallway not far from the kitchen. Dropping his hand, Hope wrenched the door of the little hideaway bathroom open and promptly squirmed out of her shorts and dropped her panties.

“Good Heavens, Child,” Julian whirled around, covered his eyes with an embarrassed hand, and pushed the door closed. “At least shut the door.”

“Sorry,” Hope called. “I didn’t have time.”

The dog whined, and Julian dropped his hand, scowling. “What are you looking at? She shouldn’t drop her underclothes like that in front of complete strangers.” Hearing the toilet flush, he forced himself to ask, “Well, are you okay in there?”

“Almost finished,” came Hope’s muffled reply.

Julian recognized the sound of running water and breathed a sigh of relief. When Hope opened the bathroom door, he grumped, “You didn’t even need me.”

“I told you…” Hope began.

“You’re supposed to watch me,” Julian finished for her. “Who’s watching you?”

“You are,” Hope grinned, taking his hand and pulling him along again.

“Wait a minute,” Julian hedged when he recognized they weren’t heading back outside. “Where are you taking me?”

“I’m thirsty,” Hope answered matter-of-factly. “I’m not supposed to pour the milk by myself. We have lemonade if you’re thirsty too,” she bargained. With Sadie trotting along beside her and Julian well in hand, she pushed the kitchen door open without giving Julian a proper chance to refuse her offer.

Julian’s complaints fell silent though at the scene they walked in on.

At the sink, her back turned to them both, stood the slight form of Grace Bennett, and in the reflection of the cupboard glass, it was plain she had been crying.

Julian had to admire the brave face she put on for her young daughter when she turned around to face them, and if she felt any surprise at his presence, she masked it well, stepping forward and repeating Hope’s earlier offer.

“Can I get you anything, Julian?” Grace asked, opening the refrigerator door and pulling out an old-fashioned looking bottle of milk, along with a pitcher of lemonade. “Lemonade?”

With one look into her red-rimmed blue eyes, Julian held out his hand to help her. “I’d like that, yes.”




~*~







Hank cleared his throat as he approached Sheridan in the small garden that made the back yard of the Bed and Breakfast look like a wonderland. “Looks like married life agrees with you, Princess,” he said, capturing her hands in his own and admiring the pretty picture she made in a pale blue dress that only served to intensify the hue of her eyes.

Sheridan attempted a smile. “Looks can be deceiving.”

Hank frowned and lifted a hand to her face. “If Luis is not treating you well…”

Kissing his palm, Sheridan removed his hand from her face with a sigh. “Luis… he’s treating me fairly.” When Hank remained skeptical, she rambled on, “It’s hard to forget history, Hank, especially for a man like Luis. And ours is about as complicated and messed up a history as you can get. He’s treating me fairly. I shouldn’t expect anything more.”

“The hell,” Hank protested, his own anger boiling up. “You deserve more than fairness. You deserve kindness, Sheridan. Respect. Love.”

“Don’t we all?” Sheridan looked at him with shining eyes. “When are you going to follow your own advice, huh? You deserve those things just as much as I do.”

“Me?” Hank played it cool. “Those things reek of commitment. I’m just looking for some fun.”

Sheridan sought out his hand again and tilted her head in consideration. “I don’t believe you, Hank Bennett.”

“Believe it,” Hank insisted, playing with her fingers. His touch gravitated toward her wedding band, and he felt his throat grow uncharacteristically tight with emotion. “What if I told you the one I wanted didn’t want me?”

Sheridan fell still, and she turned to face him, lifting her free hand to the face she had grown to adore, the face of one of her dearest friends. “How could she not want you? You’re Hank.”

Before he lost his nerve (stupidly), Hank continued in a rush of words. “She’s in love with someone else, and I’ve always been a little bit in love with her.” He hung his head, unable to meet her eyes, now that he’d foolishly, unexpectedly blurted the truth. He waited for judgment to pass in the form of the gentle letdown he knew was coming, only Sheridan surprised him, taking his face between her hands and leaning in to kiss him. Feeling the faint pressure of her lips against his forehead, Hank’s hands traveled down her arms to cradle her elbows, and her next words sent reality crashing down upon him.

“Luis is married now.” Sheridan combed tender, sisterly fingers through Hank’s brown hair. “It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t love me. The vows we took are still sacred to him, and he’ll stay with me to have Anna in his life.”

“Sheridan,” Hank cut her off. “Even when he’s a jerk, Luis still cares.”

“Maybe,” Sheridan conceded. “Maybe he does care, and maybe that’ll be enough. I hope it’ll be enough,” she said, as if offering up a fervent prayer. “My point is,” she searched out his eyes again, “he’ll honor his vows because that’s who he is. Beth would be blind not to recognize that and see what a wonderful man she has waiting in the wings to love her in you.”

“Beth?” Hank asked dumbly, only to grab onto her misguided thoughts with the relief of a man who knew he’d almost pissed their friendship away. “Right. Beth. She’s always been hung up on Luis.” That much, at least, had always been true.

“Well,” Sheridan threaded her arm through his and tugged him along with her. “Luis isn’t available anymore.”

Hank remained silent. He didn’t tell her that Luis hadn’t been available since a certain blond had literally crashed into his jeep upon her arrival to Harmony. She wouldn’t believe him anyway. His good buddy had really done a number on her heart. “That’s it, Princess,” he finally protested. “I’m a sensitive guy, but the fact remains, I’m a guy, and this really isn’t my kind of conversation. Okay?”

Sheridan’s lips twitched into a smile and then she laughed, her mood thankfully lighter than when Hank had discovered her, wandering aimlessly through Grace’s garden. “Okay. I could use a little help coaching the kids, now that Anna’s here and Luis and I are going to have our hands full.”

“Do I get a cool tee-shirt like yours?” Hank quipped. “Coach Bennett,” he tried it on for size.

Laughing softly, Sheridan kissed him on the cheek, unaware of a pair of smoldering dark eyes watching her, watching them as they continued on their stroll. “Has a nice ring to it.”

“If I do say so myself,” Hank grinned.






Thanks for reading!


If you *are* still reading, lol.

Here's hoping 18 won't be as long coming.

Until next time, some food for thought (give me yours, lol): Sam and Grace have a tough road ahead of them, Reese and Kay, dare I say it, are becoming real friends (or something more? hmm), what do you think of Julian's new, unlikely friend, and will the green-eyed monster spur a change in the way Luis is treating Sheridan...

Feedback would be lovely.

P.S. Sorry for any mistakes. They're all mine. =) Add that to the fact, some things always seem to get messed up in the process of posting (go figure).

UAgirl
8.2.10, 11:20 PM
Title: Anna Begins, Chapter 18
Rating: PG-13 (maybe not quite, but I think some of the innuendo and situations are just a tad over PG, lol)
Warnings: mild swearing, adult themes, unresolved sexual tension ;)
Characters/Pairings: Kay/Grace/Julian, Luis/Sheridan, Kay/Gwen, Julian/Ivy, Hank/Gwen, Hope/Sam, Grace/Sam, Beth/Luis, Kay/Hope
Word Count: 9,025 (wow! I think it's my longest chapter ever!)
Summary (for chapter): They fell into an awkward routine over the next month, all these people that loved Anna. If Ethan and Theresa had been around to see it, they would scarcely believe it. But somehow they made it work, or made it seem like it was working.










Chapter 18



They fell into an awkward routine over the next month, all these people that loved Anna. If Ethan and Theresa had been around to see it, they would scarcely believe it. But somehow they made it work, or made it seem like it was working.

Kay wouldn’t allow herself to be fooled. She hardly believed the arrangement worked out, Julian and Ivy (strangely, never one without the other) descending upon the Bed and Breakfast at their whim, at least not for her mother. But she didn’t say anything; she kept her mouth shut like the good girl she’d always tried (and failed) to be. Until the day she walked in on her mother and Julian having a hushed conversation in the kitchen (she wished she could say it was the first time), and the words just spilled free. “This looks cozy.”

“Kay,” Grace acknowledged her daughter. “Where’s your sister?”

“Outside,” Kay shrugged, moving to fix herself a glass of lemonade. “With them.” Them being her father, Ivy, and Pilar, each of them trying to win over a little girl who still regarded them with all the warmth of a frightened animal. She watched, out of the corner of her eyes, Julian stand and lightly touch her mother’s hand, and felt the beginnings of anger start to blossom in her veins. Ignoring Julian when he said his goodbyes, she instead sipped at her lemonade and stared outside the window above the sink, waiting for her mother to defend herself and her maddening feelings to cool. She didn’t, and neither did they.

"You were rude,” Grace remarked softly. “Why?”

“Why not?” Kay answered. “Julian Crane, Mom? Seriously?” Setting her sweating glass of lemonade down, she turned to face her mother. “Are you two…” she couldn’t voice the terrible thought, her mouth pinched in horror.

"Your father wasn’t the only one who lost a son, Kay.” The revelation shouldn’t have even been a revelation, but it was, it had been for Grace, and it obviously was for Kay, who was looking at her as if she’d sprouted a second head. The frown Grace regarded her eldest daughter with was laced with disappointment, and she stood up, joining Kay at the sink. Without saying anything more, she withdrew a white envelope from the pocket of the apron tied loosely about her waist and held it out for Kay to take.

Kay stared at the emblem on the front of the envelope, the emblem of her school, and swallowed uncomfortably, taking it from her mother and looking at her accusingly when she noticed the seal had been broken. “You read my mail?” Her shallowly buried anger resurfaced, the pitch of her voice rising. “You had no right. I can’t believe you.”

Opening the letter had been a genuine mistake, but Grace didn’t tell Kay that. Instead she folded her arms across her chest and waited for her daughter to talk. When she didn’t, she repeated the words angrily thrown at her, though much more softly and with a touch of sadness. “I can’t believe you, dropping out of school without telling me or your father.”

“I’m not dropping out,” Kay’s indignation sagged under the weight of her mother’s disapproval. A slim auburn brow arched skeptically in response, and Kay felt the need to explain, “I’m taking some time off, just a few months.”

“A few months?” Grace challenged, knowing the official letter read differently.

“A year, okay? I’m taking off a year.” Kay picked her glass of lemonade back up, drawing a fingertip through the circle of condensation it had left behind, unable to face her mother in that moment. She concentrated on the coolness of the glass in her hand and steeled herself for whatever condemning words might be coming.

Grace felt both pride and regret at the reluctant confession that spilled from her daughter’s lips; pride that she didn’t attempt to hide the truth like she might have in the past, regret that Kay hadn’t come to her before making such a big decision. With a short nod, she quietly said, “Your father should find out from you.”

Kay’s head jerked up, and she stared into her mother’s blue eyes. When she found only acceptance in them, she couldn’t resist asking, “That’s it? That’s all you have to say? No lectures? No telling me I’m making a huge mistake?”

“If it’s a mistake, it’s yours to make,” Grace answered simply. “I can’t tell you what to do anymore, Kay. You’re an adult. You’re your own person.”

Kay’s head dropped back down, and she studied the contents of the glass in her hands. “I wanted to tell you. I tried, a couple of times.” But there was always something else, someone else.

Grace heard Kay’s unspoken words loud and clear. All those times (Can we talk, Mom?...Maybe later) came back to her, and she turned her disappointment inward. Taking the glass from Kay’s hands, she set it aside, and pressed their palms together, and the uncertainty in her daughter’s eyes when she looked up at her made her heart throb painfully in her chest. “Don’t give up so easily on me next time, okay?”

Gradually, Kay looked less wary, more open, and she gave her a short nod of her head in answer. Awkwardly, she reclaimed her hand and cast another glance toward the open window, through which they heard a rare giggle from Anna. “You should be out there, too. Not shut up in here.”

“Kay,” Grace began.

“Will you stop doing that?” Kay grew exasperated, sweeping past her mother. Whirling back around to face her, she threw up her hands. “You tell me not to give up on you, but isn’t that what you’re doing to Dad?”

Grace busied herself with emptying the discarded glass of lemonade and placing it in the dishwasher, uncomfortable in the face of such unexpected intensity of emotion. “It isn’t the same,” she tossed out the weak protest.

"No, it’s not,” Kay allowed. “It requires a lot more hard work. I’ve never been loved by anybody, and I can see that.”

Grace’s heart broke for her daughter, right then and there. She was so, so wrong. She just couldn’t see it. “You don’t know how loved you are,” she murmured.

“No,” Kay shook her head, her eyes bright and moist, “you don’t know how loved you are. You’re just hiding yourself away, letting Ivy Crane take your place at Dad’s side. You better do something about that,” she warned, “before it’s too late.”

“Kay,” Grace cried, helpless to stop her as she turned her back and hurried from the small kitchen, which suddenly felt closed in and devoid of air, not the safe haven she’d thought but the prison that kept her from grabbing onto her own future with both hands. “Kay!”

“Tell Hope-less I’m going out,” Kay shot back, her only response.

Grace covered her face with her hands and stifled the urge to scream.

~*~


“Kay,” Luis acknowledged, barely getting out of the upset girl’s way in time to avoid a collision. Similarly, he sidestepped the rambunctious young family spilling down the stairs, completely oblivious to his presence, even as he was forced to flatten himself against the wall to allow them to pass. His progress to reach Sheridan and their room was impeded once more two doors down when an older couple they’d run into once or twice in the past few days stopped to make small talk with him and say their goodbyes, commenting on his lovely family. Finally, he reached his destination, the door opening easily under his hand, and the polite smile that had been pasted on his lips was erased, replaced with an unforgiving scowl. His wife was too damned trusting. Shutting the door behind him with more force than necessary, he stalked into the room in search of her. He found her in the bathroom, peering critically at her reflection, her naked back exposed and dress unzipped to her waist. The sight of all that perfect, unmarked skin, and the seeming nonchalance with which she accepted his presence made his blood start to boil within his veins. “What have I told you about locking the damn door?” he grit out.

Sheridan rolled her eyes at him, mascara wand still in hand. “Silly me,” she remarked dryly. “I thought, with the esteemed Police Chief downstairs, I was safe.” She replaced the wand inside its accompanying tube and set it aside, puckering her lips and checking her lipstick. Satisfied with her appearance, she met Luis’s eyes in the reflection of the mirror, finding them dark and dangerous and burning a hole into her. Glancing down, she captured the tiny spaghetti strap that had slipped down to her arm, and it didn’t escape her notice that Luis’s eyes followed her every move as she replaced the strap on her shoulder. Holding her breath and his eyes for several long moments, she found she couldn’t speak another, acerbic word, that ability effectively stolen from her. At least until they heard the muffled chiming of the hour and Luis swore.

“We’re going to be late,” he growled, tearing from the room with Sheridan following him. “I thought I told you to be ready. I only have a couple of hours before I have to be back at the PD.”

Rising on the defensive, Sheridan shot back, “I am ready. You’re the one who was late.”

Luis glared at the accusation. “What about Anna?”

“What about Anna?” Sheridan threw the question back at him. “You saw her. She’s downstairs with her grandparents. They’re watching her while we check out the house. Your mother’s with them. Surely, you don’t object to that.”

Mama had been headed back inside, back to work, when Luis had arrived. Sam, he knew, was expected back at the station in his stead. That left Julian and Ivy, and Luis sure as hell didn’t trust leaving Anna in their care alone. “I’m not leaving her with your brother and Ivy. They can’t be trusted.” All sorts of scenarios, scenarios that involved planes and foreign countries and money that he’d never possess and Anna growing up a pseudo-Crane played out in Luis’s mind, and he was adamant.

Sheridan reined in her anger, putting herself in Luis’s position, or trying to. It didn’t work, not for long, and she answered him with a clipped, “Fine. Go to the appointment by yourself. I’ll stay here with Anna. That’s if you can trust me.”

With much difficulty, Luis forced himself to be reasonable and came up with a suggestion. “I’ll have Grace check up on her. You’re coming with me.”

Sheridan’s inner brat couldn’t resist, “You sure about that?”

“You’re going with me, dammit,” Luis snapped. “Let’s go.”

“There’s just one tiny problem with your plan, Drill Sergeant,” Sheridan retorted, snagging the slipping spaghetti strap in her fingers again. Anger and animosity and something else crackled between them when she presented him with her back. “I can’t go anywhere like this.”

Willing his lead feet to move and cross the room to Sheridan, Luis wished for the thousandth time Theresa were here. The overpowering need to hug her was only challenged by one other need: to wrap his hands around her neck and strangle her for putting him in his own personal brand of Hell.



~*~


With Reese’s doorstep darkened and empty while he and Sadie were out of town through the weekend, Kay found herself aimlessly walking the sidewalks of Harmony. She’d already bypassed the Book Café (and a cup of coffee), her nerves too frayed already to contemplate adding caffeine to the mix, when she walked past the little mom and pop drug store in town and straight into the path of the woman her uncle was shacking up with (though he’d never admitted as much): her dead half-brother’s frazzled-looking ex-fiancee.

“I wasn’t watching where I was going,” Gwen hastily apologized, a small, non-descript white bag clutched between bloodless fingers.

Her eyes were hidden behind large, stylish sunglasses, but Kay could still see them widen when they realized her identity. “That’s all right,” Kay shrugged. “Neither was I.”

“Kay?” Gwen questioned.

“That’s me,” Kay responded with a wry smile, surprised and somewhat pleased when Gwen remembered her name. Though they’d crossed paths before (Harmony really was dreadfully small), they didn’t really know each other all that well. Most of Kay’s knowledge of the jilted debutante (the Harmony Herald’s moniker, not hers) was secondhand. Who knew what her uncle had told the edgy-looking blond about her? Her eyes were drawn to the bag Gwen had a death grip on, and her natural curiosity led her to ask, “What’s in the bag?”

Stuffing the small bag into her purse and out of sight, Gwen smoothly (not) replied, “Nothing. It’s nothing.” Removing her sunglasses, she placed them atop her head and studied the young girl in front of her critically. “Are you okay?”

Kay returned her stare with one of her own, tossing her question back at her without answering her. “Is something wrong?” The blond was pale and nervous and looked to be in serious need of a drink. With perhaps too much honesty, Kay blurted, “You don’t look so hot.”

“Thanks,” the line of Gwen’s mouth grew tight. “Thanks a lot.”

“I don’t mean to be rude or anything,” Kay said in grudging apology. “It’s just…for some reason my uncle seems to like you. I thought I should ask.” Gwen’s eyes narrowed at her suspiciously, and Kay knew she had her attention now.

“What has your uncle said about me?”

“Not much,” Kay admitted, and it was true. Her uncle was notoriously tight-lipped about his relationship (whatever the hell it was) with the woman watching her expectantly. But he’d defended her in the face of her dad’s disapproval when he’d discovered their living arrangement, and she figured that had to count for something. “Thanks. For giving him a job, finding a way to make him stick around,” she said.

“Your uncle’s not sticking around for me,” Gwen countered, looking a little flustered at the mere suggestion. “Our relationship,” the word seemed to make her feel faint, and so, she exchanged it for one less threatening, “our partnership isn’t like that. He’s sticking around because he wants to be close to his family and friends, all the people he loves.” Sam, Sheridan, Luis, Gwen’s brain helpfully supplied. “Not because I gave him a job.”

No, Kay thought to herself, listening to Gwen’s nervous effort at denial, watching the unwitting, unrealized, emotion play across the other woman’s face, not because you gave him a job. “Thank you anyway,” she repeated, suppressing a smile.

Uncomfortably, Gwen replied, “You’re welcome.” Her hand strayed to her purse again, and the gesture didn’t go unnoticed by Kay. Hiding her eyes again behind the cover of her sunglasses, Gwen smiled pleasantly at her, “Nice talking to you, Kay.”

“Likewise,” Kay murmured, eyeing her with great interest as she turned around and started walking in the opposite direction.

Gwen crossed the street, digging her car keys and the little white bag from her purse before opening the door and sliding behind the wheel.

Unable to resist—she did share a gene pool with Hank, after all—Kay called out one last parting shot, “Say hi to Uncle Hank for me!”



~*~



On a blanket spread out nearby the creaking porch swing, Hope effortlessly entertained Anna with silly faces and mischievous fingers, tickling the little girl’s sensitive skin and making her squeal with breathless giggles.

Wearing a wistful smile as she observed the children’s play, Ivy wished it were so easy for her. Wrangling a smile, a laugh, out of Anna was hard work if you weren’t Sheridan or Hope. Of herself, Luis, Sam, and Pilar, she’d had to work the hardest to gain some semblance of the baby’s trust. She still hadn’t succeeding in owning it completely, but she was miles above where she’d started a month ago, and that thought gave her some small measure of hope. She looked over in surprise when, without a word, Julian seated himself on the swaying bench beside her. They shared the swing in silence for many long minutes, observing the two little girls, one the living embodiment of all the reasons why she shouldn’t still care for Sam the way she did, the other physical proof her feelings for Sam had been real, shared, and returned once upon a time. When Hope blew a loud raspberry against Anna’s protruding little tummy, causing her to grin and clench her tiny fingers in the rumpled red strands, Ivy was hit with a startling sense of déjà vu. In awe, she murmured, “She has Theresa’s smile.”

Julian neither agreed nor disagreed, doing his own silent assessment.

Luckily, Hope filled the silence, her own giggles started to sound a little panicked when the baby refused to relax her grip on her hair. “Anna. Let go,” she pleaded, finally prying the greedy little fingers loose with a relieved sigh. Sinking back on her heels, Hope pushed her hair back from her face and announced, “I’m thirsty.”

Taking in the pink flush on the child’s freckled cheeks, and the sweaty strands of hair clinging to her forehead and neck, Ivy found herself sharing the little girl’s sentiment. Lifting a hand to fan her own face, she agreed, “A tall, cool glass of lemonade does sound lovely.”

Hope’s always animated face scrunched up in obvious disapproval, and clambering to her feet from her knees, Anna struggling to do the same. “Not to me,” she all but huffed. “I want chocolate milk. Mr. Crane,” she turned to Julian. “Will you fix me some? Pretty please?”

Ivy’s blue-green eyes widened in surprise when Julian didn’t immediately dispel Hope’s wishes with his customary refusal, and she watched, even further astonished, as he took the hand Hope held out and stood up, stumbling slightly when the little girl gave his hand a mighty tug. “Did you see that, Darling?” Ivy remarked when they had gone, Hope chattering non-stop all the way, and it was just her and Anna.

The baby stared back at her with solemn blue eyes.

“Must be the heat,” Ivy muttered softly, scooting off the edge of the swing to crouch down in front of Anna. “Playing tricks on us.” Slowly, careful not to spook the tiny girl, she scooped her up into her arms and resettled them both back on the swing, gently pushing it into motion. The breeze that motion created ruffled Anna’s dark curls, and the baby’s small fingers discovered and wrapped themselves around the locket at Ivy’s throat. “You see that?” Ivy took the opportunity while Anna was distracted to place a kiss atop her silky head. “You see my necklace?”

Anna momentarily dropped the necklace to pull away, her blue eyes roving over Ivy’s face warily until the sunlight caught the locket again, making it glow and shimmer enticingly. Fingers tangled in the delicate chain and wholly entranced, she didn’t notice when Ivy hugged her close again.

“You want to look inside, Darling?” Head bowed, forehead pressing lightly to that of her granddaughter, Ivy worked the latch on the locket with fingers that held the tiniest of tremors. “Let’s look inside.” Her voice caught, trembled with emotion as she pointed out Ethan’s likeness to Anna. “It’s Daddy,” she murmured. “See Daddy?”

Anna’s eyes were wide and innocent and blue, and her black lashes fluttered against her cheeks like butterfly wings, kissed Ivy’s skin like a whisper, as she gazed at the picture in the locket.

Ivy swore she saw recognition in their ocean depths. “And this,” she pointed out the picture on the other side of the locket. “This is your grandpa Sam.” Tunneling her hand through fragrant dark curls, she murmured against the baby’s brow, content to let her play with the necklace at her neck, her arms aching to hold the last little piece of Ethan that existed close. “You’ve got their eyes, Darling.” She drew in a sharp intake of air, her arms tightening protectively around Anna when a new voice spoke, Grace’s voice.

“Bennett eyes.”

Anna whimpered, and Ivy relaxed her hold somewhat, freeing up a hand to take the glass of lemonade Grace held out in offering. She smiled her gratitude and quietly made her apologies. “I didn’t hear you come outside.”

Grace only had eyes for Anna, the tiny child whose sole existence guaranteed her husband would be forever linked with the woman she wanted to hate but couldn’t. It would be hypocritical to fault Ivy for loving Sam when she knew what that love felt like. Still, she wasn’t a saint, and she wasn’t about to lay down and let Ivy lure Sam back into her arms with her siren’s call. It was high time she made the other woman aware of that. Taking a seat beside Ivy on the swing, she kept her voice steady and strong with a resolve she knew still needed work. “I think it’s time we laid out a few ground rules.”




~*~





The house, compact and contemporary, was perfect: for a fallen Crane princess looking to slum it.

Its small landscaped grounds had never welcomed playing children, and its boldly painted walls were untouchable.

Luis could easily picture Sheridan moving through its halls, drink in hand, slinky, painted on dress and smarmy, rich globe-trotter wrapped around her body. What he couldn’t picture were slashes of graphite marking the kitchen doorway, measuring the years’ changes in Anna. He couldn’t fathom tea parties like the ones Theresa used to make him and Miguel suffer through. He couldn’t imagine Anna’s finger paintings hanging on the refrigerator or himself teaching the little girl how to ride a bike without training wheels out there in that cold concrete jungle. He couldn’t see them achieving the miraculous here: becoming a family. But he could see her, Sheridan. He could see her, he thought to himself, observing her as she chatted politely with the real estate agent, a man as transparent as his thinning hair. Luis had watched, for the better part of the last hour, the brazen bastard come on to his wife, despite the ring around her finger. He’d watched and pretended to be oblivious, but enough was enough. They had to make this look real, right?

Sheridan barely suppressed a shiver when she felt his possessive hand settle low on her back, his strong fingers curling around her hip. She glanced up at him, into the black glimmer of his eyes, and wondered what he was up to when his hand slid around her hip, fanning out over her abdomen before pulling her back against him, and she held her breath as he loudly made a suggestion.

“I think we need a little time to ourselves, Sweetheart. To talk things over a bit.” Luis deliberately slid his gaze over the large bed that dominated the room, and their guide on this little tour quickly got the message. Red-faced, he stumbled slightly over his words as he excused himself.

“I won’t be long. I…I have to go make a few phone calls. To some of my other clients.”

Allowing himself the delicious agony of holding Sheridan only a few seconds longer, Luis pushed her aside when the echoing sound of the agent’s footfall had fallen silent. Moving to the wall of windows that looked out into a postage stamp sized backyard, he tracked the man’s progress, scowling when he watched him withdraw a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from his jacket pocket in lieu of a cell phone. He didn’t give much notice to Sheridan’s continued presence in the room until he heard her draw in a shuddering breath then exclaim in a flurry of angry words.

“What the hell was that about?”

Luis admired the purple tint of fury in her eyes and the way her chest heaved under the force of her emotions. He took his time answering her, though, knowing his words would only serve to further rile her up. “You’re my wife. I thought somebody should remind you of that fact.”

Sheridan didn’t disappoint him; she was angry enough to spit nails and growing sick of the jealousy Luis refused to admit to. Crowding into his personal space, she smiled evilly at the flinch he couldn’t hide when she lay a hand upon his chest. Served him right, she thought, remembering the way his hands had lingered on her back earlier, when he’d taken damn near eternity zipping up her dress. The constant push and pull between them was tormenting her, and their marriage was barely a month old. How they were going to make the union last to keep Anna in their lives she couldn’t pretend to know. All she knew was she was tired already of Luis holding all the power in their relationship. He didn’t love her; he’d proven, reminded her of that in a thousand ways since they’d said their vows. But he wanted her, and she was so starved for human contact, especially from the man currently glowering at her, that she would take what she could get. Father was right. She was weak, too weak, in this moment, for self-respect. Toying with the buttons of his shirt, she coyly reminded him, “I thought we had to talk over a few things.”

Luis’s pulse jumped in his throat when she slid her hands up his chest, pausing for only a second at his shoulders. He was a solid wall of quivering restraint when her hands continued their upward motion, her arms roping around his neck, her sweet breath bathing his face. He groaned inwardly at the soft crush of her breasts against the hard plane of his chest, and his eyes slammed shut as he felt his body stirring unmistakably in response to her nearness. “Sheridan,” he growled out when her mouth hovered in front of his own. He stopped her just short of kissing him, his strong hands branding her waist, forcefully pushing her back against the cool surface of one of the windows. For a brief second, the blink of an eye, he followed her body, her heat, pressing into her, thoughts of running his hands over her underneath her dress consuming his rational mind. Then he distantly heard a throat clear, and he saw a hint of sadness peek through in her blue eyes, just a glimpse, but enough. Regaining his sanity, he stepped away from her, keeping his eyes on their friend outside, now joined by another man, tall and owlish and reeking of new money, while Sheridan made nice with the new arrival. In the reflection of the glass, he saw the garishly dressed woman reach self-consciously for the string of pearls at her neck while she apologized.

“I’m so sorry. I told Harold we were early for our appointment.”

He left them, with their awkward small talk, their meaningless chatter. He left them, he left the house, he left his wife, on his way back to work early. He left Sheridan, wondering if she’d pushed him too far.


~*~



“Aren’t you going to eat?” Hank questioned, watching Gwen push her food around her plate with her fork (the fact that she used a fork to eat her fries was usually a source of endless amusement to him). “I know it’s not your favorite, Babe,” his brown eyes lit up at the nickname he knew she hated, “but I didn’t have time to whip up a gourmet meal. I got a game tonight.” True to his word, he was already wearing his uniform, the purple tee-shirt that proclaimed him the proud co-coach of the Harmony Junior Cats (Hellcats, Sheridan had told him with much chagrin, just didn’t seem appropriate for a misfit bunch of ten-year-olds that were still learning the basics of the game) and a pair of jeans. “You coming?”

Gwen lay her fork down with a sigh. Every time he asked the same question. Every time she gave the same answer. Though this time, she kept it at a succinct, “No.”

Hank eyed her curiously. She was acting strangely. He hadn’t needed Kay’s phone call to tell him that, but it had made him hyper-aware. “Rough day at work?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Gwen mumbled, standing up and pushing away from the table. Lifting a shaky hand to her forehead, she glanced around the apartment, clean and orderly, and back at the man eyeing her with concern he didn’t seem to want to own up to, and she wondered how she’d arrived at this point. She’d made a lot of stupid mistakes in the past few years, but none of them, it seemed, had been quite as stupid as taking him into her bed, her home, over a month ago. He was like a fungus. He just.wouldn’t.leave. “What are you still doing here?”

Hank paused in the act of scraping her untouched dinner into the garbage disposal to answer, “The game’s not until 6.” He looked up at her sharply when she blew out an exasperated breath.

“That’s not what I meant.” Gwen shirked away from his touch when he tried to cage her against the kitchen counter with his arms. “I mean here,” she looked around the apartment again. “Still with me.”

Hank’s hands were drawn to her hair, slipping free, like always, from its elegant twist. Tucking a heavy strand behind her ear, he gave her a carefree grin, sliding the same hand down her side to her waist, drawing her body against him. “Being your cleaning lady has a lot of perks.” He wiggled his brows at her in a teasing matter, hooking his fingers into the waistband of her skirt when she tried to escape and reeling her back in. “Hey,” he forced himself to be more serious. “What’s wrong? I thought we had a pretty good arrangement here.”

Her arms folded across her chest defensively, Gwen shied away from his eyes, her agitation growing. “Paying you with sex was never part of the deal.”

“What?” Hank floundered for words. “You’re not paying me…that’s not what you and me are about. I didn’t…I don’t do what I do to get you to sleep with me.”

“Don’t you?” Gwen wondered. “Hank, do you love me?” Finally, she succeeded in breaking through his teasing, happy-go-lucky exterior, and he stepped back, giving her some much needed space.

Raking a hand through his already disheveled hair roughly, Hank looked at her with troubled brown eyes. “Where the hell is this coming from? This isn’t about love.” Nothing about their antagonistic, lustful relationship screamed love! He winced at the wounded expression in her brown eyes, brown eyes that he had just realized shone with a suspicious sheen. He hurried to explain himself. “We have fun. You take my mind off of Sheridan. I’m the stand-in for Ethan. That isn’t love.” He grabbed onto her arm when she made to leave. “Wait. You’re not understanding me here.”

Gwen barked out a laugh, a single tear sneaking down her cheek without her permission. “I’m understanding you perfectly.”

Hank’s brown eyes narrowed at her. “Answer me this,” he posed. “Do you love me?” One look into her eyes told him all he needed to know. “I didn’t think so,” he said, relaxing his grip on his arm. “Hell, Gwen. I like you. You’re the best time I’ve had in a long time. We have a good thing going.” Reluctantly, he let go of her when she curled her arms tighter around herself and turned away from him. “Why do you want to mess it up? I’m clueless here so tell me. What’s gotten into you?” When she didn’t answer him, he shook his head, noting the time glowing at them from the microwave. Swearing, he snaked an arm around her waist, tugging her against him and kissing a path down her exposed neck to her tensed shoulder. “I gotta go. I promised Hope I’d pick her up early so we could grab some ice cream. Can we finish this later?”

“Go,” Gwen shrugged off his touch.

“You gonna change the locks while I’m gone, Babe?” Hank’s attempt at humor fell flat, especially when he considered the fact that it was a very real possibility. “Look. You know where to find me if you change your mind, all right.”

“Just go,” Gwen urged.

With great reluctance, Hank did as she asked.

~*~


“Daddy!” Hope torpedoed down the stairs, launching herself off the last few and straight into Sam’s waiting arms. “Guess what?” She didn’t give Sam time to make such a conjecture, her grand surprise bursting out in her excitement. “I get to be the water girl tonight at Uncle Hank’s game! Isn’t that great?”

Taking in her mini-Harmony Hellcats tee-shirt (a relic of Kay’s summers spent on the baseball diamond with Miguel, circa age 8, and thus, absolutely swimming on her), and the purple ribbon already drooping in her red hair, Sam could only grin at his littlest. “That’s excellent.” Dropping her back down to her feet, he let her pull him deeper into the living room by his hands. “Where’s Kay and your mom?” he asked, noticing the distant lack of anyone else in the too quiet room.

“Kay’s upstairs talking to Mister Reese on the phone,” Hope chirped, casting her head back and beaming up at him, upside down. “Mister Reese let me talk to Sadie and everything.”

“Did she talk back?” Sam chuckled, affectionately mussing her hair when she released his hands. Allowing her to guide him down to the sofa’s plush cushions, he patiently waited while she climbed into his lap for her answer.

Hope’s blue eyes were wide with excitement as she detailed how Sadie had barked happily and loudly at the sound of her voice, so loudly Mister Reese had had to shut her into the bathroom to calm her down. “She misses me.”

“Sounds like she does,” Sam agreed. “You like Mister Reese and Sadie, don’t you?"

“Uh huh,” Hope giggled in answer, like she was revealing a big secret. “But not as much as Kay does.”

“Don’t listen to her,” Kay groused, the top step groaning underfoot and signaling her descent down the stairs. “She’s notorious for making things up. Ask Pilar.”

Hope scowled at her sister. “Ms. Lenox’s doll smiled at me. I swear it did!”

“Don’t yell at your sister,” Sam chastised the agitated little red head. To Kay, he sent a warning look. “Since I can’t get an answer out of this one, maybe you can help me. Where’s your mother?”

Coaxing Hope out of their father’s lap, Kay set about repairing the damage to the little girl’s hopeless hair. With a shrug, she told her father, “She’s around.” Grabbing hold of Hope’s narrow shoulders when they heard the honking of a car horn, she announced, “That’s Uncle Hank. Come on, Pest, or we’ll be late. Say bye to Dad.”

Sam made a big show of capturing the kiss Hope blew him. “Knock ‘em dead, Ladybug.” Clapping his hands down over his thighs when the rumble of Hank’s engine died away, he rose from the sofa, going in search of his missing-in-action other half. He didn’t have to look far. “Grace?” Her name fell from his lips in disbelief when he found her on the other side of the kitchen door, looking pretty in a periwinkle dress that swirled around her slender ankles. “What is this?”

Cupping a self-conscious hand over her neck, Grace gave him a shy smile and gestured to the table, set for two, and the candles that flickered on the table. Her mouth opened to speak, but her brain wouldn’t supply the words, especially when Sam stepped closer and stared at her with those intense blue eyes, the ones that had made her fall in love with him in the first place. Finally, she managed to sigh out, “I’ve been thinking…”

"About?” Sam waited patiently for her to continue, to give him something to work with here. He didn’t dare hope for the words she said next.

“It isn’t fair to ask you to do all the fighting, Sam. Not when I want this family, just as much as you,” Grace told him, tears of conviction in her eyes.

“Grace?” Sam whispered her name in disbelief. He held out his hand, and he felt his heart clench painfully when her hand hovered over his own. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

Swallowing over the nervous lump in her throat, Grace found she couldn’t speak, and decided to let her actions speak for her, nodding and swiping at the tears that spilled freely once she caught the hope shining like a beacon in her husband’s eyes. “It’s just dinner, not much, but I thought it’d be a start. I know we have a lot more hard work in front of us, but I didn’t want to be too late.” Biting her lip self-consciously, she sent forth a plea, “Tell me I’m not too late, Sam.”

“You’re not,” Sam told her, taking her hand and threading their fingers together. “You’re not.”

~*~






The Youth Center was still mostly empty, only a few early birds and their parents having arrived when Luis got there. Spying Beth setting up her usual refreshment table near the entrance, he lifted a hand and offered a flicker of a smile as he passed her by. That flicker grew though when he spotted Mama, in her customary perch high atop the bleachers, with Anna bouncing upon her knee.

“Mama, you’re here early.”

“Mi hijo,” Pilar smiled warmly at Luis when he bounded up the bleachers to join them. “I came with this little one and Sheridan,” she informed him, sliding a hand over the sleeve of his police uniform as he leaned down to kiss her cheek. “Sheridan wasn’t sure you’d come.”

Settling beside his mama, Luis kept his eyes focused on the tiny girl cradled in her arms, staring at him with serious blue eyes. The guilt he’d already felt at abandoning Sheridan earlier grew exponentially with the realization that she’d apparently called his mother to come rescue her. Finally, he acknowledged his mama’s words, uttering a soft apology, then asking, “Did she say that?”

“No,” Pilar murmured, pressing her cheek against Anna’s soft dark curls as she answered him. “She said you were called away to work suddenly, and she didn’t know when you’d be home. I selfishly offered to give her a ride so that I could spend more time with my granddaughter.”

“You know you can see Anna any time that you want, Mama,” Luis told her.

“I know,” Pilar smiled at him. “You have no idea how much I appreciate your generosity, mi hijo.” She leaned into the arm he lovingly cast about her shoulders before searching out his eyes and making sure he looked at her. “But you and Sheridan are newlyweds, Luis. Even more than that, you and she and Anna are a new family. I mustn’t intrude on that.”

Luis’s arm dropped back down to his side, and he rubbed a thumb over the pillow soft skin behind Anna’s knee as he contemplated the best way to respond to her statement. He decided the truth, gently delivered, was the best way. “You know why I married Sheridan, Mama. My heart belongs solely to this little girl,” he said, turning to the side and carefully extracting Anna from Pilar’s arms, unaware that he had an audience of one in Sheridan, a few steps below them. With his declaration, she quietly turned to go, Luis none the wiser but Anna and Pilar witness to her hurt. “Right, Anna Banana?” Holding the baby close, he kissed her fretful brow and cast a quick glance around at their surroundings, more children and parents filing inside and filling the Youth Center with life and its accompanying music (noise). When Anna began to pout and her big blue eyes started filling up with fat tears, Luis shook his head, “I told Sheridan it’s too noisy for her in here.”

Standing, Pilar reached to take Anna back from her son’s arms. Her mouth against Anna’s forehead, she tried to soothe her. “She’s just cranky. It’s quieter in the office. We can watch the game from there.”

“Thanks, Mama.” Luis watched them go. When he was satisfied they’d safely reached their destination, he turned his attention back to the court, where all but a couple of the perpetually late Junior Cats had gathered around his wife and the newly arrived Hank Bennett. The frown on his face deepened as he watched the easy way they interacted, and the smile Sheridan seemed to reserve only for him.

“Careful, or your face will freeze like that.”

"Beth,” Luis greeted his former girlfriend in surprise. “I didn’t realize you were there.”

"Of course not,” Beth’s eyes twinkled down at him. “You were too busy shooting daggers Hank’s way.” She laughed softly at his expression. He was caught, and he knew it. Thankfully, he didn’t try his hand at denial, because she didn’t feel like calling him on it. He looked miserable enough. “You know you’re worrying over nothing, right? There’s definitely a crush there, but it’s completely one-sided.”

Luis’s jaw tightened, but he remained silent. He wasn’t jealous per Beth’s implication, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to make himself look that way by rising to the bait. With a little coaxing, he took the bottle of water Beth held out to him.

“You definitely look like you could use something stronger,” Beth gently kidded him, bumping her shoulder against him. “C’mon,” she smiled encouragingly at him. “Loosen up before you scare the kids.”

Luis forced a smile that looked more like a grimace. “Better?” he grit out.

“Marginally,” Beth remarked with amusement. “Now you just look mildly threatening instead of murderous.” Taking his bottle of water from him, she uncapped it and took a large swallow before handing it back to him. “I volunteer for a different kind of spit swapping if you want to make the wife jealous,” she winked at him.

Now she was really pulling his leg. Reluctant humor finally swayed Luis’s black cloud disposition, and he couldn’t help but smile at her, really smile. “Thanks, but I don’t think I’ll be needing your services.”

“Don’t say I never tried to help you,” Beth grinned back at him, giving his thigh a playful swat. “I have to run. I’m sure this isn’t what Kay had in mind when she agreed to let me run to the little girl’s room.” She left him with one final word of advice. “Smile some more. It’s what newlyweds do.”

We aren’t your typical newlyweds, Luis thought to himself, his smile there but not quite reaching his eyes as he bid Beth goodbye. He caught Sheridan’s turbulent blue eyes across the virtual sea of people taking their seats for the game before she hastily turned away, focusing all of her attention on the gaggle of ten-year-old boys (im)patiently awaiting her instruction, and he suppressed a sigh as he read hurt and disappointment in the guarded set of her shoulders. Not your typical newlyweds at all.



~*~



Hank had been surprised when Gwen had shown up halfway through the game, looking pale and awkward and out of place. He’d grabbed Sheridan’s elbow, nodded at Gwen, and jogged over to where she stood, so alone, so aloof. He’d smiled at her, touched her arm, thanked her a little breathlessly for showing up when he’d been so sure she wouldn’t, not after the scene back at her apartment. Everything was okay between them again, or so he thought, until she stunned him with a blurted revelation.

I’m pregnant.

The ground felt like it had opened up beneath Hank, but it hadn’t swallowed him whole as he expected it to. He’d stared at her, willing her to take it back, tell him it was a joke, but she made no move to do so, only looked at him with frightened brown eyes. When she’d turned to go, shutting down on him again, he’d captured her hand, the capability of speech finally returned to him. “Hey…Don’t leave.” Glancing over his shoulder, where the game continued to play out, he tried to explain, “I can’t go, not yet. The game’s not over.”

The boys had gone on to win the game, evening up their win-loss record, and Beth had invited the entire bunch to the Book Café for celebratory sweets. Hope had been over the moon (ice cream and cookies in the same day?!), and Kay had been mildly disinterested but had agreed to accompany her kid sis in the interest of giving their parents some much-needed alone time.

Hank had declined the invitation, offering to stay behind and finish cleaning up the place, and he did so, delaying the inevitable, as one by one, everyone else save him and Gwen had left. He shut the lights off behind as he moved through the eerily quiet Youth Center, until only the lights from the locker room glowed. He found her there, on the floor with her back against the lockers, clutching a tiny stick in her white-knuckled hands. She didn’t say anything until he backed up against the lockers, sliding down them to join her in the floor.

“There were three of them in the box.” She relaxed her clenched fists only to start tapping the stick nervously against her now-opened palm. “I’ve already taken the other two.”

Clearing his throat awkwardly, Hank felt like a fool for asking the question, but he had to. “So we’re looking at best out of three?” Stilling her hand with his own, he waited for her to look at him. Finally, she did, turning her head to face him, her blond hair wisping about a face he was just now realizing looked not only pale and drawn but exhausted.

Dropping her chin to her shoulder and staring at him with glassy brown eyes, Gwen murmured, “We’re 2 for 2 so far.”

She looked so vulnerable, so exposed in that moment, Hank had to look away. He didn’t relinquish her hand, though, threading his fingers through her own and softening his next comment with a gentle squeeze. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for this to happen.”

His words stung a little but Gwen appreciated his honesty. Shrugging her shoulders slightly, she lifted her free hand to scrub it over her face, staring at the floor, and her words were muffled but still audible as she said, “It takes two. I wasn’t exactly unwilling even if my judgment was a little impaired.”

Remembering the alcoholic haze that had characterized their first night together, Hank had no trouble coming up with how they had found themselves in their current predicament. Things had gotten a little wild, to put it mildly, and all the necessary precautions, well, they might have fallen by the wayside, so to say. He couldn’t resist teasing, “C’mon. You liked me, even before you were three sheets to the wind.” He grinned when she pulled her hand free to give his shoulder a shove. He lay his hand upon her knee, gently massaging, when she settled down beside him, quiet again. “I’m going to have to resign, you know.”

Frowning at him, Gwen waited for him to elaborate.

"Think of it, Babe. The embarrassment of getting knocked up by your cleaning lady,” Hank cracked. He leaned over to kiss her when a hysterical giggle spilled from her mouth, surprising them both. He suppressed a sigh of disappointment when she pulled away, a pink flush on her cheeks.

“Just so we’re clear…I don’t love you,” Gwen declared.

“Good,” Hank took her statement in stride. “I don’t love you either. That doesn’t mean we can’t be the kind of parents this kid deserves.”

“I haven’t even taken the last test,” Gwen reminded him.

“Well,” Hank pushed himself up from the ground, offering her his hand. “What are we waiting for?” His hands on her hips, he steered her toward the bathroom. “Let’s make it 3 for 3.”



~*~



It was a moonlit night with a blanket of stars twinkling down, and so, Kay had declined Sheridan’s generous offer to give them a ride as far as the B and B (that kind of tension was just plain scary if you asked Kay). Instead, she’d taken Hope’s hand and they’d set off for home, traveling the empty sidewalks and scurrying across the sleepy streets, Hope alternately shrieking with laughter in her sugar-induced high and bursting forth with questions. Some of them had her choking down a laugh; others sent her stomach churning.

“Kay,” Hope waved her arms about, pretending she was an airplane high in the sky, “Why don’t Sheridan and Mr. Luis act all gross like Micah’s mom and new daddy? They just got married too.”

Kay held her breath and her answer when Hope stumbled, only answering when the little girl recovered and resumed making airplane sounds, no worse for wear. “What do you mean by gross?” she asked, snagging hold of Hope’s parachute-like tee-shirt when she tried to skitter across the street on her own. “Hey! What have I told you about crossing the street on your own?”

Hope dutifully slipped her hand into her sister’s, bouncing in place (much like Tigger of the Hundred Acre Wood) until they had successfully navigated the street, her red hair bouncing with her. Scrunching up her nose in disgust, she elaborated, “Kissing and stuff.”

Skillfully skirting around the whole truth, Kay fed Hope a half-truth in big words she knew the little pest wouldn’t be able to understand, bright though she was. “Sheridan and Luis just don’t believe in public displays of affection.” Or any affection, Kay mused to herself silently, remembering Luis’s cold treatment of Sheridan at the Book Café. Marriages of convenience weren’t all they were cracked up to be, especially with sexual tension like that.

Hope seemed to accept her answer, letting go of her hand to veer off the sidewalk into the plush green grass that called to her beside it. Before Kay could stop her, her feet were flying over her head as she turned several wobbly cartwheels in a row, finally landing on her butt with a breathless giggle.

“Hope-less,” Kay groaned, tugging at the little girl’s hands. “Get up.” It took several tries, but she finally had Hope back on her feet and reasonably calm. The little klutz was walking backwards, her hands rooted in her big sister’s hands, chattering a mile a minute. Fortunately, Kay was well versed in dealing with the naturally chatty red-headed pest. She found her mind drifting, until Hope posed one of those questions again, the kind that frequently made either her mom or Dad erupt into an uncomfortable coughing fit.

“What did Beth mean when she said it sure looked Uncle Hank was doing more than Miss Gwen’s laundry?”

Schooling her features into a mask of indifference, Kay quizzed, “Where did you hear her say something like that?” Without waiting for Hope to answer her, she fired off another question, “Who was she talking to?”

“I don’t remember,” Hope shrugged, letting go of Kay’s hands and turning back around when she realized they were barely a block from their house. Poised to take off skipping for home, she scowled when Kay grabbed her shoulder, forcing her to slow down and hold onto her hand. Sighing melodramatically, she revealed, “I miss Sadie. Did Mister Reese say when he was coming home?”

Kay thought about telling her the truth: that home and Harmony no longer meant the same thing to Reese, that the time would come when his return trips would grow farther and farther apart, especially when he found a buyer for his house, but a morose Hope was difficult enough. A morose Hope on the downward spiral of a sugar high was downright disastrous. Plus, the thought didn’t exactly cheer her, so she decided to focus on the positive, giving the little girl a vague, “Soon.”

“Yay!” Hope held up her hands to cheer. “I’m glad.”

“Me too,” Kay smiled at the joy shining in her blue eyes, visible even in the faint light of the stars and street lights. She gently squeezed the little hand when it fitted itself back in hers, her heart large and aching in her chest at the simple act of loving trust. When they stepped into the gentle yellow glow spilling from their own house’s windows, Kay slowed to a stop, surprising Hope and making her squeal with pleasure when she scooped her into her arms and gave her a fierce hug. Pulling a hand free, she ruffled the messy red hair affectionately. “Maybe you’re not so hopeless after all.”

Hope grinned and emphatically squeezed her back.

“If you tell anybody about this, I’ll deny it. Got it?”

“Uh huh,” Hope nodded, slip-sliding down the length of Kay’s body and back onto her own two feet. She leaned into her sister’s solid warmth as they walked toward the front door, burrowing her little fingers into the pocket of Kay’s jeans and holding on. Fighting back a yawn as the sugar started to leave her system, she looked up to Kay in confusion when she came to a sudden stop, an unreadable expression on her face and her eyes all a-glow. Looking up at her, her small face pinched in worry, she asked, “Are Mommy and Daddy fighting again?”

Looking at her parents, sitting and talking (really talking) with each other, their faces more open and honest than Kay had seen them in years, Kay softly said, “No, Hope. They’re not fighting.”

Satisfied with Kay’s answer, Hope tucked herself closer to her, allowing her to lead her where she would, the late hour finally creeping up on her and making her sleepy and pliant. “Where we going?” her jaw cracked with a yawn.

“I thought maybe you could show me the man in the moon.”








So...what did you think?

So sorry I only seem to drop by to post a new chapter every six months. ;)

Inspiration's fleeting when you haven't watched an episode of the show in years and everybody save one sweetheart (Lynne, lol) has stopped replying. Obviously she's not the only one reading judging by the number of views the story's getting, lol.

Anyway...I hope you enjoyed the chapter.

Until next time.

And it goes without saying...feedback is love!

UAgirl
9.6.11, 12:08 AM
Because I want so badly to update this fic...


You're getting what amounts to a snippet.


;)


It's one of the shortest chapters I've written in a while, and it's a little light on Sheridan/Luis interaction, but like I said, I want to update this fic, and hopefully, this is the jumping off point to help me get my behind back in gear where this particular story is concerned.


Feedback would be lovely.


Are any of you still reading this story?


Drop me a note.


:)


On to the chapter...



















Chapter 19



Did I ever tell you how scared I was, Mama? When I first suspected I was pregnant with Anna? Sure, I wanted her. From the moment I knew I was carrying her, I wanted her. Even before then. She was a little part of me and Ethan, and I loved her before I ever knew her.

But I was scared, terrified that I wasn't ready, that I wasn't good enough. How could I be good enough to help shape the life of such a tiny, helpless thing?

We didn't have much, Mama, not in the beginning. Just our dreams. Well, I had dreams. Ethan had plans. Not the plans made for him by Alistair or Julian or Ivy. Not those plans. His own plans, and a whole lot of determination.

When I saw that first plus sign, I thought of Ethan, sure, and how I was going to break the news to him. But then I thought of you and how far away from home I was, and how I wanted so much for you to put your arms around me and tell me it was going to be okay. It was soon, but not so soon that I couldn't handle it. Me and Ethan? We were going to be okay.

I was scared, and sometimes I still am, but I think that's okay. Anna is the best of both of us, and the day I stop being scared that I'm not good enough for that perfect little piece of me and Ethan is the day I stop being the Mama she deserves. The kind of Mama you were for me.

When the oven timer went off, Pilar closed the thin, leather-bound journal with a sigh and tucked it back into the pocket of her apron. She was just taking another silver serving platter down from the kitchen cabinets and refilling it with the last batch of warm, buttery croissants when Kay entered the room, Hope hot on her heels.

"I don't know how she does it," Kay sank into one of the kitchen chairs, picking at the crumbs littering the tray she'd retrieved from the sunroom where her mother was currently entertaining more than half a dozen old biddies (boy, had they made Luis squirm, gushing over his lovely wife and daughter, finding excuses to touch him, openly admiring his, er, physical attributes). "This is only my 3rd day, and I'm going crazy." Kay was of the fervent belief that her father was punishing her for her decision to take some time off from school by insisting she help her mother and Pilar out (officially) at the Bed and Breakfast for what amounted to chump change. Still, there were worse ways to bear the burden of her father's disappointment, she decided when Pilar placed a croissant on a saucer and set it in front of her. Hope crawled into Kay's lap and attacked the treat with her usual enthusiasm, and Kay could only shake her head. "Save some of that for me, Pest," she chastised, looking up just in time to catch a glimpse of Pilar's smile before she turned her back to them, busily refilling an empty pitcher of orange juice for the boisterous octogenarians that had arrived by bus two afternoons previous (and been the bane of Luis's existence since). "You're going to have to grow up and run this place, Hope-less, because I'm not good with people."

Pilar wisely refrained from comment, merely offered Kay a polite smile.

The twinkle in her dark eyes spoke volumes, though, and Kay didn't know whether to be offended by or appreciative of the fact that she seemed to share her opinion on the matter.

Hope wiggled in her sister's lap, trying futilely to find a more comfortable position. Finally giving up, she slid from Kay's lap and crossed to Pilar, her small hand reaching out to tug at Pilar's apron. "I want to help. Please, Pilar?"

Smiling warmly at the insistent little girl, Pilar carefully placed the silver platter in Hope's waiting hands. "Be very careful, Mi hija."

Hope's auburn brows furrowed in concentration, and she tugged her bottom lip between her teeth as she set off for the sunroom, walking very slowly, comically slowly, in fact.

Delighted ooo's and aah's soon drifted back to them inside the kitchen, and Pilar shared a meaningful look with Kay.

"Sounds like she's got her own fan club in there," Kay remarked, pushing her chair back and joining Pilar at the sink. Wordlessly, she took over the task of rinsing and drying the dishes, then replacing them in the cabinets. She looked up when she felt the older woman's eyes on her, and that familiar feeling of being studied (judged) crept back in, forcing her to clear her throat uncomfortably. "Am I doing something wrong?"

Pilar didn't answer her right away, just continued her silent appraisal. There existed so much history between her youngest son and the girl in front of her, some of it good, some of it bad, but none that could be erased. Miguel had been blind to Kay's changing feelings for him; Pilar had not. She'd seen that first painful spark of awareness, that first fervent awakening of hope, and while her loyalties lie firmly with her son, she could not discount all that she knew the girl had felt for Miguel as everyone else, even to some extent her own parents, had. The disappointment of unrequited first love had changed Kay, matured her, in ways Pilar was sure the girl hadn't realized herself yet. The past year, these past few weeks especially, had really demonstrated that.

"Pilar," Kay carefully shut the cabinet in front of her, tucked her hair nervously behind her ears as she bravely turned to meet Pilar's contemplative gaze head-on. "You didn't answer me. Am I doing something wrong?" she repeated.

"No," Pilar finally answered, shaking her head. "You are not," she smiled slightly, drying her hands on the dish towel hanging before her. "I think," she began, watching the wariness begin a slow and gradual fade from Kay's demeanor, "that you are doing a fine job. Maybe you are better with people than you believe."
Kay laughed, and the smile on Pilar's face reached her eyes with the young girl's responding comment.

"That'll cost you at least one Hail Mary."

"Two," Pilar corrected her, as Hope trudged back into the kitchen, her already impossible red hair further mussed from the overly affectionate elderly hands, her cheeks pink and pinched, and the empty silver platter held in front of her like a shield. "Mi hija," Pilar relieved her of her burden and set it on the kitchen counter. "You are doing such a good job, you can take this orange juice to the nice ladies."

Hope's blue eyes grew round, and she swallowed hard, before darting a panicked look in Kay's direction.

Kay came to her kid sister's rescue, sending the little girl to the relative safe haven of the garden and Sheridan and Anna's welcome company. "I'll take the orange juice. It is my job, after all."

Hope didn't have to be told twice. The kitchen door banged closed behind her, and her sneakers slapped against the wooden planks of the porch as she raced to the steps and the promise of escape.

"Why don't you join them?" Kay proposed as she picked up the orange juice and turned to go. "I can take care of the Steel Magnolia Brigade."

Pilar murmured her thanks and lifted her hands to untie the apron from her neck. She slid her hand inside its deep pockets to retrieve Theresa's journal, and cradling it protectively close, turned to go, until Kay's clear voice calling her name stopped her.

"Pilar?"

"Yes?"

"Thank you for…" Kay trailed off awkwardly, unwilling to lay name to the multitude of her transgressions, the actions for which she sought atonement, at least in Miguel's eyes, his mother's eyes. "Just…thank you." Thank you for giving me another chance, Kay silently told Pilar with her eyes. Somehow, she knew Pilar understood.

"You're welcome," Pilar said simply.

"I better go," Kay smiled. "Don't want to keep them waiting."

Pilar watched her go, then stepped out into the morning sunshine.

~*~


"We should have made the appointment in Castleton. What if we run into someone we know?" Gwen fretted, pulling her sunglasses down to shield her eyes from any curious onlookers in the waiting room.

Hank didn't point out that she was only drawing more attention to herself with her whole incognito act. He merely shifted in his uncomfortable plastic seat and nodded in acknowledgement to the gentleman seated across from him next to his own similarly nervous companion. He winced when the gesture earned him a pinch to the inside of his elbow. "Ouch," Hank hissed. "What was that for, Babe?"

"Don't Babe me," Gwen hissed back. "It's your fault we're in this mess."

"If I remember correctly," Hank rejoined, knowing it was her nerves speaking, for they had already settled this, agreed they were equally at fault, "you weren't exactly an unwilling participant in this little endeavor."

"Little endeavor," Gwen scoffed at him as they watched a heavily pregnant woman in her early thirties approach, one hand supporting her lower back, the other pulling her reluctant counterpart, her husband if the matching wedding band he wore could be taken as any indication, along. Gwen glared at Hank when he exchanged a sympathetic glance with the beleaguered man and crossed her arms across her chest with a huff of indignation. "There's nothing little about it."

Hank looked around at the company they kept in the waiting room, the different women in various stages of pregnancy, some even with a child or two sitting in the chair beside them, and sobered. "Maybe you're right," he reluctantly agreed.

"Maybe?" Gwen regarded him over the top of the sunglasses sliding down her aristocratic nose. "As if I haven't been publicly ostracized enough…the press is going to have a field day with this. I can't believe you're taking this so calmly. Face it, Bennett. You've gotten Cruella De Ville pregnant."

Hank couldn't help it; he smirked, earning himself another angry pinch to his elbow. "Listen. Stop it," he told her, keeping his voice low when it became apparent they were garnering way too much attention. "You're not Cruella De Ville. You're not that bad." He grabbed her hand when he saw it was on the move again, pinning it against his thigh and threading his fingers through hers. "Who cares about the press anyway?" he murmured against her temple, pressing his mouth against it in a reassuring kiss. She did, Hank knew. More than she wanted to admit, and this latest development…well, looking at it from her point of view, he supposed it could be seen as a sign of an approaching apocalypse of sorts. "This is none of their business. It's yours and mine, ours."

"Ours?" Gwen asked coolly.

"Yes, ours," Hank responded, tightening his hand around hers when she made to pull it away. "We made this kid together. We're going to guide it through this crazy, crazy world together."

"You really mean that?" Gwen studied their clasped hands then shyly, hesitantly, lifted her eyes back up to meet his uncharacteristically serious brown gaze.

"Hell, yes, I mean it," Hank vowed. "You're stuck with me for life, Babe."

"Oh, God," Gwen groaned, worming her hand free and bringing it to join her other one as she covered her face from his view. "What have I done to deserve this?"

Hank grinned to himself, confident the woman at his side would never look at alcohol the same way again. It was almost a travesty really. The uninhibited, no holds-barred version of Gwen Hotchkiss he'd taken to bed that night was something to behold, something she'd kept carefully hidden from him in all their ensuing sexual encounters. Hank wondered what it would take to uncover that woman again, now that alcohol was no longer a viable method of escape from her self-employed restraints. If he couldn't help but like this version of her, he was somewhat captivated by the version of her that had helped create his future son or daughter. Not that she would ever drag it out of him or would care. "Is that any way to talk about the father of your child?" he decided to tease instead, only to have his little joke fail on all possible cylinders when he watched her reach a new (though still quietly controlled) level of hysteria with the dawning of an unwanted (not merely forgotten but buried) realization.

"Oh my God. Father. What am I going to tell my father?"




~*~


"Any luck on the house hunt?"

Luis quickly minimized the window on his computer and whirled around guiltily to face his boss.

Sam was straight-faced, but there was a twinkle in his blue eyes, a knowing twinkle (he'd been witness to the humiliating manhandling this morning, regretfully), as he tossed the folder in his hands onto the top of Luis's desk.

That twinkle was enough to make Luis relax (somewhat), and he let out the breath he'd been holding in, considered his words, before addressing not his superior, but his friend. "None. Everything's either too big, too little, or too far out of my price range."

"The old Durkee place is up for sale," Sam pointed out the obvious, resting his hip on the edge of Luis's desk.

"It's not big enough," Luis told him. "It only has two bedrooms."

"Looking into expanding that newfound family of yours so soon, Lopez-Fitzgerald?" Quinlan cracked in passing. "You lucky sonuva…"

Luis smiled at his co-worker, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. "Careful, Marty. That's my wife you're talking about."

"If I'm not mistaken, Quinlan," Sam wisely intervened, "I assigned you to relieve Tina in, oh, half an hour."

Quinlan sobered, all business with the gentle reprimand. "On it, Boss."

When Sam was sure Quinlan had gone, and the only other occupants in the squad room were either engaged otherwise or studiously ignoring them, he returned his full attention back to Luis. "How's it really going?" he finally ventured.

Luis released a long, drawn-out sigh, thankful at least that he didn't have to pretend in front of Sam, that the other man knew perhaps all too well what kind of strain Luis found himself under with every day he spent in such close quarters with his wife. The only difference between them was that Sam wanted to make his marriage work, not just for his children's sake, but because he loved Grace. Luis just wanted to survive his, just until he figured out a way to make Anna his, free and clear of his sister's misguided attempts beyond the grave at matchmaking, preferably without committing justifiable homicide. "I don't know how I'm going to make it through this marriage in one piece, Sam."

Sam winced. "That bad?"

"Worse," Luis replied. "We're too different, Sam. There's just nothing there to make this possibly work. Nothing."

Sam shook his head. "My granddaughter is not nothing, Luis. That little girl is how you're going to make it work."

Luis sighed heavily. "She should be. She is. But what if that's not enough, Sam?"

"What do you mean?" Sam asked grimly.

Luis kept his voice low, but his desperation came through loud and clear. "If we don't find a place of our own soon, Sheridan and I are going to kill each other."









Feedback is love!


Thanks so much for reading!!!

iLoveET
2.26.12, 11:01 PM
I am still here! More! More! More!

UAgirl
3.4.12, 11:58 AM
I'm leaning most strongly toward updating this fic when Sheridan, Emma, and Luis decide to free me.

;)

Comments like this one only strengthen that desire, although I'm very interested in reading what you think about the latest developments in Believe.

More Anna and company to come eventually (notice I'm not saying soon, lol--eventually gets me in lots less trouble).

Keep reading and watching this thread.

And commenting.

Always that.

:D

Shae

desertgal
8.9.12, 8:15 PM
Hi,

I have been hoping for a long time that you will continue to write Anna Begins. I am so interested to see how it ends.

Please keep writing for Luis & Sheridan - they will always be my favorite supercouple.

Thx.

Karen:blush2ey:

UAgirl
8.12.12, 10:59 PM
Karen,

I haven't stopped writing this story.

In fact, before I'd even seen your comment (thank you so much, by the way), I'd written over 6,000+ words for chapter 20 this weekend alone.

I hope to post it sometime later this week, maybe even late Monday night/early Tuesday. :)

Keep a check on this thread.

And no worries on the Sheridan and Luis thing. Even though I've done a lot of branching out lately, they will always be my favorite supercouple, too.

:D

In the meantime, why don't you check out Pieces of My Heart? I think it's got that nice push and pull of attraction between Sheridan and Luis, with the added cuteness of Emma.

Shae

UAgirl
8.15.12, 10:05 PM
Chapter 20



"Ma-ma-ma-ma-ma," Anna babbled as she wound her little fingers around the rails of her crib. "Ma-ma-ma," she cooed, before cramming one of her tiny fists into her mouth and rubbing it against her sore gums. Her toes pushed at the fuzzy pink blanket at her feet, and she again started to jabber into the still night, knowing, instinctively that one or both of her parents would soon arrive if she just kept up her restless chatter. Her blue eyes lit up and she squealed with pleasure when she heard the telltale thud of feet approaching, and she blinked against the sudden brightness of light when the little lamp in the corner of the nursery suddenly came on. "Ma-ma-ma," she cried out, struggling to pull herself up to meet not her mother, as her baby gibberish would seem to indicate, but her father, bleary-eyed yet still smiling down at her.

Ethan's blue eyes crinkled at the corners as he lifted his happy daughter up into his arms, pink blanket and all, and he buried his nose in her soft, dark curls as he reached out a hand to snag the baby monitor on his way out of the room. "Not Ma-ma," he murmured, breathing deeply of the sweet baby smell. "Da-da. Da-da," he repeated patiently.

Eyes as wide and fathomless as the ocean stared back up at him, the voice he loved so silent for only a moment before starting up again, and Anna was gleeful, joyful as the word started to bubble from her lips, over and over again as they breached the barrier to her parents' bedroom. "Ma-ma-ma, ma-ma-ma."

Propped up on one elbow, her hair a dark waterfall of disheveled curls, Theresa watched their approach, not even bothering to hide her amused smile or the deep sense of satisfaction at hearing Anna repeat the favored word in her admittedly limited vocabulary. "That's right, Anna Banana," she beamed as Ethan placed the wiggling little sprite in her welcoming arms. "That's Mama's sweet girl."

Ethan pretended to be put out by his little daughter's obvious adoration of her mother, but he (not so) secretly relished it. Still, a part of him really did hope there was some truth in his ensuing prediction, however jokingly delivered as he wrapped his arms around his little family and pulled them close. "The next one's first word is going to be Da-da. Mark my words."

Theresa giggled into her husband's shoulder.

Anna gurgled happily then clapped her hands gleefully together before exclaiming, "Ma-ma-ma!"

Ethan chuckled at his daughter's reaction and captured her little fist before she could place it back into her mouth. For his efforts, he ended up with a couple of his own fingers being furiously gnawed on, as the baby was surprisingly strong, especially when motivated. "Daddy's fingers are not a teething ring," he scolded lightly as he removed his fingers from the gummy little mouth, cringing slightly at the glistening moisture he encountered.

Theresa's dark eyes were sparkling with suppressed laughter as his blue eyes searched for something to wipe the drool from his hands, and finding nothing, settled for rubbing his fingers across the worn material of his pajama pants. Finally, an incredulous, traitorous giggle escaped at the action. "Ethan, really."

"Theresa, really," Ethan echoed teasingly, stealing a kiss from her laughing mouth, much to the delight of their babbling daughter. "She has a couple teeth in there already, and she knows how to use them."

"Ma-ma-ma!" Anna squealed.

"Da-da," Ethan insisted, tickling the baby's protruding little tummy. "Da-da."

"Ma-ma-ma," Anna merely grinned back at him.

Ethan groaned and fell back against the pillow he shared with his wife, defeated. "The next one," he promised.

Theresa merely curled tighter in his embrace as they waited for sleep to creep up on their daughter again, made a laughing promise of her own, "We'll see about that."




~*~




"She seems perfectly healthy," Eve delivered her verdict with a smile. "If not a little small for her age," she added with one look into Sheridan's disbelieving yet relieved blue eyes. "And that's not really concerning, considering how petite Theresa always was."

Sheridan released a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding, returned Eve's smile with a shaky one of her own. "It's just…" Unable to find the words to voice her fears, she drew her bottom lip between her teeth, stroked her thumb across Anna's petal soft cheek as she curiously inspected Eve's stethoscope.

"Sheridan," Eve gently prompted, taking a seat in the chair beside the other woman and patiently waiting for her to gather her thoughts in the correct order. "You know," she finally spoke again, "some regression's to be expected in cases like Anna's. Losing her parents, being uprooted from everything she's ever known…it's only natural."

Sighing heavily, Sheridan informed Eve, "Ethan always said she was a talker. Before she even had her first tooth, Anna did nothing but babble, mostly nonsense words, but she was never quiet. Sometimes, he said, they'd even find her in her nursery, just happily jabbering to herself as if she had a captive audience, and maybe she did." Sheridan smiled slightly as she turned to meet Eve's compassionate dark eyes. "Ethan didn't even care that her favorite word seemed to be Mama. In fact, he loved it." Tracing a finger down the bridge of Anna's button nose, she murmured a confession, one altogether unsurprising to the doctor. "She doesn't talk anymore. She cries. Sometimes she laughs. But she doesn't talk."

"She will," Eve said simply. "When she feels safe again," she began, only to pause at Sheridan's sharp intake of breath.

Sheridan's blue eyes were bright, shiny with emotion as she faced Eve. "You don't think she feels safe?"

Eve carefully rephrased her sentiments, giving Sheridan's restless hand an encouraging squeeze. "I think she does, feel safe with you," she elaborated. "But I'm not so sure she feels safe in the knowledge that you won't be taken from her like her parents were. She's simply too young to tell you how she's feeling, even if she were talking to us right now."

Sheridan nodded her understanding, though it was evident Eve's earlier words still stung.

"You and Luis just have to keep doing what you're doing," Eve continued. "In time, she'll come around." Giving Sheridan's hand another understanding squeeze, she stood up and carefully disentangled her stethoscope from Anna's small hands. "Right, Sweetheart?"

Anna looked up at Eve with large, solemn blue eyes, at once innocent yet wizened. She didn't make a sound when Eve plucked her up from the examining table, merely stared deeply into her eyes.

Turning once again to Sheridan, who'd yet to rise from her own seat, Eve offered another nugget of advice. "I think you should set her up with a regular pediatrician. I can even give you a few recommendations if you'd like."

Sheridan nodded noncommittally, still focused largely inward as she slowly stood, slipping her purse strap back over her shoulder and gathering Anna's things together as well, careful not to forget the pink blanket she was so deeply attached to.

"As much as I enjoyed visiting with this little one," Eve smiled kindly at the child carefully cradled in her arms, "this clinic is really better equipped for other things. But you already knew that, didn't you?"

Sheridan stilled momentarily beside her before holding out her arms to receive Anna and pressing her lips against the tiny girl's soft dark hair. "About that," Sheridan ventured with a soft sigh.



~*~



"Uncle Hank!"

Hope's young voice rang out loud and clear, and Hank hurriedly snapped the book in his hands closed and turned it face down on the table before he stood up to accept the little redhead's exuberant hug hello. "Hopey-wan, excited too I am."

"Nice, Yoda," Kay rolled her own eyes in greeting, unceremoniously plopping down in the chair opposite him. She waved Beth off when she started her approach from across the Book Cafe and explained herself when her uncle gave her an odd look. "Reese is meeting us here in about five minutes."

Hope, who'd taken it upon herself to scramble into her uncle's lap as soon as he was seated again, shifted around on his knee to make herself more comfortable. Peering up at him with eyes that were big and round and blue, she told him, "Mister Reese is taking us to a rescue shelter in Castleton, just like the one he got Sadie from, and I might even get to play with some of the puppies."

Hank looked to Kay again, and before he had a chance to ask questions, she was supplying him with the answers. Vague answers, but answers nonetheless.

"Reese knows a guy," Kay shrugged. "And I already told Hope-less here that there probably weren't any puppies at the shelter." To her kid sister, she reiterated, "For the last time, it's not that kind of a shelter." Focusing her attention back on Hank when Hope frowned, she continued, "That's not the main reason we're going anyway."

"We're going to take Sadie to visit all the old people at the home," Hope couldn't help but butt in, fine red strands already slipping free of the short pigtails she proudly sported. "Mom made me pinky-promise not to stare because some of them don't have their teeth anymore, and their chins do like this." With those words, she demonstrated exactly what she meant for her uncle.

"Do not do that in front of any of them," Kay warned her sternly while Hank struggled to smother his own amusement. "She already got in trouble with Dad this morning for asking Tabitha if she was a witch."

Hank chuckled outright at that one, leaning down to murmur against Hope's cheek as she rested her elbows on the table and gave Kay a long, accusing look for essentially tattling on her. "I asked her the same thing when I was a boy, and if memory serves me correctly, so did your sister over there."

Hope's nose scrunched up as she glared indignantly at her sister. Casting her little head back against Hank's shoulder, she peered sideways at him. "I heard Daddy tell Mom that she's at least a hundred years old. But she always looks the same, Uncle Hank. She does."

"She does," Kay reluctantly agreed. "But that doesn't mean she's a witch."

Hank had good reason to believe he failed to hide his smirk from his littlest niece quickly enough, from the giddy twinkle in her blue eyes and the telling expression of pure exasperation on Kay's own face. "What did she say when you asked her?"

"Well," Hope giggled.

"A better question would be what did she not say?" Kay finally gave in to the infectious humor of the situation and laughed at her uncle before raising her hand in a wave.

The casual gesture failed to escape Hope's attention, and the little girl slid off of Hank's knee, gave him a fierce squeeze around the neck, and bounded to Reese's side. "Mister Reese! Sadie!" Immediately, she dropped to her knees, a ready and willing recipient of the canine's boisterous affection.

"Guess I know where I stand," Hank merely grinned. "With both of you," he muttered partially under his breath when he got another glimpse at the smile on Kay's face, soft and welcoming, and if he wasn't grossly mistaken, a teensy bit adoring. But hey…what did he know? Apparently, jack, because he'd been hitting the books and studying about fatherhood, hell, parenthood in general, all day like it was some kind of test to be passed. And really, it kind of was. His stomach gave another nervous lurch at the thought of the impending doomsday dinner with Gwen's father, but he was able to keep his cool, keep his wits about him, until Kay hugged his neck, whispered her own goodbye in his ear.

"Reading up on your dry cleaning, I see."

A toothless, smiling baby mocked Hank from the book's back cover while he struggled to find the words, just the right words, to throw Kay off track, but if the devilish twinkle in her eyes was anything to go by, any such attempts were completely doomed and utterly futile, so he simply gave her a look of what he hoped passed for warning and not the panic he felt beginning to seep into his very pores. Clearing his throat, Hank dared her to say anything more. "What can I say? I'm dedicated."

Kay grinned, unperturbed. "Cleaning lady by day…"

Hank hastily cut her off. "Don't you have somewhere you need to be?" He cast a glance in Reese's general direction.

Across the Book Café, Kay caught Reese's blue gaze before his cheeks pinked, and he glanced down at the watch upon his wrist. Beside him, Hope frowned at her sister for taking so very long when she was literally bouncing in place in her own excitement. Grudgingly, Kay backed off from their little impasse. Still, she couldn't resist one last, parting comment underneath her breath. "The mileage I can get from this…"

Hank quickly shut her up, though, with his own brand of goodbye. "I think you two make a cute couple."

Kay's eyes widened, and her mouth fell open in protest.

"Knew I could get you with that one," Hank grinned. "Time's wasting. It is a senior citizens' home, after all."



~*~



Sam was whistling a happy tune as he bounded up the Bed and Breakfast's front steps, a handful of cheerful daisies clutched in one fist. Just inside, a quick inventory of his surroundings confirmed for him what he'd already guessed; he'd missed Kay and Hope by mere minutes. The smile on his face dimmed but remained, and he was just about to wander toward the kitchen in search of Grace when a familiar voice stopped him.

"Grace is upstairs," Pilar informed him, graciously allowing him to take their sleepy granddaughter from her arms when she reached the bottom step.

Gently pressing a kiss to Anna's velvet cheek, Sam arched an inquisitive brow at her.

Pilar easily read his unvoiced worries and rushed to reassure him. "She just had a few things to take care of before your lunch date. She is fine."

Holding up the daisies for Anna to inspect, Sam insisted with laughing blue eyes, "I don't think it's called dating if the two parties involved are already married."

"Are those flowers not for Grace?" Pilar asked, her own dark eyes dancing when Sam couldn't deny that the flowers were, indeed, a token of his goodwill and affection. "It has been a long time, but not that long, Chief Bennett," she teased.

With slight chagrin, Sam admitted, "They are for Grace. They're for all my girls, Hope and Anna included."

"I'm sure the little one will be disappointed she missed you," Pilar said, in a tone imbued with much fondness for the little one, as she was prone to calling Hope. "Let me put them in a vase of water for safekeeping," she offered.

When Pilar had taken all of the daisies but one from him and left, Sam twirled the final daisy between his fingers for Anna to admire.

With tiny, careful fingertips, Anna touched the soft white petals, her blue eyes luminous and clear as she emerged more fully into wakefulness. She startled, however, when Sam lifted the flower to her nose, and blinked up at him somewhat uncertainly.

Unseen, Grace watched her husband expertly gentle the little girl in his arms back to calmness, and when she was certain she wouldn't frighten the child, announced her presence. "I always knew you'd make a wonderful grandfather someday."

Sam's eyes lifted to watch his wife's progress down the stairs, and he noted the soft wistfulness in her eyes, in her tone of voice, but refrained from apologizing, knowing, from years of experience that, though healing, the nerve of that particular vein of conversation was still exposed, still too raw to withstand debate, even further acknowledgment beyond Grace's own really. They were the walking wounded, he and Grace, and the bandages weren't quite ready to come off. But day by day they were getting better, and if the shy smile his wife gave him as he held the small flower out to her in offering of peace was anything to by, there was hope for them yet.

"For me?" Grace murmured.

"For you," Sam told her, his fingers sliding across her own before he dropped his hand to his side, curled the arm holding Anna tighter. "Always for you." A throat politely cleared behind him, and Sam traded Anna for the picnic basket Pilar held in her hands. "You're welcome to join us," Sam began, only to have Pilar give a subtle shake of her head, "on our next picnic." Coughing to cover up his own embarrassment and the sudden, inexplicable case of butterflies he'd apparently been stricken with, Sam held out his arm to Grace and was forever grateful when he felt the gentle pressure of her touch on his skin.

"You never told me where we were going," Grace remarked, "on this date of ours."

Her becoming pink cheeks and the sparkle in her blue eyes told Sam she was teasing him, and he felt warmth blossom in his heart and unfurl throughout his limbs, and soon, he was whistling again, but not before teasing her back. "And ruin the surprise?"



~*~


"Where's Anna?"

"Hi, Honey," Sheridan's nostrils flared at the effortless way Luis had of putting her completely off-balance, all with one simple question, and the smile on her lips flattened into a hard, straight line. "Nice to see you, too."

Frustration coiled in Luis's gut, but he forced himself to relax (or at least make the fruitless attempt) and pasted on a smile for the benefit of the real estate agent watching them both with undisguised interest. Sliding his lips over Sheridan's temple in a brief kiss, he hissed a quiet warning before he withdrew, "Knock it off."

With considerable effort, Sheridan matched his expression and offered her hand to the woman no longer lurking in the background but standing just a few steps in front of them. "I'm Sheridan Crane," she introduced herself to the woman with the steely gray hair and icy blue eyes. "Nice to meet you." She tensed when Luis drew his arm tightly about her waist and trailed his mouth hotly across her cheekbone, the woman's name was all but lost to her.

"Lopez-Fitzgerald," Luis corrected. "Anna was supposed to be with you. Where is she?" he repeated.

Sheridan nonchalantly shrugged his arm from her waist and stepped forward to re-introduce herself to the woman whose eyes were no longer icy but shimmering with appraising amusement. "Sheridan Crane Lopez-Fitzgerald."

"I go by my maiden name professionally, too, Sheridan, but the only name you need to know me by is Louise."

Sheridan's response was a bright, beaming smile, and she fell into step beside the older woman as she turned to lead them both across the street, and the first of three houses they were scheduled to view during Luis's brief lunch break.

Disgruntled and still a little put off by her repeated discounting of his questions about Anna's whereabouts, Luis followed them both, grumbling just low enough for Sheridan but not Louise to hear, "Professional shopper maybe. Professional pain in my ass." If he weren't so damned irritated with her, he would have grinned at the ice queen glare she sent him, but he was, and he'd sooner spit nails than let himself tip his hand to feeling any kind of emotion for her, good or bad (except annoyance, of course).

The first house was perfect in every way except for one.

Sheridan smoothly covered for Luis when he balked at the price, playing it off as something else altogether. "Our family is small right now, but both of us would love a house full of kids."

Ably reading between the lines, the real estate agent smiled at them both. "And what a lovely houseful it'd be." Glancing in regret at the watch on her wrist, she looked first to Luis, who couldn't seem to meet her eyes, then settled warm blue eyes on Sheridan's slightly flushed face. "Then I'm afraid you'll find neither of the other two houses fit your needs." In the face of Sheridan's obvious disappointment, Louise seemed to consider her words carefully before she gave them an alternative suggestion. "There is a property," she began, "further out of town. It would give your family room to grow."

Sheridan asked the question before Luis could. "How much further out of town?"

"Closer to the coast," Louise answered. "But not all that far."

"Sheridan," Luis started to quietly object.

Recognizing a prideful man when she saw one, Louise hoped to put him more at ease with her next revealing statement. "The house needs some work, Mr. Lopez-Fitzgerald, mostly superficial improvements. The foundation's sturdy, perfectly safe, and the grounds could use some restorative landscaping. Once upon a time, it was a beautiful estate, and it could be again, if someone were merely willing to put in the work."

"Tell us more about the house," Sheridan pleaded, her innate curiosity definitely piqued.

"Personally, I think it's a steal," Louise told her, encouraged when Luis seemed interested as well, albeit grudgingly.



~*~


"In here, Pilar."

Ivy's voice was muffled as she called out to her, but Pilar still found her easily, waiting expectantly, nervously even, in what had once been the nursery to all the Crane children, from Julian himself to the youngest daughter born of Julian and Ivy's own union.

The room had been transformed into a pink wonderland with pastel accents everywhere, and it looked like something out of a child's hazy, magical dream with dolls, stuffed animals, even a whimsical rocking horse.

Pilar's breath caught, and her smile grew tight. Her Theresita would have loved to have given Anna a room like this. "Mrs. Crane," she finally murmured, overcome with emotion at the thought of all of the things her daughter would miss out on in the miracle of Anna's life. "Ivy, this is…this is too much."

"Nonsense, Pilar," Ivy shook her head, grabbing onto Pilar's hand as she approached. "It won't ever be enough. I've missed too much. We've missed too much. We're going to make the most of what we've been given. Right, Darling?"

Anna allowed Ivy to take her into her arms without too much of a fuss, and soon the pair of them were wandering the room, inspecting all of its hidden (and not-so-hidden) treasures while Pilar watched them both with a contemplative expression on her face. Eventually, Anna's eyelids grew heavy, and as she rubbed at her eyes with her fists, Ivy retreated to the rocking chair by the window to rock her to sleep, humming softly to her.

Pilar pulled a blanket up over Anna's back when Ivy gently lay her down, and the women lapsed into silence, one long and contemplative, full of nearly as much regret as joy in being witness to the simple beauty of watching their granddaughter sleep.

"I can't believe Luis agreed to let her come," Ivy finally said, keeping her voice a soft whisper so as not to wake the slumbering child. She whipped shocked blue-green eyes to Pilar's face with her responding admission.

"Luis never would have allowed Anna to step foot in this house." Pilar retreated into the growing shadows that had started to dapple the room. "What my son does not know, in this case, will not kill him. In this, I agree with Sheridan."

"Sheridan." Ivy was awe-struck, grateful, indebted, and she owed it all to one person. "Sheridan did this?"

"She did."

"I can't believe she did this," Ivy murmured, tracing loving eyes along the sweet lines of Anna, all the little imperfections that added up to such a perfect blend of the parents who had borne her. "She loves him, Pilar, yet she did this for me."

Pilar was quietly accepting of a truth already known to her; she didn't attempt to deny it (oh, but her son did, with every fiber of his being, he refused to believe such a simple, undeniable truth), merely spoke a truth that was even more irrefutable. "She loves Anna more."

Realization swept Ivy into its arms, pulled at her already aching heartstrings. "She didn't do it for me."

"No, Ivy. She didn't," Pilar patiently, gently replied.

"She did it for her."





~*~


In the company of furry friends and one very energetic little red head, Sadie barked happily, racing back and forth across the expansive field of green located directly behind the shelter in Castleton.

"Throw in some chocolate ice cream and the Purple People Eater and this is Hope's idea of Heaven," Kay remarked dryly.

"The Purple People Eater?" Reese's blue eyes narrowed in amused confusion behind the lenses of his glasses. He shifted on the picnic bench to face Kay more fully.

Her skin felt warm, heavy, where his jeans-clad knee pressed lightly into her thigh, and it was all Kay could do to suppress the shiver that threatened at the innocent touch. Putting a little distance back between them when she pivoted to meet his eyes, she couldn't tamp down the inexplicable happiness she felt at the way he unconsciously scooted closer to her. "I don't share the same warm feelings for that pillow that she does," Kay explained. "I keep telling Mom that thing's a safety hazard, but Hope can't sleep without it, so…"

"Safety hazard?" Reese quizzed, his blue eyes starting to twinkle as his analytical brain started to put together the pieces and Kay's own dislike of the pillow made much more sense.

"I value the ability to breathe, thank you very much," Kay smartly rejoined.

The twinkle in Reese's eyes started to travel, and before he could stop it, he regarded Kay with a full-fledged, unapologetic grin. "The Purple People Eater," he repeated knowingly.

Against her will, Kay found herself smiling back at him, and silence fell between them, as had been happening more and more lately (not that she'd noticed, no). Her joyous expression faded when Reese blurted out a question, one that reminded her that maybe she had been staring into his eyes a wee bit too long.

"What did your uncle say to you before we left the Book Café?"

"What?" Kay stumbled over the question, flustered and more than a little bit defensive as she felt her cheeks start to burn under Reese's careful, too-observant, scrutiny. "Why do you ask that?"

"Because," Reese shrugged. "That's the first time you've been able to look me in the eyes all day."

"Reese," Kay sighed. "That's not true. You're imagining things."

"No," Reese said simply, adamantly. "I'm not."

He tried and failed to hide his disappointment in her answer, and Kay felt compelled to tell him the truth, at least as much as her suddenly fluttering heart would allow her to admit (Her uncle Hank was way off base, her and Reese a couple…pfft!). "Uncle Hank thinks…he said…"

"What?" Reese softly prompted her to continue.

With great reluctance, Kay confessed, "He thinks I might have a crush on you. But that's crazy, right? We're friends, real friends this time." Reese went very still for an agonizing minute, and Kay wanted to blurt out the truth, the real truth she'd only just realized in that moment, but she hesitated too long, because Reese was nodding and saying something, only she couldn't hear what he was saying over the roar of her own thundering heartbeat in her ears. Her stomach clenched, and her throat grew tight when she realized in her state of blind distress that he was agreeing with her.

"Definitely crazy," Reese was saying, looking down at his white-knuckled fingers where they rest just inches away from touching her. Drawing his hand into a fist, he pulled it back, and attempted to joke, only Kay didn't see the humor in the situation, not at all. "Besides, why go after Clark Kent when you could have Superman?"

"They're the same person," Kay snapped, disbelieving that they were actually having this conversation. They were friends. Friends, dammit! And if her feelings for him maybe (really?) went a little further than that, well, then too bad. There were other people to consider here, most importantly, Sara. Thankfully, Reese was able to see past his own hurt feelings to reach the same conclusion. Or at least it seemed like it, when she gently reminded him. "Don't make this into an issue, Reese, when it's not. I'm your friend. That's all I am. You have Sara."

"I have Sara," Reese agreed quietly. Another silence lapsed between them, this one fraught with near-suffocating tension as neither found themselves able to meet the other's eyes.

Finally, Kay had had enough. Standing up, she dusted off the seat of her shorts. "We should be heading back. The Bed and Breakfast pretty much runs itself in the afternoons, but I don't want to leave Mom shorthanded, especially since she gave Pilar the rest of the day off."

Reese nodded in acknowledgment. "I'll round up Sadie and Hope."

"Meet you at the car?" Kay asked. "Reese?" she prompted. The ugly edge of sharpness she heard in her own voice made her wince internally (she didn't particularly like herself when she was being a bitch), but she couldn't seem to stop herself, not when she felt backed into a corner with an issue she wasn't yet ready to confront. Still, Reese had shown her nothing but kindness, kindness she didn't deserve, so she softened those brittle, defensive edges as she repeated his name. "Reese."

"Give me five minutes."



~*~


"Disappointed?"

Sam's voice, so close to her ear, made Grace shiver, and her nose grazed his cheek before she leaned back to stare into his searching blue eyes. "Why would I be disappointed?" she finally asked him. "This is beautiful."

Taking in the park on a perfect, golden afternoon with its brilliant, cloudless azure sky and the flowers in riotous bloom, Sam had to agree with her, but not for all the same reasons. With his arm braced behind her, he could feel the heat of her skin through the thin cotton of her tee-shirt, feel each steady (and sometimes unsteady) breath that she took in. They were impossibly close, and she'd made no move to put distance between them as she would have in the immediate past. Actually, she seemed as reluctant as he to give up any one of those delicious points of contact. Add in the fact that she'd smiled at him more in the last hour than she had seemingly in years, and it was a beautiful day indeed. But Sam chose to leave all of that unsaid. Instead, he sighed his agreement, tucked a strand of auburn behind her ear, careful of the daisy he'd placed there on a boyish whim. His eyes dropped to her lips longingly, and he breathed out a plea. "Grace."

Grace placed two fingers on his lips, shook her head. Her head said not yet, but her heart and her eyes betrayed her as they fell to his mouth in indecision (clarity and the remembered pain of that night won out). She traced the smooth flesh with gentle fingertips, only looking up at him when he shivered in kind. Dropping her hand back to her side, she apologized, "I'm sorry, Sam. I just…not yet, okay? Not on this perfect day." She melted into his side appreciatively when his arm wrapped around her back, pulled her to him in a loose hug, and his mouth stirred the hair at her temple.

Sam contented himself with holding her as the minutes passed, and they watched the young families and children at play in a peaceful, reverent hush. It was Grace that eventually ended it, with a gentle, knowing laugh as they watched one young child play a one-sided game of fetch with her canine protector/companion. "You do realize we're going to have to get Hope a dog?"

"Every over word out of her mouth is Sadie this, Sadie that," Sam agreed with a chuckle.

"Don't forget Mister Reese," Grace stated.

"She's just as over the moon about him," Sam grinned. His grin fell away with the fading of his wife's humor. "Maybe she's not the only one."

"Maybe," Grace mused. "Kay's been hurt so much already, Sam. She doesn't even know how she feels about you and me and whether we fight to stay together or let ourselves drift apart. Any feelings she might have for Reese…" she trailed off, just as unsure, it seemed, as her daughter. "She says they're friends," she eventually offered.

"Let's hope they stay that way," Sam murmured into her soft hair. "I think he's good for her."

"Hmm," Grace hummed her agreement. "Would you say the same about your brother and Gwen Hotchkiss? Something's going on with those two."

Sam groaned into her ear. "I thought Sheridan and Luis were a dangerous combination. Hank and Gwen, those two are all wrong for each other. Too bad my brother can't see that."

"Yeah. Too bad," Grace repeated, not quite as convinced.



~*~


Hank found Gwen, looking downright despondent beneath the protective cover of a thousand bubbles in the bathroom when he got back to the apartment.

"Daddy canceled our dinner," she told him. "Said he had an important client in town he needed to entertain. Personally, I think he's avoiding me. He's not stupid, Hank. He knows something's up."

"Of course, he knows something's up," Hank played it straight with her. "You're his little girl. Dads know these things."

One of Gwen's brows arched high on her forehead. "Is that so? Isn't your experience somewhat limited?"

Hank shrugged, seating himself on the closed toilet seat and leaning down to loosen and remove his shoes and socks.

"Your experience better be limited," Gwen warned, unable to disguise the interest in her moistened eyes when he stood up and pulled his gray tee-shirt up his back and over his head.

"Trust me, Babe," Hank remarked as he undid the button of his jeans and slowly started to lower the zipper. "I'm flying by the seat of my pants here." He grinned as said pants pooled at his ankles, and all that remained was his boxers. Gwen's reaction to the boxers was more than expected; it was desired.

"Little green men?" Gwen slid deeper into the bubbles with a groan and time-perfected roll of her eyes. "Why am I not surprised?"

"Don't worry," Hank quipped as his boxers joined his jeans on the floor. "I'm not naming our kid Mulder or Scully. Skinner sounds kind of tough, though."

"Who said you're naming our kid anything?" Gwen shot back, sitting up and scooting forward to allow him room to slip in the tub behind her.

Hank was glad she couldn't see the grin he was sporting from her vantage point, due in equal parts to her effortless give and take with him and the acceptance of him here, in this tub, with her. He didn't have any illusions, but they'd come a long way from that first drunken night, and he liked to think they could keep it up, for their kid's sake, of course. "So your dad bailed, and you decided to play hooky the rest of the day?" That innocent question earned him a sharp elbow to his gut, and he wisely kept his mouth shut, at least until he'd given her a much-needed chance to vent the troubles of her day.

"Every time I looked at Barbara I had this uncontrollable urge to puke."

"Who's Barbara?" Hank idly wondered, slinking an arm around her waist and resting his hand lightly on her lower abdomen without thinking about it.

Gwen drew in a sharp breath at the unconscious gesture but continued after taking a moment to regain her composure. "My secretary," she explained.

"I can see where that would be a problem," Hank murmured against the crown of her head as she rested more fully against him. The sensual slide of her wet skin against his own made his body tighten in all sorts of delicious ways, but it was obvious she needed a listening ear not another round of what he had quickly learned was highly addictive sex.

"I told Daddy I'd finish my paperwork at home, had Barbara reschedule all of my appointments, and here I am," Gwen told him wryly. "I'd just refilled the tub with hot water when you let yourself in uninvited. For the third time."

"You are looking a little pruny," Hank teased, gently blowing air across her exposed neck and stirring the wispy little curls clinging there. The rest of her blond hair was in a messy knot atop her head, and truthfully, he'd never seen her look more appealing, and he found her plenty sexy before. Unthinkingly, the hand on her abdomen skirted lower, tantalizingly close to the heat he'd come to know intimately.

Gwen covered his hand with her own hand, leaned her head back on his slippery shoulder, and huffed in annoyance when he continued to hover there, clearly undecided on how to proceed. Nipping at his neck with her teeth, she arched her back, and she felt Hank's breath catch in his chest when the bubbles slipped away to reveal her pink flesh. Her legs shifted restlessly in the water in encouragement, and she guided his hand where she wanted it. "Stop being such a boy scout, Bennett. You've already gotten me pregnant. What's the worst that could happen?"

What's the worst indeed, Hank thought as he felt a swell of affection toward the woman in his arms, in all her bossy, prickly glory, even as she started to come apart under his sure touch. Damn.



~*~



"Take a look around," Louise advised Luis as she dropped a ring of keys in his palm. "Imagine those beautiful babies running down those porch steps to welcome Daddy home."

"You mean those porch steps?" Luis hooked a thumb over his shoulder. "Those are borderline dangerous." He was exaggerating, of course. In places warped or just plain weathered beyond repair, the steps had obviously seen better days; so had the house. Still, Luis had no problem doing just as she'd proposed, and his heart was worse for wear for it as his mind regaled him with all the reasons it would never happen the way his dreams wished it to. "You don't have to do this. We can schedule an appointment to look at the house some other time."

The corners of Louise's mouth curled upwards. "Something tells me I can trust you, Mr. Lopez-Fitzgerald, and no. It's not the uniform," she headed him off before he could make the tired suggestion. "Besides," she patted his arm in goodbye, "an appointment wouldn't be necessary. I'm afraid there aren't many dreamers left in the town of Harmony able to see past the broken steps or the abandoned flower gardens, the faded paint or the dusty windows, to recognize the potential of this old place. Looks like your wife might be one of the last ones left."

Luis's eyes sought out Sheridan's solitary figure, slender hands gripping the porch rail, blue eyes cast toward the ocean, deep and blue and endless in the distance. When he met the real estate agent's gaze again, it was soft and knowing, and he felt the need to rid her of the expression. "I'm not a dreamer; I'm a realist."

Louise merely shrugged and waved at Sheridan when she turned to them with a serene smile on her face. "That's what you have her for, Mr. Lopez-Fitzgerald, to allow yourself to dream every once in a while." Letting that statement sink in with her stubborn, prideful client (yes, she'd already pegged him as such with only a little bit of evidence to go by, but, in her line of work, you quickly learned to be a pretty good judge of character) for a moment, she turned to make the short walk to her car. "Keep the keys, Mr. Lopez-Fitzgerald. They're yours for the week." When Luis started to object, she explained, "I've no need of them. I'll be out of town visiting my grandchildren, but when I get back, you can return them or choose to keep them permanently. You know where to find my office."

Swallowing his pride, Luis tried one last tactic in his arsenal: truth. "I can't possibly afford this place on a cop's salary, fixer-up or not, so we should just save each other the trouble, and end this right now."

Fitting her keys in the ignition, Louise didn't discount his words, but she didn't let them change her mind either. "You might be surprised," was all she said, before her aged BMW rumbled into a thrumming purr, and she was soon out of sight, following the winding road that disappeared through the thick, shaded backdrop of trees that had shielded the house from their view until they'd crested the last gentle hill.

Despite its unkempt appearance, it truly was an estate, in every sense of the word. It was sprawling, almost stately, and the porch that had so captivated Sheridan from the moment she'd stepped outside of his jeep wrapped around three of its four sides. Once upon a time, it might have been white, pristine, but now its walls looked almost gray, and were in desperate need of a new coat of paint. Luis couldn't even begin to fathom the costs of such superficial improvements, and he hadn't even taken a look inside yet. Sighing heavily as he walked up the stone pathway surrounded by overgrown beds of flowers on either side, he carefully mounted the steps en route to Sheridan, his mind already made up. He'd keep the keys only until he could return them. In the meantime, it wouldn't hurt to explore the place; Marty had already called him and offered to pick up the rest of his shift in what was a very uneventful day at the Harmony P.D., and even though Sheridan was conceivably the last person on Earth who could help him unwind, he was going to give it his best shot. As he approached Sheridan from behind, she turned around, rest her back against the railing to track his progress and crossed her arms across her middle.

"You don't have to stay, you know. You can go back to the station."

"And how do you expect to get home?" Luis mirrored her position.

Sheridan's lips twitched. "I thought I might hike back to Coast Road, maybe hitch a ride."

Luis's eyes glittered blackly at her as he stifled the reaction he knew she was seeking and knew his next comment was unexpected by the way her blue eyes widened, and a short, startled laugh escaped her. "Show a little leg?"

"I don't know," Sheridan stifled the smile that threatened as she continued to tiptoe through the minefield that was her relationship with her reluctant husband. "Do you think it would work?" Luis's heated dark eyes traveling up and down the graceful length of her bared legs told her what his words dared not, and there was no denying continuing down this particular path would be playing with fire so she changed tactics on him, answered him again, more thoughtfully this time. "Ever heard of a cab, Lopez-Fitzgerald?" She turned back around, gazed at the breathtaking view in front of her, inhaled the smell of salt drifting in on the ocean breeze. Every muscle in her body tensed when Luis joined her, and they stood side by side. She studied him out of the corner of her eyes as he started to speak.

"You're not taking a cab. I can take you."

"What about work?" Sheridan softly questioned.

"Not that many lawbreakers today," Luis shrugged. "Not even a jaywalker."

Sheridan smiled at his sarcastic undertone, gifted him with the answer he'd been doggedly pursuing for much of the day, at least part of it. This unspoken truce they had going for them in this moment was too nice, too welcome to spoil with the whole truth. "Anna's with your mother."

"Good," Luis nodded, caught Sheridan's eyes again. "Good. That gives us time to look around."

Sheridan's eyes sparkled and her smile widened in pleasure. "Don't you mean explore? This place is amazing."

"This, coming from Harmony royalty?" Luis shook his head in disbelief, but nevertheless, he couldn't stop the smile that crept across his usually stern features. "Okay," he relented. "Explore then. Any ideas where we might start?"

"Oh, I have a few," Sheridan grabbed him by the hand, much like a child in her enthusiasm. "Just follow me."

Luis did (as if he were capable of doing anything else in that moment).




~*~

Somewhere between Castleton and Harmony, Hope had fallen comatose, not even recounting her various thrilling adventures of the day in extreme detail enough to keep her heavy-lidded eyes open. Sadie lay beside her in the back seat of the car, her head resting across Hope's lap as she too dozed, the soft golden fur at the nape of her neck clenched tightly in the little girl's hands.

If her little sister's insecurities ran deep, Kay knew her own ran even deeper, and shifting her eyes from the rear-view mirror and back to the road in front of them, she found she couldn't look at Reese, couldn't find the right words to make everything right again. Because it wasn't right, not like it had been; it was broken, and in trying to do the right thing, be the good girl, she had been the one to break it. She felt the terrible, foreign urge to cry, felt the sting of traitorous tears in her eyes, but she blinked them back, watched her picturesque little hometown pass them by as they grew closer and closer to home. She'd shed her flip-flops as soon as they'd left the shelter, kept them off and waited in the car as Reese had stopped the car to buy ice cream for Hope, for them all, and now she hugged her arms around her knees for comfort. Without Hope's incessant chatter, it was so terribly quiet, and for the first time in a long time, Kay didn't know how to breach the silence. In the end, Reese ended up doing it for her.

"Your ice cream's melting."

Biting her lip and staring out the window, Kay forced a response past the tightness of her throat. "You can have mine."

Reese sighed, and a minute later, an uncharacteristic curse flew from his lips.

Kay looked over in time to witness what remained of the melting mess slipping down the front of Reese's shirt, between his legs, and into the driver's seat. Kay fumbled for some napkins, quickly withdrew her hand when Reese snatched them up. Stung, she desperately searched for the words to lighten the black cloud disposition Reese had adopted since they'd departed Castleton, and finally muttered, not unkindly, "You might want to check into getting your subscription updated, Four Eyes. You can't even hit your mouth." She drew in a quick breath, sure she'd gone too far, only to release it when she saw a hint of the humor returning to Reese's blue eyes as he regarded her from the other side of the car.

"Four Eyes," Reese's mouth quirked in a half smile. "That one takes me back."

"Reese, I didn't mean it. Not that way at least."

"How did you mean it?" Reese quizzed. "As a term of endearment?" he deadpanned.

"Then?" Kay threw her head back, took a deep breath as she recalled the girl she'd been so long ago, sometimes selfish, pointedly oblivious, often unintentionally cruel. "I'd have to say no. Now?" she waited until she had his full and undivided attention. "Maybe."

"Kay." Reese's embarrassed blush traveled from his cheeks, all the way down his neck, disappeared beneath the vee of the shirt stretched taut over his chest.

Kay plowed straight ahead. "No. Don't do that. Don't do that. I'm trying to tell you how I feel, and I don't do things like that often."

Startled blue eyes zeroed in on her momentarily before focusing back on the road. "How you feel?" Reese fished.

Kay rolled her eyes, slid her feet back into her shoes, rotated her body slightly in her seat. She vaguely recognized that they were turning down the street to the Bed and Breakfast as she concentrated on finding the right words to make Reese understand. "I feel like me when I'm around you." Frustrated, feeling that her words were inadequate, she continued, "I don't have to hide anything. I don't have to pretend. You knew me when I was at my worst, and you still like me. Not too many people can say that."

The car having slowed to a stop outside the Bed and Breakfast during her little outburst, Reese put it into park and killed the ignition, tried again, "Kay." He had much the same results.

"You're the friend I don't deserve," Kay told him. "The friend I don't ever want to lose, and if that means I have to protect you from the screwed up mess that I am, I'll do it. I will. I need to know you'll always be there." She frowned when she realized Reese's attention had strayed from her near the middle of her impromptu monologue, and Sadie's loud bark had her looking over her shoulder. Sighing, she released the catch on her seatbelt and pushed her door open before her father could do it for her.

Reese had exited the car on his side, and already had Hope carefully gathered in his arms and waiting for her father when he met him. "Chief Bennett," he greeted respectfully.

"Powerless to resist my daughter's charms, I see," Sam remarked with a smile as he eyed the unmistakable evidence of Hope's weakness for chocolate all over Reese's clothing.

"Which one, Sir?" Reese replied automatically, softly, his blue eyes bright and brave behind the lenses of his glasses.

Sam regarded the young man for a long, thoughtful second before gently taking his youngest daughter into the safety of his arms. "Both of them," Sam answered, just loud enough for Reese to hear as he leaned forward to take on Hope's slight weight.

Hope woke up just enough to breathe her happiness into the crook of her father's neck as he cradled her close. "Daddy." She giggled when Sadie licked her hand goodbye and promptly fell back asleep with a quiet snore that had all three of them smiling.

Sam nodded at Reese and turned to go back up the walkway, his hand poised to open the gate. "Thanks for taking care of my girls today."

"Dad," Kay groaned, giving him a pointed glare.

"You should drop in for dinner sometime," Sam suggested. "Bring Sadie with you."

Sadie barked in appreciation at the extended invitation and whined at the loss of Hope's company as her little friend disappeared from her sight, carried by her father. She was still whining when Reese ushered her into the car and shut the door.

Reese started to walk back around the car, back to the driver's side when Kay's smaller hand shot out, clasped his tightly.

"You should, you know," Kay repeated the invitation, loosened her intense grip. "Mom's learned a lot of new recipes from Pilar over the last few years. I promise. There won't be a Tomato Soup Cake in sight."

"Actually," Reese said, "I never thought it was that bad." He dropped his hand back to his side but didn't make it more than a few steps before Kay had captured it again, and his blue eyes searched her solemn face, waited for her to say something other than his name.

"We're good? Right?" Kay blurted. "You and me?"

Reese answered her with a painted on smile. "Yeah. Yeah, Kay. We're good." His eyes fluttered shut when she lifted on her toes to give him a grateful, relieved kiss on the cheek, and he squeezed her hand in his own. "Say bye to Hope for me, okay?"

"I will," Kay promised. "Don't forget that invitation," she reminded him as she backed through the gate and watched him climb behind the wheel of his car. "Bye, Reese."

Reese lifted his hand in a wave and watched her, until she had jogged up the steps and let herself inside. "I won't."



~*~



"I take it Pilar's gone," Julian murmured behind the lip of his glass of brandy as he turned from his perusal of the window and the compact little car traveling down the hill and through the gates.

His comment was delivered without spite, without malice, and Ivy's blue green eyes narrowed at her husband in consideration before she replied. "She is." Stepping deeper into the study, she closed the door quietly behind her. "But then, you already knew that."

"Hmm," was the only recognition she received from Julian.

"She had Anna with her."

"I know," Julian confessed.

Indignation and anger swelled within Ivy at his reaction, or lack thereof. "Why didn't you come see her?" His answer was unexpected and brutally honest.

"She's not my granddaughter, is she?" Julian finally snapped. "Just like Ethan wasn't my son."

Ivy's ire faded, and a foreign emotion filled her, pity, remorse for what she had unwittingly taken from Julian with her coerced confession of truth all those years ago. His firstborn not his own but that of another man, a man he'd despised, Sam Bennett. The granddaughter that should have rightfully been his first grandchild under the bonds of their marriage, stolen from his grasp. His grief denied the validity and weight that it deserved. Shame stole the words from her powerless throat, until she admitted something she had long denied. "He was just as much your son as he was Sam's, Julian. He never stopped thinking of you as his father."

Julian's laugh was a painful, bitter thing. He doused the jagged ache of it with the tang of the alcohol on his tongue and gave his deceitful wife a long look. "Look at you, Dear, trying to be comforting. You don't know that. You don't know anything about Ethan's feelings before he died. Do you know why?" he posed, seeking, in that moment, to strike out a poisonous hand and make someone else feel the same pain that had him in its relentless grip. "You don't know because Ethan cut you completely off from his life too."

"You're a cruel bastard, Julian Crane," Ivy gritted out through clenched teeth, her previous happiness in the wake of Pilar and Anna's visit vanishing in the blink of a tearful eye. "But you're hurting, and just this once, I'm going to make allowances for that."

"You foolish woman," Julian stared at her with eyes that were dark and damp and approaching desolation. "You foolish woman," he seethed as the glass in his hand shattered, splintering into his flesh and drowning out the emotional pain that held him in its violent vise.

"Julian," Ivy gasped, rushing forward to help and being denied.

Julian compressed his hand into a fist, fumbling one-handed with the drawers of the antique cherry desk. Drop by drop his blood spilled onto its surface until another liquid joined its descent, and bewildered, he looked to Ivy as he dropped heavily, tiredly into the chair bumping against the backs of his knees. "You cost me my son."

"I know," Ivy cried, but it was too little too late, years, decades even. "I know," she repeated as she took his wounded hand between both of her own and cradled it with more tenderness than she'd ever allowed herself to show for the man who'd never known much more than her carefully controlled disdain.

"You cost me my son," Julian choked out as he bowed his head and let the animal sounds of long-held in grief come tumbling out, finally. "How could you?"

"Forgive me," Ivy rasped. "Forgive me."




~*~



"Your closet geekdom knows no bounds," Gwen muttered as the closing credits of The Empire Strikes Back scrolled across the television screen in her living room.

"Says the woman who owns every cheesy 80's film featuring the Brat Pack ever produced," Hank grunted as he jockeyed for a more comfortable position on the couch they were both currently sprawled across. He settled for throwing her long legs over his lap, sneaking the remote for good measure. "What were you? An embryo?"

"A twinkle in my father's eye," Gwen quipped, stealing the remote back from him.

"More like the dollar sign in your mother's…"

"Don't finish that thought, Bennett," Gwen warned, just moments before shoving a handful of popcorn in her mouth.

In deference to the unpredictable nature of her morning sickness thus far, Hank had foregone all butter on the snack, but for a minuscule, microscopic hint. That attempted act of trickery came back to bite him in the ass, big time, as Gwen took one bite and practically catapulted off of the sofa.

Gwen barely made it to the bathroom before she dropped to her knees and started retching uncontrollably. She groaned as Hank gathered her hair in his hands and eased himself into a sitting position behind her.

Hank kept his eyes tightly shut for the duration of the particularly nasty little spell, opening them only when he felt her collapse exhaustedly against him. With his arm around her waist, he shuffled and scooted them backward until he felt the solid, supporting length of the wall and brushed his mouth against the shell of her ear. "I'm going to go ahead and apologize," he murmured.

"For knocking me up or for sneaking butter into the popcorn?" Gwen sighed as she dropped her chin to her chest and let him rub his free hand up and down her arm.

"Both?" Hank ventured.

"It takes two to tango," Gwen let him off the hook. "And I haven't exactly been showing any restraint."

Hank grinned into her hair.

"If you even think about repeating a word of this…" Gwen trailed off.

"Trust me," Hank chuckled into her ear. "Nobody would believe me."

Gwen yawned as he started massaging her shoulders.

"Want to call it an early night?" Hank pressed a kiss behind her ear.

"If I could move, that'd be a brilliant idea," Gwen mumbled sleepily. "Maybe I should just bring my pillow in here. I'm going to be spending a lot of time in here anyway."

"Sit up for a sec," Hank instructed. With a groan and an embarrassing pop of his joints, he stood up, grabbed her toothbrush from its holder, and squirted some toothpaste on its bristles. "Necessary evil," he said, holding the brush out to her. He readied a glass of water for her as she completed the difficult (easy) task and offered it to her, along with his hand. "Easy, easy," he crooned as she stumbled into him with a small moan. "Just a couple sips. Just enough to rinse the fuzz out."

Gwen gagged with the first taste of the water but was able to complete the task, and she sagged gratefully against him as he took her by the shoulders and steered her toward the bedroom. "This isn't going to earn you a spot in my will," she said, as he stripped the covers back and helped her slide beneath them.

"Who said anything about a will?" Hank smirked. "I'm just hoping for the spot of honor on the birth certificate."

Gwen searched his dark eyes for a moment. "Do you think I'm embarrassed of you, Bennett?"

"I'm not exactly Camelot material," Hank shrugged as he fluffed her pillow up behind her head. He walked around the other side of the bed and started scooping up laundry for the wash.

Gwen shifted underneath the blankets, following his progress around the room. Her folded hands beneath her cheek, she admitted, softly, seriously, "I'm not ashamed of you, Hank. I'm ashamed of the behavior that led to me and you meeting up in that bar. I'm ashamed that I can't tell my child that I loved its father when he or she was conceived. So you see. It's not you I'm embarrassed about."

"Tell him you liked me, a helluva lot more than you should have, and somehow, you knew you'd be safe with me."

Gwen held out her hand as Hank passed by, brushed it across the back of his jeans clad knee. "Am I? Safe with you?"

Hank smiled down at her. His brown eyes were serious. "What do you think?"




~*~



The kitchen was large, open, and had an ocean view Luis had only ever seen in pictures in magazines. In his mind's eye, he could see Anna, short legs dangling from a stool, dark curls spilling over her shoulders, slurping cereal from a spoon as he hurried to finish his own breakfast before heading off to work. Maybe Sheridan would have learned to cook more than scrambled eggs by then (probably not).

"Luis," Sheridan rounded the corner of the granite-topped island in the center of the room. "What are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking none of these appliances are less than twenty years old."

Disappointed, Sheridan turned from him, walked out of the room into another large room with several tall windows and peeling rose wallpaper. The hardwood floor beneath her feet creaked only slightly as she crossed it, and the splintered pane of glass felt cool beneath her touch despite the warm afternoon temperature. "This must be the living room."

"Looks like it."

Luis's strong voice echoed in the empty room, and Sheridan's blue eyes shifted to study his profile as he stood before a massive stone-hewn fireplace. The gold of his ring burned against her skin as she studied him without his knowledge, the mythical houseful of children and her morning visit with Eve weighing heavily on her mind. She hastily looked away when his dark eyes caught hers, twisting the band nervously around the delicate appendage. "I'm just gonna…"

"Go ahead," Luis cut her off in anticipation. "You don't have to wait on me." His sense of self-preservation prevented him from following after Sheridan, even as his conscience whispered at him not to let her go, and he moved from room to room downstairs, inspecting this and that and mentally tallying everything that would have to be done to make the place habitable again. By the time he'd mounted the stairs and wandered down an endless hallway, peering inside each and every open door in search of his wayward wife, evening was fast approaching, and against his will, he was growing concerned. He found her in the last room he looked in, in what appeared to be an abandoned nursery, her hand splayed against a window through which the sun seemed to kiss the sea. Luis hesitated to cross the threshold, but he needn't have; Sheridan sensed his presence anyway.

Her voice a soft, throaty whisper, Sheridan trailed a fingertip through the dust gathered on the window sill, gazed sadly out at the vista before her. "I wonder what happened to them—the family that lived here." She turned shimmering blue eyes on Luis, studied him openly, waited for him to speak. "Somebody loved this place once, loved each other here."

The sun haloed her hair golden, and Luis, for once, didn't bother to take up the contrary stance because somehow, impossibly, he felt it too, on the same visceral level that told him he hadn't been wrong to give her a chance, all those years ago. But that was then. This was now. Luis was older, wiser, less inclined to feel the sting of her betrayal again. And those dreams of a house full of dark-haired little girls and blue-eyed little boys were just that where Sheridan was concerned, dreams, pipe dreams. "Maybe," Luis acquiesced gruffly, unwilling to give her anymore than that. "It's getting late."

"I know," Sheridan acknowledged, discreetly knuckling away the tears that had gathered on her lower lashes.

"We should get going," Luis softly told her, turning to leave when she gave a short nod in response, pushing back mightily at his body's instinctual response to comfort her. Still, he doubted he'd succeeded in keeping the note of concern out of his voice when she offered him a wan smile.

"I'll be right down," Sheridan murmured.

"I'll wait for you in the jeep."




~*~


Ok.

So I know it's been forever and a day since I've updated this fic, but I hope you guys are still interested in finding out how this saga plays out.

:)

Feedback would be lovely.

A lot of stuff going on with the different relationships in this chapter.

I hope you enjoyed the Ethan/Theresa/Anna flashback, however bittersweet. Look for more of those in future chapters.

What do you think, so far, of the way Hank and Gwen are handling their impending parenthood? And things aren't just physical anymore, as Hank is coming to realize. Will Gwen be next?

Kay is so confused. She's trying so hard to be good, but will it matter in the end? Looks like there's still some feelings there on Reese's end, huh?

Grace and Sam insist on doing that slow burn. Hopefully, you guys will be half as invested as Sam with their eventual outcome when all is said and done.

Julian and Ivy surprised me. What about you?

And Luis and Sheridan, Sheridan and Luis. *shakes head* How long will it take for them to get their act together and realize they want the same things, with each other?

Of course, there were other things I'm excited to read your feelings about, but that requires your full cooperation and the click of a button.

:D

Feedback is love!

Your thoughts and continued support are welcomed and much desired.

Shae

P.S. This might just be the longest chapter I've ever written. Hopefully, it'll tide you over when RL inevitably strikes again.

desertgal
8.16.12, 1:55 PM
Shae,

Thanks so much for posting Chapter 20. I loved it. Thanks also for the recommendation for Pieces of My Heart - I will be sure to read that.

So happy you continue to write for Luis & Sheridan.

Karen

SHUIS_4EVER
8.17.12, 2:32 AM
Shaeee ,
you just made my night, you should have seen the big smile on my face when I opened my email!! Thank you thank you for the update, it's been centuries!!! please keep up the good work (more hint hint:winkq:)!

I just wanted to slap Luis, for being so cold arggg lool but nevertheless I loved it loved it!

Haven't been on here in ages, hope work and everything is ok with you.


Love,
Bree