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UAgirl
4.29.07, 12:51 AM
Love and Legalities




Prologue



“Mrs. Grant, surely you know what you’re asking of me is impossible,” the distinguished, high dollar attorney said after making a perfunctory perusal of the facts and points of interest of her case.


The hands that had been clasped nervously in her lap relaxed, and her shoulders slumped just a little more under the force of the beginnings of his bluntly stated refusal. She fixed her blue eyes on the nameplate at the front of his desk, tracing over the letters silently to keep the tears that threatened to appear at bay.


Harold Weseley, Attorney at Law, took her silence as his cue to continue. “Mrs. Grant…your husband is a very powerful man. Second only to your own father in his wealth and holdings in the state of Maine. I know you know that. My office handled the prenuptial agreement. It is a more than fair agreement, Mrs. Grant. Taking into account your considerable personal wealth, you’ll be well provided for the remainder of your life. Money will never be a problem.”


“I don’t care about the money,” she stated vehemently, standing up and leaning across the massive cherry desk to yank her file from his well-manicured hands. “I never have,” she admitted tersely. “Richard can keep his damn money for all I care. All I want…the only thing of importance I want to take from this disaster of a marriage…is my children.”


Mr. Weseley stood up and walked around the desk to see her out, watching as she pulled her leather gloves back onto her trembling hands and tucked her blond hair beneath her flowing black cape. “Children, Mrs. Grant? As I recall, there is only one son. You have no biological ties to the girl. How do you expect any judge to willfully take her from her only surviving genetic parent and give you custody?”


Her blue eyes glittered with determination and conviction as she spoke. “She’s my daughter. I’ve taken care of her and loved her for the last four years. She’s more my daughter than she’s ever been his. Genetics and biology…they don’t make you love a child, Mr. Weseley. They don’t make one parent better than another. Paige belongs with me and…”


“I wish you luck,” he interrupted her, guiding her out of his office with a persistent hand to the small of her back. "You’re going to need it. Richard Grant will give you a hefty divorce settlement to avoid the scandal of his affairs reaching the light of day, but he will never give you his children. Be smart, Mrs. Grant. The visitation proposals aren’t terrible. You could certainly do a lot worse, and you’ll avoid a long, drawn-out court battle not to mention unwanted publicity…”


“What YOU’RE asking ME to do is impossible, Mr. Weseley. You’re just another one of Richard’s lackeys. How much did he pay you to refuse me? How much? Do I really stand no chance at all, or is that what he wants me to think?” she demanded to know, crowding into the lawyer’s personal space and refusing to let him avert his eyes.


“Goodbye, Mrs. Grant,” he said, the unspoken order resonating in his voice and reflecting in his flinty gray eyes. “Virginia,” he turned to the graying secretary typing furiously at her keyboard and gestured at the double glass doors at the front of the building with his hand. “See Mrs. Grant out, will you? I have a meeting with a client.”


The slamming of his office door booked no further argument, and her heart was heavy as she waved Virginia off. “I’ll…I’ll leave. You don’t have to see me out,” she said softly, blinking back the tears that were quickly filling her sad blue eyes.


“W-Wait!” a voice called hesitantly, and the typing halted. The wheels of the desk chair squeaked slightly, and she heard the scratch of a pen against paper. Then muffled footsteps as they came closer.


She turned at the gentle touch on her arm, not bothering to wipe clear the twin tracks of moisture on her cheeks, and was moved by the compassion she saw in the faded brown eyes.


“Take this,” Virginia whispered kindly, depositing a yellow scrap of paper into her palm and folding her fingers over it. “He’s not in the same league as the Harold Weseley’s and uptown lawyers you’re probably used to, but he’s not afraid of any challenge. He’ll do everything in his abilities to help a worthy cause. And most importantly…he’s not in anyone’s back pocket. He’s an honest man. Take this,” she repeated, giving her hand a reassuring squeeze. “Now you best hurry, Honey. That sister of his likes to close up for lunch early.”


“Thank you,” she expressed her gratitude sincerely, her hand going to her purse to give her some small token of her thanks.


Virginia shook her head, loosening the gray curls that were pinned at the nape of her neck demurely.


“Virginia? What is Mrs. Grant still doing here? I thought I told you to…”


“My purse,” she tipped her head in indication. “Thank you,” she told Virginia for the second time, pushing the doors open and bracing herself for the cold gust of wintery wind that would inevitably come.


Her figure was a lonely one, trudging along the snow-edged sidewalks of Harmony, head bent against the softly falling snow and black cape billowing in the air behind her.


The numbers and words on the paper matched her location perfectly, she realized, not able to keep her heart and her hopes from sinking when the second and third glances at the modest stone hideaway in the midst of several downtown shops didn’t alter the appearance magically. “L. Lopez-Fitzgerald, Attorney of Law” was written in bold, boxy letters across the tiny window, and she wondered if the sister Virginia spoke of had an artistic flair. She sighed in resignation. She had no other options with Ethan’s surprise reluctance to help her and every hotshot lawyer within a 100-mile radius adamantly refusing to take on her wealthy, powerful, domineering husband. This was her last chance. She couldn’t let Paige and her baby down. They needed her, she told herself as she approached the tiny office, inhaling and exhaling slowly to calm her nerves.


Bells on the door tinkled, announcing her arrival, and a young brunette whirled around in her chair, untwirling her fingers with the brightly painted fingernails from the phone cord. “Whit…Hey, I got to go. A new client just walked in, and she looks like she’s exactly what Luis needs to hit the big time,” she practically squealed into the receiver before replacing it on its hook. “Hi! I’m Theresa,” she bubbled happily, extending a welcoming hand. “How may I help you?”


She slipped the hood from her head, brushing absently at the snowflakes clinging to her cape before giving the girl’s hand a quick shake. “I’m looking for a lawyer.”


“You’ve come to the right place. Have a seat in the waiting area, and Mr. Lopez-Fitzgerald will see you shortly.”


The waiting area consisted of three mismatched but well-taken care of chairs and a coffee table laden with out-of-date magazines. She picked up a dog-eared copy of Cosmopolitan and flipped through its pages, trying to divert her attention to something else beside the pressure building back behind her eyes from the almost constant crying she’d done since Richard had literally thrown her out of their house three days ago as soon as the word ‘DIVORCE’ left her lips.


She could still hear her baby’s cries for her, and Paige running after the car Richard had had her driven away in.


“Mr. Lopez-Fitzgerald is indisposed at the moment, but if you’d just wait in his office…”


She rose to her weary feet and followed the petite brunette…Theresa…to what seemed to be the only other room in the small office space and took a seat.


Theresa left her alone, pulling the door shut, and she leaned her head back against the wall tiredly, closing her eyes and imagining she was with her children.


She didn’t hear him come in, and she jumped in surprise when she heard his voice.


“I’m sorry. Theresa didn’t give me your name. She’s still learning. You need a lawyer?”


Her blue eyes widened as they traveled his muscular length, landing on his handsome face, and she gasped when he lifted his head from the notepad he was studying in his hands, looking at her, and his dark eyes sparked a memory within her. “Luis?”


He lowered the notepad to his desk, narrowing his dark brown eyes at her as some hidden, buried remembrance seemed to ripple through his entire being, and his voice was no more than a whisper. “It’s you.”

UAgirl
4.29.07, 12:53 AM
Chapter 1




She fidgeted under the intense scrutiny of his deep brown eyes, smoothing her hands over her skirt and shifting in the uncomfortable chair.


“It IS you,” he repeated, louder this time, crossing his arms over his chest and lounging on the edge of his battered desk. “I thought I’d never see you again.”


She ducked her head guiltily. “I thought the same thing,” she murmured. When she raised her eyes to meet his again, his expression was unreadable, unfamiliar to her. But then…she hadn’t known him well enough before, and she’d been so foolish, too foolish to catalogue the million different ways his beautiful face expressed emotion. She picked at the file folder in her lap with her French-manicured nails as she pondered what to say next. What exactly should a woman say to a man when she comes face to face with him again three years after leaving without a single, decent goodbye? She couldn’t think of anything appropriate so she smoothed her hand over the file in her lap once more and leaned forward, offering it to him.


His brown eyes seemed to be fixated on the large, almost gaudy diamond adorning her finger and the slim wedding band next to it. “You’re married?” he asked needlessly, looking into her eyes briefly in surprise before taking the file from her hand.


Her voice sounded soft, strangled to her own ears as she half-nodded, half-shook her head. “Yes. I mean no. I’m filing for divorce,” she told him, finally settling on the right answer.


Luis’s long fingers closed the folder without glancing over its contents, and he held the folder back out to her. “I don’t handle divorce cases,” he said simply, walking around the desk and taking a seat in a black vinyl chair. The wheels squeaked and groaned as he settled in comfortably.


“Luis, if you’d just…” she began, faltering at his closed-off expression. She started rifling through the folder, scattering papers and sending them floating to the ugly but clean brown carpet below. “If you’d just…” she couldn’t speak over the lump of desperation rapidly forming in her throat and cutting off her voice. She heard the chair’s wheels squeak again and felt his presence behind her. Tears pooled in her blue eyes, clinging to her lashes before falling and slipping down her cheeks. Her breath caught in her throat, and she choked in embarrassment as her hands fumbled around on the floor, gathering the papers and shoving them into a messy pile. Her hands paused in their frantic motions when the glossy edge of a photograph caught her attention, and she pulled it out from beneath the pile.


Paige’s sweet dimpled face and almost black eyes were smiling up at her trustingly.


She traced her fingers over the long, red curls, squeezing her eyes shut as she remembered the same black eyes, wounded and hurt as they watched her being taken away three days ago. She couldn’t fail her. She couldn’t live with the memory of those heartbroken eyes.


A teardrop fell from her chin, landing on the picture.


She vaguely remembered crying in front of him before, crying in her tumbler of sherry when he’d come along with his sympathetic brown eyes and offered her a shoulder to cry on instead of a glass of alcohol to cry in.


It was the night they met, and they’d stayed up talking until the wee hours of morning beside an empty Boston Hotel swimming pool.


Luis knelt beside her, and his hand reached for the picture, studying it silently. “Yours?” he asked, holding the picture out for her.


She nodded her head slowly, clasping the picture to her chest as she rose on unsteady feet, unconscious of his supporting hand. “I only want my children. Nobody will help me get them back. You’re my last chance, Luis,” she whispered. “Please. Help me get them back.”


“Children?” Luis queried, laying the folder on his desk. “How many?”


“Two,” she answered without hesitation. “Paige and Alex.” The knowledge of her children seemed to astonish him more than the previous revelation of her married or soon-to-be-divorced status, and something akin to accusation flickered quickly across his face, so quickly she wasn’t wholly certain she hadn’t imagined it.


“Children and a husband…” he said, shaking his head lightly as he lifted a sheet from the file in his hands and scanned it. His dark orbs widened, and he drew in a sharp breath, snatching up the folder and thrusting it back at her.


The hope that had started to build, piece by tiny piece since he’d seen and reacted to Paige’s picture, died within her, and she couldn’t keep her face from falling with disappointment. He’d seen it. No doubt, he’d seen Richard’s name and decided he wanted nothing further to do with her or this case. “Luis…”


“I don’t do custody cases,” he informed her, not daring to meet her eyes as he turned his back on her. “I wouldn’t be much help. No experience…I have too many clients right now to take you on…”


Sudden anger sprang within her along with utter disbelief. If he was going to refuse her with lies, the least he could do was look her in the eyes while he was doing it. Her hand shot out, grabbing his forearm, and she jerked it back as he whirled around, obviously just as stunned as she at the electric current that crackled between them. “Exactly what kind of law do you practice? You don’t handle divorce proceedings. You don’t want to get tangled up in custody battles. You don’t want to get involved. That’s it, isn’t it?”


The muscle in his jaw jumped as he stared at her, the sudden fire blazing in her blue eyes, and his mouth hardened into silence.


“You don’t want to get involved with me again,” she surmised, recognizing without being told or referencing the few expressions she’d catalogued from the short time they knew each other in Boston the flare of anger in his eyes, his stance. “You hardly have too many clients. By the looks of things, you’re barely scraping by. If it’s money you want,” she spat, digging through her pocket book and tossing everything, every bill and credit card she had, at him, “I’ll give it to you. I’ll give you everything. I’ll do anything.”


“Give me one good reason why I should help you. I don’t even know you,” he said, clenching and unclenching his jaw. “You pop back into my life and expect me to help you, the lying, no-good daughter of Alistair Crane,” he gritted out. “Give me one good reason I should help any of his when he’s done nothing but take away from me and my family.”


Sheridan’s mouth dropped open in astonishment at the sheer hatred and venom directed toward her father, and her as an extension of her father, not just the woman who was too much of a coward to say goodbye. She felt the burst of anger die down with his condemnations, and tears of defeat stung her sore eyes once more. “Your reason,” she cried, shoving the picture against his chest.


Luis stared after her as she stalked away, flinging his office door open and stumbling out of the doors into the flurry of snow without bothering to grab her cape.


Theresa dropped the phone in her hand and stared dumbly after her for a split second before rushing out behind her, forgotten cape in hand.


Luis listened as the tinkle of the bells faded, and he pulled the crumpled picture back and stared into the eyes of a child.


Guilt rolled in like a wave.

UAgirl
4.29.07, 12:57 AM
Chapter 2


Theresa stumbled back into the office, her brown eyes wide and incredulous as they sought him out. "Luis," she said, juggling both the black cape and the jumbled folder in her arms as she lurched toward her desk, "what did you do to her? What did you say to her to make her cry like that? She was so upset she forgot this again," she said, watching helplessly as the cape slipped from her grasp and fluttered to a heap on the floor.


Luis bent to retrieve the cape, rubbing the velvety texture between his thumb and forefinger before hanging it on the coat hanger in the corner of the room.


Sheridan's light perfume suddenly enveloped his senses again. He felt surrounded by her presence.


The contents of the file tumbled free, scattering all over the surface of Theresa's desk, and she sifted through the papers, drawn by her natural curiosity to the glossy photographs peeking through. "Luis!" Theresa cried. "Look at him. He's so cute. The little girl is pretty too," she said in the interest of keeping things fair. "But.he's a doll."


Luis studied the picture over his sister's shoulder.


It was a casual shot, most likely snapped without the children's knowledge. The little boy looked to be no more than two years of age in his tiny yellow and navy swim trunks, leaning down with his pacifier in one sun- bronzed hand with full pink lips puckered for a kiss. Wet red curls spilled over the palm that propped the little girl's chin up, and her striking dark eyes were alight with happiness as she waited for the kiss from her little prince, her feet in the air behind her, crossed at the ankles.


Theresa handed the picture to him and picked up another one.


Richard Grant. A powerful man in the political circles of Harmony and New England, second only to Alistair Crane himself.


How had it escaped his notice that the woman he still dreamed about years after their last meeting was connected to two of the most power-hungry and hated men in Harmony?


Luis pushed away the thought that she'd blinded him with her beauty and those sad blue eyes and embraced the hole-filled notion that Sheridan had played him for a fool. He'd rather burn with anger than hang his head at his own obtuseness. Looking back, there had been too many coincidences for him not to put together the pieces of the puzzle.


"His eyes are so cold," Theresa whispered, laying the picture down and grabbing the handful of papers Luis recognized as the bare facts of the case. "She wants you to help her get custody of Paige and Alexander Grant. Luis," Theresa looked up at him with accusing brown eyes. "You didn't tell her no, did you? Luis, you didn't."


Luis balked at the anger dripping from Theresa's normally bubbly voice. "Theresa," he began, his voice rasping in his throat at her irate expression. He dredged up the anger he'd felt less than a half hour ago with the discovery of Sheridan's lies, and his tone was biting as he glared at his little sister. "She's a Crane, Theresa."


Theresa's mouth dropped open in a stunned 'O' for several seconds, but she quickly regained her composure. "That doesn't mean anything. Luis, stop being so judgmental. She seemed perfectly nice. Nothing at all like the Cranes we know. Luis, she wants us to help her get her little girl and little boy back for her. She doesn't sound evil at all to me. How could you not help her?"


Luis flinched inwardly at the disappointment written plainly on Theresa's face, dropping his eyes from her unblinking stare. "Theresa, don't lecture me when you don't know all the facts. Appearances can be deceiving. Sheridan is a Crane. The Cranes have made our family and the people of Harmony miserable for years. They've taken whatever they've wanted without a moment's remorse for stealing away something that wasn't theirs. They've kept the rest of us down while they live the big life up in that mansion on the hill. They're dishonest," he told her, remembering again Sheridan's own dishonesty with him. "They're nothing like Papa or Mama, Theresa. They're just not good people. They ruin everything they touch."


Theresa sighed and shook her head, walking behind her desk and pulling a drawer out. She slipped her purse strap over her shoulder and turned to leave the office. When she reached the exit, she leaned heavily against the glass door and her brown eyes looked into his imploringly. "I don't believe you, Luis. I don't believe that Sheridan is like the rest of her family. I believe she is a good person. A person that needs our help. And if you're not going to help her, you're not half the man I thought you were."


"Theresa," Luis said, stepping forward.


Theresa held up a distancing hand and glanced outside at Whitney's compact little car just pulling into the parking lot. "That's Whitney. We should be back from lunch in an hour."


"Take the rest of the day off. Things aren't real busy around here anyway," Luis muttered, unconsciously tapping the crumpled picture in his right hand against his thigh.


Theresa closed the distance between them in three bouncy steps, smiling up at him apologetically as she slipped one arm around his waist and reached down to still the distracting movement of his other hand.


Luis buried his nose in her soft dark hair and hugged her close to him, glad to be reprieved in action if not words. He let her remove the picture from his hands, feeling the nagging sensation of guilt return as her fingers smoothed the photo's crumpled edges, and he found himself staring again at the innocent face of a child.


"Look at that adorable face, Luis, and tell me you can really say no," Theresa challenged, a knowing twinkle in her brown eyes as she skillfully manipulated his emotions. "He's depending on you, and he's half-Crane. Kind of shoots your 'ALL CRANES ARE EVIL' theory out of the water, doesn't it? Papa says there's always a diamond in the rough. Sheridan might be that diamond," she said, standing on tiptoe to press a quick kiss to his cheek. "Just think it over, okay Luis?"


Luis nodded his head quickly, reminding her as she backed out of the door, "Make Whitney drive slow through the really icy spots."


Theresa giggled and rolled her dark eyes at him. "I will. But you have to promise."


"I promise," Luis waved her outside with a smile. "You're late. Now go."


"Bye, Luis."


Luis stood by the tiny window, watching Whitney's car pull out of the lot, Theresa blowing silly kisses at him out the rolled-down window the entire time while Whitney gently admonished her.


The snow drifted from the skies, carpeting the world outside in a white sheen.


Luis's attention gravitated to the picture again, and the sparkling dark eyes gazing up at him. He closed his eyes against the image, but he could still feel those eyes looking up at him almost expectantly, stirring some nameless emotion within his heart that made no sense to him whatsoever.


The scent of Sheridan's perfume lingered in the air, and the hauntingly vulnerable blue eyes from the depths of his memory beseeched him.


The small office filled with his soft groans, and the glass mirrored his conflicted visage back to him, presenting him with a truth that was difficult to face. His half-hearted denials didn't change what he knew inexplicably in his heart .that Theresa was right.


He wasn't even half the man he'd thought himself to be.


Would he let his shallowly buried hard feelings of the past get in the way of doing what was right?


He grabbed her cape off the hook on his way out the door, tucking her file underneath his arm.


Destination still uncertain.

UAgirl
4.29.07, 1:10 AM
Chapter 3



Darkness bathed the room, thin slivers of light from the moon peeking in through the slits where the heavy drapes did not meet completely.


Her eyes were puffy from the tears that she could not seem to stop, and her figure was small amidst the mountain of pillows placed at the top of the massive four-poster bed, a cool cloth covering her eyes and forehead.


The Grandfather clock in the hallway chimed seven times, and muffled footsteps approached and paused outside her closed door.


Ivy's knock sounded, almost as gentle as the tone of her voice.


Sheridan admitted her with a tired breath, knowing what was to come.


"You can't keep doing this to yourself, Dear," Ivy sighed as she gingerly removed the cloth from Sheridan's eyes.


Sheridan blinked against the harsh glare of the bedside lamp, averting her gaze from the expression of pity Ivy failed to hide. She covered the hand Ivy cupped over her cheek with her own and attempted a smile, but it was as if her face were made of glass and would crack under the falseness of her actions. "Thank you for your concern, Ivy, but I'd rather..."


"Shut the whole world away and cry in the dark?" Ivy interjected. "Sheridan, you'll make yourself sick. Tell me something. Have you eaten anything today?"


Sheridan's chin dropped to her chest, and she picked at the lace edging the neckline of the simple gown she wore, determined not to meet Ivy's knowing blue-green eyes.


"That's it," Ivy declared authoritatively, "You're coming downstairs to dinner with me. I know Julian and your father aren't exactly pleasant company, but Ethan's here, and I think that, with a little more convincing, he can be swayed to change his position on taking your case."


"I don't know, Ivy," Sheridan protested as Ivy took her by the arm, pulling her gently from the bed. "He seemed pretty adamant in his refusal."


"Ethan's never been adamant about anything in his life," Ivy smirked, blue-green eyes filled with mirth. She opened the doors to the large walk-in closet across the bedroom and started rifling through Sheridan's scant wardrobe, pulling out a red cashmere sweater and a pair of black slacks. "Here. This should do."


Sheridan slipped the sweater over her head and stepped into the pants, her fingers working the side zipper as Ivy admired the family photograph Sheridan had displayed on her armoire in an elegant silver frame. Family consisting, of course, of her, Paige, and Alex. Richard was noticeably absent, much like he'd been for most of their short-lived marriage.


Ivy replaced the frame on the armoire, a Cheshire cat-like grin stretching across her striking features as she regarded Sheridan. "You look so lovely in red, Sheridan."


"Thank you, Ivy," Sheridan murmured thankfully. "I'm going to have to go out and buy a whole new wardrobe soon if Richard insists on not sending my clothes."


"I happily volunteer my company," Ivy smiled, following Sheridan out the door. "As a matter of fact, my wardrobe is in serious need of an update of its own," she winked as they descended the winding staircase and made their way to the dining room. "It's always so much fun to abuse Julian's wallet."


Sheridan managed a half-smile at the glee in Ivy's voice, and it remained on her lips until she heard her father's disapproving voice.


"Ivy. You're late. I had Mary go ahead and serve dinner, I'm afraid yours is cold." Alistair stated. "Sheridan, I didn't expect you to decide to join us this evening. I didn't have a place set."


"She can sit by me," Ivy spoke up, turning to the young maid hovering nearby as she and Sheridan seated themselves. "Mary, take this into the kitchen," she indicated the plate directly in front of her, "and bring me and Miss Sheridan a fresh plate. Julian," Ivy lifted her goblet of wine to her lips, "aren't you even going to acknowledge your sister?"


"Sister, Dear," Julian slurred in greeting, tipping his glass of brandy up and drinking from it greedily. His food lay untouched in the plate before him.


Ethan lay his fork down beside his plate, shifting uncomfortably in his seat as he tried to avoid his mother's and aunt's eyes. "Mother. Aunt Sheridan. It's nice to see you're feeling well enough to join us for dinner."


Mary returned, carefully setting two plates in front of Ivy and Sheridan. She politely inquired if they were in need of anything else before she stepped back into the shadows the flickering candlelight from the candelabra did not reach, waiting to offer her assistance when needed.


Sheridan pushed her pasta around on her plate distractedly, finally letting her dinner fork clink against the china as she lay it down, unable to muster up an appetite. "Actually, Ethan," she admitted, "I'm not feeling well. And I won't feel well until I have my children back in my arms where they belong. You say you won't help, but surely you don't mean it, Ethan. Please," she entreated. "Please help me bring Paige and Alex home."


"Aunt Sheridan," Ethan began awkwardly, his blue eyes straying fleetingly to his grandfather's imposing figure at the head of the table. "Aunt Sheridan, I can't."


Incredulous at his repeated refusal, Sheridan's voice rose, breaking painfully as she uttered a single word. "Why?"


"Yes, Ethan," Ivy frowned as she cast a suspicious glance in Alistair's direction. "I'd like to know the answer to that question myself."


Julian hid behind his refilled brandy glass, seemingly noncommittal on the subject.


"Mother, Aunt Sheridan," Ethan fumbled for an answer, tugging at the constricting tie around his neck as his other hand flailed at his side, nearly knocking over his glass of water.


"Ethan's commitments don't permit him to take your case, Sheridan, and he shouldn't waste his time on a useless custody battle," Alistair commented coldly. "Your failed marriage is your own fault. Richard is a far more capable parent than you'll ever be. You, dear daughter, are too weak. Too soft. Those children belong with their father. You gave up any rights you had to them when you demanded a divorce from your husband."


Sheridan felt anger bubble within her, and fueled by its righteousness, she attacked her father's unfeeling words. "Richard stopped being a husband to me the minute he got his power-hungry hands on my trust fund. He never really loved me, and he sure as hell hasn't shown any love for his children. He's ignored Paige her entire life and would have sent her to a boarding school in Europe the first chance he got if I hadn't married him. And Alex…If Alex hadn't been born a boy, and Richard hadn't gotten his precious male heir, Richard would never have looked twice at him."


"Marriage is not about love," Alistair declared.


Ivy and Julian connected eyes across the far reaches of the table.


Sheridan couldn't help noticing that their eyes held no love for each other. Maybe they had cared for each other when they were young, but the years spent in this cold house had not been kind to either of them.


"Your head is filled with nothing but foolish fantasies, Sheridan," Alistair continued cruelly. "Love has no place in a marriage. It's not good for business."


"You're wrong, Father. I won't stay married to Richard because it's good for business. I won't lose myself in a loveless marriage," Sheridan vowed, throwing her crumpled napkin down in disgust and almost upturning her chair in her haste to leave her father's sight.


Mary lurched out of Sheridan's path, stumbling and spilling the contents of Julian's fifth tumbler of brandy of the night.


Sheridan muttered a quick apology, fleeing to the relative safety of the foyer and racing toward the stairs with Ivy's words of condemnation for her father and her brother and her words of disappointment for Ethan ringing in her ears. Her hand clutched the banister tightly, and her feet ceased their frantic flight with the insistent ringing of the doorbell.


The housemaid looked to her in expectation and moved to answer the door.


"Don't. Don't," Sheridan cried, sweeping past her. "I'll get the door," she explained, raising a hand to the knob and closing her eyes briefly. She tried to quell the swell of sudden hope within her chest, reminding herself of the countless disappointments she'd suffered the last few days, but it was a fruitless gesture. She twisted the knob, and the door swung open.


Luis held out her billowing black cape to her, and neither of them were able to pull away when their hands brushed against each other.


Hope had returned to her in a pair of devastating brown eyes.

UAgirl
4.29.07, 1:13 AM
Chapter 4





Clearing his throat awkwardly as he dropped his hand from hers almost reluctantly, Luis suddenly found himself unable to look anywhere but at her blue eyes. For the first time since she’d unexpectedly walked back into his life, he saw a flicker of hope, a tiny beacon that told him they’d shared more between them in Boston than lies; behind the smoke and mirrors had lain her soul. At least, that’s what the shadow of the old Luis told him, the man who had once been on the verge of falling in love. The new, improved, impenetrable Luis wasn’t having any of it. The children were the only innocents in this unsavoury situation; it was his desire to help them that had led him to come here, not any lingering almost feelings on his part for the woman standing before him, looking like she was waiting for his one-man jury’s verdict. Still, hints of the old Luis crept into his voice, gruff and not without kindness as he communicated a simple but loaded phrase, “We need to talk.”


Nodding shortly, her teeth clamping down on her bottom lip lest she do the unthinkable and smile prematurely, Sheridan swept the black cape over her shoulders, making but one request, “Take me away from here. Anywhere.”


Wordlessly, Luis led her to his parked jeep, the gentleman his mother raised compelling him to open the passenger side door for her. Her fingers fumbled in the darkness for the seatbelt, and unthinking, Luis leaned across her, reaching for and retrieving the belt. Pulling and stretching it, he fastened it low across her hips, his face so close to hers he could feel the gentle warmth of her breath across his cheeks and mouth. Realization dawned on him, as his eyes traveled across the classic features of her face, drawn by an invisible force far stronger than his own will to her eyes. His oft-visited memories were faulty and didn’t do her justice. The hue of her sad eyes was even bluer than he’d remembered. The uncertainty lurking in them finally spurred him back into action, and shutting her door, he strode quickly to the other side of the jeep, climbing in and staring straight ahead as he laid his hand on the keys in the ignition. “Have you eaten dinner?”


Opening her mouth to tell him ‘yes,’ Sheridan realized she couldn’t tell him another lie, no matter how small. Quietly, she answered him. “No.”


With a stilted glance in her general vicinity, Luis cranked the jeep, put the vehicle into gear, and pulled out of the Crane driveway.


Soon, the Mansion was nothing but a pale, shadowy illumination against a stark winter’s backdrop, and the streets of Harmony moved outside the jeep’s windows at a fuzzy blur. Tension made the air in the small space seem heavy and limited, and, as if aware of the seeming shortage, neither occupant dared breathe a word until the jeep slowed to a stop in front of a local restaurant, the rumble of its engine dying to nothingness.


Before Sheridan had time to blink an eye, Luis appeared again at her side, opening her door for her. Unbuckling the seatbelt, she took his offered hand and slid from her seat. Her heart thumped painfully against her ribcage when he dropped her hand in favor of cradling her elbow and steered her toward the Lobster Shack’s entrance.


Due to the advancing hour, and the fact that business at the Lobster Shack was always a little slow during the middle of the week, finding a table with a modicum of privacy wasn’t that hard.


Sheridan seated herself in the chair Luis pulled out for her and took the dinner napkin into her lap, twisting at it anxiously with her hands as she waited for him to speak.


A young waitress smiled at them as she welcomed them with a much-practiced speech about the evening’s specials, her pen poised over the small pad in her hands, ready to scribble down their orders.


The memory of the sadly empty state of his refrigerator this morning and the insistent low rumble of his stomach prompted Luis to order more generously than usual, and after giving the young waitress instructions on how he wanted his steak cooked, he looked to Sheridan, waiting for her to make her own order.


Smiling wanly at the friendly young woman, Sheridan handed the menu back to her. “I’d like the salad, and a glass of iced water would be nice.”


Frowning as he heard this, Luis noticed, truly, for the first time the pallor and thinness of her beautiful face and made the obvious deduction. She wasn’t eating right, and the stress, fatigue, and pain of the separation from her children was showing itself in her appearance. To anyone else, it might not be perceptible, but, finally letting himself really look at her, it was readily apparent to him. “Change her order to the lobster and bring us two glasses of Pinot Grigio.”


“Luis, really,” Sheridan protested when the waitress had gone. “I’m not that hungry. The lobster and the wine…it’s too much.”


“I can afford it,” Luis said tersely, his jaw tightening at her remark, knowing she didn’t mean it as an insult but taking it as such, his mind and pride not letting him forget for a moment that she was, indeed, a Crane.


“That wasn’t what I meant,” Sheridan sighed, fidgeting with her silverware. “I just don’t have much of an appetite.”


His tone apologetic, Luis found himself reaching across the table to cover her hand, stilling its nervous movements, as he said, “I know. But you need to keep your strength up. We could be in for a long haul.” As he spoke, he studied the melding of their hands, the way his dark hand nearly engulfed her smaller paler hand, and with his finishing remark, his gaze landed on her astonished face.


Sagging with relief, Sheridan’s lips trembled as she tried to form words of gratitude, but words seemed inadequate. Her tears this time were those of hope with a hint of happiness, and she tried to communicate her feelings to him with the way she fiercely squeezed his hand, her fingers interlocked with his own.


For a brief moment, they smiled at each other, and Luis could almost forget the disappointment he’d felt all those years ago and the instant, stinging sense of betrayal he’d felt this afternoon when he’d learned her true identity. But all too soon, it was business as usual, and he closed his expression off to her, abruptly disentangling their hands. Smoothing his dinner napkin over his lap, he lowered his eyes, and when he raised them to her again, compassion still shone in their depths, but it was of the impersonal nature, and the intonation of his voice was flat when he addressed her. “I’ve read the file, but pieces of paper never tell the complete story. That’s up to you. Tell me more about Richard and your children and why you think you deserve to have custody.”


And, over the course of their meal, that’s what she did.

UAgirl
4.29.07, 1:17 AM
Chapter 5






The keys jingled musically in the palm of his hand as Luis rifled through them, searching for and finally finding the one that would admit him to his apartment. Stomping his boots free of the wintry mixture of snow and slush on the threshold, he stepped inside, dousing the entire area with weak yellow light with one flick of a switch.

Shrugging his leather jacket from his shoulders, Luis tossed it casually across the back of the shabby overstuffed sofa in the living room, placed his briefcase amidst the pillows, and picked up the remote control. Shadows flickered across the wall behind him, and the voice of the local meteorologist forecasting yet more snow followed him into the small but functional kitchen.

His keys clattered against the formica, and the clock on the wall clicked steadily along as he paused in front of the refrigerator, skimming over the message scrawled across the yellow lined paper tacked there. Tracing over his mother’s penmanship with his fingertips, Luis made a mental note to call her first thing in the morning and thank her for her efforts in not letting him starve—as she claimed all bachelors did without good women to take care of them. The thought made him simultaneously smile and shake his head. Though Mama would deny it with her dying breath, she was just as much a romantic at heart as Theresa. He fervently hoped she didn’t find out about Sheridan, her status as a Crane notwithstanding.

Tugging his shirt from his pants, Luis absently unbuttoned it as he headed down the hall to his bedroom. His day had been long and every muscle in his body was still tense—just being in the room with Sheridan again after all these years wrought havoc on his senses; a hot shower was calling his name.

After stripping to his boxers, Luis padded into the bathroom, the tile cool beneath his bare feet. He twisted the taps, and the pipes gave an answering groan then gurgle as water first spurted weakly from the shower head then gained pressure and heat, steam slowly filling the room.

The water felt good as it beat over his shoulder blades and sluiced down his back. He braced his forearms against the grouted tile, letting it massage the knots from his muscles. He stayed that way until the temperature began to cool then he hurriedly washed the grit of the day away with a soapy rag and turned the water off.

Luis snagged a white towel from the linen closet on his way back into his bedroom and knotted it around his waist. He pulled a gray tee-shirt and a fresh set of boxers from his dresser, donned them, and returned to the living room.

Settling back against the collection of boldly colored pillows Theresa had insisted were a must-have when he’d moved into the apartment a few short months ago, Luis propped his feet upon the coffee table and reached for his briefcase. Pulling out Sheridan’s file, he slid a pair of wire-framed glasses over his nose and began to read it again, piecing together the words and faces with the details she’d given him over dinner.

Beside Alistair Crane, Richard Grant was the closest thing to a business tycoon to be had in Harmony. Powerful in his own right, he’d only strengthened his holdings and connections when he’d merged his interests with those of Crane Industries and married Sheridan almost four years ago—a woman more than twenty years younger than him.

Removing his laptop from his briefcase, Luis placed it in his lap and waited for an internet connection to be established while he flipped once more through the glossy photographs Sheridan had supplied, studying them more closely this time.

Husband and wife made a handsome but unlikely couple, Sheridan seeming more like a young daughter in most of the pictures. The smiles were there, in the photos resting in his hands, in the photos splashed across society magazines and newspapers generated by his internet search, but, Luis discovered with sinking clarity, the emotions did not ring true.

In all of the pictures, save the pictures that weren’t posed—the snapshots of just Sheridan and the children, their eyes told the story Sheridan had only hinted at while nervously picking at her food in the Lobster Shack. Richard Grant’s eyes were as dark and fathomless as a black hole, devoid of human emotion, cold. Sheridan’s eyes were clouded with the sadness Luis still recalled so well.

Taking his glasses off and rubbing the bridge of his nose tiredly, Luis allowed himself a moment to revisit his first meeting with Sheridan.

In Boston for a conference, he’d met up with an old friend from law school and accepted an invitation to catch up at a pricy restaurant in one of the more affluent sections of town, unable in his pride to admit to his own struggles as a fledgling lawyer in a town full of established names in the face of his friend’s success. He’d overspent his budget on a meal that couldn’t hold a candle to his mama’s cooking and made his excuses to leave when he passed her table on the way.

Closing his eyes, Luis remembered the tears on her face and the surprise she couldn’t hide when he asked her what was wrong. And the sadness he’d worked so hard to banish from her blue eyes as they talked into the early hours of the morning, sadness, he realized with a pang of dismay, he still found himself wanting to erase three years later.

Logging off the internet with a sigh, Luis turned his laptop off and placed it onto the coffee table. Resting his hands on his knees, he stared at the muted figures on the television while his conscience and his heart waged war between themselves.

The last time he’d answered the call of those blue eyes had been costly; this time promised to be that and more. Was he strong enough to see this through?

Glancing over his shoulder at the two innocent faces smiling up at him, Luis realized his strength wasn’t the issue here, the feelings for Sheridan he couldn’t completely bury weren’t the issue here, and he was filled with renewed sense of determination.

If Richard Grant wanted a fight, Luis would give him a fight like he’d never seen before.

The children were counting on him.