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UAgirl
4.29.07, 12:19 AM
Imitation of Life


~1~


“She’s here, Papa! She’s here!”

Luis wore a smile on his face for his four year-old son’s sake, but his shoulders felt tense underneath Pilar’s soothing hands.

“Mi hijo,” Pilar called over her shoulder to her young grandson as he roared past her and Luis, straight for the front door, “no running in the house.”

“He’s excited,” Paloma said with a gentle smile, pulling the edge of one of the curtains back to catch a glimpse of the newest arrival to their Thanksgiving festivities herself.

“That boy loves his mama,” Martin agreed, joining his youngest daughter at the window to watch the little blond whirlwind throw his arms around Sheridan’s waist as soon as she emerged from her car and gaze up at her adoringly, already chattering non-stop.

“Martin,” Pilar implored her husband. “Go. Before he talks her ear off.”

“Come on, Pilar,” Martin slid his arms around his wife’s waist from behind, pressing a kiss to the top of her dark hair. “I’m sure Sheridan doesn’t mind. It’s been a long time.”

Luis finally ended his silence, standing up and leaving the room before coming face to face with his past.

“Too long.”


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~2~




As a guest to the Lopez-Fitzgerald home, Sheridan wasn’t allowed to partake in the preparations for dinner, but she didn’t mind so much—not when she got to spend the time drinking in the beautiful sight of her son.

Grabbing her smooth hand in his much smaller fist, Marty had immediately pulled her down the hall to his bedroom as soon as the required awkward greetings were out of the way, intent on showing off the latest gift that had arrived in the mail from his uncle Miguel just days ago—a model motorcycle.

“Papa help me put it together,” Marty told her proudly, unabashed love for Luis shining in his blue eyes.

Sheridan tried to speak around the sudden painful lump that lodged in her throat, but she could only manage a tremulous smile.

Thankfully, Marty was none the wiser to her emotional state, launching into an excited detailing of his cousin Maria’s new kitten, hardly stopping for breath until he made a pleading request. “…but I told Maria puppies are better, and she said ‘how do I know’ since I don’t got one, and I told her ‘they just are’, and you have to get me one. Please, Mama.”

Sheridan blinked rapidly, still processing the rush of her young son’s words, when Martin’s voice at the door made her turn.

“Marty,” Martin chided sternly, “you know what your papa said.”

“But Mama could keep it at her house,” Marty rationalized. “Then I could see her everyday.” Childish hope echoed in his voice, and he crawled into Sheridan’s lap, sliding his slender arms around her neck as he tucked his golden head beneath her chin.

Sheridan smiled tightly at the look of sympathy Martin bestowed on her and dropped a kiss on Marty’s warm, silky crown. “Listen to your papa,” she murmured softly. “He knows best.”

“Listen to your mama,” Martin answered when Marty looked to him for help.

“Okay,” Marty sighed melodramatically, causing both adults to smile slightly.

“Come on,” Martin held his hand out. “Your abuela sent me to tell you it’s almost time for the Thanksgiving turkey.”

“Do I get to use the big knife this year, Grandpa?” Marty’s eyes gleamed at the thought of being one of the men of the house, just like Papa and Grandpa.

Sheridan answered for Martin, causing him to chuckle and Marty to whine disappointedly.

“Absolutely not.”




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



~3~






Sheridan’s brow furrowed at the extra place settings at the table.

Paloma bustled around the table, carefully arranging silverware next to the plates. “For Theresa, Little Ethan, and Jane—IF they come.”

“And the other two?” Sheridan questioned as the sounds of happy laughter filtered in from the living room, only her son’s recognizable to her.

“Kay and Maria,” Paloma smiled. “Excuse me, Sheridan.”

From the other room a young voice squealed, “Aunt Paloma! I brought Samantha with me!”

“Mama, mama,” Marty appeared at her side, grabbing her by the hand. “Maria’s here. And she brought her kitten with her.”

“Go,” Pilar told her warmly. “I’m almost finished here.”

Marty relinquished Sheridan’s hand as soon as they entered the living room, racing to the sofa where Maria and Samantha held court.

Samantha’s green eyes regarded Marty coolly as he plucked her from Maria’s arms before she started daintily licking one black paw in complete boredom.

“So this is the Samantha I’ve heard so much about,” Martin eyed the regal little feline. “I thought she was a girlfriend of yours.”

“Grandpa,” Marty rolled his eyes, causing the females in the room to laugh, “girls are yucky. Except for Mama,” he hurriedly amended. “And Aunt Paloma and Abuela and Kay,” he added in a panic, not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings. “And Maria,” he reluctantly admitted. “Okay. Just girlfriends are yucky.”

“Just girlfriends,” Martin agreed with a chuckle.

“Sheridan,” Kay smiled. “It’s good to see you.”

“Thanks,” Sheridan returned Kay’s smile with a warm one of her own. “It’s good to see you.” Then she nodded to the black-curled child practically stuck to her son’s side. “She’s beautiful.”

“A beautiful handful,” Kay laughed.

The two sat in companionable silence for several moments just enjoying watching their children with Paloma and Martin.

Finally Kay spoke again. “She won’t admit it to anyone, but she loves Marty.”

Sheridan had to agree. “It looks like the feeling’s mutual, although I think Marty’s a little jealous about Samantha.”

“She was a present from Tabitha,” Kay replied. “And I’m think *I’M* a little jealous OF Samantha. Maria loves that cat more than she does me.”

Sheridan’s eyes twinkled but her tone was filled with understanding. “Somehow I doubt that’s true.”








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~4~








Arms wrapped tightly around her middle for warmth, Pilar joined her son in the backyard, where he sat at the barren picnic table, his elbows resting on his knees and his head in his hands. “Come inside, Luis. Dinner’s ready.”

His voice was muffled when he answered her. “I don’t know if I can, Mama.”

The pain in her son’s voice tore at Pilar’s heart, but he was being stubborn, and she told him as such. “You can’t avoid each other forever, mi hijo. I don’t know how you’ve done it this long. Sheridan is Marty’s mother, and…”

“And she left him,” Luis cut in sharply. “I searched the ends of the earth for our boy so that I could bring him home to her, and how did she respond?” he asked, voice rising in anger. “She left him. And she left me.”

“I can’t pretend to understand Sheridan’s reasons for leaving, Luis,” Pilar said, “but anybody can see that she loves that child dearly.”

“Not enough,” Luis wouldn’t be convinced. “Not enough to stay.”

“Maybe,” Pilar faltered, “maybe she loved him so much she couldn’t stay.” She raised a hand to her son’s face, frowning at the tears Luis refused to cry, the hurt he refused to let go of. “Come inside when you’re ready.”

Luis watched her go, wondering when that would be.





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





~5~





Martin sat at the head of the table, looking upon the spread his wife and daughter had prepared with a proud smile. “I know I say this every year, but you’ve outdone yourself this year, Pilar.”

“I DID help, Papa,” Paloma pretended to be offended.

“She didn’t even burn the rolls!” Marty exclaimed, setting off laughter around the room, Maria’s being especially infectious.

“Marty,” Sheridan admonished between bouts of laughter.

“But she always burns the rolls,” Marty replied, unperturbed.

“I do,” Paloma admitted with a giggle. “Mama made the rolls this year, Papa.”

“I knew it,” Martin grinned to himself.

“Papa!” Paloma tried to shame her father, to no avail.

“Grandpa,” Maria spoke up, raising herself up on her knees, “I want to say grace this year. Can I?”

“May I?” Kay corrected her daughter. “Maria, sit down.”

“May I?” Maria asked, clasping her hands in front of herself, and batting her baby blues at her grandfather.

Kay rolled her eyes and nudged Maria again, until she sat back down in her seat, her feet dangling over the chair’s edge.

“Yes, Maria,” Martin bestowed the honor upon his eldest granddaughter. “You may.”

“Yay!” Maria squealed, clapping her hands excitedly.

“Wait,” Marty cried, “we can’t say grace without Papa.”

Sheridan stared at the empty plate in front of her, guilt making it difficult to look into the eyes of the people around her, Luis’s family.

“Mi hijo,” Pilar began uncomfortably, “I don’t think…”

A door opened and shut, and the sensation of cool autumn air whispering against her cheeks had Sheridan raising her head.

“Am I too late?” Luis’s dark eyes burned into Sheridan’s soul, stealing her breath.

“No, Papa,” Marty beamed, patting the vacant seat beside him, “you’re just in time.”





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UAgirl
4.29.07, 12:21 AM
~6~





“More mashed tatatoes, please,” Marty asked around a mouthful of food, holding up his plate.

“Ew, Marty!” Maria scrunched up her nose. “You’re gross.”

“Maria!” Kay exclaimed in exasperation, shooting an apologetic look Sheridan’s way. “Apologize to your cousin. He’s not gross.”

“But talking with your mouth full is,” Paloma scolded.

“Sowwy,” Marty shrugged, his mouth only slightly less full. He lifted his plate again, looking at Luis pointedly.

Sheridan hid her smile behind her napkin as Luis inspected their son’s plate.

Luis took the plate from Marty and set it back down in front of him. “Finish your peas, first.”

“But Papa,” Marty whined.

Luis meant business. “Finish your peas.”

“Yes, Papa,” Marty pouted.

“Then you can have some more mashed potatoes,” Sheridan told him, searching out Luis’s eyes to make sure she hadn’t overstepped any boundaries.

Luis gave a small nod of his head in answer.

Once she had her answer, Sheridan averted her eyes, uncomfortable under Luis’s watchful gaze. She’d thought he wouldn’t be able to stand the sight of her once they’d come face to face again, but it seemed he couldn’t tear his eyes away from her, and his scrutiny was unnerving.

“Abuela,” Marty turned his attention to Pilar, “why doesn’t aunt Theresa want to spend Thanksgiving with us?”

Pilar looked stricken, her eyes and her smile sad. “It isn’t that she doesn’t *want* to spend Thanksgiving with us, Marty…” she trailed off when she felt the comfort of Martin’s hand on her shoulder.

“She wants to spend it with Little Ethan and Jane,” Paloma finished for her mother.

Marty seemed to accept Paloma’s answer and returned to his previous abandoned activity, pushing the tiny green peas that littered his plate around with his fork.

“Marty,” Luis gently chastised, covering the small hand with his much larger one. “Stop playing with your food.”

On the other side of Sheridan, Maria giggled, covering her mouth with both of her hands at her mother’s own warning look.

His fork confiscated, Marty’s attention shifted back to Sheridan, and he studied her with serious blue eyes, his fingers absently pulling at his dinner roll. “My aunt Theresa is married to a bad man. He’s a Crane.”

“Por favor,” Pilar muttered under her breath. “Luis,” she warned.

The clatter of silverware ceased as all eyes were drawn to Luis and Sheridan, and Marty, who continued on with no intervention from his father.

“Papa says all Cranes are bad,” Marty informed Sheridan, not noticing, in his childish innocence, the wounded look in her blue eyes. “Right, Papa?”

“Maria,” Kay stood up, scooping her protesting daughter from her chair and setting her down with a slight groan, “why don’t we go check on Samantha in the living room?”

“You said I could have pie,” Maria whined as Kay tugged her away from the table.

“Later,” Kay hissed.

Paloma lifted her napkin from her lap and placed it on the table in front of her. “I’ll…I’m gonna…in there,” she finished awkwardly.

“Mi hijo,” Pilar choked out in an overly bright voice, desperately trying to cut through the tension that seemed to suck all of the oxygen out of the room, “more mashed potatoes?” When it seemed her offer fell on deaf ears, she looked to Martin for help.

Martin responded by standing up and crossing the small distance to Marty’s side. Cupping his hands under the boy’s arms, he lifted him up and onto his hip. “Up you go. That’s enough.”

“But Grandpa,” Marty frowned. “I don’t wanna. I want to stay with Mama and Papa.”

“Not right now,” Martin replied. “Pilar?”

Pilar hesitated for the briefest of seconds.

“It’s okay, Pilar,” Sheridan finally spoke. “I think it’s best if Luis and I have this conversation alone.”

“She’s right, Mama,” Luis agreed.

“Please,” Pilar implored them both before she left. “Don’t say something in anger that you’ll regret later.”

“It’s really too bad,” Sheridan turned to Luis with tears in her eyes as soon as they were alone.

Luis opened his mouth to speak but couldn’t force the words out, her very nearness twisting his emotions and making it difficult for him to think and react clearly.

“She’s a few years too late.”




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





~7~






Finally, Luis reacted on instinct alone, a hand reaching out, fingertips making contact with her smooth skin for one heart-stopping moment before Sheridan withdrew from him as if burned. “I didn’t mean…”

Shaking her head at his ill-attempt at dishonesty, Sheridan simply said, “You did. And I am. I am a bad person. I’m a Crane.”

The urge to cup her chin in his hands and steady its trembling surprised and angered Luis. He held onto his anger because he knew, if he didn’t, the tenderness would be his undoing. “The Cranes hurt everything they touch. They’re poison.”

A tear spilled from one of Sheridan’s eyes, slipping down her cheek unchecked. She stared straight ahead, unable to meet Luis’s eyes. “What about Marty?”

“Marty’s a Lopez-Fitzgerald.” Luis’s chair scraped harshly against the floor as he got up, turning his back on Sheridan and the pain he knew he’d inflicted.

Sheridan’s broken whisper still reached Luis’s ears. “I’m his mother.”

“His biological mother,” Luis whirled around to face her, forcing his eyes to be hard and unforgiving. “But in every way that counts?” he steeled himself to her soft sobs. “You’re not his mother. You never were.”




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






~8~





Sheridan pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes, trying to stem the flow of her tears, but it was no use. Luis’s words hurt her, to the very core. When she removed her hands and reached for her forgotten glass of water to ease the ache in her throat, there were black mascara smudges on them, and she stared at them because there was nowhere else safe to look. Her voice was rough around the edges, wobbly, when she finally replied to Luis’s charge. “I never got the chance to be his mother.”

“Don’t,” Luis warned. “Don’t blame Beth. You got a second chance. *I* gave you a second chance. You threw it away. You threw our son, and me, away like we were yesterday’s trash.”

Sheridan saw red at the mention of Beth and her mind briefly revisited the months of agony when no one, not even Luis, had believed in her and the strong bond she had felt whenever she and Marty crossed paths. She latched onto the anger those memories dredged up and took strength from it, drying her tears with her sleeve and drawing herself up to stand in front of Luis, to meet him face on. “I do blame Beth. Luis, she cost me so much. She put me through hell,” she grit out.

“And you never forgave me for that,” Luis snapped back, stalking across the room and putting distance between them. He braced his forearms against the wall, hanging his head. “I destroyed your faith in me.” His hands clenched and unclenched in fists until he finally slapped his palms against the wall in frustration. “By the time I brought Marty back to you, I was too ***damn late.”

“Luis,” Sheridan tried to speak, but Luis wouldn’t let her.

“No,” Luis cut her off. “No. It WAS too late. For God’s sake, Sheridan,” he growled. “You were at the altar. Ready to marry *him.* Ready to play mommy to his kid. How do you think that made me feel?”

“The same way it made me feel to find out you’d moved on with Beth,” Sheridan hit him where it hurt. “Luis, I thought you were dead. And Christopher and James…they kept me going when I wanted to give up. Don’t you see, Luis?” she pleaded thickly, her emotions getting the better of her again. “I thought I’d lost you and that I’d never see my baby again, and I had no one else. No one. I was drowning, and I needed someone to cling to, someone to care for again. I never loved him, Luis.”

“If that’s true, tell me something,” Luis demanded.

With only the slightest hesitation, Sheridan nodded.

“Why weren’t you the one to call off the wedding?”





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





~9~







Softly, Sheridan pressed, “Would knowing why change things between us?”

Luis looked at her for a long moment, unable to muster a response to her question. It was a simple question with a difficult answer, and the truth was, he didn’t know the answer. He searched his mind and his heart, but he didn’t want to listen to what his heart was telling him. His heart had only served to hurt him so far.

The hope in Sheridan’s eyes slowly died as Luis’s silence stretched on, and she hung her head, unwilling to let him see how much his non-answer had upset her.

The need to comfort her welled up within Luis again, even stronger than before. His fingertips skated across Sheridan’s chin before his palm curled around her jaw, and her name left his lips on a soft sigh. “Sheridan.”

For a brief moment, Sheridan allowed herself to pretend that Luis still loved her, and his gesture was more than just a gesture of kindness from a good man. She nuzzled his palm, pressing her lips to his warm skin, as her eyes burned with tears once again.

Unable to stop himself, Luis brought his other hand up to cup Sheridan’s face and his thumbs gently brushed the evidence of her tears from her eyes, his concern growing when the action only seemed to generate more. “Don’t,” he tried to hush her. “Dammit,” he cursed as he folded her into his embrace, hugging his arms loosely about her.

“Luis,” Sheridan cried softly into his shoulder.

Luis stroked her hair awkwardly at first, then with growing confidence. ‘Shh,” he soothed, lapsing into a role he knew by heart—that of her protector. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

Sheridan clung to him and pretended to believe the lie.








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



~10~





“Luis, your mother’s a lifesaver.”

Sheridan stiffened and removed herself from Luis’s embrace as Hank burst through the door, shattering the illusion she wanted so much to believe in. She wiped her tears away with a discreet hand.

Luis’s arms dropped to his sides, and he closed his eyes at the sensation of regret that washed over him; Hank’s timing had never been the best. “Hank,” Luis finally spoke. “What are you doing here?”

“Nice to see you too, old friend,” Hank grinned, his brown eyes dancing playfully as he drew Luis in for a brotherly hug. He released Luis and gathered Sheridan’s hands in his own, giving them a warm squeeze. “Some welcome, huh?” he winked at Sheridan before leaning forward to press a kiss to her cheek. “Hey, Beautiful.”

“Hank,” Sheridan answered with a genuine smile.

“You know I didn’t mean it that way,” Luis protested. “I’m just surprised to see you.”

“Not as surprised as Sam,” Hank chuckled. “You should have seen his face when I showed up on his doorstep. If I didn’t know better, he’d almost forgotten what I looked like.”

“It’s been long enough,” Luis fell quickly into their old routine. “I thought you were off traveling the world.”

“You mean bumming around?” Hank kidded, encouraged by the slight smile on Luis’s face. “That stuff gets old after a while,” he said, casting a glance in Sheridan’s direction. At her imperceptible nod, he continued, “Besides, don’t go accusing me of being a sentimental sap, but the holidays are for families.”

“Hank,” Sheridan questioned with twinkling eyes, “where is your family?”

“In the living room with everyone else,” Hank answered matter-of-factly. “It’s a long story. Let’s just say Jessica’s no Martha Stewart, and the fire department arrived just in the nick of time.”

Luis’s eyebrows shot up to his hairline.

“I hope everyone’s alright,” Sheridan said sincerely.

“They’re fine,” Hank waved off her concern. “Noah’s pretty handy with a fire extinguisher.”

Sheridan stifled a laugh at the mental image.

“Lucky for everyone involved,” Luis was unable to resist smirking.

“Lucky was Sam remembering Pilar’s invitation to come along with Kay and Maria for dinner,” Hank replied. “I shudder to think what was on the menu at Tabitha’s house.”

Sheridan was unable to resist laughing at that comment.

Luis found himself equally powerless.

Maybe Hank’s timing wasn’t so bad, after all.







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

UAgirl
4.29.07, 12:22 AM
~11~






With four new additions at the dinner table, there weren’t enough seats, even with the extra settings for Theresa, Little Ethan, and Jane, who remained notably absent.

Planting himself in Sheridan’s lap, Marty quickly found the perfect solution to the dilemma and enjoyed sampling pumpkin and pecan pie from the warmth and security of her embrace.

Watching them both, Luis couldn’t help but feel cheated of the family they could have been. He reluctantly tore his gaze away from the bittersweet sight when he realized Hank was speaking to him.

“Sam tells me you’ve been catching some night classes over in Castleton.”

“Luis is going to be a lawyer,” Paloma joined the conversation mid-stream, great pride for her brother in her eyes and smile.

Sheridan turned surprised eyes to Luis, resting her cheek against Marty’s silky blond head.

“That’s great, Man,” Hank congratulated heartily. “It looks like your dream’s finally coming true.”

Only part of it, Luis thought to himself with a half-hearted smile. The other part of his dream seemed as unattainable as the stars that burned in the far-off sky.

“For as long as I can remember,” Hank reminisced fondly, “this guy dreamed of being a hotshot attorney. It was all he could ever talk about at career day. When I grow up…”

Luis rolled his eyes at his longtime buddy. Not much had changed about Hank over the years; he still possessed a propensity for exaggeration.

“What about you, Uncle Hank?” Maria piped up. “What did you wanna be when you growed up?”

“A circus clown, of course,” Hank replied with nary a twitch of his lips. His dancing brown eyes, however, gave him away.

Maria giggled when Marty cried, “Bozo!”

“Bozo the Clown,” Hank pretended to be deep into consideration. “Has a nice, catchy ring to it.”

“I never knew you were so ambitious, Uncle Hank,” Jessica found herself joining in the children’s silliness.

“Don’t encourage him anymore,” Sam warned, helpless to keep his own smile at bay. After a moment of welcome shared mirth with his family and friends, Sam sobered, turning to his attention once again to Luis, “Seriously, Luis. I’m proud of you. We’re all proud of you at the station, down to the newest rookie.”

Noah rolled his eyes and ducked his head to hide the sheepish grin on his face at the arm Sam threw around his shoulders. “Dad.”

Searching out Kay’s twinkling eyes with his own, Hank heaved a mock-disappointed sigh, “That leaves me and you as the lone black sheep in the family.”

“I won’t let you down, Uncle Hank,” Kay vowed.

“Good to know,” Hank took her answer in stride, chuckling at the expressions worn on each and every member of the Lopez-Fitzgerald family’s faces. “I just wanted to say thank you again, Pilar, for making us refugees feel so at home.”

“Uncle Hank,” Jessica blushed.

“You’re welcome,” Pilar replied warmly.

“Thanksgiving is for friends and family,” Martin lifted his glass in a toast.

“To friends and family,” everyone around the table echoed.

His eyes on Sheridan again, Luis wondered, not for the first time, where she fit in.








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




~12~





“My tummy hurts,” Marty whined as Sheridan steered him to the living room couch, her hands resting gently on his small shoulders.

“I warned you about that third piece of pie,” Sheridan’s response was faintly reproachful. She took a seat amongst the sea of plush cushions, opening her arms to her son.

Marty cuddled into her embrace unhesitatingly, tucking his rumpled blond head beneath her chin. “But it was the last piece,” he refuted with just a trace of stubbornness in his tone.

“That doesn’t mean you had to eat it,” Sheridan laughed softly, stroking a hand through Marty silky strands.

“But I did,” Marty insisted. “Maria had three pieces.”

Pausing in her task of picking up Maria’s scattered toys and placing them in the oversized bag hanging from her shoulder, Kay had to comment. “Maria has a bottomless pit for a stomach. She just eats and eats and eats…” She smiled at the grin her words elicited.

“Like someone else I used to know,” Noah mused, giving his sister’s dark hair a playful tug as he passed her en route to the armchair across from Sheridan. Collapsing into it, he clutched his own stomach with a groan, proclaiming, “I’m full.”

“You should be,” Kay snorted, remembering all the food she’d watched her brother consume within the past hour.

“Pilar’s a great cook,” Noah shrugged.

“You’re such a man,” Kay shook her head, oblivious to the amused stares of Sheridan and Marty. Giving Noah’s hair a sisterly tussle, she tucked the overflowing bag next to his chair. “Where’s my daughter?”

“Outside with Dad,” Noah sighed in answer. “Something about taking Samantha for a walk.”

“Good,” Kay stated, relieved. Noticing Sheridan’s questioning look, she told her, “Samantha’s not house-trained yet.”

Marty lifted his head to peer into Sheridan’s eyes. “What’s that mean, Mama?”

Before Sheridan could answer, Noah interjected, in language Marty had no trouble understanding, “Samantha’s not potty-trained.”

“Somebody’s been spending too much time at the Youth Center,” Kay muttered under her breath, not bothering to hide her smirk.

“Luis needed somebody to pick up the slack,” Noah defended himself. “And the kids aren’t so bad once you get used to them.”

“Right,” Kay replied skeptically, settling on couch beside Sheridan and Marty. She yanked playfully at one of Marty’s shoestrings, delighting in the boy’s indignant response. “Fess up. Whose mom are you dating?”

“I like kids,” Noah persisted. “I like Maria. And Marty,” he said, mindful of little ears attuned to the conversation. “Marty’s not too bad.”

Marty hid his bashful smile in the crease of Sheridan’s neck, his small fingers toying with the silver charm bracelet around her wrist.

“Come on, Noah,” Kay rolled her eyes. “This is me you’re talking to. It’s not a crime, you know. Dating someone. You haven’t been interested in another girl since…” she trailed off, finally remembering Sheridan’s presence in the room and the potential for awkwardness the conversation held. “Sorry. I’ll just…shut my big mouth now.”

Silence reigned for several moments, until Noah shattered it with an admission not so revolutionary to the room’s other occupants. “It’s not easy. Getting over someone.”

Sometimes, Sheridan knew, it was next to impossible.





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




~13~





“She’s something, isn’t she?” Hank nodded toward his littlest niece with a grin.

In a far corner of the yard, Maria was clapping and congratulating Samantha on a job well done—“a good potty”—while Sam looked on, greatly amused.

“She is,” Luis agreed with a smile of his own. For the briefest of seconds, he longed again to possess the simple, pure perception of a child, where joy could be found in the smallest of things. Maybe then, his life and the key to his happiness wouldn’t be so complicated.

“You’re getting serious on me again, Man,” Hank declared in a nagging voice.

“Hank,” Luis warned.

Unruffled, Hank stuffed his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket for warmth and stomped the heels of his shoes against the hard ground. “Do you want to talk about it? Things looked pretty intense between you and Sheridan earlier.”

“When you interrupted,” Luis voiced a reminder as they sat side by side on the picnic table bench.

“Yeah,” Hank feigned a sheepish shrug, “I’ve been told I have a knack for that. I prefer to think of it as a talent. Interruptions aren’t always bad.”

“Not always,” Luis echoed with a smirk.

“If I hadn’t announced myself at that precise moment,” Hank continued, “who knows what kind of crazy things you might have done.” Giving Luis a sideways glance, he offered up his own predictions in a voice dripping with sarcasm, “Hell, you might have kissed her. Or worse yet, admitted you never stopped loving her.”

“Hank,” Luis sighed heavily. “It’s not that easy.”

“I know,” Hank gave an answering sigh. “It’s complicated. I get it.”

“No, you don’t,” Luis insisted, his frustration showing itself in the frown he wore. “I can’t let Marty get hurt. If there’s even a chance…”

Seeing Sam and Maria approach, Hank stood and placed a firm hand on Luis’s shoulder, his brown eyes devoid of any humor as he spoke, “You’re only fooling yourself with that excuse, Luis. Nobody else. Make it simple. Don’t let her leave without telling her.”

“What? Are you a shrink now?” Luis rose, preparing to say his goodbyes to Sam, Maria, and his good-intentioned, albeit annoying, friend.

The twinkle returned to Hank’s eyes as he rebounded with a reply that brought a smile back to Luis’s face, “I moonlight on the holidays. The first consultation’s free. There’s no way you could afford my hourly rates.”

Luis chuckled as they shared a brotherly parting embrace. “Don’t quit your day job.”

“What day job?” Hank grinned, lifting a hand in goodbye.

“Hank,” Luis called.

“Yeah?” Hank hung back.

“Take care,” Luis told him, uncertain of the next time they would cross paths.

“Always.”






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







~14~





Goodbyes were said—some more reluctant than others—and a peaceful calm descended upon the Lopez-Fitzgerald abode.

Outside, the sky promised snow, and Luis knew the wintry weather would delight his son.

Martin stoked the fire while Paloma arranged pillows and blankets in front of it.

Luis turned from the window when he heard his sister’s surprised squeal just in time to see Marty’s blond head peeking from the mountainous pile, his smile mischievous and bright.

“Marty!” Paloma held a hand over her racing heart. “You scared me.”

Marty giggled at the good-natured tousling his aunt gave his hair.

“Come here,” Paloma patted the place beside her, hugging the little boy close as he crawled near.

“Martin,” Pilar’s muffled voice was heard from the kitchen.

“Help your papa keep an eye on that fire for me,” Martin instructed as he departed the room.

“Okay, Grandpa,” Marty promised, disengaging himself from Paloma’s side and standing watch over the fire as pledged.

“Don’t let it go out,” Paloma teased, scooting closer and helping Marty add small twigs to the crackling fire. Orange embers glowed in the dim lighting of the living room and the reflections of the flames danced in the boy’s lively blue eyes.

Watching the two of them together made Luis’s heart swell with affection, but his vigilant nature made him warn, “Don’t get too close.” His mother’s softly exhaled “Dios Mio” behind him had Luis smiling.

“Hot chocolate, mi hijo,” Pilar held out the sweet offering as an enticement. “Come,” she indicated the sofa. “Sit. And be careful. It’s hot,” she cautioned as Marty scampered toward her, wrapping greedy little hands around the mug, his earlier tummy ache all but forgotten.

“For you,” Martin stood in front of the fire once more, presenting Paloma with her own mug.

“Thank you, Papa,” Paloma smiled, bringing the steaming mug to her lips and blowing across it gently.

“Luis,” Sheridan appeared before him, a tentative smile on her lips as she held a matching mug out to him. “Hot chocolate?”

Luis looked into her blue eyes so much like their son’s and gratefully accepted her gift, and the possibility that Hank may have been right as he felt his pulse quicken at her fleeting touch. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” Sheridan murmured, her eyes searching his, wondering at the imperceptible difference in his eyes, his voice, his entire demeanor. “Luis?” she softly entreated.

“Mama!” Marty’s excited exclamation dispelled the moment, garnering everyone’s attention as they followed his pointed finger to the scene outside.

Luis watched the smile on Sheridan’s face grow, traveling all the way to her bright blue eyes, and he was taken by the identical joy in the voices of the two people he held most dear to his heart.

“Look, Luis,” Sheridan’s hand unconsciously sought out Luis’s larger hand and held on. “It’s snowing. Isn’t it beautiful?”

Luis eyes fell upon their entwined hands, and his voice dropped to a gentle whisper. “Yeah. Yeah, it is.”





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








~15~








“Yeah,” Luis’s voice sounded gruff as he carefully untangled their clasped hands and fixed his gaze on the softly falling flakes outside. “The snow is beautiful.”

Sheridan frowned at his perceived efforts to rid himself of her touch and puzzled again over the abrupt change in his behavior. She felt a pang of sadness at her inability to read him and wondered if this was all they had left, if this was all they would remain to each other: past acquaintances, almost strangers, who shared a child.

“Mama!” Marty bounded to her side, his small hand tugging eagerly at her sleeve. “Can we make a snowman?”

“You silly boy,” Paloma captured him in her arms from behind, tickling his tummy and making him giggle. “There’s not enough snow for a snowman.”

“But there will be,” Marty cried between shrieks of laughter and bouts of squirming. “Tell her papa,” Marty insisted stubbornly.

His son’s pleas finally reached Luis’s ears, and his response was stern and not at all the one the boy had been hoping for, “Tomorrow.”

Marty’s young face fell in disappointment, tears springing to his blue eyes. “But Papa,” he pouted.

Paloma sobered, hugging her arms about the child loosely for comfort. Tomorrow, Paloma knew, could never be as wonderful as today. It just wouldn’t be the same.

Beside Luis, Sheridan hung her head in guilt and turned away, unable to bear witness to the heartbreaking scene unfolding even as she ached to take Marty in her arms and whisper promises that weren’t hers to make.

Ignoring Marty’s forlorn expression, Luis instead sought out his mother’s sympathetic face. “Mama.”

“Mi hijo,” Pilar took Marty’s slender shoulders in her hands.

“No, Abuela,” Marty tried to push her hands away, and he squirmed to get down when she scooped him up into her arms.

“Marty,” Luis spoke warningly.

“Mama!” Tears rolled down Marty’s face as he reached for Sheridan.

The slight, silent shaking of Sheridan’s shoulders was the only indication she heard Marty’s plaintive wails as Pilar disappeared down the hall, carrying the child away.

“Luis,” Martin stepped forward to confront his son as Paloma placed a tentative hand on Sheridan’s arm. “Son, this is crazy. At least allow them a proper goodbye.”

“Stay out of this,” Luis advised his father. “I’m his father.”

“And Sheridan’s his mother,” Martin snapped, his patience with their stubbornness having run out. Softening his tone, he continued, “What harm can a few more hours do?”

A few more hours, Luis wanted to shout. A few more hours would only raise Marty’s hopes, making the fall that much harder and that much more painful to recover from when Sheridan did what she always did after these visits—left them both behind. No. It was easier this way, like ripping off a bandage—more immediately painful but better than prolonging the inevitable. And if it made him the bad guy, he was okay with that because he didn’t want to taint his son’s love for his mother. “Sheridan,” he finally spoke, “I think you should leave now.”

“Luis,” Paloma made one final attempt to protest, but her brother’s heavy sigh and Sheridan’s soft whisper stopped her.

“Don’t. Don’t,” Sheridan gave Paloma’s hand on her arm a grateful squeeze. “Luis is right. I,” she fought to speak over the lump in her throat, “I should be going. Tell Marty…tell Marty I love him, okay. Tell him I’m sorry, but I just can’t stay. Do that for me?”

“Si,” Paloma nodded her dark head vigorously as she pulled Sheridan into a brief but tight hug. “I will tell him,” she promised.

“Sheridan,” Martin stepped forward, his own words faltering as he strove to make sense of things the way they were. He finally settled for a somber “Take care.”

“Thank you,” Sheridan gave him a trembling smile as she gathered her purse and the rest of her things in her arms. “Give Pilar my love.”

Luis held his breath until the sound of her car’s engine faded in the distance, Marty’s soft cries the only remaining sound in the too-silent house.

“I don’t understand you,” Paloma shook her head sadly as she regarded her brother with disillusioned dark eyes. “Either one of you.”








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

UAgirl
4.29.07, 12:23 AM
~16~






“What was that?” Martin demanded when he and Luis were alone. “I know you’re not that cold, Son. Driving her away is not the answer.”

Luis crossed his arms over his middle defensively. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m not blind,” Martin countered. “And I’m not stupid. That little scene you just pulled…”

“It wasn’t a scene,” Luis interjected. “It’s the way things are. It’s the way they have to be.” He tried to shrug, appear unaffected by his own words, but he couldn’t hide the pain or unrest in his eyes.

“Would you listen to yourself?” Martin asked incredulously, pacing the confines of the living room restlessly. “You’re succeeding where Alistair failed.”

Luis’s face was dark, unreadable as Martin continued to rail at him.

“How many times, Luis, did he try to keep you and Sheridan apart? How many secrets, lies, evil plans?” Martin’s hands moved agitatedly, speaking for him. “You went to hell and back to be with her, to love her, many times over, only to let your own pigheadedness do you in. You’re doing Alistair’s dirty work for him, Luis. You’re pushing her away and hurting everybody in the process, especially that little boy in there.”

Luis felt a crushing ache in his chest at the minutes old memory of his son, inconsolable over Sheridan’s leaving. Shaking the image from his mind, he reminded himself that what he was doing was for Marty’s own good. Then he reminded his father. “I’m doing this FOR Marty.”

“You’re not doing any of this for Marty, Luis,” Martin wouldn’t be convinced. “You’re doing this for you because you’re hurt and angry and too scared to take one last chance.”

“What if I’m all out of last chances?” Luis ventured, the weight of his feelings finally dragging him down and showing in the minute wavering and tiredness of his voice.

“Then I’d say you have a lonely life ahead of you.”







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






~17~







Sheridan stared at her hands on the steering wheel, her knuckles white, her fingers clenched painfully. She stared at her hands and remembered the scene in Pilar’s living room, the images playing like a mocking slideshow in her mind.

If she weren’t living it or feeling it, she wouldn’t believe it possible to hurt so much and still be breathing.

The snow fell faster now outside her window. Harmony was disappearing beneath a flurry of whiteness. But the Bed and Breakfast loomed before her, looking warm and inviting.

She needed the cold; maybe the numbness would save her.

She stared at her hands again, her eyes drawn to the finger where his ring once rested, and felt a sob rise in her throat along with astonishment over the fact that she had any tears left.

Her hands left the steering wheel to cradle her head, and for a brief moment she wallowed in the enormity of her grief and the choices that had led her to this place in time. In this cold car, all alone as Thanksgiving Day winded down.

She hadn’t deserved them. But had she deserved this?




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






~18~






Marty’s eyelashes curled against his tear-dampened cheeks, thick and dark, his full mouth plumped into a pout even in sleep.

Pilar’s eyes fell on the silver frame clutched close to his heart and a soft sigh fell from her lips, “Mi hijo.” She feathered her fingers tenderly through the sweaty blond strands against her grandson’s forehead, wanting to soothe his sadness away. “Your papa loves you. Very much,” she punctuated her words with a kiss to Marty’s temple.

“You know I do, Mama.” Luis stepped into the darkened room.

“I know,” Pilar answered with a solemn whisper, torn between wanting to comfort her son and wanting to reprimand him for the way he’d handled things with Sheridan earlier. She remained silent, the best she could offer in the circumstances, instead letting Luis speak.

“I DO love him, Mama. You know that,” Luis seemed to seek her reassurance on this statement, and at the nod of her head, continued, “More than my own life. I’d do anything for him—anything to keep him safe and from getting hurt. Sheridan hurts him, Mama. Every time she walks out of that door…”

And you, Pilar thought, studying her son’s profile in the soft light provided by the lamp at Marty’s bedside. Luis wore his pain like a heavy winter coat, his shoulders slumped under its weight. His eyes were dull, his jaw set in an unhappy, hard line.

“Each time is harder than the last,” Luis rubbed a tired hand across his face. “Each goodbye is more painful. But the longer she’s here, the more time she spends with him…it makes it that much more difficult to watch her walk away, to watch him watch her walk away,” the admission seemed to tumble from Luis’s mouth as he crept closer to the bed. Kneeling at its side and dwarfing Marty’s small hands with his larger ones, he coaxed the silver frame from the tiny fingers and reached beyond his mother to place it on the bedside table. “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bear to see that disappointment in his eyes again as he watched her walk out on him. So I did what I did. And it nearly killed me when he looked at ME with that expression. But he still loves her and that makes it okay. ”

“Oh, Luis.” One look at Luis’s glittering, moist eyes and Pilar cupped a palm around his cheek, tears coming to her own eyes. “It doesn’t make it okay.” She brushed the fingertips of her other hand gently across his cheek, both relieved and saddened that there finally appeared to be a breach in the dam and wetness met her touch.

“What can I do, Mama?” Luis asked a broken man’s question. “To make things okay?”

Pilar pulled him into a fierce hug as Sheridan’s sad blue eyes stared at Luis from the silver-framed photograph behind her. “Ask her, Luis. Ask her to stay.”









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





~19~






She’d sat there, unmoving, her blue eyes frozen on her barren hands for almost an hour before the knock startled her.

A face stared back at her from the window, its features blurred but familiar to her, even hidden in shadows.

Frigid air stole through the window as it lowered, and a chill swept down Sheridan’s spine, making her shiver as she gasped in surprise. “Julian!” She rubbed briskly at her arms and regarded her brother questioningly. “Where did you come from? I thought you were at the Mansion.”

Julian didn’t tell her that he’d been standing there, watching her, wanting to offer comfort he didn’t know how to give, for the last five minutes or more. In fact, he didn’t answer her question at all. He simply said, “In case you haven’t noticed, it’s cold out here, Sister Dear. Mother was getting worried.”

For the first time, Sheridan noticed her mother, huddled against the cold and waiting on the Bed and Breakfast’s front steps. Fumbling for her purse in the passenger seat, Sheridan withdrew a small silver key and placed it in Julian’s gloved hands. “Take Mother inside. I’ll just be a few more minutes.”

Julian turned the key over in his hands, fingering the tiny numbers engraved there. He pocketed the key and cast concerned eyes upon his sister. “Sheridan…is everything okay? Did something happen at the Lopez-Fitzgerald house?”

“Nothing happened,” Sheridan lied. “Nothing. I’m fine, Julian. Really.” Julian still looked skeptical, so Sheridan relented. “Well, not really. But I will be. I always am,” she said tearfully when Julian, in a move shocking and uncharacteristic of him, cupped a palm around her trembling chin.

“I’ll order us some hot chocolate.” Julian let his hand drop awkwardly from Sheridan’s face. “You loved it as a child, claimed it always made you feel better.”

“Julian,” Sheridan grabbed her brother’s hand when he turned to leave, ready to stop him, the scene in Pilar’s living room still fresh in her mind. But Julian, she knew, was unaware, and she didn’t want to turn away the kind but misguided gesture so she bit her tongue.

“Yes?” Julian raised a brow in curious expectation. He clung to the fingers that so tightly squeezed his own.

Sheridan’s response was simple but heartfelt, conveying her appreciation for the baby steps Julian was taking in repairing their long-damaged relationship as brother and sister. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Julian gave her hand a fond if embarrassed pat. “Don’t be too long.”

“I won’t,” Sheridan promised. “I just…give me a minute, okay?”

Julian nodded and turned to go, snowflakes swirling around the dark figure he made as he climbed the Bed and Breakfast’s steps and took their mother by the arm. Only when Sheridan had sent a reassuring wave her way did she allow herself to be led inside.

With a sigh, Sheridan rolled the car’s window back up, took the key from the car’s ignition, and reached for her purse again, only to feel her heart clench painfully again. There, at her fingertips’ end, lay a silver compact, THE silver compact.

It was just another reminder that she’d never, ever get over loving and losing Luis. No matter how far or how fast, she couldn’t run from the truth, and her hand in making things the way they were.

She put the compact back inside her purse and stepped outside into the wintry coldness, her head bent against the wind.








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






~20~






“Luis.”

Luis’s eyes fluttered open at Paloma’s faint whisper.

Paloma stood in the doorway to Marty’s bedroom, looking impossibly young in her red and green oversized flannel pajamas. Her hair was loose, flowing, and her feet bare. Her brown eyes welled with remorse as she approached him hesitantly, her movements silent in an effort not to wake her sleeping nephew.

Marty sighed and rolled over away from Luis, curling into a protective ball.

Luis reached to tuck the blankets Marty’s move had dislodged back around his shoulders, stilling when the boy whimpered in his sleep.

“Mama.”

Luis sighed heavily and his shoulders slumped.

Guilt weighed heavily on Paloma’s heart at the sight and apologies spilled from her lips as she padded the short distance across the room to wrap her arms around her brother’s neck. “I’m sorry, Luis. I’m so sorry. I know you love Marty. I know you’re only doing what you think is best for him.”

For a brief moment, Luis hugged her back, then he released her, holding her at arm’s length. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “You were right. You and Papa.”

“Luis,” Paloma interrupted, confusion making her frown. “I don’t understand.”

Careful not to disturb Marty, Luis stood up and moved to stand in front of the window, tracing a finger over the glittering crystals etched on the pane. “I’m scared, Paloma.”

The quiet admission stunned Paloma. Never had she known her brother to be scared, of anything or anyone. She mirrored Luis’s position at the window, touching Luis’s arm with a timid hand. “Luis?” His eyes dark and intense, Luis answered her, though Paloma wasn’t really sure he was aware of her presence in the room anymore.

“Failure. Not giving Marty the family he deserves. Rejection,” he said, his mouth twisted and grim. “Will I be enough? For her to stay?”

“You’re enough,” Paloma cried, gripping his forearm tightly. “You’ve always been enough. Can’t you see that? She loves you. You both love Marty. That’s enough.” Paloma knew her words were naïve, but she believed them, fiercely in this case.

Cognizant again of her presence, Luis told her, “Alistair won’t make it easy.”

“Love isn’t easy, Luis,” Paloma replied, a little exasperated. “So there’ll be obstacles.”

“Obstacles?” Luis’s brows rose. “Attempted murder is not your average obstacle.”

“Well, neither is your stubbornness,” Paloma retorted, taking Luis’s hands in hers and forcing him to look at her. “Luis, do you still love Sheridan?”

“What kind of question is that?” Luis hedged, looking away uncomfortably. “I can’t believe I’m getting advice about love from my little sister.”

“Stop avoiding the question,” Paloma scolded. “Do…you…still…love…her?”

His answer, when it came, was so soft, Paloma almost didn’t hear it. “Yes. Yeah, I still love her. I never stopped. Is that what you wanted to hear?”

Unable to contain her inner joy, Paloma grinned, hugging her brother hard.

“Paloma,” Luis forced out with what little air he had left in his lungs.

“Luis, those obstacles don’t stand a chance.”






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

UAgirl
4.29.07, 12:25 AM
~21~






She’d been mistaken, thinking herself alone.

One perfunctory turn of a silver key, one twist of a knob, revealed differently.

Sheridan gripped her mother’s hand tightly as she glanced around the rented room in disbelief.

Leaning casually against the mantle above the fireplace, Fox greeted her with his all-too familiar smirk. “Aunt Sheridan.”

Fancy rose from the velvet ottoman, her hands clasped in front of her, her expression more sober, but her eyes just as kind. “I hope you don’t mind that we’re here.”

“It’s a little late. But it’s still Thanksgiving,” Ivy appeared at Fancy’s side, nursing a steaming mug of cocoa.

“And Thanksgiving is for families,” Julian said, walking in behind Sheridan and removing his gloves, one at a time, and placing them inside the deep pockets of his long gray overcoat.

Tears again welled in Sheridan’s blue eyes, but this time of the grateful, touched variety. Without thinking, she whirled around and wrapped her arms around Julian’s neck, squeezing hard. With her smooth, damp cheek against his cold cheek, she whispered in his ear, “Thank you.”

Julian’s arms came up to link around Sheridan’s waist almost stiffly, and he lifted a hand to her back, patting awkwardly. He accepted his sister’s thanks with blushing cheeks and cleared his throat embarrassedly before holding her at arms’ length, his heart hammering inside his ribcage. “Your hot chocolate’s probably getting cold.”

“Here,” Katherine held out the ceramic mug. “Not too hot. Not cold. Perfect.”

Taking the mug, Sheridan lifted it to her lips, taking a sip. Finding her voice again, she murmured, “I can’t believe you’re all here. What happened to Thanksgiving at the Mansion?”

“That mausoleum?” Fox scoffed.

“It wasn’t festive enough,” Fancy pouted slightly.

“Thanksgiving’s never festive enough for you,” Fox teased. “There weren’t any presents,” he told Sheridan, grinning and dodging the annoyed swat Fancy tried to give him.

“No presents,” Ivy agreed. “But there was an over-abundance of pie. Sheridan, would you like some?”

“Oh, Aunt Sheridan, it was just divine,” Fancy sighed rapturously.

“Geez,” Fox rolled his eyes good-naturedly at his sister. “We’re talking about pie here. Not sex.”

“Fox!” Fancy cried out indignantly.

The siblings argued, but unlike Sheridan’s altercations with Luis throughout the day, there was no real malice in their words, their actions not borne of hurt or pain. She found herself smiling, watching them, and she accepted the offered pie and their unspoken comfort.

The little room and the warmth within chased away all but the last vestiges of cold.

There was only one person capable of doing that.




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





~22~





Firelight danced across Paloma’s features as she contemplated her next move. Finally, releasing her bottom lip from her teeth’s stronghold, she gave up, muttering, “I can’t believe you’re here, playing checkers with me, when you should be out there, searching for Sheridan and telling her that you love her.”

“Paloma,” Luis spoke warningly, nodding at the checkerboard.

“Luis,” Paloma lifted her brows at her brother.

“It’s your move,” Luis reminded her, fixing his eyes on the checkerboard in front of him.

“No,” Paloma nudged a checker forward. “I believe it’s yours,” she said, her earlier divided focus now concentrated solely on her brother and his seeming nonchalance whenever she mentioned Sheridan. It was as if their conversation in Marty’s bedroom only an hour before had never happened. “Luis, por favor,” Paloma clamped a hand around his wrist when it hovered over the checkerboard. “How can you be so stubborn?”

Luis gently removed Paloma’s hand from his wrist and leaned back, his arms casually wrapped about his middle as he regarded her. “I don’t have to search for her because I know exactly where she is. She’s at the Bed and Breakfast.”

“And you’re still here?!” Paloma exclaimed incredulously, covering her face with her hands.

Luis’s lips twitched at her muffled ‘Dios Mio!’ She sounded just like Mama.

“Men,” Paloma dropped her hands back to her lap. “You’re all so dumb. The smart thing to do…”

Luis cut her off before she could finish. “…is stay here. Sheridan doesn’t want to see me tonight, Paloma. Not after…not after I…” This time, he couldn’t finish, but unlike Paloma he just couldn’t find the words. No matter his intentions earlier, the result hadn’t been anything but painful for all involved.

“You hurt her,” Paloma conceded. “You’ve hurt each other,” she elaborated. “You can change all that tonight.”

“Paloma,” Luis groused. “It’s not that…”

“…easy,” Paloma jumped in. “I know. It won’t happen in a day. It might take the rest of your lives. But it’s the rest of your lives, Luis. Together. Forever. Do you really want to wait to start forever tomorrow?”

Luis shook his head, unfolding his arms and pushing himself to a standing position. “I can’t believe this. Now you’re starting to sound like Theresa.”

Paloma stood up to match her brother’s stance and glowered at him, opening her mouth to respond when another voice, lilting and familiar, beat her to it.

“Is that really so bad?”










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





~23~





Inside the Bed and Breakfast, Fox and Fancy were still competing in the verbal Olympics, with Ivy acting as their exasperated referee and Julian looking on with an expression of mild amusement.

Sheridan curled her arms about her middle protectively and moved from the warm glow of the window, her boots clomping as she traveled down the porch steps and into the frozen wonderland beyond. She lifted her eyes to the sky, blinking as she felt tiny snowflakes melting against her lashes on contact. She tensed when she heard movement behind her, only relaxing when her mother’s familiar voice reached her ears.

“Sheridan Crane,” Katherine gently chastised. “You’ll catch your death of cold.”

Sheridan accepted the heavy quilt Katherine draped over her shoulders with an indulgent smile. Holding one end of the quilt up, she invited Katherine to join her in its cocoon of warmth.

Slipping an arm behind Sheridan’s waist, Katherine pressed her lips to Sheridan’s temple then followed her suit, lifting her own eyes to the heavens with a smile on her face. “It is beautiful, isn’t it?”

Silence reigned on the pair, comfortable silence. Snowflakes floated down from the midnight sky like sparkling jewels, and their warm breath formed faint clouds in the chilly air in front of them. The rest of the world seemed to drift away, leaving them in such utter stillness and solitude, neither desired to create a disturbance, not for several long minutes, minutes of holding each other.

Sheridan’s words, when they finally came, brought an end to the illusion. Her pain was thick and hovered, ghostly, over her shoulders. “I can’t stay, Mother.”

Choosing to be obtuse, Katherine tightened her arm around her daughter’s waist. “Boston’s not that far.”

“Boston’s not far enough,” Sheridan murmured.

“Sheridan,” Katherine could not keep the panic from her voice as she turned Sheridan in her arms, holding her captive. Sheridan’s blue eyes when they finally met hers glittered like sapphires. “Oh, Sheridan, no. What happened tonight? Did Luis say something, do something?”

“Luis isn’t the problem,” Sheridan shook her head. “I’m the problem. I’ve caused him and his family nothing but pain and misery from the moment we met.”

“Sheridan, that’s not true,” Katherine objected. “Alistair’s given them nothing but pain and misery. Not you. You’ve given them life and love and Marty. That little boy is the greatest gift…Listen to me,” she implored her daughter. “The one thing Luis and I agree upon besides our love for you is that that child is precious and worth all the tears and anger and heartache.”

Sheridan’s lips trembled and her eyes closed as she thought again of her sweet little boy’s tears at their parting, and she felt her heart clench painfully at the choices that had led them to this point, her choices. She chose to ‘move on’ with Chris when the pain of Luis’s absence beside her was too much to bear. She chose to mother a son that was not her own, when it seemed she’d never again hold Marty close to her heart. She chose to accept Chris’s proposal when she didn’t want to wear any man’s ring but Luis’s. She chose…. “Marty deserves more than me disrupting his life on holidays and birthdays. I’m not fit to be his mother. I’m not fit to be a mother at all.”

Katherine grasped Sheridan’s hands tightly in her own. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“It’s all my fault,” Sheridan shrank from her mother’s touch, seeking the bitter cold again, the quilt falling to the snow below. “Everything.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Katherine insisted. “Sometimes things just happen without reason or blame.”

“No,” Sheridan wouldn’t be persuaded. “No, Mother, you’re wrong.”

“Sheridan, don’t. Don’t say it,” Katherine cried, clutching her daughter’s shoulders, desperately wanting to shake some sense into her. She dropped her hands in dismay when her efforts proved fruitless.

“The blame rests on me. I killed my baby.”







~24~







“Theresa?” Luis blinked in disbelief.

“I know it’s late,” Theresa spoke apologetically, looking uncertain. “But technically, it IS still Thanksgiving.”

The uncharacteristic tentativeness did him in, finally spurring him into action as he moved to take his little sister into his arms. “Mama will be so happy you’re here.”

Luis’s hug was tight and fierce, making Theresa squeak as she asked, “Mama? What about my big brother?”

Luis held her at arms’ length, meeting her eyes as he solemnly told her, “You know I’m always happy to see you.” He pulled her back into his arms for another quick hug, kissing the top of her glossy dark head. “You’re my little sister.”

Theresa giggled girlishly. “That wasn’t always the case. Right, Paloma?”

“Si,” Paloma smiled back. “Always, Luis?” she teased, walking into her sister’s open arms. “I can’t believe you’re here. Don’t tell me. Your Prince Charming finally made it to the castle and slayed the Dragon.”

“Not quite,” Theresa’s dark eyes danced as she watched Luis roll his eyes. “Not unless Julian Crane fits your description.”

“Julian?” Luis remarked with interest. “I have to hear this.”

“There’s nothing to hear really,” Theresa shrugged, her eyes still sparkling. “Except that I needed Alistair gone, and Julian arranged for it to happen.”

Luis’s brows climbed to his hairline.

“Don’t worry, Luis. It was all perfectly legal, no criminal investigations need to be launched,” Theresa smiled. “Thanks to a little ‘emergency’ engineered by Julian and Fox at one of Crane’s overseas offices, my husband will be very busy for at least the next few days, and I decided it was the perfect time to pay my family a visit. Sorry we’re so late.”

“Wait a minute,” Paloma dark eyes peered over Theresa’s shoulder. “The kids are with you?”

“Outside in the car,” Theresa nodded. “Jane fell asleep on the way over here, and I told Little Ethan to wait a few minutes. Just in case.”

“Just in case?” Luis questioned her when Paloma had gone, not even bothering to throw a coat on over her pajamas. “Theresa, you’re always welcome here, you know that. We love you.”

Theresa squeezed the hand that Luis offered her, tears brimming in her eyes. “I know. I do. It’s just…I know how you feel about Alistair and Ethan and the rest of the Cranes, and I know you think I should divorce him and try my luck winning custody of Little Ethan and Jane in court, but I can’t do it, Luis. I can’t leave my children in that house. I’ve seen what it can do. I won’t,” she vowed, one crystal tear slipping down her cheek as Luis gave her hand a gentle tug, wrapping his arms protectively around her again.

“Shh,” Luis soothed, stroking her hair, the gesture comforting. “It’s okay. We’ll find a way. Soon,” he promised, kissing her forehead as he gently brushed away the evidence of her tears. “You’ll all be home,” he pledged, smiling as Little Ethan burst through the front door, Paloma trailing behind him holding a sleepy, tousled haired Jane, at the same moment their parents emerged from deep within the house, and an exultant ‘Dios Mio!’ escaped from his mother’s lips.

Home where they belonged.




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




~25~



“I killed my baby,” the painful words escaped Sheridan’s mouth a second time. “My baby died because of me. I killed him.”

“Sheridan, no,” Katherine clasped her daughter’s chilled hand and held on. “The doctors explained to you. The pregnancy wasn’t viable. Nothing you could have done would have changed things. The miscarriage wasn’t your fault.”

“You’re wrong,” Sheridan wrenched her hand from her mother’s grasp and whirled around, once again shutting her and her words of reason out.

Katherine’s hands hovered over Sheridan’s shoulders, frozen and uncertain. She felt powerless, unable to prevent her daughter from hurtling down the train wreck of emotion she was on.

“He died because of me. Because I was stupid and selfish and so desperate for affection I didn’t think of anyone else or their feelings. Only mine. He died because…I didn’t love him like a mother should.” Sheridan’s shoulders slumped and her voice dropped to a ragged whisper that Katherine had to strain her ears to hear. “Deep down I resented him. My own child,” she faced her mother again, a broken woman. “I resented him for coming between me and my chance at happiness with Luis. How could I ask Luis to accept and love another man’s child? A constant reminder of my weakness and lack of faith? I…I couldn’t. God help me, I couldn’t, and instead of accepting responsibility for my own choices, my own actions, I blamed an innocent child—my child.”

Katherine remained silent while Sheridan took a shuddering breath, visibly trembling as she spoke her next words, her blue eyes filled with shame.

“I didn’t cry when I lost him. I didn’t scream at God. I…I felt…relief. The guilt and the tears came later. But my life wasn’t over, the last link between me and Chris was gone, and all I could feel was this overwhelming sense of relief,” Sheridan whispered softly. “What kind of person does that make me? What kind of mother? Marty deserves better. My sweet, sweet little boy deserves better. Luis is right. I DO hurt everything and everyone I touch. Just like Father. I’m poison. You’re better off without me. All of you.”

The depth of her daughter’s self-loathing shattered Katherine, and she wept silent tears for the fragile heart laid bare for her, the little girl who’d herself deserved so much more than the mother that had abandoned her to the monster on the hill. “Don’t. Don’t you ever say such a thing again. You are a good mother. A good, decent person, Sheridan. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise,” she hissed vehemently, cradling Sheridan’s tear-stricken face between her hands. “You are a good mother. You’re not poison. You’re not evil. You’re not anything like him. Sheridan, look at me,” Katherine pleaded. “You’re good and kind and everything Alistair Crane is not. Don’t you forget that. You’re human, and because of that, I love you even more. I don’t want to hear anymore of this nonsense about my being better off without you because it just isn’t true.” She opened her arms, and Sheridan crumbled into them. “My life is better for you having been in it. Marty’s life is better.”

Sheridan hugged her mother tighter, desperately wanting one thing.

To believe.







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

UAgirl
4.29.07, 12:26 AM
~26~






Like his parents, Marty had a nose for excitement and a knack for searching it out, even if he was, in this case, a couple of hours late to the party. Trudging into the living room, bleary-eyed and sleep-softened, he still shot Luis an accusing look when he discovered his cousins had arrived and he hadn’t been awakened. “Papa,” he grumped.

Luis held a finger to his lips, shushing any further protestations Marty might make.

Beside her brother on the sofa, Theresa smiled at her little nephew and reached out a beckoning hand.

Marty climbed over Little Ethan’s prone body, stumbling over the socked foot peeking out from beneath the bed of blankets scattered on the living room floor, and went willingly into Theresa’s open arms, snuggling against her sleepily. “I knew you’d come,” he yawned, rubbing at his eyes with his small fists.

“Of course,” Theresa murmured against Marty’s golden brow, her lips curved into a smile as she teased him with a little tidbit gleaned from her brother’s lips. “Too bad I missed out on Mama’s pie though. That Hank. He’s such a pig.”

Luis hid his smile at the guilty expression Marty tried to hide as he nodded his head beneath Theresa’s chin, strands of his blond hair sticking up in every direction.

“Maria too,” Marty ventured.

“Maria too,” Theresa agreed, meeting her brother’s laughing eyes as she smoothed her hands down Marty’s flannel-covered back and up again. She tickled her nails across the nape of the little boy’s neck soothingly as she pressed her cheek against his silky crown.

Marty relaxed even more in her arms, his growing legs stretching out across Theresa’s lap and his bare feet coming to rest against Luis’s jean-clad thigh. Sighing softly, he twirled his fingers around the necklace around Theresa’s neck. “Did Jane get to come too?”

“Tucked her in with Aunt Paloma an hour ago,” Luis answered the question in the affirmative, relieved to find the ice was melting between them when the comment earned a small grin.

“You tucked Aunt Paloma in?”

“What? You saying she’s too big to be tucked in?” Luis tugged playfully at one of Marty’s toes, capturing the small feet in his hands when they tried to squirm away.

“Your papa used to tuck me and Miguel and Paloma in all the time,” Theresa divulged, casting a fond look at her big brother as she revisited the bittersweet memories of her childhood.

“What about Grandpa?” Marty frowned, his forehead crinkling in confusion just before a jaw-cracking yawn had him blinking sleep-heavy lids.

“Grandpa,” Theresa paused to mull over her response, “Grandpa loved us, but he couldn’t be with us, so Luis tucked us in every night with a kiss from Grandpa and a promise that he would come back and one day we’d all be a family.”

Silence fell upon them, the only sounds in the dimly lit living room the crackling fire and Little Ethan’s soft snores while Marty seemed to consider Theresa’s words, his responding question breaking and opening up Luis’s heart again.

“Aunt Theresa, does she not love us enough? Is that why we’re not a family?”


~*~*~*~*~*~

shuisforever121
5.28.07, 1:31 AM
UA,
Please write more of this soon. It's such a great story. Really looking forward to reading more of this. please continue this soon and if possible, complete it too.

UAgirl
5.28.07, 7:56 PM
Skimmed over this quickly for mistakes, but I'm not perfect. ;)

This is for shuisforever121 and all the others who wouldn't let me forget this fic, lol. As if I could...oh, the angst...I'm such a sucker for it.

I'll do my best to finish this up in a timely fashion, but keep in mind I'm in my last, extremely BUSY semester so time of the free variety to do actual fun things is enormously limited so...just saying.

Hope you enjoy the new chapters.

Until next time.














~27~




Her tears had been many, but they were dry now.

Her face was solemn, her eyes full of a new determination.

The heavy door creaked shut behind her, and the glowing candlelight flickered in the draft the movement created.

The click-clack of her boots sounded loud to her own ears, but nary a soul stirred as she traveled the long aisle.

The church was empty, and yet she could feel them all around her, the ghosts of her past, the faint memories of the miracle her life in Harmony had been for too short a while.

She could hear the faint echo of Luis’s “I love you” within these hallowed halls, and she could picture their friends and family seated before them with smiles on their faces, patiently waiting for them to pledge to love and honor each other for a lifetime.

They’d come so close to having it all, so many times, and she’d clung to those bittersweet memories fiercely as she’d lived, drifted along really, in a pale imitation of life ever since.

She couldn’t do that anymore, she decided, as she lifted her face and prayed to God and his angels for the strength to do what needed to be done.

It was time to love them enough to let them go.




~*~*~*~*~*~



~28~





“Uncle Luis!” Maria burst through the front door, pulling Jane by the hand along with her, both girls rosy cheeked and breathless with giggles. “We need a nose for our snowman, and Little Ethan wants your help to make him a police man just like you and my grandpa.”

Jane pulled her hand free to push her blond hair behind her shoulders. Bouncing on the balls of her feet, she left a melting puddle of snow and ice in her wake.

“Jane,” Theresa deftly sidestepped her brother to reach her daughter’s side. “You’re making a mess.”

Her voice lowering to a stage whisper, Jane tugged at the layers of clothes her abuela and her mother had armed her with before even allowing her to set foot in the winter wonderland that had sparkled and beckoned with the morning’s dawning, “I gotta go to the baffroom, Mama.”

Smiling as his sister steered a waddling Jane in the right direction, Luis returned his attention back to Maria when he heard her pointedly clear her throat and whine his name. “You want to borrow my badge?”

“Uh huh,” Maria nodded with serious blue eyes.

Do you promise to bring it back? I can’t catch the bad guys without it,” Luis told her.

“Uncle Luis,” Maria threw her arms up in exasperation then settled them on her small hips and struck a pose reminiscent of her mother.

“Okay,” Luis relented with a grin. “Go back outside. I’ll bring it to you. Hey, Maria?” he called when Maria paused in front of the fireplace to snatch a protesting Samantha into her arms. “Have you seen Marty? Is he outside helping with the snowman?”

“Nope,” Maria answered him with a shrug of her thin shoulders, dark curls bouncing behind her as she marched back outside. “Don’t forget, Uncle Luis.”

“I won’t,” Luis promised, letting the curtains fall back into place as he turned to leave in search of his young son. “Mama,” he pushed the door to the kitchen open, “have you seen…Mama? What is she doing here?”

Lifting her chin proudly and standing tall, Katherine Crane commanded his attention. “I’m here to keep you from making a terrible mistake.”

Luis looked to his mother, but she refused to meet his eyes, staring instead at an undefined point somewhere over Katherine’s shoulder. Looking back to Katherine, he waited for her to continue, and after a brief pause, she did.

“Sheridan wouldn’t listen. My only hope is that you will.”




~*~*~*~*~*~



~29~





“This seat taken?”

Attempting to hide her embarrassment with an overly bright smile, Sheridan hastily wiped at her eyes and stood up to accept the bear hug Hank pulled her into. “Hank, what are you doing here?”

“Forget that,” Hank held her at arms length, searching her watery blue eyes. “The question is, what are *you* doing here? I ran into your niece at the luggage check-in. It looked like she had everything she owned and then some packed up and ready to go. Like she’s leaving Harmony forever,” he laughed. His laughter faded at the serious, somber expression she wore.

Sheridan bit her lip, busying her fingers with the soft leather of Hank’s collar then moving on to the woolen fringe of the scarf around his neck. “We’re going to catch some of the sales in New York before, before…” her voice wavered slightly before she carried on, shying away from his worried brown eyes. “She was really sweet, Hank. She offered to help me find a place to start over and to get me settled in, and I needed the friendly face so far from ho—so far away from Harmony.”

Hank followed her to the cushioned chairs below, running a disbelieving hand through his hair as he cut her a glance from the corner of his eyes. “So this is it? You’re really leaving this time?”

“I am,” Sheridan whispered softly, leaning companionably against his solid form and taking comfort in the arm he tossed about her shoulders. “Marty and Luis,” she paused, taking a long, shuddery breath, “they deserve so much better than me, Hank.”

“Are you kidding, Beautiful?” Hank murmured against her temple as he held her close and let her cry on his shoulder. “You’re the best damn thing that’s ever happened to them.”




~*~*~*~*~*~


~30~



“Do you know why Sheridan didn’t call off the wedding, Luis?”

They were outside, the children’s cheerful laughter swirling around them with the snowflakes.

Luis buried his hands in his pockets, hunching his shoulders against the sharp hint of winter in the air, and wished he’d made allowances for the weather before he’d agreed to come out here. “It doesn’t matter,” he shrugged. “She still chose him, no matter what her reasons.”

The bitterness of his misunderstanding made Katherine’s heart ache, and she silently asked her daughter’s forgiveness for what she found it necessary to reveal to him. “You’re wrong, Luis. She didn’t choose Chris. She chose the baby.”

“James wasn’t a baby, and he wasn’t her son,” Luis whirled on her, daring her to pretend otherwise.

“Not James, Luis,” Katherine didn’t back down. “The baby she carried—Chris’s baby.” When he said nothing in response, she pressed on. “She was so worried of failing him like she’d failed Marty…”

Luis cut in, his words insistent and at direct odds with the claims he himself had made in the past, “She didn’t fail Marty, at least not on her own. I’m just as responsible, just as much to blame.”

If Katherine was surprised, she hid it well, clasping her gloved hands together and holding them in front of her. “She chose the baby, Luis, and a life with Chris and James even though her heart wanted something different. Even though,” she held Luis’s gaze with hers, “her heart wanted you and the son you’d brought home to her. She felt it was the only choice she could make.”

The echoes of Maria’s and Little Ethan’s happy squeals welcoming Martin, Sam, and Noah back drifted to them on the wind, and the conversation stuttered to a brief stop before Luis picked it back up with an emotion-laden response.

“It wasn’t her only choice.”

Stepping in close to him and looking deeply into his glittering dark eyes, Katherine softly implored him to see things through her daughter’s eyes, to understand. “She couldn’t burden you with the irrevocable evidence of her weakness.”

“It was a baby,” Luis’s jaw tightened. “Her baby. I would have…” he broke off, closing his eyes tightly before continuing in a low, passionate whisper that rang of truth, “I would have loved that baby just because it was hers.”

“Even while you wished it were yours too?” Katherine smiled sadly.

Luis shook his head, putting some distance back between them and turning his back on her. “You can’t fault me for wishing Chris had never happened.” The comment hung heavily in the air between, the realization that, indirectly, he’d just wished an innocent child’s existence away shaking Luis to his very core and making his throat grow tight with regret for the way he’d let his own hurt feelings blind him to Sheridan’s pain. He held on to the hand Katherine offered him, shivering at her cool kiss to his cheek.

“There’s still time,” she whispered, opening his palm and placing a piece of paper into his hand. “Don’t waste it.”

The soft crunch of her boots in the snow gradually faded away, replaced by the forlorn little voice he’d sought to hear the entire day.

“Papa? What’s that in your hand?” Marty’s blue eyes were big and round and expectant. “Papa?” Marty repeated worriedly when still his father didn’t answer.

“Give this to your abuela,” Luis tucked the paper into Marty’s red mittens and pressed a kiss to the little boy’s furrowed brow.

“Luis, can you give us a hand? Luis?” Paloma jumped out of her brother’s way as he swept past her, Jessica, and Kay and their mountains of shopping bags, digging the keys to his jeep out of his pants pocket without a backwards glance to them. “Luis!” Turning to Marty, Paloma wondered aloud what was behind her brother’s strange behavior while Kay carefully took the piece of paper from Marty’s hands. “Marty? What was that all about? Where’s your Papa going in such a hurry? Kay, por favor, what does the paper say?”

Kay frowned, trying to make sense of the numbers she read. “It looks like…”

“Let me see that,” Jessica snatched the paper from her sister’s hands. “It’s a flight number.”

“Why would Luis be going to the airport?” The scowl directed at Jessica froze on Kay’s face, to be quickly replaced with an expression much like the one of dawning comprehension on Paloma’s own.

“Sheridan.”


~*~*~*~*~*~
























Thanks so much for reading!!!

Feedback is much appreciated and loved--it's what keeps me going. :)

dumplin0608
5.28.07, 11:07 PM
i hope you continue soon!

forgottendreams57
5.29.07, 2:22 AM
But then again I have always loved your writing and I think my comments show that!

I look forward to this one as I do Believe and Anna Begins.....theres just something about them.....but this one...this one is just....powerful and i love that about it! I love the emotion you have in every scene, every line...pulls me in and makes me want it to continue reading but there isn't anything until the next time!

I so loved these last scenes....the sorrow..the wanting to completely forgive but the idea of doing so can scare the crap out of you but once one shows you everything you could lose, you try everything to reach out and grip that one more chance...and you give that off so well in that last chapter....

until the next post....

D (had to go and change my name to post on these boards....i so don't feel like me without the name "passions57" attached :()

hopeandlove
5.29.07, 5:07 PM
Hey Shae, guess who's loving it?

Superb! I have loved this story the moment you put it on the Fanfic boards for the first time, and I'm ready for it! Love bringing Katherine into the story: Sheridan has always needed a mother.

Post more soon! I'm HOOKED!

mr peepers
5.29.07, 6:25 PM
Awwwww! I am so glad that you went back to this one. I adore it and as you know, everything about your writing! I would love to bring you in to teach my classes about emotion and intensity in writing. Can I hire you? Hehehe

UAgirl
10.28.07, 8:19 PM
Hope you guys still remember this one.

So, so sorry for the long wait for new chapters.











~31~




Sheridan whirled around at the gentle, hesitant touch of a hand on her arm.

Fancy’s blue eyes were soft with kindness. Over her shoulder, Hank’s brown eyes mirrored her expression. “It’s time to go.”

Stepping around Fancy, Hank held out his arm and nodded to the carry-on Sheridan shouldered. “I’ll take that. It’s the least I can do since you ladies so graciously invited me along on your trip.”

Through the red haze of her sadness, a tiny smile tugged at the corners of Sheridan’s mouth at Fancy’s disbelieving eye roll; Hank had all but invited himself. “Thanks, Hank,” she murmured, letting him take the bag.

“For you, Beautiful?” Hank lifted Sheridan’s chin with his fingers, offering her an encouraging smile. “Anything.” Pressing a kiss to her hair when she surprised him with a hug, he met Fancy’s wide blue gaze over her shoulder and raised his brows. Hank let the bag slide from his arm and wrapped his arms tight around Sheridan. “You think I’m kidding?” he squeezed her shoulder in emphasis. “Use me. Abuse me. I’ll like it,” he winked, causing her to laugh and Fancy to roll her eyes again as she handed the bag back to him with a barely perceptible nod.

“Just remember,” Fancy warned, threading her arms through Sheridan’s arm and gently pulling her from Hank’s embrace toward the gate, “you asked for it. Right, Aunt Sheridan?”

“Right.” The light of gratitude shone in Sheridan’s tearful blue eyes as Hank hurried to fall into step beside them, and Fancy filled her ears with excited chatter about cute little purses and to-die-for shoes. When she would have looked back, Hank’s firm hand at the small of her back gave her strength even as her feet betrayed her and refused to move forward.

“What’s that saying?” His brown eyes were still kind but filled with an iron will that brooked no argument. “How does it go again? If you love someone…”

With a determined step forward, Sheridan finished for him, her voice but a faint whisper.

“Set them free.”





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






~32~



Snow blanketed the miles that stretched from Harmony to the small airport, and blue lights flickered across Luis’s stoic face. Sirens wailed as well, but Luis couldn’t hear them over the roar of his own heartbeat.

Despite the flashing blue lights and frequent honking of his horn, the owners of the vehicles crowding the roadway in front of him seemed unmoved, or simply too harried, to heed any attention to his efforts at passing them by. They spared him nary a glance until he pulled over onto the shoulder of the road, the jeep bouncing across the rougher terrain and underneath a traffic light just before it changed to green.

Snowflakes dotted his windshield, chased away by frantic wipers, and Luis cursed under his breath as traffic again stalled to a standstill before the airport exit. A plane roared overhead, and the feeling of dread that had taken hold with Katherine’s parting words tightened its fist-hold on Luis’s gut, causing him to tap impatiently at his horn once again. “Come on,” he bit out when the only response was traffic moving in a slow crawl ahead of him. The minutes seemed interminable to him before the airport, with its tall glass windows and warm yellow lights glowing through the thick snowfall, loomed in front of him.

The jeep squealed to a stop, and Luis didn’t spare a second glance to the curious onlookers’ stares as he wheeled around them, his dark eyes frantically scanning his surroundings. Grabbing the arm of the first uniformed person he laid eyes upon, he blurted out the number burned into his memory with the bitter taste of his regrets.

“I’m sorry, Sir,” the man answered, carefully extracting Luis’s hand from his arm, “but I can’t help you.”

“What do you mean ‘you can’t help me’?” Luis fumbled through his pockets for his badge until he remembered Maria and the snowman and swore under his breath. “Look,” he took out his cell, flipping it open and skimming his phone book until the number to Sam’s cell phone came into view, “Luis Lopez-Fitzgerald. I’m with the Harmony P.D. The Police Chief can confirm it for you; I’ll let you talk to him. You *have* to help me.”

“I can’t help you,” the man repeated calmly, unblinking in the face of Luis’s anger.

“Sam? Sam, listen. I’m…yeah, I’m at the airport. I need you to…yeah,” Luis grabbed hold of the man’s arm once again when he made a move to leave. “I’m going to let you talk to him.” He thrust the phone at the man, dark eyes searching again, heart beating double time and stalling at each flash of blond that filled his vision. His heart stopped in his chest, though, when he heard the man’s voice beside him snap with impatience, and his world, in that moment, stood still.

“I can’t help him because he’s too late!” In a softer voice he continued, sympathetic eyes focused on Luis’s stricken face. “I’m sorry.”

Voice rough with disbelief, Luis shook his head. “No. That’s not possible. I can’t be too late. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m sorry, Sir. Really I am.” He handed the cell phone back to Luis.

Numbly, Luis closed the cell phone, unable to think about saying goodbye to Sam and frowned at the stranger so uncomfortable in the face of his misery. “There has to be a mistake…”

“I’m afraid there’s no mistake, Mr. Lopez-Fitzgerald. The Crane jet has already left the runway for New York. A few minutes earlier…” he trailed off, giving Luis’s shoulder an awkward pat.

A few minutes earlier, Luis thought as he lowered his chin to his chest in disappointment, feeling emotion wrap tight fingers around his throat.

Sheridan had left him and Marty and Harmony behind forever, taking his last chance with her.




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







As always, thanks for reading!!!

Feedback is love!

forgottendreams57
10.29.07, 1:47 AM
i haven't been here in awhile. . .life is getting busier with each passing moment. . .

thought i would stop in today and look what I found some fun reading!!:hatter:

enjoyed it as always...i don't think i have ever NOT enjoyed reading one of your fics. . .this one along with BELIEVE and ANNA BEGINS are well ones that i enjoy beyond --- beyond what i do not know....you are an amazing writing and pretty much the main reason why i keep poking my head into here...keep it up!!

until the next time...

D

dolphin711
11.3.07, 10:09 AM
I am so glad to see the new chapter of this story. Loved it!
Poor Luis! And poor Sheridan! It is so sad that Luis believes that Sheridan has left Marty and him behind forever. Luis doesn't give up that easily so I am hoping that he will do whatever he has to in order to get the woman he loves back. LOL! Poor Sheridan! I hope they both come to their senses and realize that they can no longer live without each other.
Enjoyed the comedy with Fancy's eye rolls and Hank as obnoxious as ever but sweet that he is trying his best to help Sheridan.

Can't wait to read the next chapter to see how you make this happen..... I mean the Shuis reunion! LOL! I want my Shuis happy ending, you know!

UAgirl
11.11.07, 11:16 PM
Sniff, sniff.

I've finally done it. Something I haven't managed to do in years.

I've finished a fic.

:D

Celebrate with me, friends.

LOL!

I say finished, and that is technically true. There is an epilogue in the works for those interested (raise your hand if you are *wink, wink*).

Thanks to all those who stayed with me this long; much love, and I'll tell you just how much soon (I've stayed up way past my bedtime on a work night to finish this up, lol).

On to the fic.

Enjoy!

~33~





“I don’t understand,” Sheridan fretted, wringing her hands for lack of anything better to do. Save for a crumpled day-old copy of the Harmony Herald, the row of cushioned seats was empty. “It has to be here. This is the last place…”

“Perhaps you should check the ladies’ room.”

Sheridan heard the note of thinly disguised exasperation in the suggestion but responded with a tight smile anyway, “The ladies’ room was the second place I checked after…” She didn’t have to finish the rest of her sentence; they both knew the ladies’ restroom had been thoroughly looked over, a second destination following their current location—the first and last place searched. “It’s not there.” Sighing, she tried to keep her voice steady as she admitted what they both suspected, “Someone must have taken it.” She couldn’t meet the pair of puzzled pale eyes in front of her; to him, she knew, it was only a compact, and her behavior over its loss the foolishness of a woman’s whims. How could she explain that, to her, it was so much more?

“The Crane family have always been respected patrons of this facility. Maybe we can work out some type of compensation. Was the item an antique? A family heirloom?”

“I’m afraid its only value was sentimental.” The lump in her throat made even that statement difficult to compose. For the first time, Sheridan saw understanding flicker across the man’s bored countenance and felt pity in his gentle touch to still her restless hands.

“There’s still the chance it could be found.”

His awkward touch fell away, and Sheridan could only nod quietly as he continued to speak, even offering to give a description of the lost compact to his employees in the event that they made its unlikely discovery. She looked up sharply, however, with the mention of New York.

“…New York has already departed. Unfortunately, with the worsening snowstorm, our next flight out has been delayed.”

Sheridan found her eyes drawn to the tall windows that lined the small airport’s walls, belatedly noticing that the runway was all but obscured by thick sheets of white. The Crane private jet, carrying Fancy and Hank, was already gone, one of the last flights to leave before the weather conditions had deteriorated to the state they were currently in. Unconsciously, she wrapped her arms tight around herself, feeling a shiver run down her spine as she stared at the wintry wasteland. Absently, she asked, “How long?”

“Pardon me?” Pale irises studied her profile in confusion.

Shaking herself out of her reverie, Sheridan faced the man and offered him an apologetic smile that didn’t quite meet her eyes then clarified, “How long do you expect the delay to be?”

Now it was his turn to apologize. “I’m afraid these matters are never predictable. It could be minutes, hours, possibly even days. Of course, you’re welcome to wait here, however long that may be. But if I might make a suggestion, there’s a lodge just down the road a piece that would be much more comfortable. I’d be happy to make the accommodations for you.”

“No,” Sheridan answered softly. “No thank you. I think I’ll,” she broke off to study her surroundings and dwindling clusters of people and families in the same predicament as her, “just stay here if you don’t mind.”

“I’m sure it wouldn’t be too much trouble to arrange a car to take you home.”

Inwardly, Sheridan winced, both at the knowledge that the offer had only been made to her because of her Crane name and the realization that she didn’t have a home here in Harmony, never really had. “I appreciate the kind offer, but that won’t be necessary.”

“If you change your mind…”

She watched him slowly be swallowed up by the remaining crowd before turning around, her fingers tightening around her purse strap in surprise when she ran straight into a solid wall of muscle and felt two strong hands close over her upper arms to steady her. Biting her lip in embarrassment, she blurted out an apology without looking up, “I’m so sorry. I wasn’t watching where I was going.” Moving to snatch her hand back from its warm resting place, she felt her capabilities of speech flee her when a large hand quickly covered hers, holding it still, and she realized she could feel the strong beat of the heart that lay beneath her palm. Swallowing hard, she felt her cheeks inexplicably flush with heat, and her own heart speed up within her chest in what felt like recognition. It couldn’t be, she chastised herself, shaking her head and closing her sore eyes against the frustrating tears she felt pricking. Wishful thinking, foolish dreams, damned heart, she told herself as she lifted her face and steeled herself to meet a stranger’s face, even as his familiar scent filled her senses and a traitorous sob escaped her lips. “I didn’t mean to crash into you. Again,” she laughingly cried when gentle thumbs captured her tears and the moist brown eyes she loved so sparkled back at her.

“Guess I’m going to have to arrest you.”





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





~34~






The stars were high in the midnight sky, shining down upon them like polished diamonds as Luis opened the jeep door and offered his hand.

Multi-colored Christmas twinkle lights blinked cheerfully in welcome and a thin curl of smoke wafted from the chimney, but the house and night itself were quiet until silvery laughter spilled forth helplessly.

Frowning at the absence of her fingers from his hand, Luis felt the stern expression melt away when he spied the source of her laughter.

The children’s snowman stood proud in the reflection of the stars and twinkle lights, Harmony PD badge prominently displayed and Luis’s own police jacket draped across the spindly branches that made up its arms. Those features, along with the bark eyebrows, left minimal doubt as to the identity of the snowman.

“It’s you,” Sheridan stated the obvious, smoothing a fingertip over the rough bark’s surface with a smile.

Her blue eyes glittered at him in the darkness, and Luis felt his heart swell with painful, thankful tenderness that it wasn’t with tears this time. “Yeah, well,” the corners of his mouth quirked, undermining the grouchy tone he tried to affect when he said, “He’s the snowman me. He doesn’t need a jacket.” Carefully, he disrobed the snowman, settling the jacket instead over Sheridan’s shoulders and drawing her close until he felt her warm breath against his face. When she shivered, he slipped his arms around her beneath the jacket and pulled her against him. “Better?” he murmured against her hair.

Pressing her cold nose into the crease of Luis’s neck, Sheridan nodded, letting him hold her and soaking in his bodily warmth. Seconds turned into minutes, and finally the urge to speak again grew too strong to ignore. “Did you mean it, Luis?” she asked in a small voice. “Really? When you asked me to stay?” Her eyes stayed focused on her hands when Luis held her at arms’ length, stubbornly refusing to meet his gaze even when he lifted her chin in one hand.

Sighing, he tucked her hair behind her ear and spoke as sincerely as he could, “I meant it. Every word. Even the ones I wasn’t brave enough to say.” He smiled slightly when that comment earned him her unwavering attention, and her blue eyes searched his face for some hint, some clue as to what he could possibly mean. Taking a deep breath, he spelled it out for her and watched her eyes fill with crystal tears again, this time of the happy variety. “Marty loves you, Sheridan. I love you. How could I let you leave Harmony and take my heart with you?”

Holding up a shaky hand to her mouth, Sheridan tried to lighten the intensity of the moment with laughter and teasing, “That’s corny, Luis.” She sought out his hand in her own, squeezing it gently before pulling him along.

Luis fell into step behind her, a solid shield against the night’s chill, and whispered into her ear, “Come on, you know you loved it.” His eyes were laughing at her as he trapped her between his body and the front door, keys in hand.

Fingers looping through his belt loops, Sheridan backed through the open door, red and blue and green twinkle lights reflecting in her azure irises as she stared up at him. “Only because I love you.”

The air grew thick between them, and Luis struggled to catch his breath long after she’d left his sight, disappearing into the living room on silent feet. He found her standing before the Christmas tree, touching her fingertips to a homemade ornament he recognized as belonging to their son, and he was hit again with the enormity of the chance they were taking, allowing themselves to love again. “It won’t be easy,” he warned, taking her hand in his.

“It never has been,” Sheridan whispered back, studying the contrast of their fingers. “Nothing worthwhile ever is.” She looked deep into his eyes, seeing for herself that he recognized the truth in her statement.

“Everything else is just a pale imitation,” Luis agreed. He squeezed her hand before letting it go and delving into his jeans pocket. “I almost forgot.” He opened his hand, earning a gasp from her. “I found this.”

Sheridan took the compact from his hands and looked at him with her heart in her eyes, her words taking on an added meaning that only Luis understood. “I thought I’d lost it forever.”

“Not lost,” Luis told her. “Just misplaced.”

“Misplaced.” Sheridan’s smile grew, along with her realization; bless Fancy and Hank. She was still smiling when she pressed a soft kiss against Luis’s stubble-roughened cheek.

Their warm breath mingled in the nonexistent space between them when she pulled back, but though he ached to take her in his arms and give her a kiss of less innocent intent, Luis recognized she wasn’t ready. They weren’t ready. There’d be plenty of time for those kind of kisses later. He pressed his lips against her furrowed brow with a sigh and let them linger.

“Luis?” Sheridan questioned as he cupped her elbow in one hand and lifted the fingers of the other to her mouth to shush her.

“Marty won’t mind an early Christmas present.” Luis grinned at her, gently pulling her away from the looming shadow of the Christmas tree and down the hallway toward the bedroom where their son slept with his cousins.

“It’s late. Let him sleep.”

The half-hearted protest was belied with an anticipation she couldn’t hide, and the expression was so reminiscent of their son, Luis realized he’d only been kidding himself when he’d claimed his last chances dried up and gone; for her, for Marty, there was no obstacle not worth taking on.

Sheridan hesitated at the doorway, breath pent in until Luis tangled their fingers together and pulled her over the threshold.

In the stillness of the night, a child’s joyous cries filled the air.

“Mama! You’re home!”






























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









As always, thanks for reading!!!

Let me know if there are any glaring mistakes; I wanted to get this up tonight and may have overlooked a few things.

Hope I didn't pour on the schmaltz (sp?) too thick.

LOL!

I thought it was the least you guys deserved after all the angst. And it goes without saying that feedback is love (and you have to raise your hand if you're interested in that epilogue)!

UAgirl
11.25.07, 9:24 PM
Hi guys!

Sorry it's taken me so long to get this up; hope it's worth the wait.

Just a note...the word count on the previous 34 chapters was around 15-16,000; the epilogue alone flirts with 5,000 words.

How do you like them apples?

LOL!

Posting this here and at the old boards.

Enjoy!





~Epilogue~




“It won’t be easy.”


~*~


Her father, it seemed, had mellowed with age. No longer did Sheridan have to worry about his murderous attempts on her life; he was content, instead, to seek Luis’s professional ruin and the obliteration of the strong bonds among the Lopez-Fitzgerald family.

Christmas Eve found Sheridan staring sightlessly into a gray, miserable, darkening sky, her head and her heart waging a war that couldn’t be won. She blinked back the sting of tears when she felt two large hands sweep briefly over her shoulders before being replaced by a weight almost as heavy as the one on her conscience. Her fingers played with the jacket’s zipper as she worked up the courage to speak, to lay voice to her tormented thoughts. But her words caught in her throat when Luis’s hands covered hers, and he eased the zipper up, almost to her chin.

“There,” he said in a low whisper. “Mama thought you might be cold.” He frowned at her brimming tears, squeezing her hands in concern. Her name escaped his lips on a sigh. “Sheridan.”

“They should be here, Luis.”

She didn’t have to say their names; Luis understood anyway. “They should,” he agreed, tightening his hands around hers when she moved to pull away. “Theresa and the kids,” he began, tucking a golden curl behind her ear, “they should be here. But you’re not at fault, Sheridan. Your father is.”

“If it weren’t for me,” Sheridan’s protests died beneath Luis’s fingertips.

“If it weren’t for you, our son wouldn’t be inside right now practically bursting with happiness,” Luis reminded her, a small smile tugging at his mouth as he remembered the way he’d left his son mere minutes ago: lugging around the wriggling ball of fur that had been a gift (an un-discussed surprise actually) from the woman in front of him.

Not even the knowledge that the puppy had apparently already wormed its way into Luis’s hard-fought-for affections and softened his no-pets stance was enough to make Sheridan smile. She shrugged away from him, unable to meet his eyes as she said her next piece. “No, Luis. Don’t try to make excuses. Don’t try to make things right when they obviously aren’t. Theresa and the children are practically prisoners in my father’s house. You’ve been suspended from the police force because of evidence he fabricated. And,” she lost her tenuous grasp on her emotions, her stoic mask crumpling before him, “I ignored your wishes and bought our son a dog when you said he couldn’t have one.” The edge of hysteria she heard in her own voice embarrassed her, and she whirled around, covering her face with her hands as she cried. The tears came faster when she felt his arms wrap around her waist from behind and felt his breath stir the hair at her temple.

“First of all, you are not responsible for your father’s actions,” Luis tightened his arms around her, lips tasting the salt of her tears as they caressed her chilled cheek. “And secondly, don’t worry about the police force,” he murmured into her ear. “Sam and the guys are working on it. Alistair and his trumped up charges don’t stand a chance; he’s not going to get away with it this time.”

“But Theresa and Little Ethan, and Jane,” Sheridan wouldn’t be convinced.

“Will find a way,” Luis promised, pressing his lips more firmly against her damp cheek before slowly turning her in his arms and looking into her wet eyes. “But the dog,” a slow, teasing smile crept over his handsome features, “I’m afraid the dog’s the real deal-breaker. The dog absolutely has to go. With you,” he elaborated when his attempt at banter fell a little flat in the face of her worries. “So Marty and I have a reason to visit every day.” He released a relieved little breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding when that comment finally earned him the sought-after smile.

“You don’t need a reason, Luis.” Sheridan’s hand as she lifted it to Luis’s cheek was swallowed by the sleeve of Luis’s jacket.

Her little mewl of frustration made Luis grin. He covered her hand with his own and used his other arm to wrap around her waist and pull her flush against him, his intent clear: to kiss her (properly) finally. It was his turn to growl with frustration when he felt her small hands pushing against his chest. What is it now, he wondered, using one of his thumbs to soothe the furrowed line between her brows while he watched her bite her lip in hesitation. “Sheridan?” he prompted gently.

“It’s always going to be this way. Isn’t it? Always fighting. Is it really worth it, Luis?” Sheridan looked at him doubtfully. “Am I really worth it?”

“Sheridan,” Luis framed her face between his work-callused hands, shaking his head at her as he brought their foreheads together. How could she ask, think, such a thing?

“Luis,” she breathed his name back at him, her lips brushing faintly against his mouth as they moved to form the word. Her fingers clenched in the soft material of his sweater at his answering groan. “It’s a fair question, Luis. I…”

“Mama! Papa!” Marty burst through the door in that moment, his newfound friend scampering behind him, with the red ribbon that had previously adorned his neck hanging limply from his mouth. “Aunt Paloma’s going caroling, and she said we could come and Grandpa and Abuela too. We’re going to go sing to Aunt Theresa!” Marty bounced on the balls of his feet, breathless and beaming with poorly contained excitement.

Paloma materialized behind Marty, wrapping a long green scarf around her neck and pulling on her gloves. “If Theresa can’t come to us, we’ll go to her.”

Sheridan smiled at Martin and Pilar when they stepped over the threshold hand in hand, cheeks flushing from the cold and anticipation. “Each year Father Lonagin and members of the church stop by the Mansion to sing Christmas carols,” she told Luis, warming inside at the excitement brewing in his own expressive eyes. “Father hates it, but he allows it because Ivy convinced him it was good press for the family. He won’t do anything with the cameras rolling, Luis.” Martin gave her shoulder a fatherly pat as he stepped around her to pick up Marty, squirming puppy and all.

Pilar fussed with the navy scarf around her grandson’s neck, dodging wet puppy kisses while attempting to pull Marty’s matching hat down over his ears. “Mi hija,” she scolded Sheridan with affection as her attempts to elude the eager pink tongue eventually proved fruitless, and she lifted a gloved hand to her cheek.

“What she really means, Sheridan,” Paloma laughed, “is you really shouldn’t have. Are you and Luis coming?” Her parents, Marty in tow, clattered down the front steps behind her as she looked from Sheridan to her brother and back. She raised a brow when Sheridan only looked at Luis questioningly.

“Go ahead. We’ll be right behind you,” Luis answered, giving her a gentle push forward. “You,” he pointed at Sheridan as he backed through the open door, “stay right where you are.”

Marty’s exuberant chatter soon faded into the quickly falling twilight, and Sheridan, left to wonder what was taking Luis so long, stepped over the threshold, right into Luis’s path. Luis’s hand on her hip, she knew, was meant to steady her, but it only served to throw her even more off-balance than she already found herself this evening. “Luis, what…I don’t understand. What is this?” she questioned when he held out his free hand and a pretty, delicate gold chain dangled over then curled into her palm. Her fingers trembled slightly as they worked at the tiny clasp holding the heart locket together, and she felt her heart jump into her throat when, finally successful, she opened it to find her own likeness, along with that of Marty, smiling up at her. “Luis,” she lifted her gaze to Luis’s expectant face. “Oh, Luis. This is…” Any further words proved impossible due to the lump firmly lodged in her throat.

Luis’s fingers were deft and sure as he fastened the clasp around her neck, letting the locket fall to rest just below the hollow of her throat. “I think Marty’s right. This present can’t wait until morning.” The tiniest of smiles flirted with the corners of his mouth yet his dark eyes remained serious. Lifting the locket once more in the palm of his hand, his voice was but a whisper. “Never doubt this.”

Sheridan wrapped her hand around his with an answering smile and stepped out into the night.

They had some carols to sing.



~*~



Luis closed the front door behind him and shrugged off his jacket. Reaching down to pull his snow-covered boots off, he winced at the tired crack and pop of the vertebrae in his back and let loose a weary sigh. Scrubbing a rough hand over his face, he felt guilt rear its ugly head again when he noted the time.

Its volume was muted, but the celebration on the television was in full swing, the colorful images of happy partygoers ringing in the New Year cutting through the darkness of the living room.

Two small feet wearing pink and yellow striped socks stuck out from beneath the coffee table. Upon further investigation, Luis found Maria’s dark tumble of curls resting beside a large blue bowl filled with popcorn, her arms folded beneath her. His little niece whimpered only slightly in her sleep when Luis gave her legs a soft tug and pulled her closer. She settled drowsily against his chest while he brushed popcorn kernels from her hair with a small smile.

“I missed it,” Maria pouted, small fists rubbing sleepily at her eyes.

Luis wanted to chuckle at the disgruntled glare she gave him but didn’t. Instead he was quick to remind her, “There’s always next year.”

“But it won’t be the same,” Maria stuck her bottom lip out even further. She swayed on unsteady feet, leaning heavily against Luis as he moved across the living room to where Marty lay sprawled across the armchair, growing arms and legs at odd angles, practically hanging upside down.

Luis scooped Marty up, tucking him under one arm and using the other to guide Maria down the hall.

“Papa?” Marty clung to Luis’s neck with both arms and his legs were hooked around his waist. “Was the party fun?”

Was it fun watching Harmony’s upper tier eat, drink, and be a little bit too merry? Was it fun playing referee for the rich? Being reminded again just how different Sheridan’s world and the circles his sister moved in these days were from his? Security detail for the Seascape wasn’t the job Luis was most proud of or his idea of fun, but he didn’t tell his son that. Tightening his arm around Marty, he focused on the positive. “The fireworks were pretty great.”

“Uncle Luis,” Maria yawned as Luis tucked the covers around her shoulders and Marty crawled into the small twin bed beside her. “Did you see my mom?”

“I saw her,” Luis nodded, giving Marty the same treatment he’d given Maria just seconds earlier. “She looked like she was having fun.” He pre-empted her next question with a finger to her tiredly babbling mouth. “Sleep. I’m sure she’ll tell you all about it when she picks you up in the morning.”

“You’re no fun.” With a pout, Maria flopped over in the bed, dragging most of the blankets with her. After a brief tug of war with Marty that resulted in giggles all around, she relinquished enough control for Luis to re-tuck the blankets snugly around the both of them.

“Papa?”

Marty’s voice was sleep-soft, and Luis paused in the doorway, all ears. “Yeah?”

“Are you going to tuck Mama in too?”

“Marty,” Luis spoke warningly, but the boy wouldn’t be silenced, continuing to babble even as Luis started to pull the bedroom door closed.

“Will you make us blueberry pancakes in the morning?”

“Go to sleep, Marty.” Chuckling to himself as he closed the door on their giggling shenanigans, he delivered another warning, unable to keep the hint of humor out of his voice. “Sleeping means no more talking. Or laughing,” he added, dousing the rest of the lights and following the television’s glow to the living room. His son’s innocent question echoed in his mind when his eyes strayed to the sofa and the outline of Sheridan’s slender figure.

Doleful dark eyes tracked his movements across the room suspiciously, and a high pitched puppy whine escaped in protest when Luis crouched in front of the sofa and gathered his sleeping companion close.

“Luis?” His name was a groggy question from Sheridan’s lips, and her blue eyes blinked to adjust to the darkness of his room as he settled her in his bed, one knee braced against the mattress. “Time’s it?” She pushed herself up on one elbow while Luis fumbled to turn on the bedside lamp. Squinting against the sudden brightness, she instantly became more alert with the realization they were alone. “Wait a minute. Where are the kids?”

“Relax.” Luis guided her down to the pillow below, belatedly recognizing the gray tee-shirt hanging loosely from one pale shoulder as his own. Distractedly, he answered in one short word, “Asleep.” His eyes traveled of their own volition down the rest of her body, and what he saw made him smirk in delight. “You’re wearing my favorite pair of sweats,” he accused, stretching out his long body beside her.

Sheridan shrugged indifferently, unconsciously exposing more pale skin to Luis’s view. “Not exactly my size, but they’re comfortable.” Her eyes twinkled when Luis’s hand settled on her hip, his thumb hooking in the doubly folded-down waistband of the sweats and stroking the sensitive skin there. Lifting a hand to Luis’s tired face, she stroked her own thumb along his cheekbone. “Dance with any pretty girls at the party?”

Luis opened his mouth to remind her again that the party had been a job, nothing more, until he realized that she was only teasing, not serious. Still, the undercurrent of insecurity lingering in her pretty eyes made him pull her to him until barely an inch separated them, and the never-far desire to kiss her returned full-force. “There’s only one girl I wanted to kiss at midnight,” he said quietly, watching her blue eyes widen then turn liquid with the admission. Luis’s hand spanned the small of her back when she scooted closer, her nails tickling pleasantly at his scalp. Throwing a glance over his shoulder, Luis noted the time on his digital alarm clock, his fingers twitching restlessly against her warm skin, his smile rueful. “Looks like we missed the countdown.”

“You’re forgetting, Luis,” Sheridan’s hand slid to his nape, and her nose nudged lightly against his as she breached the remaining distance between them and felt his hand sweep higher to rest between her shoulder blades. “It’s not midnight yet in Chicago.”

“Or Denver,” Luis’s smile grew, and his wandering hand lingered on the curve of her hip. He pressed a tiny kiss to the notch above her upper lip and pulled back to look into her eyes.

“Don’t forget San Francisco,” Sheridan reminded him with a husky whisper, chasing his lips with her own. She teased him with brief touches, light as the flutter of a butterfly’s wings, of her lips to the identical vee begging her attention above Luis’s mouth. She smiled when Luis’s hand molded itself to the small of her back again, propelling her forward even deeper into his embrace. Her thumb traced his lips as she told him, blue eyes sparkling, “I think I need a kiss for every time zone.” Peals of delighted laughter escaped when he playfully nipped at the fleshy pad and muttered something about negotiations and arrangements with the words ‘you’re killing me’ sprinkled in there somewhere, and without her knowing how it happened, she found herself on her back, one hand in Luis’s hair and the other gripping the corded muscle of his shoulder while his handsome face loomed over her, his own blunt fingers tickling at her ribs. She was still shaking with laughter when his mouth covered hers.

Her lips were even softer than Luis remembered, her mouth warm as his tongue stole its way past her smile to brush tentatively against her own. Retreating before she even had a chance to respond, Luis braced his weight on his forearms on either side of her face, watching her slowly blink her blue eyes open. “Sheridan.” He whispered her name uncertainly, apologetically.

The hand on his shoulder dipped beneath the neckline of his shirt, landing between his shoulder blades, and Sheridan pulled him gently to her as she raised up on one elbow to meet him halfway. The kiss she bestowed was soft but persuasive, and she moaned in triumph when Luis’s head followed hers back to her pillow and a large hand buried itself in her hair, cradling the back of her head and changing the angle and the pressure with which their lips met. She was panting when they broke apart, but the smile on her face was there to stay as her fingertips danced over the shell of Luis’s ear before sweeping down his side and landing on the small of his back, coaxing him closer. “Don’t stop now.” Luis’s solid weight pinning her down to the bed made it harder for her to breath, but in a good way. “We haven’t made it to Denver yet.”

Luis arched a dark brow at her but didn’t say anything, too focused on the delicious feel of her beneath him after long months, years, of denying himself. This close the irises of her eyes were an even more brilliant blue than he remembered. He could smell the sweet, intoxicating scent of her perfume where it clung to the hollow of her throat. She was warm and soft and everything he hadn’t allowed himself to miss during their time apart, and his heart hadn’t felt so full in a long, long time. Returning her infectious smile, he realized she was speaking again, the words bubbling from her mouth amidst giddy laughter, and that her hands had taken on a life of their own, mapping the dips and valleys of his spine and shoulders.

“...that the first one shouldn’t count. Just consider it practice,” Sheridan punctuated the suggestion with a press of her lips to the line of his jaw. “We’ve been so, so, so stupid,” she bit back a sigh when Luis’s palm cupped her shoulder and his head dropped to brush a kiss across the freckle he found there. Turning her head slightly and bringing them cheek to cheek, she slid her arms around Luis in a tight hug and held on, just breathing him in. Her voice was hoarse with the threat of tears when she whispered, into the crease of his neck, “Never again. Don’t let me…Luis, let’s not…” She trailed off helplessly as his arms encircled her in kind and let herself be comforted by the strong beat of his heart and the cadence of his breathing.

By the time Martin fit his key in the front door’s lock and Pilar shushed the puppy’s eager welcoming bark, they’d traveled the world and back and lay atop the covers locked in each other’s embrace, only Luis stirring at his mother’s unmistakable touch as she tucked the patchwork quilt around both of their shoulders and turned off the bedside lamp. “Mama, this isn’t…”

Her voice when she cut him off was soft but insistent, her smile hidden from him by the shadows. “Sleep, mi hijo. You’ll have time for your explanations in the morning.”

“Mama,” Luis called softly, and she lingered in the doorway, her hand on the knob.

“Luis,” came her quiet answer.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Pilar said, pulling the door closed with one last word of advice. “Now sleep or you’ll wake Sheridan.”

Tightening his arms around Sheridan, Luis did just that.

In the morning he made them all blueberry pancakes.


~*~


A ring rest on her finger now, a band of simple gold, its value more precious to Sheridan than all the diamonds, rubies, and sapphires the world over. She thought back to that morning, months ago now, and Luis’s blurted proposal over a sink full of dishes. His blunt “Marry me” had stunned her so much she’d dropped the dish in her hand, and the resulting crash had brought the rest of the household running. The answer she’d given him that morning hadn’t been the one Luis or the rest of his family had been hoping for; what had easily been one of the happiest mornings Sheridan could remember had quickly deteriorated into one of the worst. She could still remember the hurt in Luis’s beautiful eyes.

Her father’s laughter had been cruel, ripping into her heart like the pain of a thousand knives, when she’d gone to him, begging him to help her understand why. Why she was the person she was, damaged, and when it came down to it, incapable of blindly accepting a love such as Luis’s love for her.

She’d gone to the Mansion as Sheridan Crane; she returned to Luis as the Northern star appeared high in the sky stripped bare of her name and the identity born and forged in that horrible house.

Over the next few months, Luis proposed to her twice more.

Each time, Sheridan’s answer was the same. “No.”

They’d fought bitterly—with each other, with their family, with their friends, with themselves—and they’d loved more fiercely than they’d ever loved before, never forgetting the vow they’d made each other, their promise of never again.

When Sheridan finally left the Bed and Breakfast behind, moving into a small two bedroom apartment with Fancy, Spring was painting Harmony in lush green tones and chasing Winter’s chill away. Marty and “Chewie” (as Fancy had affectionately dubbed the overgrown pup after an incident involving a pair of her less liked—fortunately—Italian pumps) spent many a night camped out in sleeping bags upon the living room floor, cartoons playing late into the night, while behind closed doors, Sheridan let Luis whisper in her ear about a future she insisted on holding at arms’ length. Those mornings always dawned with Marty’s blond head peeking around the door before he’d race, four-legged friend on his heels, to the bed and launch himself on top of them both with giggles and pleas for breakfast.

Through (mostly burnt) trial and error, Luis helped Sheridan and Fancy broaden their culinary expertise during those mornings; it was still many, many mornings later, however, before Marty was treated to a meal other than waffles or cereal on the rare occasion he spent the night at the apartment without his father also present.

The months marched on as they worked and loved and played and fought some more, and Sheridan became simply Sheridan, Marty’s mother and the woman that loved and was loved by Luis Lopez-Fitzgerald.

The fourth time Luis proposed—coming off the heels of Sheridan’s first proposal to Luis, over a plate of woefully overdone blueberry pancakes that Luis (bless his heart) had plowed doggedly through in the interest of not hurting her feelings—Sheridan’s answer was a quiet, determined, “Yes.”

She walked down the church aisle on her brother’s arm, and happy tears streamed down her mother’s face as Sheridan pledged her eternity to the man standing, smiling, in front of her. Marty was every bit the dapper little gentleman, and Fancy blushed when the bouquet landed in her surprised hands.

Still, those memories hadn’t been the most lasting Sheridan had taken from that night; not at all, she thought, shoulders tense and defenses raised as she felt more than heard Luis’s approach. Softly, she acknowledged his presence, fingers paling when she gripped the counter in front of her, hard. “I’m sorry. That wasn’t the way…I’m just…sorry.” She flinched slightly when Luis reached around her, gently prying her fingers loose and taking her hand in his own, his back a solid, muscular wall behind her. Her blue eyes were drawn to the matching wedding band on his finger, and when she felt the ball of hurt rising in her throat all over again, she withdrew her hand from his, slipping from his arms and putting some distance between them.

Luis’s voice was rough with regret when he finally spoke. “You were right; I shouldn’t have snapped at Marty like that.” Marty, though, had been the tip of the iceberg; the fight had rapidly escalated from there, leaving the two of them barely able to speak to each other and their son whisked off to the safe-haven of his grandparents’ home.

“No, you shouldn’t have,” Sheridan risked a glance at him, eyes bright with unshed tears. “But I was wrong too,” she admitted, her own voice just as soft with remorse, “letting him run wild like that while you were studying. Luis, you’re working so hard, between your classes and the hours you put in at the P.D.; keeping him out of your hair is the least I could do.”

“Marty’s my son,” Luis responded. “You’re my wife,” he continued, feeling the guilt settle heavily in his gut at the sniffle that the comment elicited. “I’m not being fair to either one of you by asking you to do that. Dammit,” he swore, scrubbing his hands over his features roughly. “I never thought…”

“That it would be this hard,” Sheridan finished for him, wiping her tears away with the back of her hand. “Maybe we should have waited, Luis. Until you finished school or Marty was farther in school. Maybe then it would be easier. Maybe…”

“That’s an awful lot of ‘maybe’s,’ Sheridan.” Luis pulled a chair out from the kitchen table, dropping down into it wearily. A cold nose nudged his hand, and he scratched behind the dog’s ears absently, as he considered their options. Finances were already tight; he knew, in the coming months, they would be stretched even tighter. In his mind, he kept coming back to the same solution. Gruffly, he told her, “I’ll drop out of school, pick up extra shifts at the station.” He looked up sharply at her vehement answer.

“No,” she repeated more calmly, dragging her lip between her teeth and biting down harsher words. “It’s not coming down to that; I won’t let you throw your dreams away all over again.” Pacing the confines of the small kitchen, she thought out loud. “Mother. Mother can help us, Luis. I know you don’t like the thought of relying on my inheritance…”

Luis was quick to shoot the idea down, his eyes growing dangerously dark at the mere idea. “No, Sheridan. No.”

Losing patience with his stubbornness, Sheridan whirled angrily on him. “If not my inheritance, then what? The money I’ve made so far with my pictures is just a drop in the bucket, and you’re killing yourself with the hours you’re working on top of school and the time you’re able to carve out for me and Marty. Babies are expensive, Luis. Oh God,” her face crumpled before him. “We should have been more careful,” she cried as Luis pulled her bodily into his lap and threaded his fingers through her hair.

Desperate to bring a little levity to the conversation and staunch her tears, Luis launched an inquiry, combing his fingers tenderly through her hair, “Are we 100% positive I’m the father? I have it on good authority that Hank spent more than his fair share of nights at the apartment, and this baby seems to have his impeccable sense of timing.”

“You’re not funny, Luis,” came Sheridan’s muffled reply from his shoulder. Her fingers clenched and unclenched the material of his sweater nervously. She squeezed his fingers tight when he seized her hand.

“We’ll move back in with Mama and Papa,” Luis murmured against her brow. “Marty’s room is just like he left it, and I’m sure Paloma and Theresa won’t mind their old room being converted into a nursery for the baby.”

Everything he said was true, Sheridan knew; since moving in with Fancy, Paloma no longer had use for her room, and, as her father’s reluctant wife, Theresa rarely had the opportunity to visit. Still, Pilar and Martin had their home to themselves for the first time in years. “We can’t do that to your parents, Luis,” Sheridan fretted miserably.

“Just until we get back on our feet,” Luis’s lips brushed against her forehead. “Plus, with me being gone so much, Mama and Papa can keep an eye on you and Marty.”

“What about the dog?” Sheridan mumbled, her brows furrowing and her hand moving to rest above Luis’s heart. “I’ve been told he’s a real deal-breaker.”

Slipping a sly hand beneath her shirt to rest low on her belly, Luis teased, “Not that great of a guard-dog, seeing how I already got you pregnant.”

“Oh, Luis, you…” Sheridan’s fingers slid over Luis’s jaw as his mouth took hers in a possessive, passionate kiss. She blinked, speechless, when he finally let her go.

“That’s what I thought,” Luis grinned, fingers hooking under her chin and pulling her close for a softer, gentler second kiss. “It won’t be easy,” he said, promise in his words.

“Nobody ever said it would,” Sheridan whispered.


~*~

“Nothing worthwhile ever is.”

















As always, thanks for reading!!!

Hope you enjoyed the ride half as much as I did.

Feedback is love!

SHUIS_4EVER
1.22.08, 11:10 AM
i loved it loved it. i cried, i laughed and i simply loved it. yay