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UAgirl
11.8.09, 7:51 PM
Hi guys!

While I'm plugging away at my other fics, I thought I'd give you guys something to chew on. ;)

I've been working on this fic whenever I get stumped on my others (which is quite a lot lately, lol), and so far I have the prologue-chapter 4 finished with chapter 5 more than a third done.

A little background on this fic:

This fic is (slightly? more than slightly?) an AU fic, but with very few exceptions, you'll recognize all of the characters. Any that you do not, are UA original characters.

There are multiple pairings (friendship and otherwise) in this fic, but the main ones go something like this: Sheridan/Luis, Fancy/Noah, Sam/Grace, Hank/Beth, and Kay/Fox, and any and every combination in between. If I listed them all, this little note would be longer than the prologue.

Rating for this fic will range anywhere from G to R, with some of the themes falling on the heavy side.

Provided there's interest in the fic, I'll do my best to post a new chapter every Sunday (as long as I'm at least a chapter ahead).

Let me know what you think (and if you have any better suggestions for a title, I'd greatly appreciate them, lol).

On to the story.






















Title: The Story
Rating: PG-13(?)
Warnings: Sexual situations
Characters/Pairings: Julian/Suzanne, Sheridan
Word Count: 982
Summary (for chapter): a stormy night, fifteen years earlier

















Prologue







Lightning Strikes










Fifteen Years Earlier










Suzanne—brunette, busty, barely twenty years old—wasn’t the most experienced lover Julian Crane had ever had in his thirty-plus years of existence (far from it), but she was one of the most eager. The current Miss Harmony’s enthusiasm was going to be the death of him—literally—if she moved her greedy little hand an inch higher on his thigh. “Suzanne, pet,” he protested half-heartedly as her fingers continued their creeping, “we’re almost there. I can’t…”


Toying with his leather belt, Suzanne giggled at his shiver when her lips brushed his ear lobe, and she would have continued her sweet torture if the car hadn’t swerved dangerously, tossing her back against her seat and tumbling her dark hair into her playfully glittering eyes. “Oh, but you can.”


Reading her predatory intent with a glance, Julian closed his eyes with a stifled moan, jerking them back open a second later when he felt her supple lips attach themselves to his neck. He uttered a silent prayer of gratitude that the lengthy driveway that traveled from the fringes of Harmony to the sprawling Crane estate was such a solitary road and there was no oncoming traffic to navigate around as the car veered to and fro in the rain-soaked night. The frantic whirring of the windshield wipers did little to improve the dreadful visibility, and while Julian loved his women just as much as his drink, he didn’t relish the idea of dying for the sake of some action below the belt. With a regretful sigh, he gently pushed Suzanne back into her own seat, a chastising frown on his lips. “What’s wrong? This was your idea.”


Pouting, Suzanne crossed her arms across her ample chest, looking forlornly out the passenger window just in time to see a brilliant flash of lightning zigzag across the midnight sky. “Yeah, like this is so romantic: taking your mistress home to meet your wife.”


“My wife,” Julian spat the title with disdain, “is visiting her father.”


“What about your kids?” Suzanne turned in her seat to regard him, her childish pout somewhat diminished.


“They’re with their mother,” Julian responded, glad his answer seemed to appease her and she looked less like his toddler daughter and more like the nubile young woman he’d seduced into his bed only months earlier.


“So your father-in-law used to be the governor,” Suzanne remarked with interest. “You married the governor’s daughter.”


Julian simply arched a brow at her deduction, silently reminding himself it wasn’t her brilliant brain that had enticed him in the first place, and concentrated on the blurry road in front of him.


“I remember thinking she looked like a princess in all her pictures. Your wedding looked so romantic.”


Romantic? Hardly. His wedding to Ivy had been a farce, just like their marriage. Still, Suzanne had hit upon one truth Julian had never been able to deny. “My wife is beautiful.” Feeling the heat of Suzanne’s stare, he elaborated, “A beautiful, cold-hearted bitch.” To his amazement, Suzanne seemed unfazed by his harsh words. When she simply giggled girlishly in response and scooted closer once more, all his previous protests were forgotten. His breath rasped tortuously from his dry throat when she worked the button of his slacks free with her talented fingers and his white knuckled hands gripped the steering wheel fiercely, the car careening down the road, the sparsely spaced trees lining its edges nothing but shadows intermittently illuminated by flashes of brilliant light.


“Do you want me to stop?”


Too far gone, Julian could only grit out, “Almost there.”


Smirking at the double meaning of his words, Suzanne placed her mouth at his pulse point and teased, “I know.”


The car’s headlights cut a yellow, fragmented path in front of them through the downpour, and through heavy-lidded eyes Julian could see the imposing but completely dark structure the Cranes had called home for nearly a hundred years looming. And in front of the house…


“Hey!” Suzanne cried out, bracing herself against the dashboard of the car when Julian forcibly braked the car to a screeching stop, and all she could hear over the pounding of the rain on the car’s roof was the shallow, stuttering stall of her lover’s breath beside her. “Julian?” she grasped Julian’s arm as he fumbled to open the door. “What the hell’s going on here?” she cried over the din of the storm as she followed Julian’s suit and got out of the car, the rain drenching her in an instant.


A child stood, still as a statue not two feet in front of the car, her hands held out in front of her, palm up, her golden curls plastered to her head and her flimsy white nightgown clinging to legs that were short and bare. The next flash of lightning showed that her blue eyes were unfocused and the pale skin of her hands and neck was dark.


Suzanne watched in bewilderment as Julian dropped to his knees in front of the child and grabbed her firmly by the shoulders.


“Sheridan! Sheridan, look at me,” Julian urged, one hand leaving the thin, trembling shoulder to touch the small chin, the other coaxing her into the meager swath of light the car’s twin headlights offered.


“Oh my God,” Suzanne gasped, hand going to her mouth. “Oh my God.” Turning from the surreal scene in front of her, she closed her eyes, stifling the scream that threatened to escape. The heavy rain pounded and pricked like needles at her skin, but she wasn’t aware of it as she stumbled forward, violently losing the contents of her stomach as the seconds’ old memory played and replayed before her eyes and a child’s plaintive cries bubbled forth with growing hysteria.


“I didn’t mean to do it. I didn’t mean to do it! I DIDN’T MEAN TO DO IT!”













So...verdict?

Is there interest in this fic or not?

Feedback would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks for reading!!!

UAgirl
11.15.09, 7:21 PM
Well...I'm not sure how many (if any) are reading this fic, but I thought I'd go ahead and post the next chapter and give it one more shot to find an audience. ;)

Sorry for the generic title (it's actually not *that* generic, I was listening to an old Grey's soundtrack CD of mine while struggling to come up with a title), but since no one has come forward with a better option, it is what it is.










Title: The Story
Rating: PG
Warnings: Some mild swearing
Characters/Pairings: Hank/Beth, Noah, Jessica/Reese, Pretty, Fancy, Ethan, (blink and you'll miss it) Kay/Fox, Luis
Word Count: 6,457
Summary (for chapter): Because it was the day the last of the lost Cranes, including one Mr. Fox Crane, found their way home, the day they started turning the little town of Harmony on its head.
























Chapter 1







Coming Home







Present Day









Hank Bennett stepped into The Blue Note, blinking against the smoky haze and searching the sea of bodies for one in particular: his drunk-off-his-ass, dead-if-his-Police Chief-father-caught-him nephew Noah. He was so busy scanning the dimly-lit joint and the music from the jukebox in the corner was so loud, he startled when a small hand grabbed his arm and a familiar voice spoke (shouted) from behind him.

“He’s not here!” Beth Wallace, longtime friend and one time (for the span of a few short days in high school when she’d wanted to make their mutual friend Luis jealous) girlfriend, gave his arm a firm tug, pulling him back in the direction he had come from and out the door.

When they were outside and Hank could hear himself think again, he acknowledged what she had said with a confused frown. “What do you mean he’s not here? You’re the one who called me.”

“Relax,” Beth chastised him with a roll of her eyes. Fishing a ring of keys out of the deep pocket of the short, serviceable apron she wore tied around her waist, she placed them in his palm. “I took his keys.”

Hank breathed an audible sigh of relief, quickly pocketing the keys before running a hand through his unruly brown hair and muttering just loud enough for Beth to hear, “Dumbass kid.”

Beth refrained from smirking at Hank’s worried uncle act but was quick to remind him, “You were a million times worse.”

“Maybe so,” Hank admitted unapologetically. “But my father wasn’t the letter of the law in these parts, and I didn’t do my under-aged drinking in the bar where a friend of the family worked.”

Now Beth did smirk, unable to deny the truth of his statement, remembering the days of their misspent youth and how Hank had refused to be kept in line, no matter how hard Luis had tried. “No, you didn’t.” They shared a quiet laugh over the mutual memories, falling into step as Beth led him to a far corner of the parking lot and nodded at the worn-out sedan that, like their friendship, dated back to their teenaged years. Producing another set of keys, these from her jeans, she opened the driver’s side door and motioned for him to get in the vehicle. “He’s at my place. I promised Reese I’d special order that latest science fiction series he’s been rattling on and on about if he would smuggle Noah there in one safe and sound piece.”

Picking up a battered leather baseball glove from the passenger seat and tossing it into the backseat, Hank settled in, cinching the seat belt across his hips. “Wait a minute,” he thought out loud. “Isn’t Jess…”

“She is,” Beth answered him distractedly, her concentration focused on backing the compact car out of its parking place and navigating around the tipsy group of college-aged girls that were stumbling aimlessly behind her. “She probably won’t tell,” she told him when they were on the road.

“Why not?” Hank wondered, following Beth’s example and rolling his window down to let the cool (well, as close to cool as it got in Harmony in the summer) night air caress his face. “If it were Kay, I‘d say it was because her brother had handed her some prime blackmail material, but with Jess, I don’t know what her motivation not to tell would be. She’s Sam and Grace’s golden girl.”

“I’m not saying she isn’t,” Beth wore an enigmatic smile. “Just call it woman’s intuition. She won’t tell,” she insisted. She laughed a little when the confused frown made a repeat appearance before Hank started to connect the dots and let out an appalled exclamation.

“You’re kidding me!”

“I’m not,” Beth responded, killing the engine and the lights when they’d arrived at their destination. “And don’t you bug her about it either.”

“I can’t believe she likes the Reese Man. He’s so…” Hank trailed off searchingly, at a loss for words as he followed Beth to the back of the building that housed the Book Café and the narrow set of steps that led to the second-floor apartment above it.

“Sweet,” Beth shot over her shoulder, her boots clattering against the stairs underfoot. Then, turning around to hide her smile, she mock-sternly scolded him, “Stop staring at my ass, Hank.”

“The word I was thinking of was geeky,” Hank retorted. “And what do you expect me to do when it’s right there and it’s so…” He didn’t finish, because they were at the landing, and Beth was fitting her key in the door, brow arched and daring him to continue. He did continue, just down a slightly different path. “I always wondered what you saw in Luis when you could have had me.”

“Hank,” Beth gave him an affectionate smile.

“Beth,” Hank grinned back, allowing her a brief glimpse of his heart in his eyes before reaching out a hand and pushing the door open gently. “After you, m’lady.”

They walked into the kitchen, and Jessica sprang up from her seat at the table, a faint blush over her cheeks when she spied her uncle. An oblivious Reese continued to chew thoughtfully on the cookie in his hand as he mumbled a greeting.

“Uncle Hank, I didn’t know you were coming home,” Jessica hugged him awkwardly.

Over his youngest niece’s shoulder, Hank looked to Beth then Reese, with his glass of milk and cookie crumbs, and back to Beth again with disbelief in his eyes, but Beth only shook her head with a subtle warning in her dancing eyes. “Nobody knew but Beth.” At the look of censure in Jessica’s eyes when she pulled back, he defended himself. “I literally just got back. I was planning on stopping by in the morning. I barely got checked into the inn before I got Beth’s call.”

Jessica’s eyes softened when Beth spoke up, vouching for Hank, and her arms went around Hank in a tighter, more enthusiastic hug.

“Cookie, Ms. Wallace?” Reese piped up, charitably holding up the last one before making short work of it when Beth declined. He choked, gulping down the rest of his milk though when Hank commenced to toy with him.

“I wanted that.”

“Sorry, I didn’t…”

“I’m joking with you, Reese,” Hank said, slapping the boy lightly on the back. “Thanks,” he said, taking the carton of milk Jessica had retrieved from the refrigerator and refilling Reese’s glass, “for helping out tonight.”

“Sure,” Reese croaked, when his coughing had subsided and he was able to form words again. He sipped thankfully at the milk while wiping at the tears that streamed from the corner of his eyes.

Hank looked to Beth for help when Jessica sent him a none-too-subtle glare.

“Jessica?” Beth questioned, turning toward the living room where the faint glow of the television could be seen.

“Teeth brushed. Pj’s on,” Jessica replied, handing Reese a napkin and studiously ignoring her uncle. “I told him he could play a couple of video games with Noah before he went to bed. It was the only way we could convince Noah to stay while we waited for you.”

“Did your brother happen to mention what his problem was?” Hank grumbled, not waiting for an answer as he stepped around Beth, on a mission to talk some sense into the kid. “He’s been home from college what? Two days?”

Jessica shrugged at Beth, but it was Reese that shed some much-needed light on the situation.

“He said his girlfriend broke up with him.”

“I didn’t know Noah had a girlfriend,” Jessica remarked, rounding on Reese in surprise. “Why didn’t you say anything before?”

“Didn’t know it was so important,” Reese muttered, an embarrassed flush quickly traveling across his cheeks.

“Reese, why don’t you take Jessica home?” Beth suggested, crossing the kitchen and lifting the lid off of a small glass jar filled with change and small bills. Withdrawing a few bills from the jar, she placed them in Jessica’s palm and promised, “Breakfast at the Book Café is on me for the rest of the week.”

“You don’t have to,” Jessica started to protest, only to be cut off by Reese.

“Gee, thanks, Ms. Wallace.”

“Reese,” Jessica discreetly pinched his arm.

“Ouch!” Reese hissed before cluelessly asking, “What?”

Holding back a laugh, Beth instead smiled at the young teens, gently guiding them both toward the door. “Drive safely. Next week, Jess?”

“Next week,” Jessica affirmed. “Do you mind if I come by early? I promised Paloma I’d help her get things ready for day camp out at the Y. Luis will be there and Coach Russell. My dad, too.”

“I’m sure he’d like that,” Beth said by way of agreement. “Remember what I said.”

“No worries, Ms. Wallace,” Reese vowed. “I swear to act safely and responsibly behind the wheel.”

Beth’s lips twitched at Jessica’s shy smile when Reese prompted her to precede him down the stairs, and she watched until the taillights of the boy’s car had disappeared down the near-deserted street before closing the door and going back inside. Straightening up a few things along the way, she stepped into her living room and could only shake her head when she met Hank’s helplessly amused brown eyes.

“Don’t give me that look,” Hank held out his hands in supplication. On the television screen behind him, a car crash played on endless loop.

Beth gathered from the television remote Hank held in one hand that he had killed the volume, and for that, at least, she was thankful, but the fact that Noah Bennett was sprawled across her sofa, passed out cold, was another issue entirely. “Hank.”

“I already tried to move him,” Hank defended himself. “He’s much heavier than he looks.” When Beth looked unconvinced, he decided to switch tactics, hopefully putting himself back in her good graces. “I did manage to safely extract the kidlet.” He moved aside, allowing her a glimpse of the much smaller body curled up in her ratty old armchair.

“Oh, Evan,” Beth sighed, kneeling before the chair and brushing the little boy’s dark hair back from his forehead. A pair of large, dark eyes fluttered open and she was greeted with her son’s sleepy smile.

“Mommy?”

Beth smiled at him lovingly; the times he called her Mommy instead of Mom were growing less and less frequent, and she held fast to each and every one. “It’s past your bedtime, Mister Man.” That comment earned her Evan’s token rebuttal for just about everything these days, only his drowsiness took a little bit of the sting off of it.

“I’m nine years old, Mom.” Rubbing his eyes with his fists, Evan struggled to sit up, barely acknowledging Hank as he craned his neck around Beth’s shoulder to confirm to himself that Noah was still there. “I’m glad you took away his keys,” he said seriously, “because he can’t drive. I beat him every time.”

“You’re not the only one,” Hank muttered, trying with some difficulty to at least arrange Noah in a more comfortable, natural position, to no avail. “You and me are going to have a little talk in the morning about what brought this on,” he huffed as he managed to push Noah’s boneless legs back onto the sofa.

“Not what,” Beth told him, standing with her son’s arms draped over her shoulders and his growing legs stretching halfway down her body, “who.” Gladly transferring Evan’s weight to Hank when he offered, she informed him of Reese’s revelation as she led him toward the boy’s bedroom. “Apparently, his girlfriend dumped him.”

“Ouch,” Hank winced sympathetically. As soon as Beth had pulled the blue comforter back on the bed, he laid the child down, watching in the darkness as she fussed over him and tucked the covers neatly under his chin and around his shoulders. “Guess it’s true,” he mused in a low voice.

“Hmm,” Beth hummed, placing a hand on his arm to steady herself when she stumbled across an errant sneaker at the foot of the small twin bed. They were back in the hallway, and she could see that Evan had left the light on in the bathroom before she realized she hadn’t let go of Hank yet. Dropping her hand, she hooked her thumbs in the belt loops of her jeans and looked into brown eyes that she swore never lost that perpetual hint of a twinkle. “You guess what’s true?”

“We all have to grow up sometime.”

Mentally shrugging off the momentary feeling of loss his words invoked—her baby was still her baby, dammit, now and for always, Beth couldn’t curb her tongue from retorting, “Everybody but you.”

“Easy,” Hank placated, as if reading her mind. “I was talking about Noah. She must be something, this girl of his.” He watched as she turned the bathroom light off, but not before replacing the cap on the toothpaste and glancing at her own tired reflection in the mirror. “Kid’s usually the one doing the dumping, not the other way around.”

“Always the heartbreaker, never the one whose heart was broken,” Beth sighed. She felt for Noah. Really, she did. But too many times, she’d been at the mercy of his type, those heartbreakers—except for the one time a little voice inside her head reminded her, and her sympathy only went so far, and she told Hank so. “Has it occurred to you he deserved to be dumped? Maybe he did something, said something. I know he’s a good kid, but none of us are perfect, Hank.”

Their years of friendship had enabled Hank to easily read what she was thinking most times, and he knew the road her thoughts her traveling in that moment had been visited many, many times in the past and the what-ifs and possibilities opened up by another choice besides the one she had made so long ago were endless. Casting a friendly arm across her shoulders, he hugged her close to his side and pressed his mouth briefly against her temple, stirring the soft hair there with his kiss. “Who wants to be perfect? Perfection’s boring, not to mention exhausting to maintain; flaws are much more interesting, more fun.”

Beth smiled gratefully, turning suddenly and casting her arms about his neck in a fierce hug, the likes of which she hadn’t given him since the first time he left Harmony in search of that initial grand adventure of his. “You should stay this time.” Then more softly, she admitted, “I miss you when you’re gone.” His mouth was close to her ear, and when he spoke, answering her, she found she couldn’t control the shiver that sprang forth, even as his remark had her punching his shoulder in playful exasperation.

“Miss me enough to sleep with me?”

Beth could only roll her eyes. “You’re so full of it.”

“I never realized you had such a dirty mind,” Hank grinned, winking at her and rubbing at his shoulder. “I wasn’t suggesting anything other than sharing a bed like two adults and getting some much-needed shut-eye. Unless you want to help me move that poor, snoring slob in there, I don’t see any other option. The kidlet’s bed isn’t made for two, and my car’s back at The Blue Note.”

“Okay,” Beth relented with a small groan, “but you have to sleep on the left side. And promise not to hog all the covers,” she added, not a breath later.

Hank opened his mouth to reply to her, but he was cut off by a warning so vehement he could only laugh—inwardly, of course.

“And if you even come close to making that God-forsaken noise, I swear I’ll smother you with a pillow.”



~*~




Pretty Crane lingered in the doorway of her sister’s bedroom, shaking her head in disbelief. Without invitation, she entered the private domain, ignoring the little voice that reminded her that she and her sister had never been close enough to enjoy such liberties with each other, and walked up to the rumpled, unmade bed where only the top of her sister’s blond head was visible. She lay a tentative hand on what she assumed to be her sister’s shoulder. “Whoever he is, Fancy, he’s not worth it.” She stumbled back, startled, when suddenly, she found a pair of tear-reddened blue eyes boring into her.

“Go away, Pretty,” Fancy glowered, pushing herself up on one elbow, clenching a wadded Kleenex in her other hand. When Pretty didn’t budge, seemingly challenging her, she groaned, flopping onto her back and staring up at the ceiling like it was the most fascinating thing in the world to her. “How would you know anyway,” she wondered aloud, certain that in the year they had spent separated from each other, she in college and Pretty in that dreadful boarding school, that their experiences had been wholly different. “You’re hardly what I’d call an expert.” Fancy heard her sister’s breath hitch as if she’d been struck, and she felt a moment’s guilt before she quickly squashed it down. Sure, maybe the words had been mean, but they were the truth, and both girls knew it. “Pretty,” she finally sighed, turning her head to the side but drawing the line at reaching out her hand.

Knowing the gesture was as close to an apology as she was going to get, Pretty simply nodded her head in acknowledgment, smoothing a hand over the crumpled duvet, her fingertips pulling back when they encountered Fancy’s silenced cell phone. Curiously, she opened the phone, her brown eyes widening in astonishment. “Twenty-three missed calls! Fancy, what…”

“Give me that,” Fancy snatched the pink phone from her hands, burrowing it under her pillow and out of sight.

“It was you, wasn’t it?” Pretty’s eyes narrowed again with the dawning realization. “Why would you do something to yourself that would make you so miserable?”

“Pretty, you wouldn’t understand,” Fancy muttered, face hidden behind her hands.

“No, I don’t,” Pretty scowled. “You’ve been barricaded up here ever since you got home, crying your eyes out, making me feel sorry for you, and now I find out it’s nobody’s fault but your own. No, I certainly don’t understand.”

“Pretty,” Fancy dropped her hands to her lap, watching her sister turn to leave, full of righteous anger, and felt compelled to explain herself, to plead her own case, but Pretty’s step never faltered, not even when Fancy scrambled from the bed to follow her. “Pretty. Pretty, wait,” she ran out into the hallway, just in time to catch a glimpse of her sister’s glossy blond head disappearing around the corner and she cried out in alarm when she felt a hand touch her elbow. She whirled around, only to be confronted with her brother’s laughing blue eyes. “Ethan!” she hurled his name at him in accusation.

“Just like old times,” Ethan merely smiled back at her.

“Yeah,” Fancy rubbed her hands briskly up and down her exposed arms. “Home, sweet home,” she muttered sarcastically, frowning at the realization she was standing in the hallway in her pajamas with her brother and morning was quickly edging toward afternoon. “What are you so happy about?” she grumbled, not surprised at all when Ethan trailed her blindly into her bedroom.

“Didn’t Pretty tell you?” Ethan looked confused. “She was supposed to tell you.”

“Okay,” Fancy grabbed a pillow from her bed, hugging it to her chest for warmth as she regarded her brother quizzically. “I give up. What was Pretty supposed to tell me?”

“That we were driving out to the airstrip to meet Gwen, and we’re going to be late if you don’t hurry up and get dressed,” Ethan stated matter-of-factly. Noting the blank look on her face, he made the likely deduction, “You forgot.”

Fancy felt like screaming into her pillow but gave her brother an apologetic smile instead. “I’m sorry, Ethan. I didn’t realize...well, with the wedding still two months away, I just thought…I’m sorry,” she finally finished lamely, chagrined at her own preoccupation.

“It’s okay,” Ethan easily accepted her apology, a deep furrow developing between his brows. “Fancy, you know you can talk to me if something’s bothering you, right?”

Fancy felt a genuine smile threatening to escape and allowed her brother’s awkward hug. They weren’t close. None of them really were, except maybe Ethan and Aunt Sheridan, but she liked to think they cared, each of them in their own way. She’d make things up with Pretty, hopefully later, but right now she had a promise to keep. If she was going to be a bridesmaid in the wedding, it was past time to get to know the bride a little better in her estimation. “I’ll hurry. I promise,” she vowed, slipping from his arms and backing toward her bathroom.

“Famous last words,” Ethan groaned. “Fifteen minutes, Fancy. That’s it. We’ll be waiting for you downstairs.”

Fifteen minutes stretched into twenty-five by the time Fancy descended the winding staircase to find Pretty waiting for her, her mouth compressed into a tight line. “Where’s Ethan?” Fancy questioned, falling into step with Pretty as they exited the house through the servants’ entrance, to a waiting SUV and an expressionless man whose eyes were hidden behind dark glasses.

“He took the Porsche,” Pretty answered, opening the passenger door and climbing inside, “said he knew you’d take too long.”

“Ten measly minutes,” Fancy huffed under her breath, barely having time to settle herself in the back seat before the vehicle was moving, all without a word of greeting from their driver. “A little warning would be nice,” she grumbled, not failing to notice the barely perceptible smirk curling the stranger’s lips. Crossing her arms across her chest indignantly, she noticed Pretty purse her lips and caught her sister’s brown eyes in the reflection of the rear-view mirror before she spoke.

“I don’t think we’ve met before,” Pretty turned in her seat, tucking her long hair behind her ear then holding out a hand that went ignored. “I’m Pretty. And she’s my rude sister Fancy,” she said, tossing her head at Fancy by way of introduction.

“I’m not the one being rude here,” Fancy bristled, when their driver remained tight-lipped, causing Pretty to look affronted. “What’s wrong with you? Can you speak or not?”

“Put your seatbelts on.”

“What is that? Some kind of order? Who do you think you are, telling us what to do?” Fancy frowned, grabbing at Pretty’s hand when she cinched her safety belt low over her hips. “Pretty, you don’t have to listen to him.”

“Fine, don’t listen to me then,” the man shrugged, large hands gripping the steering wheel with confidence. “But know this…my brother patrols this road, and he won’t hesitate to pull this vehicle over.”

“Fine,” Fancy rolled her eyes. “I’ll put on the damned seatbelt. Happy?”

“Ecstatic.”

“If you won’t tell us your name,” Pretty tried again, gamely, “maybe you’ll tell us your brother’s name.”

In the backseat, Fancy snidely remarked, “Nice try, Pretty. Way to break the ice.” Tugging her purse into her lap, Fancy withdrew her vibrating phone, flipping it open only to immediately close it again. “You’re brilliant conversationalists. Both of you.”

“Is she always like this?”

“You have no idea,” Pretty took the opening and run with it, her brown eyes sizing up the man opposite her and liking what she saw. He was tall and lean but muscular, with strong, broad shoulders. His black hair was a little long, curling just above the collar of the black tee-shirt stretched tautly across his well-defined chest. And his eyes…well, his eyes were hidden from her, but his lips were currently curved upward in the slightest of smiles, and Pretty blushed at the realization that he was completely aware of her silent assessment of him. A quick glance in the rearview mirror at her sister’s rolling eyes told her that he wasn’t the only one who had caught her looking. Biting her lip and nervously twirling a strand of her hair between her fingertips, she looked out the window to watch the unfamiliar landscape of Harmony pass them by. She was still working up the courage to speak to him again when Fancy’s phone buzzed, yet again, from the backseat.

“Hey!” Fancy cried when Pretty snatched her phone from her hands before she could answer, or in this case, not answer it. “Give me that!” She unbuckled her seatbelt, scrambling to snatch the phone back from her sister’s greedy hands, to no avail. Pretty was too quick and elusive, turning her knees toward the passenger door and holding the phone at arm’s length as she read the number displayed on the screen out loud. She was so focused on its retrieval, she failed to notice the way their nameless driver’s brow arched in recognition.

“555-2013. It’s the same number. Over and over,” Pretty declared, shaking her head and refusing to relinquish the phone, squirming in her seat, always keeping the phone just out of Fancy’s reach.

Finally, fed up with the sisters’ juvenile antics, the man plucked the phone out of Pretty’s grasp and tucked it into his jeans pocket, barking, “Enough!” He didn’t bother to hide the smirk on his lips this time as both blondes favored him with astounded expressions. All was blessedly quiet in the car, for the next several seconds at least, and then the bickering resumed.

“You neanderthal,” came Fancy’s blistering retort. “Do you even have a clue who we are?”

“I may not be an expert,” Pretty’s mouth pinched angrily as she glared at her sister’s reflection in the rear view mirror, “but at least I draw the line at using the Crane name as a threat.”

“Maybe if you used the Crane name more often,” Fancy’s tongue was as sweet as it was sour, and Pretty winced satisfyingly in reaction, “you’d actually have some juicy material to write in your diary about. Grant Kelley smiled at me today. Seriously, Pretty,” Fancy tsked.

“You’re such a bitch,” Pretty moaned, wrapping her arms protectively around herself and staring straight ahead, desperately fighting off tears of humiliation.

Guilt sobered Fancy, and she opened her mouth to mutter an apology only to find a pair of angry brown eyes staring her down in the mirror’s reflection, and a quiet, steely voice give a warning.

“Knock it off.” Having reached their destination, he pulled the car up next to the vacated Porsche and nodded at Ethan Crane’s wave as he killed the SUV’s engine. Pretty bolted from the vehicle at the first opportunity, stationing herself next to her brother as a small plane taxied down the rudimentary runway boasted by Harmony’s one and only airstrip, and he followed her example, opening Fancy’s door and offering the sullen blond his hand. Predictably, she refused his gesture, and he shrugged. “No skin off my nose.”

Sliding out of the car and standing toe to toe with him, Fancy narrowed her blue eyes critically. “I’ll find out your name,” she finally said. “Grampy will fire you so fast…” She attempted to stalk past him but was held fast when he snagged her by the arm, reeling her back in.

If looks could kill, I’d be a dead man a thousand times over. “Here, before you accuse me of stealing it,” he chuckled, fishing her phone out of his jeans pocket and dropping it unexpectedly in her palm. He let her arm go as she was wrenching it free, and the end result was nothing short of comical as she stumbled clumsily away from him. Quietly, so she couldn’t hear, he muttered, “Your grandfather can’t touch me, Fancy Pants. I don’t work for him.” Thank God for that, he mused, deciding to stretch his legs a little before round two started and he was expected to play the part of chauffeur again. He hadn’t gone far before he heard a happy exclamation that made his own heartbeat skip dangerously.

“Aunt Sheridan!”





~*~




It was beautiful. Sleek and streamlined, with leather and a sound system to die for, it was the car of Kay Bennett’s dreams. And it just so happened to be illegally parked in the only handicapped space the Book Café boasted. Head still turned in admiration as she pushed through the store’s entrance, she absently greeted Beth, “Whose wheels?”

From behind the cash register where she was carefully counting out a customer’s change, Beth answered, “I don’t know, but if Luis sees it…”

Kay smiled. Luis Lopez-Fitzgerald was the only cop in Harmony that took his job more seriously than her father, and that was saying something, especially considering that her father was the Police Chief. The possibility that Luis might happen along and take pen to paper in such a way seemed more than a befitting punishment. She momentarily lost herself in daydreams of how it would go down while she waited for Beth to finish with her customer, and she startled when Beth cleared her throat.

“Kay,” Beth repeated, not bothering to hide the knowing smile on her face from the fantasizing teen.

The stars in Kay’s eyes cleared, and she focused sharply on the woman in front of her, gratefully taking the steaming cup of coffee she had ready and waiting. “So,” Kay took a cautious sip. “Where’s my loser brother?”

Beth came around the counter to join Kay, untying the apron around her waist and signaling to Paloma that she was taking a break. “Upstairs. I sent Evan up to check on him almost half an hour ago.”

“Do you think he’s okay?” Kay wondered. They were outside now, and a car horn beeped. Kay raised a hand to wave, recognizing a classmate from school, before turning her full attention back on Beth where she stood, at the base of her apartment’s steps.

“Don’t worry,” Beth joked lightly. “Evan knows to call 9-1-1 if he’s not breathing.” Touching Kay’s elbow reassuringly, she said more seriously, “I’m sure he’s fine. Evan’s probably up there trying to talk him into a rematch of last night. Your brother seems to have lost his touch with the video games.”

Kay seemed unimpressed. “I’ve always wiped the floor with him.”

“Don’t tell Evan that,” Beth laughed, leading Kay up the stairs and pausing outside of the door. “With his gene pool, I’m not sure how he’d react.”

It was Kay’s turn to smile knowingly. She disguised her expression by taking a generous drag from the cup cradled in her hands.

Opening the door for Kay, Beth turned to go. “Gotta get back. Send Evan back down, will you?”

Kay nodded her agreement and stepped inside, closing the door softly behind her. Blinking to let her eyes adjust to Beth’s more dimly lit abode, she called out, “Noah? Evan?” She found the pair in the living room, Evan boredly running the vacuum cleaner back and forth over the carpet while Noah slouched against the pillows of the sofa, keeping an eye on the cell phone in his lap while busily punching in numbers on Beth’s cordless phone. Kay slumped down beside her brother, leaning her chin over his shoulder to spy on him as he dialed the unfamiliar number. Glancing back up at Evan, she questioned Noah, “How much you paying him?”

“Not enough,” Evan grumbled.

“Minimum wage,” Noah said without looking up from Beth’s phone. His silver blue eyes, however, zeroed in on his sister not two seconds later when inspiration struck. “You have your phone on you?”

Kay rolled her eyes, draining the rest of her cup before setting it down on the coffee table. “You’re the one that called me. What do you think?”

“I’m not cleaning the bathroom,” Evan wrinkled his nose, remembering the scene earlier that morning, when he’d padded out of his bedroom on his bare feet and discovered his mom and his uncle Hank arguing over who would do the honors. In just his boxers and wrinkled tee-shirt, Noah had been crouched on the cold tile floor hugging the toilet like Evan used to hug his old teddy bear. His mom won the argument (like she always did), and Hank had cleaned the bathroom before dragging/half-carrying Noah back to the sofa. Shortly thereafter, his mom had driven Uncle Hank back to his car, giving Evan strict instructions to call 9-1-1 if Noah quit breathing. He’d poured himself a bowl of cereal and sat in the old armchair with its sagging cushions watching Noah for nearly twenty minutes before his mom got back and took him downstairs with her to the Book Café. He never did have to call 9-1-1. “That’s slave labor.”

Ignoring both Kay’s sarcasm and Evan’s disgruntlement, Noah looked pointedly at his sister and repeated his question.

Kay barely had time to get her phone out of her jeans pocket before it was in Noah’s hands and ringing, the same unfamiliar number punched in. A female voice answered, and Noah leapt from the sofa, raking a hand through his disheveled dark hair and speaking pleadingly as he headed down the hall.

“Fancy? It’s me. Please don’t hang up.”

When Kay looked at Evan, the kid merely shrugged and reminded her not to prop her feet on the coffee table. “Beat it, Elf. Your mom wants you downstairs.”

Evan frowned. “Don’t call me that.”

“I’ve always called you that.”

“I don’t like it.”

Kay grinned obnoxiously. “I know.” Seconds later, the door slammed behind Evan, and she could hear the telltale stomping of his sneakers down the steps outside. The smile on her lips faded, however, when her brother reappeared, looking like he’d lost his best friend. Or maybe… “Who’s Fancy? Your girlfriend?”

Noah looked shocked, for about a millisecond, then he admitted the obvious. “Ex-girlfriend if she has anything to say about it.”

“What did you do?”

“Who says I did anything?” Noah grew angry. “All I did was ask to meet her family. She blew me off like I wasn’t good enough, we got into an argument, and now she’s not taking my calls.”

Kay touched her brother’s arm. “You asked to meet her family?”

Noah nodded miserably.

“When were we going to get to meet her?” Kay quizzed, completely intrigued by this mystery girl who had her brother at his wit’s end. She’d never seen him so serious about anyone of the female gender. Girls, up until this point, had been merely a fun distraction for Noah while he breezed through his schooling.

Noah sighed. “I’d hoped soon. She’s home for her brother’s wedding this summer, and we’d talked about it, and she seemed okay. Then this happens.” He threw up his hands, standing up and pacing toward the window.

Kay studied her brother as he stared outside the window, watching the lazy afternoon traffic crawl through Harmony, and her mind puzzled over the situation until a possibility occurred to her. “The way you said she’s home…” she trailed off, standing up and walking halfway to meet her brother, squinting as she stepped into a shaft of too-bright sunlight. “Noah, is Fancy here? In Harmony?” It turned out Fancy was in Harmony, was actually from Harmony, though how Kay had spent her entire life in a town as small as Harmony and not crossed paths with a girl possessing a name as distinctive as Fancy she didn’t know. They talked, Kay and Noah, and with Kay’s help and encouraging advice, Noah’s feeling of hopelessness began to lessen. Using all the tools beholden to him as Kay’s big brother, Noah was somehow able to convince Kay to help him straighten up Beth’s place as both thanks and apology for bailing him out the night before, and less than an hour later, the pair found themselves in the Book Café seated at a tiny table for two looking outside at the passers-by of Harmony. Paloma had just topped off Noah’s and Kay’s (her second) coffee cups when Luis Lopez-Fitzgerald’s jeep pulled up outside.

Over the top of one of the bookshelves where she was unpacking and lining up the newest arrivals with Evan’s help, Beth caught Kay’s eye, the twinkle in her own eyes more than obvious.

Sunglasses hiding his eyes, Luis stepped out of the jeep, standing tall and pulling a tablet from his back pocket. With pen in hand, he noted the car’s license plate number, scribbled out the violation, and placed the flimsy scrap of paper underneath one of the car’s windshield wipers. Then he strolled toward the Book Café, a look of controlled anger on his face, as he glanced in both directions, searching out the unfortunate owner of the vehicle. A firm hand pulled the door open, causing the bells strung along the edge to clang together forcefully, and all pairs of eyes in the Book Café landed upon him, save one.

Paloma waved timidly to her older brother, her feet rooted to the floor beside where Kay and Noah were seated.

“Luis,” Beth acknowledged.

“Beth,” Luis replied, removing his sunglasses, folding them up, and tucking them into his pocket. His dark eyes traveled over each familiar face, some more so than others, until he found one face he didn’t recognize.

Kay held her breath, watching Luis advance deeper into the establishment, toward an isolated table in the back that she hadn’t noticed until that precise moment. She strained to hear what was being said, but only the gist and the intent of the conversation was recognizable. Only when Luis had gone, his dark eyes turbulent, his movements tense but purposeful, did she chance a glance to satisfy her curiosity.

Brown eyes twinkled back at her from a handsome face that still wore a superior smirk.

It was a face Kay wouldn’t soon forget, and she knew, just knew even if Luis hadn’t already confirmed the knowledge for her, here was the owner of her dream car; he oozed attitude and arrogance and a surety about himself that Kay found herself envying, more than the sleek and beautiful car sitting outside. Though she wouldn’t officially meet him for several more days, she wouldn’t be able to easily forget that moment when their eyes first connected, a fact her best friend Simone would later gleefully use against her time and time again (she knew she should have never called her) when she would remind Kay of the day her life ceased to exist as she previously knew it, that day of homecoming, a day they’d all later refer to as simply, That day.

Because it was the day the last of the lost Cranes, including one Mr. Fox Crane, found their way home, the day they started turning the little town of Harmony on its head.









So...verdict?

Come on, you know you want to comment. ;)

Feedback is much appreciated. It's what I live by (and die by, as evidenced by my total lack of inspiration for some of my old fics).

If this fic actually manages to catch on, the next chapter should be up next Sunday.

UAgirl
11.22.09, 7:24 PM
Please check out my author's note in the UA updates thread. :)



Title: The Story
Rating: PG
Warnings: Very (very) mild swearing, nudity (lol)
Characters/Pairings: Hank/Sam, Sheridan/Julian/Antonio, Gwen-Ivy-Crane daughters-Eve-Russell girls-Charity, Noah/Theresa, Beth-Evan-Grace-Luis
Word Count: 5,785
Summary (for chapter): Her memories of this place were vague, far-away, like something of a half-forgotten dream.









































Chapter 2






It’s Been Awhile






On Hank Bennett’s third day back in town, he walked out of his bathroom, naked as the day he was born, toweling his hair dry, and came face to face with his big brother for the first time in over a year. Suffice it to say, he nearly jumped out of his skin when a throat cleared and a familiar voice spoke with just a little too much humor for Hank’s liking.

“Nice to see you again, Little Brother.” Sam Bennett’s eyes were vivid and blue and twinkling with suppressed laughter.

Deciding to hell with dignity (big brother had seen it all before), Hank calmly continued to tousle his hair and padded over to the closet where he’d only just arranged what little clothing he’d brought with him this trip home the night before. “Getting a little rusty aren’t you, Sam? Took you three days this time.” Pulling a plain white cotton tee over his head, Hank paid little attention to his brother as he finished dressing, only turning to face him again when his brown eyes couldn’t locate his shoes. Finding them at the foot of the bed where he’d toed them off the night before, conveniently at his brother’s feet, he regarded Sam’s now guarded expression and sighed more heavily than he’d meant to.

“I thought I’d give you a chance to come to me first.”

Hank closed his eyes, uncomfortable with the judgment lacing such a simple collection of words. When he opened his eyes again, he forced a grim, apologetic smile in Sam’s direction. I’m sorry seemed to be called for, but the phrase lodged in his uncooperative throat, and he could only shrug. “I left you a pretty damn big clue, checking into Grace’s inn.” When Sam didn’t answer, Hank tried a different tactic, asking a question he genuinely wanted the answer to, “Where is my sister-in-law, by the way? Haven’t seen her around.” This time he was able to read the emotion in those blue eyes easily: worry.

“Grace isn’t feeling well,” Sam answered, bending at the waist to snag Hank’s shoes in hand before rising from the mattress. “I had to threaten her with calling Eve, but I was finally able to convince her to take a few days rest for herself.”

“Stubborn woman,” Hank said admiringly. Her apparent willingness to try any recipe out aside, the woman his brother had chosen to love, honor, and cherish for the rest of his days on earth inspired authentic affection in him. He took the shoes from Sam’s offered hand, claiming the vacated seat from the foot of the bed as his own. Looking up at Sam a moment later, he rest his hands upon his knees, his brown eyes narrowed suspiciously. “If it wasn’t Grace, who ratted me out?”

Sam’s lips quirked. “Beth.”

Hank couldn’t help but smile himself and mutter under his breath, “Why am I not surprised?”

“She’s a good friend doing what good friends do.”

“She’s one of the best,” Hank readily agreed. “For what it’s worth,” he said, when they had left his small room behind with its antiques and fading flowered wallpaper and stood in the shading protection of the inn’s wraparound porch side by side, “I was going to call. Today, as a matter of fact.”

“Today?” Sam lifted a skeptical brow.

“Today,” Hank insisted. “To see if you wanted to grab some breakfast.” Glancing down at the watch on his wrist, he winced. “Well, lunch now. But I’m sure you’re busy so I’ll just get going.” He let his eyes linger meaningfully on the distinctively marked Harmony patrol car blocking his own rusted rental before he started down the steps. He stifled a groan when Sam’s arm shot out.

“Not so fast.”

Feeling oddly like a mischievous school boy awaiting punishment from his stern but loving dad, Hank waited for the other shoe to drop, having known from the moment Sam had seen him in his birthday suit glory that he wasn’t going to get off so easy as a hi, where have you been, see you around.

Hands on his hips, Sam didn’t do anything to immediately alleviate his kid brother’s anxiety. On the contrary, he rather enjoyed watching him squirm. After what he had put his family through, no word or sight of him for months on end, it was the least he deserved. Still, he was his little brother, and he was home for the first time in many long months. Softening enough to smile, Sam extended an invitation. “I was thinking—if Grace feels up to it—you could meet us at The Shack for a little dinner, tell us what you’ve been up to this past year.”

“Voluntarily or through interrogation?” Hank quipped. Before Sam could accuse him of going too far with his joke, he hurried to accept, with a wink, of course, “Who am I to turn down a free meal?”

Sam responded by rolling his eyes and clearing the steps, two at a time, to his car. “Seven sound okay to you?”

“Seven sounds great,” Hank tossed back. “Sure I can stay out of trouble that long?”

Taking in his affable grin and the devilish twinkle in his eyes, Sam shook his head, taking a seat behind the wheel. Still the same old Hank. “Why don’t you bring Beth and Evan? I’m sure Grace won’t mind.”

Not a bad idea, Sammy. Not a bad idea, Hank thought to himself, waving at his brother as he carefully backed out into the street. With that in mind, he pulled out his cell phone and dialed a number that no matter where his life took him he remembered by heart. Evan answered, in a voice too grown up to belong to the little boy he recalled cradling just hours after his birth. Taking a deep breath, Hank spoke, “Hey, kidlet. Put your mom on the phone.”



~*~




“Maria said I’d find you out here.”

Arms wrapped protectively around her middle, Sheridan Crane turned to face her brother, the supportive beam of the gazebo at her back. Despite a mighty effort, the smile on her face was wan, and she knew from the look on Julian’s face that he could see right through it, straight to her misgivings. Turning back around, she surveyed the landscape that stretched in every direction she turned, the acres that made up what had been her home for the first ten years of her life, and looked for some familiarity, finding little. “It’s so different than I remember,” she finally whispered, resting her chin on her shoulder as she regarded her brother again, now shoulder to shoulder with her.

“It’s been a long time,” Julian responded, in a voice just as quiet. He lay his hand on the railing, awkwardly enfolding the smaller one that joined it mere seconds later in his own. “Things look like a lot different to a child. Bigger.”

“Scarier,” Sheridan murmured, dropping her head to study their hands. She didn’t know why she had said that; her memories of this place were vague, far-away, like something of a half-forgotten dream. Hazy sensations, fleeting feelings were all she retained. She felt the magnitude of her brother’s stare but ignored it, swallowing her emotions down when he began to speak again.

“You have nothing to fear here, Sheridan. Surely you know that.”

Shoring up her resolve, Sheridan rewarded him with a smile, lovely and full of the love her brother had never been comfortable accepting from her. “I know.”

Noting the bruised shadows under her troubled blue eyes, Julian had to wonder about her truthfulness, but he made a vow to himself not to let her have any reason to worry that he himself could prevent. “Yesterday was such a surprise. I didn’t think you were coming until the wedding.”

“I hope it was a good surprise.” This time, Sheridan’s eyes positively danced, and she squeezed his hand reassuringly in hers when Julian seemed at a loss for words. “It was Gwen’s idea. Think of me as an early wedding present for Ethan.”

“Thank God you didn’t show up wearing a ridiculously large red bow,” Julian shuddered, carefully disengaging their hands.

From lowered lashes, Sheridan laughed quietly at her brother’s reaction. This was more like it, more like the brother she knew. She felt herself relax somewhat, the tension melting away from her shoulders until she felt brave enough to ask a question that had been plaguing her, ever since she and Ethan had passed the lonesome foreman’s house on their way home the previous evening. “What happened to Pilar? What became of her children?”

“Oh, they’re still around.”

Whirling around at the sound of a new voice, Sheridan’s mouth dropped open at her own obtuseness when faced again with the man from the airstrip. With the sunglasses gone and the smirk in place, the nagging feeling of familiarity she’d felt around him yesterday began to coalesce into coherency. The syllables felt foreign in her mouth, but as the puzzle pieces began to fall into place, she had to try them on for size. “Antonio? Is that really you?”

Antonio simply smiled while Julian did the honors of reintroducing them. The pretty little girl that he’d taken great delight in teasing had grown into a beautiful woman since the last time he’d seen her, on a dark and stormy night fifteen years ago.

“Mr. Lopez-Fitzgerald is still a trusted employee of mine.”

“And your mother?” Sheridan questioned, taking a step closer, almost forgetting Julian’s presence. “She’s still…”

“Mama’s still got her hands full,” Antonio rushed to assure her, intuitively guessing at her unspoken worries. “Theresa’s just graduated, got her head in the clouds, wanting to be a hotshot fashion designer. Miguel and Paloma are in high school.”

Sheridan’s blue eyes brightened. “So the baby…it was a girl?”

Antonio nodded, smiling wistfully at the thought of the little sister he didn’t know as well as he should. That baby was almost grown. His eyes connected with Julian’s briefly, and he read in the other man’s expression the longing for the years lost to them. His gaze was drawn helplessly back to Sheridan’s with the tentative touch of her hand on his forearm.

“And your other brother?”

Luis, Antonio thought, warring emotions for his brother competing for the upper hand—love, resentment, pride, anger, regret too painful to speak of. Fate had wrought a wicked hand, pitting them on opposite sides in many battles during their lives, but the bond of blood remained. Yet, Antonio struggled to voice an answer for her. It was Julian who satisfied Sheridan’s curiosity, reminding them both of his presence with a droll and timely remark.

“Luis Lopez-Fitzgerald serves as one of Harmony’s finest.” When Sheridan’s eyes widened, he added a rejoinder, “Don’t believe me? I’ve got your nephew’s parking ticket on my desk to prove it.”

Fox was Ethan’s opposite in almost every way, sometimes amusingly so, and while Sheridan didn’t approve of his more blatant acts against authority, she believed him to be generally harmless, if not a bit of a challenge. Her lips pursed with the effort of holding back laughter but the attempt was futile when she noticed the reluctant humor in Antonio’s own dark gaze. “Something tells me Luis is going to have his hands full this summer.”

“I sincerely hope not,” Julian groused.

The significant look exchanged between the two men went unnoticed by Sheridan.

“I should get going,” Julian announced, “make sure my son doesn’t successfully deplete his trust fund by noon, and leave you two to your reminiscing.”

The pair watched him leave, and when only they remained, Sheridan regarded Antonio with a winsome smile. “He’s right you know.” She continued when Antonio merely raised a brow in response. “We have a lot to catch up on.”



~*~



Harmony was a small town. It wasn’t New York, and it certainly wasn’t Paris; a fact Ivy Crane was made all the more aware of as she played the part of gracious hostess to her future daughter-in-law, giving her the grand tour as it were. They had already stopped at the quaint little coffee shop (she readily admitted all Crane women were less bitchy with a little caffeine coursing through their veins), admired the rustic charm of the town’s sole inn, and looked at each other with varying degrees of horror and amusement when they happened upon an establishment appropriately named The Shack—those were the highlights of the tour thus far—when morbid curiosity (what else could it have been, really?) had prompted Pretty to suggest window shopping. How window shopping had evolved into actual shopping Ivy couldn’t begin to explain. Neither could she rationalize whatever had possessed her to set foot in her current location, a consignment shop of all places!

“Excuse me. Is there anything in particular you were looking for?”

Barely managing to disguise her distaste, Ivy looked up, searching for the owner of the saccharine voice and finding her in the form of a slender blond teen wearing a pleasant smile. She suppressed a grimace at the child’s peasant blouse and long, dreadfully out of fashion skirt (it accounted for so much) and started to answer, but Gwen beat her to the punch.

“We’re just having a look around.”

“Well, if you need anything, just let me know,” the girl answered sweetly, clasping her hands. “I’m Charity.”

“I’m Gwen,” Gwen introduced herself, smiling her thanks. “We’ll be sure to call on you if we need anything.”

“Well,” Ivy expelled a breath when the girl had gone, leaving them alone. “You handled that much better than I would have, I’m afraid.” Giving their surroundings another quick, cursory glance, she offered Gwen an apologetic smile. “I know this isn’t quite what you’re accustomed to. Harmony is abysmally small. Are you certain you and Ethan want to have your wedding here?”

A smile lifted the corners of Gwen’s mouth, and she thoughtfully but truthfully answered Ivy’s question, “I admit I had my misgivings at first. But Ethan likes to think of this wedding as a homecoming of sorts, a way to bring the family together again, and I wouldn’t take that away from him for the world.” Ivy’s sudden embrace initially catching her off-guard, Gwen gradually relaxed, hugging the older woman back.

“Thank you,” Ivy murmured, “for caring so much about my son.”

“I’m the lucky one,” Gwen protested when Ivy released her. “Your son is such a kind man, a great friend, and I love him very much.”

“Oh please,” Fancy joined them, groaning and fitting her arms across her middle, “as if my brother is God’s gift to women.” Looking at Ivy beseechingly, Fancy whined, “Mother, I can’t take much more of this insufferable place.”

Ivy’s response was barely audible but just as impassioned. “Neither can I, Darling.” More loudly, she instructed, “Find your sister. Tell her we’re leaving.” To Gwen, she smiled, “This town’s only saving grace is The Seascape. I thought we might enjoy a bit of lunch before we leave.”

“The Seascape?” Gwen asked curiously. “But…”

“We’re miles from any ocean,” Ivy answered her unasked question. “It’s just one of the many oddities of Harmony, Darling. It’s been told that the founders of this town were transplanted from New England, though why they didn’t just return home instead of trying to make this place into something it could never be, it’s hard to fathom.”

Fancy returned with Pretty in tow, the latter clutching a bag in her hands.

“Pretty, you can’t possibly be serious,” Ivy chastised. “You have enough bags, designer bags, without buying one at a second-hand shop,” she hissed.

“Don’t be such a snob, Mother,” Pretty pouted. “It’s brand-new, made by a local Harmony designer.”

Ivy looked at the bag with new eyes but was only minimally impressed. The cutesy, funky design was too juvenile for her tastes. “Pretty, I don’t think…” She was interrupted by Charity’s return, along with a woman Ivy had successfully avoided for much of her marriage to Julian, Eve Russell, and two young girls she could only assume were the good doctor’s daughters.

“Those bags are selling really well,” Charity stated. “You’re holding the last one.”

“May I see?” Gwen held out her hand. Inspecting it, she found a small labeled stitched to the inside, one that read, “Fate Creations, by TLF.” She handed the bag back to Pretty. “I think it’s adorable.”

“Who’s TLF?” Fancy queried. And why do those initials strike such a strong chord of familiarity, she wondered to herself. Where could she have possibly heard of Fate Creations?

“TLF is Theresa Lopez-Fitzgerald, my best friend,” the older girl answered softly, appearing uncomfortable with having everyone’s undivided attention focused on her.

“Lopez-Fitzgerald,” Pretty repeated the name, her brow furrowing in confusion as she looked from the girl to her own mother and back again. “Where have I heard that name before?”

“Pretty,” Ivy murmured lowly.

Eve Russell finally broke her silence, addressing Ivy directly. “I think it’s best they hear it from you.”

Ivy blanched, and it didn’t escape Gwen’s notice how Fancy stepped protectively close to her younger sister when Pretty repeated her question, adding an additional entreaty.

“Hear what, Mother?”

Taking a deep breath, Ivy told the girls, “The Lopez-Fitzgeralds, Theresa’s parents, worked for the Cranes for many years.”

“I don’t understand,” Pretty shook her head slowly, her brown eyes growing troubled as they gazed upon her mother’s pale face then down to her fingers, clenched white-knuckled around her purse strap. “They used to work for us. Now they don’t. It happens all the time.” Turning to face Fancy and Gwen, she tried to joke, “If they only knew how many nannies we went through, right Fancy? Mother, it isn’t a big deal.” She smiled encouragingly at her mother, but her mother wouldn’t meet her eyes. “Mother?”

Withdrawing her wallet, Ivy presented Pretty with a credit card and instructed, “Go pay for the purse.”

“But…” Pretty glared at her older sister when Fancy none-too-gently pushed her forward. The two girls followed Charity to the back of the store to take care of their purchase.

“Whitney, Simone,” Eve prompted her daughters to follow their example, leaving her alone with Ivy and Gwen, “I’ll be right there.”

Gwen cleared her throat awkwardly. “I think I’ll step out, get some air.”

“Absolutely, Darling,” Ivy’s reassuring smile was forced. “We won’t be long.” Only when she was sure they were alone did she drop all false pretenses, regarding Eve with eyes as cool and flinty as steel. “I would think you, of all people, would want to leave the past well enough alone.” Her words produced a pleasing flinch.

Noticing her daughters lingering nearby uncertainly, Eve couldn’t muster a response; she merely stared at Ivy with tortured eyes as the other woman turned to go, heels clicking behind her until she paused, issuing a warning.

“Just a reminder…if you ever try something like this again,” Ivy avowed, “you’re in this, just as deep as I am.”






~*~





The first step to winning Fancy back is getting a job. You want to meet her family? Get a job like a responsible adult.

Pulling at the constricting tie around his neck, Noah cursed his little sister and her so-called wisdom, wondering not for the first time, why he was even following her advice. She didn’t have a boyfriend. She had one year of high school left, a fact which she’d gleefully reminded him of several times in the past two days, and she’d never even dated a guy seriously. Reese Durkee didn’t count—that relationship was completely one-sided. And Miguel—well, as far as Noah could tell, Miguel was totally blind to the fact that his good pal Kay was actually a girl. All of which begged the question: why was he listening to her again? Tugging at his tie one more time, he shifted miserably in the uncomfortable plastic chair he’d been seated in for the last half hour (you’d think a swanky, upscale place like The Seascape could afford better) and leaned his head back against the wall, closing his eyes.

“Noah? Noah Bennett? Is that really you?”

Noah smiled without opening his eyes. He’d know that voice and that infectious excitement anywhere. It could only be one person. “Please don’t tell me you’re the competition.” He cracked one silver blue eye open, grinning as she came fully into his field of vision, barely over five feet tall with a mega-wattage smile. “You’re way prettier than me. I might as well quit while I’m ahead.”

Theresa Lopez-Fitzgerald giggled, sliding into the seat opposite him, with her purse and resume in hand. “Paloma told me you were home.”

“Let me guess,” Noah began, knowing exactly how Paloma had come across the information. Between the two of them, his sisters run a regular grapevine in Harmony. “Jess told her.”

“That’s what sisters are for,” Theresa said by way of answer. “Besides, she saw you at the Book Café.”

“Yeah,” Noah agreed with a wry smile. Settling more comfortably in his chair (at least to the extent he was able to), he queried, “What gives? I thought you’d be on the first plane out of here to New York once you graduated. That was the plan, wasn’t it?”

“There’s a little thing called money. You might have heard of it,” Theresa’s large brown eyes twinkled at him. “I don’t have a lot of it.”

“In case you haven’t figured it out, I don’t either,” Noah told her, admiring her good humor about the situation. “Else I wouldn’t be here.”

“This is my third interview today,” Theresa expelled a weary sigh, combing her fingers through her mane of mahogany hair. “The seventh in the last two days. I always thought it’d be easy, but it isn’t. At this rate, I’m never going to make enough money to cover my room, forget extras like food.”

Noah felt guilty then. His parents weren’t rich, hardly. But they made a comfortable living, more than adequate to take care of him and his sisters. He’d never wanted for anything. Hell, even college had been simple thus far for him, paid for with scholarship money. Any jobs he’d taken had been to have a little extra spending money, not to have enough money to simply survive and achieve his dreams. “But you did get a scholarship?”

“Tuition only,” Theresa squeezed her fingers together. “And that plane to New York? Will probably be a bus.”

“I don’t much like flying anyway,” Noah shrugged. “Buses aren’t that bad, took one home this time. Just don’t sit in the back,” he advised, thankful when his subtle warning wrangled another smile from her. He looked at her uneasily when she continued to smile at him, the sparkle in those luminous eyes returning ten-fold. Groaning, he scrubbed a hand over his face. “What else did my busybody little sister tell Paloma?”

“Nothing,” Theresa hedged. Then quickly, under her breath, “Only that you had a girlfriend.” Practically giddy, she scooted forward in her chair, her voice almost a whisper, “I knew those earrings weren’t for your mother.”

“Had being the operative word,” Noah sighed, reminded anew of Fancy and the knot that had been in his belly since their argument not even a week ago. “She doesn’t want anything to do with me right now.”

“Oh, Noah,” Theresa’s bright eyes dimmed, and she placed a consoling hand on top of his own, resting on his knee. “I’m so sorry. What happened?”

Shaking his head slightly, still in disbelief, Noah spilled his guts to her, without really knowing why. Maybe it was her kind words, her gentle touch, knowing she wouldn’t use anything he said against him, or maybe he just needed another woman’s perspective beside that of his kid sister. “Tell me if I’m wrong here. I thought most girls took it as a good sign if the guy they were with asked to meet the family.”

Theresa nodded, “If they’re really into the guy.”

“She was,” Noah said. “At least I thought she was.”

“She has to be,” Theresa encouraged him. “You’re…Noah.”

Noah grinned. “And that’s a good thing?”

“That’s a very good thing,” Theresa promised him. On the chair beside her, a muffled song started to play, and digging through her cluttered purse to locate her phone, she felt the need to defend her choice in ring-tone when Noah started chuckling softly, “Sometimes I need the inspiration.”

“I didn’t say anything,” Noah fought to keep a straight face, finally quieting down when Theresa found her phone, answering it and growing more excited with each passing second until the call was over and she had disconnected. “I take it you just won the lottery,” Noah guessed.

“Close,” Theresa beamed at him. “I got a job. One of the girls at The Shack just quit, leaving them even more short-handed than before. I start tonight.”

“Well, what are you waiting for?” Noah asked. “Get going or you’ll be late.” He stood up, helping her gather her things, and cupped her elbow in his hand when she stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. “I know people usually say break a leg in this situation, but as I remember it, you weren’t exactly Ms. Graceful in school,” he teased as she pulled back, “so whatever you do, don’t do that.”

Theresa rolled her eyes at him but stood on tiptoe to kiss his other cheek, whispering into his ear. “She’ll come around.”

“Theresa?” Noah called, just before she was out of earshot.

Theresa looked at him expectantly, knowing something was up by the smirk that painted his lips and the wicked twinkle in his eyes.

“Don’t stop believing.”





~*~




“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this,” Beth fretted, fingering the tiny coffee stain bordering the hem of her shirt and the right pocket of her jeans. “My clothes are stained, I’m not positive but I think my make-up’s completely gone now, and my hair is an absolute mess. Forget Ev’s.”

“Mom,” Evan protested when his mother tried to tame his unruly hair. The stubborn black strands refused to cooperate, and the result left the child looking like he had just crawled out of bed, rumpled practice clothes and all. The only thing missing was the baseball glove, but his mom had managed to win that victory, promising Evan she’d take him to the carnival expected to be in town at the end of the month.

“C’mere,” Beth beckoned, running a finger underneath the collar of her son’s Nike tee-shirt. “You have a ring of dirt around your neck. I thought you said you washed up. Hank,” she accused. “You said he washed up.”

Hank winced at her expression. “Practice ran a little bit late so we only had time to wash the important bits, like the hands and face.”

Beth stopped in her tracks, giving him a look that could kill.

“Relax,” Hank poured on the charm. “You look as pretty as ever.” When that softened her up, he couldn’t resist adding, “It’s not like the lighting in The Shack is the best or anything.”

“And just like that,” Beth remarked dryly, “the brownie points are gone.”

“You really should think before you talk, Uncle Hank,” Evan told him helpfully.

“Wise guy,” Hank tugged playfully at the boy’s earlobe, causing him to giggle and squirm away from him, folding into his mother’s side for a brief moment, before he remembered his age (nine year olds acted much more mature) and pulled away, straightening and walking tall. “Everybody ready?” he asked, when they found themselves in front of the restaurant with two minutes to spare.

Beth smirked at him, raising a brow in challenge and finally prompting him, “Be a gentleman, Hank. Open the door.”

Hank was a gentleman, opening the door and pulling out Beth’s seat when they found themselves at the table with Sam and Grace and someone totally unexpected: Luis. “Luis, Buddy,” Hank pulled the other man into a brotherly hug, “long time no see.” Glancing down at his older brother, he said, “You still manage to surprise me sometimes, Sammy.” Leaning down to kiss Grace’s cool cheek, his brown eyes softened with unspoken affection before he whispered, softly so only Grace could hear, “Good to see you’re feeling better.”

“Sit down, Little Brother,” Sam ordered good-naturedly, “and quit hitting on my wife.”

Hank did as requested, eyes flitting to Beth when he noticed Evan had virtually glued himself to Luis’s side. When Beth smiled at him, Hank relaxed enough to tease his brother, “One of these days, Sammy, Grace is going to wise up and leave you for me.”

Grace laughed softly, twin spots of color appearing on her fair skin just above her cheeks when Hank winked at her.

The jokes continued, and gradually, everyone, including Luis, loosened up. At least until their waitress appeared to ask their orders, shadowed by none other than Theresa.

Theresa offered them a brief, nervous smile, then she launched into a practiced, rote speech about the evening’s specials. Her hands shook slightly, but by the time she’d spoken to Evan and taken down his order, she’d calmed down considerably, enough to offer them a bonafide Theresa Lopez-Fitzgerald smile. “I’ll be right back with your drinks.”

“I didn’t know Theresa was working here,” Grace remarked.

“Neither did I,” Luis replied.

Beside Luis, Evan toyed with his linen napkin, unrolling it and making his silverware clatter across the table. When his fork hit the floor and the boy’s dark head disappeared momentarily beneath the table, Beth lightly scolded him.

“Evan.”

“Sorry,” Evan mumbled, looking contrite for about two seconds before he was at it again, making Hank and the rest of the adults, save for Luis, smile.

It seemed his good buddy Luis was preoccupied, Hank decided. He knew how involved Luis had always been (and still was currently by the looks of it) in his younger brother’s and sisters’ lives, and he knew how difficult it was for him to let go, allowing them to make decisions independently without his input. By way of reassuring his friend, Hank pointed out one of the finer points of being employed at The Shack. “It sure beats The Chicken Hut,” he grinned, referencing the fast food mecca for poultry lovers in Harmony, the first establishment to cut him an official check back when he was a teen. What little had been left after taxes had been spent on the gas to take Beth on a disastrous non-date to the drive-in theater the next town over. She and Luis had been on a break—his family had always been able to count on Luis—and Hank could think of no one else he more wanted to treat or impress. Instead, what ensued that night was a comedy of errors neither would soon forget, a lesson of a lifetime learned—thou shalt not make a move on thy best friend’s girl. Hank’s grin widened when Beth giggled into her napkin. “Chicken just hasn’t been the same since.” Sam and Grace, and even Luis to an extent, looked amused, but none of them really got the private joke, and Hank abandoned the thread for another one. “Bigger tippers here.”

“Tip her for the job she does,” Luis warned, “not for who she is.”

Hank knew his friend’s integrity dictated his beliefs, but sometimes he couldn’t help feeling he was a little too hard-nosed, a little too unforgiving. He was rescued from opening his big mouth to say the wrong thing by his brother, of all people.

“I’m sure she’ll do fine.” Sam smiled at Theresa when she returned with their tray of drinks, carefully setting his iced tea in front of him. One by one, she handed out the beverages and the accompanying straws and left to see about their food. “I just hope the same goes for Noah.”

“He got the job at The Seascape,” Grace explained.

“I hope they’re paying him enough,” Luis remarked, taking a healthy drag from his glass. “I wouldn’t want to spend my summer catering to those spoiled rich types.”

Hank knew Luis’s beef wasn’t with those spoiled rich types as he called them, at least not in general. No, Hank had a pretty good idea what the bug up his friend’s ass was, and he winced when Grace unwittingly stirred the pot with her next comment.

“Eve told me she run into Ivy Crane and her daughters in town today.” Though she was addressing Beth, Luis quickly interjected, his words more of a discontented growl than anything.

“They’re back, all right—the whole lot of them, and already up to no good.”

Beth had told Hank all about Luis’s own encounter with one of the newly returned Cranes, and frankly, Hank thought Luis’s anger was disproportionate to the so-called crime. But Luis carried with him more than a decade of doubt and distrust where the Crane family was concerned, some of it, Hank had to admit, well-justified. He wanted to issue a well-meaning Chill out but didn’t want to step on Luis’s toes. Thankfully, Sam took the matter out of his hands again.

“Do your job, Luis. Nothing more, nothing less.” Sam recalled the splashy write-up in this morning’s Harmony Herald about the nuptials planned for the end of the summer between Ethan Crane and his fiancée Gwen Hotchkiss and hoped to appease Luis’s edginess by telling him, “The wedding’s at the end of the summer. That’s less than two months away. We just have to find some way to coexist peacefully in the meantime.” Feeling Grace’s blue gaze on him, Sam knew his attitude came as a surprise to her, but to his way of thinking, the past was firmly rooted in the past. Grace was his present and his future; Ivy Crane being back in Harmony for little more than two months wasn’t going to change that.

Their food arrived, and the pervasive tension that had plagued Luis, and Sam to a smaller extent, seemed to evaporate in the face of Evan’s hearty exclamation of joy and the gusto with which he attacked his meal (as only a growing little boy can). The child reluctantly paused long enough for Sam to utter a quick passage of thanks, and the conversation turned to lighter things, and the scowls and furrows of worry morphed into smiles.

Sitting back, watching his family and his friends, Hank sent up a quick prayer himself and hoped that the Big Guy was listening, because only one thing was certain to him: it was gonna be a helluva summer.






















Feedback would be wonderful, you know? Kind of like an early Christmas present, lol. But make no mistake...I'm not begging, just planting the seeds of an idea. ;)

Thanks for reading!!!

Hope everybody enjoyed this chapter.

See you next Sunday (unless I manage to update Anna Begins before then).

P.S. If you happened to catch what Ivy said and are wondering about it, just remember, I did say this fic was AU. =)

UAgirl
11.29.09, 6:58 PM
Hello!

Hello out there!

*echoes*

*crickets*

Is anyone out there reading this?

LOL!

Sorry. I couldn't resist. ;) Now that I've gotten that out of my system, here's a brief overview of chapter 3.




Title: The Story
Rating: PG
Warnings: some swearing
Characters/Pairings: Grace/Hank, Beth & Evan, Luis-Sam-teens, Ethan/Gwen-Antonio-Sheridan-Pretty, Grace/Eve-Jessica-Paloma, squint to see it Theresa/Ethan (if you're wearing *those* kind of glasses, lol)
Word Count: 5,823
Summary (for chapter): But his inability to move on from the past, his frustrating short-sightedness beyond finding out what happened to his father fifteen long years ago, was the biggest roadblock to his own happiness.


























Chapter 3











Days Like This








“Don’t you have a husband for jobs like this?” With one hand propped against his hip and the other held up to shade his eyes from the brilliant summer sun, Hank cast a teasing smile at his sister-in-law. He could feel beads of sweat crawling across the nape of his neck and slip-sliding the expanse of skin between his shoulder blades, and the earlier temptation to strip the damp cotton from his upper body resurfaced but was quickly (albeit regretfully) tamped down.

Standing on the Inn’s top step, Grace smiled back at him with her tired blue eyes and offered him a bottle of water. She watched as Hank drained the chilled bottle in two long swallows. “The busier I keep you, the longer you’ll stay.”

Hank raised a curious brow at her comment. If she wanted him busy, she’d certainly succeeded. Yesterday he’d fixed a leaky faucet in one of the rooms upstairs. The day before that he’d helped her transplant some flowers from their clay pots into the ground along the paved walkway. Today, she’d stepped it up several notches. He’d just spent the last couple of hours replacing some shingles on the roof that had seen better days. Squinting against the sun, he glanced at the ladder he’d descended mere minutes ago and remarked, “Asking works just as well.”

Sheepishly, Grace admitted, “It was Sam’s idea.” Looking pale and somewhat unsteady on her feet, she lowered herself to the step, tucking her hands around her knees. She leaned into Hank’s solid form slightly when he joined her a second later, eyeing her with undisguised concern. “He misses you when you’re gone. We all do.”

“I miss you too,” Hank responded honestly, his arm going around Grace without thinking, pulling her closer. And he did. There was no denying how much when simply being home a week (had it really been a week already?) left such an ache that was both delicious and pain-filled in the pit of his belly. Grace’s auburn head settled on his shoulder, and his lips brushed her hair as he spoke. “You know I don’t stay away because I want to.” His statement hung in the air like a question, and he found himself pinned by Grace’s assessing blue gaze.

“I know,” Grace finally answered.

Hank wondered what truths he’d revealed to her in his eyes but decided it didn’t matter. Her loyalty to his brother notwithstanding, Grace wasn’t about to betray his trust in her. Still, that didn’t stop her from voicing a few concerns of her own.

“At least when you’re here, with us, I don’t worry as much.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Hank tried to downplay the seriousness of her fears with a grin. “I may get into my fair share of trouble, but I’ve also proven I’m pretty resourceful when it comes to getting out of it.”

Grace laughed softly, conceding his point. “You know,” she told him a beat later, “there’s someone else that worries, maybe even more than me.”

Hank groaned, knowing exactly where she was leading with her words. After all these years, his sister-in-law was as much a matchmaker as she ever had been, and she never passed up an opportunity.

“She isn’t seeing anybody.”

“Beth and I are friends,” Hank protested. “Besides, what kind of friend would I be, to her or to Luis, if I made a move on her?” He knew he’d said something wrong, something revealing when Grace’s lips twitched into a smile, and he cursed his rambling mouth for its inability to stay closed, especially when it continued to spew forth nonsense. “It’s not like I haven’t tried before. She isn’t interested in me like that.” He groaned again, more loudly than the last time, but when he looked at Grace, he realized he hadn’t told her anything she hadn’t already guessed. Helplessly, Hank hung his head.

Grace lay a soothing hand on Hank’s back. “This isn’t high school anymore,” she reminded him.

Hank snorted. Thank God for small miracles. “You mean I don’t have to swipe Sam’s keys if I want to take the patrol car out for a spin?”

“I’m not saying that.” Humor made Grace’s eyes dance and welcome color return to her cheeks. She grew more serious, though, when she said, “There hasn’t been a Beth and Luis in a long time.”

“There still could be,” Hank shot back. “If Luis would just get his head out of his ass.” A part of him knew he wasn’t being fair. Luis wasn’t the only one at fault for the way things had ended between him and Beth. But his inability to move on from the past, his frustrating short-sightedness beyond finding out what happened to his father fifteen long years ago, was the biggest roadblock to his own happiness. Hank had no doubt Beth and Evan could give his friend a new lease on life, if he let them.

“I don’t think you’re giving Beth enough credit.”

“Enough credit for what?”

Hank looked up sharply, having been so preoccupied he hadn’t noticed the shadow that had fallen over them both upon Beth and Evan’s approach. With a significant look at Grace, he cleared his throat and adopted an apologetic smile. “I was just telling Grace I was worried about you working too hard with two jobs.” He brushed off Beth’s look of annoyance in favor of greeting Evan. “Hey, kidlet. Isn’t Jess supposed to be picking you up and taking you to the Y later?”

Beth answered for her son. “Didn’t Grace tell you? There’s been a slight change of plans.”

“How slight?” Hank questioned, regarding Grace suspiciously.

Grace’s blue eyes twinkled at Hank, and she shook her head slightly, telling him without words that this was no matchmaking stunt. She stifled a laugh at Hank’s obvious sigh of relief. “Paloma and Jessica are helping me plan Pilar’s surprise birthday party instead of going to the Y. I told Beth you wouldn’t mind taking Evan, especially since he already had his heart set on it.”

Hank took one look at Evan and his large, hopeful dark eyes and any protest he might have had about someone else making his plans for him (however well-meaning) simply vanished. “Well, I better get cleaned up quick if we want to escape the hen party.”

“Hank Bennett,” Grace looked at him with wounded eyes.

“I mean that in the best way possible,” Hank defended himself with a kiss to her cheek, winking at Beth before he pulled her in for a quick, sweaty hug.

“Please,” Beth gently shoved him away, “Go. Shower. You reek.”

As the front door closed behind him, Hank could hear Evan questioning both women.

“What’s a hen party?”






~*~






At the far edge of the town of Harmony, the Y stretched across several acres of land bordering the most remote boundaries of the Crane estate. Situated conveniently close to the local high school, the Y, or the Youth Center as it had once been called, had been a gift nearly twenty years ago from Katherine Crane to the children of Harmony. Once a state-of-the-art marvel, it had seen much decline in the fifteen years following her abrupt departure from the small town, and it survived and continued to operate only with the aid of modest donations and the volunteer operations of the town’s citizens, most particularly the members of the Harmony Police Department. One member even went so far as to call the property home.

Luis Lopez-Fitzgerald locked up behind himself and hurried down the steps that led to his small apartment, toward the voices that had drifted up to him from below. Spying the quartet of teens immediately, he greeted the most familiar of the bunch gruffly, “You’re early.” He made a conscious effort to soften his demeanor when his little brother stepped forward obediently. He thought he heard Kay whisper to Simone (Wow, someone’s a grouch) but he couldn’t be sure.

“Sorry, Luis,” Miguel apologized. “We thought you wouldn’t mind.”

“Someone should fix that latch,” Reese pointed to the loosely appended handle of the stall before which the teens stood. “That horse in there is nothing but a domesticated wild animal. A loose latch like that could prove to be dangerous.”

Luis suppressed a sigh, knowing Reese was just trying to be helpful. At the same time, he fought off an unexpected smile as he stretched a long arm out to scratch between the domesticated wild animal’s ears. The thought of anyone considering the sweet, gentle mare dangerous bordered on hilarity. When the horse tossed her head back and whinnied at them, causing Reese to backpedal comically in fear and the others to snicker quietly, Luis mock-scolded her, “Easy there, Blaze.” He smiled openly when Miguel finally took pity on his friend.

“Relax, Reese,” Miguel said between laughs. “Blaze wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

Simone held out her palm, and the horse sniffed at it curiously, tickling it with her whiskers. “Miguel’s right.”

Despite Miguel and Simone’s encouragement, Reese wouldn’t be swayed.

Using his fear to her advantage, Kay volunteered, “Miguel and I will hang out here. Maybe you and Simone will have better luck at the court.”

Luis had a better idea. “Miguel and Reese, wait for me at the court. Simone, that crafts store down on Fifth Street donated a bunch of old inventory; I thought you could help Theresa go through it, pick out what’s worth keeping.” Luis’s arm blocked Kay from following Simone into the beaming sunshine beyond the stable. Grasping both of her slim shoulders in his hands, he leveled his full attention on her. Then, with a squeeze of his hands, he released her, turning to go himself. “Thanks for picking the stable, Kay. The stalls need a good mucking out.”

“But,” Kay started to protest.

Luis feigned ignorance. “Do you want me to send Reese back to help you?” He was still laughing quietly at Kay’s muttered response (Something told me I shouldn’t have worn these shoes) when he emerged from the stable, right into his boss’s path. Sobering, he told Sam, “Hard work builds character. Hard, stinky work especially.”

Sam smirked. Far from having no sense of humor, Luis’s wit often came as a wicked surprise. “Don’t be too hard on her, Luis. She’s a girl with a crush. Don’t you remember what that felt like?”

For a moment, Luis thought he saw a hint of gold reflected in the sunlight, and he was transported back to his carefree childhood and the ways things were before. Swallowing thickly, he shook his head at Sam and told him the truth that existed in the now, “No, Sam. Can’t say that I do.”

Watching Luis shut down in front of him, Sam cursed himself for opening his big mouth and saying the absolute wrong thing. More than an employee, Luis was a friend to Sam, and he scrambled for the right words, paltry words of apology that refused to come. Thankfully, T.C. arrived at that moment, Whitney and Theresa in tow, and Luis seemed to snap out of it, assigning jobs and doling out instructions. As quickly as the cavalry had arrived, they scattered to opposite ends of the Y, each and every one with his or her own mission to accomplish, and Sam figured he could make amends another way. “Luis?” he called. The apology was in his eyes, and he saw, in the loosening of Luis’s tense shoulders, his acceptance.

“Think you could help me set up the picnic tables beneath those shade trees across the way?”





~*~





Sweat beading on his brow, his shirt sticking to his body like a well-loved glove, and three bikini-clad blondes had Antonio cursing the Harmony humidity and pondering his sanity as he stood sentinel at the swimming pool’s edge, and it was with some thankfulness that he heeded Ethan Crane’s beckoning, carefully navigating the chaises and haphazardly thrown towels to the young man, seated comfortably beneath a huge, open umbrella, his laptop displayed on the table before him.

“Sit,” Ethan indicated the seat across from him. When Antonio did as he requested, he smiled, perfect white teeth gleaming and blue eyes kind. “Isn’t that better?”

Antonio merely nodded, keeping his sunglasses perched on his nose despite the relative shade offered by the umbrella. Curiosity, however, led him to ask, as he surveyed the laptop and papers strewn across the table, “Why aren’t you out there with them, enjoying yourself?”

“Why aren’t you?” Ethan threw his question back at him, no trace of rancor in his tone. “You are supposed to watch them, aren’t you? Protect them? One would think that job would be easier from a closer vantage point.”

Antonio’s lips twitched, but he remained silent, rather impressed that his true purpose had been discovered by someone that appeared so unassuming.

“I’m glad my aunt Sheridan has someone like you to count on,” Ethan continued. “My sisters and Gwen, too,” he hastened to clarify. “But especially Aunt Sheridan. I don’t know what it is exactly…something about this house troubles her. I don’t think she’s had a proper night’s sleep since she arrived.”

Antonio followed Ethan’s gaze to the woman in question. With her short blond hair slicked back by water, he was struck again by her beauty. And, this time, the increasingly dark shadows beneath her ocean eyes. She waved when she noticed him watching her, and Antonio lifted his hand to wave back at her, his heart twisting at the ready smile she favored him with. Belatedly, he realized Ethan was talking again.

“She’s always had to rely on sleeping pills, but here they seem to have little to no effect.” Rambling on, he considered, “Maybe it’s her room. The rest of our rooms are as we left them, years and years ago, but Aunt Sheridan’s is virtually unrecognizable. I can’t fathom why Father thought it necessary to remove any trace of the past.”

Antonio swallowed against the sudden, unsettled feeling in the pit of his belly, whispers of that same past hissing at the edges of his consciousness. Shifting uncomfortably in his seat, he returned his attention to Sheridan and the others again, finding himself the center of their attention.

Quietly and conspiratorially, Ethan told him, “I think my sister Pretty has a crush on you.”

Almost as if she had heard them, Pretty Crane smiled shyly in Antonio’s direction, blushing to the roots of her hair and making her companions laugh when Antonio waved in acknowledgment.

“Be gentle with her feelings,” Ethan advised in a low whisper. “Pretty’s…” he searched for the right word to describe his baby sister, finally succeeding with one that, to his mind, described both Pretty and his aunt, “fragile.”

Antonio thought of the airstrip incident and promised to tread carefully. Thank goodness they’d behaved themselves on the way back. He supposed he had the young fiancée to thank for that. One thought bled into another, and he couldn’t resist asking, “What about your other sister?”

“Fancy?” Ethan’s blue eyes regarded him curiously.

“She seems like she can take pretty good care of herself,” Antonio said, recalling her quick tongue and prickly, defensive demeanor at the slightest hint of a threat, to herself or her family.

Ethan thought of Fancy’s silent tears and the anger she’d nursed since The Seascape, still was nursing, in fact (something about a boy, Gwen had whispered when they’d returned and Fancy had slammed her bedroom door shut on the rest of the outside world), and had to disagree, at least slightly. “That’s just what she wants you to think,” he told Antonio.

“Talking about me again?” Appearing out of nowhere, Gwen plunked down into Ethan’s lap and wrapped her arms around his neck, water dripping from the end of her blond ponytail onto the papers scattered across the table.

Ethan sent a grateful smile in Antonio’s direction when he rescued the paperwork and pulled the laptop out of harm’s way. “Actually,” Ethan began but soon thought better, pulling her down for an affectionate kiss, “I was. I was thinking of how I just can’t wait to be married to you.”

Gwen leaned her forehead against Ethan’s. “Aren’t you sweet?” With a quick kiss to his lips, she turned her attention to Antonio, thanking him again for delivering her to the Crane estate safely, in one piece.

Charmed by her smile, Antonio found himself smiling back at her. “It was a generous thing you did.” He remembered his shock, when instead of claiming her rightful spot beside her fiancé on the trip home (after flying thousands of miles just to see him), she’d relinquished her seat to Sheridan, allowing nephew and aunt some much needed time to reacquaint themselves.

“Wasn’t it?” Ethan marveled, his pride more than evident by the admiring expression he wore. Seemingly oblivious to the fact she and her little black bikini were getting him wet (or maybe, he just didn’t care), he pulled her into a tight hug, his hands resting at the small at her back. Murmuring against her temple, he asked, “Are you hungry?” At her slight nod, he looked at Antonio, and Sheridan and Pretty, who’d just joined them. “I’m hungry.”

“Starving,” Sheridan voiced her agreement, knotting a long white towel around her waist and perching on the arm of Antonio’s chair. She failed to notice Pretty’s disappointed expression but wiped away the young girl’s dejection with her invitation. “Pretty, I know you didn’t think it looked like much, but Antonio swears by the food at The Shack, says it’s one of the best places to eat around these parts. Think you’re brave enough to try it?”

Pretty wore a smile as she nodded, draping her own towel over her shoulders.

“See if you can convince Fancy to come out of her self-imposed exile,” Ethan suggested, sending his little sister on her way. “So,” he prompted Antonio, “are you up for it?”

Hell, Antonio thought, visions of little black and white and blue bikinis dancing before his eyes, if it meant they’d put some clothes on… “Yeah, I’m up for it,” he drawled with an answering smirk.

Sheridan and Gwen linked arms as they headed toward the towering house, and the two blondes looked back in confusion when neither man stood up to follow them.

“Just giving you girls a twenty minute head-start,” Ethan grinned.

“You seriously think they’ll be ready in twenty?” Antonio still needed convincing, and Ethan quickly set him straight.

“Forty, tops.”




~*~






“Phew,” Evan waved his hand in front of his wrinkled nose as Kay stalked past, “what’s that smell?”

“Can it, Elf,” Kay scowled, arms wrapped about her middle, and feet intent (and mucked up). “You too, Uncle Hank,” she warned, when Hank was too slow to disguise his grin.

“Leave her be,” Sam spoke up for his daughter, only chuckling quietly when she was out of earshot. Copying Hank’s casual pose and draping his arms over the whitewashed wooden fencing that separated the Y from the vast Crane estate, Sam regarded his brother out of the corner of his blue eyes. “Didn’t expect to see you here.”

Hank heard his brother’s unspoken still loud and clear. “Didn’t expect to be here,” he replied, placing a bracing hand across Evan’s back when the boy wobbled unsteadily before finding his purchase on the bottom rung of the fencing, mimicking the adults’ stances. In silence, they watched the handful of horses bequeathed to the Y over the years graze the tiny square plot of grassland that stuck out like a sore thumb from the rest of the Crane land. It was all that was left after Alistair Crane had reclaimed the pasture lands originally given so freely to the people of Harmony, but the animals themselves didn’t seem to mind. Sometimes, Hank wished it were so simple for people.

Piece of straw between his teeth, Evan cocked his dark head and leaned farther over the fence, only to be firmly pulled back by Luis’s strong hand.

“Careful,” Luis cautioned, fashioning himself into a shielding wall behind the boy. “Don’t go too far.”

Studying their profiles in the glint of the afternoon sunlight, Hank was stricken by the bone-deep familiarity, the resemblance that made his heart ache in his chest, and he knew without asking that Sam saw the same thing that he did. Turning his back on the horses, he rest against the railing, studying his feet as he acknowledged Luis. “Looks like we missed all the fun.”

“T.C.’s still around here somewhere,” Luis answered him, “and Whitney.”

“I thought he’d have her touring the country by now,” Hank said, “taking the tennis world by storm.”

“Not for lack of trying,” Sam joined the conversation mid-stride.

“He puts too much pressure on her,” Hank remarked.

Luis looked at him steadily, unflinchingly. “How would you know?”

Touche. Hank actually winced then quietly admitted, “I wouldn’t.”

“Maybe it isn’t fun anymore,” Evan surprised them by speaking up. “If baseball wasn’t fun to me anymore, I wouldn’t want to play either.”

“You’re one smart kid,” Sam praised, ruffling the mop of dark hair with great affection. Much to his amusement (and Hank’s and Luis’s), Evan agreed with him.

“I know,” Evan shrugged.

“Modest too,” Hank grinned.

“Mom says I learned my modesty from you,” Evan grinned back.

“And they say these things are hereditary.” Hank’s eyes connected with Luis’s own gaze then looked away. Changing the subject, Hank called his big brother out on his methods of persuasion when it came to keeping him around Harmony. “I figure I’m going to be around for a while, so we either cut the Bob Vila routine out now or you’re climbing onto that roof with me next time.”

Sam had the grace to look embarrassed. “Clarify a while for me.”

It was Hank’s turn to shrug, though he struggled to look nonchalant when he answered, “A couple of months, give or take.”

Evan grew excited. “You’re going to be here the whole summer?”

It was hard not to smile in the face of the boy’s exuberance so Hank didn’t even try to fight it. “Looks like it, kidlet.”

Without warning, Evan hopped down from the railing, sweeping past Luis and kicking up dust behind him.

“Where’s the fire?” Hank joked.

“I’m going to tell Kay,” Evan shouted in response.

“Don’t worry,” Hank told Luis and Sam when the child raced headlong past the stable toward the lone figure exuding teenaged girl disdain in the distance, “he’ll be back. Those two are worse than brother and sister, but she won’t let anything happen to him.”

Satisfied when Evan caught up to Kay and appeased by Hank’s reassurance, Luis focused his attention back on Hank. “The rest of the summer, huh?” When Hank nodded, he glanced at Sam and back again. “With Sam and I spending most of our time at the station, we sure could use some extra help around here.”

“What do you say, Little Brother?” Sam asked hopefully.

Hank mulled the proposal over and made his decision quickly. “When do I start?” Judging by the grin on Sam’s face, he’d made the correct call.

“Monday too soon?” Luis explained, “That way the kids have time to get used to you before you just show up, out of the blue.”

He had a point. Hank held out his hand, to shake on it. He let out a yelp of surprise when Luis pulled him into a hug (the night at The Shack had been all his doing), and he felt the years melt away. They were those same two best friends again, united and strong. Through the years, he’d come back, never staying gone for too long, but he had to agree with Luis. This time was different.

“It’s good to have you back.”

“It’s good to be back,” Hank told him, suddenly finding himself in his brother’s embrace. He pulled back awkwardly when it became apparent Sam wasn’t going to be the one to let go first. “Listen, Sammy,” he began, only to be cut off by Kay’s unexpected return.

“Hate to interrupt your little bonding session, guys, but it looks like we’ve got an unwanted visitor.”

“Whoa!” Evan exclaimed, arm extended in front of him in wonder. “Did you see that?”

Hank heard the roar of the car’s engine and the horses’ frantic whinnying and clashing of hooves before he even saw the cloud of dust approaching them from the distant horizon. “What the hell,” he swore softly, instinctually grabbing onto Evan’s tee-shirt as the kid scrambled to higher ground in the effort to get a better look. Either someone had a death wish or a reckless streak a mile wide. Hank barely noticed Kay step up beside him or Sam shadow her, he was so fixated on the silver mirage that barreled toward them at breakneck speed. Only when the outer fence was mere inches away did the driver throw on the brakes, swerving and spinning in the opposite direction and leaving them all coughing and sputtering at the tremendous swell of dust that swooped and swirled their way.

“Who was that?” Evan’s brown eyes were wide with awe.

All eyes (except Kay’s) turned to Luis, and Luis didn’t disappoint, spitting out the driver’s identity with contempt. “That was Fox Crane.”




~*~






The hour was advancing, and the hen party, as Hank had labeled it, was in full swing. Over glasses of lemonade and a plate full of shortbread cookies, most of the important details had already been hammered out, like the location (three out of four had voted for the Inn’s spacious backyard) and the time (after Mass on Sunday because it was the only time everybody could make it), but they were still debating the little details, and Grace and Eve had decided those were best left up to the girls, with Theresa being the tie-breaking vote (they’d have to call her on her break). Currently, Jessica and Paloma were discussing the merits of having a pinata at the party, their heads close together as they swayed back and forth in the porch swing.

Grace had her hands cupped around her own sweating glass of lemonade, watching the lazy afternoon traffic and occasionally waving to the unhurried passers-by that traveled the sidewalk in front of the Inn.

“That’s the same glass of lemonade you had when I got here,” Eve astutely observed, studying Grace’s pale skin, unable to help but notice the fluttering pulse at her friend’s neck. “Grace,” she lowered her voice, all-too aware of Jessica’s proximity and Grace’s natural reticence, “how long has this been going on?”

Beneath lowered lashes, Grace regarded Eve suspiciously. “Sam said something to you, didn’t he?”

Eve quickly put her qualms to rest. “He didn’t have to.”

“Mom,” Jessica called out. “What do you think about dancing?”

Painting a smile on her face, Grace answered her daughter. “Sounds fine, Honey.”

“Theresa can help us with the music,” Paloma suggested, her chatter less animated than her older sister’s but no less excited.

Eve put forth her two cents, making both girls laugh. “It can’t all be Latin music. Some of our bodies weren’t meant to move that way.”

“Dr. Russell,” Paloma proclaimed, “I’m certain you’d be a natural.”

“You’re sweet,” Eve smiled at the young girl then turned back to her friend, her concern growing when she noticed the fine sheen of sweat dotting Grace’s skin. Propelling the glass in Grace’s hands toward her mouth, she coaxed her to drink. “Sip it. Not too fast.”

Shaking her head, Grace weakly pushed the glass away. “I can’t.”

“What about some water? Maybe it would be better.”

Swallowing slowly, Grace nodded and Eve climbed to her feet, the wooden planks of the porch creaking underfoot. Grace opened her eyes in surprise when she heard footsteps again, all too quickly. “Hi, Honey,” she greeted Jessica. “Where did Paloma go?” Jessica’s answer was simple and deflective.

“Inside.”

Grace allowed her daughter to thread their fingers together.

“You’re sick,” Jessica deduced, her brow knitting with worry.

Grace’s immediate reaction was to downplay her daughter’s fears. “I’m not.” When Jessica squeezed her hand emphatically, she looked up, finding her daughter’s typically tranquil expression replaced with one of unspoken anger. Relenting somewhat, she made a small concession, “I’m not sick. I’m just not feeling 100 percent. There’s a difference.” To combat Jessica’s skepticism, she continued, “It comes and goes.” She looked up when a shadow fell across them, finding Eve and Paloma staring down at her with the same expression of worry that Jessica wore. “I’ll be fine. Promise.” She smiled at them all then, determined to put them at ease. On some level she must have succeeded, for they dropped the subject, even Eve, and she gratefully took the water from her friend’s hands, sipping and easing the tightness in her throat. Gradually, she began to feel human again, and it occurred to her they still had one very important decision to make so she blurted, “Chips or ice cream?” The answer was swift and unanimous.

“Both!”




~*~





“It must have taken forever for you to pick out something to wear,” Sheridan teased Antonio as she gracefully took the seat he offered her, winking at Pretty when the young girl tried to hide her laughing smile from Antonio when he performed the same courtesy for her.

Antonio gave his black tee-shirt a perfunctory glance and raised a brow at the two blondes as he claimed the seat between them for his own. When he noticed Gwen and Ethan sporting similar smiles, he smirked and said, “You don’t see me taking an hour to get ready.”

“Let’s not turn this into a guys versus girls thing,” Ethan spoke diplomatically.

“Sweetheart,” Gwen reminded him, causing them all to dissolve into helpless laughter. “You were the last one in the car.”

Ethan flushed with embarrassment, even his ears were a very becoming shade of pink, and he focused intently on unfolding his napkin over his lap while Gwen snaked her arms around him and rest her chin upon his shoulder. He sputtered with laughter himself when Gwen kidded him.

“Just don’t be late for our wedding.”

Unconsciously placing her hand upon Antonio’s knee, Sheridan leaned in close, her warm breath bathing his ear, and whispered, “They make a cute couple, don’t they?”

Antonio silently studied the pair. It was obvious to him that each held great affection for the other (he would even call it love), considered themselves one another’s best friends, and he didn’t doubt they would produce cute little blond babies someday should they so decide. Still something was lacking, something he couldn’t quite define. But he needn’t trouble Sheridan with his evaluation; he didn’t know either of them very well, after all. “They do,” he finally agreed. His attention shifted elsewhere when a familiar voice greeted them, and his eyes widened in surprise when they landed on none other than his little sister.

Pen and pad in hand, Theresa didn’t notice him at first, but when she did, her mouth fell open and her large brown eyes lit up. Forgetting, for a moment, where she was, she exclaimed, “Antonio, what are you doing here?”

Smirking slightly, Antonio replied in the same teasing manner he’d always adopted when dealing with one of his sisters, “The better question to ask would be what are you doing here?”

Theresa faked irritation at him. “Working.”

Catching a glimpse of a person he supposed to be her manager lurking in the background, Antonio gave her some brotherly advice, softening his decree with a smile. “Then work.”
Darting a furtive glance over her shoulder, Theresa did just that, turning to Pretty and taking down her order. In the same vein, she went around the table, hastily scribbling everyone else’s orders down (she promptly dropped her pen in Ethan’s lap when he smiled up at her with those blue eyes of his) until she came back to her brother and Sheridan. “And you, Ms? What will you have?” she inquired politely.

“Sheridan,” Sheridan introduced (or rather, re-introduced) herself. “And I’ll have whatever your brother’s having since he’s the one who knows what’s good.”

Theresa smiled as she looked to Antonio, awaiting his order, then did a double take when she realized the identity of the blond staring up at her with twinkling blue eyes. “Sheridan? Sheridan Crane?”

“In the flesh,” Sheridan’s lips twitched with a smile.

In the seat across from Sheridan, Pretty furrowed her brow in confusion. “Do you two know each other?”

Noticing Pretty anew, Theresa answered her question. “Sheridan used to let me spend hours in her closet, playing dress-up with all her beautiful clothes.”

Nothing more than shapes blurred by frosted glass, the vague memory of three rambunctious toddlers play-pretending in front of the tall standing mirror in the corner of her old bedroom seeped back into Sheridan’s consciousness, and she told Pretty, “You were there too, Pretty. You and Fancy.”

“I don’t remember.” Pretty’s brown eyes welled with regret.

“It was a long time ago,” Ethan comforted her automatically. Narrowing his eyes at Theresa, he was gripped by the image of a tiny tot with dark curls, but the image was fleeting, and he couldn’t say for certain that he hadn’t imagined it.

Blushing under his scrutiny, Theresa agreed. “A very long time ago.” Her eyes fluttered shut, and she bit her lip in worry, when a stern voice interrupted their walk through memory lane.

“Does something seem to be the matter here?”

It was the humorless, strait-laced manager, and Antonio watched with concern as the man took Theresa by the arm, bending her ear as he steered her away. His attention returned to his dinner companions when Gwen spoke softly.

“I hope we didn’t get her in trouble.”

“Theresa will be okay,” Antonio assured her, hoping his words were true. His little sister’s determination had always been one of her defining traits, and he knew, whatever obstacles life placed in her way, she wouldn’t let them hamper her dreams. That being said, he fervently shared Gwen’s wish. He sent Sheridan a grateful smile when he felt her take his hand in hers beneath the table, and he turned to face Pretty, who had a (tricky) question poised on her tongue.

“How long have you worked for our family?”

Salvation arrived in the form of a new waitress, and Pretty’s question was forgotten in favor of more pressing questions (Where was his sister? Where was Gwen going? How did his most simple, innocent actions keep hurting his family?). Antonio didn’t have an answer for any of those questions, but he knew he was tired of the same old status quo. Standing up and pushing his chair back, he decided he couldn’t sit back and watch from the sidelines any longer. It was time he worked for his family too.








Feedback would be lovely and much appreciated. ;)

Thanks for reading this chapter! I can only hope you enjoyed it.

Still working on Anna Begins; the latest chapter was two thirds done, but I didn't like it and scrapped nearly the entire thing, so...I'm still working on it.

Until next Sunday.

UAgirl
2.7.10, 6:15 PM
Still don't know if anyone's reading this.

But just in case you are...





Title: The Story
Rating: PG
Warnings: mild swearing
Characters/Pairings: Hank/Beth, Sheridan/Pretty, Gwen/Reese/Tabby/Timmy, Fancy/Fox, Hank/Luis, Gwen/Antonio/Ethan/Theresa, Noah/Fancy, Luis/Antonio, Julian/Ivy, more
Word Count: 8,837
Summary (for chapter): “Whatever you’ve done can’t be so bad that they can’t forgive you.”








Chapter 4








Surprise, Surprise




Cell phone tucked between his shoulder and his ear, Hank backed down the ladder and eyed his handiwork. Dangling from the oak’s lowest branch, the colorful piñata twirled gently in the breeze. The kidlet’s bat-wielding talents were going to come in handy. “Looks pretty good,” he muttered, wincing as he straightened out the kinks in his neck, shifting the cell phone to his other ear. “What? When?” Hank whirled around at the sound of muffled footsteps against the grass and a throat clearing. Holding up a finger to the man with boxes piled high in his arms, he motioned to the phone at his ear and then to the table set up against the privacy fence that bordered the Inn’s boundaries. “No. No,” he shook his head. “Don’t do anything. Just hang loose, and don’t make the first move, okay? Sit on it for a while. Listen, I got company. Keep me posted.” With those final instructions, he disconnected the phone, snapping it shut and sliding it into the back of his jeans. “Hank Bennett,” he introduced himself, holding out his hand to the man that had returned, sans boxes, to stand in front of him. “You the DJ?”

The young man gave Hank’s hand a firm shake. “Chad Harris.”

“Nice to meet you, Chad.” Friendly smile in place, Hank explained, “Old friend. Girl troubles.”

Chad smirked at him. “I know it’s really none of my business, but sometimes it’s better to make the first move, scores points with the ladies.”

Hank’s brown eyes strayed guiltily from Chad’s forward gaze. “Not in this case.” Clapping his hands together, he turned back to face Chad and remarked, “You’re early.”

“Is that a problem?”

“No problem,” Hank rushed to assure him. “Need any help setting up your equipment?” he generously offered.

Glancing back over his shoulder, Chad graciously turned down his offer. “Looks like someone else needs your help more than me.”

“Uncle Hank!” Evan sprinted across the yard to Hank’s side, out of breath but looking dapper in his Sunday clothes. “We missed you at Mass. Mom says you should have come.”

Hank smoothed down the wayward cowlick in Evan’s dark hair. “Maybe next time, kidlet.”

“I’m holding you to that,” Beth vowed, juggling her own boxes as she joined them. When Hank held out his hands to lighten her load, she obligingly handed over her loot.

Hank sniffed curiously at one of the containers nestled in the biggest box. “What do we have here?”

“Salsa.” Evan’s heavily lashed eyes were large and round. “Lots and lots of salsa.”

“Homemade salsa,” Beth told him. “Just like Pilar makes it.”

“If memory serves me correctly,” Hank commented with a mild grimace, “Pilar likes her salsa hot.”

“Don’t worry,” Beth patted him on the shoulder. “I made plenty of cheese dip for our wimpier friends.”

Hank pretended to be offended. “Are you trying to insinuate something?” While he watched, Beth unloaded bags of chips onto one of the two serving tables he and Sam had set up the night before. Her eyes slid over to his face, and she relieved him of his burden, carefully removing two large covered bowls and placing them beside the chips. Hank delighted in the laugh that bubbled from her lips.

“I’m not insinuating anything, Hank Bennett,” Beth refuted. “You’re the one jumping to conclusions over there.”

Hank grinned at her playful mood, brown eyes twinkling. “You flirting with me, Wallace?”

“You wish,” Beth smirked, shaking her head at him. “Watch him for me,” she indicated Evan, who seemed to have made fast friends with Chad. “I’m going to go change.”

“Come on,” Hank gave her his best (respectful) leer. “I like the dress.” It was short but conservative, it was black and sleeveless, and it hugged her body lovingly without being overly audacious. Sans the light sweater (the one he swore she’d worn to church since she was fifteen), it was nothing short of perfect, at least in Hank’s eyes. “Don’t take off the dress.”

Backing away from him, Beth teased, “I can’t make sense of you, Hank. Dress on or dress off?”

“You are flirting with me!” Hank crowed.

Beth waved him off, turning around and calling over her shoulder, “You keep telling yourself those lies.” She skirted around Sam en route to the Inn, and whatever she said made his Police Chief brother laugh.

Hank was still wondering when his brother strolled up to him with a knowing grin plastered upon his face and gave him a friendly punch to the shoulder.

“Close your mouth, Little Brother.” Sam’s blue eyes twinkled wickedly. “You’re catching flies.”








~*~







Sheridan awoke to the mid-morning sun on her face, but inexplicably, she felt lost, in the shadows of a dark, rolling thundercloud. Blinking at the light that shone into her eyes, she turned, burying her face into her pillow, and released a ragged sigh. Her sleep, as it had been every night since she’d returned home, had been filled with nightmare images that kept slipping just beyond the periphery of her vision. Last night, she’d dreamed of hands. Big hands, delicate hands, cruel hands, muddy hands, hands stained with blood. A floorboard creaked, and she fought off a shiver (why did that sound fill her with such…terror?), her heart pounding against her ribcage, unable to dare raise her head to look. Relief flooded her system when Pretty’s soft voice filled the room.

“Aunt Sheridan?”

With some effort, Sheridan sat up in her bed, pillows at her back, and beckoned her niece closer. Pretty surprised her by climbing into the bed with her. She opened her arms to the young girl, waiting patiently for her to speak. When she did, Sheridan was rendered mute for several minutes.

“Do you think there’s something…off…about this house?”

Swallowing down her own apprehension, Sheridan forced herself to be calm, reasonable when she replied. “In what way do you mean, Pretty?”

Pretty tucked her hands around her updrawn knees and lowered her chin to rest upon them, shrugging slightly as she answered, her brown eyes downcast, “I can’t explain it. I guess it just doesn’t feel like home.”

Sheridan tucked a strand of thick, gold hair behind Pretty’s ear. “That’s certainly understandable,” she said, reminding Pretty of the boarding schools, the other houses they’d each fleetingly taken shelter in scattered the world wide. “We lived here so long ago, and you were only a tiny thing.”

Pretty glanced around the room, desperately grasping at memories that weren’t there, and her expression was as wistful as her whisper. “Did we really play dress-up in your closet?”

“You and Theresa and Fancy,” Sheridan smiled, the picture of the three little girls coming back to her degree by degree. This memory, she knew, was a happy memory, one she didn’t mind revisiting. “Over there, in that corner.” She pointed, to where the tall mirror once stood, and wondered what had happened to it, and the rest of her childhood memories.

“Do you think Theresa really meant it when she invited us to her mother’s party?”

Pretty’s brown eyes held the barest hints of hope, and gazing into them, Sheridan was hit with the realization of just how starved for true friendship the girl really was. “I think she absolutely meant it,” Sheridan told her, remembering the kind gesture and the gratified manner in which Theresa had extended the invitation. Peering over Pretty’s shoulder, she looked for her cell phone, and when she couldn’t find it, she asked Pretty, noting that, unlike her, she wasn’t still wearing her pajamas, “What time is it?”

Pretty bit her lip in thought. “Almost noon, I think.”

“Noon?” Sheridan’s hands covered her face in disbelief. Throwing the comforter back from her legs, she scrambled from the bed, pulling her fingers through her disheveled blond hair. “Where’s everyone else?”

Pretty ducked her head sheepishly. “Ethan thought you needed the rest. He and Gwen took the Porsche into town early to look for a gift.”

“Oh no,” Sheridan groaned, tugging her robe on over her silk pajamas. “I didn’t even think of a gift.”

Pretty smiled. “Antonio said you’d say that.” Standing up and crossing the room to Sheridan, she took her hands in her own, squeezing them reassuringly. “He told me to tell you not to worry. He’s got it covered.”

Sheridan found herself returning Pretty’s smile and said
the first thing that came to mind. “What would I do without Antonio?” She didn’t notice Pretty’s smile dim or the girl’s hands falling away from her own; she was already on her way to her bathroom, sure she had time to freshen up. Her voice was muffled by the sounds of the shower when she called out. “Tell him I’ll be right down.”

Pretty was already gone.






~*~





While Ethan bartered with a jeweler two doors down (for a cross necklace he just knew was perfect for the religious woman he barely remembered from his childhood), Gwen wandered the sidewalks of Harmony, waving at a few familiar faces she’d grown accustomed to seeing in her short time spent in the town, among them the cheerful teen from the consignment shop and a woman she presumed to be her mother. “Charity,” she ventured.

Charity beamed at her, before being pulled along by her companion. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

With its blue skies and cotton clouds, Gwen couldn’t disagree, and she marveled at the fact that her original misgivings (she hadn’t been completely truthful with Ivy) were starting to dissipate. There was actually something quite charming about Harmony, she decided, ducking into a quaint little drug store on impulse. Musical little bells tinkled overhead when she stepped inside, and she drew in a startled breath at the sight that met her eyes.

“Is there anything I can help you with, Miss?” lisped a cherubic lad of diminutive stature.

“What have I told you about bothering the customers, Timmy?” a disembodied voice chastised before Gwen could answer. In the blink of an eye, the boy scampered away, leaving Gwen to wonder if she’d merely imagined his presence.

“You didn’t imagine him,” a boy with black-framed glasses assured her, his intelligent blue eyes sparkling back at her from behind the lenses. Transferring his shopping basket to his other arm, he stuck out a friendly hand and introduced himself. “I’m Reese Durkee. I don’t think we’ve met.” Absently pushing his glasses further onto the bridge of his nose after they’d shaken hands, he murmured, “You must be new in town.”

“Gwen Hotchkiss.” The boy’s eyes smiled at her (they were nice eyes, she decided), and Gwen wondered at the direction his thoughts had taken him until he spoke again.

“As in the Lady Gwynevere?”

“As in Gwendolyn,” she laughingly told him, stepping past him to inspect the shelves in front of her with their abundance of lotions and perfumes. “I prefer Gwen.” Her brown eyes strayed to the shopping basket that dangled from his arm, and she couldn’t help teasing, “Looks like you have one of everything in there.” She found it strangely endearing when he blushed.

“There were too many to choose from,” Reese stammered out a defense. “I thought girls liked to smell good.”

“If you give her all of these, she’ll get the wrong impression,” Gwen held out her hand for the basket, and Reese willingly handed it over. “Girlfriend or friend?” Gwen questioned, rifling curiously through the various bottles. The boy’s eyes grew round as he answered.

“Best friend’s mom.”

Gwen started replacing the bottles on the shelves. “What if I helped you find something else? What about a nice picture frame with a photo of her family?”

Reese nodded readily, and the unlikely pair of strangers wandered the aisles of the drug store together, in search of a more suitable gift. With Gwen’s advice, Reese picked out a pretty little silver frame and some shiny paper to wrap it in, and he was headed home, with the perfect photograph in mind and a grateful wave goodbye.

Deciding she had loitered enough, Gwen aimed to follow Reese’s example, but impulse had her grabbing a bag of candy and heading for the check-out line. She thumbed through a glossy magazine while waiting her turn, only looking up when she heard the same voice from before, closer now, speaking to the customer in front of her.

“Are congratulations in order, Dear?”

With soft discomfit, an answer was delivered. “I think maybe congratulations are premature.”

Beneath lowered lashes, Gwen caught a glimpse of the customer’s profile, and she felt her heart skip a beat in recognition at the short-cropped auburn hair and the slender figure. The nervous hands, fumbling with a small rectangular box, sported a golden wedding band and a modest diamond, and Gwen struggled to recall if she’d seen similar ornaments adorning the hand of the woman with Charity. She was still puzzling over that fact when the voice spoke again, and she realized the woman was gone, leaving her standing alone, and an older woman with a bottle-blond cascade of curls and a name tag that read simply Tabitha stared at her with what looked to be worried suspicion. “I’m sorry,” Gwen apologized, her gaze straying toward the door where the woman had exited. “I guess she seemed familiar.”

With a knowing twinkle in her blue eyes, Tabitha told her, “They say everyone has a twin out there somewhere.”

Gwen’s eyes narrowed at Tabitha in consideration, but the knowing twinkle had vanished (maybe it had never really been there), and the older woman was now openly eyeing her with concern. She shook the thought out of her head and forced herself to concentrate on what was being said.

“Will that be all, Dear?” Having scanned the candy and placing it in a small bag, Tabitha darted a glance to the same little lad from before, and suggested, “Maybe Timmy could walk you to your car?”

Gwen took the bag from Tabitha with a placatory smile. “That won’t be necessary. Thanks.”

“Suit yourself, Dear,” Tabitha murmured, watching Gwen leave and meet a young man on the sidewalk outside. Locking up her register and crossing to the door to flip the Open sign over, she waved benignly at the young couple and turned to her companion. “Come along, Tim-Tim. I think the town of Harmony can manage without us for a little while.”

Timmy glowed with excitement. “Does that mean we’re going to the party? Are we, Princess?”

Tabitha merely sighed and gently pulled him along.





~*~






“If you spend another day in that bed,” Fox warned with a slow, sly grin, “I’m calling a surgical team in to remove you from it.”

Fancy flopped over to glare at her brother. She rolled her eyes at him when he left the doorway to saunter toward her (that was Fox for you; he never simply walked anywhere).

Striking a casual pose at the foot of her bed, Fox’s keenly intelligent brown eyes took in the crumpled piles of Kleenex, Fancy’s baggy sweats, and her blonde bed-head, and he asked, “What’s the poor fool’s name?”

“No-…” Fancy began, only to break off. “Why would I tell you?”

Fox shrugged, unfolding his lean body and taking a look around. There was something undeniably feminine about the room, little traces of Fancy everywhere, and he found himself envying his sister’s ability to make her presence known everywhere she traveled, minus the flashy cars and daredevil antics that were his own specialty.

“Listen,” Fancy sighed. “I know you’re trying to make me feel better…”

“Who said anything about trying to make you feel better?” Fox interjected. When the comment produced the reaction he was looking for (in his opinion, nobody could match Fancy’s go to hell look), he decided to take a more honest approach. “My brain is rotting in this insipid little nowhere town, and Father’s relieved me of my keys.”

Fancy started to shake her head, knowing where this was going.

Fox wouldn’t be deterred. “You need to get out. For my sanity’s sake, I need to stay as far away from this house as possible, as often as possible. We can help each other out.” Casting a meaningful look at her shapeless clothes, he couldn’t resist a smirking taunt, “I’m sure your ass will thank me.” Fancy’s pillow hit him square in the face with extra oomph. Tossing the pillow back at her, he innocently queried, “What was that for?”

“Calling me fat,” Fancy growled, slithering out of the covers like a snake and advancing on him with another pillow in her hands.

Holding up his hands to defend himself from bodily harm, Fox cheekily replied, “I didn’t call you fat. You did that all by yourself.” When Fancy emitted a mighty groan, he grinned. Capturing a matted pigtail between his fingers, he let true affection shine through his eyes and grew serious, if only for a few fleeting seconds. “It’ll do you good to get outside of this mausoleum.”

Fancy’s nose wrinkled. He had a point. “If you get me arrested…”

Pushing her gently in the direction of the bathroom, Fox urged, “Better clean up for your mug-shot.” Fancy’s baleful look said it all. Whistling a cheery little tune, Fox saw himself out of her bedroom, and it wasn’t long before he found himself downstairs, before the study door. When he raised his hand to knock, the door creaked open slightly, and instinctually, Fox hung back, his ears straining to make out the voices inside. A voice he recognized as his father’s was slightly muffled but audible.

“I want you to get her out of this house, Antonio.” After a slight pause, Julian continued, “I don’t know. Make her fall in love with you. Anything. I don’t care how you do it.”

Silence reigned, so long that Fox wondered if the pair inside had discovered him, but then the conversation resumed, although the subject, it seemed, had changed. He inched closer, peering through the crack in the door with narrowed brown eyes. He was just in time to see his father hand Antonio a slim sheet of paper. Fox watched in disbelief as Antonio pushed the paper (it had to be a check) away, his gesture resolute.

“Take it,” Julian insisted. “You’ve earned it.”

Knowing his father didn’t waste ink on checks of small amounts, Fox wondered whether it was honor or honest greed that kept Antonio from accepting it. His confusion grew when his father again placed the check in Antonio’s palm, taking his hand and folding his fingers over it.

“If not for yourself, for Pilar.”

Fox sucked in a startled breath and his heart nearly stopped beating inside his chest when he felt a small hand grasp his arm. Pretty released him with an apologetic smile while his aunt Sheridan and his mother lingered nearby. “Try making a little more noise next time,” he grumbled, stepping forward and maneuvering them away from the door and the voices that had grown strangely quiet inside.

His mother’s blue-green gaze was discerning. “I see you’ve inherited your father’s propensity for eavesdropping.”

“I’m afraid you’re mistaken, Dearest,” Julian announced his presence, and that of the man standing (guard?) beside him. “That particular talent comes from your half of the gene pool.”

Fox looked to his aunt Sheridan, and her shrug made him smile. His smile widened when Fancy appeared behind them, looking just like she’d just stepped outside of the pages of a fashion magazine. Here was the sister he knew; not the pod person that had taken over her body since her return home barely a week ago. Cutting his eyes toward their father, he silently urged her to take action, and she did.

“Daddy,” Fancy pushed her bottom lip out in an exaggerated pout and held out her hand, palm up. “May I have the keys to Fox’s car? I want to go exploring.”

Fox’s brows arched high at that statement, and beside him, he could see Pretty roll her eyes. Fox could read the indecision on their father’s face, the silent war he waged inside, and he could also see the moment his resolve cracked. He suppressed a smile at the knowing expressions each woman and Antonio wore and wondered how his father could be so incredibly stupid. His father disabused him of that notion rather quickly, though, when he dangled the keys over Fancy’s palm and laid out his conditions.

“You’re driving. Not your brother.” Julian told Fancy. “And you can save your exploring for another day.” At this, Fancy’s mouth dropped open in shock. “You were invited to a birthday party, and you’re going.”

It didn’t escape Fox’s notice that his father’s eyes gravitated toward Antonio again, as if to say don’t let them out of your sight. Taking that little exchange as a challenge, Fox vowed to make Antonio earn his so-called paycheck honestly, even if he had to use Fancy to do it. Sporting a superior smirk, he employed a little exaggeration of his own, lifting his shoulders in a shrug and meeting Antonio’s unreadable dark eyes, “I’ve been meaning to find out what you locals do for fun.”

“Fox!” Pretty scolded in dismay.

With one look at his mother’s cool blue gaze, Fox knew he had stepped over some kind of imaginary line and ruffled some feathers, and he apologized, with some reluctance. He let out the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding when his aunt Sheridan spoke up, ever the peacemaker.

“I’m sure Antonio appreciates your apology.” Glancing at the glittering watch upon her wrist, she held out her hand to Pretty, tugging her along. “If we don’t hurry, we’re going to be late.”


“Antonio?” called Pretty, when they were halfway down the hall.

“Right behind you,” Antonio promised. Turning to Ivy, he told her, “The invitation stands.” Glancing at Julian and Fancy, he nodded. When he came to Fox, he simply stared, his message loud and clear.

I don’t like you either, Fox thought, giving him his most ingratiating smile. “Fancy,” he prompted, and Fancy snatched the keys from their father’s hand before he could change his mind. “Looks like we have a party to attend.”

The Crane Mansion disappeared behind them as the car ate up the miles beneath Fancy’s steady hand, her blond hair blowing behind her. When the Welcome to Harmony sign appeared, the car coasted to a stop on the shoulder of the road, and Fancy changed seats with her brother, putting Fox behind the wheel again (and her life in his hands). They zipped along, the miles blurring behind them. By the time they reached the Inn, skidding to a stop behind the gleaming black SUV from which Antonio, Sheridan, and Pretty spilled out, they had their own personal escort, complete with flashing blue lights and blaring sirens, and Fancy felt her fingers were permanently embedded in Fox’s flesh. “Oh my…” Prying her fingers from her brother’s arm, she slapped his shoulder, hard, and scrambled to get out of the car on legs that felt like jello. “You…you idiot!” She gratefully grasped Sheridan’s supporting hand and watched as Antonio stalked forward, ripping the keys from the car’s ignition before Fox could protest. She didn’t notice the small crowd that had gathered behind them, nor did she notice the uniformed man exit the police car until Antonio tried to intervene, to no avail.

“Luis, let me handle this.”

Too focused on the scene playing out, movie-like, in front of them, Fancy failed to notice her aunt’s sharp intake of breath, but Pretty didn’t, tangling her fingers through Sheridan’s other hand.

“Butt out, Antonio,” a hard, angry voice warned. “This is police business.”

“Luis,” Antonio pleaded. “Not at Mama’s party.” But his appeal fell on deaf ears as Luis produced a pair of handcuffs and proceeded to pull Fox out of the car and to his feet.

“Fox Crane, you are under arrest.”





~*~





With hands that shook slightly (anyone else wouldn’t have noticed), Grace finished cleaning up after herself in Hank’s bathroom and backed out of the compact space, pulling the door shut behind her. Turning around, she was surprised to find she wasn’t alone, and she flattened her palm against her racing heart, willing her nerves to calm. “Beth, I didn’t hear you come in.”

From her vantage point at the window, Beth spared Grace a glance over her shoulder and a soft apology for startling her. “I forgot Evan’s Epi-pen when I changed earlier.”

Nodding, Grace joined her at the window, her brow furrowing in confusion at the scene taking place. “What on earth…” she trailed off as Sam and Hank joined the fracas, each taking Luis by an arm and pulling him out of the fray. She couldn’t hear their words, but she had no doubt the ensuing exchange was heated. Neither did Beth, it seemed, because she was moving toward the door, only hesitating long enough for Grace to follow her. By the time both women had reached the Inn’s shaded porch, it looked like the worst was over (at least Grace hoped so). Luis was nowhere to be found, and Hank was notably absent. Grace could literally feel the tension radiating off of Sam in the taut arm he banded around her waist, pulling her into his side. “Sam?” she questioned softly, raising her head to peer into his turbulent blue eyes. When he said nothing, she looked again at their newcomers, and the varying degrees of uncertainty written on each face. Finding one familiar face in such a sea, she sought an answer to a question she didn’t know how to phrase. “Antonio?” Antonio wouldn’t meet her eyes when he delivered his reply.

“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”

“Don’t be silly,” Grace told him, stepping out of the shelter of Sam’s arms and walking right up to him. She’d known him literally half of his entire life, and she knew how much he loved his family, even if his life choices sometimes made it seem otherwise. “It’s your mother’s birthday. Of course, you should be here.”

“She’s right,” Beth agreed quietly.

A pretty blond teen, with brown eyes too old for her years, lay a hand on Antonio’s arm. “Theresa did a nice thing inviting us, but we don’t belong here.”

The disappointment in the young face, and the easy acceptance tugged at Grace’s heartstrings, and, ignoring the look in Sam’s eyes that told her to leave things be (maybe she was right), she spoke up. “No.” Clarifying herself, she told them, “You’re welcome here. All of you.”

It was Antonio that looked to Sam, and Antonio that laid voice to their lingering doubts. “Are you sure about this? Luis isn’t going to be too happy with this.”

“It isn’t Luis’s day,” Beth reminded them, leaving Sam no choice but to follow her lead.

“You’re staying, and that’s final,” Sam declared. Looking at all of their guests, each wearing similar expressions of disbelief, he spurred them into action. “Now I suggest we take this discussion elsewhere, or this party isn’t going to be much of a surprise.”

Gesturing for everyone to follow her, Sam, and Beth, Grace remarked, “I could still use some help with the balloons.”


~*~





“Look, Pal,” Hank braved his good friend’s considerable ire to ask, when it was just the two of them and a lonely piñata dangling from a tree branch, “don’t you think you were a little harsh out there? Sure, write the kid a ticket. He deserves it. But handcuffs? I thought you were more of a three strikes, you’re out kind of guy.”

Hands on his hips, dark eyes glittering blackly, Luis ignored Hank’s comment and scuffed his shoe against the oak’s broad trunk. “What was he thinking? Bringing them here?”

And that was the crux of the problem. Right there, Hank thought to himself. Sure, the Crane kid’s arrogance rubbed Luis the wrong way. But the bigger issue was Luis’s distrust and anger at the Crane family as a whole. And to have Antonio, of all people, introduce them back into his life…Hank understood his friend all too well. “Just remember what Sam said. You can coexist with anyone for a couple of months.” He thought back years ago to an all-too brief stint they’d endured as roommates, and his lips curved into a fond smile. Luis, it seemed, was revisiting the same memories, if the slight smile that threatened to wipe away his imposing scowl was anything to go by. Their bond was as close as any two brothers, but Hank was chaos where Luis was order, and the two worked against each other constantly. It had been a struggle too tiresome to continue, and for the sake of salvaging their friendship, they’d quickly given up that dream of their boyhood friendship. Throw in the situation with Beth and Evan, and things had gotten, well, complicated. “Just be civil. No one’s asking for miracles here.” The scowl returned to Luis’s face, and Hank turned around just in time to witness the Crane kid stroll into their midst like he owned the place.

“That kid,” Luis practically growled the word, “is nothing but trouble.”

Hank opened his mouth to dispute Luis’s notion, but found he couldn’t, so he settled for placing a calming hand on Luis’s tense shoulder. “You’ll get no argument from me.”

Finding an ally in Hank, Luis relaxed marginally, and he even let Hank lead him in Chad’s direction, where the pair struck up a friendly conversation.

Leaving Luis with Chad to discuss the music for the party (Pilar’s likes and dislikes, Luis’s too, if Hank were a betting man), Hank met back up with Beth, gamely trying to make chit-chat with the trio of displaced blondes as they tied ribbons around clusters of balloons Evan and Simone supplied. Resting his hands upon Evan’s narrow shoulders, Hank caught Beth’s eye and winked. “Always knew this one was full of hot air.” An uneasy grin lit upon Hank’s lips when one of the women stepped forward and extended her hand to him, a twinkle of familiarity in her ocean eyes.

“I’m sorry. Have we met before?”

Her smile was disarming, and Hank found himself unable to look away from her eyes as they searched his own for recognition. Shrugging with embarrassment, he muttered some offhand excuse (just have one of those faces, I guess), only remembering to formally introduce himself when Beth nudged him in the ribs with her elbow. “Name’s Hank.”

“Sheridan.”

“Nice to meet you, Sheridan,” Beth greeted warmly.
“You’ve already met Evan. And Simone,” she gestured to the teen, who shot their guests a sunny, welcoming smile. “I’m Beth.”

Pretty stepped forward, strands of curling ribbon wrapped around her fingers, and smiled shyly at Beth, “You’re the one that owns the coffee shop.”

Beth returned her smile with a prideful one of her own.

“These are my nieces,” Sheridan introduced the twosome, though Fancy barely spared them a glance in acknowledgment. Something else entirely had captured her attention, and Sheridan knew a losing battle when she saw it. “Fancy’s a little preoccupied right now, but Pretty and I are at your disposal,” she said to Beth, when the last of the balloons were finished, and everyone was standing around awkwardly, strangers whose avenues of conversation had dried up.

“Have you ever had sangria?” Beth finally asked. “Because I can never get it just right.”





~*~






“Your mother seems like a lovely woman.” Apart from the crowd that now filled the Inn’s backyard, Gwen smiled up at Antonio as he approached, then lowered himself to the step beside her, folding his long limbs like an accordion.

"Mama’s the best,” Antonio agreed, his brown eyes searching out the figure of his mother, enjoying the company of her family and friends, save for one (two actually, if he counted himself, but he’d long since counted himself out, mindful of his shortcomings in his brother’s eyes). “What do you have there?” he questioned, eyeing the small yellow bag in her lap with a tiny smile.

“Raisinette?” Gwen offered, laughing softly when his large hand delved into the bag and almost got stuck. She watched him toss several of the candies into his mouth and chew thoughtfully before holding his hand out for more, palm up. “Great,” she pretended to grumble, procuring a handful of the chocolate covered candies and daintily placing them in his palm. “You weren’t supposed to like them.”

Antonio smirked when she held the bag protectively close and decided a little teasing was in order. “I guess it’s true what they say.” He waited until he had her full attention before he continued. “Never come between a lady and her chocolate.”

“Hush,” Gwen tried not to smile. “It’s comforting.”

When she realized what she had revealed, she found it wasn’t so hard to suppress a smile, and she shifted her gaze back to the party. Though she felt Antonio’s measuring eyes on her, she refused to acknowledge him, instead picking out Ethan in the crowd of partygoers, waving back at him when he smiled at her. “Look at him,” she murmured. “He’s at home anywhere.”

“Excuse me,” Eve Russell squeezed between them, carrying a precariously balanced replenishment of drinks overhead.

Antonio stood up to help her, but Sam beat him to the task, and it was only when he sat back down that he realized how close they had been sitting, the distance between them now much more considerable. “You know,” Antonio told her after a prolonged minute of silence, “they don’t bite. Most of them are actually pretty nice.”

“If they’re so nice, why are you sitting all the way over here with me?” Gwen queried, sounding amused. She noticed, as she again scanned the group before them, the old woman and little boy from the drug store lingering around the refreshment table, and made a silent addition to Antonio’s pronouncement. Nice but odd. “Maybe I like the quiet.”

“Maybe you feel left out,” Antonio replied, knowing he had hit a little too close to home when she flinched, almost imperceptibly. He was surprised when she readily admitted a truth all too real to him.

“I guess I’ve always been an outsider.” Gwen grew thoughtful. “Sometimes it isn’t so bad. It doesn’t have to be all bad,” she reiterated, feeling his eyes upon her again. “I think it gives me a better perspective. Take you and your family, for example.” She turned to him, and she felt the rough denim of his jeans brush against her bare knee. “You love them, and it’s obvious they care just as much about you. But some hang-up of yours is making you keep your distance when it doesn’t have to be that way.” Despite the tensing of his jaw in response to her statement, she bravely (or stupidly, she couldn’t decide which) continued, “Whatever you’ve done can’t be so bad that they can’t forgive you.”

Like an excited child filled with the holiday spirit, Theresa beckoned them both, and Antonio stood up, but not before regarding Gwen with unreadable dark eyes as she climbed to her feet beside him, dusting the seat of her pants. He willed his clenched jaw to relax and smiled back at his sister. He looked down when he felt the faltering touch of Gwen’s hand on his forearm, and her brown eyes were earnest and pleading as they sought out his own reluctant gaze.

“I was out of line,” Gwen apologized. “I shouldn’t have said anything. It’s none of my business,” she finished awkwardly when Antonio carefully extricated her hand from his arm. I’m sorry, she wanted to cry but didn’t; she’d already way overstepped her bounds. A quiet misery completely out of proportion to the situation filled her (why was that, she wondered, when she barely knew the man) when he walked away from her without an acknowledging word, and she barely had time to wipe the frown from her face before Ethan appeared in front of her, grasping her hands and coaxing her to join the party, which, despite its rocky start, had settled into the celebration it was obviously meant to be. Her frown melted away, replaced by a gentle smile of fondness for her fiancé. “You’re having a good time.”

Ethan’s blue eyes regarded her curiously. Tugging her nearer, he placed a warm hand upon her waist and tightened his grasp on her other hand, literally dancing her into the sway of unfamiliar faces. “You seem surprised.”

Shaking her head, Gwen laughed as he twirled her (they never did this part gracefully; she imagined they looked like young cousins or maybe siblings forced to take dancing lessons together), and she stumbled, stepping on Ethan’s toes and making him laugh in return. “I’m not surprised,” she told him, her hands gripping his shoulders as she darted a glance at their feet, hopelessly entangled and out of step, and she laughed helplessly again, gently pushing him away. “I’m not good at this.” When Ethan made another grab at her hands, she merely smiled and backed away. When it looked as if he might follow her, Gwen sought out Sheridan or Fancy, even Pretty, but finding none of the other women, she settled for snagging a nearby Theresa by the hand.

“Gwen, Ethan,” Theresa beamed at them both, her large dark eyes shifting to Gwen in confusion when the other woman placed her hand in Ethan’s larger one. “I…what…” At a loss for words, Theresa stared at their joined hands for a second then glanced back at Gwen, who was watching them both expectantly.

“You don’t mind dancing with Ethan while I sit this one out, do you?” Not waiting for Theresa to answer in the affirmative, Gwen winked at Ethan in parting, “I’m sure Ethan’s toes will thank you.”

Ethan’s cheeks bore a faint flush of embarrassment (only rivaled by Theresa’s own blush) and he temporarily lost his capability of speech until the absurdity of the situation hit him and then Theresa and the young girl giggled. “Watch out for my toes,” he warned.

“Don’t worry,” Theresa’s eyes sparkled up at him. “I will.”




~*~





Noah watched Fancy drift toward the unoccupied refreshment table, and finally sensing his big opportunity, he seized the moment, catching up to her and quietly calling her name. “Fancy.”

Fancy ignored him, collecting a cold bottle of water from the variety of drinks that bobbed in the melting ice of the oversized cooler at the table’s end. Untwisting the cap and taking a dainty sip, she pretended to be fascinated in the checkered tablecloth that covered the table, until she felt Noah’s insistent hand on her shoulder.

Noah flinched when Fancy shrugged off his touch, and his silver eyes looked stricken as he watched her wrap her arms protectively around herself. “You won’t take my calls.”

“Here’s a newsflash for you,” Fancy’s blue eyes glittered at him with hurt and anger when she finally faced him. “I don’t want to talk to you.”

“Why didn’t you tell me you were a Crane?” What Noah meant as a question came out sounding more like an accusation, one he regretted as soon as it’d left his mouth. More softly, he asked, “Why did you lie to me about who you were?”

Nervous fingers picking at the label on her water bottle, Fancy defended herself. “I didn’t lie to you. Not really.” When Noah looked unconvinced, she told him, “Winthrop is my mother’s maiden name. I use it sometimes, when I don’t want someone to know who I really am.”

Now it was Noah’s turn to look wounded. “Like me?”

A pretty, tomboyish brunette walked up beside Noah, softly calling his name, and Fancy felt her previous moment’s guilt and sympathy shrivel up inside her to be replaced with a renewed anger that burned in the pit of her belly. “Don’t look so hurt.” Her blue eyes turned icy when faced with his feigned confusion. “It’s not exactly like you’re hurting for company.”

“Fancy, what are you…” Noah looked bewildered, and his eyes widened when he realized what she was suggesting. “Are you talking about Kay?”

Was he laughing at her, Fancy wondered, feeling another protective layer wrapping itself around her heart when she caught a glimpse of the humor in his silver blue eyes. “Kay, Theresa, take your pick,” she hissed. “I saw you. At the Seascape. I saw you so don’t you pretend you’re hurt or upset because we both know you’re not.”

“Fancy, you got it all wrong,” Noah protested, raking a hand through his dark hair and sending it all astray. “Kay’s…”

Kay stepped forward to plead her brother’s case, but unfortunately, Fancy wasn’t hearing it. “I’m not who you think I am. Neither is Theresa.”

Despite her own hurt, Fancy felt the need to warn Kay against the dangers Noah presented to her heart. “Don’t let him play you, too.”

Noah groaned, snatching at Fancy’s hand as she turned to go. Her fingers slid through his, easily, and he wished futilely for the words to make her stay but they wouldn’t come, at least they stalled somewhere between the lump in his throat and the tip of his tongue. “Fancy, wait,” he pleaded.

Fancy had one last parting shot to deliver, her eyes seeking out Theresa and Ethan on the makeshift dance floor. “You might want to keep an eye on your little girlfriend.”




~*~




“Evan, that’s enough candy.” Beth scolded her son lightly.

“Yeah, kidlet,” Hank told the boy, scooping up a handful of the child’s winnings (did being the one to crack open the piñata count as winning?) and tucking them into his pocket against Evan’s protests, “save some room for cake.”

“Maybe you two should have a sleepover,” Beth suggested, watching her energetic nine-year-old scamper off in search of Pilar, in hopes of convincing her it was, indeed, time to cut the cake. “It’ll be fun,” she waged, the hint of a smile curving her lips as Hank turned her proposition around on her.

“It’ll be even more fun if it’s just you and me,” Hank winked at her.

Beth just rolled her eyes at him, stealing a piece of candy from his pocket for herself and popping it into her mouth once she’d twisted the wrapper off. When her eyes landed on Theresa, entertaining Ethan, Pretty, and Whitney on the Inn’s lower porch steps, she frowned as she asked Hank, “What happened to the fiancée?” The answer, when it came, wasn’t delivered by Hank but a soft, feminine voice instead and Beth straightened when Sheridan joined them, Antonio shadowing her.

“Gwen took Fancy home.”

“I hope everything’s okay,” Beth sincerely offered.
Fancy’s earlier exchange with Noah hadn’t escaped her attention, and putting two and two together, she’d since figured out Fancy’s identity. Hank, it seemed, was still in the dark. That wasn’t entirely a surprise, though, considering he’d been preoccupied playing the go-between for Luis and Antonio for much of the afternoon. She wondered briefly about Luis’s whereabouts until Evan reappeared, Pilar and Luis in hand.

For a long, tension-fraught moment, Luis and Antonio stared at each other, while everyone that knew their history held their breath. Then Evan excitedly called the rest of the party over, and a little of the strain of forced civility lessened, although it didn’t dissipate completely. Theresa led them in a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday, and it was Paloma that cut the cake, Jessica helping by her side, and the gifts followed soon afterward.

Beth noticed Hank observing Sheridan from a distance and couldn’t resist comment. “She’s very beautiful, don’t you think?”

Hank didn’t turn to face her, but a grin curled his lips. “Careful. Comments like that might give a guy the wrong idea.”

“Hate to ruin your little fantasy,” Beth said, barely resisting the urge to roll her eyes at him, “but I was simply stating a fact.”

“Relax,” Hank leaned over to whisper in her ear, causing Beth to shiver involuntarily and swat her hand at him, “I wasn’t suggesting you were attracted to her, although now that I think about it…”

“Hank,” Beth glowered.

“I just thought I might have detected a hint of jealousy,” Hank retorted. “You can’t blame a guy for being hopeful, can you?”

This time, Beth didn’t bother with restraint. Rolling her eyes at Hank, she turned around, picking up a plate with a piece of cake and started walking away.

“You’re hell for my ego,” Hank called after her, watching as she delivered the cake to Chad and struck up a conversation with him and the small group that had gathered around him (Simone, Kay, Miguel, Reese, an awe-struck Evan, and that pain in the ass Crane kid that was going to give Luis a coronary before the wedding and his ultimate departure). Speaking of Luis, he looked around to find his good buddy and felt his gut twist when he found him, literally nose to nose with Antonio. “What happened to peaceful coexistence?” he muttered, knowing this wasn’t good. Not good at all.





~*~




“Mama doesn’t want or need your damn Crane blood money,” Luis hissed, ripping the check from Antonio’s fingers and shredding it within minutes, the tiny pieces of paper fluttering to the ground. He shoved forcefully at Antonio’s shoulder, trying to goad him into reacting, but Antonio wouldn’t give him the satisfaction, clamping his jaw shut tight and searching out their mother with apologetic eyes.

“Luis, Mi hijo,” Pilar pleaded, placing a calming hand upon her son’s back.

“Stay out of this, Mama,” Luis shrugged away from her. His warning to his mother garnered the response he sought; there was no mistaking the anger in Antonio’s thunderous dark eyes.

“How dare you disrespect our mother,” Antonio said in a deadly quiet voice.

Luis momentarily felt shamed, but then he recalled, what to him, was the ultimate slight, and he called Antonio on it. “Me? Me?” he grew more incredulous with each repetition. “You disrespect Mama every day, working in that house, catering to their every whim.” As he said this, Luis glared at the nearest guilty offender, which happened to be Sheridan, and he smothered the grudging admiration she unwittingly inspired in him when she lifted her chin proudly despite his disparaging words. He was struck then, with the memory of a little blond girl, chin held high even when tears streamed down her pretty face, and the clarity of the vision took some of the wind out of his sails. But Luis wouldn’t apologize; he couldn’t, not when it was her family that had taken his father from his mama and him and his brothers and sisters. So, he lifted a weary hand to his face, and looked around at all their friends, all their family (Evan’s young face squeezed at his heart like a vise) now watching the scene they were making, and asked Antonio one simple, loaded question. “Why?”

Antonio didn’t have an answer (or maybe he had too many but none of them were worthy of forgiveness) so he took the hand Sheridan offered, he nodded to Ethan and Pretty as they stood up, ready to go, and he dared Fox to challenge him as he said his goodbyes to his tearful mother. “Mama,” he murmured, pressing a kiss to her cheek.

“Mi hijo,” Pilar attempted a smile through her tears, wrapping her arms about him in a tight, brief hug before letting him go and walking away from Luis.

“Mama, I’m sorry,” was all Luis managed, his pitiful attempt at an apology not enough to sway her.

“No,” Paloma shook her head, her words a soft whisper, her touch even more so as she slid a comforting hand into her brother’s trembling one. “Don’t, Luis.”

Luis swallowed hard, emotion tightening his throat, and squeezed his baby sister’s hand as he felt tears pricking at the corners of his eyes, and watched their mother and everyone else make a cautious retreat, giving him space (out of respect for his feelings or fear, he didn’t know). When the music started again, he kissed the top of Paloma’s dark head and let her go. Before anyone could stop him (only Evan’s attempt was genuine), he was gone.




~*~






As soon as she’d made sure Fancy was settled, Gwen crept back down the winding staircase to the foyer, and drew in a sharp, startled breath when Ivy emerged, seemingly from nowhere.

Ivy held out a perfectly manicured hand to her. “I didn’t mean to frighten you, Darling. How is Fancy?” she questioned.

“She has a headache,” Gwen murmured, her heartbeat slowly returning to normal as she uttered the lie. One look into Ivy’s blue-green gaze told her they both knew Fancy’s ailment had much more to do with her heart than her head, and Gwen wondered just how much Ivy knew. She’d been able to glean only the barest of detail from Fancy in the miles between the Inn and this vast, intimidating house, and putting together the few facts she already knew, she’d guessed Noah Bennett was none other than the young man whose calls Fancy had been ignoring for well over a week now.

“Poor dear,” Ivy commiserated, lingering in front of Gwen.

When Ivy made no additional move, a furrow developed between Gwen’s brows, and she sensed, for the first time, unease in the other woman. The nervous smile, and the sudden grasp of her cool hand on Gwen’s arm at the sound of footsteps, confirmed Gwen’s suspicions, and she barely had a chance to whisper Ivy’s name before she felt a chill slither down her spine and a commanding voice fill the space.

“What do we have here?”

Julian made the introductions. “Father, meet Gwen, Ethan’s fiancé. Gwen, this is Ethan’s grandfather, Alistair Crane.”

The imposing figure with the hard face and cold eyes held out his hand, and Gwen reluctantly relinquished her own, weakly smiling at him when every instinct in her body cried out against the action.

“A pleasure,” Alistair caressed the back of her hand with his thumb before letting it go, and he looked deep into her eyes before one corner of his mouth twisted into a parody of a smile.

Gwen’s skin crawled where he had touched, and she let out a breath she hadn’t been aware of holding in when he turned from her, focusing his attention back on Julian. She felt the faint brush of Ivy’s fingers against her own, and she darted a glance in the other woman’s direction, unsurprised to find her expression controlled and practiced, not much different than that of a false smile painted on a porcelain doll. But her eyes…her blue-green eyes held the barest hints of fear, and loathing. Her own eyes left Ivy’s face when she realized Alistair was speaking again, to her, and she frowned when she realized none of his words had registered with her. Thankfully, Julian came to her rescue, giving his own answer to Alistair’s question.

“They’re at a birthday party, Father. You remember Pilar Lopez-Fitzgerald?”

For a moment (Gwen was almost sure she’d imagined it) some unnamed emotion threatened to melt the ice of those cold, cold eyes, but the next instant it was gone, and Gwen got the distinct impression Julian’s words had been meant to goad a reaction out of the man, and it looked like they had succeeded, although not to the extent Julian had hoped.

“Lopez-Fitzgerald,” Alistair tried the name on for size. “Tell me, Julian. Have they ever located her husband?” To Gwen (and Ivy, although he barely spared her a glance), he lowered his voice conspiratorially. “Nice family, the Lopez-Fitzgeralds. Too bad the husband didn’t have the decency to honor his familial responsibilities. He skipped out of town before his youngest daughter was even born.”

“My father never would have left his family of his own free will.”

From the open door, where Fox and Pretty flanked him, Antonio dared Alistair to say anything more, malign his father’s name, but Alistair didn’t deign to make a response.

His grandson, however, seeing his chance to further get under Antonio’s skin (who did these Lopez-Fitzgerald brothers think they were), spoke freely. “Every man has his weakness.”

"Fox,” Julian ground out. “This is neither the time. Or the place.” His fingers clenched tighter (bloodlessly) around his brandy glass when Ethan walked in, followed by Sheridan, and he watched all of the blood leach out of Sheridan’s face and her smile fall away when she caught her first glimpse of their father. Lifting the glass to his mouth with an unsteady hand, he drained it in one swallow, and the ice clinking in the glass was the only (too loud) sound in the room for several moments, before Alistair broke it and Julian felt his blood run cold.

“There’s my lovely daughter. Sheridan, aren’t you going to give your father a proper welcome home?”










Thanks for reading!

Feedback is much loved and appeciated.

Questions, comments, like/love/hate it?

UAgirl
6.20.10, 1:15 PM
Looks like somebody is reading this; just can't tell who. ;)

Feedback would be lovely, lol. I'm just saying...

Onto the new, nice and long, chapter.

Hope you enjoy.







Title: The Story
Rating: PG
Warnings: a few swear words
Characters/Pairings: Hank/Noah/Theresa, Julian/Ivy, Sheridan/Antonio, Ivy/Fancy, Gwen/Pretty/Theresa, Grace/Eve, Sam/Hank, Antonio/Luis/Sheridan, Gwen/Ethan
Word Count: 7,190
Summary (for chapter): "Blood is blood. Never underestimate it, Sammy. Never."






Sleepwalking



By Wednesday afternoon, Hank Bennett had realized two things: this pseudo-camp counselor gig wasn’t so bad (kids liked camp, right, and as Beth was always reminding him, he was nothing but a big kid at heart), and something, rather, someone (a pretty, blond Crane someone if Beth were to be believed) had really done a number on his nephew. Fed up with watching the boy mope, Hank decided to do something about it. Be it divine intervention or pure dumb luck, the decision was taken out of his hands when Theresa arrived, wearing a cheery smile that dared Noah not to smile back at her.

The smile Noah did manage was pitiful at best, and his greeting bordered on monotone. “Scarlett.”

The nickname dated back to their grade school days, and the memories it recalled made Theresa simultaneously blush and smile. “So happy to see me,” she teased Noah when she had recovered the power of speech, tucking her arm around Hank’s waist in a hug and giggling at his noisy kiss to her cheek. “Careful,” she chastised Noah gently, “or you’ll give a girl the wrong impression.”

“I think he’s kind of already done that,” Hank told Theresa, who looked first to him then to Noah with confused brown eyes.

“I don’t understand,” Theresa murmured.

Sighing (he knew it…Kay must have opened her big mouth), Noah admitted, “Fancy saw us together at The Seascape. She thinks…well, she thought…” Embarrassed, he floundered for words, but Theresa had already put two and two together, and her mouth opened in an incredulous ‘O’. “Yeah,” he rubbed a rough hand over his face when she gazed at him with those big, pity-filled eyes. “I tried to explain, but she thinks I’ve been stringing her along with you and Kay.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Theresa said.

Nodding, Noah continued, miserably, “Kay tried to set Fancy straight, but she wasn’t listening to either one of us. She was too upset.”

“Oh, Noah,” Theresa grasped his hand in her own and gave it a comforting squeeze. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” Noah replied with a grim smile. “Turns out she didn’t trust me much anyway.” He shifted the basketball in his right hand to his left then back again. “I didn’t even know she was a Crane.”

“The men in black should have given you a clue,” Hank softened the joke with a smile. To Theresa, he said, “They’ve got half a dozen like your brother on the payroll.”

“I guess I never thought of Antonio’s job that way,” Theresa confessed with a slight shrug of her shoulders. Rubbing Noah’s arm, she looked up at him and gave him some words of encouragement, “Don’t give up on her, okay. I’m sure she’ll come around.”

“And if she doesn’t,” Hank couldn’t resist voicing his own opinion, “you’re better off anyway.”

“What he said,” Theresa echoed. “Her loss will be someone else’s gain.”

“Yours maybe?” Hank ribbed, roping an arm back around Theresa’s tiny waist and pulling her into his side. He grinned when she blushed prettily and shook her head, and gave her a gentle push in Noah’s direction. “I seem to remember something about a crush…”

“Knock it off, Uncle Hank,” Noah warned, but Hank’s teasing comment had restored the twinkle in his silver eyes, and he smiled at Hank in gratitude for knowing both the worst/best thing to say to lighten his somber mood. Passing the basketball to Theresa’s hands, he invited her to follow him. “I could use a little help putting up some of this equipment before I leave for my shift. He’s useless,” he tossed Hank a mocking grin, “only wants to play with the kids.”

“I know,” Theresa laughingly agreed.

Hank had one last parting shot for them both before they were out of hearing range. “It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it.” Hearing the distinct peal of his cell phone, he dug it out of his pocket, the smile that had been on his face falling away with one glance at the screen. He inwardly swore, mindful of the young ears all around him, and flipped the phone open, turning his back on a half-dozen pairs of curious eyes as he answered, “This better be good.”

~*~


“I’m telling you, Julian,” Ivy was dead-serious, “she didn’t even know I was there. She had no idea where she was, what she was doing, I doubt she could have even told me her name had I asked it.”

Julian lowered the brandy glass from his mouth, and his lips twisted distastefully as he stared out of the window into the distance; he could barely make out his sister’s lonely form in the gazebo. “She was a child the last time she…” he trailed off, glancing back at Ivy. “Are you absolutely certain?”

“She was sleepwalking, Julian,” Ivy’s reply was resolute. Her hands were slightly unsteady as she poured herself a drink and sipped at it. “When I first found her, she was staring at her hands with this look of horror on her face, babbling a bunch of nonsense.” When her revelation had the intended effect and Julian went pale, draining his glass in one swallow, she mimicked his actions, placing her glass down on his desk with a small thud. “What if someone else had found her? What if she managed to hurt herself? She could have fallen down the stairs, or walked out to the pool, and…”

“Enough,” Julian cut her off, clearly getting the picture. The circles underneath Sheridan’s eyes had only gotten worse with their father’s return home a few days earlier, and now, finding out she was sleepwalking again…Julian’s resolve to get her out of the house was strengthening day by day. “She should have never come back to this place.”

“Who, Father?”

Julian turned from the window in alarm, but it was Ivy that gently steered Pretty’s attention elsewhere.

“Going somewhere, Darling?” Ivy stood, making her way to the open doorway Pretty occupied, and smiled.

“Just out for a drive,” Gwen answered Ivy, appearing behind Pretty and touching the younger girl’s shoulder. “I’ll wait for you outside, okay? Ivy. Julian,” she acknowledged with a gracious smile.

“Pretty, I don’t think…” Julian began, only to be cut off by Ivy’s furtive look of warning.

“It’s good for you to get out, make new friends. I only wish you could convince Fancy to do the same,” Ivy lamented. “She’s hardly doing herself any good confining herself to this house.”

The smile that had blossomed with her mother’s encouraging words fell away, replaced with a frown, and Pretty sighed. “We tried, Gwen and I both, but she wouldn’t listen to either one of us. I don’t have to be an expert to know that love is only good for one thing.”

Julian’s eyes narrowed at the mention of the word love, and the pieces slowly started to fall into place, Fancy’s behavior as of late gaining new meaning other than the supposed trials and tribulations of a teenaged girl (although…what did he know of love?). Curious about Pretty’s own feelings on the subject, he queried, “And what is that?” The seriousness and surety of her reply unexpectedly struck a nerve, and he felt an inexplicable sense of sadness that wasn’t easy to shake, one he knew (how, he wasn’t certain) he shared with his wife.

“Misery.”

Ivy’s blue-green eyes were glassy mirrors to her emotions when they met his own, and Julian looked away, back to the window, where Sheridan was not so alone anymore, uncomfortable with the rare glimpse into his wife’s heart.

“You’re wrong, Darling. Love isn’t so cut and dried.” Ivy cupped a hand around Pretty’s cheek. “Someday, you’ll discover that for yourself.” Dropping her hand back to her side, she drew in a deep breath and smiled at her youngest. “You shouldn’t keep Gwen waiting. I’ll see what I can do about Fancy. Don’t you worry.”

Feeling the weight of his daughter’s gaze on him, Julian gruffly insisted, “Listen to your mother.” When the sound of her retreating footsteps had faded, Julian moved back to his desk, wearily dropping down into the high-backed leather seat behind it and placing his elbows on the desk’s gleaming wooden surface. A look of understanding passed between him and Ivy, and unwillingly, his gaze strayed back to Sheridan (the protectiveness he felt toward her couldn’t be anything but love, could it?). “What are we going to do?” He looked up in surprise when Ivy slid a small, black phone across the desk to him.

“Call her, Julian. Call Eve.”

~*~


“When’s the last time you got any sleep?”

Amusement sparked in Sheridan’s blue eyes, and searching Antonio’s dark eyes, she found nothing but concern, not even a faint hint of humor lurking in their mysterious depths as they regarded her. “I’m sure there are more flattering ways to tell a girl she doesn’t look her best.” Her bravado quickly faded when Antonio sat down beside her, tenderly brushing his thumb beneath one weary eye and across her cheekbone. Sheridan captured his hand in her own, holding his palm against her cheek. “I guess I thought it’d be easier,” she admitted softly, pressing a brief kiss to his warm skin and trustingly folding her tired body into the comforting hug he offered. “Coming home,” she breathed into his shoulder.

“You miss her.” It wasn’t a question, and Antonio made no attempt to frame it as such. He knew Sheridan missed her mother, just as she knew how much he missed his father. That stormy night fifteen years earlier hadn’t just robbed them of the last vestiges of their innocence, it had ripped away the parents they had loved so dearly. The mystery and questions that still surrounded the disappearances of Katherine Crane and Martin Fitzgerald had shaped the people they had become, and Antonio sensed in Sheridan the same yearning for freedom from the past he held in his own heart. “It’s okay, you know. Nobody expects you to just forget her.”

Pulling away from the shelter of Antonio’s arms, Sheridan combed her fingers through her short, blond hair, and stood up, those same fingers gripping the railing of the gazebo tightly as she gazed into the distance, her blue eyes unseeing. “Father does. He doesn’t want me to remember anything.”

Antonio’s brown eyes narrowed, and he shadowed her, resting a gentle hand at the small of her back. “Sheridan? What do you mean?” He knew by her puzzled expression she wasn’t even aware of her own words, and shaking his head, he let the matter go, for now at least. Holding out his hand, he beckoned her, “Walk with me?”

“Where are we going?” Sheridan wondered, when he had led her from the gazebo, across the estate’s meticulously landscaped grounds, to a path overgrown but by no means forgotten, hidden in the far reaches of the Crane property—the foreman’s house. She held her hands to her mouth and looked at him with wide blue eyes when he withdrew a ring of keys from his pocket, pushing the heavy door open when the lock had been disengaged. Hesitating but a moment, she stepped inside, and found herself effortlessly transported back to some of the happier times of her stolen childhood. “I thought nobody…Wait a minute. Antonio, do you…” Further words escaped Sheridan as she moved deeper into the house, straying toward the stone fireplace and the beam of wood above it, picture frames of various shapes and sizes littering its sturdy surface. She picked up a plain, gleaming silver frame, and her blue eyes grew shiny as they studied the fading photograph of Martin Fitzgerald and his eldest two sons. “You live here?” she murmured, when he gently removed the frame from her hands, replacing it, and tugged her deeper into the house.

"I’m afraid I’m not as good a housekeeper as Mama,” Antonio apologized sheepishly as he watched her glance around. In the compact kitchen, the dishes from his quick, solitary breakfast were stacked neatly beside the sink. His coffee mug, two thirds empty, was still in front of the maker. The curtains, pulled back to admit the afternoon sunshine, were the same cheery yellow of his adolescence, faded and threadbare in places, and the chairs at the table were still mismatched more than a decade later.

It was as if, walking through that door, Sheridan had stepped back into the past, to a place of peace she’d lost somewhere along the way, and she felt a lightness of being she hadn’t felt in many long years come over her. Smiling at Antonio when he softly repeated her name, she entreated, “Show me the rest.”

Long before the grand tour was over, Antonio felt the last of his misgivings melt away, because Julian was right.

They had to get Sheridan away from that house.


~*~



The hesitant knock on her door was the last straw. Scooting off of the edge of her bed with a groan, Fancy rapidly traveled the short distance and, flinging the door open, cried in exasperation, “For the last time, Pretty…” Words failed her, though, when she discovered not Pretty at the door, but someone else: her mother. Mutely, Fancy stepped back to allow her admittance, and following her daughter’s example, Ivy entered the room without saying a word. The silence, however, was merely temporary.

“Fancy, Darling…why didn’t you go with Gwen and your sister?”

Fancy’s response was automatic, delivered with a sigh. “Mother.” She picked self-consciously at the unraveling lace on the hem of her camisole when her mother looked at her with blue-green eyes that saw too much, knew too much. Shrugging a shoulder, she muttered, “It’s not like I’m missing anything. The Russian space station has a bigger population.”

Ivy didn’t disagree with her, smiling slightly at how closely Fancy’s feelings about Harmony mirrored her own feelings about the town, especially when she had been the same age. Acting on a hunch, she said, “He’s a local boy, isn’t he?”

Fancy didn’t try to play dumb. Still, she hesitated to speak about Noah. Her hurt, her confusion about her feelings and the whole situation, were too close to the surface. She pulled her trembling lip between her teeth when she felt her mother’s hand cup her cheek kindly, and she could only nod, blinking back the sting of the tears that threatened.

“You’re afraid you’ll see him, aren’t you?” Ivy correctly surmised.

Wrapping her arms tightly around herself, Fancy admitted, “He was at the party.” She further explained, “With another girl.” Finding the sympathy she craved in her mother’s eyes, she crumpled, allowing her mother to fold her into a comforting, if somewhat awkward, hug.

“Darling,” Ivy murmured, pulling back to look into her daughter’s teary blue eyes. “I’m so sorry.” Tucking a strand of blond hair behind Fancy’s ear, she said, “This boy…why didn’t I know about him sooner? Where did you two meet?”

Fancy swiped impatiently at the tears that spilled down her cheeks, pulling free from her mother’s loose embrace and moving to stand at the tall window that overlooked the sprawling Crane grounds. “School,” the half-truth tumbled from her lips. She and Noah had actually met at an off-campus party thrown by a friend of a friend of a friend. A group from her private college had actually crashed the party of a bunch of rowdy kids from the public university the next town over. Through some coincidence and funny twists of fate, she and Noah had made each other’s acquaintance and narrowly escaped the local law enforcement’s crackdown on the raucous band of under-aged revelers within the same ten minute time span. They’d retreated to an all-night coffee shop where they’d talked (and flirted) for hours. The sun was just coming up when Noah took her back to campus with him, sneaking her into his dorm room. He let her have his bed while he slept on the floor. Remembering that night, Fancy half-wished she’d never taken the hand that he offered.

Ivy saw through those regrets and knew her daughter’s heartbreak wouldn’t be so great if her feelings for the boy weren’t genuine and deeper than the previous minor flirtations she’d enjoyed. Seating herself at the edge of Fancy’s unmade bed, she folded her hands in her lap and entreated, “Tell me about him.”

Taking a steadying breath, Fancy began. “His name is Noah.”


~*~



Under the guise of scouting locations to hold the wedding reception, Gwen had easily convinced Pretty to leave the house (Gwen likened it more to a compound), and the miles disappeared behind them, the paved roads sometimes giving way to dirt roads, gravel roads, other rudimentary avenues for transportation, before segueing into paved roads once more. Behind the wheel of her brother’s prized Porsche, Pretty looked impossibly young with her blond ponytail whipping in the wind, almost carefree. Casting a wayward glance to Gwen out of the corner of her brown eyes, Pretty blurted out the main source of her misgivings, careful to return her full attention to the road in front of her. “Ethan’s never let me drive his car before. Are you sure he’s okay with it?”

Smiling slyly at her soon to be sister-in-law, Gwen confessed, “I didn’t ask him.”

“Gwen!” Pretty jerked her head toward Gwen in alarm.

“Eyes on the road,” Gwen reminded Pretty gently but sternly. “Relax,” she reassured Pretty when the car crawled through the heart of the small town, and the younger girl cast another worried look in her direction. “He lets Sheridan drive it, doesn’t he?” Her comment seemed to restore some of Pretty’s confidence, but the smile that flickered across her features faded just as soon as it appeared. Quietly, at the next traffic light (one of only a handful that the town of Harmony lay claim to), Pretty murmured, “She doesn’t sleep. She tries but she can’t.”

Gwen didn’t say anything, thinking instead of the night previous, when, curiously unable to find respite herself (finding herself under the same roof as Ethan’s grandfather seemed to have that effect on her, everyone really), she’d crept from the room she shared with Ethan with the thought that a warm glass of milk might just do the trick. She’d barely made it two steps down the hall when she noticed them, Sheridan and Ivy. Sheridan had looked to be in some sort of fugue-like trance, and Ivy seemed greatly concerned but not completely surprised to find her sister-in-law in such a state. Gwen had watched from the shadows as Ivy had gently taken Sheridan’s arm and propelled her back toward her room. She’d watched, waiting for Ivy to reappear, but when several minutes had passed and she still hadn’t materialized, Gwen retraced her steps and slid back into the bed beside Ethan, sliding her arms around him from behind and holding on. Eventually, she’d fallen asleep to the steady lull of his even breathing and the reassuring thump of his heartbeat in her ears. Then morning had come, and all she had was a note from Ethan saying he’d meet her for dinner, and she’d known she couldn’t stay in that house all day without him. Pretty had welcomed the opportunity Gwen presented to her. “Ethan says she’s always had a problem sleeping,” Gwen finally said.

Pretty nodded her head in agreement, chancing a glance at Gwen as she eased her foot off of the brake when the light changed to green. “I’ve never seen it this bad though. I think it’s the house,” Pretty confessed, resolutely staring straight ahead, at the road in front of her. “And Grandfather,” she added, almost in a whisper.

Inexplicably, Gwen felt a shiver snake down her spine, and she studied the young girl’s profile searchingly. “Pretty,” she beseeched softly, “what do you mean by that? What does your grandfather being home have to do with Sheridan not sleeping?” Pretty’s dark eyes were troubled, but just as hard to read as her impassive face; still Gwen couldn’t help but feel like the girl wanted desperately to tell her something. With a blink of her eye, though, the teen’s expression changed, morphing into a bright smile (a little too bright?), leaving Gwen wondering if she’d simply imagined it all, and she turned her head to discover what had captured Pretty’s attention. “What is this place?” she breathed.

“It must be the Y,” Pretty answered her, pulling the Porsche into a narrow, make-shift parking space beside a red Honda that had seen better days. “Theresa told us all about it at the party. It’s a kind of day camp for local, mostly underprivileged kids. Her brother helps run it.”

“Antonio?” Gwen questioned, releasing her seatbelt and following Pretty’s example, exiting the car.

“Her other brother,” Pretty replied, “the cop.”

In every direction Gwen looked there were kids. On a run-down looking court with grass shooting up between cracks in the pavement, a handful of boys and a lone girl looked to be playing a game of basketball. Squinting in the sunlight, she was positive she saw a few horses grazing a tiny (at least by Crane standards) plot of grassland, a few awe-struck children admiring them from afar. And under the shade of a bunching of trees, surrounded by her own admirers, was the bubbly brunette herself, paintbrush in hand. Theresa waved when she saw them, her grin stretching from ear to ear, and Gwen found herself returning both gestures. Without question, she trailed behind Pretty; with a few instructions to her pupils, Theresa met them halfway, with Noah Bennett lagging slightly behind her.

“You came!” Theresa exclaimed, catching Pretty off-guard with her exuberant embrace.

Gwen had only a fraction of a second’s warning before she received the same treatment, and the silver eyes that watched the scene unfolding regarded them with knowing amusement.

“Noah,” Theresa captured her companion’s hand, tugging him forward. “You remember Gwen Hotchkiss, from the party? And this is Pretty Crane, Fancy’s sister.”

Noah politely acknowledged them both then smiled apologetically down to Theresa. “It’s been fun, Scarlett, but I really have to go. In fact,” he tapped the face of his watch with his index finger, “I have less than ten minutes to get there.”

“What are you waiting for?” came Theresa’s lightly chastising reply. “Go. If Luis pulls you over, tell him it’s my fault.”

A slow, lazy grin literally transformed the man before them, and with the change, understanding filled Gwen. Pretty, it appeared, was equally affected. Gwen could tell, from the puzzled furrow between her brows, she still hadn’t put two and two together yet. Although something about him—and Theresa’s introduction—obviously gave her pause.

"I’m sure that’ll go over real well,” Noah’s eyes twinkled disbelievingly at Theresa. “I’ll be sure to have him call you.” Deftly sidestepping them, he didn’t forget his manners, lifting his hand in a wave before breaking into a slight jog to reach his car, the road-tested Honda. “Ladies.”

They watched him back out of the tight space, Pretty, notably, wearing a frown, and Gwen knew the exact moment when realization dawned on her. Her brown eyes cleared, and a tiny gasp escaped her as she looked to Theresa then Gwen for confirmation.

“That’s him, isn’t it?”

Gwen gave a slight nod, and Theresa took it as her cue to answer.

“Noah Bennett and Fancy’s Noah are one in the same.”



~*~


Her fingers were clenched into a fist around her keys, and Grace stared at her blanched knuckles, willing her frantic heartbeat to slow down and the lump in her throat to go away as she strained her ears, listening for movement on the other side of the door. Finally, she heard the telltale click of Eve’s heels, and with great effort, she relaxed her grip, opening and closing her hand to restore the blood flow. She took a deep breath and leaned forward in her chair, trying to read Eve’s face as she settled behind the desk and pushed a brown folder across the shiny metal surface toward her. With trembling hands, Grace opened the folder, emotion overwhelming her when it was there in black and white, her suspicions confirmed.

“I’m not an OB-GYN,” Eve reminded her with a gentle smile.

Grace smiled back, tears in her blue eyes. “I know. Dr. Peters retired years ago. I think Jess was in the 5th grade.”

“I can set up an appointment for you if you’d like,” Eve offered. “Dr. Carlson is wonderful. Her patients all love her.” She reached across the desk and covered Grace’s shaking hands with her much steadier ones before delivering her next words. “She has a lot of experience with high-risk pregnancies like yours.”

The tears in Grace’s eyes spilled over as she nodded, and she squeezed Eve’s hands tightly, murmuring, “Thank you.” She knew her age wasn’t the only thing working against her. By far the most easy-going of her children, Jessica had not entered the world that way; she’d been the hardest delivery.

Eve grew serious. “You have to make sure this is what you want, Grace. You’re in good health, but you know as well as I do that having a baby at your age…”

You’re not twenty anymore, reminded the little voice inside Grace’s head. But my son is, she found herself silently answering back. Nodding furiously, she pulled one of her hands free to swipe at the tears that continued to slip down her cheeks. “There could be complications,” she cut Eve off. “I understand.”

“For you and the baby,” Eve voiced the gentle reminder, “Downs being only one of the possibilities. That’s not to mention the impact this pregnancy is going to have on the rest of your family. Grace, Honey,” Eve laughed slightly, “you’re basically starting over. Kay and Jessica will be in college before the baby’s out of diapers.”

“So Sam and I will have to put off retirement for a little while,” Grace responded to Eve’s humor with some of her own. “You know I’ll still be running the Inn when I’m Tabitha’s age.”

“However old she is,” Eve mused, eliciting a startled laugh from Grace’s lips with the oft-repeated wondering. Tabitha Lennox had been old for as long as the two women could remember. Neither could actually remember a time when she looked young.

“Eve,” Grace mock-scolded when she had recovered. She smiled at her friend and sometimes doctor, the tight ball of nerves and worry in her stomach finally loosened somewhat despite the knowledge of the challenge her condition promised. “I’m having a baby.”

“You’re having a baby,” Eve confirmed.

“I’m pregnant, and my next youngest child will be ready to get her license right around the time this baby is due,” Grace laughed somewhat hysterically.

“From now on, Sam should practice with her,” Eve stated firmly.

Grace gave Eve a nod of agreement. Then she finally laid voice to one of her biggest misgivings. “Oh my God, Eve,” she breathed, her blue eyes wide. “Noah’s not that much younger than Sam and I were when we got married. My grandchildren will be almost the same age as their aunt or uncle.”

“I can’t speak for Noah,” Eve began with a twinkle in her dark eyes, “but I think it’ll be a while yet before he makes you a grandmother.” Recapturing Grace’s hands in her own, Eve urged, “Take a deep breath. Slow. Just like that. That’s it, Honey.”

Grace allowed Eve’s gentle touch and calm tone to soothe her until the other woman posed a question she didn’t quite know how to answer.

“How are you going to tell Sam the news?”

~*~

“Those two look pretty friendly,” Sam remarked, sidling up next to his little brother, and nearly giving Hank a heart attack in the process.

"Jesus, Sammy,” Hank made a show of clutching his chest. “Try making a little more noise next time,” he grumbled, but it was only half-hearted. He was already following Sam’s line of vision, to where Theresa and Pretty were thick as two thieves, had been actually, since the other blond had disappeared in the Porsche almost an hour ago. “Kid hardly seems to belong to the same gene pool as her brother. Doesn’t mean Luis is going to be any happier when he finds out,” Hank muttered, almost under his breath.

“No, it doesn’t,” Sam agreed grimly. He thought of their friend and his family’s history of bad blood with the Cranes, a history that dated back more than fifteen years ago, and he found himself heaving a deep sigh, to which Hank replied, shortly and sweetly.

“Ditto.”

Placing a brotherly hand atop Hank’s shoulder, Sam couldn’t resist a smile. “Have I told you lately how good it is to have you back where you belong?” From Hank’s expression (half smile/half grimace), Sam knew his attempt at subtlety had been anything but. Still, Sam made no effort to take the words back; he meant them wholeheartedly.

Hank, thankfully, took them in stride, quipping, “Only on the days that end in y.”

The moment passed, the slight tension easing between them, and Sam waved at his daughters as they passed them by, lugging a cooler of refreshments donated from the Book Café between them with much sighing and rolling of eyes. “Girls,” Sam spoke warningly.

“Slave driver,” Hank ribbed when his nieces were out of earshot, wrangling a smile from his brother’s lips.

Shaking his head, Sam declared, “Those two rarely get along.”

“They’re sisters, Sammy,” Hank told him, “not saints. They’ll grow out of it. We did.”

Sam quirked a brow in response, “Did we?” He chuckled at the eye roll that simple question garnered and fell into step beside Hank as he started gathering up the remainder of the gym equipment abandoned when the shadows had started to grow longer and the parents had begun arriving. Only a handful of children and teens remained, and they seemed to have gravitated toward the picnic tables where Theresa and Pretty (shyly, reluctantly, silently) held court. It appeared they had been joined by a couple of new arrivals while they hadn’t been looking. Hank’s grin when Evan flapped his hand in a vigorous greeting, his mother by his side, didn’t go unnoticed by Sam, and without much fanfare, he relieved Hank of his burden, promising, “I’ll take care of this.” He couldn’t resist adding, slyly, “Say hello to your girl.”

“She’s not my girl.” Hank’s rebuttal was instant if not a bit wistful. Still, he didn’t fool his big brother. “She’s…”

“Luis’s,” Sam finished for him, complete with his own eye roll, “I know.”

“Sam,” Hank shook his head, protesting.

“She could be your girl, Little Brother.”

“In a different place, a different time,” Hank said off-handedly. “Maybe,” he shrugged. “But not here. Not now, Sam.”

“You sound awful sure about that,” Sam responded. “But what about Beth?” His question stopped Hank in his tracks, and he didn’t shy away from the intense look in his brother’s normally merry, carefree brown eyes.

“What about her?”

“I’m just saying she’s part of the equation too,” Sam finally answered. “The decision shouldn’t be yours alone. She loves you, Little Brother.”

Hank’s eyes became unreadable, and he shook his head. “As a friend. One of her best and oldest friends. Nothing more.”

“Are you really so sure about that?” Sam felt compelled to ask.

Hank’s answer held more gravitas than Sam had previously given his kid brother credit for. “You forgot part of the equation, Sam. One plus one doesn’t equal three. That kid over there counts for more than I do. His happiness comes first before all else. I can’t stand in the way of him having the family he deserves. As far as he’s concerned, I’m just Uncle Hank.”

“You’re not just Uncle Hank,” Sam protested, but Hank wouldn’t have any of it, capturing his brother and hugging him tight, with one final whisper into his ear before he let him go, looking more serious than Sam could remember ever seeing him before.

“Blood is blood. Never underestimate it, Sammy. Never.”

~*~


She’d chosen (subconsciously?) Luis’s old bed.

Sheridan was easy to talk to, even easier on the eyes, and easily aroused feelings of protectiveness in Antonio. When she smiled at him, barely suppressing a weary yawn mid-conversation, all Antonio could see was the slip of a girl, ten years old, short legs, blue eyes that enviously took in every loving gesture Mama or Papa ever made toward him or his brothers and kid sister, and he wanted nothing more than to pull her in, tell her to stay, tell her no harm would come to her while he was watching over her (he’d do it better this time, no complaints), nobody would take her for granted this time. He wanted to tell her all those things, but he didn’t. Instead, he gently took her by the arm, propelled her to her feet, and steered her toward the back of the small house. “I’ve had enough. There are three bedrooms in this house. You’re picking one of them, and you’re going to get some sleep. Now.”

She’d put up little protest (yawning while doing so was a little counterproductive), and he’d tucked her in (after loaning her some more comfortable clothes) like he vaguely remembered doing for Theresa when she was very little. Her blue eyes had danced at him, sleepy but filled with humor, and she closed them with a smile on her face and a whisper on her lips. “Snug as a bug in a rug?”

That had been hours ago, and still she slept. Antonio, meanwhile kept careful guard, moving through the house periodically in near-silence, searching the shadows and finding them free of ill-intent. Finally, he’d stationed himself in the kitchen, cell phone to his ear, phone book in hand. He placed an order with the local pizza joint, detailed the necessary directions for delivery (he mentioned the Crane estate—no directions were necessary from that point), and hung up the phone, settling in for the wait. He didn’t have to wait long. The pizza boy turned out to bear a remarkable resemblance to his little brother, complete with the requisite Harmony PD threads.

Holding out the cardboard box as a token of his good will, Luis waited for Antonio to invite him in. “Picked this up at the end of the driveway.”

Stepping aside to let Luis enter, Antonio couldn’t help but notice his brother’s hesitance to cross the threshold. Choosing not to remark on it, he instead reached for his pocket—and his wallet. “How much do I owe you?”

Luis ignored the question (or maybe he didn’t hear it, transported to the past in one footstep) in favor of glancing around at their surroundings. He didn’t seem to notice when Antonio took the box from his hands and set it down on the coffee table. Instead, he seemed to be pulled by some invisible force toward the stone fireplace and the pictures that seemed to tell the abbreviated story of another lifetime. There was a barely perceptible waver in his voice when he finally chose to answer. “Nothing,” he looked to Antonio. “The pizza’s on me.”

“Luis,” Antonio began, only to be silenced with his brother’s interruption.

“I can afford the damned pizza, Antonio,” Luis bit out, anger flaring in his dark orbs.

I didn’t say you couldn’t, Antonio thought to himself. Yet he didn’t say so, just seated himself in front of the coffee table and started to lift the lid. “At least eat a piece.” When Luis only shook his head, Antonio closed the box and rose to his feet again, his brown eyes narrowed. “Luis, what is this about?”

Luis’s jaw set, hard as granite, and his words were delivered with much difficulty, but still he managed to grind them out past a thick tongue, unable to meet Antonio’s eyes. “I owe you an apology.”

In a low voice, Antonio wouldn’t accept his brother’s grudging gesture, directing it toward another instead. “You don’t owe me anything, Luis. But Mama…”

Rounding on his brother, Luis hissed out the truth, his words making Antonio flinch imperceptibly. “Mama’s the only reason I’m here.”

Nodding, Antonio replied, “Fair enough.” He wanted to say so much more, but he didn’t. As much damage as half-truths had wrought on his family, he couldn’t further wreck them with the ugliness of the whole truth, not until he knew for certain what the whole truth was. Luis couldn’t (wouldn’t) understand the choice Antonio had made, remaining within the circle of those who had cost them so very much. One day, when this was all over, Antonio hoped he would. Wearily, he said the words he hoped would release Luis from his guilt. “We’re good, Luis.” He watched a myriad of emotions flash across his brother’s face, and for a brief moment, he felt hope. That hope was soon distinguished when Luis’s dark eyes settled on a point beyond Antonio, and Antonio knew, without turning around to see for himself, that Sheridan had awakened and rejoined them. His eyes drifted closed at the condemnation reflected back at him, and his heart clenched even as he could not wish her somewhere else (one stormy night so long ago had forever made her his family too) despite the part of him that whispered he should.

"No,” Luis lingered at the door, but for a moment. “We’re not.”

Antonio’s legs failed to support him under the weight of the moment, and he dropped heavily to the sofa below, the smothering silence left in Luis’s departure broken only by the soft padding of Sheridan’s bare feet as she made her tentative approach.

“Antonio,” she murmured, her gentle hand on his arm as she curled her feet beneath her, tucking herself close and warming his side when he felt his heart growing cold with the distance that seemed impossible to breach. “Antonio, I…”

He shook his head, his throat tight, and one arm wrapped around her shoulder for comfort, he stretched the other out before him. “Eat. The pizza’s getting cold.”

~*~


Gwen was still pondering her curious run-in with Dr. Eve Russell (Ethan’s mother and the good doctor had hardly seemed friendly enough to pay each other social visits) during her brief stop at the house to freshen up when the valet at the Seascape took the keys to the Porsche from her hand. Their meeting had been fleeting but wrought with an inexplicable tension as the other woman had bid her a polite yet nervous greeting and promptly disappeared into the deeper recesses of the house, led away by the stoic, iron-tressed maid Gwen was half-convinced had never learned how to smile as a child. Those few seconds had been strangely unnerving (Dr. Russell had looked almost haunted within the Crane halls, a feeling Gwen sympathized with, although she couldn’t explain it), so much so that Gwen continued to puzzle over her own reaction to the encounter, even now. She was so absorbed in her thoughts, she failed to notice the man directly in her path before it was (almost) too late. “Oh my God,” she blurted her apologies, reaching out a hand to right the tray of empty goblets before they toppled to the floor. “Forgive me. I wasn’t paying any attention to where I was…” Gwen trailed off as she recognized the victim of her preoccupation and temporarily covered her gaping mouth with her hand. “Noah, right?”

“Ms. Hotchkiss.” Noah’s address was more formal.

“Please,” Gwen insisted. “Call me Gwen.”

“Gwen,” Noah relented.

“I’m so sorry for nearly mowing you over like that. I wasn’t looking, and...” Her eyes narrowed when she noticed his silver blue eyes dart around nervously, likely checking to see if their near-crash had caught the attention of his employers. Thankfully, it didn’t seem as if it had. Still, she reassured him, “I’ll take full responsibility. If anybody saw,” she clarified when he looked to her in confusion.

Noah’s mouth quirked into a half-smile, and he visibly relaxed. “No harm no foul, right?” Nodding in the direction of the terrace, he told her, “I think someone’s waiting for you.”

Gwen found herself smiling right back at him. “I really am sorry. If I can make it up to you in some way...”

Interest flared briefly in Noah’s eyes, but all he said was, “That won’t be necessary.” Rebalancing the tray in his hand, he cast a nod toward the terrace again, “You don’t want to keep your friends waiting.”

“Thank you,” Gwen told him, turning on her heel to leave then swiftly turning back again. “Wait a minute,” she studied him and the slight smirk he wore as he stared right back at her. “Did you say friends?” she asked, stressing the plural. “I was only supposed to meet my fiancé. I wonder who…”

“You’ll never know if you keep standing here,” Noah replied, the smirk now replaced with an open grin.

“You know who it is, don’t you?” Gwen accused. She frowned at the teasing way he answered her without answering her; it was becoming more and more clear where the attraction lay for Fancy (and she didn’t really know either of them all that well).

“Now, how would I know something like that?” Noah lifted his shoulder in a partial shrug. “Besides, do you really want me to ruin the surprise?”

Finally, Gwen allowed herself to be convinced, navigating the distance to the terrace with determination. She hesitated just before stepping outside though, and when she glanced back over her shoulder, she caught one last glimpse of Noah’s sly smile. Shaking her head, she took a deep breath and breached the threshold, searching out Ethan in the small scattering of private tables. She found him wearing an easy grin, his blue eyes twinkling back at her, and he stood up as she approached the table, her eyes drawn to the figure seated across him. There was something familiar about that dark wave of hair…

“It took you long enough,” Ethan teased gently.

Gwen started to protest, “I wasn’t aware we had guests.” Her heart started to beat fast in recognition when said guest answered.

“Guests? Where are they?”

Gwen’s eyes connected with Ethan’s and she lifted a hand to her mouth as their dinner companion turned slowly in his seat to face her, a wry grin painted on his lips.

“I’ve always felt I fell into a whole different category, bearing the distinction of being your one and only brother.”

Gwen’s mouth dropped open in shock as her brother stood up, to his full height, and she had to look up into his smiling blue eyes. Tentative fingers found his broad shoulders, and she whispered, “Johnny? Last time I saw you…oh my God, you’ve gotten so tall,” she declared, standing on tiptoe to slide her arms around his neck for a tight hug. “Where did my little brother go?”

“Looks like those expensive boarding schools Mother favors were finally good for something, huh?”










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