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Thread: ***NEW***Haunted (S/L, cast)--Post Series AU

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  1. #1
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    Oct 2000
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    Post ***NEW***Haunted (S/L, cast)--Post Series AU

    Day One




    Marty








    Marty awoke with a start, his heartbeat thundering in his ears, his mouth dry and cottony, his bed sheet clutched in the clenched fist of his right hand as the dream faded into nothingness.


    The knock sounded again, quick and sharp and authoritative, his father's knock, followed by his muffled voice. "Thirty minutes, Marty. We need to be on the road in thirty minutes."


    Taking a slow, calming breath, Marty gradually relaxed his grip on the bed sheet, walked his fingers across the mattress, and plucked his cell phone from his nightstand. One tap of the screen had him squinting against its bright light, and he muttered a curse underneath his breath, flopping over onto his back to stare up at the water stained ceiling.


    "You said a dirty word," a small voice accused. "I heard it. I'm going to tell Papa."


    His half-sister stood in the open doorway of his bedroom, backlit by the anemic light bulb in the hallway. The wispy tail of her braid disappeared between her lips as she stared at him with narrowed eyes, and her free arm tightened in its chokehold around her beloved bunny Petal's neck.


    Marty groaned when the brat repeated her threat and pushed himself upright in the bed, taking out his frustrations on the heap of blankets tangled around his waist with a vicious series of kicks. "Go ahead," he grumbled as he swung his legs around and planted his bare feet on the cold hardwood floor. "Tell him. See if I care. Now get the hell out of my room."


    The narrowed dark eyes rounded in shock before she turned on her heel, plastered on a pout, and went flouncing away in search of their father, Petal's long, loppy ears bobbing behind her.


    Marty didn't waste much time dressing, pulling on a worn pair of jeans, his Red Sox hoodie, and the rattiest pair of sneakers he owned. He raked a careless hand through his dark hair, stuffed his phone in his back pocket, and grabbed his earbuds before casting one last glance at the place he'd called home for the last month and a half. *** -hole was a description too generous for the run-down rental his father had moved them into after he'd had a fit of conscience and put a ring on his mother's finger for what felt like the hundredth time. He'd claimed the house was only temporary, that he'd find something better, but the way Marty saw it, they weren't exactly trading up by going back to Harmony. Still, he couldn't say he was sad to see the last of this place. "Good riddance," he muttered as he yanked the door shut behind him.


    His father was waiting for him at the foot of the stairs, angry scowl firmly in place, eyes black with thinly veiled disappointment. He opened his mouth to lay into him, but his mom rescued him from that ugly fate at the last minute, handing off the screaming infant in her arms. "Sheridan," his father protested as he juggled the squirming bundle in his arms. "This has got to stop. You can't keep taking up for him."


    "What has to stop is her crying," his mom cut off the warm-up to his father's livid tirade before it could go further. "There's a bottle in the fridge. Spend some quality time with your daughter." She pulled the sash to her satin robe tighter around her waist, plowed her fingers through her messy blond curls, pinched the bridge of her nose before she sighed and admitted in a soft voice, so low only Marty could hear it. "Your father's right. Please try to be more patient with your sister. I'm sure this is hard for her, too."


    Marty snorted in disbelief, thinking of how the brat was no doubt weaving a tall tale and batting those wounded eyes in the kitchen right now, and the lecture that would surely last for hours as his father forced him to ride across two states to the one place he'd hoped to never see again. "I still don't understand why we just can't stay here in Boston, just you, me, and the baby. The job's not even permanent. It's just until Chief Bennett gets better. We could stay here, move our stuff back to our old house. They actually like us there."


    "They'll like you fine in Harmony, Marty."


    Marty ducked his head as his mom lifted a hand to smooth his hair back from his forehead. He couldn't bear to look at her in that moment, not with the lump in his throat, and the tears pricking at the back of his eyes, because she hadn't included herself in her reassurances to him. They both knew the score, even if they didn't talk about it in words, and the tiredness in her blue eyes, the resignation, it ate away at his insides, made his stomach knot up and drop like a stone. "You need me more than he does," he mumbled.


    His mom pulled him to her in a hug, murmured softly into his ear as she squeezed him tight. "That may be true, but you're still going, Marty. Your sisters and I, we'll be there tomorrow. In one day. There's just a few more things to pack, and Gwen's going to help.
    Everything will be okay. You'll see."


    Marty pulled back from her hug, made an accusation of his own. "You don't really believe that. The dreams…"


    His mom shrugged, dropped her hands away from his bony shoulders, smoothed them over the front of her robe before her fingers knotted nervously in the sash, and she laughed his worries away, or tried to at least. "They're just dreams, Marty. Nothing to be worried about."


    Marty took a distancing step back from her, jerked his hand back through his hair in his agitation. He ignored her injured expression and headed for the door. "I can't listen to any more of this. You're a liar. Just like he is. I'm waiting outside."


    "Marty, don't," she cried. "Marty."


    The cold outside felt good, invigorating. He dragged chilly air into lungs suddenly screaming for oxygen, burrowed his hands into the pouch of his hoodie as he shuffled toward the U-haul taking up most of the curbside. The door creaked when he opened it, groaned as it swung shut, and little white clouds formed in front of him as he forced himself to once again take deep, calming breaths. Stupid, forgetting the keys like that. Really, really stupid. He sniffed, blinked hard at the tears streaming down his cheeks, pushed back against the pulsing anger rushing through him every time he thought about the hell of the last several months, the hell his father had put them through, all in the name of purging his guilty conscience. It didn't work. He was still quietly seething when his father climbed into the cab of the truck beside him, slammed the door shut.


    "She's crying. You made your mother cry."


    Marty curled his body away from his father, put his earbuds in, and turned up the volume on his phone as he scrolled through his mp3 playlist.


    His father sighed, turned the truck's engine over, and before the sun had even started to creep over the horizon, they were on the highway and leaving Boston behind.


    Marty refused to look back.




    ~*~



    New Hampshire, like the rest of Massachusetts, passed in a blur.

    Marty feigned sleep for much of the long stretch of I-95N to escape his father's pathetic attempts at conversation, and it worked, or at least his father allowed him to think it worked. Marty didn't much care which.

    The leaves on the trees were in various states of change, and every other house had a pumpkin or ghost or some other silly Halloween decoration on its porch.

    Marty thought it was overkill for the first day of October, and he must have vocalized his feelings out loud, because he found his father agreeing with him, and for the first time since that morning at the stairs, he acknowledged his presence, snuck glances at the strong profile.

    "You should have seen the Bennetts' yard after Sam married Grace. That out there?" his father paused to make sure he had his attention. "It pales in comparison."

    Against his will, Marty found himself asking a question. "I thought Chief Bennett was married to Aunt Ivy?" His father gave him a long sideways glance, as if he were considering if he were mature enough to hear such scandalous news, but Marty had heard worse, had lived worse (the disaster of his mother's failed marriage to Antonio came to mind, for one), and nothing his father said could or would surprise him, so he raised an expectant brow and waited for him to continue.

    "They're not married, legally anyway."

    "So that makes Aunt Ivy Chief Bennett's mistress," Marty sneered. "Kind of like Mom before you decided one bastard child was enough." His father went pale before color bloomed on his cheeks, his face, his neck. That muscle in his tightly clenched jaw was jumping, and Marty knew he'd really pissed him off, big time, so he clamped his own jaw shut, didn't venture deeper into the muck that was their twisted family tree. Although, if it meant his father tossed him out of this truck and shipped him back to Boston…

    His father's words were clipped, careful. "You're too young to remember, but years ago, there was an accident involving Sam's wife Grace. Her body was never recovered."

    "Oh, so Chief Bennett and Aunt Ivy are just shacking up, biding their time until they can make things official." Marty didn't remind his father of the long months before his baby sister's birth. He knew he didn't have to. Besides, it was pointless, and he was tired of talking, even acknowledging his father's presence, because inevitably, any conversation between the two of them led to an argument, ugly and loud and full of accusation. Marty was damned tired of being judged by a man he didn't think was good enough to kiss the soles of his mom's feet. So he put his earbuds in again and turned up the volume, and somewhere between the New Hampshire-Maine border and the Harmony city limits, he drifted into a fitful sleep.



    ~*~



    "What the hell?!" Marty fumbled for a handhold as the U-haul's door was rudely yanked open, squinted against the early evening sunlight before focusing on the tall, lanky teen grinning back at him through the dirty window. "What's your problem?"

    "Uncle Luis said you'd had enough beauty sleep, wanted me to drag your sorry ass inside to help with the unpacking."

    "Yeah, right," Marty grumbled, sliding out of the passenger seat of the truck to stand beside the strange boy who just kept grinning at him, like he was a shiny new toy underneath the Christmas tree. It was really disturbing, the earnestness of it. He looked like a puppy that wanted a treat, and Marty wasn't into free handouts. "Like that's going to happen."

    That wiped the grin away. "Where are you going?"

    Marty shrugged. "Doesn't matter. Somewhere not here." He gave the teen one last backward glance before plugging his hands in his pockets and heading for the sidewalk. Sighing when he realized he was being followed, he called out over his shoulder, "You coming or not?"

    The houses on each side of the street were old, historical maybe, the yards well-kept. Pumpkins were out in full force. One house even had a sign up already, advertising a big Halloween bash.

    Apparently, it was an annual thing, because Marty's boy scout tagalong couldn't resist providing the tour guide cliff notes. "The Hudsons live there. Last year's party was awesome. Mama went as Cinderella and Dad went as Prince Charming."

    "You go to parties with your parents? How old are you?"

    "Older than you," Boy Scout looked really irritated. "I've already got my learner's permit."

    Interest finally piqued, Marty came to a full stop and looked up at the boy, his older cousin if all the clues he'd gathered were to be trusted. "Got any wheels?"

    "Not yet. Why?"

    Marty didn't answer his question, only resumed his trek along the cracked sidewalk. "No reason."

    His shadow caught up with him, frowned. "You're not anything like I remember."

    Marty snorted, finally managed a smile. "Neither are you. They still call you Little Ethan?"


    ~*~



    A bright, shiny Lexus found them over an hour later. They were sitting on some metal bleachers, freezing their asses off, watching the high school football team practice.

    Little Ethan immediately jumped up, showed the appropriate amount of remorse for his actions; Marty was slower to rise, slower to greet their newly arrived parents. "You're really in for it now," his cousin mumbled as they watched his father eat up the distance between the SUV and the bleachers in long, furious strides.

    "Get in the car."

    Marty straightened to his full height, dared to defy his father. "I'm not going anywhere with you." Beside him, Little Ethan sucked in a sharp, surprised gasp, clattered down the metal bleachers on nimble feet, and hurried to the SUV with his head hung low. Through the tinted windows, Marty could barely make out the petite form of Little Ethan's mother, no doubt reading his cousin her own form of the riot act.

    His father's voice was low and dangerous, his words delivered through clenched teeth. "Get in the damned car, Marty."

    "Why? Why should I get in the car with her? I heard her on the phone. She called Bella a mistake."

    His father dropped his head, blew out a frustrated breath. "Your sister was not a mistake. That's not what Theresa meant."

    Marty was unconvinced. "You weren't happy when she was born. You weren't even there. You were there when Gilly was born. I remember."

    "The circumstances were different, Marty. With Bella, your mother and I, we…" he ran out of words, obviously unable, or unwilling, to be honest.

    Marty put the words into his father's mouth, his voice cracking with emotion. "Save it. I know you don't love her the way you love Gilly. So does Mom. Why else do you think she's so sad all the time?"

    "Enough, Marty," his father snapped. "Enough. Get in the damned car. Now."

    Out of a sense of self-preservation, Marty wisely backed down, did as his father ordered.

    The ride back to the new house was strained, silent except for his aunt Theresa's nervous chatter.

    The Lexus hardly had time to roll to a complete stop before Marty was out of the door and bounding up the porch steps of the spooky old Victorian. He bumped into a stack of boxes just inside the front door in his haste, but he paid them no mind, barely registering the crash or the crunch of shattered glass beneath the soles of his sneakers.

    His father left him alone.

    Mostly, Marty was relieved; only a small part of him, a very small part, would admit to being disappointed. He'd long ago learned how to bury that feeling.

    ~*~



    That night, when he was sure his father had fallen asleep, Marty left the attic and his sleeping bag, let himself out of the old house, and shuffled quietly down the steps. A stiff breeze blustered around him, plucking the vulnerable leaves from their trees, swirling them in the cold midnight air. He thumbed through the names in his phone's address book, lingered over his mom's number, but chose, in the end, not to waken her or Bella. Instead, he punched in a number, still somewhat new to him, and waited patiently for the person on the other end to pick up. And waited and waited.

    Finally, his cousin answered. "This better be good."

    Marty turned his back on the looming shadow of the house, pulled his hood over his head to ward against the chill. His blue eyes picked out the intermittent flash of the lighthouse's beam, the bobbing boats amid the whitecaps, and the beginnings of an idea formed. "You said your grandpa has a boat, right?"

    "Marty," Little Ethan groaned. "I'm already in hot water for this evening."

    "Do you want to be called Little Ethan your entire life?" Marty baited. "Because you will be, if you don't man up and grow a pair."

    "Fine," his cousin sighed. "You remember which one it is?"

    "Yeah," Marty rolled his eyes. "The Amazing Grace. See you there in twenty?"

    "Make it thirty," Little Ethan bargained. "Jonathan sleeps like the dead. It's Jane I have to worry about."

    "Not helping your case," Marty told him as he left the house behind, broke into a jog down the sidewalk. "Forget it. I'll meet you there. In thirty," he reaffirmed before ending the call and sliding his phone back into the pocket of his jeans. He didn't look back or he would have seen it.

    A shadow passed in front of the attic window. Just the blink of an eye, and it was gone.

    Two stories below, Marty's father rolled over to his side, stared into the flickering flames of the fire he'd built just an hour earlier. He wondered if he should make the climb up the stairs to deal with his troubled son as he listened

    to the faint thud of restless footsteps echoing through the cavernous walls of the mostly empty old house. The memory of his son's cutting words was still too fresh, though. His wounds still too raw. So he rolled back onto his back, imagined the pillow in his arms was the warm softness of his wife holding him close, before everything went so wrong. He slept, none the wiser until morning dawned, with his brother-in-law on the phone and his son nowhere to be found.




    ~*~



    So...I hate to make this admission, but with the loss of my desktop, I'm not sure when, if ever, Whisper will be completed.



    And with Halloween approaching, I was really missing that fic in particular. But my planned storylines were so complicated, split off in so many directions, that it's hard to duplicate what's been lost. I'm not saying I won't try again, eventually, but for now it's easier to write different stories along the same vein.

    So Haunted was born.

    Like most of my stories, this one is AU. It also includes much of the cast. The biggest difference is that it is post series, and it's not what I would call a fluffy story, lol. Chapters will alternate between different points of view, and there should be 31 chapters, for the 31 days of the month of October. Because this is my Halloween contribution (and the rest of Under a Silver Moon was lost with the same strike of lightning, grrr.).



    I'm going to give this fic an overall rating of PG-13 with the potential for higher rated chapters. Rating will mostly be for language and adult themes/content. I probably won't do the little overview/summary at the beginning of each chapter like I usually do, because giving too much away would spoil things, don't you think? And we don't want that.

    So...now that we've gotten the boring stuff out of the way, what did you think about the first chapter?

    Marty?

    He's quite the angry young man, isn't he?

    You'll find out his reasons as the story continues and be able to judge for yourself whether they're justified or not.

    Each point of view should give a little more insight into all of the characters' motivations.

    Who are you looking forward to reading about next?

    Feedback is loved and much adored.

    Thanks so very much for reading!

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Oct 2000
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    489

    Post Re: ***NEW***Haunted (S/L, cast)--Post Series AU

    Day Two




    Sheridan





    With a sigh of exasperation, Sheridan thumbed off her phone, tossed it onto the kitchen counter beside Gwen, and stared out of the small window above the sink.

    "Uh oh. You have that look." Gwen's long blond ponytail bounced as she followed Sheridan's restless progress around the emptied kitchen, and the heels of her boots thudded against the cabinets as she uncrossed her ankles, sat up a little straighter from the slouch she'd been in.

    "What look?" Sheridan asked distractedly, combing her fingers through her tousled hair as she continued to pace the room, the heels of her own boots clicking against the linoleum.

    "That look," Gwen stuck a pointed finger out.

    "This look?" Sheridan asked, looking at her friend with wide blue eyes and a worried furrow etched between her aristocratic brows. "This is my Marty is testing the limits of his father's patience again look."

    Gwen slid off the edge of the kitchen counter, absently tugged at the hem of her cream turtleneck as she walked over to the open box of strawberry pop tarts sitting across from the dripping faucet. Extracting one and ripping its foil wrapper open, she broke off a corner of one of the pastries and nibbled on it. "Exactly that look. What has Junior done this time?"

    "Save one of those for Gilly," Sheridan said, grabbing the remaining pop tart from Gwen's hands and stowing it back inside the box. "She's already going to be disappointed that there's no Fruit Loops."

    "Oh, there's plenty of Fruit Loops," Gwen quipped. "In Harmony."

    "Some might argue we're the Fruit Loops," Sheridan waved a finger back and forth between herself and the slim blond currently filling up a glass of tap water with one of her step-daughter's forgotten Princess cups. She couldn't tell if the grimace Gwen turned on her mere seconds later was due to the unsavory taste of her words hitting her brain waves or the water assaulting her tongue. "At least we were, the last time either of us were there."

    "This stuff is disgusting. I hope you don't drink it."

    "Usually not," Sheridan smiled slightly as Gwen shoved another piece of pop tart into her mouth to cleanse her taste buds. "Better?"

    "I need a bottle of water," came Gwen's quick retort. "Or coffee. Coffee would be fantastic."

    "Coffee would be fabulous, but I'm fresh out," Sheridan's own response was laced with apology. "There's some Capri-Suns packed in the mini-cooler, though. It's already in the car."

    "That's not helpful at all," Gwen frowned. "You never did answer my question."

    "Hmm?" Sheridan hummed, her blue eyes taking on a faraway expression.

    "Marty? What did he do?" Gwen pressed.

    Sheridan refocused her attention on her friend, but only for a moment, because a faint cry coming from the living room had her abandoning Gwen's side. "He and Little Ethan stole Sam Bennett's boat."

    "I don't understand," Gwen followed her. "How exactly do you steal a boat? Did they sail away to an undiscovered island? To another country? You're much too calm if that's the case." In her preoccupation, she almost bumped into Sheridan from behind. "Sheridan?! What the…oh. Hi, Gilly." Gwen placed a supportive hand on the small of Sheridan's back, could feel the tension coming off of her friend in waves, and it didn't take a rocket scientist to guess why.

    Not two feet away, Gilly was standing in front of them, Petal tucked precariously underneath one armpit, her baby sister almost dangling from her other skinny arm.

    "Gillian," Sheridan spoke in a low, carefully controlled, soothing murmur to her stepdaughter. "Put the baby down."

    "You might want to rethink your word choice there, Sher," Gwen hissed into Sheridan's ear, earning herself an elbow to the ribs in the process. She got her point across, though, because Sheridan changed tactics, speaking much more forcefully. Thank God, because Gwen didn't want to have to make that phone call, the one that explained why they were spending their day at Mass General instead of on the road. Luis already hated her enough. In fact, she suspected Sheridan had enlisted her help moving against her husband's protests.

    "Give Bella to me, Gilly."

    Gilly's large brown eyes cleared, and she handed over the now howling infant to her stepmother with a disgruntled pout on her rosebud lips. "I don't like Bella. Can't we just leave her here? Then I can get a puppy."

    "Just remember," Gwen helpfully reminded her friend. "She's four."

    "She's four," Sheridan repeated, taking a deep breath as she gently rocked her agitated infant daughter against her breast. "She's four."

    Sensing that Sheridan needed a few moments to compose herself and to soothe her baby daughter's tears, Gwen decided to make herself useful. "How about some breakfast, Gilly?"

    Dragging Petal by one long, floppy ear, Gilly marched her little self toward the kitchen, that upturned button nose held just slightly in the air. "I want Fruit Loops."

    Gwen backed into the kitchen after her, eyebrow raised in disbelief as she shared a knowing look with Sheridan. "It's uncanny, really. Even with those eyes and the hair, she looks so much like her mother. She's Fancy's mini-me."

    Sheridan's lips quirked against the peach fuzz of her baby girl's hair, and she gave Gwen a bit of helpful advice as Gilly started to chant for her favorite cereal in the kitchen. "You might want to brace yourself."

    ~*~


    Her cheek pressed against the passenger side window, Sheridan watched the miles drift on by in a half-awake state, lulled to drowsiness by the combination of a sleepless night and the repetitive nature of road travel. The classical radio station Gwen had used to ease the girls into dreamland a little over an hour ago didn't do much to help her lethargic state, and she longed to look for something else on the airwaves, but she wasn't stupid. A little reckless, maybe, but not stupid. She let her head loll to the other side, studied Gwen's profile silently. "You look like you got about as much rest last night as I did."

    Gwen gripped the steering wheel between her hands tighter, then seemed to force herself to relax. "Yeah, well. Like you said…we're the prodigal Fruit Loops. At least Marty will be marginally happy to see you. No one's going to cheer when they find out I'm back in town," she told Sheridan with a self-deprecating laugh. "I still can't believe I let you talk me into this."

    "Can we please not mention Fruit Loops again, ever?" Yes, the state of New Hampshire was small, but Sheridan felt like she'd traveled it in its entirety in a few short hours trying to please her aggrieved young stepdaughter. They'd ended up stopping at a pancake house and almost gorging themselves on the buttermilk stacks to dispel some of their nervous energy. Now, Sheridan felt about as energized as a slug, and it was showing, if the look on Gwen's face were any indication. "Are we there yet?" she asked with a barely suppressed groan.

    "I hate to say I told you so, but this trip would have been so much more bearable on an airplane."

    "We would have already been there," Sheridan agreed on a sigh. "Plane tickets aren't cheap, Gwen. We don't exactly have the extra money sitting around."

    "You mean Luis doesn't have the extra money," Gwen corrected her.

    "No," Sheridan sat up a little straighter, looked her friend dead in the eyes when she spared her a quick glance. "We don't have the extra money."

    Realization dawned in Gwen's warm brown eyes. "So that's how you convinced Antonio to agree to the divorce. I always wondered…" she trailed off.

    "Wonder no more," Sheridan muttered softly, dropping her gaze to her lap and inspecting her nails, nails which were badly in need of a manicure. Then again, though she'd die before she'd admit it to anyone else, even Gwen, the rest of her was in desperate need of some TLC as well. At least with Antonio, even though they weren't equally reciprocated, she always knew where she stood in his affections. With Luis, especially lately, she didn't have the faintest clue. Her insecurities led her to ask, "Am I making a mistake, agreeing to go back?"

    "Am I?" Gwen asked pointedly. "My kid probably calls Theresa Mommy. She probably looks at it as some kind of poetic justice for Jane."

    Sheridan didn't have anything to say to that.



    ~*~



    "That's Mama's girl," Sheridan crooned as her tiny daughter nursed at her breast. "Mama's Isabella. You were hungry. That was all."

    Bella waved one of her small fists at her mother, latched onto the finger that she offered, cooed contently in her arms as she brought the fleece blanket up around them both when the door opposite them opened abruptly and a blast of cold air bullied its way in.

    Gilly crawled inside the vehicle on her hands and knees, plopped unceremoniously into her booster seat and held her arms out. "I want Patrick. Give me Patrick."

    Sheridan's blue eyes widened when Gwen appeared in the open doorway, a five-pound pumpkin cradled in her arms, plastic bags full of the sought-after snacks hooked around her wrist. "Patrick, I presume?"

    "There should be a law preventing the peddling of this *** anywhere children are likely to be present," Gwen grumbled as she settled the pumpkin in Gilly's lap, then clumsily cinched the little girl's seatbelt in place.

    Sheridan's mouth fell open, around the same time she shook her head vigorously in belated warning.

    Gilly's brown eyes widened and she almost dropped her pumpkin. "You said a dirty word."

    Gwen stole the next words out of the preschooler's mouth. "I know. You're going to tell your papa."

    Gilly frowned, crossed her skinny arms around her pumpkin and kicked her feet against the back of the passenger seat in protest.

    "It's not too late to adopt Patrick out to another family," Gwen warned. She smirked in triumph when the threat had the desired effect, and the little girl quieted down. Little did she know, the peace was only temporary. "Now. I couldn't find anything in there not loaded down with sugar," she informed Sheridan. "Potato chips seemed like the lesser evil. That meet your approval, Mom?"

    "She's not my mommy!" Gilly shrieked suddenly, outraged tears welling in her large brown eyes. "Don't say that!"

    "Gillian Francesca Lopez-Fitzgerald!" Gwen almost growled. Her brown eyes snapped to Sheridan's face when she heard the plea in her friend's softly uttered words.

    "Gwen, leave it alone. It's okay."

    "That's not my sister," Gilly wouldn't be consoled. "I don't want her. I don't want you," she cried, turning the full-force of her anger on Sheridan. "I want my papa! Where is my papa?"

    "It's not okay, Sher," Gwen grit out when Gilly's theatrics caused Bella to whimper up, and the car was soon filled with the sounds of Luis Lopez-Fitzgerald's devastated daughters. "It's not."

    "Leave it alone," Sheridan tearfully pleaded as she lifted Bella to her shoulder and stroked a gentle, trembling hand up and down the tiny baby's back. "Just leave it alone."



    ~*~



    Sheridan's eyes were sore and red by the time they entered the city limits of Harmony. From arguing with her rebellious son over the phone, from listening to her husband tell her they just needed to give Gilly more time, from maintaining a brave face and kind understanding with each and every attack her stepdaughter launched at her. It was only after Gilly had worn herself out, slumped into an uncomfortable-looking heap against Patrick that she'd finally allowed herself to cry, and that had been almost two hours ago. "Maybe it is post-partem."

    "Let me guess," Gwen said. "That's what Luis thinks it is."

    Sheridan slumped further into her seat as the car traveled down the darkened streets of Harmony, and they passed the Book Café, the high school, the Youth Center.

    "Have you ever considered that your husband is not treating you the way you deserve to be treated, that maybe, subconsciously, he's punishing you?"

    "Excuse me," Sheridan retorted, swiping angrily at the tears that were once again slipping down her cheeks. "I didn't know you had your Masters in psychology."

    "Don't be a bitch to me," Gwen bristled at her tone. "Save the sarcasm for your husband."

    Sheridan deflated, bit her lip to contain the sob building in her emotion-tightened throat. "You think he's punishing me for getting pregnant with Bella."

    Gwen didn't say anything.

    "Did you know I said no at first?" Sheridan whispered. "I didn't want him to marry me as some sort of atonement for his mistakes."

    "Don't you ever let her hear you say that," Gwen hissed. "Using you, sleeping with you while you were still married to his brother and he was still reeling from Fancy's death, that was the mistake. Not that innocent little girl back there. She's beautiful."

    Sheridan smiled through her tears. "She is, isn't she?"

    They turned onto the street Gwen had programmed into her GPS what seemed like days ago, and the stately, old homes in the neighborhood loomed against a velvet, midnight sky.

    Gilly started to stir in the backseat, mumbled into the cloak of darkness. "Are we there yet?"

    "Almost," Gwen answered as they neared the end of the street, and she spotted it, tall and mysterious in the eerie yellow glow of the moonlight. "My God," she breathed.

    "Don't say it," Sheridan warned. "Don't say it," she repeated, to no avail.

    "I can't not say it, Sher," Gwen caught her gaze, held on.

    "Yes," Sheridan encouraged. "You can. You're going to say it anyway, aren't you? Gwen, don't."

    "It's the Bates Motel meets the Amityville Horror House."

    Sheridan threw her head back and groaned.


    ~*~


    So...do you think Marty's got a legitimate beef with his father?

    Or do you want to wait and read Luis's side of the story?



    I hope you don't mind. I couldn't help but include Gwen, and I think there are some interesting dynamics to be played out by her coming home too, if you will.

    Tell me what you think.

    Feedback is love!

    Thanks so much for reading!

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Oct 2000
    Posts
    489

    Post Re: ***NEW***Haunted (S/L, cast)--Post Series AU

    Day Three




    Luis











    Twin headlights cut through the darkness of the living room, painted a startling, fluid picture against the wall Luis had found himself staring at for the last several hours, since Sheridan's strained phone call, since Gilly's tears. Giving the watch on his wrist a passing glance, Luis realized it was a few minutes past midnight, technically Thursday, and Sheridan would be dead on her feet, the girls beyond exhausted.

    Gilly was the first to see him, breaking free from the rest and racing headlong in his direction. "Papa! Papa, I missed you!"

    Luis pressed a kiss into the smooth caramel strands of his little girl's hair, hugged her back equally as tightly as she was hugging him, lifted her up into his arms. "I missed you, too, Gilly Nilly. Chilly Gilly Nilly."

    "Papa," Gilly giggled, pressing her cold little nose in the crease of his neck and shoulder and hooking her short legs around his waist like a clinging monkey.

    Luis peppered her face and every piece of her that he could reach with noisy kisses, shifted her weight to one arm so he could offer to help shoulder the load when Gwen came around the side of the car, duffel bags bearing down on either of her slender shoulders, Gilly's small suitcase at her feet. "Here, let me," he held out his free hand.

    Gwen stared at him long and hard before she shook her head in dismissal. "I got this. Take care of your wife."

    Luis nodded, took a step forward, only to have Gwen grab him by the arm and not let go until she was sure she had his undivided attention.

    "Don't you think Gilly should get out of this cold air?"

    His daughter's skinny arms squeezed tighter around his neck in response to Gwen's suggestion, and Luis couldn't help but wince, both at the chokehold Gilly had on his windpipe and the look of warning mixed with challenge shining clearly in Gwen's brown eyes. Accepting the gauntlet thrown at his feet, Luis carefully removed Gilly's arms from his neck and placed her on her own two feet. "Go with Gwen, Sweetheart. Papa will be right behind you."

    Gwen gently prodded the little girl forward when it seemed her feet had grown roots. "Come on now. Turn that frown upside down. What kind of example are you setting for Patrick?"

    "Who's Patrick?"

    Sheridan turned to him, Bella swaddled snugly in fleece so only her wispy dark peach fuzz peeked out, and took her time answering the simple question in a voice that was noticeably thin. "Gwen bought Gilly a pumpkin. He's in the back seat."

    "He?" Luis couldn't help smiling.

    Light flickered in the blue pools of Sheridan's eyes then dimmed, almost disappeared completely. "Yes, he."

    Slowly, Luis's good humor dissipated, and his hand gravitated toward his wife's elbow in concern. As he'd anticipated, she looked tired, to the point of exhaustion. Emotionally and physically wrung out after the long day of travel with two children under the age of five and its many stops along the way. But it was more than the deep bruises her light make-up couldn't hide. She was pale in the moonlight. The end of her nose was pink, and she wouldn't meet his eyes, not directly. Some deep-buried instinct of Luis's led him to pull her closer, shield her from the autumn wind that whipped and wound around them, whistled hints of an early winter. "Hey. You okay?"

    Sheridan's answer was a non-answer at best. "It's been a long day."

    "It has," Luis found himself agreeing with her. "Why don't we leave the rest of this stuff here tonight? It'll wait 'til morning." His hand slid from her elbow, hovered over the small of her back.

    Sheridan nodded without another word, left him standing there as she followed the thin slice of light cutting across the lawn and the walkway, carefully negotiated the unfamiliar porch steps.

    Luis lowered his hand, powerless to do more than watch her go, her name dying on his lips.



    ~*~



    Gilly's sharp little elbow dug into Luis's ribs as she twisted and turned underneath the blankets, rolling toward the back of the sofa and wedging her short legs between his body and the few cushions that remained through what had truly been one of the most restless nights of sleep (or lack thereof) that Luis had ever experienced. Silky soft strands of her hair, unencumbered by any braids or hair ties, gravitated to his lips with every deep breath in, fanned in front of him with every exhale. And Petal? From her perch midway down his abdomen, the bunny's glassy eyes watched Luis with more petulance and judgment than any mere stuffed animal should possess. He resisted tossing the plaything across the room only because of Gilly's extreme attachment to it.

    "You look like you're plotting somebody's murder," Gwen's wry voice nearby startled Luis. "I hope it's not mine."

    In the gray light of early morning, Gwen looked rumpled but comfortable to Luis in a pair of navy sweats all but hanging on her slim hips. The ponytail from the night (this morning) before had been replaced with a messy blond knot at the nape of her neck, and she had a new accessory cradled carefully in her arms, a quietly fussing infant who was merely warming up for her first operatic performance of the day.

    Bella's tiny fists waved about in her agitation, her uncoordinated fingers grabbing and pulling at the loose tee-shirt engulfing Gwen's shoulders.

    Luis frowned when he recognized the shirt as one of his own. "It's one thing for you to steal my bed."

    "I didn't see you putting up much of a fight," Gwen retorted.
    Luis didn't appreciate the cutting undertone to her voice and opened his mouth to call her on it, but Bella chose that particular moment to inform them all that her patience was quickly evaporating.

    "Where's the kitchen?" Gwen asked. "I don't really remember much from the drive-by tour last night."

    Luis didn't immediately answer her. Instead, he carefully eased Gilly over and off of him, swung his legs over the side of the sofa. When he was satisfied his daughter was all tucked in, he beckoned Gwen to follow him. "It's this way."

    The appliances in the kitchen were mostly updated, some even new, but the rest of the furnishings were a motley collection left behind by the house's previous owners, including an aged Kit-Cat clock that Luis wasn't particularly fond of. He knew Gwen wouldn't be able to resist comment; she didn't disappoint.
    "Well, this is…charming."

    Luis ignored her, busied himself with warming up Bella's bottle in the microwave.

    "I have to admit, though, it is a step up from your previous accommodations, which really isn't saying much."

    Bella latched on to the pinky Gwen presented to her.

    Luis spared them both a glance over his shoulder as he tested the milk's temperature. Finding it to be a little warm still, he set it aside and turned to face Gwen, folded his arms across his chest. "If I'd wanted your input…"

    "How about Sheridan's?" Gwen cut him off. "Oh, I'm sorry. I forgot. Her feelings are of little importance to you, or else you would have kicked me out of your bed last night. She cried herself to sleep, you jackass."

    "I let you stay here last night because you're Sheridan's friend," Luis grit out.

    "Spare me the good guy routine," Gwen tossed back angrily. "I'm not buying it."

    Bella whimpered in response to the charged, combative quality of the two adults' back and forth, blinked frightened blue eyes up at Gwen. She let go of the finger she'd been suckling to release a faint cry and wave her small fists in the air.

    Luis grabbed the bottle from the counter behind him, offered it to Gwen, and for his trouble, suddenly found his arms full.

    "You're her father," Gwen took a deliberate step back when mindless protests threatened to erupt from Luis's lips. "Start acting like it."

    From the living room, Gilly called out for him, sounding near tears herself, as Bella's wails built rapidly to an ear-splitting crescendo. "Papa! Papa, where are you?"

    With a headache already building, and a long day stretching ahead of him, Luis released a resigned sigh and tucked Bella against his shoulder as he answered his daughter's call. "In here."




    ~*~



    "I don't like the Kitty Cat clock, Papa," Gilly announced after a full minute of staring at it in fascination. "He's watching me."

    Luis glanced at the clock in question, had to agree (again), silently of course, that he shared his daughter's opinion. Aloud, he said, "I bet nobody ever told him it was rude to stare." He gave his daughter a moment to digest that little tidbit of information. "He needs a name. What do you think it should be?" Naming was a tried and true tactic he and Fancy has used since Gilly'd been very small; putting a name to a face she feared or felt uneasy about had always seemed to help keep her fears at bay. He didn't see why this time would be any different.

    Gilly's brown eyes narrowed in thought, and while she considered her options, she returned her attention to her cereal. "I'll be thinking about it," she promised him wholeheartedly.

    "I know you will," Luis smiled. Growing serious, he decided now was as good a time as ever to approach the sensitive topic of what had happened the day before. "Gilly?"

    "Papa," Gilly answered back with a silly smile curling her lips as she lifted her loaded spoon to her mouth.

    "What you said to Sheridan yesterday," Luis murmured as he reached over to tuck a heavy strand of his daughter's hair behind her ear. "You know it wasn't very nice."

    Gilly stopped mid-slurp, looked up at her father with wounded dark eyes. "But she's not my mommy." Her spoon clanged against her bowl, disappeared into the multi-colored sea of her cereal as she pushed it aside.

    Luis didn't argue the little girl's very valid point. "You're right. Sheridan's not your mommy." He slid his large hands up the flannel-covered legs, marched a retreat to the knobby little knees and tickled lightly behind them, earning himself a reluctant smile and helpless squeal from his dour-faced little daughter. "That doesn't mean you don't have to respect her. Do you remember what I told you about respect? Gilly?" he pushed, amazed at how quickly the half-smile faded.

    A tiny, beleaguered sigh fluttered past the petulant lips, and Gilly nodded.

    "And Bella," Luis tried.

    "I don't like Bella," Gilly pouted, folded her arms across her small chest. "All she does is cry."

    "That's because she's a baby, Sweetheart," Luis explained. "She doesn't have any other way of telling us how she feels yet. So she cries when she's hungry."

    "And when she has a pee-pee diaper," Gilly helpfully supplied.

    "And when she has a pee-pee diaper," Luis agreed with a betraying twitch of his lips. "But Bella…" he paused as he searched for the right words, ultimately came up empty, because words wouldn't be enough to convince Gilly to accept Bella as her baby sister, especially his words. "She's not so bad. She's just little. She'll be lots more fun when she gets bigger. I bet you'll even be her favorite sister."

    Gilly's arms wound around her father's neck, and she giggled. "Silly Papa. I'm her only sister."

    Luis pressed a kiss into the sweet-smelling hair, took her innocent teasing on the chin. "You got me." Milk splashed over the rim of her cereal bowl when his elbow bumped into it, and he gently tweaked her nose as he reminded her, "Finish your cereal."

    "I'm not hungry anymore," Gilly blithely informed him. "Can Petal have it instead?"

    Luis followed her bright brown gaze to the opposite kitchen counter where Petal and Patrick flanked Bella and her carrier on either side. Seriously, he told her, "I don't think Petal likes Fruit Loops."

    Gilly frowned, as if the mere idea of someone else, Petal especially, not sharing her love of the cereal, were unfathomable. "Can she have one of Sheridan's baby carrots instead?"

    "You'll have to ask Sheridan about that." Luis bit back a smile as he watched her mull over and rapidly dismiss his words, turn on the charm.

    "Just one, Papa. Just an itty bitty one. Please."

    "You'll have to ask Sheridan," Luis repeated as he plucked her from the countertop and deposited her on the kitchen floor. "Why don't you head upstairs, see what she thinks about the idea?" He made a last-minute addition to his suggestion. "And while you're at it, tell her you're sorry for yesterday. She may not be your mommy, but she still cares a lot about you. I'm sure she'd really appreciate it. A little hug wouldn't hurt either."

    Gilly didn't look too pleased by the prospect, but her beloved bunny's survival was at stake. "Okay," she drew the word out with a sense of exasperation more befitting her future teenage self than her current preschooler version.

    "Petal and Patrick will be safe with me until you get back," Luis vowed.

    Gilly glowered at the Kit-Cat clock as its eyes shifted to her and seemed to get stuck. "Pedro, stop being so rude!"

    "Pedro, huh?" Luis grinned.

    "Uh huh," Gilly nodded her head, her caramel hair tumbling over her shoulders. "Tell him, Papa."

    Luis did as she asked, long after she'd left, and it was just him, Bella, and the unlikely trio in the kitchen. "Stop staring, Pedro."

    Unsurprisingly, Pedro ignored him.



    ~*~



    It was approaching noon before Luis got his first glimpse of his son.

    Sullen and silent and completely ignoring Luis's presence, his mere existence, Marty walked into the kitchen, opened the fridge, and let his blue eyes linger over its meager contents for a long moment before closing it up again in obvious disappointment.

    Luis ended his phone call with Quinlan, adopted a tone of civility he didn't quite feel when he addressed the mulish boy. "I'd say good morning, but…"

    Marty flicked icy eyes at him briefly, gave him a wide berth as he walked past the kitchen table and the temporary workstation erected there en route to his baby sister.

    Bella cooed happily when she saw her brother, reached for him clumsily from her carrier.

    Luis watched his teenaged son unbuckle the baby and carefully lift her into his arms. A fierce ache clenched and clawed at his chest as he watched Bella's little fingers stretch toward her brother's stubbornly set chin, and the slow, gentle smile that overtook the boy's face as he nipped playfully at the tickling fingertips. "She loves you." Luis sighed heavily when Marty turned his back on him in response, headed out of the kitchen with his sister cradled in his arms. He pushed his chair back and followed, catching up to them in the dimly lit hallway. "You can ignore me all you want, Marty. It still doesn't change the fact that what you did yesterday was wrong and deserved punishment. If it were solely up to me, you wouldn't just be grounded. Theft is a serious crime. You're lucky Chief Bennett didn't press charges."

    For the first time, Marty spoke up, his shoulders rigid, his voice tight and biting. "That's me. The luckiest guy around. I guess that makes Bella lucky, too, having such an upstanding guy as her dad."

    "Marty," Luis blew out a frustrated breath.

    "I wouldn't step in that quicksand if I were you," Gwen advised dryly as she walked up behind Luis, startling him enough that Marty was able to make his escape without further incident.

    "I thought you'd be halfway back to Boston by now," Luis grumbled as he continued on toward the living room and the stacked boxes still littering its various nooks and crannies.

    "She didn't tell you?"

    Luis could hear the smile in her voice. "Didn't tell me what?"

    Gwen laughed, shook her head at him. "Those boxes out there? They're not just the rest of Sheridan's things. I've got everything I need 'til I can find someplace more permanent."

    Luis refused to believe he'd heard her correctly. "Someplace more permanent?"

    "You're not the only that's got family here," Gwen reminded him, watched him noticeably pale. "Besides, Sheridan needs somebody on her side, and I'm not sure you count. Although, I will say, that hug was a nice touch."

    Luis mounted the stairs, took them two at a time in search of his wife.



    ~*~



    "I don't know, Sam. If she tries something with Jonathan…" Luis trailed off when he noticed his old boss wince, favor his side. "Forget I said anything. You don't need to hear this. Not when you're still recovering. Why don't we head back inside?" Luis suggested.

    Sam shook his head, took a couple of slow, deep breaths. "It's fine. I'm fine. I need the fresh air."

    A smile tugged at the corners of Luis's mouth. "Ivy keeping you cooped up?" He slowed his steps to match the older man's as they moved around the perimeter of the enclosed back yard, picking up and straightening the various toys littered about. When they came to a pair of Adirondack chairs, Sam braced his hands against the back of one, and Luis pointedly focused his attention elsewhere as his friend took the moment's respite to catch his breath. His gaze caught and lingered upon the old Lenox place. "Ever hear much from Tabitha these days?"

    "She keeps a pretty low profile," Sam told him. "Wish I could say the same for Endora."

    Luis raised an interested brow, to which Sam shrugged.

    "Trouble just seems to seek her out. You'll see what I mean once you officially take over at the station."

    "I'm not taking over," Luis protested lightly. "Just filling in."

    "Taking over if Ivy has anything to do with it." Sam grunted as he lowered himself into the deep seated chair, and the abused muscles of his abdomen clenched protectively. "She thinks I should go ahead and retire, spend the rest of my days working on home improvement projects and spoiling grandchildren."

    "Not many bullets involved in retirement," Luis reminded him as he seated himself, stretched his long legs out in front of him. "She's just worried for you. Fancy always worried for me, and she knew the score, better than most." He sobered, lost himself in thought, the memory of the last time a bullet grazed his flesh still too close, the memory of Fancy's angry tears echoing faintly in his bones.

    "Worry comes with the job," Sam agreed. "It's even harder when you're a parent, especially of young children."

    Luis nodded, his thoughts automatically straying to Gilly, and he felt the old familiar guilt swell up within him again, because he was the only natural-born parent the little girl had left. What would happen to him if…

    "Speaking of young children," Sam ventured.

    "Gilly's real excited about being closer to you guys," Luis smiled fondly. The little girl had wanted to look her absolute prettiest for her Mimi Ivy, had even gone the extra mile in charming Sheridan into braiding her abundant hair. Luis had no doubt she was inside soaking up the attentions of the grandmother that already adored and doted on her. "I think Harmony will be good for her."

    "And Marty?" Sam questioned, grimacing when stretching out his own legs only seemed to heighten the lingering soreness left behind by major surgery.

    Luis sighed, covered his face with his hands as he considered his son and all the emotional baggage the kid was lugging around. "Marty? I don't know if I even know where to start with Marty, Sam. He's grounded, indefinitely, for what he did to your boat."

    "The boat's fine," Sam replied. "Stop apologizing for the boat. I'm just glad Marty and Little Ethan weren't hurt. I wasn't talking about Gilly or Marty, Luis. I was talking about the baby. You haven't said anything about her. Now, where are those pictures?"



    ~*~




    Though the Bed and Breakfast still bore Grace's name, Ivy's influence was everywhere, and in his trademark leather jacket and wrinkled tee-shirt, Hank Bennett stuck out like a sore thumb in the midst of all the casual elegance. "Looking for a room already, Man? I thought you bought the old Winchester place."

    Luis allowed himself to be drawn into Hank's hearty bear hug, pulled back to grin at his old friend. "Caretaker of an off-season ski resort I can see," he said, recalling the summer Hank had spent out West romancing a local sheriff's daughter before moving on and resuming his nomadic ways, eventually finding his way back to Harmony. "This place? Doesn't really do anything for your manhood, Buddy."

    Hank smirked, cast a look around him, agreed. "That's what I told Ivy, but the woman doesn't really take no for an answer. It's just until Sammy recovers. There hasn't been much demand for the P.I. biz lately anyway."

    "No philandering husbands?"

    "Not enough wives that really care I guess," Hank shrugged as he walked back around the front desk, scribbled a note on a yellow post-it, and stuck it to the computer monitor that had long-ago replaced the old-fashioned ledger. "I'm taking five!"

    Luis followed Hank out onto the Bed and Breakfast's wrap-around porch, leaned against the railing, and gazed out at the tree-lined street as a gentle breeze fluttered the fiery leaves.

    "Why do I get the feeling this isn't a social visit?" Hank bravely breached the silence when it stretched out between them past the point of comfort. "Everything okay on the home front? How's Gilly adjusting to having a new baby sister?"

    "I don't even have a picture of her in my wallet," Luis answered without turning around. If the revelation were surprising to Hank, he hid it well, no trace of judgment in his voice, his stance relaxed and open as he responded.

    "The kid's young, practically brand-new," Hank rationalized. "There's still plenty of time for pictures." He leaned against the rail beside Luis, studied his strong profile. "So you don't want to talk about either of your girls. What about Marty? What was the kid thinking? Taking the Amazing Grace out for a midnight joy ride like that?"

    "That's just it. Marty's not thinking," Luis muttered. "At least not about anything but how much he hates me."

    "He's a teenager," Hank said. "Of course, he hates you."

    "I wish that were the only reason," Luis sighed. Facing Hank full-on, he admitted, "You're right, Hank. This isn't a social call. I've got a job offer for you."

    "I tried the police force," Hank's brown eyes were wary. "Didn't really work out for me."

    "Too many rules?" Luis joked lightly.

    "Something like that," Hank smiled back at him. "You know I never liked coloring in the lines."

    "You like your freedom," Luis stated. "I know. I'm not asking you to rejoin the police force, Hank. This is a different kind of job." It was readily apparent he had his friend's full and undivided attention, given his next impatiently delivered words.

    "Well, lay it on me," Hank encouraged.

    "Gwen Hotchkiss is going to come to you soon, looking for a place to stay. I want you to rent a room to her."

    "I don't know, Luis," Hank hedged, looking the slightest bit uncomfortable. "The Boss Lady's not going to like it."

    "That mean you won't do it?" Luis questioned.

    Hank grinned, and the devilish twinkle Luis was so familiar with appeared in his brown eyes again. "Hell no. So I rent a room to her. Then what?"

    "I want you to keep her close," Luis said, pushing away from railing and offering his oldest friend his hand.

    Hank took it, and they shook on it.

    "I won't let her threaten my sister's happiness again."



    ~*~



    Dusk had crept in from the purple harbor by the time Luis turned onto Elm Street. A silver moon's reflection kissed Gilly's delicate features as she dozed in the back seat, her slight weight straining against the loose restraints of her belt, her face smashed up against the side of her booster seat. At the end of the street, the house loomed tall and dark, only a few lights glowing behind its windows, including a weak glow high up in the attic. Luis made a mental note to check out the space soon, verify it was fit and sound for the occupation of his son, if Marty insisted on calling it his. Parking his car curbside and killing the engine, Luis announced, "Time to wake up, Gilly Nilly. We're home."

    Gilly moaned in her sleep but was otherwise non-responsive, completely exhausted from her long evening of play with her energetic young cousins. Her skinny arms hung loosely from Luis's shoulders when he unbuckled her and lifted her easily into his arms, traveled up the paved, flower-bordered walkway, climbed the porch steps.

    Luis swore, stumbled underneath his daughter's slight weight when a black shadow tore in front him before he reached the front door. "Damn cat," he muttered when he heard the telltale feline screech, discovered the yellow eyes staring back at him from the other end of the darkened porch.

    "Papa," Gilly murmured sleepily. "You said a dirty word."

    Luis chuckled as he pushed the door open, apologized with a kiss to the cool little cheek pressed against his own. "T'was an accident, Sweetheart."

    "M'kay," Gilly mumbled, promptly dozed back off. She continued to sleep as he settled her on the sofa, tucked the blanket from earlier that morning around her shoulders.

    Straightening once he'd made sure she was snug and secure, Luis took a look around the room, discovered that most of the boxes had disappeared and quite a transformation had taken place in his absence. A floorboard creaked underfoot, and his dark eyes snapped to Gwen's slim figure, again standing in the middle of the hallway, again giving him that look that seemed to go right through him, find him severely lacking.

    "Look who finally decided to come home."

    "You're still here," Luis muttered dryly. "Not that it's any of your business, but I had some business to take care of."

    "And this business?" Gwen questioned. "It just happened to take the entire day?" When Luis didn't answer her, she shook her head, dropped her arms to her side, walked away from him.

    This time, Luis found himself following her.

    Pedro tracked their progress across the kitchen and to the table, where an open box of pizza and his scowling son sat.

    "I don't know why I even care enough to ask this," Gwen sighed, "but have you eaten? What about Gilly?"

    Marty scooped up another piece of the Hawaiian pizza and his paper plate and left the two adults alone. His sneakers thudded heavily up the stairs, and without thought, Luis found himself yelling.

    "Your sister's sleeping."

    "Not anymore," Gwen rolled her eyes at him when he declined a piece of pizza, shutting the box and stowing the entire thing in the near-empty refrigerator. "There's a baby sleeping upstairs too. At least there was. Aren't you even going to say thank you, Gwen for cleaning up the mess out there? No?" She shook her head at him, shivered when Pedro's knowing eyes lingered on her a second too long before sweeping back to Luis. "Just when I think my expectations can't drop any lower."

    "You're not sleeping in my bed tonight," Luis snapped, tired of her relentless needling.

    "Finally, something smart comes out of your mouth."

    Luis wisely refrained from further comment, left her there alone.



    ~*~



    Luis found Bella's baby monitor on a scarred nightstand beneath an oddity of a lamp, which cast elongated shadows and eerie shapes that mingled and danced with the pattern on the ancient, fading wallpaper against the far wall. He lifted the monitor to his ear, listened to the sounds of the baby's soft, even breathing, before gently setting it back down, going in search of his wife. He found her in the bathroom, her arm stretched high over her head as she stood on tiptoe to reach the malfunctioning shower head.

    "I can't reach it," Sheridan huffed in frustration, one satin sleeve of her robe slinking down over her shoulder. "Gwen, do you think you can bring me that chair over there?"

    "You don't need a chair," Luis told her, shooting her an apologetic look when he realized he'd startled her.

    Sheridan sank back down to the floor, adjusted the short hem of her robe over her thighs, closed off her expression to him. "Luis," she swallowed. "I didn't know you were home."

    Luis watched the pulse at her neck flutter as he stepped closer, so close that they were almost touching. He didn't say anything right away, just smiled at her as he extended his arm, inspected the shower head himself. "What seems to be the problem?"

    Sheridan wrapped her arms around her waist, drew her bottom lip between her teeth. "The water pressure's not very good. I don't know if it's the shower head itself, or the plumbing," she shrugged. "All I want is a hot shower before I go to bed. Is that too much to ask?"

    She sounded tired and bone-weary, but there were traces of her old self in the tremble of her tone, glimpses hidden behind the blue of her eyes of the woman Luis had first felt the need to protect all those years ago, the woman whose dragons he'd fought so valiantly to slay for so long. She looked on the verge of tears, and Luis didn't think he could handle that. "Let me see what I can do," he offered, toeing off his shoes and climbing into the claw-foot tub.

    "Thank you," Sheridan murmured.

    "I think you just…" the rest of Luis's words were soon drowned out as the harmless trickle of water coming from the shower head turned into a pounding torrent, drenching him within seconds.

    Sheridan gasped, covered her mouth and her smile with her hand as he turned to her, the water still beating down his back, soaking his jeans. "Luis, I'm sorry."

    "Don't be," Luis found himself smiling back at her. "Problem solved." He held out a hand to her, curled his fingers in invitation. "Care to join me? The water's nice and warm." He didn't give her a chance to change her mind when her smaller hand slid over his, just tugged her into the tub with him, covered her satin draped hips with his large hands.

    Sheridan looked up at him with laughing blue eyes, hooked her fingers in the belt loops of his jeans and held on. "You're crazy." The smile she'd tried to keep hidden valiantly fought free, and she threw back her head, darted her tongue out to catch a droplet of water.

    Some forgotten piece of Luis's heart clenched and eased painfully with her laughter, his gut tightened with the glimpse of her playful pink tongue. Without thought, his mouth descended on her chin, soaked up the moisture from her tantalizing skin as his fingers dug almost painfully into the curvaceous swell of her hips. "Maybe I am," he agreed. "Maybe I am," he repeated as her blue eyes found him again, no longer laughing, but just as bright, just as burning to his throbbing heart.

    "Luis."

    The uncertainty in her voice, the hope she couldn't quite bury deeply enough, undid him, and Luis lunged forward, captured her mouth with his own, drank of her deeply while his frantic fingers scrabbled for the sash of her sodden robe. He peeled the clinging material from one golden shoulder, mouthed her breast as her shaking fingers tore at the constricting buttons of his shirt. They pinged against the porcelain of the tub, and Luis groaned against the generous swell of her flesh as her hands swept over the rippling muscles of his abdomen, slid around his back, only to claw at his shoulders as his mouth worked her harder, his hands went on a seeking mission of their own. His fingers had just breached the silken barrier of her underwear, molded over the smooth curves of her buttocks when a breathless, stuttering scream had them scrambling apart.

    Sheridan grabbed hold of the gaping edges of his shirt when the scream came again, her blue eyes stark with fear. "Bella. Luis, that sounds like Bella."

    His own heart residing somewhere within the vicinity of his throat, Luis ground out an order he knew she'd ignore. "Stay here."



    ~*~



    The moon peeked through the dark curtains, pale and mysterious, and Luis studied them in the silver shine, two such beautiful creatures, peaceful, finally, after such a long and strange night.

    Dark lashes kissed the flush of Bella's rounded cheeks, her sweet mouth parted, the peach fuzz of her hair dark as a crow's wing in the midnight hour.

    Sheridan's hand covered her daughter's small chest, measured, even in her own sleep, each welcomed rise and fall. The top few buttons of her cotton nightgown remained unfastened, and the blankets rest carelessly across her waist.

    The chill of the night pebbled her unblemished skin, and a part of Luis ached to cover her with the warmth of his own hands, but he refrained from doing so, forced himself to go over again, the memories that were only a few hours old.

    Bella's nursery window had been open, its pale, gauzy curtains whipping in the blustery October night. And, on the window sill, the black cat stared insolently at them, its topaz eyes unnerving.

    Luis still remembered the quiver of the vulnerable little body against his damp chest, the fragility of the delicate bones, the sweet lavender scent of the silken skin. He remembered the relief, vividly, of finding her whole and unharmed, of seeing those eyes blink up at him, indigo in the moonlight. Then clear like the ocean when Gwen had reached the nursery just behind them in her own panic, doused it with the weak yellow light of a single bald bulb, the rest having burned out in a shower of sparks. The cat had escaped then, jumped clear of the window sill, and Luis had closed the windows again, locked them down.

    Gilly, thankfully, had slept clear through all the drama.

    Marty had not. The boy had pulled Bella from Luis's arms, delivered her to his mother, and stayed by their sides, along with Gwen, until their mutual trembling had subsided. He'd been a comfort to Sheridan where Luis had not, and though the boy had all but condemned him with his baleful stare, Luis couldn't help but be grateful to him, couldn't find it in himself to dismiss him from his mother's side.

    Gwen had finally lured him away with her stern but kind words.

    Luis couldn't help but feel gratitude toward her, either, for accomplishing what he'd been too weak to attempt. And so they'd come back to this room, to this bed, the three of them, and Luis hadn't complained, hadn't protested as he had in the past. He'd watched his wife take the mewling infant to her breast, watched her give of her heart and her body, and wondered how he'd never realized just how much had been taken from her by Beth, taken from them both, and he wondered how different a path their lives would have taken if only he'd believed. He watched them both for a long time, until he, too, finally fell into a fitful sleep.





    ~*~



    So...there you have it.

    Day 3.

    What did you think?

    Feedback is love!

    Thanks so much, Bree! You pretty much made my day. Hope I made yours with this chapter (it's long, yay!).

    Like I said, feedback is love!

    Please, keep it coming.

    And thanks so much for reading!

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Oct 2000
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    489

    Post Re: ***NEW***Haunted (S/L, cast)--Post Series AU

    Day Four







    Gwen








    Having conceded the sofa to Gilly over an hour ago, Gwen should have been able to fall asleep, even if she were lying in a nest of the scratchy old blankets she and Sheridan had unearthed in their explorations the previous day. She was that exhausted. But sleep eluded her, and counting sheep was doing her no favors. She'd long since moved on to counting other things: the number of times Petal had bungeed off the edge of the sofa, only to be reeled back in by Gilly; the number of times the fire crackled and popped in the fireplace, then settled down in a shower of orange sparks; the number of times she'd heard the restless pacing of the troubled teenaged boy hiding himself away from the world two floors up; the number of times she'd checked her cell phone for an answering message from Ethan. None of it was working, absolutely none of it, so Gwen finally threw in the towel, casting her blankets aside and climbing to her feet to pad toward the kitchen.


    Pedro's beady eyes shifted moodily back and forth in the moonlit kitchen. A tree branch scratched rhythmically against a window. The refrigerator hummed, and the faucet dripped steadily.


    All of these things Gwen noticed in her hyper-aware state; something definitely had to give. Crossing to the sink, she twisted the old-fashioned knobs, and the slow dribble of water, mercifully, ceased. She soon found herself staring outside the window, mesmerized by the slow sway back and forth of the tire swing hanging from the lowest branch of the ancient oak that dominated one corner of the spacious back yard. She was so focused, so lulled by its hypnotic movement, she nearly jumped out of her skin when a black cat appeared on the ledge outside the window, its mouth opened in a plaintive, silent meow. She swallowed down a scream when a little voice spoke up over the pounding of her heart, dropped the phone in her hand into the empty sink in her surprise.


    "I'm thirsty."


    Petal's glassy eyes seemed to bulge out, beg for mercy from the stranglehold Gilly had on her neck.


    Shaking the silly thought off, Gwen sighed and crossed the kitchen back to the fridge, Gilly acting as her miniature shadow. Withdrawing a bottle of water from the top shelf, she uncapped it, offered the little girl a sip.


    Gilly guzzled from it gratefully, only lowering the bottle from her lips when more than a third of it was gone.


    "That's enough," Gwen announced, reclaiming the bottle from the little girl and placing it back inside the fridge. She looked down in surprise when Gilly sagged against her side sleepily, made a pouting revelation.


    "I had a dream about Mommy."


    Glimpsing real tears welling in the enormous dark eyes, Gwen felt her heart twist painfully for the little girl. Combing a gentle hand through the caramel cloud that framed the heart-shaped little face, she steered the child toward the kitchen table, lifted her to its edge. "Do you want to talk about your dream?"


    Gilly shook her head, jutted her small chin out
    stubbornly.


    "It might make you feel better," Gwen offered, stroking tangled strands of hair from Gilly's feverish cheeks.


    "No." Gilly's bottom lip protruded even further, and she pressed her face into Petal's soft fur, sniffled once, twice, before the tears welled over and started to fall. "I just want my mommy."


    "Oh, Gilly," Gwen sighed, knuckled the tears away with careful hands. "C'mere." The little girl barely resisted when Gwen pulled her into her arms, went willingly, and when she dropped into the nearest chair, its legs scraping loudly against the linoleum, Gilly merely tightened her skinny arms around her neck and held on. "I know you miss your mommy. There's nothing wrong with missing her."


    "Papa doesn't miss her," Gilly sniffled into Gwen's
    shoulder.


    Gwen's idly stroking palm settled heavily over the child's back. "Who told you that?" When Gilly's small shoulders shrugged, and the little girl failed to answer her, she gently prodded, "Gilly?" Large, tearful brown eyes shied away from Gwen's probing gaze. "Your papa misses your mommy. Why would you think he doesn't?"


    Gilly rubbed a fretful fist against her flushed cheek, hugged Petal even more fiercely. "Because."


    "Because why?"


    "Because he married Sheridan," Gilly muttered. "If he missed Mommy, he wouldn't have married her."


    Gwen opened her mouth to defend Sheridan, hell, Luis by association, and found she couldn't, for a myriad of reasons. They started with her own resentment of the way Luis had further bungled an already messy emotional situation by marrying Sheridan when his heart wasn't completely in it, not to mention being Bella's regretful sperm donor. Actually, her reasons started with Luis even showing up on Sheridan's doorstep that night, and Sheridan…God. Everything with the two of them was such a f***ing mess. It was no wonder Gilly felt the way she did; Gwen had often wondered the same thing herself, but she knew love was much more complex than Gilly's young mind could fathom. And Luis's feelings for Sheridan? Sheridan's feelings for Luis? They encompassed and strained against a wide-ranging spectrum Gwen couldn't even begin to understand, much less explain, so she didn't. She merely repeated her earlier statement, with more conviction. Thankfully, Gilly seemed to buy it as the truth. "Your papa misses your mommy. Everyday."


    "Everyday?"


    "Everyday," Gwen reaffirmed. She breathed a sigh of relief when Gilly nodded to herself and slid from her lap, her skinny arms hugging Petal close as she rubbed her damp cheek against the bunny's fur. "Want me to tuck you back in?"


    Gilly's nose wrinkled up and she shook her head. "I have to go to the bathroom."


    Gwen offered to tag along if Gilly so desired.


    "I can do it myself," Gilly stubbornly asserted.


    "Okay," Gwen relented with a half-smile. "Don't forget to wash your hands. I'll be right behind you," she promised as she watched Gilly trudge away. She stifled a yawn as she glanced around the kitchen, pointedly ignoring Pedro's lingering gaze in favor of seeking out the glowing digital clock on the microwave. She groaned when she noticed the time, lamented the fact she wasn't going to get more than three, four hours tops of sleep if she were really lucky, considering it was already 3 a.m. Mentally running through the items on her to-do list (watch the kids for Sheridan while she and Luis registered Marty for school, look for a job in a town where everybody hates me, find a place to live that isn't a complete dump…) as she pushed her chair back beneath the table, Gwen killed the lights, left the kitchen behind.


    The refrigerator started up its song again, in harmony with the restless branch that rustled against the condensation covered window. Pedro was steady and methodical in his accompaniment, only pausing when hurried footsteps approached.


    Gwen fished the forgotten phone from the sink, spared the black cat with its eerie topaz eyes barely a glance as she turned to retrace her steps to the living room. She paid no notice to the swing, strangely stationary in the face of the steady winds blowing in off the ocean. She didn't register the footsteps, small and light, that pressed into the frost-covered ground beyond the swing, crept forward and faded almost as quickly as they appeared. She noticed none of these things, least of all the delicate imprint of the hand in the foggy pane of glass. "I found it, Gilly," Gwen called as the aged floorboards creaked beneath her socked feet in the hallway. "You better be underneath the covers by the time I get there. Petal needs her beauty sleep."


    The black cat's fur bristled, and it hissed in warning at the unseen entity before it leapt from the window ledge, disappeared into the moonlit night.



    ~*~



    When Sheridan finally emerged from her bedroom the next morning and made her way downstairs, she looked just as tired as Gwen felt. "You look like you got even less sleep than me."

    Sheridan frowned, lifted an absent hand to her short blond curls. "That bad?"

    Gwen leveled her friend with an appraising look, took in the dark smudges that made her cheekbones appear hollowed, the dullness lingering in her fatigued blue eyes, delivered her verdict in a half-truth. "Nothing some foundation and a little concealer won't fix. Relax. Your hair looks fine. You look fine."

    Sheridan lifted a disbelieving brow.

    "A little tired," Gwen amended. "You look like the mother of a newborn, which you are, so stop worrying so much about what other people think."

    "I don't…it's not," Sheridan gave up on the futile attempt to fool Gwen, brought her hands up to cover her face. Her voice was muffled as she admitted a painful truth, "They're already going to be judging me for my past behavior, Gwen. Probably for marrying Luis so soon after Fancy…"

    Gwen eased her struggle for words with softly spoken understanding. "You want to look your best. So do I," she admitted. "I'll work my magic if you promise to work yours?"

    "Better be some powerful magic," Sheridan muttered as she followed Gwen across the living room, perched on the arm of the high-backed chair that looked out across the front lawn, the street, and the neighbor's well-kept place beyond.

    Retrieving her makeup bag, Gwen returned to Sheridan's side, followed her gaze outside the window to the autumn leaves skittering down the sidewalk, the gnarled little old man with his rake across the street. "Here it is. Gwen's bag of voodoo tricks."

    Sheridan's lips lifted into a smile and a small laugh pushed forward. "You better not let Luis hear you say that."

    Gwen's mouth quirked into a matching smile as she withdrew a tube of mascara, carefully applied it to Sheridan's long lashes. "Speaking of Luis," she said conversationally. "Care to explain to me why he was soaking wet last night? Why the two of you were soaking wet? It was my understanding that you were taking a shower. Not him. Just what happened between the two of you?"

    "Nothing." Sheridan glanced away from her. "Nothing happened," she said, picking self-consciously at the crimson sleeves of her sweater.

    If her evasive non-answer weren't enough to raise Gwen's suspicions, the deep flush staining her cheeks was more than enough. "You're lying. Something did happen. Why won't you tell me?"

    "He kissed me," came the soft whisper.

    "You call that nothing?" Gwen recapped the mascara tube, carded through her bag for some concealer as she recalled the previous night, pushed beyond the lingering after effects of terror to catalog the rest of the scene. Luis had definitely been missing a button or two (hell, all of them), and Sheridan… "Must have been one helluva kiss."

    "Don't make it more than it was." Sheridan's voice held a wealth of sadness. "He kissed me. That doesn't mean my happily ever after is around the corner. He could barely stand to look at me this morning." Tears gathered but stubbornly refused to fall from her blue eyes. "He didn't even touch Bella. Sometimes, I wonder if he'd be happier if…"

    Horrified with Sheridan's insinuation, Gwen swallowed back her own emotions, because she'd felt the same way, with Sarah. She'd often wondered if Ethan would wish their little girl out of existence if possible, if it meant there'd be no more obstacles between him and Theresa. If it meant he could pretend they had never happened. Then Sarah'd been gone, and Gwen had decided even Ethan couldn't be that callous. Could Luis? "Luis's armor might be a little tarnished, but I refuse to believe," she broke off, shaking her head. "He doesn't even believe in abortion, Sher."

    Sheridan swallowed, blinked hard against the threatening tears as she gazed blankly out the window. "No. But if I'd lost her, that night in the hospital. If we'd both…if Dr. Montgomery hadn't been able to save either one of us, Gwen, then maybe he wouldn't be so unhappy."

    "Don't say that," Gwen grabbed Sheridan's chin, forced her to look into her eyes as the tears spilled over, streaked down her cheeks. "Don't," she pleaded. "Luis is unhappy because of Luis. Not because of you, not because of that baby."

    "Nice try," Sheridan attempted a smile, gently pulled back from Gwen's sure grip. Sniffling, she nodded to Gwen's makeup bag. "You got a white rabbit in that bag of tricks? Our appointment's at 9. I don't want to frighten Marty's new principal to death."

    Gwen sighed, let herself be swayed by Sheridan's efforts to sweep their entire conversation under the rug and allowed her friend the opportunity to regain her composure as she helped her paint another protective mask on her pretty face.



    ~*~


    "Marty," Gwen groaned as she gave the unwieldy twin mattress another shove up the stairs. "This only works if you help."

    Marty scowled down at her from his higher vantage point. "I don't know why you're even bothering. It's not like she's going to actually sleep in it."

    It was the most words the boy had strung together since Gwen had marched herself up the stairs with Luis's and Sheridan's leaving and ventured into the No Man's Land that was the attic, mounting the cobweb-lined steps and peering into Marty's chosen venue of escape from his family's troubles. She didn't try to argue his point because he had a legitimate one; sleepwalking, it seemed, was a common Crane family trait, one that had manifested in Gilly, from what Sheridan had told Gwen, with Fancy's passing. "Your sister can't spend another night on that couch, Marty."

    "Fine," Marty muttered. "Whatever," he shrugged dismissively before tugging in counterpoint to her forceful shove.

    By the time they made it up the stairs with the mattress and down the hallway to the small room across from Bella's nursery that Gilly had claimed as her own, Gwen was out of breath (and in short supply of patience). She groaned when they heard the distinctive peal of the doorbell, followed almost immediately by an impatient series of knocks. "Marty?"

    Marty's blue eyes narrowed at her in response, flicked over to Gilly happily arranging her stuffed animals and dolls in a semi-circle around Patrick, then rolled in annoyance. "Please. Send me to my room."

    "Being grounded isn't as fun an experience if you get to pick your punishment," Gwen reminded him with a sweetly sly smile. "Please answer the door before our visitor beats the door in."

    Gilly hummed to herself as she played, completely oblivious to the fact that she wasn't alone until Gwen confronted her with a very important question.

    "Princess sheets or polka dots?"

    Gilly bit her pouty pink lip in consideration. "Tinkerbell."

    Gwen frowned as she continued to sift through the box containing all of the little girl's bedding. "I don't see…"

    "Aunt Theresa!" Gilly exclaimed suddenly, clambering to her feet and racing toward their visitor.

    Behind his aunt, Marty glowered, his arms crossed over his chest.

    "Luis isn't here," Gwen straightened, lifted a hand to her hair, which she was sure was sorely in need of a brush. Theresa's hair, on the other hand, was perfect and shiny in its elaborate twist, complete with shiny, jeweled barrettes.

    "I know," Theresa revealed, smiling down at Gilly as she hugged her back.

    "I'm out of here," Marty announced.

    Gwen didn't try to stop him; she only wished she could do the same, but in a room full of children, someone had to be the adult.

    "Aunt Theresa," Gilly beamed. "I want to show you my new room."

    "In a little bit, Sweetie," Theresa promised. "I need to talk with Gwen about something important."

    "We won't be long," Gwen told the little girl when she looked up at her with her big brown eyes. "Patrick looks like he's getting a little lonely over there. He already knows Petal, but it looks like you need to introduce him to the rest of your friends."

    "Okay, I guess," Gilly agreed reluctantly. "But hurry. The tea party starts in ten minutes." She grabbed Theresa's hand between both of her small ones. "Aunt Theresa, you're invited too."

    Gwen followed Theresa out of the room, pulled the door shut behind her. Her personal feelings for Theresa aside, there really wasn't any reason the child's feelings for her aunt needed to be tarnished, and she knew, with their tumultuous history, any conversation between the two of them had the potential to descend into ugliness. "I mean it, Theresa. Make it quick. Bella's down for a nap, and Luis and Sheridan are due home any minute. Not to mention I have an interview later this afternoon."

    Theresa glanced up and down the hallway. "Which one's the baby's nursery?"

    Gwen frowned at the petite brunette in irritation. "You're standing in front of it. Seriously, Theresa," she sighed when Theresa pushed the door to Bella's room open, walked inside. "What do you want?" The sunlight filtering in through the cracks in the drawn curtains caught the large diamond ring on Theresa's finger as she gripped the rails of Bella's crib, and Gwen studied the reflection rather than meet the other woman's eyes.

    "She doesn't really look like Luis," Theresa remarked.

    Gwen didn't care for the insinuation in Theresa's tone, but she refrained from comment in a desperate attempt to take the high road. She nearly bit her tongue in half with her former (current?) adversary's next words.

    "You know you'll never work in this town again. Nobody in Harmony is fool enough to hire you." Theresa traced a finger down the bridge of Bella's delicate nose, stilling as the tiny infant's thick dark lashes fluttered.

    "Is that what you came here for?" Gwen hissed. "To threaten me?"

    Theresa's dark eyes glittered with indignation. "I'm not threatening you. I'm only telling you the truth."

    "Get out," Gwen grit out.

    "It's hardly your place to order me out of my brother's home," Theresa threw her head back haughtily, secure in her convictions and perhaps rightly so.

    "No," Gwen agreed. "It isn't. But this is Sheridan's home, too, and I'm certain I'd have her whole-hearted approval in this case. Get out. I'm not interested in playing your little games."

    "I'll leave," Theresa stood down, pulled her slipping purse strap up her shoulder. "But not before I give you one more piece of advice. Leave my husband, and my children, all of them, alone. We understand each other?"

    Gwen's breath caught painfully in her chest, threatened to burst from her overfull lungs. "I gave birth to him."

    "You think that matters?" Theresa smirked. "I'm the one he calls Mommy," she cruelly reminded her.

    "You're still a little bitch in disguise," Gwen blinked back tears.

    "Not in front of the baby," Theresa chastised.

    "Gwen? Aunt Theresa?" Gilly's little voice called out softly. "You're going to miss the tea party."

    Gwen listened as Theresa dashed the little girl's hopes, listened to her clomping boot heels as she descended the steps and let herself out of the house.

    "Gwen?" Gilly's pout came through loud and clear.

    Gwen dabbed the moisture from her eyes, cleared her emotion-tightened throat. "Be right there, Gilly."



    ~*~



    The phone call came before Gwen had even made it into the heart of town. She couldn't help but let a little bit of her disappointment and frustration bleed into her voice as she pressed for answers. "So you're telling me the position is no longer available? You haven't filled it? Oh, you're no longer interested in me as a candidate. Do you mind telling me what changed in the course of 24 hours? I'm sure Mrs. Winthrop did. No. No, really. I understand. Thanks for your consideration," Gwen ground out before abruptly ending the call. She tossed her phone into the passenger seat beside her purse and tried to focus on the road in front of her, but it was a little hard when everywhere she looked, there were signs bearing her ex-husband's name. She idly wondered if Little Ethan and Marty's shared stunt the other night with Sam's boat had done anything to damage Ethan's standing in the mayoral polls and came to the conclusion she didn't care if it meant ruffling Theresa's feathers. Ethan would be fine; somehow he'd always escaped life's sticky situations without having to admit to too much culpability. The boat incident would be much the same, she was sure. Sighing as she neared the Book Café, she flipped her blinker on. The cookies and Kool-Aid from Gilly's tea party had long since been digested, burned off in a fit of nervous energy when Sheridan had returned from hers and Luis's appointment alone, her reassuring smile forced and fake as she made her excuses, hid herself away in her bedroom. A cup of coffee wouldn't hurt, wouldn't put too much of a drain on her wallet either, so Gwen made the turn and almost had a heart attack when a little boy with a mop of reddish-brown hair appeared in front of her car. Her brakes squealed as the car came to a sudden stop, and she lifted a shaking hand to cover her eyes momentarily before shoving her door open and spilling out of vehicle. "Oh my God. Sweetie, are you okay?"

    Blue eyes blinked owlishly up at her, but no sound escaped from the boy's mouth. He studied her curiously for a moment before his attention was diverted elsewhere, and the small shoulders curled in on themselves when a deep voice reprimanded him for not paying attention.

    "Samuel, what have I told you about watching where you're going?"

    A man trotted up to them, rest firm hands on the boy's bony shoulders, peered at Gwen from behind the lenses of his stylish glasses. "Please accept my apology since I know Sam here isn't about to give you one. He's never still, and he hardly ever watches where he's going. One of these days, he won't be so lucky. You better be glad your aunt Kay didn't see you," he leaned down to speak into the boy's ear. Straightening, he offered Gwen his hand. "I don't know if you remember me, Ms. Hotchkiss," he began.

    Gwen found her voice again, flashed Reese Durkee a shaky smile as she let him fold her hand in his own. "I remember you. And this must be…"

    Reese cut her off uncomfortably before she could speak Jessica's name. "This is Sam."

    "Hi, Sam," Gwen offered her hand.

    The little boy looked at her, then seemed to glance up at Reese for permission. When Reese nodded, the child politely took her hand, shook it.

    "Are you thirsty?" Reese suddenly asked.

    Catching wind of Reese's intentions, Gwen shook her head. "You don't have to…I'm fine. Really."

    Reese wouldn't take no for an answer. "It's the least Sam and I can do. Right, Sam?"

    The boy tipped his head back, spoke the first words Gwen had heard him speak. "I want hot chocolate."

    With the extra little nip in the October air, and the day she'd already had, hot chocolate sounded heavenly to Gwen. "Let me just get my purse."

    Barely a minute later, Sam scampered inside while Reese held the door open for them both and immediately made his way to the back of the store where a cozy little children's reading nook was set up, complete with kiddie-size stools and a table piled high with books. Two little boys with piercing dark eyes looked up as one and grinned a welcome to their new arrival, making room for Sam to seat himself between them.

    Gwen would recognize that Lopez-Fitzgerald smile anywhere, and she and Reese had barely been seated before the boys' mother arrived at their table, her smile guarded but much more agreeable than her sister's superior smirk. "What can I get you?"

    "Afternoon, Paloma," Reese greeted. "Three hot chocolates, please."

    Gwen leaned back in her seat, glanced around at their surroundings. "This place is a lot different than I remember."

    "Paloma and Noah made some changes when they took over the place," Reese agreed.

    There were still books, everywhere, but there were more little reading nooks like the one Sam and his cousins were enjoying, and the establishment as a whole, Gwen thought, was more kid-friendly. Deep-seated, comfy armchairs for adults were also in abundance, strategically placed throughout the place, and there was a bank of computers atop a circular table toward the back of the store. There was even a tiny platform that looked to serve as a stage of sorts. The color scheme was rich and vibrant, yet still very homey, and the expanded menu…well, if the aromas enticing her olfactory senses were anything to go by, this new version of the Book Café had much more to offer than blueberry muffins and buttery scones. There was barely a trace of Beth Wallace anywhere, and Gwen couldn't have been happier. She smiled at Paloma when the young woman carefully set her hot chocolate in front of her, only to receive a polite nod in return. "Thank you, Reese," she murmured after taking a sip. "I needed this. It's been a very long day."

    Reese's expression was kind, understanding.

    Gwen realized even he was aware just how unwelcome her return to Harmony was, and she was, quite honestly, amazed at how nice he was being to her. She even commented on it.

    Reese just shrugged. "People make mistakes. In my experience, nobody's all good or bad."

    "I've made more than my fair share."

    "Doesn't mean you don't deserve a second shot," Reese told her.

    Gwen took his words to heart, somewhat disbelieving that he could still hold firm to that belief when his own generosity had been so abused, time and time again, if secondhand information could be trusted. The Bennett sisters, she knew, had not left his heart unscathed, but here he was, offering her encouraging words on second chances. "If only everyone felt the same way," she sighed. "Theresa's right. No one's going to hire me."

    Reese's blue eyes lit up behind the lenses of his glasses. "I don't know if I agree completely with that statement. I might know someone."

    "This someone must not know Theresa."

    Reese's lips twitched in response to Gwen's dramatic pronouncement. "Don't be too sure of that."

    "Does this person believe in second chances?" Gwen asked, taking another long sip of her cocoa.

    "And third," Reese lifted his own mug to his mouth. "And fourth. I can call her if you'd like," he offered.

    Gwen placed her mug on the table between them, chewed thoughtfully on her bottom lip, before blurting out her consent. "Go ahead."



    ~*~




    The Book Café wasn't the only place that had changed in Gwen's absence from Harmony. Grace Bennett's quaint little antique shop had also undergone a makeover. It was very much bohemian chic with little touches of understated elegance everywhere, worlds apart from the attached Bed and Breakfast, yet strangely complimentary. Gwen's eyes were drawn to a display of handmade jewelry, to an antique brass necklace bearing a dragonfly pendant in particular. The late afternoon sun caught the amethyst stone as it rested in her palm, painted a rainbow reflection that sparkled and shone.

    "Some say dragonflies symbolize change and renewal. Maria prefers to think they're magic."

    "And you?" Gwen questioned with a slight smile. "What do you think?"

    "I think they make pretty jewelry," Kay smiled back at her. "Maybe they're good luck," she shrugged. "Maybe they're not."

    Gwen let go of the necklace and it swung gently back and forth like a pendulum. Her fingertips strayed to the zipper of her purse, played with the small tab there as she discreetly studied Sam Bennett's eldest daughter, Ethan's half-sister. The dark waves of her hair were loose around her pretty face, sun-kissed. Her shoulders were slender and straight, confident, underneath the heavy knit of the charcoal sweater that embraced them. Her blue eyes were clear, possessing a newfound maturity that had previously been lacking, unencumbered by the judgment that always seemed to meet Gwen's gaze these days. She felt herself relax, in small increments, until she found her voice again. "You know why I'm here."

    Kay nodded, moved behind the small counter and its display of various Halloween decorations, both subtle and over the top. "Reese called." She opened a small drawer, withdrew a thin sheaf of papers, extended them to Gwen.

    Gwen felt her stomach drop as she scanned the application, didn't notice immediately that Kay had moved beyond the counter to stand by her side. She looked up in surprise when she realized Kay was speaking.

    "Don't worry about that," Kay indicated the papers in Gwen's unsteady hands. "It's just a formality. The job's yours."

    "That's it?" Gwen asked in disbelief. "No interview? No background check?"

    Kay's amused smirk wasn't mocking or unkind, simply knowing. "Your past indiscretions are a matter of public record. You've never pretended to be what you're not. That's enough for me. Besides, I could use the help around here. Maria's always been a handful. Add Sam, and it's a recipe for potential disaster."

    Her natural curiosity piqued, Gwen couldn't resist comment. "I'm not sure I understand what you mean."

    "You didn't know already?" Kay's lips twisted with frustration. "I assumed Luis would have said something in front of you by now."

    "Luis and I don't exactly see eye to eye," Gwen dryly pointed out the obvious. When Kay's blue eyes twinkled humorously in response, Gwen felt an instant kindred bond of sorts with the younger woman.

    "When Jess checked herself out of rehab the last time, custody of Sam reverted to me since she and Reese weren't married," Kay divulged. "Sam and Reese are living with me and Maria. Reese is the only father figure Sam has ever known, so I couldn't separate them, and it's not like Miguel is in the picture anymore," she explained further.

    Gwen spoke before she could stop herself. "I thought you two were happy."

    "I did, too," Kay sighed, pushing the bracelets on her wrists back, along with her sleeves as she knelt to lift a box full of different odds and ends off of the floor. She wound a strand of bright red ribbon peeking over the box's edge around her pinky.

    "What happened?" Gwen breathed.

    "Long story short?" Kay posed, and Gwen nodded. "It started and ended with Charity. I was naïve to think Miguel had ever gotten over her."

    "I've been there," Gwen commiserated softly. "Only mine started and ended with Theresa." She took the box Kay offered her into her arms. "And it's still not over."

    Kay's brow arched in curiosity.

    "Not like it's news, but she's determined to run me back out of town, promised me I'd never work here again."

    "Well, won't she be surprised?" Kay grinned back at her as she stooped to grab another box of craft supplies. She paused when she heard the telltale noise of impatient feet stomping up the steps of the store's side entrance.

    "Customers?" Gwen guessed.

    Kay laughed. "Not paying, anyway. A couple of freeloaders. Follow me," she instructed, "and I'll make the introductions."

    Wordlessly, Gwen did as she asked.



    ~*~



    The freeloaders had turned out to be Kay's own daughter Maria and Endora Lenox, home from school, and Kay had delivered upon her promise, introducing Gwen to both girls.

    Coltish and obviously still at odds with her changing body, Maria Lopez-Fitzgerald played down her femininity with a loose, baggy purple Harmony Hellcats hoodie and comfortably shabby jeans. Her sneakers looked like they had seen better days, and her long dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail, strands of rebellious fuscia woven throughout its base. Heavy mascara accentuated her thick lashes and pale lip gloss smudged her full lips. She was no longer a child, but she wasn't yet a woman, and her adolescent struggles were clearly evident in all her contradictions.

    In the manner of most teenagers, Maria hadn't said much, but Endora had said even less, said nothing, choosing instead to smile shyly in acknowledgment at Gwen when she spoke.

    "Look at you two."

    The smaller girl wore her pale blond hair soft and straight down the middle of her back, with just the barest wisp of bangs brushing against her forehead. Her sweater was blush in color, pretty and delicate against her leggings. Her youthful face was free of makeup, and her blue eyes brimming with controlled mischief and untold knowledge.

    That preternatural stare made her silence all the more baffling to Gwen, and she commented on it later, when Kay had closed the shop to new customers, led her into the main lobby of the Bed and Breakfast and left Maria and Endora to their own devices. "Do you think she can't talk?"

    Kay considered her question for a moment, answered, "I think, for Endora, it's a choice. Words aren't always heard."

    She definitely had a point, Gwen thought. Words weren't always heard. Case in point, Luis and Marty. She wondered if the boy had descended yet from his attic safeguard to face his father this evening. "You're right," she agreed. "Sometimes they even get in the way. Too bad Theresa doesn't feel the same," she muttered beneath her breath. She shook her head when Kay's lips curled upward, chagrined when she realized the other woman had heard her. "What?"

    "Hiring you is definitely going to be worth all the hell coming my way." Standing slightly on tiptoe, Kay reached over the wooden ledge of the Bed and Breakfast's main desk, pressed the little tap bell insistently. "I'm guessing you're ready to get out from under Luis's roof?"

    "You'd be guessing correctly," Gwen murmured, tucking a loose strand of blond hair back behind her ear as a vaguely familiar male appeared.

    "Uncle Hank here can help you with that." Kay gave her a little wave as she backed away, tossed a significant glance her uncle's way. "We don't open until 10 on the weekends. Sleep in. You look like you need it."

    "Ignore my niece."

    Gwen turned to find Hank Bennett regarding her with open curiosity. "Why would I do a thing like that?"

    "Because there's not a tactful bone in her body," Hank easily replied. "There's nothing wrong with the way you look."

    The look he gave her almost convinced Gwen, but she knew his type, the self-professed charmer, and she wasn't buying what he was selling. "Looks like you have the opposite problem."

    "Yeah?" Hank grinned at her, his brown eyes twinkling with ill-concealed humor. "What's that?"

    "There's not a truthful bone in your body." Gwen barely refrained from rolling her eyes when his grin grew even wider.

    "Not that this little exchange of ours isn't entertaining," Hank retorted, "but I'm assuming you're interested in renting out a room."

    He looked completely unsurprised to see her, thanks, no doubt, to Luis, but Gwen decided to table her reservations and resentment at Sheridan's husband's interference in her life in favor of spending the night in a bed of her own. She took her wallet out of her purse, retrieved the credit card with the lowest outstanding balance on it.

    "How long will you be staying with us?" Hank asked as he swiped her card through the reader, tapped out a few letters on the keyboard in front of him. When she didn't say anything right away, he explained himself. "I need to know whether to put you in one of our extended stay rooms or not. So. How long?"

    Gwen snapped her wallet shut, zipped her purse back up when he handed her back her card, along with a single silver key on a ring, shocked him and herself with her answer. "Indefinitely."



    ~*~



    So...sorry for the long wait between chapters.

    I wanted to give you the most for your reading pleasure. Bree...I'm talking to you.

    Seriously, I wanted to make sure to give you guys something more substantial to sink your teeth into, and I hope this chapter meets that goal.

    Even though little of this chapter actually takes place at The House, a lot is going on, with Gwen, with Gilly and Marty, with Sher and Luis.

    How did you like the reintroductions of Paloma, Reese, and Kay?

    Paloma's appearance was more like a cameo in this chapter, so I'll understand if you don't have much to say about her role, but Reese and Kay and the kids tangled up in their lives...what did you think about that?

    A few other things of note...

    Poor Gilly, huh? First appearances can sometimes be deceiving. She's not the total brat some of you were thinking she was, is she? Poor little girl misses her mommy.

    Sher thinks Luis would be happier if she and baby Bella weren't around anymore. What are your thoughts on that? Do you call nonsense or is there a kernel of truth there?

    You didn't think I'd pass up the opportunity to have Theresa and Gwen butt heads, did you?

    Lost in there might have been the little reveal that Ethan is running for Mayor of Harmony? Your thoughts? Methinks, the man was destined for politics, lol.

    What about Daddy Reese? And Noah and Paloma running the Book Cafe?

    Kay and Gwen? A match made in Heaven? Or Hell on Heels? LOL! I happen to think the two share much in common, and a bond forming between the two of them wouldn't be preposterous.

    Surprising or not about Migs or Jess?

    And finally...good ole Hank. Already getting underneath Gwen's skin.

    Your thoughts and feedback are much appreciated and loved.

    Thanks so much for reading!

    P.S. There are lots of different ways to be haunted; just keep that in mind.

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Oct 2000
    Posts
    489

    Post Re: ***NEW***Haunted (S/L, cast)--Post Series AU

    Day Five






    Gilly









    Across the hall, Bella was crying again.


    Gilly felt like crying too.


    It was dark in her new room, too dark. Her papa had left her closet light on just like she'd asked, but sometime during the night, after he'd kissed her goodnight, after he'd pulled her bedroom door closed, after she'd closed her heavy eyes and fallen asleep, the light had gone out, faded away, and now there was only moonlight, pale and sneaky as it drifted in through the foggy windows.


    Gilly had already decided she didn't like the moon.


    Footsteps fell softly in the hallway, light and careful; they didn't sound like her papa's footsteps.


    Gilly traced the outline of Tinkerbell's wings beside her pillow, held her breath and Petal fiercely, waited for the footsteps to pass.


    They didn't. A floorboard creaked outside the door. Then the shiny knob on the door moved, barely made a noise.
    Gilly's heartbeat thumped inside her small chest, like the scared little blue bird Grandpa Sam had let her hold once. Its wing had been broken, he had explained, and it couldn't fly away. Gilly felt like that blue bird, scared and unable to fly away as she stayed as quiet as she could, quiet as a mouse, and waited for the footsteps to pass by her door.


    Bella cried out again, her wail sharp and panicky.


    Fear grabbed Gilly's throat, squeezed, made it feel like she had a mouth full of cotton candy, but it wouldn't melt away on her tongue, sugary and sweet. It swelled, and its bitterness made her eyes sting. She shot up in her bed when the footsteps hurried away, lifted a small hand to her dry throat, ached to call out for her papa when a light came on beyond her bedroom door, and suddenly, Bella was quiet.


    The tree outside her window had long arms that danced in the breeze, reached and clawed at the glass that locked it out.


    In the midst of her madly grinning baby dolls, Patrick seemed to frown at Gilly in warning as she pushed her blankets back, put her feet on the floor. Icy fingers tickled Gilly's ankles, skated up her shaking legs as she scooted across the room, pressed her ear to the heavy wooden door. The doorknob felt slick, clammy underneath Gilly's frantic palm. It rattled and jerked until finally it fell open, and Gilly stumbled into the light.


    Sheridan appeared in the open doorway to Bella's nursery, her voice soft and low as Bella continued to whimper against her shoulder. "Gilly. What's wrong?"


    Gilly felt her own tears push down her cheeks, dampen the matted fur at the back of Petal's neck. "I don't like the moon."



    ~*~




    Bella's brows squeezed together when she concentrated, frowned as she nursed, her small fingers winding tightly around Sheridan's pinky.

    Unknowingly, Gilly mirrored the baby's expression, looked up at Sheridan with big, wondering eyes. "Does it hurt?"

    "Sometimes," Sheridan answered truthfully. "Most of the time, no."

    Sheridan's eyes were so very, very blue as they stared at Gilly. They made her miss her mommy, and watching Sheridan hold Bella so close and brush kisses over her small hands with her lips made Gilly's tummy ache. "Why do you it then?"

    "It makes me feel close to Bella," Sheridan smiled. "Someday, when you have your own babies, you'll understand."

    Gilly wrinkled her nose in disgust. "Yuck! I'm not going to do that." Despite her protests, though, she couldn't curb her fascination, and she crept closer to get a better look. She soon found herself curling underneath Sheridan's sheltering arm. She was so soft and warm and that reminded Gilly of her mommy too, but all she did was cuddle closer, press her nose into Sheridan's nightgown, thin and comfortable over the gentle beat of her heart.

    "You might," Sheridan murmured.

    Her quiet words made Gilly's hair tickle against her cheek, and she climbed into the rocking chair with her and Bella, brought her knees up to her chest. "I won't," Gilly promised, nestling ever nearer. She looked up just in time to see the curve of Sheridan's lips relax as she started to hum a song Gilly couldn't make out. Gilly liked it when Sheridan hummed, but she liked it even better when she sang because she sounded like the princesses on her Disney DVDs.

    "Almost ready to go back to bed, hmm?"

    Gilly leaned into Sheridan's tender touch like an affection-starved kitten, slowly turned her head from side to side. "I don't want to." She tugged fretfully at one of Petal's floppy ears.

    "This rocking chair won't make a very comfortable bed."

    Sheridan's lips felt like butterfly wings against Gilly's forehead, sweet and barely there. Gilly sighed, let her heavy eyelids drift closed, and pretended her mommy was there, holding her close as they sailed on a tiny little boat, just the two of them, and it bobbed back and forth on the ocean's waves. "I don't want to," she whined. And she didn't mean to. She didn't. But her cheeks still felt tight with salty tears, and Sheridan was so warm and soft and almost her mommy, and Gilly didn't want to go back to her dark room with its sneaky moon. "Tell me a story," she pleaded.

    "In a great green room," Sheridan began, "there was a telephone and a red balloon and a picture…"

    Gilly could hear Bella snuffling and suckling softly and, from far, far away in Heaven, her mommy helpfully whispering the words into her ear, "Of the cow jumping over the moon."



    ~*~


    The next morning, Gilly greeted her papa in the kitchen with a request. "Papa, Patrick needs a friend."

    "Patrick has lots of friends," her papa answered her. "Petal's his friend."

    Gilly patiently pointed out the obvious to him. "But Petal's a bunny, Papa. Patrick needs a pumpkin friend."

    Her papa's teeth gleamed white, and his eyes sparkled down at her as he tweaked her nose and made her own smile appear. "We'll see. Maybe when we go grocery shopping this afternoon."

    We'll see was Gilly's least favorite answer in the entire world, but her papa was much better at keeping his promises than Grandpa Julian. She needed to remind him again about her new dollhouse for Christmas; he'd already missed her birthday. "Promise?"

    "Pinky promise." Her papa hooked his pinky finger around hers, and they shook on it.

    Gilly placed Petal in her booster seat, climbed into the kitchen chair beside her. On her knees, she leaned across the table to grab the box of Fruit Loops. She pouted in disappointment when only a handful of the cereal tumbled into her bowl, looking like tiny rainbow donuts. "Papa," she accused.

    "It's already on the list, Gilly. See?"

    Gilly puzzled over the scattering of pink post it notes all over the refrigerator and slumped in her chair. She perked up when her papa placed a plate of French toast in front of her, already cut up and dripping with syrup. A thin curl of white steam climbed toward the ceiling in front of her, and Gilly pinched her lips together, blew on it gently. She wrapped her fingers around the fork that clattered beside her plate, ready to dig in, but her papa stopped her.

    "It's still hot," he warned. "Why don't we wait for Sheridan and your brother?"

    "But Papa," Gilly protested. "Marty sleeps all day."

    "Not today, he won't. He and I have a lot of work to do."

    "You're not going to lock up bad guys today?" Gilly asked hopefully.

    "Not unless you count me as one of the bad guys," Marty grumbled. "He's going to be too busy pretending to be my prison warden." Plopping down in the chair across from Gilly, he propped his chin in the palm of his hand and glared at Petal.

    Gilly snatched the bunny to her chest protectively. "Papa," she tattled.

    "What have I said about tattling, Gilly?" her papa scolded. To Marty, he said, "Think of it as a work release."

    Gilly curled her arms around Petal tighter when Marty rolled his eyes at their papa. She didn't like it when they fought. They were loud and mean, and it made her tummy flip-flop. "Papa, what does work release mean?"



    ~*~



    The attic was just like the twins' tree house fort behind Grandpa Sam's and Mimi Ivy's house, up high and full of old, dusty things. Gilly felt like Dora; that made Petal Boots. She went exploring while Papa and Marty cleaned things up.

    "It's not safe up here, Marty. What if someone broke into the house?"

    "I know where you hide your gun."

    "What if there was a fire?"

    Their raised voices gradually faded into the background for Gilly as she wandered around the cluttered space, on alert for the creepy crawly spiders promised by all the cobwebs stretching sticky and thin from the high beams of the ceiling. She stumbled over her untied shoelace into a tall, towering book shelf that seemed to climb up toward the sun that peeked inside the attic's windows, wrinkled her itchy nose as she fought off a sneeze. Gilly's fingers made dot-like impressions on the rough spines of the books and loose pages fluttered to the floor when she picked one of them up.

    Her papa's cell phone started to ring, and he and Marty didn't argue, at least while he talked to the person on the other side.

    Petal's beady eyes stared back at Gilly in the reflection of a mirror, half-covered by a blood-red shawl that slithered to the ground at Gilly's feet as she watched with round brown eyes. Gilly's mouth fell open and the air around her felt cold as she stretched out her hand, her fingers stopping just short of the splintered glass when her papa called out her name.

    "Gilly."

    "Papa," Gilly called back, whirling around and suddenly feeling lost with all the strange, unfamiliar things crowding around her, making it hard for her to breathe. "Papa," she called again, hauling Petal closer for comfort. "Where are you?"

    "Don't be such a baby," Marty muttered. "You're not lost."

    "Marty," she heard her papa say. "Leave your sister alone. I'm right here, Gilly. Follow the sound of Papa's voice."

    Gilly tried, but something brushed against her ear, something light that tickled and felt like Papa's breath when he whispered secrets to her, and the hair on the back of her neck prickled at the sensation of cold, feathery fingers gently sweeping her long braid over her shoulder. Gilly felt a scream crawling up her throat as her feet shuffled against the floor, tangling together, and she pitched forward, her own terrified reflection rushing at her.

    "I got you, Gilly Nilly. I got you."

    Her papa was warm and safe and Gilly clung to his shoulders with all her might, sobbing without tears into his neck as hands reached for her from the mirror's kaleidoscope surface.

    "Aww. Gilly see a spider?" Marty sneered.

    "Marty," her papa warned. "Enough."

    Gilly decided she liked the attic less than the moon.




    ~*~



    Uncle Noah was tall, didn't say much, and he looked at her funny. Gilly liked him anyway.

    The twins smiled a lot, even when their baby sister cried. They took turns holding her as Aunt Paloma watched, cut her food up into tiny bites.

    Gilly shook her head when Aunt Paloma offered her some. Scrambled eggs weren't her favorite; they had them at home all the time. "No thank you," she mumbled politely when her papa squeezed her shoulder.

    "Luis, I'm sorry for calling you over here like this," Uncle Noah spoke in a soft whisper when he thought no one else was paying attention. "But I've uncovered some evidence you're going to want to look at."

    He was watching her again, with that funny look on his face, like he couldn't decide if he were happy or sad. Gilly tilted her head back at her papa and asked, "Papa, can I have some juice?"

    Her papa looked at her aunt Paloma.

    Aunt Paloma pushed the chair she was sitting in back, set the little plastic fork she was using to feed the baby down just out of the baby's greedy reach. "Of course, sobrina," she smiled. "Is apple okay?"

    Gilly frowned, twisted the tail of her braid around her fingertip. "My name's not Sabrina."

    Papa and Aunt Paloma laughed.

    Uncle Noah looked confused like Gilly felt. "What's so funny?"

    "Sobrina," Aunt Paloma wiped a tear from her happy eyes, "means niece. That's what you are, sweet Gilly. My niece."

    Gilly shivered when her papa leaned down to murmur into her ear. "And Paloma is your tia and Noah is your tio. Go drink your apple juice, Gilly. Papa needs to talk to Noah. It's about work."

    He left her then, followed Uncle Noah into the study.

    It wasn't stuffy and full of books like Grandpa Julian's study, and it sure didn't look like a room where you got ready for any kind of tests. Gilly told her aunt Paloma so.

    The twins giggled like their mama and pulled her away to their room.

    When her papa came to get her, he wasn't smiling. Neither was her uncle Noah.

    Gilly waved to her aunt Paloma, slid her small hand into her papa's much bigger one.

    Papa let her pick the radio station on the way home, turn it up as loud as she wanted. He didn't even smile like he usually did when Gilly sang along, got most of the words wrong.

    Gilly wished he had.



    ~*~



    The chalk smudged purple against Gilly's fingers as she traced out the letters of the alphabet on the smooth concrete of the walkway like her mommy had taught her, abcdefghijklmnop, abcdefghijklmnop. She nibbled on the end of her braid, wiped her fingers against the rough denim of her jeans as she stood up.

    "That's not all of it, Genius." Marty's shadow loomed tall over her shoulder. "You left nearly half of it off."

    Gilly followed his blue eyes to the closed front door.

    Papa and Sheridan were inside with Bella and they weren't letting anybody else in.

    Marty had already raked the same pile of leaves all over the front yard two times.

    Jumping in them had stopped being fun a long time ago for Gilly. She just wanted her papa to come back outside and say everything was okay, but he hadn't yet, and Gilly had to pee. She shifted to her other foot, stomped the heel of her shoe against a crumbling edge of the walkway. A big chunk of the concrete fell away, and the sun caught on something bright and shiny that glittered like bottled-up stars. Gilly crouched down, scooped it up in the palm of her hand.

    "Give me that," Marty snatched Gilly's find from her hands, turning it over and inspecting it from all angles. "It's a key."

    "It's mine," Gilly pouted. "I found it first."

    Marty took two steps back for every step forward Gilly made, holding the key up high over his head. "What do you even need a key for?"

    "I found it," Gilly repeated. Growing frustrated, she shoved her older brother with all her might, but he didn't budge, and when he slid the key into his jeans pocket, she pleaded, "Give it back. Please."

    "Marty, stop harassing your sister."

    "Papa!" Gilly raced to her papa's side, grabbed hold of his hand. "Tell Marty the key's mine. I found it." She looked up at her papa, tightened her fingers around his hand in anticipation.

    "What key? Marty?"

    Gilly tucked into her papa's side when Marty glared at her and dropped the rake in his hands, fished the key out of his jeans pocket, and slapped it into their papa's waiting hand.

    "You're nothing but a no-good tattler," Marty growled as he pushed past them on the walkway.

    Gilly's tummy flipped, and her cheeks felt hot. She turned her face into her papa's side, gulped back tears. "I didn't mean to tattle, Papa." She wrapped her arms around her papa's neck when he lifted up like she weighed nothing, buried her nose in the crease of his neck. Her papa smelled good, like hugs and spice and it's okay kisses. "But Marty took it away."

    "I know, Gilly Nilly. No more tattling, okay?"

    Gilly nodded, pressed a thankful kiss against her papa's cheek.

    "Now, why don't we go see if we can find Patrick a friend?"

    Gilly squeezed her arms tight around her papa in a hug, the key momentarily forgotten. "I think we should name her Penelope."



    ~*~



    Mr. Harrison was short and round with a friendly dimple in his chin, and he smelled like old cigars. Gilly wanted to ask him if he knew Santa since he looked so much like him, but she didn't. She swallowed down her questions and hooked her fingers around the edge of Sheridan's grocery cart and looked around while the old man made silly duck faces at Bella.

    There were baskets of apples, fat and red and juicy, stacked on a table at the front of the little store. Clusters of yellow bananas rest on the next table with sprinkles of oranges mixed in.

    Gilly frowned when she realized there were no pumpkins in sight, not a one, and she again asked Sheridan when she pushed the cart forward and down the aisle of colorful fruit, "Why couldn't I go with Papa?"

    "Because he and Marty had a special job to do," Sheridan answered her. "You don't want to help me and Bella?"

    "I guess," Gilly mumbled half-heartedly. She pulled the tail of her braid over her shoulder, brushed it against her lips. "Can we get my cereal now?"

    "Not yet. We will, though," Sheridan promised. "Which apples do you think are the prettiest? Some apple cider sounds nice."

    Gilly's brown eyes grew wide with excitement. "Can we make cookies?"

    "Cookies would be perfect," Sheridan said.

    Sometimes, when Sheridan smiled at her with her eyes all soft and her cheeks pink, Gilly wanted to hug her, wanted so much to have her hug her back like her mommy used to. She never did, though, and Sheridan's eyes would shine then like she wanted to cry, but Gilly always pretended she didn't see. It was getting harder and harder. When they came to the aisle with all the cereal boxes, Gilly skipped ahead, stood on tiptoe and fumbled with clumsy fingers for her favored Fruit Loops. She ignored Sheridan telling her to wait.

    "Gilly, hold on."

    "Careful, mi pequena, or you will have more than just Fruit Loops land on your pretty little head."

    With wide brown eyes and her mouth open in surprise, Gilly forgot all about her cereal and whirled around, throwing her arms around her grandmother's waist. "Abuela! I've missed you."

    "And I, you."

    Gilly's abuela didn't smile as much as her mimi Ivy, but when she did, you knew she was really happy. Gilly soaked up her smile like a flower soaking up sunshine, grinned back. "Abuela, I've been waiting for you to come see me."

    Her abuela lifted her braid from her shoulder, thumbed its wispy end. "I wanted to give everyone time to settle in before I intruded." Her brown eyes found Sheridan when she spoke.

    "It wouldn't be an intrusion, Pilar." Sheridan placed a box of Gilly's cereal in the grocery cart. "You know that. You're always welcome to visit your grandchildren."

    "Speaking of grandchildren…"



    ~*~




    Sometimes, Gilly thought Bella wasn't all bad, especially not when she was asleep like she was now. She was warm and she looked soft and squishy in her pajamas with sleepy little kittens on them, and Gilly liked kittens almost as much as she liked puppies, almost. "Is Bella really my sister, Abuela? She doesn't have brown eyes like me or my papa."

    "I don't have brown eyes."

    Marty always seemed mad; Gilly didn't understand why. She curled closer to her abuela, pressed her face into her soft sleeve.

    "Does that mean I'm not really your brother?"

    Her abuela tensed. "Marty."

    Bella's pink lips puckered into a pout.

    She didn't like it when they fought either; Gilly could tell.

    "Bella eyes are blue like her mother's, as are Marty's."

    Gilly watched her abuela move her fingers through the soft curls of Bella's dark hair, soothe the pout from her frowning mouth. She giggled when Bella's lips curled up at the corners just so and reached out her own fingers to try to capture the brief hint of a smile.

    "That does not mean she is not your sister."

    Gilly thought over her abuela's words, decided maybe she could be right.

    "Pilar," Sheridan called from the kitchen. "Please, stay for dinner."

    "Please, please stay," Gilly curled tighter around her abuela's arm.




    ~*~



    Penelope was bigger than Patrick, rounder.

    Gilly hoped Patrick wouldn't be embarrassed. When she mentioned her worries to her papa at the kitchen table, Marty snickered, Sheridan's eyes twinkled, and Papa covered his mouth with his napkin. Her abuela just looked confused, and Gilly understood. She didn't know what was so funny.

    "Mi hijo," her abuela set down her fork, looked first at Gilly, then at Papa. "Who is this Patrick she speaks of?"

    "Patrick is…well, why don't I let Gilly explain Patrick herself?"

    "Patrick is my other pumpkin." Gilly shifted in her chair, climbed onto her knees as she scooped more mashed potatoes on to her spoon. "Gwen bought him for me. She came with us from Boston."

    Her abuela's eyebrows seemed to crawl up into her hair like little black caterpillars. Her cheeks turned all red, and she started to cough into her own napkin.

    Papa refilled her glass of water and pushed it closer to her while Pedro stared on. "Gwen's staying over at the Bed and Breakfast for a few days, Mama, just until Sheridan and the kids get settled in."

    Gilly remembered the Bed and Breakfast from when she and Papa and Mommy had stayed in it. She thought it was pretty, a lot prettier than their new house, but she didn't tell her papa that. She ducked her head, pushed her spoon through the yucky pile of little green peas on her plate, looked up with round dark eyes to see if anyone noticed when the tip of her braid brushed through the shrinking yellow mound of her potatoes. "I like the Bed and Breakfast," Gilly remarked, to no one in particular.

    Marty rolled his eyes at her, crossed his arms over his chest.

    He was always doing that, Gilly thought. Like he had big muscles like Papa when he didn't. She sucked absently on the tail of her braid while she listened to Papa and Abuela and Sheridan talk about boring grown-up things and lined her English peas into rows like little soldiers. She dropped her spoon in surprise when Papa's voice boomed loud and angry at something Sheridan said.

    "Kay did what?"

    Sheridan's eyes were blue and brave, and she didn't back down from Papa, not one bit. "Kay offered Gwen a job, so it looks like she's going to be sticking around for more than a few days."

    Gilly held her breath, looked across the table at Marty, whose mouth was open wide, like a goldfish without water. Then she looked at her abuela, pale and still and quiet and decided an announcement needed to be made. "Patrick and Penelope are getting married, right after dinner, and everybody's invited. Even Marty."



    ~*~




    The fire's warm fingertips tickled at Gilly's nose, and she yawned and stretched her arms up over her head, bent her socked feet until her curled toes almost touched the floor. She glanced over her shoulder at her papa, halfway across the room, crouched behind the television as he played with a bunch of thick wires that looked like spaghetti noodles to Gilly.

    "Anything?" he asked.

    The tv screen was fuzzy white and gray, and the steady whooshing sound coming from it made the hair on the back of Gilly's neck stand up. Gilly just wanted it to stop. Sheridan must have, too. For the first time since Abuela had said her goodbyes and left and Marty had hidden up in his room, she spoke.

    "It's okay, Luis. We'll be fine without television for a couple more days."

    Her papa stood up, braced a hand on his back. "We probably just need an adaptor. I'll look for one tomorrow." He crossed the living room, paused in front of the sofa where Sheridan sat.

    Gilly thought Sheridan looked like a pretzel, curled up nice and tight, her chin resting on her knees. There was a little table at the end of the couch right next to her, and a lamp with a red-fringed shade. The lamp threw pale yellow light across the cool hardwood floor. The fringe made finger-like shadows that seemed to strain and crawl through the dark toward Gilly. She fought back a shiver as she pulled her own legs close to her chest just out of their reach, rubbed the hard bone of her chin back and forth across one of her knees. "What's a 'daptor, Papa?"

    "Something Papa's always losing," her papa answered easily. "Something we need to watch the tv," he better explained as he claimed the rug in front of the sofa as his own. "I think."

    He looked handsome, her papa, like the most handsome papa in the world. Tired, too, Gilly thought as she watched him grab Bella's baby monitor in his hand, twist the knob that turned up the volume.

    Bella's breathing was soft, like whispers.

    Gilly watched her papa put the monitor back on the little table with its tiger paw feet and lean his head back against Sheridan's legs. When he rubbed his cheek against the pink satin leg of her pajamas and it caught and Sheridan squirmed, Gilly giggled. Sometimes, when he hadn't shaved yet, her papa's cheeks felt like sandpaper, rough and ticklish like a kitty cat's tongue. Papa caught one of Sheridan's bare feet between the palms of his hands, tipped his head back, and looked up at her with eyes that looked like black marbles in the firelight. Gilly felt her tummy turn over again. She didn't like it when her papa looked at Sheridan that way. It was like he was forgetting her mommy and she couldn't let him do that. Because if Papa forgot Mommy, that meant she would forget Mommy one day too, and she didn't ever want to forget her. "Papa, tell me a story."

    "What kind of story, Gilly Nilly?"

    The diamond on Sheridan's finger caught the flicker of the fire's flames as her hand stroked through her papa's inky hair, hung on the lip of the lamp's light, sparkled like a shower of fairy lights wherever Gilly looked. "A story about Mommy and how much you loved her." The dancing fairy lights went still when Sheridan pulled her hand back. She held it close even when Papa tried to catch it again.

    "Sheridan."

    Sheridan's smile was pulled tight across her mouth as she slid out from behind Papa, climbed to her feet. "I think I hear Bella. I'm just going…"

    "Sheridan, you don't have to go."

    "It's Gilly's story, Luis. Not mine," Sheridan said.

    The stairs groaned underneath her quick feet, and the logs on the fire snapped and crackled as they, along with Gilly, made themselves comfortable.

    And finally, Papa began his story. "The first time I knew I loved your mommy…"



    ~*~



    "I love you, Papa," Gilly leaned back against her papa when he had finished brushing the tangles from her hair and tucked it back behind her ears.

    "I love you, too, Sweetheart."

    Gilly sighed, rest against the solid strength of her papa's muscled chest, hugged his arms and his words close to her heart.

    Petal lay on her pillow, staring up at her with glassy eyes.

    Gilly saw her own reflection in those unblinking eyes, her own reflection and something else. She squeezed her papa's arms around her tighter and tried not to shiver when she noticed the creeping moonlight, tiptoeing across her bedroom floor.

    Patrick and Penelope smiled back at her, blissfully blind to her fears.

    Her closet door remained cracked, though no light glowed beyond it.

    Papa had already promised to replace the blown light bulb tomorrow, and Gilly knew he would, but that was tomorrow. It seemed so far away when the night was so dark and long. "Papa, please."

    "Gilly," her papa sighed as he straightened behind her, gently nudged her across the mattress as he pulled her blankets back. "We've already talked about this."

    "I know," Gilly pouted, struggled to put on her best, bravest face. "But Papa." She nestled her wobbly chin into the wide palm that cradled it, sniffed back tears.

    "Sheridan and I will be just down the hall."

    Her papa's kiss lingered on her forehead, long after he'd pulled away, tucked her covers snug as a bug in a rug around her.

    "You be my brave girl, okay?"

    Gilly swallowed over the fist-sized lump in her throat, nodded as she felt the first hot slide of tears into her hair.

    "If you're not going to be brave for me, be brave for Bella. She's tiny, and she's across the hall right now, all by herself. Be brave for her, Gilly Nilly. Okay?"

    "Okay, Papa."

    Her papa's face was rough against hers as he pressed kisses into her hair, captured all of her tears with his gentle thumbs. Gilly felt her eyelids grow heavy even as her heart seemed to skip and stumble in her chest.

    "Petal's here to watch over you. And Patrick. And Penelope."

    Her papa's voice was slipping further and further away, and Gilly wanted to reach out and grab it, grab him, but she couldn't. The yawn snuck up on her, laughed silently, mockingly, as it slipped free.

    "That's it. Close those eyes, and when you wake up, it'll be morning, and the sun will be shining, and it'll all feel like a dream." The door shut behind him, and the moon grew a little bolder as his footsteps faded away.

    Patrick and Penelope's smiles melted into shadow.

    Slowly, the shiny knob on the door turned, but it stopped as more footsteps approached.

    Something small and metal scraped against the floor as it was shoved beneath the door, and starlight briefly kissed Gilly's slack features as the moon retreated in displeasure, limped away.

    The black cat scratched at the lacy frost of the window, opened its mouth in a silent meow.




    ~*~

    So...curioser and curioser it gets, hmm?

    LOL!

    I know not what possessed me to write this chapter from Gilly's point of view; I just thought it might give you a purer piece of the puzzle if you will, because kids, even when they don't fully understand something, are usually able to get to the real root of the problem or situation. At least I think so.



    Again, I'm asking you guys to read more between the lines.

    I definitely think you're all smart enough to connect those invisible dots I'm plotting, lol.

    Thank you so much!

    So...what did you guys think?

    Should Gilly get another chapter in her point of view later or was this chappy a complete and utter failure?

    I hope you were able to get a more rounded picture of this little girl that seemed like an absolute brat in the first chapter. It's all the different shades, I tell you.



    Feedback is love!

    Thanks so much for reading!

    P.S. Hope everyone that celebrates it had a happy Thanksgiving!

    P.P.S. The story Sheridan tells Gilly does not belong to me. I take no credit for it whatsoever and am definitely not making any profits off of it. My stuff is hardly on par with this kiddie classic.

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