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  1. #1
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    Oct 2000
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    Post Anna Begins

    I hope I'm doing this right. Feel free to tell me if I'm not.

















    Prologue



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

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

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

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

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

    There was no time.

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

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

    “He’s dead, isn’t he?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    In the distance an ambulance’s sirens wailed.

    “Do something for me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2. #2
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    Oct 2000
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    Re: Anna Begins

    Chapter 1




    “It was a good practice.”

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

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

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

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

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

    “But not Miss Sheridan.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    ~*~


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

    “Is that her?”

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

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

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

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

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

    Unruffled, Hope replied, “I did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    ~*~



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    ~*~



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Luis’s brows rose expectantly.

    “There’ve been some complaints.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  3. #3
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    Oct 2000
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    Re: Anna Begins

    Chapter 2




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “And?”

    “Got any ice cream for dessert?”


    ~*~



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “When I turned four.”


    ~*~


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

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

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

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

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

    It was anything but simple.

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

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

    Sam had been wrong about one thing though.

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

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

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

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

    And what had he done?

    Nothing.

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

    He’d done nothing.

  4. #4
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    Oct 2000
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    Re: Anna Begins

    Chapter 3


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    No one ran after her.

    She hadn’t expected them to.


    ~*~



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

    They let their actions speak for them.

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

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

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

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

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

    “Dear Mama…” Theresa wrote.


    ~*~


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

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

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

    “Hank,” Sheridan muttered.

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

    “Shut up.”

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

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

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

    “Dammit, Hank!” Sheridan finally snapped.

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

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

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

    There had been an accident.

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Oct 2000
    Posts
    489

    Re: Anna Begins

    Chapter 4





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “I called him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


    ~*~


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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Girlfriend?”

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

    “She’s adorable.”

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

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

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

    “I know just the place.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    ~*~


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

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

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

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

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

    “He called me Carrots!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Look who found me!”

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Oct 2000
    Posts
    489

    Re: Anna Begins

    Chapter 5





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Reese held up his hands in deflection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “An accident?”

    “Ethan and Theresa are dead.”


    ~*~


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “The usual?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Gwen bristled at the insinuation but refrained from commenting.

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

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

    “Order another drink,” he evaded her question.

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

    “I haven’t had enough.”

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

    “Ethan’s dead.”

    ~*~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “It’s Theresa,” Hank answered.

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

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

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Oct 2000
    Posts
    489

    Re: Anna Begins

    Chapter 6




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Hi. I don’t think we’ve met.”

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


    ~*~


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “And you would be?”

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

    “Ethan’s best friend.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Oct 2000
    Posts
    489

    Re: Anna Begins

    Chapter 7




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “It’s upstairs.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Sara nodded.

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

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


    ~*~


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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