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Thread: Anna Begins

  1. #17

    Post Re: Anna Begins

    Shae pls come on girl you are killing us here keeping us in suspeense, its killing me pls come and update soon.
    SHUIS and ET 4EVER

  2. #18
    Join Date
    Oct 2000
    Posts
    489

    Post Re: Anna Begins

    So, so sorry for the long(er) wait. I've been super busy at work, not to mention sick with this terrible crud (I know, real scientific word, huh?) that's been going around, and a dear member of my family has been very ill, and haven't had nearly the time or energy to write as much as I've wanted to lately.

    I'll try not to make you all wait as long next time.

    Here's the new chapter.

    I hope you enjoy. There's a little something for everyone in here.












    Chapter 14



    Mentally shaking some sense into himself, Luis forced out an answer, dragging his eyes away from hers with great difficulty. “Nothing. Thought nothing,” he repeated, carefully replacing his hand at his side and levering himself up from the floor, both hands on the tub’s rim. Snatching a towel from the nearby rack, he held it open to receive Anna, snuggling her close when she whimpered in protest at leaving the safety of Sheridan’s embrace. Burying his nose in the sweetly scented dark hair, he turned his back to give Sheridan some modicum of privacy, his eyes snapping shut at the sounds of splashing water and rustling fabric as she pulled a towel from the rack for herself.

    “Luis?” Sheridan’s voice was soft, too close.

    “Get dressed,” Luis ordered gruffly, ignoring the unspoken question and edging closer to the door, putting some much needed distance between them. “Sheridan,” he snapped with impatience when she took another step forward, erasing the miniscule gap, and he could literally almost feel her behind him, though no parts of their bodies touched. “Not now. I said put some damn clothes on,” he growled in a low, strained voice.

    Sheridan’s retort was clipped, and she tugged the drifting towel higher and tighter across her breasts. “Unless you want to give me the shirt off your back, I can’t.” Blue eyes icy when they met the angry fire in his gaze, she lifted her chin and indicated the door. “I left them in the bedroom. And before you say anything, I wasn’t expecting you. I had no idea when to expect you,” her voice took on a sharp, defensive edge, the earlier softness gone, “since you were so hell-bent on getting out of here earlier.”

    Unconsciously tightening his arms around Anna, Luis glared at her. “I told you...” he began.

    “You had business to take care of down at the station,” Sheridan interrupted him, stubbornly refusing to back down, unaware that Anna’s eyes grew more round and frightened with the delivery of each angry word. “Why investigate my brother? He brought her to us, Luis.

    “Since when are you Julian’s champion?” Luis sneered. “That man…”

    “Is part of Anna’s family,” Sheridan interjected again, feeling her heart clench beneath her ribcage at Luis’s disbelieving look. “Julian may not have been Ethan’s biological father, but I know my brother loved him as a son.”

    “Loved?” Luis scoffed, a harsh laugh escaping unbidden. “What do Cranes know about love? It’s not just a word, and it’s definitely not having a fat bank account at your disposal to buy expensive things for the people you love.”

    Bristling at the underlying message of Luis’s mocking words, Sheridan lifted her chin proudly. “Is that what you think, Luis? That I’m trying to buy my way into Anna’s heart?”

    “I don’t know,” Luis shot back angrily. “You tell me.” He backed up a step, one big hand dwarfing Anna’s small back. “It fits with your m.o.”

    Sheridan’s eyes were curiously bright when she answered, and she couldn’t disguise the smallness of her own voice when she gave Luis the answer she thought he wanted. “You’re right. Besides, I’d have to have a heart to be truly capable of love, and there’s nothing but a big, black hole where mine’s supposed to be. Because I’m a Crane, and we’re nothing but heartless, soulless creatures that were spawned and not born, right Luis?”

    Before his very eyes, Luis could see her carefully restructuring the slow-to-crumble walls between them, and her name escaped his lips on a regretful sigh. “Sheridan.”

    “No. Don’t.” Sheridan held up a hand, though she couldn’t look into his eyes just yet. Tucking her chin close to her chest, she took a fortifying if shaky breath and let her eyes focus on a point in front of her where the fading wallpaper was beginning to peel. Sighing herself, she closed her eyes, a deep furrow developing between her brows at the headache she felt coming on, and shook her head. “Lying doesn’t suit you, Luis.”

    Luis opened his mouth to dispute the statement, but the words felt false on his tongue, and Anna chose that moment to let loose a loud wail, big blue eyes overflowing with tears. Guilt consumed him when he realized this newest episode of terror owed much to the bitter words of their heated exchange. Cupping her curl-covered head in his palm, he pressed his lips to the small forehead, gently shushing her, “It’s okay. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.” The softly murmured words proved to be a useless plea, and Luis’s senses were soon flooded with Sheridan’s clean scent, her very nearness as her hands touched and soothed and finally cradled the little girl close. When next he spoke, the damning emotion filled his words with a gentleness that their previous conversation had been lacking and the whispers were almost too soft for Sheridan to hear. “Stay here. I’ll get her blanket.”

    When he returned, Sheridan noticed, he had not only the fuzzy pink talisman in his hands, her robe was draped over one strong arm.

    Crouching before their toilet seat perch, Luis lifted the blanket to Anna’s flushed cheek, his arm brushing against Sheridan’s bare knee.

    Sheridan rest her cheek against the baby’s dark curls, trying and failing to convince herself it was the coolness of the air against her damp skin and not Luis’s innocent touch that had sent an uncontrollable shiver up and down her spine. She watched him intently, wondering how a man could be tough and thoughtless in one moment, so tender in another.

    Sucking her fingers into her mouth, Anna rubbed her tear-stricken face against Sheridan’s breastbone, her sobs dwindling to hiccupping breaths as Luis tucked the blanket around her tiny shoulders.

    There was still a fine tremor in Sheridan’s movements, several quiet moments later, when she breached the scant distance between them, fingertips skating over the cotton that stretched snugly across Luis’s chest. “You’re all wet.” Goosebumps pebbled her skin when his fingers brushed against her own before placing her hand back in her lap.

    “And you’re cold,” Luis leaned forward, unfolding the thick terry and draping it across the slender shoulders. His hand strayed toward Sheridan’s chin, but in the end, it gravitated toward Anna’s frowning brow, and he watched the curly black lashes flutter as her heavy lidded eyes blinked slowly, her tears fading. He lost himself, staring at Anna, listening to Sheridan breathing so close to him, and startled when she spoke again, losing himself all over again in the vivid blue of her irises.

    “We can’t keep doing this, Luis.” Interspersing each softly murmured word with a kiss to Anna’s crown, Sheridan searched Luis’s eyes and allowed herself a small measure of comfort at the remorse displayed there even as she vowed never to let her own vulnerability be used against her again. “From now on, if we fight…”

    Of its own volition, a tiny smile quirked the corner of Luis’s mouth at the word if and mentally, he exchanged it for the much more apt when, before interrupting her with a decision they could both wholeheartedly agree upon. “Not in front of Anna.”

    “Not in front of Anna,” Sheridan echoed.

    Pushing himself to his feet, Luis kept his eyes on Anna, and held out his hand, hoping, praying Sheridan would understand the gesture for what it was, the apology that couldn’t find a voice. He closed his eyes when Sheridan’s fingers slid through his, very briefly, and she brushed past him, her unspoken words just as clear.

    She’d allow him his weaknesses, maybe even forgive them (for Anna’s sake), but she couldn’t forget them.


    ~*~



    “Can they really see the light, Daddy? All the way at the other end of the ocean?” Hope’s eyes were round and full of awe, and she didn’t wait for his answer before she was posing another question, her small fingers tightening around the thin but strong metal rails as she raised on tiptoe to gaze out into the horizon at the boats bobbing along the whitecaps. “Can they see us?” Evidently deciding on her own answer, she turned to Sam, all bright eyes and eager smiles. “Wave to them, Daddy. You too, Mom.”

    “What are you waiting for?” Sam nudged Grace’s shoulder with his own shoulder, turning sideways to better watch their young daughter as he instructed his wife with twinkling eyes. “Wave.”

    Sheepishly, Grace did as requested, the tiny hint of a smile on her lips at Hope’s expression. Worry chased it away, though, when Hope lifted one sneaker to the rails in an attempt to elevate her position. “Hope Bennett,” Grace spoke warningly. “Remember what I said.”

    “But I’m too short,” Hope grumbled under her breath, red hair falling into her downcast little face as she pouted at the ground. Frowning further with the revelation that her shoelaces were untied (again!), she crossed her arms over her middle with a huff and turned her back on them. “I hate being little!”

    Sharing an amused look with Grace, Sam stepped around her and engaged Hope on her level. “Really? Because I was just thinking. Sometimes, I really hate being grown-up.”

    Out of the corner of her eyes, Hope looked at him skeptically. “You’re just saying that.” Glancing up at Grace, she repeated, for her mother’s effect, “He’s just saying that.”

    “No, really,” Sam insisted, fingers moving over the bothersome laces while he talked. “Too much work, for one.”

    “But Kay says you’re married to your job,” Hope wouldn’t be convinced, one reddish brow lifting in a manner eerily similar to another redhead in the family. Turning around to face her father fully, she planted her hands on her hips and turned the tables on him, asking a question that revisited the scene from the previous night. “Can’t you just divorce your job, Daddy, and keep us?”

    “Hope,” Grace scolded, her discomfort with the wild left turn the conversation had taken showing in the flush of her cheeks. “Your daddy loves his job.”

    “It’s okay,” Sam met Hope’s intent stare head-on. “It’s a fair question.” Holding out a beckoning hand, he said, “C’mere.”

    Reluctantly, Hope followed his instruction, her freckles standing out in stark relief on her pale face as she regarded him seriously, her hands clasping in front of her and fingers knotting together nervously.

    Behind them, Grace was still, silent.

    Sam weighed his words carefully, with the sinking realization that proving his commitment to his family was going to be harder than he’d originally thought. Finally, frustration led him to run his hands through his hair then drop them to take his young daughter by the arm and pull her closer. “Is this about last night?” he questioned, the ball of lead in the pit of his stomach dropping further still at Hope’s hesitant nod.

    “Hope.” Grace crouched down beside Sam, her slender hand reaching out to tuck the little girl’s wind-tousled hair behind one ear. “Is there something you’d like to talk to us about?”

    Hope half-nodded, half-shook her head, dragging her lower lip between her teeth. Emboldened by her parents’ encouragement, she grasped onto the hand her mother offered and stepped closer to her father, casting her eyes to the ground and her newly tied sneakers. “What’s a divorce mean? And why were you,” she lifted accusing blue eyes to Grace’s carefully blank face, “asking daddy if he wanted one?”

    “Your mom was upset,” Sam answered for Grace when it became clear she was struggling to formulate a response that wouldn’t further upset their daughter. “She didn’t mean it.” The lie, Sam knew, would be easier for him than Grace, and much easier to forgive than his omissions of the past if it meant protecting their daughter.

    “You didn’t answer my question,” Hope stubbornly persisted.

    “A divorce is when two people that are married decide they don’t want to be married anymore,” Grace finally found her voice again.

    Eyebrows shooting upward in alarm, Hope looked at Sam with hurt in her blue eyes, her next question high-pitched with panic. “You don’t want to be married to mommy anymore? Why?”

    Smiling inwardly, Sam marveled at the fact that, when push come to shove, his daddy’s girls were all equally on the side of their mother and protective to a fault. “I never said I didn’t want to be married to mommy anymore.”

    Hope frowned. “But…but she thought…”

    Sliding an arm around Hope’s waist and pulling her close, Sam soothed the worry lines between her brows with the pad of his thumb. He felt some of his tension melt away when a skinny arm draped itself over his shoulder. “She was wrong.”

    “You’re not going to leave?” Hope still looked doubtful.

    Grace, Sam knew without looking, looked even more so; that made the shock of her words have an even greater impact, leaving Sam with the hope that saving his marriage wasn’t impossible after all.

    “Daddy’s not going anywhere. He promised.”

    “And Daddy always keeps his promises,” Hope pressed her cheek to Sam’s cheek, linking her mother’s and father’s hands. “Like my ice cream,” she singsonged, an infectious grin stretching across her cheeks.

    Tightening his fingers around the hand in his own, Sam stood, fitting his free arm under Hope’s legs and tucking her giggling, wiggling self close to his heart. “I don’t know about that,” he hedged, his manner teasing and his wink not quite secretive. “You’ll ruin your appetite for dinner.”

    “Aww, Mom,” Hope whined, arms woven tightly around Sam’s neck. “Please.”

    “Just this once,” Grace relented, earning herself a happy cheer. “But you can’t tell Kay.”

    “It’ll be our secret. Right, Daddy?”

    “All ours, Ladybug,” Sam returned her exuberant smile with a more understated smile of his own, his eyes drifting toward the hand still encased in his own. “Lead the way.” He felt his heart swell when he felt the light pressure of Grace’s hand gently squeezing in response. “I’ve got a promise to keep.”


    ~*~




    ”I’ve been thinking…” Pausing to take a bite of the egg roll Reese offered her, Kay slapped his arm away when he raised a disbelieving brow. “Hey! I know it hasn’t always seemed like it, but I do have a brain in here,” she pointed a finger at herself.

    Reese just grinned and looked down at the small cardboard carton in his hand, attacking his lo mein noodles awkwardly with his chopsticks.

    “As I was saying,” Kay huffed, snatching a noodle for herself and quickly chewing it before continuing, “I’ve been thinking. About maybe taking some time off from school.”

    “How much time?” Reese reached for the sweet and sour chicken on the next step, his arm brushing lightly against Kay’s arm in the process. His blue eyes, behind the lenses of his glasses, regarded her intently.

    “I don’t know,” Kay lifted her shoulders in a shrug, rubbing her hands up and down both arms briskly. She wasn’t cold, the slight chill of the fast approaching evening notwithstanding. Still, goosebumps pebbled her pale skin, and she was grateful for the welcome warmth of Sadie pressed against her side, tail wagging lazily. “A year maybe?”

    “If it’s what you want,” came Reese’s answer.

    Sighing, Kay muttered, “I don’t know. It’s not like I have a plan or even a major. My advisor keeps saying I’ll figure it out, but I’m not so sure.”

    “He’s right,” Reese replied supportively.

    “She,” Kay corrected, plucking a piece of chicken from the box Reese held and holding it between her fingers. She took a small bite and chewed thoughtfully, carefully avoiding meeting Reese’s inquisitive eyes as she made her next admission. “Other people have all these dreams for their future. Like the time Theresa wanted to be a fashion designer. Or Whitney wanted to be a famous tennis player. Well, maybe that was Coach Russell’s dream more than hers, but that’s not my point. My point is, I never had any of those kind of dreams. All I ever wanted was to marry my best friend.” She swallowed and glanced at Reese out of the corner of her eye, noticed that his gaze was unwavering. In a low whisper, she voiced a painful truth. “Only he didn’t want to marry me.” Clearing her throat of the knot of emotion she felt threatening, she offered the half-eaten piece of chicken to Sadie, combing her fingers through the golden fur when the dog had carefully taken the meat from her grasp. “He never did.” Kay turned back to Reese to find his eyes had never left her face. Finally, his unflinching stare became too unnerving, and she dropped her eyes to her own feet, watching her toes flex and relax at the end of her sneakers. “Then everything started falling apart,” she sighed, hooking one arm over Sadie’s neck and resting the other against her upraised knees, “and I didn’t know where to go from there. I still don’t.” The conversation ebbed, and Kay reached up to scratch Sadie between the ears when she sniffed at her palm, looking for another treat such as the last. Silence lapsed between them, one Kay was loathe to break.

    It was Reese that finally spoke, reaching into the tall paper bag to his left and digging around. “Maybe I can help.” Behind his glasses, his blue eyes twinkled just slightly, and his closed fist hovered over Kay’s hand.

    Kay rolled her eyes, unable to help her smile when he dropped a plastic wrapped fortune cookie into her waiting hand. “This is supposed to help me make plans for my future? What’s next? A magic eight-ball?”

    “There’s nothing magic about probabilities,” Reese pushed his glasses further up on his nose before holding up his own fortune cookie. “I’ll go first,” he volunteered, carefully pulling the plastic apart and breaking the cookie open. The expression on his face was quite comical as he read, “A truly wise man never plays leapfrog with a unicorn.”

    Kay suppressed a giggle, tearing the wrapper off of her own fortune cookie while Reese continued to mumble beside her. “A closed mouth gathers no feet.” Shrugging, she conceded that the sentiment certainly made sense, but wasn’t half as amusing as the one Reese had received. Snatching up another fortune cookie from the pile resting between them (and silently wondering why there were so many), she opened it, quickly pulling out the tiny paper within. She snorted when she read the message, holding it up for Reese to see. “Those of you who think you know everything are annoying those of us who do.”

    Reese frowned at her raised brow and read his own fortune. “The light at the end of the tunnel is probably an oncoming train.”

    “That’s good to know,” Kay quipped, zipping off another zany quote and finally pulling a laugh from Reese’s lips. She joined him in laughter, and the two of them worked on the remaining cookies, until the pile diminished and their smiles ran rampant. The sun was a huge orange ball flaring and burning out in the distant horizon, and a cool breeze whispered along, gently lifting Kay’s hair from her shoulders and tickling across each of their cheeks. By Kay’s side, Sadie snuffled stray wrappers with her wet nose, her occasional whine the only sound that disturbed the peace that had settled upon them, besides the resumed creaking of the swing and the occasional noise of a passing car. Letting her eyes drift closed, Kay knew if she concentrated hard enough, she could smell the sea salt in the air.

    “Penny for your thoughts?”

    When she opened her eyes, the dying sun burned golden against Reese’s hair and glinted off the lenses of his glasses. Kay smiled, gently teasing, “Is that all they’re worth?” Sobering at the look that flickered briefly across his face, she placed her palms against her jeans legs and glanced away, announcing, “Closing time. I hadn’t realized it was so late.”

    “Think your parents are back yet?” Reese questioned as he helped her gather up the spoils from their meal. Sadie slowly stood up, stretching on all fours before loping toward him and waiting patiently at his side, the pair of them following Kay with their eyes as she disappeared then reappeared from the Bed and Breakfast, a ring of keys in her palm.

    Locking up before turning back to face them, Kay descended the steps behind them with sure feet, wrapping her arms around herself for warmth. “I don’t know. Maybe,” she shrugged. “I hope…” she wouldn’t let herself finish the thought aloud, too afraid it might make the disappointment that much more. When Reese echoed the unspoken declaration, Kay felt the overwhelming urge to hug him but settled for giving him a beaming smile. “Thanks.” For the food, for the talk, for being the friend I don’t deserve.

    “You’re welcome,” came the simple reply, wrapped up in a smile. Holding out his hand, Reese nodded at the sidewalk that stretched before them, and Sadie barked in eager anticipation. “Walk you home?”

    Kay hesitated for only a fraction of a second before answering and falling into step beside him, Sadie taking up the lead. “This time,” she acquiesced. “But I’m still not a helpless maiden.”


    ~*~


    Sunglasses perched atop her blond head, brown eyes squinting against the setting sun’s last gasp, Gwen stalked past the doorman into her apartment complex, casting a suspicious glance over her shoulder once she’d reached the interior lobby, wondering if it were just her imagination or if the man was smirking at her. Deciding it was the former, as she was still fighting the after-effects of the morning’s lingering hangover from Hell, she turned back around, straightened her back proudly, and entered the newly arrived, open elevator.

    The ride up to her floor was non-eventful, a welcome relief from the rest of a day that had seemed endlessly long and littered with disaster, small and large.

    First of all, she’d been late. Firing the cleaning lady, Gwen was quickly coming to realize, hadn’t been her best idea. This morning, hunting through the mismatched pieces of her remaining clean business attire, she’d made the deduction that her dry-cleaning was even farther behind than she’d dared imagine. Hiding the coffee stain on her blouse had meant wearing her jacket all day, the jacket in question being one of her least favorites, an itchy, ill-fitting material that had made her skin damp with unbecoming perspiration.

    As a direct consequence of being late, she missed a morning meeting with an important client, which, she had to admit, hadn’t been as much of a disappointment to her as it had been to her father. Disappointed was really an understatement. In all of her adult life, she’d never seen her father lose his composure like he had that morning, his tight control slipping and leading to yelling she was sure could be heard across the equator. Needless to say, that hadn’t helped her skull-battering headache.

    Attempting to dwindle the mountainous pile of paperwork on her father’s desk as penance further proved to be an ill-advised decision, as did lunch (thanks to her still rolling stomach) with another, no-less important client (later to become another former client) who had tried to get a little too familiar for her liking.

    Add all that to the fact that traffic had been as bad as she had ever seen it in Harmony, and, Gwen thought, sighing as she fit the key to her apartment in her door, she still had next to nothing in her refrigerator resembling human sustenance. Her day, she decided as the door slowly swung open and light from the switch infused the room, couldn’t possibly get worse.

    Sadly, she was mistaken.

    Cutting off her own scream with her hands, Gwen needed a moment to recover from a most unwelcome shock.

    Bare feet propped on her coffee table, arms crossed behind his head, Hank Bennett grinned at her from his lounging spot on her sofa. “Long day at work, Babe?”

    Blinking rapidly, Gwen moved unthinkingly forward, shoving his feet from her coffee table roughly and glaring at him. “Why.are.you.still.here?!” Each word was clipped, dripping with disdain, and all she could see was red, and his brown eyes twinkling infuriatingly at her.

    Slouching forward, Hank fingered the lapels of her gaping jacket. “Not quite the welcome I was expecting.” Winking at her, he let her go, but not before commenting on her attire. “Nice jacket.”

    Shrugging the jacket off and slinging it into his smirking face, Gwen stomped in the direction of her bedroom, her voice muffled but her fury easily recognized. “That’s it! I’m calling security.”

    Hank chuckled to himself when she whipped back into the living room seconds later, brown eyes flashing angrily at him as she tore the cushions from the couch and the armchair looking for her cordless telephone. “Don’t you have a cell phone?” he goaded.

    “My damn battery’s…wait a minute,” she growled, realizing her mistake. “I’m not talking to you.” A beat later, she hissed, “Where did you put it?”

    Arm raised, Hank pointed across the room, tilting his head. “It’s on the charger.” Watching her snatch the phone up, he smiled as she started punching numbers. “That Charlie’s a pretty nice guy. Used to work on the force with Sam years and years ago. He and Old Jim are friends from way back.”

    Disconnecting the phone when she realized she’d dialed the wrong number, Gwen tried again, her frustration leading her to make the same mistake. “Charlie? Who the hell is Old Jim?”

    “Charlie works dayshift for security,” Hank’s reply was matter of fact as he stood up, creeping closer. “Old Jim is your doorman, has been for almost five years.” Gently, he took the phone from her hands and replaced it on the charger. “And the cleaning lady does have a name. Maria says she trained under Pilar at the Crane Mansion ages ago. Small world, isn’t it?” he remarked, pulling her along by the hand she reluctantly let him take. Peering curiously at her tired, bloodshot eyes, Hank decided to go easy on her and not tease as much. “Really has been a long day, hasn’t it?”

    “Why are you still here?” Gwen repeated her earlier question, though with much less venom.

    Shrugging, Hank watched suspicion light her eyes as he delivered his answer. “Thought you might like to come home to a smiling face for a change, not to mention a clean apartment.”

    Gwen noticed, for the first time, the near miraculous changes in her abode. Neat, gleaming, and even smelling fresh, it looked so different than she’d left it this morning that she had a hard time believing she’d opened the door to the right apartment. Swallowing, she fixed her eyes on Hank’s watchful face again, wandering what his motives were. Crossing her arms across her chest, she regarded him dubiously, her brown eyes narrowing to near slits as realization started to dawn on her. “Your smiling face, perhaps? That’s it. You don’t have a place to stay and you want to…” she trailed off, slightly horrified and incapable of completing the thought.

    Grinning winningly, Hank rocked back on his heels and offered her his hand.

    Ignoring him, Gwen covered her eyes in with a disbelieving groan as he spoke, completely unfazed by her reaction.

    “I heard you’ve been looking for a new cleaning lady.”












    Verdict?

    I hope it's good, lol.

    What about the little dance Sher/Luis have going on? One step forward, two steps back, huh?

    And Grace and Sam? I'm getting strangely attached to their part of this story; I hope you guys are enjoying it.

    I actually found Kay and Reese's fortune cookie sayings on a website (boredom is my only explanation), so none of them belong to me. Not sure who they belong to exactly, since it wasn't listed, but know the sayings aren't mine, and I'm not trying to pretend otherwise. I'm enjoying writing these two as well. Not sure I'm doing a good job of it, but their growing friendship (?) is a lot of fun for me to explore.

    Lastly, Hank and Gwen...I can't help but love Hank and Gwen. Whaddya think? Is Hank a shoe-in as the new cleaning lady?

    LOL!

    Thanks for reading!!!

    Any (all) typos/mistakes are mine.
    Last edited by UAgirl; 3.3.08 at 1:40 AM.

  3. #19
    Join Date
    Oct 2000
    Posts
    489

    Post Re: Anna Begins

    OMG!

    It's an update!

    No one's more surprised than me, lol. I've had such terrible writer's block with this story.

    Thanks to everyone that's still reading this story. I am so, so, so sorry it's taken so long to update it (it's actually fallen off the first page of the *old* boards...now *that* is BAD, hehe).
    This one's 3000+ words; hope you enjoy it.






    Chapter 15





    “Mom? Dad?” Kay called as she shut the door gently behind her. “Anybody home?”

    They’d seen the lights on as they’d traveled the sidewalk, she and Reese, and with a wave and flickering smile, Reese had said his goodbyes, long fingers wrapping around Sadie’s collar and pulling the reluctant canine along. Their figures, loping toward and rounding the street corner, had disappeared into the purple dusk mere moments ago.

    Now, Kay was standing in the middle of the empty living room, listening to the lonely echo of her own voice. “Hope-less! Anybody here?!” As before, no one answered, but this time Kay picked up on something she hadn’t registered before: the faint noise of running water. Crossing to the staircase, she curled her palm around the banister and made quick work of the steps, wincing reflexively when the top step creaked and groaned underneath her feet. “Mom?” she called out tentatively, ears listening for a response. She let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding when her mother’s voice finally answered her.

    “Kay?” Grace’s voice, though raised to be heard over the running water, was still slightly muffled. “In the bathroom.”

    With her first glimpse of Hope, a smile twisted Kay’s lips. “Been eating ice cream without me again?”

    Blue eyes large and guilty, Hope tried to deny the accusation, but with chocolate smeared across one cheek and a curling, winding line disappearing up her arm and beneath a sleeve, such an attempt was an exercise in futility. Her red brows knit together and her lips compressed before she blew out a frustrated breath. “How did you…it was supposed to be a secret!”

    Smirking, Kay edged into the small bathroom and captured the evidence of her kid sister’s indiscretions with her fingers as soon as her mother deftly swept the stained cotton up and over Hope’s head. “Oh, I have my ways.” Meeting Grace’s amused blue eyes over the top of Hope’s rumpled head, she joked as she placed the article of clothing into the dirty clothes hamper, “Another one bites the dust.”

    For once, Hope dutifully stood still as their mother unbuttoned then pulled her jeans down her short, skinny legs. Her sticky fingers grabbed and held on to the slim shoulders before her for balance, and she stepped out of the pool of denim to scowl at Kay with not a stitch on save for her purple princess panties and socks.

    There was, Kay was amazed to discover, another long smudge of chocolate traveling from her collarbone to her bully button. Catching her mother’s laughing eyes again, Kay settled herself onto the closed toilet seat, knees tucked together to keep from bumping into the much smaller redhead with fire in her eyes. “What’d she do? Paint herself with it?”

    “And your father,” Grace smiled, testing the bath temperature with her fingers. “Socks off,” she instructed after Hope had wiggled out of her underwear. “Hope,” she cringed when her daughter entered the tub with a splash, soaking the front of her own tee-shirt and a portion of the bathroom floor, making the shirt virtually transparent and the floor a sopping mess.

    “Manners, Flipper,” Kay reminded when Hope re-emerged, her chin length hair dark with water and plastered to her skull, her freckles standing out in her pale face. She watched Hope chase a slippery bar of soap around the tub’s edge with a slight smile on her face and asked a tentative question, conscious always of the woman standing just outside her periphery, placing the rest of Hope’s soiled clothing and her own shirt into the hamper. “Where is Dad? Did he…did you…have a good time?”

    Straightening self-consciously, Grace’s eyes hesitantly connected with Kay’s in the reflection of the bathroom mirror before she lifted a towel to hide her face from her daughters’ inquisitive eyes. “We had a nice time. Didn’t we, Hope?”

    Hope’s pale face flushed with excitement and the remembered pleasure of their excursion. Climbing onto her knees with a splash that sent yet more water sloshing over the sides of the tub, she gripped its edge with white-knuckled small fingers that were already starting to prune. “We went to Lighthouse Park, and I climbed all the way to the top of the lighthouse and waved at the sailors and they waved back!”

    “Sure about that, Ladybug? Because I seem to remember carrying you the last thirty steps.”

    Kay tried to pretend she wasn’t watching the two of them, but she couldn’t miss the way her mom tensed and covered herself up with the towel in her hands at the sound of her dad’s voice, and the she couldn’t miss the note of disappointment he couldn’t quite hide as he indulged Hope’s fancies and supported her claim that the sailors had waved back.

    “They waved back,” Sam insisted, his blue eyes twinkling to life again as he stepped into the small bathroom and stood just inches from his wife. “Guess I missed the memo that there was a family meeting in here tonight.”

    Kay rolled her eyes at her dad’s attempt at humor and stood up, grabbing the nearest towel and opening it up for Hope. “You better be clean because there’s barely any water left in that tub.”

    Hope’s answer: another splashing dive to escape.

    Chuckling, Sam snaked an arm around Grace, placing a steadying hand on her hip when the brief contact startled her and induced an involuntary shiver that she tried and failed to hide from him. “Just grabbing my toothbrush.” Staring into her eyes for a moment in the reflection of the mirror, he tossed a nod in their daughters’ direction and smiled as he took a careful step back over the threshold. “Good luck hooking that one.”

    Grace watched him leave, frozen in place until she remembered to breathe, Hope’s peals of laughter flooding the room, and she recovered the power of speech. “Hope Bennett!”




    ~*~



    “Drunken sex, now angry sex,” Hank mused, dropping back against the sofa with a sated, gloating grin dancing upon his lips. He winced when he felt the sharp sting of her slap across his shoulder and she roughly shoved away from him, standing up on shaky legs and readjusting her skirt with a pointed glare. “Correction,” he whistled under his breath as Gwen stalked across the pillow, clothes littered living room toward the general vicinity of the bathroom, one hand sliding her bra strap back onto her shoulder. “Not just angry sex. Hate sex.” She reappeared minutes later, after a last minute detour through the kitchen, amber-colored drink in hand and brown eyes glinting as they gave him the once over.

    “There’s medication for that, you know.”

    The dirty grin on Hank’s face slipped as he swelled with indignation at her below-the-belt remark, and he sputtered futilely for an equally cutting comeback before she cut him off with a clarifying comment.

    “Do you always talk to yourself or do you only do it around me?” She didn’t wait for him to answer her. “And for your information…I don’t hate you.” Before that self-satisfied, knowing grin of his could return, she stated, matter-of-factly, “I just don’t like you very much.”

    “That,” Hank indicated the drink in her hand, “isn’t going to help your headache.”

    “Neither are you,” Gwen scowled, bending down to snag his tee-shirt with her fingers and toss it at him. “But since I can’t seem to get rid of either one of you…” Folding herself into the armchair opposite him, she eyed him with disdain.

    Pulling his tee-shirt over his head, Hank decided to kill her with kindness—and a liberal dose of sarcasm, meeting her look with an affable grin. “Bet Maria wasn’t as fun or dedicated as me.”

    “Maria wasn’t…” Realizing she was only playing into his hands, Gwen muttered, “Oh, go to hell,” and tossed back the rest of her drink. “Zip your fly first,” she ordered when she had drained the last drop from the glass, glowering at him from a couple feet away.

    Caught you looking, Hank immaturely thought but did as requested. Putting on one of his most charming grins, he left the sofa and bent to start cleaning up the unholy mess they’d created. Straightening when he was done to find her brown eyes pretending not to be watching him, he retraced her earlier steps, making a quick pit stop by the bathroom first. When he reached the kitchen, he immediately set to making as much noise as he could—as he fixed her dinner, of course. Hiding his smirk when he sensed her presence by keeping his back to her, he puttered around her kitchen like he knew what he was doing. He didn’t, not really, but like a lot of things, he was good at faking it. “Hungry?” he asked.

    Gwen didn’t answer, just watched him work. Hopping onto the kitchen counter and crossing her legs, she studied him, wondering why in the world she hadn’t thrown him out on his ass yet.

    Hank Bennett wasn’t tall—she was, she’d previously discovered, taller than him with her heels on, and he wasn’t overly muscular, but he was fit and comfortably filled out the wrinkled gray tee-shirt he wore, and the way he looked in his jeans, she grudgingly admitted to herself, wasn’t half bad either. Most of the Harmony Police Department boasted better asses, but they were the Harmony Police Department. Besides, he had nice, soft hair and disturbingly appealing bare feet, and his eyes, brown (thank God they weren’t Ethan’s blue) and always lively, had not once regarded her with pity.

    Reluctantly, Gwen admitted to herself that her earlier words had been true; she couldn’t find it in herself to hate him. Neither, though, could she honestly say that she liked him. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, she decided, to not be alone. Clearing her throat, she uncrossed her legs and let them swing freely. “Just so you know,” she began, “you’re not sleeping in my room.”

    Turning around to face her, Hank kept his face carefully blank. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”

    “No more…whatever the hell that was in there,” she stretched an arm out to point to the living room.

    “Certainly not,” Hank agreed seriously.

    “I’ll expect you to actually clean.” A twinkle of mischief in his brown eyes made her frown, and she rolled her eyes at his answering comment.

    “Maybe Grace has an apron I can borrow.” Hank crossed his arms across his chest, and with considerable effort, tamped down the urge to play the funny guy. “What about cooking?”

    “I don’t eat breakfast,” Gwen answered, jumping down from the counter and walking to the other end of the kitchen to sort through the pile of mail lying on the table. “Maria usually cooked dinner.” Discarding most of the mail as junk, she turned back to face him, wishing, in that moment, she’d had the foresight to cover herself for this conversation. Then again, she should have had the foresight not to have sex with him a second time, especially when it had been a spectacularly bad idea the first time. At least she had the alcohol to blame that time. This time she had to be out of her mind. There was no other explanation. “I don’t even know if you can cook.”

    “I’m pretty good in the kitchen,” Hank couldn’t resist winking. He thought of the dessert he’d enticed Maria to fix for the both of them and grinned.

    “Sure you are,” Gwen groaned, covering her face with tired hands. Raking her hands through her disheveled blond hair, she muttered, “I don’t care. I don’t care. All I ask…” A beleaguered sigh escaped. “I’m not interested in meeting Harmony’s volunteer fire department.”

    “You sure?” Hank quipped. “I’ve heard they’re a pretty good bunch of guys.”

    Having had enough for one day, Gwen snapped, hand held to her aching head. “Bennett!”

    “Yes, Ma’am,” Hank mock-saluted, knowing that this was as close to official as she was going to make it. Opening the fridge, he offered her a bottle of cold water and placed a couple of small pills in her unwilling palm. “Drink up,” he ushered her out of the kitchen. “I’ve got work to do.”

    Slumping onto the sofa, Gwen winced as she took a gulp of the water, and thought, I have officially lost it.



    ~*~



    Dinner was simple, strained, and silent.

    Wrapped in her pink blanket, Anna slept fitfully between the soft barrier of two pillows on the bed while the pair who had come together in her name struggled to meet each other’s eyes.

    When Sheridan rewrapped her sandwich and set it aside after barely eating more than two bites, Luis discovered his own appetite had fled him as well. Wiping his hands on a napkin, he started to speak, but Sheridan beat him to the punch, her voice nothing more than a quiet murmur.

    “Does your mother know?”

    She didn’t have to elaborate; Luis understood her question perfectly well. Shaking his head, he posed a question of his own. “Does Ivy?”

    Gathering her legs close to her body and twining her arms around them, Sheridan answered with a softly uttered, “No.”

    Luis found himself (again) distracted by the expanse of bare, golden skin, just as he had when he’d emerged from the bathroom nearly an hour before to find her dressed in a pair of tiny navy shorts that made her already long legs appear to go on forever. The additional knowledge that there was nothing but soft, equally bare skin beneath the worn-out Harmony Hellcats tee-shirt she wore was even harder to ignore with the recollection of the mischief in the bathroom still fresh. Needless to say, guilt and the stifling tension she always seemed to effortlessly arouse within him had made it impossible to maintain eye contact with her for more than a few, fleeting seconds, and still, the night loomed long before them. His gaze strayed to the television, its muted images flickering across the screen. “Anything good on?”

    Resting her cheek against her folded arms, Sheridan shrugged. Then, softly, “I don’t want to wake her.”

    With the gentle glow of lamplight cast upon her, she appeared, to Luis, to be the sunlight in an otherwise dark room. Disgruntled by the direction his thoughts had taken, he cleared his throat, standing up abruptly.

    Sheridan tracked his progress across the small room, unfolding her limbs and taking the rolled up newspaper he held in his hand when he returned to stand before her. The paper rustled and its pages whispered against each other as she thumbed through it, quickly finding the classifieds. He had, she discovered, circled a small selection of properties under the housing column in red ink, and she sought out his eyes, one slender brow raised.

    Luis stated the obvious. “We can’t stay in the Bed and Breakfast forever.”

    Her pride still stinging from the memory of their first major argument as husband and wife, Sheridan passed the paper back to him. “Why are you showing me this? I thought you didn’t want my input.”

    Anger momentarily made Luis’s jaw tighten and his eyes darkened before he bit out, “Fair enough.” Glancing away, he forcibly calmed himself before continuing in a more reasonable tone. “Do I need to remind you that we are doing this for her?” As he spoke of Anna, he neared the bed, looking down on the sleeping child that had already turned his entire world as he knew it inside out. “You read those damn guidelines just like I did, and as much as I object to some of the crazy things my sister and Ethan come up with,” he failed to notice Sheridan flinch under the force of his heated words, “I’m going to do everything in my power to keep Anna where she belongs.” He turned back around to face Sheridan, but she had retreated to the shadows, and some unseen force kept his feet rooted to the floor. Her response was delivered in a voice suspiciously husky.

    “It has to look real.”

    Removing one of the pillows from the bed, Luis made sure Anna didn’t stir before tossing it to the floor to join the quilt Sheridan had already lain out for him. “It shouldn’t be that much of a stretch for you. I’m sure growing up in that house,” he spoke derisively of the Crane Mansion, “gave you plenty of practice in pretending to be a realfamily.”

    Lifting a hand to her face, Sheridan was thankful Luis kept his back to her and wasn’t witness to the tear that escaped with his unintentionally (God, she hoped so) cruel words. She mentally shook herself when she realized he was still talking.

    “You’re a pretty good actress. That whole business with Hank and the Drug Cartel. I actually thought…”

    Thought what, Luis, she wanted to say but didn’t dare. Instead, she watched, without a word, the flex and strength of him as he tugged his shirt up and over his head, the action temporarily muffling his words. The muscles of his back rippled as he draped it across the foot of the bed.

    “Anyway, I was wrong.”

    Only the pale yellow slice of light the lamp emitted remained when Sheridan cut the television off with one touch of a button. The side of the bed opposite Luis, thankfully, fell just beyond its reach. Crossing the distance without a sound, Sheridan gently removed the other pillow from Anna’s side and pulled the covers back, throwing shadows in Luis’s wake.

    As if waking up from a fog, Luis seemed to freeze, his eyes drawn magnetically to the outline of her slender figure in the darkness, and the bitter bite of his tone mellowed. “You didn’t have to turn it off. Leave it on if you want.”

    With considerable effort, Sheridan kept her voice even as she replied, “I’m tired, Luis. I just want to lie down and close my eyes.” Breathing a sigh of relief when the lamp light died at Luis’s own hand a minute later, she murmured her thanks and crawled beneath the cool sheets, pressing her nose to Anna’s fragrant curls as she gathered the tiny girl close to her aching heart. In the darkness, she could hear Luis shifting around to find a comfortable position to sleep in. It wasn’t too hard to imagine him pounding his pillow into submission.

    “A couple of those places are in the same neighborhood as Sam and Grace.”

    “Hmm,” was the only indication she gave that she heard him.

    “We’ll check them out,” Luis promised. “But tomorrow we call them and Mama.”

    “And Ivy,” Sheridan breathed.

    “And Ivy,” Luis relented.

    “Sleep, Luis.”

    “Sleep.”












    So...verdict?

    Worth the wait?

    Favorite parts?

    Can you tell I like writing kids? LOL! Hope just seems to write herself these days, even when the rest of the characters refuse to say a word. Sam and Grace sure are tiptoeing around each other, huh?

    Not so with Gwen and Hank. Gwen just kind of jumped him, didn't she?

    And ouch! Who thinks Luis is being an ass? *raises hand* Poor Sher. But (don't tell anyone) I'm a sucker for angst. Anyone else?

    Thanks as always for reading!!!

    Feedback is love.
    P.S. I just managed a glimpse-over of this since I have a very early morning ahead of me, and I didn't want to wait 'til the weekend to post this. Forgive me if any atrocious typos/grammar errors managed to slip through. I try to clean things up, but I'm not always successful.

  4. #20
    Join Date
    Oct 2000
    Posts
    489

    Post Re: Anna Begins

    Wow!

    The last chapter of this was in July?

    OMG, I am so sorry.

    I've had such bad writer's block, but it seems to have gotten better (with this fic at least) because I managed to write 5,000+ words for this chapter--and I could have gone on longer, but I thought this ending/moment was the most fitting.

    I hope you'll agree with me.

    In this chapter, we have a little something for everyone, I hope: Kay/Grace, Gwen/Hank, Sheridan/Luis/Anna, Kay/Reese/Hope, Sam/Hank, and Pilar.

    Enjoy!





    Chapter 16





    For the second morning in a row, Grace had woken to her husband sharing her bed, their young daughter curled up between them. This time, though, she’d slipped from the covers before either of them could wake and quietly dressed in the low light of morning. Short minutes later, creeping into the kitchen on near-silent feet, she startled at the sight that greeted her, unconsciously bringing a hand up to cover her racing heart.

    “Getting an early start?” Kay’s smile was wry over the top of the cup of coffee she nursed, but her eyes were soft with apology for the fright she’d surely given her mother.

    Willing her runaway heart to calm, Grace covered the frown caused by the disappointment of her thwarted escape by coaxing the cup of coffee from Kay’s indignant hands and scolding, “No wonder you’re not sleeping.” She busied herself with replacing the caffeinated beverage with a tall, cold glass of orange juice, placing it in Kay’s reluctant hands before pouring one for herself. “And all this time,” she mused, “you’ve been blaming your sister.”

    “You and Dad have been her personal teddy bears for the past two nights,” Kay lifted a thin, dark brow in accusation as she sipped from her glass. Tucking a rumpled lock behind her ear, she took one look at the bruised skin beneath her mother’s eyes and surmised the situation with a slightly mocking, “You know.” Still, while Hope and Insomnia were on familiar terms with each other, Kay doubted they alone were disturbing her mother’s sleep. Choosing to play nice, she said nothing further. Her parents’ problems were their own, and much as she’d like to have a say in how they resolved them, she’d learned the hard way it wasn’t her place.

    “I think it’s sweet that you miss her.” A small smile twitched on Grace’s lips as she raised her own glass to her mouth, taking a half-hearted drink. Gathering her keys up in her free hand, she emptied the glass in the sink and rinsed it before placing it in the dishwasher beside a lonely bowl.

    Kay rolled her eyes, picking at and studying the blue satin cuff of her pajama sleeve, her reply sarcastic but lacking in bite. “How can you miss your shadow?”

    “She worships the ground you walk on.”

    “Don’t you mean the quicksand?” Kay scoffed, shrugging her shoulders and stretching her neck in an attempt to work out some of the stiffness in her protesting muscles. It was strange, considering she’d had the entire bed to herself, but she’d basically hugged the edge the whole night, quick to wake at each and every barely perceptible noise, so sure was she that the little pest would make an unannounced visit. It spoke to the depth of Hope’s insecurities that she hadn’t abandoned her watchful post, and Kay felt a tug at her heartstrings as she recalled the tearful blue eyes and stricken expression the moment that dreadful word divorce had finally been spoken aloud. Momentarily forgetting her earlier good intentions, she stood up, copying her mother’s previous actions, and pondered the wary set of her shoulders, her guarded expression. “Guess family bonding is over then,” she murmured, watching, out of the corner of her eyes, her mother bend her head and finger the keys in her hands.

    “Kay,” Grace protested tiredly.

    “Forget it,” Kay answered hastily, remorsefully. “So,” she exhaled an exaggerated breath as she took a step back, raking her fingers through her messy dark hair. “Say hi to the newlyweds for me.”

    "You can say hi yourself,” Grace replied, “when you bring Hope over later. Let her sleep for a little while longer first, okay? And don’t bother your father. You and I both know he didn’t get much rest last night.”

    "Sure,” Kay responded, sharing a knowing if subdued smile with her mother.

    “Kay?” Grace lingered in the doorway, her voice soft.

    “Yeah?”

    “It’s…it’s just going to take some time. You know that, right?”

    “I know,” Kay whispered, wanting to hug her mother but settling for hugging her arms around herself instead.

    “He promised,” Grace told her. “He doesn’t break his promises if he can help it.”

    “No, Mom,” Kay answered, throat thick with emotion as she moved closer to her mother, laying a trembling hand on her arm, “he doesn’t.”

    Turning around and cupping a hand around Kay’s jaw, Grace pressed her lips to her eldest daughter’s forehead, smiling at Kay’s uncharacteristic acquiescence of the gesture. Smoothing her hair down as she had so long ago when she was just a little girl, she took her trembling hand in her own and squeezed it reassuringly. “I’ll see you later. Maybe for a late breakfast?"

    “Maybe,” Kay shrugged noncommittally.

    “There might be a blueberry muffin in it for you,” Grace bargained and turned to go.

    “Oh goodie,” Kay muttered, shadowing her mother to the front door. “I’ll be there; with bells and whistles on.”

    “While I appreciate your enthusiasm,” Grace said with a gentle smile, “I’ve never really understood that expression.”

    Kay frowned. “Come to think of it…”

    Grace interrupted her daughter’s contemplation with a reminder. “It’s okay if you let your sister pick out her own clothes. Just make sure they’re clean.”

    “Got it,” Kay answered with a smirk. “Free expression, as long as it’s not dirty free expression.” Sobering, she called after her mother as she started down the sidewalk to make the short trek to the Bed and Breakfast. “Do you think we could talk? After breakfast?”

    Faltering briefly in the face of Kay’s serious expression, Grace regained her focus and her composure with the return of Kay’s smile, one that both reassured her and further piqued her curiosity. “After breakfast,” came the promise. “Kay?” she called when, slowly, Kay started to close the door.

    “Mom?” Kay answered, hanging on the door for support and shifting on her bare feet.

    Grace issued the warning she knew her eldest daughter would surely ignore as soon as she faded from sight. “No more coffee.” A small laugh escaped her lips when the door closed on Kay’s exaggerated groan.



    ~*~


    "Oh, I wanna dance with somebody.”

    Flopping gracelessly onto her back, Gwen grabbed her pillow, covered her face with it, and barely resisted the urge to scream before tossing the pillow aside and sitting up amid the covers tangled around her lower body. Kicking the covers off, she stumbled out of the bed, scowling at the trail of clothes leading to her bathroom and the unwelcome squatter she discovered shaking his ass in her shower. “For God’s sake, Bennett,” her voice escaped as a snappish growl. “Whitney Houston?” Even with the distortion of the frosted glass, she could make out his infuriating grin as he paused only briefly before continuing to belt out the insufferable song. “You have your own shower,” she reminded him, loudly. “There’s no reason you should be using up all of my hot water.”

    “That phone booth?” Hank stopped singing long enough to scoff at her suggestion. “Come on, Babe. The only thing that compares to it in this apartment is the coat closet you call my bedroom.”

    “Oh really,” Gwen grumbled around her toothbrush. “I do have a name, you know, and it is most certainly not Babe.” She supposed it was only logical that he hadn’t used his own shower, considering he’d quickly broken the first rule she’d made for him, the bed she’d supplied him with staying cold and empty the night before. She watched her nose wrinkle with disgust in the reflection of the bathroom mirror at the realization that she was, again, wearing one of his tee-shirts. Spitting out toothpaste and watching it circle the drain, she found herself momentarily horrified with the idea that he might have used more than just her shower and quickly grabbed the bottle of mouthwash from the counter, tossing her toothbrush unceremoniously into the small wastebasket that resided beside the toilet. “Tell me you’re not using my loofah.”

    “You mean that fluffy pink thing that smells like a garden?” Hank goaded. “Do you think they sell those things in a more manly blue? It was much less abrasive on my sensitive skin than…” he could only grin and shield his most sensitive parts with said loofah when the door to the shower was yanked open, and he encountered a blond that was arguably more steaming hot than the water that rained down across his shoulders and back. “Good morning, Sunshine,” he greeted cheerfully.

    Gwen merely glowered at him, arms crossed protectively across her chest and foot tapping impatiently. Her eyes flickered, of their own accord, below his waist and back when he held the loofah and his hand out to her in invitation.

    “Do you think you could wash my back?” Hank bit back a smirk, feigning innocence as he turned to present his back to her. “I can’t really reach it,” he explained, “and some of those scratches hurt like hell.” He winced as the hot water pelted against his skin;at least that part was the truth.

    Biting her lip, Gwen couldn’t help but feel somewhat guilty as she regarded the telling marks. Without realizing she was doing it, she reached out, gently tracing her fingertips across the abused skin and sucking in a deep breath at the gooseflesh that pebbled in the wake of her touch. She pulled her hand away, though, when she felt the weight of his brown eyes on her, only to have it captured between both of Hank’s when he turned fully around, giving her a slight tug forward into his personal space. “You’re getting me all wet,” she complained, resisting meeting his eyes until his hand settled low on her ass.

    “Is that right?” Hank’s brown eyes twinkled at her, and his fingers started tracing the edges of her lacy underwear, teasing.

    “Everything is an innuendo with you, isn’t it?” Gwen muttered, blinking as he pulled her deeper into the shower, more directly under its spray. The water was rapidly soaking her hair, flattening it to her skull, and she imagined she must look really attractive in that moment, but surprisingly, she didn’t much care, because Hank’s roaming hands were inching her shirt up her ribs and without her volition, her arms were raising to aid him in tugging it off. “If you make me late for work, you’re a dead man,” she vowed, shivering as his hands returned to her waist once the shirt was gone, fingers hooking into her underwear and slinking them down her legs.

    “There are worse ways to die,” Hank told her with a shrug of his shoulders, kissing the corner of her scowling mouth. “Does this count as against the wall and shower sex?” he mused, backing her into the shower wall and lifting one of her long legs over his hip.

    Gwen’s brown eyes glittered at him, and she dug her nails into the skin of his lower back in warning. “Bennett?” she growled, evading his attempts to fuse his mouth to hers.

    “What, Babe?” Hank settled for capturing her sensitive earlobe between his teeth instead, grinning against her neck when the action caused her to hiss in pleasure.

    "Shut up.”



    ~*~



    “You still have nightmares.”

    It wasn’t a question; it was more of a revelation, and Sheridan found herself unable to meet Luis’s searching brown eyes, so she shrugged his discovery off as something inconsequential. There was simply no reason for him to know because he didn’t truly care. He didn’t care for her beyond the care that a person naturally cares for another human being, and she didn’t want to burden him with the events that haunted her dreams. The bloody hands had long been replaced with suffocating darkness, reality altered into horrible what-ifs. What if something had happened to Hank? What if Luis never found out the truth about the scheme to catch the drug cartel? What if Eve had made one tiny miscalculation? What if… Shaking her head to clear it of such morbid thoughts, she murmured, “It’s nothing.”

    “Didn’t seem like nothing to me,” Luis muttered, frowning as he remembered her restlessness during the night, the heartbroken tears seeping beneath the fringe of her lashes. “You kept me and Anna up half the night. Why do you think she’s still asleep?” Luis cringed inwardly at his own insensitivity when she looked at him with guilt-ridden blue eyes, the emotion seeming to accentuate the darkness of the circles ringing her fragile skin.

    “I’m sorry,” Sheridan apologized softly, gazing outside the window at the early morning shining golden and sparkling with dew. She knew, had there not been Anna, she would have already renewed the prescription for sleeping pills Eve had insisted would help. “When did you say Pilar was coming?” she asked, standing and making her way to the window to touch her palm to its cool glass.

    “I didn’t call her,” Luis answered, then elaborated when Sheridan looked to him in confusion. “She’ll be here soon, anyway, to help Grace with breakfast and the rooms. It’s not something I wanted to tell her over the telephone. Besides, I thought it’d be a nice surprise for her.”

    “Theresa would have wanted her to meet Anna first, I think. Ethan, too,” Sheridan replied, moving away from the window and easing herself onto the bed where Anna dozed. Combing her fingers though the silky dark curls, she gazed down at the tiny girl and felt her heart swell with an impossible love. “We shouldn’t overwhelm her with everybody at once.”

    “I’m surprised Julian hasn’t already told Ivy,” Luis remarked, pacing restlessly across the room to avoid looking at Sheridan watching Anna with that look on her face.

    “Why?” Sheridan wondered. “When he’s so good at keeping other secrets? Julian and Ivy don’t have that kind of marriage, Luis. I believe, deep down, my brother cares for Ivy, but the years living with Father have conditioned him to care for himself more. He won’t tell her, Luis. He might want to, but he won’t do it.”

    Luis nodded in reluctant understanding. Despite his best intentions, he found his gaze again irresistibly drawn across the room, to her, tucking the fuzzy pink blanket around a back so small, his large hand practically dwarfed it. Lost in studying her and Anna together, his pretend family, he almost didn’t realize that Sheridan had begun to speak, again.

    “When do you go back to the police station?” Sheridan asked, so softly the question was almost a whisper. Turning her head to consider him, his dark eyes unreadable to her, she reassured him, “This won’t look any less real if you have to cut our honeymoon short. Times are tough, and you gained two extra mouths to feed virtually overnight. Even the lawyer can’t argue that.” Taking his silence as a sign that she’d said something wrong, Sheridan backpedaled a little bit. “Not that you actually have to provide for me. I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself and helping with Anna. I can even get a job. Of course, you might have to find someone else to volunteer at the Youth Center, but…”

    “No,” Luis cut her off. “No one is going to believe this is real if you do that. The only job you need is taking care of Anna.”

    Sheridan bristled at his act of chauvinism, well-intentioned as it was. “Isn’t that a little sexist?”

    “Maybe,” Luis made no apologies, “but to have this look real, we’re going to have to do things my way, and that means your place is with Anna.”

    “Then there’s no chance in hell this is going to look real, Luis,” Sheridan argued, though her building fury was quietly controlled for Anna’s sake. “No one, no one that really knows me, is going to buy that this marriage is legitimate if I’m relegated to the part of happy homemaker. That’s not me, and it never will be.” Her eyes flashed angrily at him, and his jaw hardened in response. They were at a stalemate, and both of them knew it, each of them too stubborn to offer a compromise, at least yet. In this case, however, Sheridan was the first to back down for the moment, if not capitulate completely. “We promised not in front of Anna,” she sighed. “I need to change before Pilar gets here anyway.” In the course of their disagreement, she’d managed to stand and close the distance between her and Luis, and now she found herself standing practically toe to toe with him. She closed her eyes, willing the magnetic pull she felt towards him despite her anger to lessen, and when she opened them, he had gone, and her eyes met only the bright sun. She found him, crouched over Anna’s still sleeping form. She swallowed hard at the sense of longing that swept through her, watching him gaze lovingly at the tiny being, the only thing worth the struggle they currently found themselves in.

    “I’ll watch her,” Luis volunteered.

    “I won’t be long,” she promised, over the knot of tears clutching desperately at her throat.


    ~*~



    “Kay,” Hope frowned down at her sister, currently tying the laces of her shoes into double knots to save them both the frustration of tying them again and again later. “Do you think Sadie will be upset that I got my Hello Kitty shirt on?” Without waiting for Kay to answer her, Hope propped her hands on her hips and huffed, “Maybe I should change.”

    “Oh no you don’t,” Kay reeled her back in by the belt loops of her shorts before she could slip out of her grasp a third time. “For the last time, Sadie won’t care who’s on your shirt. She’ll just be glad to see you.” Considering the purple plaid shorts that clashed unfortunately with her kid sister’s red hair, though, Kay had to wonder if maybe she hadn’t allowed the pest a little too much free expression. Deciding Hope was tough enough to handle the teasing, and knowing she wouldn’t let it go too far herself, Kay just had to ask, “Who says we’re going to see Sadie today anyway?”

    “Nobody,” Hope shrugged. “I just know.”

    “You just know, huh?” Kay smirked. “How’s that?”

    “Mister Reese and Sadie like us, that’s how,” Hope declared, wiggling free from her sister’s clutches.

    “They like you,” Kay corrected her, following close behind her as she scampered outside the front door, all knobby knees and wide smiles. “Wait a minute,” she called. “Aren’t you forgetting something? Did you tell Dad bye?”

    “Didn’t have to,” Hope singsonged in answer. “Daddy said he’d see us later.”

    Kay’s eyes widened at the revelation. “He’s not going to work?”

    “Nope,” Hope grinned at her, blue eyes happily alight. “He said he wants to spend the whole day with us. Isn’t that great?”

    Unable to resist the kid’s beaming smile, Kay found herself responding in kind, despite her more cynical nature. “Yeah,” she agreed, ruffling her soft red hair affectionately. “Hope,” she warned when the child skipped along ahead of her. “Don’t go far.”

    “I won’t,” Hope promised, even though she broke the promise seconds later, a familiar golden retriever and master appearing in the distance. “Mister Reese!” she exclaimed excitedly, racing headlong to meet her friends. “Sadie!” she cried, dropping to her knees and flinging her arms around the dog’s neck and accepting its exuberant kisses to her freckled face. “I missed you!”

    “Hope-less,” Kay panted out, having jogged the remaining the distance to them, “It’s only been a day.”

    “A really long day,” Hope answered back.

    “A really, really long day,” Reese agreed with her, blue eyes twinkling at Kay behind his glasses. “Sadie’s missed you, too,” he told Hope, making the little girl flush with pleasure. “She came to see you yesterday, but you were out having fun with Mrs. B. and Chief Bennett.”

    “Mom and Dad,” Kay clarified with a laugh when Hope looked puzzled.

    "She came to see me?” Hope asked with wide eyes. “Kay,” she accused when Reese nodded. “You didn’t tell me.”

    “That’s my fault,” Reese came to the rescue. “You see, it was supposed to be a surprise, but you weren’t there. So Kay and I decided we’d surprise you today. Surprise.”

    Kay bit her lip, helpless to do anything but smile in the face of Reese’s geeky grin when Hope relinquished Sadie, only to throw her arms around his waist.

    “Good surprise?” Reese questioned.

    “Best surprise ever,” Hope affirmed. “Thank you, Mister Reese.”

    “Yeah, thanks, Mister Reese,” Kay teased, secretly delighting in the blush that crept across Reese’s neck, all the way up to his ears. “We’re headed to the Bed and Breakfast. Wanna come or are you sick of the place? I was told there would be blueberry muffins,” she cajoled.

    “Please come, please,” Hope pleaded, fingers curled around Sadie’s collar. She giggled when Sadie barked her own appeal.

    “Blueberry muffins happen to be a favorite of mine,” Reese announced, eyes dancing with amusement when Hope did a little celebratory dance of her own, causing Kay to roll her eyes.

    “Blueberry muffins? Really?” Kay asked later, when the Bed and Breakfast was in sight, and Hope and Sadie were a blur of movement as they raced each other to the gate.

    “Not really,” Reese admitted, hands in his pockets and smile curling his lips.

    “Reese Durkee, you faker,” Kay decried half-heartedly. “You give in to her way too easily.”

    “Not just her,” Reese murmured, waving back at Grace and obeying her beckoning hand.

    Kay simply watched him go, mouth agape.



    ~*~



    “Thanks, Maria. You really are a lifesaver. Ms. Hotchkiss loved it. Yeah, well, she’s not really good at expressing her feelings…her happy feelings,” Hank quickly amended with a smirk, remembering the message she’d practically hissed onto the answering machine when she had, in fact, been late to another board meeting after their extra-curricular morning activities. Listening to his unwitting cohort in crime continue to chatter, Hank held up a hand to silence Sam when the front door swung open before he could knock, and it wasn’t until he disconnected the call and slid the phone into his jeans pocket that he spoke, “What is this? Casual Friday at the Harmony PD?”

    Glancing down at the worn pair of jeans that hugged his waist and the gray tee-shirt he’d thrown on literally just before he’d opened the door, Sam smirked at the realization that his ensemble virtually mirrored that of his younger brother’s. Crossing his arms across his chest, he ignored Hank’s curious question to ask one of his own. “Maria, huh? I didn’t know you were sticking around.”

    “Yeah, Maria,” Hank grinned. “She’s beautiful, cooks a mean casserole, and has three cute little grandkids that she and her husband Rafe spoil rotten.”

    Chuckling, Sam shook his head, blue eyes dancing with humor. “So? You had a crush on Pilar all the way through high school.”

    “Still do,” Hank deadpanned.

    “If Luis heard you,” Sam smiled.

    “Luis knows.”

    “And he’s okay with it?” Sam was dubious.

    “He was. Before,” Hank shrugged, wearing a slight smile that was quick to fade. “Now he’s notokay with me. Or Sheridan. What we did behind his back. He still…” Sighing, he paused, only to continue a moment later, “There’s not much Luis is okay with these days, Sam. We both know that.”

    Frowning, Sam found himself nodding in agreement.

    Sensing a change in subject was in order, Hank cleared his throat and gave his brother the once over one more time. “Back to my original question…”

    “I’m not going in to work today.” Ignoring his brother’s incredulous expression, Sam explained himself. “I’m spending the day with Grace and the girls. In fact, I was just on my way to the Bed and Breakfast.”

    “Perfect.” When Sam merely raised a brow in response, Hank decided to enlighten him. “I wanted to check on Sheridan.”

    “And I’m your excuse,” Sam replied knowingly.

    Placing his hands in his pockets, Hank squinted into the sun then refocused his brown eyes on his brother’s face. “This way I don’t give Luis one more reason to hate me.”

    “He doesn’t hate you,” Sam told him.

    This time, it was Hank’s turn to look skeptical.

    "He doesn’t hate you,” Sam repeated, matter-of-factly. “You’re his brother just as much as you’re mine. Biology doesn’t change that. It’s impossible for him to hate you.”

    “For someone that doesn’t hate me, he’s doing a damned good job of pretending,” Hank said.

    “I didn’t say he wasn’t pissed at you.”

    Sam’s smile was full of understanding, and Hank recalled a conversation they’d had in years past, along a similar vein, concerning Grace and the apparent shambles that the revelation of Ethan’s paternity had left his brother’s marriage in. The arrival of Hope may have stemmed the bleeding, but the wound had never fully healed. That wasn’t to say it couldn’t be healed though, and for the first time in a long time, it looked like his brother was buying into that belief. Like Luis, Grace had legitimate reason to feel wronged and every right to make Sam work to restore her faith in him, just like Luis did with him. And it looked like she was finally allowing him to make his case. Hank only wished that someday, Luis would do the same. Smiling a little bit, he agreed. “Man, is he.”

    “Come on,” Sam led the way. “If he says something, I’ll tell him it was my idea.”

    “My hero,” Hank quipped.

    “You didn’t answer my question earlier,” Sam commented as they fell into step beside each other, traveling the sidewalk and waving at the passersby and the cars that crawled on past in the sleepy street.

    “What question?” Hank wondered.

    “If you’re sticking around,” Sam clarified.

    “That wasn’t a question,” Hank argued.

    “It was.”

    “It was not a question,” Hank objected, easily falling into his time-honored routine of taking up the contrary stance where his brother was concerned. “It was more like a statement.”

    “So…are you?” Exasperation was one of Sam’s familiar friends, had been since shortly after Hank’s birth—to be fair, though, they’d only really gotten close when his kid brother had learned to babble sentences and had been harder to ignore.

    “What?” Hank tried to hide the smile in his voice, but it was virtually impossible. He was being an insufferable smart ass, and he knew it. And it felt good.

    “Sticking around?”

    A pair of brown eyes hiding a world of hurt flashed inexplicably before his mind’s eye, softening Hank’s acerbic tongue and making his revealed smile more contemplative. “Maybe,” he answered, leaving Sam to stare at him in complete and utter bafflement.

    “Maybe? That’s your answer?”

    Hank just shrugged, his smile morphing into a grin as he wheedled his big brother. “Maybe not.”



    ~*~




    Arms laden with freshly laundered towels and bedding, Pilar turned the corner leading to Sheridan and Luis’s shared room and glanced down at Hope, marching purposefully beside her. The child’s canine friend, thankfully, was currently guarding the front entrance of the Bed and Breakfast and lapping up the easy affection of an elderly gentleman and his wife, passing through on their way to visit their daughter and grandchildren farther upstate. “Mi hija,” she prompted the little girl to knock on the door. Smiling her thanks at Hope when she heard movement inside, she gave her unspoken consent for her to run along and enjoy the fine day, and Hope had just skipped back around the corner when a familiar deep voice called out.

    "It’s open.”

    “Clean towels, Mi hijo. And fresh sheets for the bed,” Pilar explained, entering the room with her mountain of laundry and failing to notice Luis’s lack of response immediately. “Have you eaten breakfast yet?” she asked as she placed the neatly folded sheets at the foot of the bed and started for the bathroom. “There are muffins. Just like you like them.”

    Luis, finally spurred to speech, held out his hand, covering her elbow. “Mama, you don’t have to wait on us. Put down the towels. Sheridan or I will take care of them later.”

    “Nonsense, Mi hijo,” Pilar protested. “It is my job.”

    “Give me the towels, Mama,” Luis gently coaxed, freeing Pilar of her burden and steering her to the small chair that sat in front of the vanity. “Sheridan is in the bathroom,” he offered by way of explanation when she frowned at him uncertainly.

    The downward turn of Pilar’s lips was remedied with his simple statement, but her expression was still one of perplexity. “Why did you not just say so, Luis?”

    Placing the towels atop the sheets, Luis turned to face her again, his own countenance guarded. “Mama, I want to talk to you. About something important.”

    Pilar swallowed, her throat suddenly dry and tight, and nodded at him to continue, clasping her hands tightly together when her son moved to kneel at her feet. Nervousness made her speak out, though, when it seemed Luis could not find his words. She remembered how he had tortured himself with the decision to move out and make his home with Sheridan, and Anna when she made it safely to Harmony. “It’s okay, Mi hijo. Grace, she pays me more than she should. And Mrs. Crane, Ivy, she has made me an offer I do not think I can refuse.” Before Luis’s inevitable complaint could even be voiced, Pilar lay her fingers against his lips, silencing him. “She is lonely, Mi hijo, in that house, and I think, so am I.”

    “Mama.” Luis’s eyes reflected the pain of what he regarded his ultimate failure, his inability to honor his responsibilities to his mother.

    “I am not telling you this to hurt you.” Pilar’s fingers were soft, tender against his chin as they lifted it. “I am telling you this because it is the truth, and it has been for a very long time.” She smiled at him lovingly, hoping to blunt the sting of her words. “We wish for the same things: understanding, companionship. But Ivy feels that she can only buy them, and she has made her offer to me. What does Alistair Crane care of such an arrangement between two old women?”

    What did Alistair Crane care of anything, anybody, Luis wanted to argue. He cared nothing for his daughter, still he made her life a living hell. The steel in his mama’s eyes wouldn’t allow him to disagree, at least verbally. He doubted, too, the reciprocity of a relationship with Ivy Crane, when she did all the taking, but he knew his mother had known Ivy for a significant portion of her life, and though he found himself blind to any redeeming qualities she might possess, Mama had always seen something in her that he and others didn’t. Knowing it was ridiculous to warn her against entering any such alliance with that family again when he had married into it, Luis exercised his last reserves of restraint as he searched for a response; the time would come later for exorcising that family’s evil from their lives, if he had anything to say about it. Grasping her hands between his own, Luis painted on a smile. “You’re not old, Mama. You’ll never be old.”

    Held-in tears made Pilar’s brown eyes glisten and the smile on her lips trembled.

    Kissing her hands, Luis stood up, pulling her to her feet to join him and his smile became more genuine. “I worry about you, Mama. But that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about.” In the reflection of the vanity’s mirror, he saw Sheridan standing in the open doorway to the bathroom, Anna cradled in her arms, tiny thumb sucked into her mouth. With his imperceptible nod, Sheridan left the entryway, the pale blue skirt of her sundress rippling around her tanned legs as she approached, and the movement was enough to capture Pilar’s attention and cause her mouth to fall open in surprise and her brimming tears to spill onto her cheeks. “Mama, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

    Smiling at Pilar with tears in her own eyes, Sheridan dropped a kiss onto Anna’s dark curls and carefully placed the baby into Pilar’s waiting arms. “Shh,” she soothed Anna’s fretful whimpers, sliding her own arm around the older woman’s waist in a supportive hug. “Don’t cry,” she softly murmured, helpless to heed her own words.

    “Mama,” Luis’s voice was gruff with emotion. “Meet Anna.”

    Oh, Theresita, Pilar thought, as she stared into eyes as blue as the ocean, her hands and her heart, in that moment, full. Oh, Theresita. She’s beautiful.






    Feedback is loved and adored!

    Thanks so much for sticking with me this long.

  5. #21
    Join Date
    Jun 2004
    Location
    Dubuque, IA
    Posts
    118

    Re: Anna Begins

    How the heck did I miss a new post!?!? Love it!!!
    The truth shall set you free, now if only someone would tell it!

  6. #22
    Join Date
    Oct 2000
    Posts
    489

    Post Re: Anna Begins

    Oh my gosh, it's been almost a year!

    What can I say? I've had writer's block, real-life drama, lack of inspiration (is anybody reading the CR boards anymore?), you name it.

    But I finally managed to finish a new chapter.

    It's a little Bennett heavy for all of you Sheridan and Luis lovers following the fic, but I think there's something in it for you guys too. I'm having to force myself to pace things out a bit; I keep wanting to jump ahead to smut, lol.

    Appearing in this chapter: Kay/Hope/Sam/Hank, Sam/Grace, Kay/Reese, Julian/Hope, Sheridan/Hank, with brief appearances/mentions of T.C. and Luis. Plus, someone else meets Anna.

    Hope you enjoy!











    Chapter 17








    Taking in the matching ensembles of her dad and her uncle Hank, Kay tore off another wedge of the blueberry muffin nestled between her hands and remarked, “You know, that stopped being cute decades ago.”

    Hank just grinned at her, pilfering part of her muffin for himself and popping it into his mouth. “Thanks,” he mumbled.

    Hope appeared at the top of the steps just behind Kay. “Mom says you’re not supposed to talk with your mouth full.”

    “Mom’s right,” Kay’s nose wrinkled when Hank greeted her with a stolen hug before grabbing Hope in a similar stronghold. “It’s disgusting.”

    Upon seeing Sam, Hope wiggled free of Hank’s arms and launched herself at her father. “Daddy!”

    His arms clasped behind Hope’s knees, Sam acknowledged his eldest daughter with a smile and downplayed her teasing banter about him basically calling it in for the second day in a row. “Where’s your mom?” he questioned Kay, tossing Hope across his broad shoulder and making her giggle uproariously when her world turned topsy-turvy, her red hair cascading like a waterfall in front of her freckled face.

    Kay shrugged, biting back a smile at their silly antics, and warned her father, “You got clean-up duty if she gets sick.” When Hank merely raised his brows at her, once Sam and Hope were gone, Kay insisted, “I’m not kidding.”

    “I didn’t say you were,” Hank smirked, taking a seat beside her on the steps. Stealing another bit of her muffin, he popped it into his mouth, then asked, “How’s life treating you?”

    One dark brow raised, Kay practiced a tried and true method of deflection, turning the question back on him, “How’s life treating you?”

    Hank stared at her for several long seconds before his face split into a grin, his brown eyes twinkling at her. “So that’s the way you’re going to play it?”

    “I don’t know what you mean,” Kay grinned back at him when he bumped shoulders with her. She shrieked with unexpected laughter when Hank wrestled her into a headlock and playfully tousled her hair. “Uncle. Uncle!” she finally cried, much to Hank’s (and Reese, who watched them both nearby with Sadie at his side) amusement. Catching Reese’s blue eyes when Hank released her, she surprised even herself by saying, “I’m good. Things are…good.”

    Hank’s brown eyes narrowed momentarily as they studied his niece’s expression, but when he blinked, what he thought he saw in her eyes was gone, and she was looking at him expectantly, waiting, he realized, for whatever smart-assed retort he came up with, and he didn’t disappoint, unable to resist teasing, “My brother’s paying out of his ass for tuition, and that’s the best you can come up with? I’m buying you a pocket thesaurus for Christmas.”

    Kay rolled her eyes at him. “Why don’t you impress me with your vocabulary, Einstein?”

    Grinning again, Hank told Reese as he hauled himself back to his feet, “She does her dear, old uncle proud.” Clapping a firm hand over Reese’s shoulder, he then scratched Sadie between the ears and waltzed off in search of Sam, Grace, and (maybe) a muffin of his own.

    “Thanks for the high praise, Secret Agent Man,” Kay called to his retreating back before landing eyes on Reese again and finding him watching her with an unreadable expression on his face. “What?” she questioned, a nervous smile playing on her lips. Holding out a hand, she beckoned Sadie and took comfort in stroking the dog’s silky fur when Reese did not answer her, only offering her an enigmatic smile for her trouble. Dropping her voice to a stage whisper for his benefit, she hugged the content canine close. “I think someone needs to remind her master it isn’t polite to stare.” She laughed softly when Reese blushed in response to her gentle chiding. Kay watched his mouth work futilely to find the words to defend himself, and his failure to string the necessary words together was still a source of amusement to her when Hope reappeared from seemingly nowhere, scampering toward her and Sadie and lavishing the dog with affection. Taking pity on Reese and turning her attention back on her kid sister, Kay made an inquiry, “Where’s Mom?” When Hope gave no indication she had heard the question, Kay waved a hand in front of the little girl’s face and singsonged, “Hope-less.”

    Waking up from her puppy-kisses induced daze, Hope peered at Kay with confusion clouded blue eyes and shrugged, “Dunno.”

    “Thanks a lot,” Kay muttered under her breath as she pushed herself to her feet. “You’re a lot of help. Reese?” she tossed out, her intentions clear.

    “I’ll keep an eye on her,” Reese promised, moving forward to shadow Hope and Sadie.

    Kay entered the Bed and Breakfast, pausing at the threshold to let her eyes adjust to the relative dimness of light afforded inside compared to the beaming sunshine that made Hope’s red hair glow like a jeweled crown outside. Finding the front desk abandoned, she frowned and stepped deeper inside, calling, “Mom?” She literally jumped, her heart beating a staccato rhythm inside her chest, when her uncle reappeared, seemingly from nowhere (it had to be genetic), with scone in hand, and would have laughed at her overreaction had Hank not taken advantage of the opportunity to do what he did best: tease the hell out of her. “Knock it off,” she warned. “I mean it,” she insisted when Hank responded with a grin that was anything but apologetic. Sighing, she demanded more than asked, “Well, have you seen her?”

    Kay’s irritation-filled glower put Hank in mind of a certain blond, making his grin grow, and he chuckled to himself at the thought that it was a tight race between his niece and Gwen as to who had patented the best pissed-off expression. Taking another bite of the warm scone in his hand, he chewed thoughtfully for a second before answering her, “I’m not sure, but your dad’s with her.” His arm struck out, his hand latching onto to Kay’s wrist when she moved forward, intent on continuing her search, and he shook his head, sliding his hand down to encase hers when he caught one glimpse at the worry that flashed in her eyes. “Give your dad his chance to crash and burn on his own.” Squeezing her hand comfortingly, he continued, “It’s their marriage, not ours.”

    Carefully pulling her hand free, Kay regarded her uncle with grudging understanding. He was right; she knew it, she even felt the same. That didn’t mean she had to be happy about it. “Thanks, Dr. Phil.” She turned around, pausing only when she was at the door to give him a slightly reproachful reminder. “They’re not the only ones.” A mere second later, she clarified herself, “Technically, it is still their honeymoon.”

    Hank read the judgment in her eyes and inwardly winced. “She’s my friend. Luis is my friend,” he defended. “You telling me it’s wrong to care?”

    Kay softened. “I’m just saying…they deserve their chance too.” Pushing the door open, she called over her shoulder, “Point Mom in my direction when you see her.” Stepping outside, she gently closed the door and found a pair of blue eyes watching her. Hope and Sadie, she distantly noticed, were playing a spirited game of tag beyond, on the Bed and Breakfast’s tidy green lawn. Grumbling beneath her breath, she claimed the seat beside Reese on the top step as her own, feeling heat crawl up her own neck. “You’re supposed to watch her, not me.”

    Reese cleared his throat awkwardly. A beat later, he defended himself, saying, “Sadie’ll keep her out of trouble.”

    “Are you serious?” Kay scoffed. “Trouble is that one’s middle name.”

    “Hey! My middle name’s not trouble,” Hope protested. She squealed when her distraction awarded Sadie the chance to catch her off-guard, nudging her forward with her nose and barking joyously. “Look what you did,” Hope accused. “She caught me.”

    “And she’s going to catch you again if you keep standing there,” Kay told her. “Go,” she instructed, prompting her irate kid sister into action. Glancing at Reese out of the corner of her eyes, she remarked, “I think she does the whole moral outrage thing well, don’t you?” Covertly eyeing his profile, Kay considered him, their past relationship as teenagers, and the surprising enjoyment she and Hope had gotten out of spending time with him, and she decided he’d never been more of a mystery to her than he was now. Yeah, Hope was the innocent one in all of this, but she wasn’t, and when she’d told Sara she hadn’t been a good friend to Reese in the past, what she should have said was that she’d been a really bad friend. After the way she had mis-treated him, she didn’t know what he could potentially stand to gain from being friends with her again, and she found herself struggling to understand what his motivation could possibly be. Unable to restrain herself any longer, she blurted, “I don’t understand you.”

    With a wry smile, Reese remarked, “Nobody really does.”

    Frustrated, Kay frowned. “No, I mean…” Reese looked at her searchingly, but Kay found she just couldn’t spit out the words. It was a welcome relief when she heard her uncle Hank clear his throat behind her, and she whirled around to find the elderly gentleman from earlier that morning and his wife smiling down at her. Without thinking, she took the hand Reese offered, letting him pull her to her feet, and she held out a hand to take the woman’s small suitcase. “Here, let me get that for you.”

    “That won’t be necessary, Dear,” the woman protested. Still, she beamed and relinquished the suitcase to Reese’s able hands when he politely but firmly insisted. “Such a nice young man,” she praised. “Both of them,” she amended, graciously including Hank, who was already loading the rest of the couple’s bags in their trunk, under her husband’s instruction.

    With a sly grin, Kay couldn’t resist commenting, “Obviously you don’t know my uncle very well.”

    “Don’t listen to her, Mrs. Mitchell,” Hank warned upon his return, capturing her frail hand and kissing it. “Let me escort you to your vehicle,” he persisted, taking her arm and carefully helping her descend the Bed and Breakfast’s steps. When Kay raised an incredulous brow at him, he merely winked at her, a rakish grin upon his lips.

    “Why thank you,” Mrs. Mitchell twittered.

    Watching Hank safely deposit their departing guest in her car beside her waiting husband, Kay shook her head in disbelief, muttering, “I don’t know how he does it.”

    Having newly rejoined her, Reese shrugged his shoulders and offered a sheepish suggestion. “Bennett charm, I guess.”

    “Bennett charm?” Kay’s lips twitched.

    “Yeah,” Reese’s blue eyes twinkled at her behind the lenses of his glasses, and when Hope called out to him, he started down the steps, eager to escape her scrutiny.
    “And what, exactly, is this so-called Bennett charm?”

    “Ask Hope,” Reese answered, trying and failing to hide his grin from her. “She has it in spades.”

    The smile on Kay’s face grew and grew with her dawning realization: Reese Durkee was teasing her.




    ~*~





    Sam found her upstairs, staring out of a window with shimmering blue eyes. “Grace?” He hesitated at the open door, loath to enter without her permission, and pretended not to notice when she discreetly knuckled away a few tears that had traitorously escaped.
    Grace turned on her heels, scooping up a mound of dirty linen, and deposited it into a basket at her feet. “Sweet couple,” she murmured, not meeting Sam’s eyes as she went about tidying up the room in the wake of Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell’s departure, “married straight of high school and still together.”

    Sam took encouragement in the very fact that she was speaking to him and stepped inside the room. He crossed the room to her without a word when she lifted the basket in her arms, intent on relieving her of the burden. “Here. Let me get that.”

    Grace’s eyes snapped to his face when their hands brushed, and she swallowed hard, uncomfortable with the emotion her husband made no effort to hide from her. Dropping her gaze, she carefully withdrew her hands and directed Sam where to put the basket while she continued with her work, grabbing the stack of freshly laundered towels she’d brought into the room with her and disappearing into the bathroom with them. When she returned, having put them away, Sam had stripped the bed of its remaining fitted sheet, and she automatically took up the position across from him, pulling its replacement taut and tucking it around the bed’s corners.

    Silently, Sam mirrored her actions, and he would have been content simply to be there, in her presence, until he realized she had spoken. Her hands were fussing nervously with non-existent wrinkles in the sheet, and her eyes were once again hidden from him, looking anywhere, it seemed, except at his face.

    Sighing, Grace repeated herself. “What are you doing here, Sam?”

    “Spending the day with my girls,” Sam answered simply, gritting his teeth in frustration at her responding comment.

    “Last time I checked, Kay and Hope were downstairs.” Grace bent to gather the rest of the bedding in her arms. “Jessica isn’t even in the same state,” she reminded him, still without meeting his eyes, then set about quickly and efficiently making up the bed. She froze, though, mid-motion when Sam rest a hand on her arm, patchwork quilt draped over his other arm. His nearness surprised her, and she felt her heart throb painfully in her chest at the proximity.

    Offering the quilt to her, Sam uttered a reminder of his own, a painful one, because he was only just realizing the true extent of the damage caused by his inability to do something so simple as to be honest with his wife. “Used to be, you were my number one girl.”

    Their fingertips were touching, just barely, and Grace ached inside to tangle their hands together, bask in the memory of their good times, for there had been good times, but she couldn’t let herself be so easily swallowed by sentiment, not if they had any chance of doing as Sam professed he wished: moving on, truly being the family they pretended to be for the benefit of the outside world. Sadly, she told him, “I was never your number one girl, Sam. I came into the game a little too late for that.”

    “Grace,” Sam protested, lifting a hand to her face. He closed his eyes against the pain he felt at the flinch she failed to hide from him. Removing his hand from her face, he dropped wearily to the bed below, and he was surprised to feel the mattress dip with the addition of her slight weight when she followed him a second later. “Just because Ivy was first doesn’t mean…”

    “I know,” Grace cut him off. And, logically, she did. But her heart still had its doubts, and she didn’t know how to chase them away. She didn’t think she could. Only the man at her side could do that, and right now, he looked to be as confused, conflicted, and hurt as she felt. She wanted so much to make this work, for the children, for Sam, for herself; she just didn’t know how. The only thing Grace knew for sure was wishing it true wouldn’t make it happen. Salvaging what was left of their marriage was going to be a lot harder than that. Selfishly, she knew, today especially, she couldn’t bear to meet him halfway. Giving his hand an awkward pat, she stood up, her back straight and tall, and returned to the window, in time to see Julian and Ivy emerging from a parked car and hesitating at the gate outside. A sharp knock at the door refocused her attention, and she watched Sam rise to meet Luis.

    “Grace. Sam,” Luis tipped his head in acknowledgment. “Sorry to interrupt.”

    “Luis, can this wait,” Sam began, firmly and apologetically all at once, but Grace’s gentle hand on his arm and the depth of the emotion in Luis’s dark eyes gave him pause.

    “Go with Luis, Sam,” Grace encouraged. “Something tells me you’ll want to hear what he has to say.” She gave her husband a soft smile that she knew didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Go on.”

    Reluctantly, Sam left with Luis, and the sound of their combined footsteps receded until they faded into nothing.

    Lowering herself back onto the bed’s surface, Grace snagged a pillow between her hands, hugged it to her chest, and closed her eyes.





    ~*~





    Eyes narrowed, and spine stiffened, Kay demanded to know what was going on. “What’s she doing here?” Ivy Crane lingered uncertainly at the gate until Julian opened it for her, prompting her into action. “She’s not welcome here. Neither is he.” Shaking her head, she started to descend the steps to cut the pair off, but a strong hand captured her arm, her father’s hand. Leveling an accusatory look at her father, she angrily charged, “It was you, wasn’t it? You invited her here.” Kay wrenched her arm free, and in the process, realized her father wasn’t alone.

    “Sam didn’t call her, Kay,” Luis said. “I did.”

    Kay experienced a momentary pang of regret for jumping to conclusions. Still, she didn’t apologize for her second-nature distrust. Refusing to meet her father’s eyes, she stepped around him, retreating into the Bed and Breakfast in a renewed search for her mother. She found Sheridan and Pilar instead, just inside, and a tiny dark-curled child in Pilar’s arms staring at her with a pair of striking blue eyes. Wordlessly, she followed the solemn trio back outside, and the expressions of wonder and sheer surprise on Ivy’s and her father’s faces were ones she’d likely never forget. A gentle hand on the small of her back had her sucking in a shaky breath, and she blinked hard against the moisture that had started to sting her eyes, able only to acknowledge Reese’s gesture of support with a barely perceptible nod of her head. She was simply incapable of speech as she witnessed Anna being introduced to her grandparents for the first time.

    Using both arms to draw each woman near, Sheridan did the honors, smiling at Sam’s awe-struck demeanor as he crept forward to join Ivy and Pilar, a hesitant hand reaching out to cup Anna’s tiny foot. “Ivy…Sam…meet your granddaughter.”

    Unable to help herself when Pilar carefully handed Anna over to her, Ivy hugged the baby tightly, pressed her face against her dark curls, and started to sob.

    Watching her father pull Ivy to him in an instinctive effort to comfort her was like a knife plunging deep into Kay’s heart. She found herself suddenly thankful that she hadn’t been able to locate her mother; she shouldn’t have to bear witness to this. Unconsciously, her hand sought out Reese’s hand, and she squeezed it gratefully when it tangled with her own. “Get me out of here,” Kay turned to him, pleading. “Now.”

    Reese barely blinked at her request. “Okay,” he nodded.

    But for a stop to entrust Sadie into Hank and Hope’s combined care, they didn’t delay, and Kay numbly followed where Reese led, the sidewalk stretching before them. She stopped in her tracks, though, when she realized their destination. “The Youth Center?”

    Reese looked at her uncertainly. “We can go somewhere else. I just thought…” he paused to clear his throat uncomfortably, and continued in a slightly different vein, color suffusing his neck and cheeks. “There are basketballs.”

    A smile begged to form at his awkward blabbering, and a laugh escaped at his next suggestion. Kay found it was all she could do not to throw her arms around Reese in a hug and thank him for lightening her mind and her heart, just by being himself.

    “You can even throw one at me if you want.”

    “Why,” Kay giggled, “would I want to do that? Is that some kind of new sport?”

    With her laughter, Reese blushed an even deeper hue of crimson and let out an embarrassed chuckle of his own before he tried to explain himself. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but some people actually think it’s therapeutic to throw things to relieve strong emotions.” In a quieter, more hesitant voice, he said, “Baseball was your and Miguel’s thing and dishes are too messy. I figured basketballs might be…fun.”

    “Maybe,” Kay smiled at him. Conversationally, she told him, “I’m not very good at basketball.”

    “Neither am I,” Reese shrugged, holding the Youth Center door open for her and following her inside. “Coach Russell,” he greeted once there.

    “Reese,” T.C. acknowledged. “Kay,” he nodded. He had a ring of keys hooked around his thumb, and he regarded them curiously.

    Clearing his throat, Reese made small talk. “I didn’t know you worked at the Youth Center again.”

    “I don’t,” T.C. answered. “I’m just helping out until Luis comes back from his honeymoon.”

    Kay’s smile fell away. T.C. might have grown to grudgingly accept Sheridan into the periphery of their fold over time, but he obviously still held onto to his convictions where the rest of the Cranes were concerned, and it showed in the distaste in which he viewed Sheridan and Luis’s marriage, the motivation behind that union notwithstanding.

    “What are you two doing here?” T.C. questioned. “The Center’s not officially open for several more hours. I was just checking everything out during my free period.”

    “Nothing,” Kay shook her head.

    At the same time, Reese said, “We wanted to shoot some hoops.”

    His eyes widening comically, his mouth stretched in a disbelieving smile, T.C. looked to Kay. “Shoot some hoops? Are those the words I just heard coming out of that boy’s mouth?”

    Kay’s smile returned. She had to admit she fully understood (and shared some of) T.C.’s amusement. Only when Reese started to stammer like the boy she knew of old did Kay speak up. “We’ll put everything back where we found it.”

    T.C. considered Kay’s promise. He finally relented. “You’ll have to answer to Luis if you don’t.”

    “I’m not too worried about Luis,” came Kay’s quick reply. “I’m pretty friendly with his wife.”

    T.C. chuckled, offering the keys to Reese. “Lot of good that’s going to do her.”

    Kay raised a brow at his comment. “I wouldn’t underestimate Sheridan.”

    “Neither would I,” T.C. admitted with reluctant respect. “You kids lock up here when you’re finished. I have to head on back to the high school.” To Kay he said, “Say hello to your dad for me.”

    “I will,” Kay assured him.

    Reese finally rediscovered his voice. “See you later, Coach Russell.”

    T.C. acknowledged him with a nod and a wave of his hand.

    “Well,” Kay clapped her hands together and turned dancing eyes back on Reese. “What are you waiting for? Let’s go shoot some hoops.”

    Reese groaned at her teasing. “What else was I supposed to say?”

    “Best out of three, Durkee,” Kay challenged.

    “This should be interesting,” Reese muttered.




    ~*~







    A warm breeze tickled mercilessly at his face, birds were twittering obnoxiously, his Ice Queen wife was melting at a furious pace somewhere on the premises of this quaint little establishment, and Julian was making the acquaintance of one overly-curious Hope Bennett and her Alpo-breathed companion. Disdainfully, he nudged Sadie with his free foot, the other one currently buried somewhere beneath golden fur. “Go on,” he encouraged. “Up. Up.”

    Across from him, positioned at the edge of a chair with her feet swinging back and forth, Hope peered at him with avid intrigue. “She likes you,” she cheerfully informed him.

    “Well,” Julian harrumphed. Resigning himself to the fact that the canine was going nowhere, he settled back in his own chair and studied the child that was staring at him so unabashedly. “Haven’t your parents taught you it isn’t polite to stare?”

    “Sorry.”

    The child looked genuinely apologetic for about a second before she resumed the activity with a focus that seemed scarily unnatural to Julian. Uncomfortable under her scrutiny, he glanced away, searching for other candidates for her to pester. Finding no one (that blasted Hank Bennett had abandoned them to sniff out his sister), Julian withdrew his handkerchief from his jacket and dabbed at the little beads of nervous perspiration that had begun to form on his brow. He was looking into the face of a miniature Grace Bennett, but there was no denying she was her father’s progeny. There was a certain, unnerving intensity about her. “Hannah,” he began, only to have the little girl frown.

    “It’s Hope.”

    “I apologize,” Julian started anew. “Shouldn’t you be off somewhere, having tea parties? Playing dress-up? I’m just a boring old man. You don’t want to hang out with me.”

    Hope’s expression became even more serious. “You’re not boring. Just grumpy,” she pronounced. “Besides,” she singsonged slightly, “my uncle Hank told me to watch you. That way neither one of us could get into any trouble.”

    “He did, did he?” Julian grumbled under his breath. “What else did your uncle Hank say?”

    “That Daddy and Missus Crane and Pilar need time with Anna without any of us butting in,” Hope declared, “because they’re her grandparents.” Her red brows knit together in confusion then. “But what about you and mommy?”

    Hope’s innocent question seized Julian’s ill-used heart, and he found himself unable to answer her. He needn’t have worried, though, for the child was quickly off on another tangent.

    “Did you know I’m Anna’s aunt?” Hope’s small chest puffed up with pride.

    “You’re rather small to be someone’s aunt,” Julian responded.

    “My daddy says I’m growing like a weed,” Hope defended herself.

    “I’m sure you are,” Julian soothed her ruffled feathers. “Where did your sister go? Kay? I’m sure she’s missing you.”

    Hope shrugged her small shoulders. “Somewhere with Mister Reese,” she offered. “She was sad. I hope Mister Reese cheers her up.”

    “Me too,” Julian shocked himself by agreeing. “Are you okay?” he asked mere moments later, watching Hope fidget in her chair and pull at those atrocious shorts she wore.

    Hope nodded then shook her head.

    “Well,” Julian impatiently prompted. “Which is it?”

    Hope scrunched up her freckled nose and shook her head back and forth, her chin-length red hair flying.

    “Out with it, Child,” Julian demanded, wishing a moment later he hadn’t been so insistent when the child blurted out the reason for her apparent discomfort.

    “I gotta go to the bathroom!” Worrying her bottom lip between pearly white teeth, she asked, more quietly, “Will you go with me? Pretty please?”

    Julian renewed his earlier search for capable adults, preferably one related to the little girl, who was now doing a comical dance from foot to foot, but his efforts proved fruitless once more. “I thought we established you were a growing girl.”

    His comment was enough to make Hope pause in her restless movements, at least momentarily. “Huh?”

    Heaving a sigh, Julian elaborated, “You’re a big girl. Can’t you go to the bathroom by yourself?”

    “But I’m supposed to watch you,” Hope protested. “And I might need help.”

    Julian’s eyes widened with panic. “What if I told you I eat small children?”

    Hope rolled her blue eyes at him, fitting her small hand in his larger one and giving it a mighty tug. “I don’t believe you, now c’mon.”

    With dismay, Julian realized he was running out of excuses, and the dreadful mutt had relinquished its lazy guard, rising up on four feet and watching him them both expectantly. “Okay,” he sent up a figurative white flag. “I’ll stand outside the door.”

    “But…”

    “Take it or leave it,” Julian scowled.

    “Take it,” Hope answered, literally pulling him along and into the Bed and Breakfast, where she didn’t let go of his hand until they were deep into the recesses of the old place, in a hallway not far from the kitchen. Dropping his hand, Hope wrenched the door of the little hideaway bathroom open and promptly squirmed out of her shorts and dropped her panties.

    “Good Heavens, Child,” Julian whirled around, covered his eyes with an embarrassed hand, and pushed the door closed. “At least shut the door.”

    “Sorry,” Hope called. “I didn’t have time.”

    The dog whined, and Julian dropped his hand, scowling. “What are you looking at? She shouldn’t drop her underclothes like that in front of complete strangers.” Hearing the toilet flush, he forced himself to ask, “Well, are you okay in there?”

    “Almost finished,” came Hope’s muffled reply.

    Julian recognized the sound of running water and breathed a sigh of relief. When Hope opened the bathroom door, he grumped, “You didn’t even need me.”

    “I told you…” Hope began.

    “You’re supposed to watch me,” Julian finished for her. “Who’s watching you?”

    “You are,” Hope grinned, taking his hand and pulling him along again.

    “Wait a minute,” Julian hedged when he recognized they weren’t heading back outside. “Where are you taking me?”

    “I’m thirsty,” Hope answered matter-of-factly. “I’m not supposed to pour the milk by myself. We have lemonade if you’re thirsty too,” she bargained. With Sadie trotting along beside her and Julian well in hand, she pushed the kitchen door open without giving Julian a proper chance to refuse her offer.

    Julian’s complaints fell silent though at the scene they walked in on.

    At the sink, her back turned to them both, stood the slight form of Grace Bennett, and in the reflection of the cupboard glass, it was plain she had been crying.

    Julian had to admire the brave face she put on for her young daughter when she turned around to face them, and if she felt any surprise at his presence, she masked it well, stepping forward and repeating Hope’s earlier offer.

    “Can I get you anything, Julian?” Grace asked, opening the refrigerator door and pulling out an old-fashioned looking bottle of milk, along with a pitcher of lemonade. “Lemonade?”

    With one look into her red-rimmed blue eyes, Julian held out his hand to help her. “I’d like that, yes.”




    ~*~







    Hank cleared his throat as he approached Sheridan in the small garden that made the back yard of the Bed and Breakfast look like a wonderland. “Looks like married life agrees with you, Princess,” he said, capturing her hands in his own and admiring the pretty picture she made in a pale blue dress that only served to intensify the hue of her eyes.

    Sheridan attempted a smile. “Looks can be deceiving.”

    Hank frowned and lifted a hand to her face. “If Luis is not treating you well…”

    Kissing his palm, Sheridan removed his hand from her face with a sigh. “Luis… he’s treating me fairly.” When Hank remained skeptical, she rambled on, “It’s hard to forget history, Hank, especially for a man like Luis. And ours is about as complicated and messed up a history as you can get. He’s treating me fairly. I shouldn’t expect anything more.”

    “The hell,” Hank protested, his own anger boiling up. “You deserve more than fairness. You deserve kindness, Sheridan. Respect. Love.”

    “Don’t we all?” Sheridan looked at him with shining eyes. “When are you going to follow your own advice, huh? You deserve those things just as much as I do.”

    “Me?” Hank played it cool. “Those things reek of commitment. I’m just looking for some fun.”

    Sheridan sought out his hand again and tilted her head in consideration. “I don’t believe you, Hank Bennett.”

    “Believe it,” Hank insisted, playing with her fingers. His touch gravitated toward her wedding band, and he felt his throat grow uncharacteristically tight with emotion. “What if I told you the one I wanted didn’t want me?”

    Sheridan fell still, and she turned to face him, lifting her free hand to the face she had grown to adore, the face of one of her dearest friends. “How could she not want you? You’re Hank.”

    Before he lost his nerve (stupidly), Hank continued in a rush of words. “She’s in love with someone else, and I’ve always been a little bit in love with her.” He hung his head, unable to meet her eyes, now that he’d foolishly, unexpectedly blurted the truth. He waited for judgment to pass in the form of the gentle letdown he knew was coming, only Sheridan surprised him, taking his face between her hands and leaning in to kiss him. Feeling the faint pressure of her lips against his forehead, Hank’s hands traveled down her arms to cradle her elbows, and her next words sent reality crashing down upon him.

    “Luis is married now.” Sheridan combed tender, sisterly fingers through Hank’s brown hair. “It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t love me. The vows we took are still sacred to him, and he’ll stay with me to have Anna in his life.”

    “Sheridan,” Hank cut her off. “Even when he’s a jerk, Luis still cares.”

    “Maybe,” Sheridan conceded. “Maybe he does care, and maybe that’ll be enough. I hope it’ll be enough,” she said, as if offering up a fervent prayer. “My point is,” she searched out his eyes again, “he’ll honor his vows because that’s who he is. Beth would be blind not to recognize that and see what a wonderful man she has waiting in the wings to love her in you.”

    “Beth?” Hank asked dumbly, only to grab onto her misguided thoughts with the relief of a man who knew he’d almost pissed their friendship away. “Right. Beth. She’s always been hung up on Luis.” That much, at least, had always been true.

    “Well,” Sheridan threaded her arm through his and tugged him along with her. “Luis isn’t available anymore.”

    Hank remained silent. He didn’t tell her that Luis hadn’t been available since a certain blond had literally crashed into his jeep upon her arrival to Harmony. She wouldn’t believe him anyway. His good buddy had really done a number on her heart. “That’s it, Princess,” he finally protested. “I’m a sensitive guy, but the fact remains, I’m a guy, and this really isn’t my kind of conversation. Okay?”

    Sheridan’s lips twitched into a smile and then she laughed, her mood thankfully lighter than when Hank had discovered her, wandering aimlessly through Grace’s garden. “Okay. I could use a little help coaching the kids, now that Anna’s here and Luis and I are going to have our hands full.”

    “Do I get a cool tee-shirt like yours?” Hank quipped. “Coach Bennett,” he tried it on for size.

    Laughing softly, Sheridan kissed him on the cheek, unaware of a pair of smoldering dark eyes watching her, watching them as they continued on their stroll. “Has a nice ring to it.”

    “If I do say so myself,” Hank grinned.






    Thanks for reading!


    If you *are* still reading, lol.

    Here's hoping 18 won't be as long coming.

    Until next time, some food for thought (give me yours, lol): Sam and Grace have a tough road ahead of them, Reese and Kay, dare I say it, are becoming real friends (or something more? hmm), what do you think of Julian's new, unlikely friend, and will the green-eyed monster spur a change in the way Luis is treating Sheridan...

    Feedback would be lovely.

    P.S. Sorry for any mistakes. They're all mine. =) Add that to the fact, some things always seem to get messed up in the process of posting (go figure).

  7. #23
    Join Date
    Oct 2000
    Posts
    489

    Post Re: Anna Begins

    Title: Anna Begins, Chapter 18
    Rating: PG-13 (maybe not quite, but I think some of the innuendo and situations are just a tad over PG, lol)
    Warnings: mild swearing, adult themes, unresolved sexual tension
    Characters/Pairings: Kay/Grace/Julian, Luis/Sheridan, Kay/Gwen, Julian/Ivy, Hank/Gwen, Hope/Sam, Grace/Sam, Beth/Luis, Kay/Hope
    Word Count: 9,025 (wow! I think it's my longest chapter ever!)
    Summary (for chapter): They fell into an awkward routine over the next month, all these people that loved Anna. If Ethan and Theresa had been around to see it, they would scarcely believe it. But somehow they made it work, or made it seem like it was working.










    Chapter 18



    They fell into an awkward routine over the next month, all these people that loved Anna. If Ethan and Theresa had been around to see it, they would scarcely believe it. But somehow they made it work, or made it seem like it was working.

    Kay wouldn’t allow herself to be fooled. She hardly believed the arrangement worked out, Julian and Ivy (strangely, never one without the other) descending upon the Bed and Breakfast at their whim, at least not for her mother. But she didn’t say anything; she kept her mouth shut like the good girl she’d always tried (and failed) to be. Until the day she walked in on her mother and Julian having a hushed conversation in the kitchen (she wished she could say it was the first time), and the words just spilled free. “This looks cozy.”

    “Kay,” Grace acknowledged her daughter. “Where’s your sister?”

    “Outside,” Kay shrugged, moving to fix herself a glass of lemonade. “With them.” Them being her father, Ivy, and Pilar, each of them trying to win over a little girl who still regarded them with all the warmth of a frightened animal. She watched, out of the corner of her eyes, Julian stand and lightly touch her mother’s hand, and felt the beginnings of anger start to blossom in her veins. Ignoring Julian when he said his goodbyes, she instead sipped at her lemonade and stared outside the window above the sink, waiting for her mother to defend herself and her maddening feelings to cool. She didn’t, and neither did they.

    "You were rude,” Grace remarked softly. “Why?”

    “Why not?” Kay answered. “Julian Crane, Mom? Seriously?” Setting her sweating glass of lemonade down, she turned to face her mother. “Are you two…” she couldn’t voice the terrible thought, her mouth pinched in horror.

    "Your father wasn’t the only one who lost a son, Kay.” The revelation shouldn’t have even been a revelation, but it was, it had been for Grace, and it obviously was for Kay, who was looking at her as if she’d sprouted a second head. The frown Grace regarded her eldest daughter with was laced with disappointment, and she stood up, joining Kay at the sink. Without saying anything more, she withdrew a white envelope from the pocket of the apron tied loosely about her waist and held it out for Kay to take.

    Kay stared at the emblem on the front of the envelope, the emblem of her school, and swallowed uncomfortably, taking it from her mother and looking at her accusingly when she noticed the seal had been broken. “You read my mail?” Her shallowly buried anger resurfaced, the pitch of her voice rising. “You had no right. I can’t believe you.”

    Opening the letter had been a genuine mistake, but Grace didn’t tell Kay that. Instead she folded her arms across her chest and waited for her daughter to talk. When she didn’t, she repeated the words angrily thrown at her, though much more softly and with a touch of sadness. “I can’t believe you, dropping out of school without telling me or your father.”

    “I’m not dropping out,” Kay’s indignation sagged under the weight of her mother’s disapproval. A slim auburn brow arched skeptically in response, and Kay felt the need to explain, “I’m taking some time off, just a few months.”

    “A few months?” Grace challenged, knowing the official letter read differently.

    “A year, okay? I’m taking off a year.” Kay picked her glass of lemonade back up, drawing a fingertip through the circle of condensation it had left behind, unable to face her mother in that moment. She concentrated on the coolness of the glass in her hand and steeled herself for whatever condemning words might be coming.

    Grace felt both pride and regret at the reluctant confession that spilled from her daughter’s lips; pride that she didn’t attempt to hide the truth like she might have in the past, regret that Kay hadn’t come to her before making such a big decision. With a short nod, she quietly said, “Your father should find out from you.”

    Kay’s head jerked up, and she stared into her mother’s blue eyes. When she found only acceptance in them, she couldn’t resist asking, “That’s it? That’s all you have to say? No lectures? No telling me I’m making a huge mistake?”

    “If it’s a mistake, it’s yours to make,” Grace answered simply. “I can’t tell you what to do anymore, Kay. You’re an adult. You’re your own person.”

    Kay’s head dropped back down, and she studied the contents of the glass in her hands. “I wanted to tell you. I tried, a couple of times.” But there was always something else, someone else.

    Grace heard Kay’s unspoken words loud and clear. All those times (Can we talk, Mom?...Maybe later) came back to her, and she turned her disappointment inward. Taking the glass from Kay’s hands, she set it aside, and pressed their palms together, and the uncertainty in her daughter’s eyes when she looked up at her made her heart throb painfully in her chest. “Don’t give up so easily on me next time, okay?”

    Gradually, Kay looked less wary, more open, and she gave her a short nod of her head in answer. Awkwardly, she reclaimed her hand and cast another glance toward the open window, through which they heard a rare giggle from Anna. “You should be out there, too. Not shut up in here.”

    “Kay,” Grace began.

    “Will you stop doing that?” Kay grew exasperated, sweeping past her mother. Whirling back around to face her, she threw up her hands. “You tell me not to give up on you, but isn’t that what you’re doing to Dad?”

    Grace busied herself with emptying the discarded glass of lemonade and placing it in the dishwasher, uncomfortable in the face of such unexpected intensity of emotion. “It isn’t the same,” she tossed out the weak protest.

    "No, it’s not,” Kay allowed. “It requires a lot more hard work. I’ve never been loved by anybody, and I can see that.”

    Grace’s heart broke for her daughter, right then and there. She was so, so wrong. She just couldn’t see it. “You don’t know how loved you are,” she murmured.

    “No,” Kay shook her head, her eyes bright and moist, “you don’t know how loved you are. You’re just hiding yourself away, letting Ivy Crane take your place at Dad’s side. You better do something about that,” she warned, “before it’s too late.”

    “Kay,” Grace cried, helpless to stop her as she turned her back and hurried from the small kitchen, which suddenly felt closed in and devoid of air, not the safe haven she’d thought but the prison that kept her from grabbing onto her own future with both hands. “Kay!”

    “Tell Hope-less I’m going out,” Kay shot back, her only response.

    Grace covered her face with her hands and stifled the urge to scream.

    ~*~


    “Kay,” Luis acknowledged, barely getting out of the upset girl’s way in time to avoid a collision. Similarly, he sidestepped the rambunctious young family spilling down the stairs, completely oblivious to his presence, even as he was forced to flatten himself against the wall to allow them to pass. His progress to reach Sheridan and their room was impeded once more two doors down when an older couple they’d run into once or twice in the past few days stopped to make small talk with him and say their goodbyes, commenting on his lovely family. Finally, he reached his destination, the door opening easily under his hand, and the polite smile that had been pasted on his lips was erased, replaced with an unforgiving scowl. His wife was too damned trusting. Shutting the door behind him with more force than necessary, he stalked into the room in search of her. He found her in the bathroom, peering critically at her reflection, her naked back exposed and dress unzipped to her waist. The sight of all that perfect, unmarked skin, and the seeming nonchalance with which she accepted his presence made his blood start to boil within his veins. “What have I told you about locking the damn door?” he grit out.

    Sheridan rolled her eyes at him, mascara wand still in hand. “Silly me,” she remarked dryly. “I thought, with the esteemed Police Chief downstairs, I was safe.” She replaced the wand inside its accompanying tube and set it aside, puckering her lips and checking her lipstick. Satisfied with her appearance, she met Luis’s eyes in the reflection of the mirror, finding them dark and dangerous and burning a hole into her. Glancing down, she captured the tiny spaghetti strap that had slipped down to her arm, and it didn’t escape her notice that Luis’s eyes followed her every move as she replaced the strap on her shoulder. Holding her breath and his eyes for several long moments, she found she couldn’t speak another, acerbic word, that ability effectively stolen from her. At least until they heard the muffled chiming of the hour and Luis swore.

    “We’re going to be late,” he growled, tearing from the room with Sheridan following him. “I thought I told you to be ready. I only have a couple of hours before I have to be back at the PD.”

    Rising on the defensive, Sheridan shot back, “I am ready. You’re the one who was late.”

    Luis glared at the accusation. “What about Anna?”

    “What about Anna?” Sheridan threw the question back at him. “You saw her. She’s downstairs with her grandparents. They’re watching her while we check out the house. Your mother’s with them. Surely, you don’t object to that.”

    Mama had been headed back inside, back to work, when Luis had arrived. Sam, he knew, was expected back at the station in his stead. That left Julian and Ivy, and Luis sure as hell didn’t trust leaving Anna in their care alone. “I’m not leaving her with your brother and Ivy. They can’t be trusted.” All sorts of scenarios, scenarios that involved planes and foreign countries and money that he’d never possess and Anna growing up a pseudo-Crane played out in Luis’s mind, and he was adamant.

    Sheridan reined in her anger, putting herself in Luis’s position, or trying to. It didn’t work, not for long, and she answered him with a clipped, “Fine. Go to the appointment by yourself. I’ll stay here with Anna. That’s if you can trust me.

    With much difficulty, Luis forced himself to be reasonable and came up with a suggestion. “I’ll have Grace check up on her. You’re coming with me.”

    Sheridan’s inner brat couldn’t resist, “You sure about that?”

    “You’re going with me, dammit,” Luis snapped. “Let’s go.”

    “There’s just one tiny problem with your plan, Drill Sergeant,” Sheridan retorted, snagging the slipping spaghetti strap in her fingers again. Anger and animosity and something else crackled between them when she presented him with her back. “I can’t go anywhere like this.”

    Willing his lead feet to move and cross the room to Sheridan, Luis wished for the thousandth time Theresa were here. The overpowering need to hug her was only challenged by one other need: to wrap his hands around her neck and strangle her for putting him in his own personal brand of Hell.



    ~*~


    With Reese’s doorstep darkened and empty while he and Sadie were out of town through the weekend, Kay found herself aimlessly walking the sidewalks of Harmony. She’d already bypassed the Book Café (and a cup of coffee), her nerves too frayed already to contemplate adding caffeine to the mix, when she walked past the little mom and pop drug store in town and straight into the path of the woman her uncle was shacking up with (though he’d never admitted as much): her dead half-brother’s frazzled-looking ex-fiancee.

    “I wasn’t watching where I was going,” Gwen hastily apologized, a small, non-descript white bag clutched between bloodless fingers.

    Her eyes were hidden behind large, stylish sunglasses, but Kay could still see them widen when they realized her identity. “That’s all right,” Kay shrugged. “Neither was I.”

    “Kay?” Gwen questioned.

    “That’s me,” Kay responded with a wry smile, surprised and somewhat pleased when Gwen remembered her name. Though they’d crossed paths before (Harmony really was dreadfully small), they didn’t really know each other all that well. Most of Kay’s knowledge of the jilted debutante (the Harmony Herald’s moniker, not hers) was secondhand. Who knew what her uncle had told the edgy-looking blond about her? Her eyes were drawn to the bag Gwen had a death grip on, and her natural curiosity led her to ask, “What’s in the bag?”

    Stuffing the small bag into her purse and out of sight, Gwen smoothly (not) replied, “Nothing. It’s nothing.” Removing her sunglasses, she placed them atop her head and studied the young girl in front of her critically. “Are you okay?”

    Kay returned her stare with one of her own, tossing her question back at her without answering her. “Is something wrong?” The blond was pale and nervous and looked to be in serious need of a drink. With perhaps too much honesty, Kay blurted, “You don’t look so hot.”

    “Thanks,” the line of Gwen’s mouth grew tight. “Thanks a lot.”

    “I don’t mean to be rude or anything,” Kay said in grudging apology. “It’s just…for some reason my uncle seems to like you. I thought I should ask.” Gwen’s eyes narrowed at her suspiciously, and Kay knew she had her attention now.

    “What has your uncle said about me?”

    “Not much,” Kay admitted, and it was true. Her uncle was notoriously tight-lipped about his relationship (whatever the hell it was) with the woman watching her expectantly. But he’d defended her in the face of her dad’s disapproval when he’d discovered their living arrangement, and she figured that had to count for something. “Thanks. For giving him a job, finding a way to make him stick around,” she said.

    “Your uncle’s not sticking around for me,” Gwen countered, looking a little flustered at the mere suggestion. “Our relationship,” the word seemed to make her feel faint, and so, she exchanged it for one less threatening, “our partnership isn’t like that. He’s sticking around because he wants to be close to his family and friends, all the people he loves.” Sam, Sheridan, Luis, Gwen’s brain helpfully supplied. “Not because I gave him a job.”

    No, Kay thought to herself, listening to Gwen’s nervous effort at denial, watching the unwitting, unrealized, emotion play across the other woman’s face, not because you gave him a job. “Thank you anyway,” she repeated, suppressing a smile.

    Uncomfortably, Gwen replied, “You’re welcome.” Her hand strayed to her purse again, and the gesture didn’t go unnoticed by Kay. Hiding her eyes again behind the cover of her sunglasses, Gwen smiled pleasantly at her, “Nice talking to you, Kay.”

    “Likewise,” Kay murmured, eyeing her with great interest as she turned around and started walking in the opposite direction.

    Gwen crossed the street, digging her car keys and the little white bag from her purse before opening the door and sliding behind the wheel.

    Unable to resist—she did share a gene pool with Hank, after all—Kay called out one last parting shot, “Say hi to Uncle Hank for me!”



    ~*~



    On a blanket spread out nearby the creaking porch swing, Hope effortlessly entertained Anna with silly faces and mischievous fingers, tickling the little girl’s sensitive skin and making her squeal with breathless giggles.

    Wearing a wistful smile as she observed the children’s play, Ivy wished it were so easy for her. Wrangling a smile, a laugh, out of Anna was hard work if you weren’t Sheridan or Hope. Of herself, Luis, Sam, and Pilar, she’d had to work the hardest to gain some semblance of the baby’s trust. She still hadn’t succeeding in owning it completely, but she was miles above where she’d started a month ago, and that thought gave her some small measure of hope. She looked over in surprise when, without a word, Julian seated himself on the swaying bench beside her. They shared the swing in silence for many long minutes, observing the two little girls, one the living embodiment of all the reasons why she shouldn’t still care for Sam the way she did, the other physical proof her feelings for Sam had been real, shared, and returned once upon a time. When Hope blew a loud raspberry against Anna’s protruding little tummy, causing her to grin and clench her tiny fingers in the rumpled red strands, Ivy was hit with a startling sense of déjà vu. In awe, she murmured, “She has Theresa’s smile.”

    Julian neither agreed nor disagreed, doing his own silent assessment.

    Luckily, Hope filled the silence, her own giggles started to sound a little panicked when the baby refused to relax her grip on her hair. “Anna. Let go,” she pleaded, finally prying the greedy little fingers loose with a relieved sigh. Sinking back on her heels, Hope pushed her hair back from her face and announced, “I’m thirsty.”

    Taking in the pink flush on the child’s freckled cheeks, and the sweaty strands of hair clinging to her forehead and neck, Ivy found herself sharing the little girl’s sentiment. Lifting a hand to fan her own face, she agreed, “A tall, cool glass of lemonade does sound lovely.”

    Hope’s always animated face scrunched up in obvious disapproval, and clambering to her feet from her knees, Anna struggling to do the same. “Not to me,” she all but huffed. “I want chocolate milk. Mr. Crane,” she turned to Julian. “Will you fix me some? Pretty please?”

    Ivy’s blue-green eyes widened in surprise when Julian didn’t immediately dispel Hope’s wishes with his customary refusal, and she watched, even further astonished, as he took the hand Hope held out and stood up, stumbling slightly when the little girl gave his hand a mighty tug. “Did you see that, Darling?” Ivy remarked when they had gone, Hope chattering non-stop all the way, and it was just her and Anna.

    The baby stared back at her with solemn blue eyes.

    “Must be the heat,” Ivy muttered softly, scooting off the edge of the swing to crouch down in front of Anna. “Playing tricks on us.” Slowly, careful not to spook the tiny girl, she scooped her up into her arms and resettled them both back on the swing, gently pushing it into motion. The breeze that motion created ruffled Anna’s dark curls, and the baby’s small fingers discovered and wrapped themselves around the locket at Ivy’s throat. “You see that?” Ivy took the opportunity while Anna was distracted to place a kiss atop her silky head. “You see my necklace?”

    Anna momentarily dropped the necklace to pull away, her blue eyes roving over Ivy’s face warily until the sunlight caught the locket again, making it glow and shimmer enticingly. Fingers tangled in the delicate chain and wholly entranced, she didn’t notice when Ivy hugged her close again.

    “You want to look inside, Darling?” Head bowed, forehead pressing lightly to that of her granddaughter, Ivy worked the latch on the locket with fingers that held the tiniest of tremors. “Let’s look inside.” Her voice caught, trembled with emotion as she pointed out Ethan’s likeness to Anna. “It’s Daddy,” she murmured. “See Daddy?”

    Anna’s eyes were wide and innocent and blue, and her black lashes fluttered against her cheeks like butterfly wings, kissed Ivy’s skin like a whisper, as she gazed at the picture in the locket.

    Ivy swore she saw recognition in their ocean depths. “And this,” she pointed out the picture on the other side of the locket. “This is your grandpa Sam.” Tunneling her hand through fragrant dark curls, she murmured against the baby’s brow, content to let her play with the necklace at her neck, her arms aching to hold the last little piece of Ethan that existed close. “You’ve got their eyes, Darling.” She drew in a sharp intake of air, her arms tightening protectively around Anna when a new voice spoke, Grace’s voice.

    “Bennett eyes.”

    Anna whimpered, and Ivy relaxed her hold somewhat, freeing up a hand to take the glass of lemonade Grace held out in offering. She smiled her gratitude and quietly made her apologies. “I didn’t hear you come outside.”

    Grace only had eyes for Anna, the tiny child whose sole existence guaranteed her husband would be forever linked with the woman she wanted to hate but couldn’t. It would be hypocritical to fault Ivy for loving Sam when she knew what that love felt like. Still, she wasn’t a saint, and she wasn’t about to lay down and let Ivy lure Sam back into her arms with her siren’s call. It was high time she made the other woman aware of that. Taking a seat beside Ivy on the swing, she kept her voice steady and strong with a resolve she knew still needed work. “I think it’s time we laid out a few ground rules.”




    ~*~





    The house, compact and contemporary, was perfect: for a fallen Crane princess looking to slum it.

    Its small landscaped grounds had never welcomed playing children, and its boldly painted walls were untouchable.

    Luis could easily picture Sheridan moving through its halls, drink in hand, slinky, painted on dress and smarmy, rich globe-trotter wrapped around her body. What he couldn’t picture were slashes of graphite marking the kitchen doorway, measuring the years’ changes in Anna. He couldn’t fathom tea parties like the ones Theresa used to make him and Miguel suffer through. He couldn’t imagine Anna’s finger paintings hanging on the refrigerator or himself teaching the little girl how to ride a bike without training wheels out there in that cold concrete jungle. He couldn’t see them achieving the miraculous here: becoming a family. But he could see her, Sheridan. He could see her, he thought to himself, observing her as she chatted politely with the real estate agent, a man as transparent as his thinning hair. Luis had watched, for the better part of the last hour, the brazen bastard come on to his wife, despite the ring around her finger. He’d watched and pretended to be oblivious, but enough was enough. They had to make this look real, right?

    Sheridan barely suppressed a shiver when she felt his possessive hand settle low on her back, his strong fingers curling around her hip. She glanced up at him, into the black glimmer of his eyes, and wondered what he was up to when his hand slid around her hip, fanning out over her abdomen before pulling her back against him, and she held her breath as he loudly made a suggestion.

    “I think we need a little time to ourselves, Sweetheart. To talk things over a bit.” Luis deliberately slid his gaze over the large bed that dominated the room, and their guide on this little tour quickly got the message. Red-faced, he stumbled slightly over his words as he excused himself.

    “I won’t be long. I…I have to go make a few phone calls. To some of my other clients.”

    Allowing himself the delicious agony of holding Sheridan only a few seconds longer, Luis pushed her aside when the echoing sound of the agent’s footfall had fallen silent. Moving to the wall of windows that looked out into a postage stamp sized backyard, he tracked the man’s progress, scowling when he watched him withdraw a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from his jacket pocket in lieu of a cell phone. He didn’t give much notice to Sheridan’s continued presence in the room until he heard her draw in a shuddering breath then exclaim in a flurry of angry words.

    “What the hell was that about?”

    Luis admired the purple tint of fury in her eyes and the way her chest heaved under the force of her emotions. He took his time answering her, though, knowing his words would only serve to further rile her up. “You’re my wife. I thought somebody should remind you of that fact.”

    Sheridan didn’t disappoint him; she was angry enough to spit nails and growing sick of the jealousy Luis refused to admit to. Crowding into his personal space, she smiled evilly at the flinch he couldn’t hide when she lay a hand upon his chest. Served him right, she thought, remembering the way his hands had lingered on her back earlier, when he’d taken damn near eternity zipping up her dress. The constant push and pull between them was tormenting her, and their marriage was barely a month old. How they were going to make the union last to keep Anna in their lives she couldn’t pretend to know. All she knew was she was tired already of Luis holding all the power in their relationship. He didn’t love her; he’d proven, reminded her of that in a thousand ways since they’d said their vows. But he wanted her, and she was so starved for human contact, especially from the man currently glowering at her, that she would take what she could get. Father was right. She was weak, too weak, in this moment, for self-respect. Toying with the buttons of his shirt, she coyly reminded him, “I thought we had to talk over a few things.”

    Luis’s pulse jumped in his throat when she slid her hands up his chest, pausing for only a second at his shoulders. He was a solid wall of quivering restraint when her hands continued their upward motion, her arms roping around his neck, her sweet breath bathing his face. He groaned inwardly at the soft crush of her breasts against the hard plane of his chest, and his eyes slammed shut as he felt his body stirring unmistakably in response to her nearness. “Sheridan,” he growled out when her mouth hovered in front of his own. He stopped her just short of kissing him, his strong hands branding her waist, forcefully pushing her back against the cool surface of one of the windows. For a brief second, the blink of an eye, he followed her body, her heat, pressing into her, thoughts of running his hands over her underneath her dress consuming his rational mind. Then he distantly heard a throat clear, and he saw a hint of sadness peek through in her blue eyes, just a glimpse, but enough. Regaining his sanity, he stepped away from her, keeping his eyes on their friend outside, now joined by another man, tall and owlish and reeking of new money, while Sheridan made nice with the new arrival. In the reflection of the glass, he saw the garishly dressed woman reach self-consciously for the string of pearls at her neck while she apologized.

    “I’m so sorry. I told Harold we were early for our appointment.”

    He left them, with their awkward small talk, their meaningless chatter. He left them, he left the house, he left his wife, on his way back to work early. He left Sheridan, wondering if she’d pushed him too far.


    ~*~



    “Aren’t you going to eat?” Hank questioned, watching Gwen push her food around her plate with her fork (the fact that she used a fork to eat her fries was usually a source of endless amusement to him). “I know it’s not your favorite, Babe,” his brown eyes lit up at the nickname he knew she hated, “but I didn’t have time to whip up a gourmet meal. I got a game tonight.” True to his word, he was already wearing his uniform, the purple tee-shirt that proclaimed him the proud co-coach of the Harmony Junior Cats (Hellcats, Sheridan had told him with much chagrin, just didn’t seem appropriate for a misfit bunch of ten-year-olds that were still learning the basics of the game) and a pair of jeans. “You coming?”

    Gwen lay her fork down with a sigh. Every time he asked the same question. Every time she gave the same answer. Though this time, she kept it at a succinct, “No.”

    Hank eyed her curiously. She was acting strangely. He hadn’t needed Kay’s phone call to tell him that, but it had made him hyper-aware. “Rough day at work?”

    “I don’t want to talk about it,” Gwen mumbled, standing up and pushing away from the table. Lifting a shaky hand to her forehead, she glanced around the apartment, clean and orderly, and back at the man eyeing her with concern he didn’t seem to want to own up to, and she wondered how she’d arrived at this point. She’d made a lot of stupid mistakes in the past few years, but none of them, it seemed, had been quite as stupid as taking him into her bed, her home, over a month ago. He was like a fungus. He just.wouldn’t.leave. “What are you still doing here?”

    Hank paused in the act of scraping her untouched dinner into the garbage disposal to answer, “The game’s not until 6.” He looked up at her sharply when she blew out an exasperated breath.

    “That’s not what I meant.” Gwen shirked away from his touch when he tried to cage her against the kitchen counter with his arms. “I mean here,” she looked around the apartment again. “Still with me.”

    Hank’s hands were drawn to her hair, slipping free, like always, from its elegant twist. Tucking a heavy strand behind her ear, he gave her a carefree grin, sliding the same hand down her side to her waist, drawing her body against him. “Being your cleaning lady has a lot of perks.” He wiggled his brows at her in a teasing matter, hooking his fingers into the waistband of her skirt when she tried to escape and reeling her back in. “Hey,” he forced himself to be more serious. “What’s wrong? I thought we had a pretty good arrangement here.”

    Her arms folded across her chest defensively, Gwen shied away from his eyes, her agitation growing. “Paying you with sex was never part of the deal.”

    “What?” Hank floundered for words. “You’re not paying me…that’s not what you and me are about. I didn’t…I don’t do what I do to get you to sleep with me.”

    “Don’t you?” Gwen wondered. “Hank, do you love me?” Finally, she succeeded in breaking through his teasing, happy-go-lucky exterior, and he stepped back, giving her some much needed space.

    Raking a hand through his already disheveled hair roughly, Hank looked at her with troubled brown eyes. “Where the hell is this coming from? This isn’t about love.” Nothing about their antagonistic, lustful relationship screamed love! He winced at the wounded expression in her brown eyes, brown eyes that he had just realized shone with a suspicious sheen. He hurried to explain himself. “We have fun. You take my mind off of Sheridan. I’m the stand-in for Ethan. That isn’t love.” He grabbed onto her arm when she made to leave. “Wait. You’re not understanding me here.”

    Gwen barked out a laugh, a single tear sneaking down her cheek without her permission. “I’m understanding you perfectly.”

    Hank’s brown eyes narrowed at her. “Answer me this,” he posed. “Do you love me?” One look into her eyes told him all he needed to know. “I didn’t think so,” he said, relaxing his grip on his arm. “Hell, Gwen. I like you. You’re the best time I’ve had in a long time. We have a good thing going.” Reluctantly, he let go of her when she curled her arms tighter around herself and turned away from him. “Why do you want to mess it up? I’m clueless here so tell me. What’s gotten into you?” When she didn’t answer him, he shook his head, noting the time glowing at them from the microwave. Swearing, he snaked an arm around her waist, tugging her against him and kissing a path down her exposed neck to her tensed shoulder. “I gotta go. I promised Hope I’d pick her up early so we could grab some ice cream. Can we finish this later?”

    “Go,” Gwen shrugged off his touch.

    “You gonna change the locks while I’m gone, Babe?” Hank’s attempt at humor fell flat, especially when he considered the fact that it was a very real possibility. “Look. You know where to find me if you change your mind, all right.”

    “Just go,” Gwen urged.

    With great reluctance, Hank did as she asked.

    ~*~


    “Daddy!” Hope torpedoed down the stairs, launching herself off the last few and straight into Sam’s waiting arms. “Guess what?” She didn’t give Sam time to make such a conjecture, her grand surprise bursting out in her excitement. “I get to be the water girl tonight at Uncle Hank’s game! Isn’t that great?”

    Taking in her mini-Harmony Hellcats tee-shirt (a relic of Kay’s summers spent on the baseball diamond with Miguel, circa age 8, and thus, absolutely swimming on her), and the purple ribbon already drooping in her red hair, Sam could only grin at his littlest. “That’s excellent.” Dropping her back down to her feet, he let her pull him deeper into the living room by his hands. “Where’s Kay and your mom?” he asked, noticing the distant lack of anyone else in the too quiet room.

    “Kay’s upstairs talking to Mister Reese on the phone,” Hope chirped, casting her head back and beaming up at him, upside down. “Mister Reese let me talk to Sadie and everything.”

    “Did she talk back?” Sam chuckled, affectionately mussing her hair when she released his hands. Allowing her to guide him down to the sofa’s plush cushions, he patiently waited while she climbed into his lap for her answer.

    Hope’s blue eyes were wide with excitement as she detailed how Sadie had barked happily and loudly at the sound of her voice, so loudly Mister Reese had had to shut her into the bathroom to calm her down. “She misses me.”

    “Sounds like she does,” Sam agreed. “You like Mister Reese and Sadie, don’t you?"

    “Uh huh,” Hope giggled in answer, like she was revealing a big secret. “But not as much as Kay does.”

    “Don’t listen to her,” Kay groused, the top step groaning underfoot and signaling her descent down the stairs. “She’s notorious for making things up. Ask Pilar.”

    Hope scowled at her sister. “Ms. Lenox’s doll smiled at me. I swear it did!”

    “Don’t yell at your sister,” Sam chastised the agitated little red head. To Kay, he sent a warning look. “Since I can’t get an answer out of this one, maybe you can help me. Where’s your mother?”

    Coaxing Hope out of their father’s lap, Kay set about repairing the damage to the little girl’s hopeless hair. With a shrug, she told her father, “She’s around.” Grabbing hold of Hope’s narrow shoulders when they heard the honking of a car horn, she announced, “That’s Uncle Hank. Come on, Pest, or we’ll be late. Say bye to Dad.”

    Sam made a big show of capturing the kiss Hope blew him. “Knock ‘em dead, Ladybug.” Clapping his hands down over his thighs when the rumble of Hank’s engine died away, he rose from the sofa, going in search of his missing-in-action other half. He didn’t have to look far. “Grace?” Her name fell from his lips in disbelief when he found her on the other side of the kitchen door, looking pretty in a periwinkle dress that swirled around her slender ankles. “What is this?”

    Cupping a self-conscious hand over her neck, Grace gave him a shy smile and gestured to the table, set for two, and the candles that flickered on the table. Her mouth opened to speak, but her brain wouldn’t supply the words, especially when Sam stepped closer and stared at her with those intense blue eyes, the ones that had made her fall in love with him in the first place. Finally, she managed to sigh out, “I’ve been thinking…”

    "About?” Sam waited patiently for her to continue, to give him something to work with here. He didn’t dare hope for the words she said next.

    “It isn’t fair to ask you to do all the fighting, Sam. Not when I want this family, just as much as you,” Grace told him, tears of conviction in her eyes.

    “Grace?” Sam whispered her name in disbelief. He held out his hand, and he felt his heart clench painfully when her hand hovered over his own. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

    Swallowing over the nervous lump in her throat, Grace found she couldn’t speak, and decided to let her actions speak for her, nodding and swiping at the tears that spilled freely once she caught the hope shining like a beacon in her husband’s eyes. “It’s just dinner, not much, but I thought it’d be a start. I know we have a lot more hard work in front of us, but I didn’t want to be too late.” Biting her lip self-consciously, she sent forth a plea, “Tell me I’m not too late, Sam.”

    “You’re not,” Sam told her, taking her hand and threading their fingers together. “You’re not.”

    ~*~






    The Youth Center was still mostly empty, only a few early birds and their parents having arrived when Luis got there. Spying Beth setting up her usual refreshment table near the entrance, he lifted a hand and offered a flicker of a smile as he passed her by. That flicker grew though when he spotted Mama, in her customary perch high atop the bleachers, with Anna bouncing upon her knee.

    “Mama, you’re here early.”

    “Mi hijo,” Pilar smiled warmly at Luis when he bounded up the bleachers to join them. “I came with this little one and Sheridan,” she informed him, sliding a hand over the sleeve of his police uniform as he leaned down to kiss her cheek. “Sheridan wasn’t sure you’d come.”

    Settling beside his mama, Luis kept his eyes focused on the tiny girl cradled in her arms, staring at him with serious blue eyes. The guilt he’d already felt at abandoning Sheridan earlier grew exponentially with the realization that she’d apparently called his mother to come rescue her. Finally, he acknowledged his mama’s words, uttering a soft apology, then asking, “Did she say that?”

    “No,” Pilar murmured, pressing her cheek against Anna’s soft dark curls as she answered him. “She said you were called away to work suddenly, and she didn’t know when you’d be home. I selfishly offered to give her a ride so that I could spend more time with my granddaughter.”

    “You know you can see Anna any time that you want, Mama,” Luis told her.

    “I know,” Pilar smiled at him. “You have no idea how much I appreciate your generosity, mi hijo.” She leaned into the arm he lovingly cast about her shoulders before searching out his eyes and making sure he looked at her. “But you and Sheridan are newlyweds, Luis. Even more than that, you and she and Anna are a new family. I mustn’t intrude on that.”

    Luis’s arm dropped back down to his side, and he rubbed a thumb over the pillow soft skin behind Anna’s knee as he contemplated the best way to respond to her statement. He decided the truth, gently delivered, was the best way. “You know why I married Sheridan, Mama. My heart belongs solely to this little girl,” he said, turning to the side and carefully extracting Anna from Pilar’s arms, unaware that he had an audience of one in Sheridan, a few steps below them. With his declaration, she quietly turned to go, Luis none the wiser but Anna and Pilar witness to her hurt. “Right, Anna Banana?” Holding the baby close, he kissed her fretful brow and cast a quick glance around at their surroundings, more children and parents filing inside and filling the Youth Center with life and its accompanying music (noise). When Anna began to pout and her big blue eyes started filling up with fat tears, Luis shook his head, “I told Sheridan it’s too noisy for her in here.”

    Standing, Pilar reached to take Anna back from her son’s arms. Her mouth against Anna’s forehead, she tried to soothe her. “She’s just cranky. It’s quieter in the office. We can watch the game from there.”

    “Thanks, Mama.” Luis watched them go. When he was satisfied they’d safely reached their destination, he turned his attention back to the court, where all but a couple of the perpetually late Junior Cats had gathered around his wife and the newly arrived Hank Bennett. The frown on his face deepened as he watched the easy way they interacted, and the smile Sheridan seemed to reserve only for him.

    “Careful, or your face will freeze like that.”

    "Beth,” Luis greeted his former girlfriend in surprise. “I didn’t realize you were there.”

    "Of course not,” Beth’s eyes twinkled down at him. “You were too busy shooting daggers Hank’s way.” She laughed softly at his expression. He was caught, and he knew it. Thankfully, he didn’t try his hand at denial, because she didn’t feel like calling him on it. He looked miserable enough. “You know you’re worrying over nothing, right? There’s definitely a crush there, but it’s completely one-sided.”

    Luis’s jaw tightened, but he remained silent. He wasn’t jealous per Beth’s implication, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to make himself look that way by rising to the bait. With a little coaxing, he took the bottle of water Beth held out to him.

    “You definitely look like you could use something stronger,” Beth gently kidded him, bumping her shoulder against him. “C’mon,” she smiled encouragingly at him. “Loosen up before you scare the kids.”

    Luis forced a smile that looked more like a grimace. “Better?” he grit out.

    “Marginally,” Beth remarked with amusement. “Now you just look mildly threatening instead of murderous.” Taking his bottle of water from him, she uncapped it and took a large swallow before handing it back to him. “I volunteer for a different kind of spit swapping if you want to make the wife jealous,” she winked at him.

    Now she was really pulling his leg. Reluctant humor finally swayed Luis’s black cloud disposition, and he couldn’t help but smile at her, really smile. “Thanks, but I don’t think I’ll be needing your services.”

    “Don’t say I never tried to help you,” Beth grinned back at him, giving his thigh a playful swat. “I have to run. I’m sure this isn’t what Kay had in mind when she agreed to let me run to the little girl’s room.” She left him with one final word of advice. “Smile some more. It’s what newlyweds do.”

    We aren’t your typical newlyweds, Luis thought to himself, his smile there but not quite reaching his eyes as he bid Beth goodbye. He caught Sheridan’s turbulent blue eyes across the virtual sea of people taking their seats for the game before she hastily turned away, focusing all of her attention on the gaggle of ten-year-old boys (im)patiently awaiting her instruction, and he suppressed a sigh as he read hurt and disappointment in the guarded set of her shoulders. Not your typical newlyweds at all.



    ~*~



    Hank had been surprised when Gwen had shown up halfway through the game, looking pale and awkward and out of place. He’d grabbed Sheridan’s elbow, nodded at Gwen, and jogged over to where she stood, so alone, so aloof. He’d smiled at her, touched her arm, thanked her a little breathlessly for showing up when he’d been so sure she wouldn’t, not after the scene back at her apartment. Everything was okay between them again, or so he thought, until she stunned him with a blurted revelation.

    I’m pregnant.

    The ground felt like it had opened up beneath Hank, but it hadn’t swallowed him whole as he expected it to. He’d stared at her, willing her to take it back, tell him it was a joke, but she made no move to do so, only looked at him with frightened brown eyes. When she’d turned to go, shutting down on him again, he’d captured her hand, the capability of speech finally returned to him. “Hey…Don’t leave.” Glancing over his shoulder, where the game continued to play out, he tried to explain, “I can’t go, not yet. The game’s not over.”

    The boys had gone on to win the game, evening up their win-loss record, and Beth had invited the entire bunch to the Book Café for celebratory sweets. Hope had been over the moon (ice cream and cookies in the same day?!), and Kay had been mildly disinterested but had agreed to accompany her kid sis in the interest of giving their parents some much-needed alone time.

    Hank had declined the invitation, offering to stay behind and finish cleaning up the place, and he did so, delaying the inevitable, as one by one, everyone else save him and Gwen had left. He shut the lights off behind as he moved through the eerily quiet Youth Center, until only the lights from the locker room glowed. He found her there, on the floor with her back against the lockers, clutching a tiny stick in her white-knuckled hands. She didn’t say anything until he backed up against the lockers, sliding down them to join her in the floor.

    “There were three of them in the box.” She relaxed her clenched fists only to start tapping the stick nervously against her now-opened palm. “I’ve already taken the other two.”

    Clearing his throat awkwardly, Hank felt like a fool for asking the question, but he had to. “So we’re looking at best out of three?” Stilling her hand with his own, he waited for her to look at him. Finally, she did, turning her head to face him, her blond hair wisping about a face he was just now realizing looked not only pale and drawn but exhausted.

    Dropping her chin to her shoulder and staring at him with glassy brown eyes, Gwen murmured, “We’re 2 for 2 so far.”

    She looked so vulnerable, so exposed in that moment, Hank had to look away. He didn’t relinquish her hand, though, threading his fingers through her own and softening his next comment with a gentle squeeze. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for this to happen.”

    His words stung a little but Gwen appreciated his honesty. Shrugging her shoulders slightly, she lifted her free hand to scrub it over her face, staring at the floor, and her words were muffled but still audible as she said, “It takes two. I wasn’t exactly unwilling even if my judgment was a little impaired.”

    Remembering the alcoholic haze that had characterized their first night together, Hank had no trouble coming up with how they had found themselves in their current predicament. Things had gotten a little wild, to put it mildly, and all the necessary precautions, well, they might have fallen by the wayside, so to say. He couldn’t resist teasing, “C’mon. You liked me, even before you were three sheets to the wind.” He grinned when she pulled her hand free to give his shoulder a shove. He lay his hand upon her knee, gently massaging, when she settled down beside him, quiet again. “I’m going to have to resign, you know.”

    Frowning at him, Gwen waited for him to elaborate.

    "Think of it, Babe. The embarrassment of getting knocked up by your cleaning lady,” Hank cracked. He leaned over to kiss her when a hysterical giggle spilled from her mouth, surprising them both. He suppressed a sigh of disappointment when she pulled away, a pink flush on her cheeks.

    “Just so we’re clear…I don’t love you,” Gwen declared.

    “Good,” Hank took her statement in stride. “I don’t love you either. That doesn’t mean we can’t be the kind of parents this kid deserves.”

    “I haven’t even taken the last test,” Gwen reminded him.

    “Well,” Hank pushed himself up from the ground, offering her his hand. “What are we waiting for?” His hands on her hips, he steered her toward the bathroom. “Let’s make it 3 for 3.”



    ~*~



    It was a moonlit night with a blanket of stars twinkling down, and so, Kay had declined Sheridan’s generous offer to give them a ride as far as the B and B (that kind of tension was just plain scary if you asked Kay). Instead, she’d taken Hope’s hand and they’d set off for home, traveling the empty sidewalks and scurrying across the sleepy streets, Hope alternately shrieking with laughter in her sugar-induced high and bursting forth with questions. Some of them had her choking down a laugh; others sent her stomach churning.

    “Kay,” Hope waved her arms about, pretending she was an airplane high in the sky, “Why don’t Sheridan and Mr. Luis act all gross like Micah’s mom and new daddy? They just got married too.”

    Kay held her breath and her answer when Hope stumbled, only answering when the little girl recovered and resumed making airplane sounds, no worse for wear. “What do you mean by gross?” she asked, snagging hold of Hope’s parachute-like tee-shirt when she tried to skitter across the street on her own. “Hey! What have I told you about crossing the street on your own?”

    Hope dutifully slipped her hand into her sister’s, bouncing in place (much like Tigger of the Hundred Acre Wood) until they had successfully navigated the street, her red hair bouncing with her. Scrunching up her nose in disgust, she elaborated, “Kissing and stuff.”

    Skillfully skirting around the whole truth, Kay fed Hope a half-truth in big words she knew the little pest wouldn’t be able to understand, bright though she was. “Sheridan and Luis just don’t believe in public displays of affection.” Or any affection, Kay mused to herself silently, remembering Luis’s cold treatment of Sheridan at the Book Café. Marriages of convenience weren’t all they were cracked up to be, especially with sexual tension like that.

    Hope seemed to accept her answer, letting go of her hand to veer off the sidewalk into the plush green grass that called to her beside it. Before Kay could stop her, her feet were flying over her head as she turned several wobbly cartwheels in a row, finally landing on her butt with a breathless giggle.

    “Hope-less,” Kay groaned, tugging at the little girl’s hands. “Get up.” It took several tries, but she finally had Hope back on her feet and reasonably calm. The little klutz was walking backwards, her hands rooted in her big sister’s hands, chattering a mile a minute. Fortunately, Kay was well versed in dealing with the naturally chatty red-headed pest. She found her mind drifting, until Hope posed one of those questions again, the kind that frequently made either her mom or Dad erupt into an uncomfortable coughing fit.

    “What did Beth mean when she said it sure looked Uncle Hank was doing more than Miss Gwen’s laundry?”

    Schooling her features into a mask of indifference, Kay quizzed, “Where did you hear her say something like that?” Without waiting for Hope to answer her, she fired off another question, “Who was she talking to?”

    “I don’t remember,” Hope shrugged, letting go of Kay’s hands and turning back around when she realized they were barely a block from their house. Poised to take off skipping for home, she scowled when Kay grabbed her shoulder, forcing her to slow down and hold onto her hand. Sighing melodramatically, she revealed, “I miss Sadie. Did Mister Reese say when he was coming home?”

    Kay thought about telling her the truth: that home and Harmony no longer meant the same thing to Reese, that the time would come when his return trips would grow farther and farther apart, especially when he found a buyer for his house, but a morose Hope was difficult enough. A morose Hope on the downward spiral of a sugar high was downright disastrous. Plus, the thought didn’t exactly cheer her, so she decided to focus on the positive, giving the little girl a vague, “Soon.”

    “Yay!” Hope held up her hands to cheer. “I’m glad.”

    “Me too,” Kay smiled at the joy shining in her blue eyes, visible even in the faint light of the stars and street lights. She gently squeezed the little hand when it fitted itself back in hers, her heart large and aching in her chest at the simple act of loving trust. When they stepped into the gentle yellow glow spilling from their own house’s windows, Kay slowed to a stop, surprising Hope and making her squeal with pleasure when she scooped her into her arms and gave her a fierce hug. Pulling a hand free, she ruffled the messy red hair affectionately. “Maybe you’re not so hopeless after all.”

    Hope grinned and emphatically squeezed her back.

    “If you tell anybody about this, I’ll deny it. Got it?”

    “Uh huh,” Hope nodded, slip-sliding down the length of Kay’s body and back onto her own two feet. She leaned into her sister’s solid warmth as they walked toward the front door, burrowing her little fingers into the pocket of Kay’s jeans and holding on. Fighting back a yawn as the sugar started to leave her system, she looked up to Kay in confusion when she came to a sudden stop, an unreadable expression on her face and her eyes all a-glow. Looking up at her, her small face pinched in worry, she asked, “Are Mommy and Daddy fighting again?”

    Looking at her parents, sitting and talking (really talking) with each other, their faces more open and honest than Kay had seen them in years, Kay softly said, “No, Hope. They’re not fighting.”

    Satisfied with Kay’s answer, Hope tucked herself closer to her, allowing her to lead her where she would, the late hour finally creeping up on her and making her sleepy and pliant. “Where we going?” her jaw cracked with a yawn.

    “I thought maybe you could show me the man in the moon.”








    So...what did you think?

    So sorry I only seem to drop by to post a new chapter every six months.

    Inspiration's fleeting when you haven't watched an episode of the show in years and everybody save one sweetheart (Lynne, lol) has stopped replying. Obviously she's not the only one reading judging by the number of views the story's getting, lol.

    Anyway...I hope you enjoyed the chapter.

    Until next time.

    And it goes without saying...feedback is love!

  8. #24
    Join Date
    Oct 2000
    Posts
    489

    Post Re: Anna Begins

    Because I want so badly to update this fic...


    You're getting what amounts to a snippet.





    It's one of the shortest chapters I've written in a while, and it's a little light on Sheridan/Luis interaction, but like I said, I want to update this fic, and hopefully, this is the jumping off point to help me get my behind back in gear where this particular story is concerned.


    Feedback would be lovely.


    Are any of you still reading this story?


    Drop me a note.





    On to the chapter...



















    Chapter 19



    Did I ever tell you how scared I was, Mama? When I first suspected I was pregnant with Anna? Sure, I wanted her. From the moment I knew I was carrying her, I wanted her. Even before then. She was a little part of me and Ethan, and I loved her before I ever knew her.

    But I was scared, terrified that I wasn't ready, that I wasn't good enough. How could I be good enough to help shape the life of such a tiny, helpless thing?

    We didn't have much, Mama, not in the beginning. Just our dreams. Well, I had dreams. Ethan had plans. Not the plans made for him by Alistair or Julian or Ivy. Not those plans. His own plans, and a whole lot of determination.

    When I saw that first plus sign, I thought of Ethan, sure, and how I was going to break the news to him. But then I thought of you and how far away from home I was, and how I wanted so much for you to put your arms around me and tell me it was going to be okay. It was soon, but not so soon that I couldn't handle it. Me and Ethan? We were going to be okay.

    I was scared, and sometimes I still am, but I think that's okay. Anna is the best of both of us, and the day I stop being scared that I'm not good enough for that perfect little piece of me and Ethan is the day I stop being the Mama she deserves. The kind of Mama you were for me.

    When the oven timer went off, Pilar closed the thin, leather-bound journal with a sigh and tucked it back into the pocket of her apron. She was just taking another silver serving platter down from the kitchen cabinets and refilling it with the last batch of warm, buttery croissants when Kay entered the room, Hope hot on her heels.

    "I don't know how she does it," Kay sank into one of the kitchen chairs, picking at the crumbs littering the tray she'd retrieved from the sunroom where her mother was currently entertaining more than half a dozen old biddies (boy, had they made Luis squirm, gushing over his lovely wife and daughter, finding excuses to touch him, openly admiring his, er, physical attributes). "This is only my 3rd day, and I'm going crazy." Kay was of the fervent belief that her father was punishing her for her decision to take some time off from school by insisting she help her mother and Pilar out (officially) at the Bed and Breakfast for what amounted to chump change. Still, there were worse ways to bear the burden of her father's disappointment, she decided when Pilar placed a croissant on a saucer and set it in front of her. Hope crawled into Kay's lap and attacked the treat with her usual enthusiasm, and Kay could only shake her head. "Save some of that for me, Pest," she chastised, looking up just in time to catch a glimpse of Pilar's smile before she turned her back to them, busily refilling an empty pitcher of orange juice for the boisterous octogenarians that had arrived by bus two afternoons previous (and been the bane of Luis's existence since). "You're going to have to grow up and run this place, Hope-less, because I'm not good with people."

    Pilar wisely refrained from comment, merely offered Kay a polite smile.

    The twinkle in her dark eyes spoke volumes, though, and Kay didn't know whether to be offended by or appreciative of the fact that she seemed to share her opinion on the matter.

    Hope wiggled in her sister's lap, trying futilely to find a more comfortable position. Finally giving up, she slid from Kay's lap and crossed to Pilar, her small hand reaching out to tug at Pilar's apron. "I want to help. Please, Pilar?"

    Smiling warmly at the insistent little girl, Pilar carefully placed the silver platter in Hope's waiting hands. "Be very careful, Mi hija."

    Hope's auburn brows furrowed in concentration, and she tugged her bottom lip between her teeth as she set off for the sunroom, walking very slowly, comically slowly, in fact.

    Delighted ooo's and aah's soon drifted back to them inside the kitchen, and Pilar shared a meaningful look with Kay.

    "Sounds like she's got her own fan club in there," Kay remarked, pushing her chair back and joining Pilar at the sink. Wordlessly, she took over the task of rinsing and drying the dishes, then replacing them in the cabinets. She looked up when she felt the older woman's eyes on her, and that familiar feeling of being studied (judged) crept back in, forcing her to clear her throat uncomfortably. "Am I doing something wrong?"

    Pilar didn't answer her right away, just continued her silent appraisal. There existed so much history between her youngest son and the girl in front of her, some of it good, some of it bad, but none that could be erased. Miguel had been blind to Kay's changing feelings for him; Pilar had not. She'd seen that first painful spark of awareness, that first fervent awakening of hope, and while her loyalties lie firmly with her son, she could not discount all that she knew the girl had felt for Miguel as everyone else, even to some extent her own parents, had. The disappointment of unrequited first love had changed Kay, matured her, in ways Pilar was sure the girl hadn't realized herself yet. The past year, these past few weeks especially, had really demonstrated that.

    "Pilar," Kay carefully shut the cabinet in front of her, tucked her hair nervously behind her ears as she bravely turned to meet Pilar's contemplative gaze head-on. "You didn't answer me. Am I doing something wrong?" she repeated.

    "No," Pilar finally answered, shaking her head. "You are not," she smiled slightly, drying her hands on the dish towel hanging before her. "I think," she began, watching the wariness begin a slow and gradual fade from Kay's demeanor, "that you are doing a fine job. Maybe you are better with people than you believe."
    Kay laughed, and the smile on Pilar's face reached her eyes with the young girl's responding comment.

    "That'll cost you at least one Hail Mary."

    "Two," Pilar corrected her, as Hope trudged back into the kitchen, her already impossible red hair further mussed from the overly affectionate elderly hands, her cheeks pink and pinched, and the empty silver platter held in front of her like a shield. "Mi hija," Pilar relieved her of her burden and set it on the kitchen counter. "You are doing such a good job, you can take this orange juice to the nice ladies."

    Hope's blue eyes grew round, and she swallowed hard, before darting a panicked look in Kay's direction.

    Kay came to her kid sister's rescue, sending the little girl to the relative safe haven of the garden and Sheridan and Anna's welcome company. "I'll take the orange juice. It is my job, after all."

    Hope didn't have to be told twice. The kitchen door banged closed behind her, and her sneakers slapped against the wooden planks of the porch as she raced to the steps and the promise of escape.

    "Why don't you join them?" Kay proposed as she picked up the orange juice and turned to go. "I can take care of the Steel Magnolia Brigade."

    Pilar murmured her thanks and lifted her hands to untie the apron from her neck. She slid her hand inside its deep pockets to retrieve Theresa's journal, and cradling it protectively close, turned to go, until Kay's clear voice calling her name stopped her.

    "Pilar?"

    "Yes?"

    "Thank you for…" Kay trailed off awkwardly, unwilling to lay name to the multitude of her transgressions, the actions for which she sought atonement, at least in Miguel's eyes, his mother's eyes. "Just…thank you." Thank you for giving me another chance, Kay silently told Pilar with her eyes. Somehow, she knew Pilar understood.

    "You're welcome," Pilar said simply.

    "I better go," Kay smiled. "Don't want to keep them waiting."

    Pilar watched her go, then stepped out into the morning sunshine.

    ~*~


    "We should have made the appointment in Castleton. What if we run into someone we know?" Gwen fretted, pulling her sunglasses down to shield her eyes from any curious onlookers in the waiting room.

    Hank didn't point out that she was only drawing more attention to herself with her whole incognito act. He merely shifted in his uncomfortable plastic seat and nodded in acknowledgement to the gentleman seated across from him next to his own similarly nervous companion. He winced when the gesture earned him a pinch to the inside of his elbow. "Ouch," Hank hissed. "What was that for, Babe?"

    "Don't Babe me," Gwen hissed back. "It's your fault we're in this mess."

    "If I remember correctly," Hank rejoined, knowing it was her nerves speaking, for they had already settled this, agreed they were equally at fault, "you weren't exactly an unwilling participant in this little endeavor."

    "Little endeavor," Gwen scoffed at him as they watched a heavily pregnant woman in her early thirties approach, one hand supporting her lower back, the other pulling her reluctant counterpart, her husband if the matching wedding band he wore could be taken as any indication, along. Gwen glared at Hank when he exchanged a sympathetic glance with the beleaguered man and crossed her arms across her chest with a huff of indignation. "There's nothing little about it."

    Hank looked around at the company they kept in the waiting room, the different women in various stages of pregnancy, some even with a child or two sitting in the chair beside them, and sobered. "Maybe you're right," he reluctantly agreed.

    "Maybe?" Gwen regarded him over the top of the sunglasses sliding down her aristocratic nose. "As if I haven't been publicly ostracized enough…the press is going to have a field day with this. I can't believe you're taking this so calmly. Face it, Bennett. You've gotten Cruella De Ville pregnant."

    Hank couldn't help it; he smirked, earning himself another angry pinch to his elbow. "Listen. Stop it," he told her, keeping his voice low when it became apparent they were garnering way too much attention. "You're not Cruella De Ville. You're not that bad." He grabbed her hand when he saw it was on the move again, pinning it against his thigh and threading his fingers through hers. "Who cares about the press anyway?" he murmured against her temple, pressing his mouth against it in a reassuring kiss. She did, Hank knew. More than she wanted to admit, and this latest development…well, looking at it from her point of view, he supposed it could be seen as a sign of an approaching apocalypse of sorts. "This is none of their business. It's yours and mine, ours."

    "Ours?" Gwen asked coolly.

    "Yes, ours," Hank responded, tightening his hand around hers when she made to pull it away. "We made this kid together. We're going to guide it through this crazy, crazy world together."

    "You really mean that?" Gwen studied their clasped hands then shyly, hesitantly, lifted her eyes back up to meet his uncharacteristically serious brown gaze.

    "Hell, yes, I mean it," Hank vowed. "You're stuck with me for life, Babe."

    "Oh, God," Gwen groaned, worming her hand free and bringing it to join her other one as she covered her face from his view. "What have I done to deserve this?"

    Hank grinned to himself, confident the woman at his side would never look at alcohol the same way again. It was almost a travesty really. The uninhibited, no holds-barred version of Gwen Hotchkiss he'd taken to bed that night was something to behold, something she'd kept carefully hidden from him in all their ensuing sexual encounters. Hank wondered what it would take to uncover that woman again, now that alcohol was no longer a viable method of escape from her self-employed restraints. If he couldn't help but like this version of her, he was somewhat captivated by the version of her that had helped create his future son or daughter. Not that she would ever drag it out of him or would care. "Is that any way to talk about the father of your child?" he decided to tease instead, only to have his little joke fail on all possible cylinders when he watched her reach a new (though still quietly controlled) level of hysteria with the dawning of an unwanted (not merely forgotten but buried) realization.

    "Oh my God. Father. What am I going to tell my father?"




    ~*~


    "Any luck on the house hunt?"

    Luis quickly minimized the window on his computer and whirled around guiltily to face his boss.

    Sam was straight-faced, but there was a twinkle in his blue eyes, a knowing twinkle (he'd been witness to the humiliating manhandling this morning, regretfully), as he tossed the folder in his hands onto the top of Luis's desk.

    That twinkle was enough to make Luis relax (somewhat), and he let out the breath he'd been holding in, considered his words, before addressing not his superior, but his friend. "None. Everything's either too big, too little, or too far out of my price range."

    "The old Durkee place is up for sale," Sam pointed out the obvious, resting his hip on the edge of Luis's desk.

    "It's not big enough," Luis told him. "It only has two bedrooms."

    "Looking into expanding that newfound family of yours so soon, Lopez-Fitzgerald?" Quinlan cracked in passing. "You lucky sonuva…"

    Luis smiled at his co-worker, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. "Careful, Marty. That's my wife you're talking about."

    "If I'm not mistaken, Quinlan," Sam wisely intervened, "I assigned you to relieve Tina in, oh, half an hour."

    Quinlan sobered, all business with the gentle reprimand. "On it, Boss."

    When Sam was sure Quinlan had gone, and the only other occupants in the squad room were either engaged otherwise or studiously ignoring them, he returned his full attention back to Luis. "How's it really going?" he finally ventured.

    Luis released a long, drawn-out sigh, thankful at least that he didn't have to pretend in front of Sam, that the other man knew perhaps all too well what kind of strain Luis found himself under with every day he spent in such close quarters with his wife. The only difference between them was that Sam wanted to make his marriage work, not just for his children's sake, but because he loved Grace. Luis just wanted to survive his, just until he figured out a way to make Anna his, free and clear of his sister's misguided attempts beyond the grave at matchmaking, preferably without committing justifiable homicide. "I don't know how I'm going to make it through this marriage in one piece, Sam."

    Sam winced. "That bad?"

    "Worse," Luis replied. "We're too different, Sam. There's just nothing there to make this possibly work. Nothing."

    Sam shook his head. "My granddaughter is not nothing, Luis. That little girl is how you're going to make it work."

    Luis sighed heavily. "She should be. She is. But what if that's not enough, Sam?"

    "What do you mean?" Sam asked grimly.

    Luis kept his voice low, but his desperation came through loud and clear. "If we don't find a place of our own soon, Sheridan and I are going to kill each other."









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