Grady opened the front door and sighed with relief, "It took you long enough."
"Gee, nice to see you too, Sunshine," Russell rolled his eyes as he followed his brother into the house. He watched his brother for a moment before speaking again, "Grady, what's going on?"
"You would not believe the night I had," Grady replied as he returned to his coffee pot and refilled his mug.
Russell observed Grady's haggard appearance before he raised an eyebrow, "What happened?"
"I went to the bar last night," Grady began as he looked into his coffee mug. He twisted the mug in his hand nervously as he continued, "I had a couple of drinks, and then Thea showed up."
"She's Cameron Stone's assistant."
"Why were you with Cameron Stone's assistant?"
"Russell," Grady groaned, "Could I tell this story?"
"Okay, okay," Russell agreed as he took a seat at the kitchen table, "Please continue."
"Thea wanted to go to dinner. I thought that was a good idea. We went to dinner. I drank some wine," Grady paused, "And somewhere during the night I slept with her."
Russell looked at his brother with concern, "You what?"
"I can't even remember how it happened," Grady frowned as he placed his coffee mug upon the kitchen counter, "The last thing I remember is being at the restaurant. This morning, I woke up in bed with her at her apartment, but I swear I don't remember how I got there."
"Grady," Russell said his name as he leaned forward, "That isn't good."
"Don't you think I know that?" Grady snapped before he shook his head. He frowned as he looked to his brother, "I'm sorry. I've been kicking my ass all morning."
"As well you should," Russell pointed out, "You know me, Grady, I can't try to make this better for you. You screwed up."
"Boy did I ever," Grady made his way to the kitchen table to sit beside his brother, "I haven't let myself get into that situation since…well…since…"
"Since you woke up married to Susan?" Russell questioned before he shook his head, "Grady, I don't care why it happened. You've come so far from that point in your life. Why would you ever let this happen?"
"I don't know, Russ. That's just it," Grady shrugged, "I went to get a drink because I was upset about Jade. I'd had a couple of bourbons before Thea showed up. I guess maybe it just hit me harder than I thought it would."
"Why were you upset about Jade?"
"God…why am I always upset about Jade? She's…she's…"
"Perfect and you're an idiot?" Russell offered.
"Russell, why do I invite you over for all this wonderful insight?" Grady questioned with a sigh, "The thing is…Cameron Stone is a new client. He's a very rich client who wants to rip BBK a new one," He frowned, "And he's interested in Jade. I don't trust him, but his case is a solid one. He went out with Jade last night…even after I warned him that I don't let my employees become involved with our clients. Then I do the stupidest thing ever and sleep with Cameron's assistant."
"Why can't you do something without complications?" Russell frowned, "What are you going to do?"
"I just don't know," Grady sank back in his chair, "Obviously anything I say now is without credit involving clients and affairs."
"So you're going to let this guy put the moves on Jade?"
"I didn't say that," Grady informed his brother, "In fact," He paused, "I think I need to be straight forward with Jade about this. And then I have to work on gaining her trust again, but I'll be damned if I'll let Cameron Stone get his hands on Jade."
"Well, who knew?" Russell shook his head, "It takes you acting like a total ass to figure out that you actually care about Jade and want her for yourself."
"Russ, you're not helping."
"You want to be with Jade. I think now is the perfect time for you to make a stand with Jade. Actually it's past time, and you need to make sure she stays away from that other guy," Russell took a moment as he thought about his own situation, "She doesn't need anyone but you in her life, Grady. She's tried to make that clear to you, but you just won't see it."
"What is it with this big lecture, Russ? What aren't you telling me?"
Russell stood and made his way to the coffee machine. He took a mug for himself before filling it, "Have you seen this morning's paper?"
"Do you think I've had time?" Grady asked bluntly.
"The headline is a real ball breaker," Russell said with a frown as he made his way back to the sofa, "Brant and Avery are engaged."
"Engaged?" Grady repeated, almost choking on his coffee, "When the hell did that happen?"
"I don't think it did," Russell sighed as he sat beside Grady, "But I'm not quite sure what to think anymore. We were together last night," He paused, "We made love, and I thought that maybe she was seeing the light."
"What'd she do? Leave you like always?" Grady questioned catching a nasty look from Russell, "Hey, you're the one who came in with brutal honesty. I'm just returning the favor."
"Well, spare me, okay?"
"No, I won't. Russell, you put your faith in her and get yourself involved in this big dream where she's leading lady, but she never shares that dream. What the hell did you think was going to happen with you two? She'd see the error of her ways and come back to you with open arms?" Grady rolled his eyes, "Maybe I wasn't the only one drunk off my ass last night."
"Grady, I really don't need this right now. First the newspaper article and now a lecture from you? Save it," Russell huffed as he stood, "You seem to be figuring yourself out this morning without my help. I have things to do."
"That's it. Run away, Russell," Grady called out after him as Russell approached the door, "In that way, you and Avery are quite perfect for each other. You both run when things get tense."
"Go to hell, Grady," Russell called out as he slammed the door on his way out of the house.
"Already there, Russ," Grady sighed before he sipped his coffee again, hoping that the day would somehow turn around and get better for both himself and his brother.
“I swear if I read one more headline about Brant Ashford and his newest lady
love, I’m going to vomit,” Jade tossed the newspaper aside as she rolled her
eyes. She looked up at the mirror assessing the stylist at work on her
hair as she looked over at Diane, “how on Earth do you stomach working there
all the time?”
“It’s a hopping place,” Diane confessed with a tiny chuckle, “really it is. I mean you should really see those two in action. Brant and Avery, well I knew it was only a matter of time for them and hey if you saw that rock on her finger…”
“It figures,” Jade sighed looking back to her appearance, “I mean everyone else seems to be doing just fine landing the man of their dreams, but…”
“But what?” Diane inquired curiously, “Nothing from Grady?”
“No, it’s not that,” Jade shook her head, “Grady and I, well…we did make some progress,” she felt a smile tug over her lips as she thought back to their brief moment together.
“Really?” Diane’s eyes perked up as she leaned over the side of her chair, risking the wrath of her stylist as she eyed Jade closely, “do tell.”
“There’s not much to say yet,” Jade threw out a confident smile, “but there will be.”
“So then Grady took the bait about you going out with Cameron, huh?”
“Cameron,” Jade groaned thinking back to the way he was with her on their dinner, “don’t even mention his name.”
“Why not? He seemed cute enough,” Diane reminded her simply, “and obviously going out with him must’ve done the trick in order for you to get some progress out of Grady.”
“Cameron is a client,” Jade confessed turning to her friend.
“Come again,” Diane blinked back at her, “since when?”
“Since recently,” Jade admitted thinking back to the way Cameron Stone had no concept of the word “no” in terms anything, “Grady found out that Cameron and I went out and he told Cameron that he discouraged any personal interactions between us and the client…”
“Oh really,” Diane’s eyes widened, “so Grady does have a possessive side there. Did you tell him to shove it for being so Neanderthal?”
“It’s not like that,” Jade lowered her voice as she turned to her stylist, “Can you give us a minute?”
“Sure,” the woman shrugged, “it’s your money.”
As the stylist walked away, Jade leaned in closer to her friend, “Grady was concerned because there was something about Cameron that didn’t sit right with him.”
“Yeah, the fact that he’s going out with you,” Diane noted, “it’s jealousy at it’s finest.”
“No, it’s more than that,” Jade explained with a slight frown, “take last night for example. Cameron called me up at work and insisted that I have dinner with him. I politely tried to refuse, but he wouldn’t hear of it. All through dinner I tried to explain things to him, but he wouldn’t listen. Then at the end of the night he insisted upon walking me up to my apartment and I was really worried…”
“Why? Did he say something or do something,” Diane’s eyes widened.
“He kept telling me that he always got what he wanted and I was something he wanted,” Jade whispered tightly, “Just the way he was looking at me, the way he said things, Diane, I hate to admit it, but he terrified me and if it wasn’t for Blake….”
“Blake?” Diane gave her a strange look, “as in Blake Ashford?”
Jade nodded, “Blake was there waiting for Seth and she sensed that something wasn’t right with Cameron.”
“Blake Ashford stepped to the rescue,” Diane’s eyes widened once again, “now that’s a surprise.”
“You’re telling me,” Jade thought back to the moment, “but I’m glad she was there. Despite the way I felt about her and Seth together, I have to say that if she wasn’t there, I don’t know what would’ve happened with Cameron. Even now I wonder what will happen next…”
“That’s easy,” Diane noted, “you just ignore the creep and stay the hell away from him.”
“Easier said than done,” Jade frowned slightly, “given that he’s a client, it means I’ll have to interact with him on a professional level. I have to at least pretend that being in the same room with him doesn’t totally freak me out.”
“Jade, if he’s the jerk you say he is…”
“I don’t want Grady to think that I can’t handle the situation,” Jade’s thoughts lingered back to Grady, “still I am a bit worried because I haven’t heard from him yet today. I called him last night and he’s usually got his cell phone on hand, but there was nothing.”
“Maybe he was busy with something,” Diane shrugged looking back to the magazine that was buried in her lap.
“Maybe, but this just isn’t like him,” Jade sighed as her stylist returned to finish the job at hand as Jade’s thoughts lingered back to Grady and she wondered what would be keeping him from returning her phone call. Something just didn’t feel right and as she thought of the night she’d had with Cameron, she realized that right now all she really wanted to do was hear the sounds of Grady’s voice as he always seemed to make things right for her. She hated feeling this way--hated feeling that…she shook the thought as she pulled her cell phone from her purse hoping that there was a message waiting for her--that somehow she’d just missed Grady’s call, but as she saw there were no messages waiting for her, she set her phone aside wondering still where Grady could be.
“Thanks so much for doing this,” Blake smiled down at the man before her
now covered with grease as he finished putting the spare tire on her car.
He looked up at her with a bright grin as the sun hung over head causing him
to squint a bit.
“It was my pleasure,” he quickly pulled himself up off of the ground as he looked over to her car once again, “though I wouldn’t suggest you go riding around on this spare for long.”
“I won’t,” Blake confessed with a sigh, “I was on my way to work, but I think I’m going to just head on home now.”
“Hmm, well they say home is where the heart is,” he smiled back at her before extending his hand out to her once again, “though this really has been an interesting meeting. I mean it’s not every day that I get to save a beautiful woman in distress.”
“I’d hardly consider myself in need of saving,” she started to roll her eyes as she thought of his generosity. Her blue eyes drifted down to his grease stained hand as he withdrew it.
“Oh wait,” he wiped his hand on his jacket that he’d discarded in his attempt to fix her tire, “let’s try this again. Can we start over? Hi, I’m Kipp Mahoney.”
“Blake Ashford,” she smiled reaching out to accept his hand as a smile touched over her lips.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Blake,” Kipp lifted her hand to his lips offering a feathery light kiss as his eyes widened, “I see there’s no ring on your finger.”
“You’re quite observant, aren’t you,” Blake carefully withdrew her hand from his grasp.
“I guess you could say that it pays to be in the right place at the right time,” Kipp gave her a quick once over, “and looking at you I’d definitely believe it’s the right place…”
“I appreciate your stopping to help me,” Blake smiled politely as she watched him lean up against her car, “I suppose it was lucky for me that you were coming this way.”
“Any time,” he nodded in response, “although perhaps since it did seem to be fate that pulled us to this meeting, what do you say to dinner?”
“Come again,” Blake blinked back at him as a smile touched over his roguish lips.
“Well, I mean it’s the least I can do for you. Given that you were stranded here for a while having to wait for me to get this thing right,” he motioned to the tire flashing her another grin, “well most women wouldn’t have your patience.”
“I guess I’m used to things not working out in a snap,” she couldn’t help but smile in response, “though if I would have been changing your tire, we’d still be wrestling with it.”
“Good thing it was my turn to rescue you,” Kipp offered lightly, “so what do you say? How about it? Will you have dinner with me?”
“I appreciate the offer,” Blake replied simply, “but I can’t.”
“You mean tonight or ever,” Kipp questioned enthusiastically, “because I would understand if you have plans tonight, but if you’re saying you can’t ever have dinner with me, well that would prove to be a disappointment.”
“Kipp,” she shook her head as she drew in a nervous breath, “I’m seeing someone.”
“Well that’s wonderful, but does the man you’re seeing have a problem with you going out to dinner,” Kipp urged again, “I mean you do have to eat, right?”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” she stepped along side of him, “I really do appreciate the offer and the help though…”
“Then reconsider my offer,” Kipp flashed her a bright smile, “I mean at worst you can have a free meal on me and at best, well maybe I’ll find a way to give your guy a run for his money.”
“You’d enjoy that, wouldn’t you,” Blake laughed lightly.
“As a matter of fact, I’d take great pleasure in it,” he reached out to take her hand, “so what do you say Blake?”
“I say,” she turned her eyes to his hand over hers, “I can’t, but thanks for being so sweet.”
“Sweet isn’t going to get me a date, though it is?” he began with a wounded expression, “The truth is I’m new in town and I’d love to get the chance to look around, maybe have some good company…”
“If I wasn’t seeing someone already,” Blake began again as she shook her head, “I really need to get going.”
“I understand,” he nodded in response, “but if you change your mind…”
“I won’t,” Blake interrupted with a polite smile as she opened her car door, “but thank you for the help, Kipp.”
“Anytime,” Kipp waved watching her get into her car and driving away. He adjusted his tie as she drove off and he vowed to himself that one way or another he would get that dinner date with Blake Ashford as Cameron wouldn’t accept anything less and besides Kipp was determined and that determination always paid off.
“Who the hell do you think you are,” Avery demanded her voice raspy with anger as she glared back at Brant, “Do you expect me to just jump when you snap your fingers?”
“Avery, this is your life here that you‘re trying to gamble on. It’s for your well being…” he argued with her.
“And I’m trying to maintain some kind of stability here without having you rip me away from the world I’m accustomed to,” she began with a sigh, “Brant, I’m not going to argue with you. I’m not going to the mansion and you’re not staying.”
“Avery, don’t be difficult. Not about this…”
“You’re the one being difficult,” Avery hissed back at him, “all I want is to crawl into my own bed and forget the morning that is behind me. I don’t want to think about Bruce, about that damned article, about you or about anything other than the nap I am craving. I just want you to go away.”
“I’m not going away,” Brant announced boldly, “and nothing you can say or do will change that. If you want to take a nap, then go take a nap, but know when you wake up that I’ll be right here waiting for you,” he pulled his cell phone out of his jacket pocket, “in fact,” he dialed a few numbers as Avery watched him frustration filling her as he spoke to the person on the other end of the line.
“Yes this is Brant Ashford and I’d like to get a locksmith out to this address as soon as possible,” he explained offering up her address as Avery ran her fingers through her dark hair wondering how in the hell she was going to get past this current situation. She looked to Brant once again hating that he’d found her in such a horrible situation and as the images of Bruce haunted her, she felt a guilt wash over her.
“A locksmith will be over shortly,” Brant announced breaking through her thoughts as she focused on him once again, “so go take your shower, your nap or whatever else it is that’s on your mind and when you wake up, I’ll be right here waiting for you.”
“I’m not letting you stay here,” Avery argued with him, “considering that Bruce tried to kill me because he thought we were sleeping together, the last thing I want is you staying here.”
“Avery, you’re not going to be alone after what he did,” Brant replied stubbornly, “you can either sit here with me or I can call Dave Warner and have him send men out here…”
“No police,” Avery shook her head in response, “I don’t want that.”
“Then you’re going to have to deal with me,” Brant shrugged his shoulders as he slipped out of his jacket, “come on. Admit it, you don’t mind my company.”
“Brant, I don’t get a choice in the matter when you’re around. You just kind of push yourself into my world shaking things up and even when I want to be left alone, you’re relentless.”
“Avery, I don’t want him to hurt you again,” Brant stepped in towards her reaching out to her gently, “I hate seeing you in this kind of pain…”
“I don’t want…” she pulled away from him turning away as she looked down to the center of Russell’s sweatshirt noticing the blood stains down the front of it, “I don’t want anyone seeing me like this.”
“Avery, this wasn’t your fault,” he placed his hand on her shoulder in a comforting gesture, “It was entirely my fault and I’m so sorry for it. If I hadn’t told Davies that story…” he trailed off poignantly, “Avery, I was just trying to make things easier for you and I never imagined that the press would run a story about us. I never thought that the ring would generate this kind of heat…”
“The ring,” Avery repeated looking down to the ring on her finger. It still glimmered despite her less than lustrous appearance and now as the sparkling red gemstone haunted her, she thought back to Russell noticing it back in his bedroom. Suddenly a rush of panic swept over her as she realized more than likely he’d be seeing the article as well now that it was Coral Valley’s hottest story. Turning to face Brant once again, her eyes pleaded with him, “Brant, you have to set the media straight. You have to tell them that we aren’t engaged.”
“Avery, that’s easier said than done and you know it,” Brant sighed, “we both know that the press eats up this kind of story as it’s not every day that Coral Valley’s most eligible bachelor decides it’s time to settle down with the perfect woman.”
“I’m not the perfect woman and you’re not my fiancé,” Avery reminded him sharply, “we’re not even dating…”
“That’s not entirely true,” Brant pointed out after a moment’s hesitation, “if memory serves me correctly, you and I do have a dinner date tonight.”
“Brant, you’re pushing it,” Avery shot him a scathing look.
“Avery, come on. You and I both know that there’s something between us,” Brant reached for her hand lifting it to his lips as he kissed the top of her hand gently, “We both felt it on that trip, in that hotel room when we almost made love…”
“Reminding me of that makes this worse,” Avery withdrew her hand from his grasp, “Brant, that’s the very reason Bruce attacked me. He truly believes that you and I were fooling around behind his back all this time and he was hurt.”
“Avery, Bruce is a lunatic,” he shook his head in disapproval, “and there’s no defending his actions. Truth be told, it wouldn’t matter if you were seeing a hundred men behind his back. He never had a right to touch you like that. He could’ve killed you…”
“Brant, he was just upset,” she defended thinking back to the attack, “he thought that I’d broken his heart into a million pieces and made a fool of him…”
“Avery,” his lips curled in a frown as he reached out to her tugging her into his arms as he guided her over towards the mirror and he motioned to the marks on her neck, “take a long, hard look at that,” he saw her gaze lower to the floor as he nudged her simply, “Avery, come on.”
Avery’s eyes lifted as she noticed the bruises over the base of her neck. A tremor rushed over her as she thought of the wild intensity behind Bruce’s eyes--the pure hatred he’d shown towards her as he choked her. His anger had transformed into something menacing as Avery had felt her life slipping away. Now as the reminder of his attack remained in shades of violet and crimson over her face, tears stung at her eyes forcing her to turn away from her reflection.
“Avery,” Brant spoke her name cradling her in his arms as she sank into his chest breaking down into tiny sobs.
“I never wanted this,” her muffled cries filled his heart with an ache as her tears soaked through his shirt, “I just wanted to be happy…”
“I know you did,” he spoke soothingly, “and you weren’t wrong for wanting that. You did the right thing and if Bruce can’t see that, well, then it just proves what I’ve known all along about him.”
“He just wanted me to be his wife, to be the person he could grow old with,” Avery continued lost in her misery as she trembled beneath his touch.
“He wanted to possess you,” Brant’s voice dropped to a whisper as he fought the rage churning inside of him, “He didn’t see you as the wonderful woman you were. He saw you as something he could control, but Avery women like you, well, you aren’t meant to be controlled by any man. You’re a beautiful, intelligent, wonderful, charming woman and no man should ever try to force you to be anything, but who you are.”
Avery’s sniffle swept over her as she slowly turned her eyes up towards Brant noting the sincerity in his tone, “You really mean that, don’t you?”
“I do,” he nodded in confession as he touched her cheek gently, “Avery, when I first noticed you, sure it was a physical attraction, but then the more time I spent with you, the more you fought with me and drove me crazy, the more addicted I became. I realized that you’re an amazing woman and it goes far more than your beauty. Sure, I know coming from me, that might not mean much since you’ve known me to have about as much depth as a wading pool there over our time together, but it’s the truth. When I look at you, I see a wonderful woman with so much life inside of her that I can’t help but be drawn to you. Your smile,” he gently brushed the pad of his thumb over her lower lip, “it finds a way to warm my heart even when I’m fighting like hell with myself not to let you reach me. Then there were those times when we’re at work and you’re blasting me for doing the wrong thing and though I knew you’re right, I kept refusing to see it, but still you found a way to break through the surface--to really force me to take a long, hard look at myself when I would’ve just as soon ignored who I was. You make me want to be a better man and when I’m with you, I feel a connection--a real connection that I haven’t ever felt in my life.”
“Now you’re trying to flatter me,” she couldn’t help but smile as his eyes lit up with enthusiasm.
“No, it’s not about flattery,” Brant shook his head in denial, “it’s so much more than that. When I’m with you, all I can think about is spending more time with you and when we’re apart, I find myself wondering when I’ll be able to see you again. Just to be with you, well it’s everything to me Avery and for that instant when I saw Bruce attacking you and I realized I could’ve lost you, well it did something to me,” his voice choked up on emotion as he leaned forward pressing a soft kiss upon her forehead, “Avery, I know now that I couldn’t bear to be a part of this world without you…”
“Brant, I…” Avery found herself at a loss as he held her.
“Avery, I know you value your freedom and I also realize that you are stubborn as hell, but please don’t be stubborn about this. Don’t let your feelings about our situation or your surprise about that stupid article be the thing that leaves you out in the open for another one of Bruce’s attacks,” he pleaded with her, “Come home with me and I swear to you that I’ll keep you safe.”
“Brant, I don’t need you to protect me,” Avery argued with him as she let out a tired sigh.
“Don’t look at it as terms of my protecting you then,” he urged once more lifting her hand to his heart, “Look as it as your saving me from a lifetime of misery without you.”
“I’m not going anywhere, Brant,” Avery promised as she felt the rapid beating of his heart beneath her touch.
“Then just humor me,” he pleaded with her, “let me take you back to the mansion where you can rest up for a while. I have a guest suite that you can stay in and relax for a while and I promise I won’t bother you. I’ll let Annie take care of anything you need, but if by some small chance you want to see me--want to have me around, well then I’ll only be a call away.”
“You’re not going to stop pushing this, are you?”
“Not as long as Bruce is out there,” he shook his head in refusal as he motioned to her appearance, “Avery, you look like you’ve had a rough morning and judging by the dark circles under your eyes, I’d say that you haven’t been sleeping much either. Look at this offer as a perk for helping me the way you have. You can consider some time at the mansion more like a trip to the spa where you can be pampered from head to toe without having to worry about anything else.”
“Brant,” she opened her mouth in protest as a sound flooded in through the room. She turned her eyes towards the front door noticing someone was out in the hallway and a panic rushed over her. She reached out to Brant, curling her fingers around the lapels of his jacket as he too noticed the sound.
There was a knock at the door and as Brant looked over at the opening door, he noticed a small man standing before him with a tool belt.
“Someone call for a locksmith?” the man questioned simply as he looked around the room, “Wow, what happened here? After shocks of the quake?”
“Something like that,” Brant nodded in response keeping his arm around Avery as he hid her from the locksmith’s curious eyes.
“Hmm, well that’s been happening a lot lately,” the man shrugged looking to the door, “though I’m not surprised you only go through now. This town has been in a frenzy since the quake hit. Some people are still without power from what I heard.”
“That’s a shame,” Brant offered politely turning his attention to Avery as he whispered in her ear, “why don’t you go get a few things together and then we’ll get going.”
She looked up at him, her eyes a bit reluctant before she nodded, “Okay,” she whispered slipping out of his embrace as she stepped into her bedroom.
“So tell me Mr. Ashford,” the man began turning his attention to the doorway, “how is it that a man like yourself didn’t get some help with this sooner?”
“I was out of town,” Brant offered not really in the mood for conversation as there was more bustling in the hallway. He stepped in towards the front door to Avery’s apartment seeing the hall fill with reporters as he ducked back into the apartment turning his attention to the man before him. Reaching into his pocket, he quickly withdrew three hundred dollar bills and handed it to the locksmith.
“What’s this,” the man looked to the money in his hand.
“It’s a bonus if you tell them that you just saw me and the lady leave for breakfast,” Brant explained simply, “let them know we went to Irvan’s for a romantic morning meal together.”
“Who are they,” the man looked into the hallway once again.
“The media,” Brant reached into his pocket once again withdrawing two more hundreds for the man, “and make it believable.”
“You’ve got it,” the locksmith nodded as Brant headed towards Avery’s bedroom.
Knocking on the door, Brant waited a moment before opening it a bit impatiently. He quickly stepped inside, closing the door behind him as he heard Avery in the master bathroom. Taking in a nervous breath, he looked around her room seeing a small suitcase laying on her bed as he rushed forward quickly opening a few drawers and tossing some of her things into the suitcase.
“What are you doing,” Avery’s voice roared at him as Brant turned around to find her standing before him in a pair of black slacks and a black lace bra.
Brant’s eyes widened in surprise as his pulse raced in his throat at the sight of her. Even with the abuse her body had taken from Bruce, she was still remarkable as he fought the urge to reach out and take her into his arms. Shaking the thought of losing himself to passion with her, he looked back to her suitcase continuing to pile in the things he’d collected from her drawers.
“The press is already here,” Brant explained simply hearing her move around behind him as he continued to pack her bag, “I had the locksmith send them on a wild goose chase, but there will be more of them. We have to leave like pronto.”
“Gee, you don’t give a girl much of a choice, do you,” Avery frowned slightly quickly throwing her sweater over her head before she reached out for her suitcase.
“I’ll get that,” Brant quickly zipped it up before turning to her, “have anything else you need?”
“Peace and quiet, but I’m not going to get that anytime soon, am I?” she sighed in resignation.
“Probably not, but we’ll work on it,” Brant tried to assure her as he guided her out of her apartment safely under the media’s radar as he hoped that somehow this would all blow over somehow for them.
Kenneth rushed through the front doorway and slammed the door in the faces of the rabid reporters on the front stoop. He threw the lock and groaned as he sank back against the door.
"Brant!" He called out, ready to give his brother a piece of his mind, "Brant!"
"He's not here," Annie said as she stood at the edge of the foyer, "He left earlier in a hurry. Now, I have a pretty good idea why."
"What did he say?" Kenneth asked with a deep frown.
"Not a thing, and he took the newspaper with him. So I don't know what this is all about. What's Brant done now to get the press into a frenzy on our doorstep?"
"Today's headline was in big bold letters: Brant's Engaged and His Love is Worth Millions," He rolled his eyes, "Why can't he do anything quietly?"
"Because he is his father's son," She shook her head, "And you, young man, where were you all night?"
"Oh no, don't turn this around on me, Annie," Kenneth warned as he made his way into the den. He sank onto a sofa and groaned.
"Kenny, if you think you're going to divert all the attention onto Brant, you're wrong," She spoke as she sat on a sofa across from him, "Brant may do things for everyone to see, but you don't, and that makes me a very curious old woman. So tell me what you were about," She said with a teasing smile.
He watched her and smiled slightly, "I was with a friend."
"A lady friend?"
"Yes, but I slept on the sofa…by myself," He clarified with a smile, "So don't get any sordid ideas, Annie."
"Well damn, Kenny, you make it so hard for me to live vicariously through you," She teased with a wink, "So who was it?"
"Blake's friend?" Annie smiled, "I think she's a good one, Kenny. I've got a good feeling about her."
"What about Brant's newest lady love?"
"Who is it suppose to be this week?" She sighed.
"Avery? Our Avery?" She blinked before bursting into laughter, "She'd put him in his place so fast it'd make his swelled head spin. How could anyone think that they could be engaged?"
"Good question," Kenneth smiled as he thought about Avery, "Of course Brant is interested in her."
"Interest is one thing. Engagement is entirely another."
He nodded, "I'm surprised anyone could think that they would be engaged," He shrugged, "But then again, the press only needs a tiny shred of innuendo to jump on anything even remotely involving Brant."
"I suppose that makes you lucky though. You don't fall under their intense scrutiny."
"Unless they think I'm Brant," He groaned, "I just don't want Caitlin to be involved in any of this."
"So you and Caitlin…is that serious?"
Kenneth smiled before he shrugged slightly, "It has the potential to be…maybe. It's early yet."
"For your sake, I hope it does become serious. You deserve a good woman, and I get the feeling that Caitlin is a very good woman. She just might be what the doctor ordered for you, my boy," Annie said with a smile as she stood and walked by him, gently ruffling his hair on her way out of the room. If one of the boys could find some happiness in love, she'd put her money on Kenneth every single day of the week.
Jade stood at the door, staring at the numbers upon the darkly stained wood. Could she tell Grady how terrified she had been of Cameron last night? Better yet, should she? Grady might be inclined to refuse Cameron's case, and Jade knew that the practice could really use the money the lawsuit would bring to them. Her decision would have to be made by judging Grady's mood.
She took a deep breath and knocked on the door. She could only hope that he was in a good mood, and that his cell phone battery was simply dead. Still, he hadn't returned her phone call, and that was a very un-Grady-like thing to do.
Grady opened the door and met her eyes, pausing as he stared into her dark chocolate pupils. He opened the door wider as he smiled, "Jade, I wasn't expecting you."
"Obviously," She exhaled slowly as her eyes traveled over his bare torso. Her gaze caressed his muscled chest to the waistline of his skin tight blue jeans. She took a deep breath as she met his eyes, "Uhm…"
He smiled as he took a step back and began walking across the room, "Come on in."
Jade could barely hear his invitation over the pounding of her heart. She stepped into the house, turned and eased the door to a gentle close. When she turned back to him, he was finishing the buttons on his shirt.
He looked at her for a moment and paused, "Jade, are you okay?"
"That's a question I should be asking you," She said as she dumped her purse into his recliner and crossed the room to him, "I called you last night, called your cell phone even, and I left a message here. I thought for sure you'd return my call."
"I…" He frowned as he glanced at the answering machine, "It's been a busy morning, and I guess…" He paused as he placed his hand upon her shoulder, "What happened? Jade, what's going on?"
"Grady," She sighed as she began feeling all of the emotions from last night overcome her, "You were right about Cameron. He's…he's…" She paused as she reeled in her babbling, "He can't be trusted."
"Did he hurt you?" Grady questioned quickly, "Jade.."
"No, he didn't hurt me, but…" She paused as she sat on his sofa, "I don't think he's giving me a choice about him."
"What do you mean?" He asked as he sat down beside her.
"Last night, I tried to explain to him that I wasn't interested in him romantically. I even told him that I was in love with another man, but he wouldn't hear of it. He told me that he always got what he wanted, and he wanted me. He insisted on walking me to my apartment, and if Blake hadn't been waiting for me…" She shook her head as she looked to the floor, "I really get the feeling that he wouldn't have left without getting exactly what he wanted no matter how I felt about it."
"Jade," Grady slipped his fingers under her chin and met her eyes, "I'm so relieved that you're okay. Just promise you won't be alone with him again."
She nodded, her eyes brimming with tears, "I never imagined that he would be so…"
"Untrustworthy?" He volunteered, "It's okay," He assured her, gently slipping his fingers across her cheek and into her hair, "You wanted to believe the best in him. You always seem to do that with people."
"The wrong people," She said as she closed her eyes, trying to keep herself from openly crying.
"You have a good heart, Jade, and I admire that about you," He paused as he gently eased his thumb over her cheek, "You believe the best in people even when they don't deserve it…just like me."
"No, Grady," She said quickly as she looked to him, "You do deserve it, even if you don't believe that."
"I don't deserve it, Jade," He paused, "And I need to tell you why."
"Okay," She said as she studied his expression, seeing him struggle with himself.
"Last night, I wasn't at home. I was out at a bar, and I had a few drinks…a lot of drinks," He admitted as he slowly withdrew his hand from hers. He looked to the floor and closed his eyes, "I wound up in bed with a woman, and I woke up this morning not knowing where I was or how I got there."
Jade looked at him for a moment in silence, blinking her eyes as if she were trying to clear the path before her, "But…I…I don't understand…"
"It's not the first time it's happened in my life," He explained, "You see, Jade," He paused as he looked back to her, "I'm an alcoholic," He admitted, "Alcohol and I go way back, and we don't have a friendly relationship."
"But…I've seen you drink," She said, stumbling over her words.
"Yes, you have," He nodded, "I can have a drink or two, and I still have my bearings about myself. A few more drinks and I become the life of the party, but I can't remember the party at all. Just like last night. I don't remember how it happened at all."
Jade took a breath and looked back to him, "Why are you telling me this?"
"Because I want to be honest with you," He said as he met her eyes, "I want you to know that last night was a mistake. I should never have gone out last night like that, but I was so upset about you being with Cameron. I just thought if I could drink the upset away…"
"You were upset?" She asked, meeting his eyes as she touched his cheek.
"I didn't want you anywhere near him. All I wanted…"
"Yes?" She asked expectantly as she felt a tear slip down her cheek.
"All I wanted was to be with you and keep you safe," He said as he caressed her cheek gently, "All I wanted was to be with you," He said softly as he eased his lips to hers in a soft kiss.
Jade closed her eyes, accepting the soft pressure of his lips upon hers. She eased her fingers into the fringes of his hair as she returned his kiss, opening her mouth to offer herself to him.
Grady eased his arms around Jade and drew her closer to him as he continued to kiss her with tender loving care. He knew he had argued with himself about this very thing for months, but now all he wanted to do was kiss her, hold her…love her. He eased his fingers gently over her back, pressing her body close to his.
Jade murmured softly against his lips as he held her and continued to lavish gentle attention upon her lips. Nothing had prepared her for the utter bliss she was experiencing in his arms. The simple beauty of his kiss radiated through her every nerve ending, creating a desire within her for more of his love.
As their lips gently parted, Grady eased his nose gently along Jade's, continuing to hold her in his arms, "Jade…"
"Yes?" She questioned softly, feeling as if she would melt into the floor had he not been holding her.
"Where do we go from here?" He whispered, easing his palm along her back.
"Wherever the road takes us," She volunteered, easing her fingertips across his cheeks before she met his eyes, "But we can go anywhere…so long as we go together."
Grady smiled as he hugged her tightly in his arms, hoping that he really could turn his life around with Jade as the ultimate inspiration for doing so.
Russell stepped into the newsroom with a heavy frown darkening his handsome features. He didn't know quite what was going on with Avery, but he would talk to her…just as soon as he figured out what he was going to say to her. Right now, he was more than a little offended that she'd lied to him about the ring's origin, and with the knowledge that it had been a gift from Brant Ashford feeding his anger, he probably would be better served with collecting his thoughts before approaching Avery. Now, he was more likely to kidnap her and force her to listen to him than he was to try to reason with her, and Avery had never responded to force. If he wanted to succeed with hers, it would have to be with reason…which he didn't quite have a grasp on at the moment in the midst of his anger.
He walked through the newsroom and stopped at the desk where blond hair was hidden behind a computer. He sat on the desk's edge and looked to the desk's occupant, "Why are you here on a Saturday?"
Caitlin looked up to meet the curious eyes of her boss, "Why are you here?"
"I'm the editor. What's your excuse?" He questioned as he glanced at the computer screen.
"I was just doing some research," She said as she pressed the escape button to clear the screen.
"On the Ashfords," She admitted as she sat back in her chair, "More specifically Kenneth. Brant's been on the cover of every tabloid in the country about a dozen times, but Kenneth keeps his private life very private."
"Because Brant's an ass," Russell commented simply with a frown, "He doesn't care whose life he damages with his actions."
"I don't care about Brant," She said as she nibbled on her thumb nail.
"And you do care about Kenneth? What's that about?" He questioned as he watched her.
"Well, I went to college with Blake. So I know all about her, but I'm working with Kenneth for my story, and I just thought I might want to know if the tabloids will be following him around."
"Not likely. Kenneth thinks before he acts. Brant doesn't give a damn."
"This morning, it seemed like that," Caitlin nodded, "He said they needed to get the family together to figure out how to handle the situation."
"This morning?" Russell glanced at his watch for effect, "And you've already spoken with him this morning?"
"Well, yeah," She said before shrugging him off to change the subject, "Have you spoken with your bimbo model friend?"
"Oh no reason, she just attacked me at the Pavilion last night," She said pointedly, "She thought Kenneth was Brant, and she dumped my glass of wine on me."
"Whoa, hold it. You were out with Kenneth? At the Pavilion?"
"Is there something I should know here?"
"Only that I think Heather Gibbons is mentally unstable," Caitlin declared as she stood and made her way towards the break room.
"Oh no, you don't. You're not going to dodge my question so easily," Russell warned as he followed her to the break room, "You were out to dinner with Kenneth?"
"So? He's an Ashford."
"You've noticed," Caitlin rolled her eyes, "My best friend is an Ashford, Russ."
"But…he's an Ashford. They are not known for their ability to be nice to people."
"Russ, we're talking about Kenneth here. Not Brant. They are two very different people."
"Caitlin," Russell said as he approached Caitlin near the coffee machine, "Please don't get sucked into their world. It'll change you, and I happen to like you just the way you are."
Caitlin smiled, "Well thank you for what I think was a compliment," She touched his arm, "Russ, you worry too much. From everything I've seen, Kenneth is a very sweet man, and he's been very good to me."
"You're not going to listen to me, are you?"
"No, I'm not," She said as she poured him a cup of coffee and placed it in his hand, "I don't need your protection, Russ. I have a big brother, and I intentionally moved hundreds of miles away from him so I could live my own life without him looking over my shoulder. I don't need a stand in," She said as she gently patted his arm.
"Well, I can't help it. I just don't want you to be hurt," He said honestly.
"That's very sweet, and I appreciate your concern. I really think it's misplaced though," She said as she met his eyes, "You'd be better served worrying about your psychotic model friend."
"I'll deal with Heather," He nodded.
"Good," She said as she poured herself a cup of coffee and added sweetener, "I need to get back to my research."
"If you're looking for information about Kenneth's past romances…."
"I never said that," She quickly defended.
"If you are," He said firmly before continuing, "You might go down to the archives. The newspaper that used to be in this building really liked to report on the Ashfords…any of the Ashfords."
"Okay, thanks," Caitlin smiled before she left the break room.
Russell looked into his coffee and frowned. Why smart women were drawn to the Ashfords he'd never know.
Blake fought her way up to the doorstep of her home dodging the flocks of
reporters outside all awaiting more on the latest Ashford family ‘scandal’
as she quickly rushed into the foyer. Closing the door behind her with
a huff, she looked around the room realizing that once again Brant had drawn
unnecessary attention to their family.
“When will this ever end?” Blake groaned inwardly as she closed her eyes sinking back into the door.
“As long as we’re Ashfords,” Kenneth’s voice rose above the press outside their home, “never.”
“I swear I’m going to kill him,” Blake opened her eyes seeing her brother standing before her as a frown touched over her lips, “You’d think that Brant would’ve given us all some kind of warning before pulling this.”
“Yeah well when has Brant ever given us warning,” Kenneth frowned in response thinking to his brother’s impulsive side.
“I didn’t realize he was even serious about anyone yet alone ready to get engaged,” she wrinkled her nose at the thought, “As if Heather wasn’t bad enough.”
“Well Avery is no Heather,” Kenneth pondered the thought, “though Avery isn’t exactly the kind of woman that I’d see with Brant either.”
“Neither would I,” Blake confessed thinking of her brother’s wild ways, “Sure she’s nice enough, but for Brant, well nice enough isn’t even a qualification.”
“I realize this, but he did express an interest in Avery,” Kenneth thought back to his conversation with Brant as he wondered what in the world would bring Avery into a relationship with his brother, “Something just seems off about this.”
“Tell me about it,” she sighed running her fingers through her blonde hair, “I was going to have a breakfast with Seth since last night we weren’t able to work out our dinner date as we’d hoped to, but then in the middle of our breakfast--even before we could order a meal, boom there were all these reporters surrounding us asking me my thoughts on Brant.”
“I had a feeling they’d leap on this one,” he sighed shaking his head, “we never get a moment’s peace. As soon as I saw the headline, well I headed on home myself.”
“Home from where?” Blake’s eyes perked up with interest, “Ken, you didn’t come home last night, did you?”
“Blake, now who’s trying to get the exclusive,” he teased stepping past her.
“You were out with Caitlin, weren’t you?” she followed after him curiosity spilling over her, “And if you didn’t come home, well that could only mean that things went well…”
“Blake, would you stop trying to play matchmaker,” he spun around to face her as a teasing grin spilled over his features.
“It’s because I can see when two people are perfect for one another and trust me, you and Caitlin,” she tilted her head to give him a quick once over, “there is definite chemistry there. Not to mention she’s my very best friend in the entire universe and I’d love to have her in the family…”
“Whoa, now just hold on a second,” Kenneth felt a laugh spill over his lips, “Blake, it was just dinner and a movie, I’d hardly want you to start planning the wedding reception just yet.”
“But you did have a nice time, didn’t you?” she prodded for information, “I mean you two seem to be getting along pretty good.”
“Yes, we do,” Kenneth mused as his thoughts lingered back to Caitlin.
“Aha,” Blake beamed, “I knew it. You like her.”
“Of course I like her,” he answered, “she’s a sweet woman and she’s very interesting…”
“And beautiful,” Blake added, “and charming…”
“And you’re really too curious for your own good,” Kenneth chastised as her threw out a small smile.
“But you know that I’m right about this,” she continued determined, “you have that giddy look upon your features which means that you were touched by her--perhaps you might even like her more than you’re willing to let on with me…”
“Blake, you know aren’t you supposed to be at work right now,” he dissuaded her comments as she stepped towards him.
“I got a flat tire after Seth and I ducked out on the press,” she explained simply, “some guy helped me fix it and then I decided to head on back here for our family meeting as I was pretty sure we’d be having one since it’s almost a ritual every time Brant does something to gain media attention.”
“Well, I’d like to say that you’re right on that, but the truth about it is that Brant’s missing in action again,” Kenneth sighed, “Annie told me that he was here earlier, but that he ran out in a hurry…probably to avoid facing us no less…”
“Typical Brant,” she groaned slightly, “He’s never going to learn, is he?”
“I’m beginning to have my doubts,” Kenneth confessed as a sound came from behind the two of them.
“Once again discussing me behind my back, huh,” Brant questioned his voice less than pleased as Kenneth turned around to see his brother standing behind them with a woman in his arms. Kenneth’s frown deepened as he looked to her, seeing her leaning into Brant as her hair spilled over her features.
“Avery, is that you,” Kenneth gave her a sideways glance as a puzzled expression crossed over his features. She threw out a wave not bothering to say anything as her head remained buried in Brant’s chest.
“Avery’s going to be staying here for a while with us,” Brant stated firmly as he tightened his arm around Avery keeping her close to him.
“I can’t imagine why she’d have to,” Blake rolled her eyes slightly with thick sarcasm, “I mean hey, it’s not like you didn’t just throw this one on all of us without any warning. You know I had a date this morning and…”
“Blake, not now,” Brant spoke sternly as he whispered something to Avery. He turned his attention to Blake again before speaking simply, “Blake, can you help Annie put together a room for Avery?”
“What do I look like Brant?” Blake scowled back at him, “Seth and I were chased by reporters while you two…”
Kenneth placed his hand on Blake’s shoulder noticing the non-verbal cues Brant was giving him as he spoke smoothly, “Blake, please go help Annie. I’ll talk to Brant.”
“Fine,” Blake huffed throwing out one last glare in Brant’s direction, “but I swear Brant you and I are going to have a talk--a major talk.”
“Later,” Brant dismissed her as he nudged Avery once again, “hey it’s okay.”
“Brant what’s going on,” Kenneth demanded stepping forward as he looked to Avery once again, “Avery, I know you’re not engaged to my brother, so what gives here? What‘s really going on?”
“It’s a long story,” Brant began as he leaned in closer to Avery, “You know Ken’s one of the good guys here. We can talk to him.”
“I don’t want to talk about this,” Avery answered tightly as she turned her eyes up towards Brant.
“Does anyone want to tell me what the hell is going on here,” Kenneth demanded as Avery slowly turned to face him and his jaw dropped in surprise, “What in the…”
“Bruce,” Brant answered tightly fighting to suppress the rage he’d felt in Bruce’s attack on her, “The press ran this story based on misinformation and Bruce found out before we did.”
“You mean Bruce did this to you,” Kenneth reached out to his friend, “Avery, are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” she nodded as she slowly turned away from Brant. She offered a soft smile trying to be strong about the situation as she took Kenneth’s hand, “Really I am…”
“Why would he do this?” Kenneth shook his head trying to piece it together, “Avery, I thought I heard a rumor that you and Bruce were over…”
“We were…we are,” Avery stammered, “He and I broke up a short while ago, but when he saw the story…”
“Did you call the police?” Kenneth’s eyes turned to Brant, “Do they have him in custody?”
“I don’t want the police involved,” Avery replied adamantly, “I don’t want to take that route in dealing with things…”
“Avery and I have a difference of opinion on this one, but she’s stubborn,” Brant began with a deep frown.
“Stubborn or not, Bruce can’t get away with doing that. Avery, if you want to file a report and work on a prosecution, then I’ll have you know that Dave Warner and I are…”
“No,” Avery shook her head, “no police.” She turned to look at Brant once again, “Brant, can I just go lay down? I really need to just rest and push this day behind me.”
“Of course,” he nodded as Annie stepped into the room looking between the trio. Her sympathetic eyes fell over Avery as she reached out to her offering the same compassionate warmth that always surrounded Annie as she stepped forward.
“We have your room ready for you dear,” Annie began gently as Avery stepped away from Brant.
“Thank you Annie,” Avery smiled at her.
“Of course honey,” Annie nodded with a soft smile as she looked to Brant with disapproving eyes, “She needs her rest and you need to deal with those people making camp on the front lawn.”
“I’ll get right on it,” Brant promised watching Avery disappear up the stairs with Annie as his anger rushed over him.
“So what’s the story Brant,” Kenneth demanded turning his attention to his brother once the women had left.
“I told a story back when I met with Davies,” Brant took in a breath, “The guy hit on Avery and made her uncomfortable. He was ready to fall back into the old practices at BBK and he wanted her for a night.”
“He what?” Kenneth’s eyes widened.
“I told him to go to hell,” Brant tried to assure him, “well actually I told him that Avery was my fiancée and then I pulled a ring out of storage that I’d had…you know the red diamond…”
“You gave her the red diamond and then the media followed it,” Kenneth reasoned taking in his brother’s tale.
“Pretty much, but I had no idea the story was leaked to the press. Anyways I went over to her apartment to warn her, but when I got there Bruce was there choking the life out of her…”
“And here we are,” Kenneth sighed, “Brant, how is it you always manage to make things worse when you try to make them better?”
“I never wanted this,” Brant answered tightly, “I didn’t want her hurt like that and now that she is,” his voice tapered off to an eerie whisper, “Mathis is a dead man.”
“Brant, you can’t just go out and kill him,” Kenneth reasoned, “Avery is the only one who can do something about it and if she won’t press charges…”
“If she’s not going to do it, then I’m going to take matters into my own hands,” Brant vowed firmly, “He’s not going to get away with what he did to her. That much I promise you,” Brant finished realizing that the media frenzy would have to wait as Bruce Mathis was about to pay for the mistake he’d made. That much Brant was certain of.