Episode Twenty Three

Patrolmen moved through the Ashford den, exchanging information with Dave and Jenna before stepping out of the mansion while others entered. Brant groaned as he watched another gang of police step into the den, "Hart, can't you so something about these people?"

"Of course," Hart said as he stepped over to Dave and Jenna, "It's time for you to go."

"We're not going anywhere," Dave said firmly as he looked up to the attorney, "This has become a murder investigation, and I'm not leaving until I get to speak with Avery."

"I already told you," Brant began before Hart raised his hand to stop him.

"She's upstairs getting some rest. The news that Dr. Mathis was killed was bad enough, and the Ashfords aren't going to let you upset her any further today by accusing her of wrongdoing," Hart declared, "The best thing you can do is leave voluntarily."

"Don't you get it?" Dave rolled his eyes, "This is a murder investigation now, and I have a responsibility to talk to Avery about his death. I need to know when she last saw him, what kind of mood he was in, who he might have upset, and why things turned sour between them."

"For a cop, you're not too swift. Didn't you see the newspaper yesterday? Don't you realize that Avery is living with her fiancée?" Hart questioned as he glanced to Brant, "Avery has moved on with her life so with whatever or whoever Dr. Mathis was involved is not her concern."

"She may have evidence she isn't even aware of," Dave countered.

"But she is upset and now isn't the time for you to make that worse," Hart stated, "The best thing for you to do is leave now. I'd hate to have to call the district attorney or even a judge to get a restraining order against you and your people."

"Let me say this one more time so maybe your tiny lawyer brain can wrap around it," Dave said as he stood a bit taller, "I'm not leaving. I'll send my patrolmen back to the station, but I'm not leaving until I can speak with Avery. Understood?"

Hart glanced to Brant who nodded in agreement, "Fine, but get your cops out of here as soon as possible. They disrupting this household."

"As if that were possible," Dave rolled his eyes before he stepped out of the room to dismiss the patrolmen.

Hart returned to Brant and glanced around the room, "Avery…what do I need to know about your relationship with her?"

"You read the papers, don't you Hart?" Brant asked blandly, "You know all you need to know," He said before he stepped out of the den, knowing that he would do anything to protect Avery from the police investigation.


Caitlin stepped out of the kitchen entrance to the Ashford mansion and walked across the patio. Seeing Avery, concealing her bruises…it had all brought back too many memories. She hated thinking about her past, hated thinking of how weak she had been, but mostly she hated to think that her past was still haunting her.

She sat on a bench at the edge of the patio, needing a moment to herself to pull herself back to the present. She wanted to believe she had put all her demons behind her, but it had felt all too close for comfort in covering the bruises upon Avery's neck. It felt as if she were reliving the moment for herself. Still, her bruises had healed, and she had moved on with her life. At least she thought she had.

A small dog barked with glee as she bounced towards Caitlin. Caitlin smiled as she held out her hand for the dog to learn her. She gently patted the dog on the head, "Hello there."

"Peanut…you get back here."

Caitlin looked up to see Annie coming towards her. She smiled as she looked to the dog, "You must be Peanut." The dog wagged her tail happily. She scratched the dog's ears.

Annie smiled as she approached them, "I'm sorry about that. I think all the people at the house have gotten Peanut all kinds of excited," She closed the distance between them, "You must be Caitlin."

"And you must be Annie," Caitlin smiled, "I'm sorry I didn't introduce myself earlier."

"It's perfectly okay," Annie said as she sat beside Caitlin, "Things have been so chaotic around here, and people have been coming and going all morning. The important thing is that we're able to properly meet now."

Caitlin smiled as she lifted Peanut from the ground and continued to pet the dog, who seemed to love her already, "Kenneth talks about you quite a bit," She mentioned as she scratched the dog's ears.

Annie smiled, "He does, does he? Well, Kenny's a very sweet boy, but surely you two have more to talk about than me."

"We talk about a lot actually," Caitlin smiled before she placed the wiggling dog back upon the ground. While Peanut bounded out across the yard, Caitlin looked to Annie, "Do things like this happen a lot or has it just been since I got to town?"

"Things are usually very peaceful. It's only on occasion when all hell breaks loose," Annie sighed, "But you seem to be handling this well."

"I do?" Caitlin asked in surprise, "I don't see how you can say that."

"The very fact that you haven't run from the house screaming in horror says a great deal about your character," Annie smiled, "Quite a few people have run from this family under lesser circumstances. You aren't one of those people, and that says a lot about you."

"Well thank you…I think," Caitlin said with a slightly amused look upon her face.

"So tell me," Annie turned to Caitlin, "What do you think of Kenny?"

"Oh…well…" Caitlin smiled, "Are you going to be our chaperone?"

"No, I'm Brant's chaperone. He's the only one who needs one," Annie chuckled softly, "I'm just curious to know if you're as interested in Kenny as he is in you."

Caitlin turned her eyes away as a blush tickled her cheeks, "Oh…"

Annie smiled, "I'll take that as a yes," She reached over and gently touched Caitlin's arm, "Don't be embarrassed, sweetie. He thinks very highly of you, and I think that's wonderful. It's nice to see young love."

"I…I don't know what to say," Caitlin said as she looked to Annie.

"Just say that no matter what happens, you'll be good to him. Kenny is the sweetest boy, and I don't want to see him hurt. He went through his own kind of pain when he and Wendi parted ways. I don't want to see him go through that again."

"I don't even know that we're in that serious of a relationship," Caitlin began to dissuade her thinking.

"I'm not saying that you two are on your way to marriage or anything of that nature. I'm just asking that you be good to him. It's all I want for him," Annie patted Caitlin's arm gently, "And I think you just might be what he needs."

"I don't know…"

"I do," Annie assured her, "You and Kenny do seem to get along quite well, and I can tell by just talking to you that you are a sweet and honorable young lady. I think you two are a nicely matched set," She smiled, "Peanut!" She called after the dog, "I'd better go see to her, but you just take it easy here and I'm sure Kenny will be done fixing Brant's mess in a bit."

Caitlin smiled as she watched Annie walk out into the lawn. She sank back onto the bench and closed her eyes as she turned her face to the sun. If only it could possibly be true that she and Kenneth were a good pair, then the demons of the past could be laid to rest for good, and she could truly move on with her life.


“Thank you for this,” Blake sighed laying in over Seth as she looked to the image before them.  Cinderella’s castle may have only been an illusion captured by film, but in Seth’s arms she felt like a fairy tale princess who’d finally found her way to her handsome prince.  Now as Blake’s gaze lingered up to Seth’s intense brown eyes, she felt her heart flutter in anticipation of forever with him as the world at long last made perfect sense.
“How did we manage to get so lucky,” Seth questioned as if reading her thoughts.
“I was wondering the same thing,” she confessed snuggling into closer to him, “but I guess in a strange way maybe this was just meant to be.”
“Meant to be,” Seth repeated kissing the top of her head gently, “now that sounds like something I could buy into right about now.”
“Doesn’t it,” Blake lifted her chin up towards his, “although I do have something else on my mind right about now.”
“Oh?” Seth raised a curious brow as her palm pressed into the center of his chest pushing him back onto the blanket.
“That’s right,” Blake nodded encouragingly as she crawled in over his torso pushing him further onto the floor so that she could hover over him.  Tipping her hair over her shoulder as it’s blonde tips tickled over the side of his face, she leaned forward to kiss him tenderly as his arms wrapped around her drawing her nearer to him.
“Hmm…” Seth purred against her lips, “now this is very nice.”
“It gets better,” Blake promised beckoning his lips to hers once again as her tongue darted within his parted lips tasting and teasing him with a playful spark.
Feeling the intensity of Blake’s kiss, Seth’s hold on her constricted as his fingers curled around her waist squeezing her gently before rolling her onto her back.  Now with her caged beneath him, his hands glided over her curves feeling the warmth of her beneath him.  Their mouths parted for a brief moment as he noticed her lower lip trembling with anticipation.  She reached out to him touching his face as her blue eyes filled with love for him.
“Seth, I want you,” Blake whispered hoarsely as she rubbed her thigh up against his feeling the heat of his tensile muscle beneath her softness.
Seth’s thumb swept up against her cheek as if he was memorizing every detail.  Saying nothing Seth leaned forward kissing her again as passion flowed between them like a spark of electricity drawing them out from within in each heated caress.  His lips traveled over her face, from her forehead, to her cheekbones back to her savory lips again as his fingers fanned out over her hip squeezing her against him.
Blake murmured against his kiss rising up to meet his body as he moved against her.  The heat of him radiated through her as her fingers glided over the soft material of his t-shirt tugging it out of the top of his jeans as she eased it over the muscled planes of his back.  Her fingers cascaded over his tanned skin wanting to learn every inch of him as he pulled back enough to discard the t-shirt.  Blake looked up at him taking in every irresistible inch of his body as her eyes greedily feasted upon him.  Seth was magnificent and while they’d only known one another for such a short time, there was no denying the way her stomach was tied in knots at the very sight of the smooth bronze expanse of streamlined muscle before her.  She reached out to him urging him into another desperate, needing kiss as she pressed him down on the blanket once again taking control of their time with one another.
“Blake,” Seth whispered her name as she crawled over him, plucking away at the buttons on her shirt as he watched her in awe.  He reached out to her stopping her from rushing things as he leaned forward his lips pressing in over her neck in slow, savory movements as his tongue tasted the fire burning beneath her creamy flesh.  She cried out against his kisses dropping her head back as he held her, keeping her from soaring to the heavens at his touch.  His arm held her securely while his hand collected the material of her blouse leisurely opening it as his kisses moved over her collar bone.
“Seth,” she hissed his name feeling his hand slipping in beneath her blouse as he’d parted it enough to gain access to her body.  His fingers brushed over the satiny material of her bra, colliding with her sensitive peak causing her to cry out again.  Her eyes met his for a brief moment before his thumb circled over her hardened peak once again now thrusting against the satin barrier between them.  She threw her head back once again as a flood of passion washed over her and Seth’s mouth placed butterfly kisses over her silken skin.
“You’re so beautiful, Blake,” he murmured his kisses teasing over her breastbone as he eased the material of her blouse from her shoulders freeing her up to his attentions.  A breath escaped her lips as he collected her in his arms, his warm breath pressing in over the delicate material of her bra as his kisses traveled over her breast.
“Oh Seth,” she groaned in response rocking her hips against him as she knelt above him, longing to feel the solid heat of his desire inside of her.
“I’ve waited a long time to find someone who inspired me as you do,” he admitted his fingers moving in over the front clasp of her bra wanting to see more of her as his need for her overwhelmed him.
“I want to know what it’s like to love you in every sense of the word,” Blake blurted out freely as he unclasped her bra and her breasts spilled excitedly towards him.
A breath caught in Blake’s throat as his gaze swept over her.  Just the way he was looking at her, making love to her with his eyes caused her stomach to do flip flops as she anticipated his soft, sensual lips over her.  She felt the urge to close her eyes, to hide from this moment building inside of her, but as Seth leaned forward placing a feathery light kiss over the swell of her breast, she was hypnotized by the magic of him.  While she’d been the one who’d initiated this seduction between them, she realized that she was the one being seduced in every sense of the word as he took his time drawing out her pleasures with every flick of his tongue against her, every soft caress over her tantalizing curves.  The world spun around her, drawing her deep within a whirlpool of desire as somehow she’d wound up beneath Seth again, sprawled out over the blanket as her leg curled around him, needing him more with each passing second.
“I want you, Blake,” Seth confessed with a groan of anticipation as she rocked her body against his, tempting him with every sensual move she made.  She was perfect, absolutely beautiful and as he thought of what it would be like to make love to Blake Ashford, he realized that he was the luckiest man alive as she was the most beautiful, amazing woman he’d ever met.  She was his dream girl, the perfect vision of beauty and love all wrapped into one perfect package and the more time he spent with her, the more he realized he’d never wanted anything more.
Seth’s lips tapered off over her concave abdomen wanting to learn every irresistible inch of her as Blake’s cries alerted him to continue his journey over her body.  With each cry, each sigh of anticipation, Seth found himself struggling to keep from losing himself to the magic of her.  He wanted to experience every moment of her pleasure with her and as he returned to collect another kiss from her luscious lips, he realized he’d never be able to do without Blake.
“I always knew it would be this wonderful,” Blake confessed curling her legs around him as their kisses continued growing more frantic with each passing moment.
“What would be,” he questioned sliding his palms out over her arms seeking out her fingers.
“Making love,” she continued feeling his hard male heat press in against her through their clothing barriers, “I always knew that making love would be magic and that’s why I knew from the moment we met that you were the right one for me.  You were the one I was meant to experience this with…”
“Right one,” Seth broke away from their kiss seeing the sincerity behind her eyes laced with something more, “Blake,” he paused an unsettling feeling sweeping over him as he ached to bury himself inside of her, “how many…have you…” he stopped himself as a flush spilled over her cheeks.
“Have I what?” Blake questioned reaching out to him trying to coax him into another kiss as a sudden warning signal went off in Seth’s head.
“Blake,” he felt an agitated breath spill over his lips as he struggled with his conscious.  Suddenly making love held something more to it as he pondered her words.  Despite the non-verbal cues she was giving him, the ways in which his body was accepting all of her invitations, there was something that began to tug at him as he braced himself over her ceasing all movement between them, “have you ever done this before?”
Another blush spilled over her cheeks as she turned her head away from him, “Don’t be ridiculous.  Why would you ask something like that?”
“Blake,” he reached out to her again urging her to meet his eyes as he saw something reflected in the blue before him--fear and uneasiness perhaps, “there’s nothing to be embarrassed about if you haven’t…”
“Why does it show that much,” she questioned tears threatening as she pulled away from him, “Am I that horrible?”
“No, that’s not it,” Seth watched her break away from his embrace as she had her back to him.
“I knew I should’ve kept my mouth shut,” she brought her knees up to her chest rocking herself against them as she closed her eyes embarrassment washing over her.
“No,” he reached out to touch her shoulder, “Blake, you should’ve said something.  I’m glad I know…”
“It’s not exactly something to brag about,” Blake groaned inwardly, “but with being Blake Ashford and having the brothers that I had, men were less than eager to touch me.  Sure I had boyfriends, but they were always at arm’s length.  I wasn’t what they wanted because they always feared my father or Brant or Kenny and I guess I just got used to not being desired.  Even now, I can see that you don‘t want me now that you know…”
“Blake, I don’t think that’s the case,” he moved in closer to her a guilt washing over him as he realized what almost happened between them, “Blake, I want you.  Believe me I want you right now more than ever…”
“Then what’s the problem,” Blake turned towards him her tears pooling in her eyes, “Why did we have to stop?”
“Because this isn’t how it should be for you,” Seth drew in a nervous breath, “at least not your first time…”
“I’m horrible, aren’t I?” Blake slumped over again, “that’s why you don’t want me because I’m not what you were hoping for.”
“Blake, that’s not it at all,” Seth urged her to look at him again, “You’re the most beautiful, wonderful woman I’ve ever met and I want nothing more than to make love to you right here, right now, but we can’t…”
“Why?” she questioned tearfully, “because I decided to save myself until the right guy came along?  Because no one else decided I was worth the effort before now?”
“Blake, you’re all wrong about yourself,” Seth touched her cheek gently, “You’re well worth the effort and the wait,” he leaned in to kiss her tenderly, “Blake, knowing that you haven’t…well that you were waiting for Mr. Right, that says so much about you…”
“That I’m completely undesirable, I know,” she groaned again as she looked to the floor.
“No, it says that you’re a woman that sticks to her guns about things and I’m guessing that if you wanted to, you could’ve had a hundred men or more chasing you down willing to risk the wrath of the men in your life if they could only experience something so wonderful with you.”
“Now you’re trying to me feel better about this,” Blake grumbled again.
“Well yes, but that’s not the only reason I’m saying this,” Seth continued desperately, “I mean hey you said it yourself that there were men in your life.  I’ve heard the stories before we met, but now knowing that you didn’t…that they weren’t worthy of you, well it only proves to me that I need to find a way to be the man you need.”
“You are that man,” Blake’s tears spilled down her face, “You’re all that and more and Seth, I want you.  I’ve never wanted anyone like I want you and after last night, well I just thought…”
“Blake, I love you,” Seth drew in a breath trying to still the reaction she’d inspired in him, “but in loving you and knowing that you want to share yourself with me in that way when you waited so very long to share that part of yourself with someone, well I just want it to be perfect for you…”
“You’re just trying to let me down easy,” Blake sighed shaking her head in disbelief, “and while I appreciate that, you don’t have to sugar coat what you’re saying.”
“Blake,” Seth cupped her face in his hands, “listen to me.  I love you--more than I ever thought I could love anyone in this lifetime and now that I know what it is you’re willing to give me, well I want to prove myself worthy of you before we make love.”
“I already told you that I know you’re worthy of this,” Blake argued with him, “I know that you’re the man I’ve waited for all my life.”
“Then if you’ve waited this long, a little longer won’t hurt either one of us,” he pulled her into his arms, “Blake, I want to show you a world of romance unlike anything you’ve ever known before.  I want to show you how much you mean to me and then when the time is right, well then we’ll make love and it’ll be everything you’ve always dreamed it to be.”
She let out a tiny sigh sinking into his chest as the weight of the moment loomed over her, “I’m a pretty big dreamer you know.”
“That makes this all the more worth our while,” he lifted her face towards his as he leaned forward kissing her tenderly, “I love you Blake Ashford.”
“I love you,” she replied returning his kisses as her heart filled with hope once again, “I just hope I don’t disappoint you.”
“You could never disappoint me,” Seth answered honestly, “because I know in my heart that you’re well worth the wait,” he assured her wrapping her up in his arms as he thought to the situation with Cameron.  First he would find a way to get out of that somehow and he’d be open with Blake about everything, letting her see what it was that lead him to such a tentative position and then if she still wanted to be with him, well then he’d find a way to show her a world of romance she’d never known.  Now holding her, he vowed that he’d show her the world of love that had evaded her for so very long as she was the one woman who held the key to his heart from here on out.


Avery heard the scattered sounds beneath her from the top of the staircase as she drew in a nervous breath.  Thinking about the police waiting downstairs to question her, to ask her all about Bruce and about her personal life that she didn’t want to answer, she realized that she dreaded this moment almost as much as she dreaded the idea of her mother finding out about her so called engagement to Brant.  Still as the sounds of disputing continued beneath her, Avery forced herself to still her shaking hands as she vowed to put on the performance of a lifetime.  Sure she was nervous about facing them at a time like this, but Caitlin had done one hell of a job in helping her hide the reminder of Bruce’s attack and she’d be sure to find a way thank her for later, but now it was time to put her best foot forward and show the world that Avery Morrison was not someone who accepted the raw deal fate had offered her.
Slowly Avery glided down the staircase, shoulders back head held high in that very pompous regal fashion that her mother prided herself on.  Granted the idea of being so stoic wasn’t the first one Avery had hoped for, but given the situation she was facing, she realized she couldn’t let vulnerability show through the surface.  Making her way to the bottom of the staircase, her eyes cast in the direction of Russell and instantly a wave of guilt washed over her as she hated the idea of playing the role that was expected of her, but somehow she was certain he’d understand--at least she hoped.  With that thought in mind, she approached Brant and the man with him that she immediately recognized as Hart Steiner--the man who’d made Jenna’s life hell.  Despite her feelings in the man, she vowed to ignore his presence as she placed her hand on Brant’s shoulder.
“Brant, what’s going on,” she questioned in a curt tone as he turned around to see her his eyes widening with surprise.
“Avery, I thought you were resting,” Brant nearly gulped as he reached out to her, “Russell and I thought that you were still taking it easy…”
“I was, but then I heard voices,” Avery turned her attention to the policemen in the living room, “Why are they still here?”
“We need to talk to you,” Dave stepped forward noting her arrival.
“About what?” Avery questioned leaning in against Brant, “there’s nothing to say here.  Granted you offered me a horrible blow earlier today, but there’s nothing more I can say.”
“And nothing she’s going to say either,” Russell piped in stepping in beside her, “Avery, don’t tell him anything.”
“Russ, I can handle this,” Avery threw him a pointed look.
“No, he’s right,” Brant insisted firmly, “You don’t owe him anything and there’s no way I’m going to let him harass you in our home.”
“Brant, clearly this morning was a terrible tragedy, but there’s nothing we can do to change that,” Avery turned her attention to Dave once again offering a polite nod, “I wish there was more I could say, but I’m at a loss…”
“I understand you’re upset, but given that we’re dealing with a murder investigation,” Dave started once again.
“What?” Avery gasped struggling to keep her voice even as Brant stepped in front of her putting a distance between her and Dave.
“That’s right Avery,” Dave ignored Brant’s movement, “Bruce was murdered and it’s vital to this investigation that I have a few words with you.”
“Out of the question,” Brant protested firmly.
“My client has been far more generous than to be expected given the circumstances,” Hart added simply, “and there will be no more harassing Brant or his fiancée.  Clearly she has nothing to tell you…”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Dave glared at Hart finding himself in no mood to deal with the attorney.  He looked to Avery once again, “When was the last time you were in contact with Bruce?”
“She hasn’t seen him in a while,” Russell insisted stepping in beside Avery despite the warning look Grady gave him, “They broke up quite some time ago.”
“Is that true,” Dave looked to Avery once again.
“Bruce and I broke up a while ago,” she nodded in confession.
“A while ago you say?” Dave thumbed through the pages of notes before him, “Then when was the last time you came into contact with him?”
“I don’t recall off hand,” Avery shrugged her shoulders, “Around the time the quake hit I think.  We had a talk in his office about things and then we agreed that we both were better off apart so we went our separate ways.”
“Just like that,” Dave raised a skeptic brow.
“Just like that,” she insisted again.
“And under what terms would you say you two parted with?” Dave probed further.
“Am I under some kind of suspicion here?” Avery questioned in confusion, “Is that what you’re trying to get at?”
“No, he’s about to get thrown out of the mansion for harassment in about two seconds,” Brant growled back at Dave throwing him a menacing look.
“I’ll be glad to assist you with that,” Russell piped in as Grady placed his hand out to stop him from getting further involved.  Grady shook his head at Russell hoping to dissuade Russell from doing anything stupid as Hart spoke up once again.
“My client has asked you politely to leave his home and I think Ms. Morrison has given you all the answers she’s going to be able to give you, so if you and your crew would be so kind enough as to escort me to the door…”
“Not just yet,” Dave argued with him as his dark eyes shot daggers in Avery’s direction, “You say that you weren’t in contact with Bruce recently, but then would you care to explain how he was spotted at your apartment a couple of days ago and then last night you two were seen together at a club called the…” he thumbed through his pages of notes once again, “Cadillac Ranch”
“That’s impossible,” Avery argued with him, “Last night I was here all night.”
“Is that so?” Dave questioned doubtful, “Because I have at least two witnesses willing to place a woman fitting your description at the bar with Bruce.  According to their recollections, the two of you shared a few drinks, a few dances and then had a very vocal dispute on the dance floor.”
“They were mistaken,” Brant piped in simply, “Last night Avery was here at the mansion with myself and Russell.  The three of us were having a dinner in honor of my and Avery’s upcoming nuptials.  Isn’t that right?” he looked to Russell expectantly.
“That’s right,” Russell stated firmly, “We had dinner and a few drinks and none of us left the mansion.”
Dave opened his mouth to speak once again, as a reluctant Kenneth stepped forward hating to get dragged into one of Brant’s latest scandals, but as Kenneth noticed the way in which Avery seemed a bit shaken still despite her false front, he realized perhaps it was time to end this question and answer session before things got out of hand.
“I think my client has more than satisfied your need for answers this morning,” Kenneth began simple as Dave gave him a strange look.
“Your client?” Dave repeated in confusion.
“That’s right,” Kenneth nodded in response, “any further questions that you may have for my client in terms of this investigation can be made to my office.  This morning she’s been more than hospitable in assisting you and now I’m asking you to leave.  As you can clearly see the media has been rather invasive here most of the weekend and given that Avery is coping with this loss you’ve informed us of, I think that it would be best if you took this opportunity to be on your way.  If you have any follow up questions that you have for Avery, once again you can feel free to contact my office and Avery and I will set something up if need be, but until then I ask that you take a moment’s consideration and give us all some peace for the time being.  There’s nothing more to answer here I’m afraid…”
“Ken, you know I’m just doing my job,” Dave’s voice faltered a bit as he looked to his long time pal.
“I understand and respect that, but at the same time, Avery is entitled to her privacy during this grieving period and I would expect some professional if not personal courtesy on your end especially given the relationship you have with this family.”
“As I said before, this is my job,” Dave sighed in frustration.
“And this is mine,” Kenneth motioned towards the door, “Shall I see you on your way out?”
“I’ll be back,” Dave promised throwing out one last look to the group.
“We’ll be waiting for you,” Brant grumbled shaking his head at the police chief as he turned away opting to go make himself a martini as clearly this morning couldn’t get any worse.
As Kenneth lead Dave away from the living room, Russell stepped forward touching Avery’s shoulder gently before whispering, “Are you okay?”
“Not really,” Avery confessed turning to face him, “but I’ll survive.  I always do,” she answered simply giving him one last look before heading towards the back of the estate hoping to get some air.  Russell watched her walk away as Jenna stepped out from the shadows she’d been standing in during the exchange with the lawyers.
“She’s taking this hard, isn’t she?” Jenna questioned breaking through Russell’s concentration as he looked to her.
“Nothing about this situation is easy,” Russell commented simply.
“I wouldn’t imagine it would be,” Jenna noted shaking her head, “Still thinking about her and Ashford…it just doesn’t make sense…”
“Jenna, look I don’t mean to sound callous, but Avery’s been through hell the last couple of days,” Russell sighed bringing his fingers through his hair, “In between the media and this, well she just needs some time…”
“I can see that, but still…” Jenna’s eyes lingered to the direction Avery traveled off in, “maybe I should go talk to her.”
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” Russell reached out to stop her as Jenna took a step forward.  She looked back to him seeing the concern for Avery burning behind his eyes as he continued speaking, “If you’re just going to grill her for information on the case, it’s not what she needs…”
“Russell, you know me better than that,” Jenna sighed giving him a pointed look, “Avery’s my best friend.  That always comes first with me.  You know that.”
He let go of her offering up a reluctant sigh, “I know that…” he took a step back, “Just make sure that she’s okay…that she’s really doing alright with this…”
“I’ll do my best,” Jenna promised turning her attention towards the path that Avery had taken out back as she imagined what kind of misery her best friend must be feeling right about now.


Heather stood on the small balcony of her room which overlooked Lake Cardinal. She hadn't anticipated the kind of proposal Cameron Stone had offered her, but any chance to get Brant to forget his notions of Avery's nobility would be a good one. Now she only had to come up with a way to get that ring off of Avery's finger.

Heather stepped back into her room and closed the sliding glass door behind her. The cool air conditioned air wrapped around her and invited her further into the room. She sank onto the bed and tucked a pillow under her. How was she ever going to get Avery to part with that ring?

The ringing of her cell phone interrupted her plots for the ring. She rolled down the bed and plucked her cell phone from a battery charger near the bed, "What?"

"Well, hello to you too, Beautiful," William said with a smile in his voice, "How is the quest going to become Hollywood's next leading lady?"

"Actually, I have some other obligations right now, William. While becoming the next leading lady in a Mahoney production really is my priority, there are other matters in my life that I need to attend to."

"If this is about Brant Ashford, just save it. I saw the papers, and I know all about his engagement. The best thing you can do for yourself and your career is come back out to L.A. where you can focus yourself."

"William, listen to me," Heather said firmly as she sat up on the edge of the bed, "That story about Brant…well, you know how the media does love to overreact. That's all that story is. I have to stay here for a while longer. Brant and I will be together again."

"Heather, stop being ridiculous. What exactly are you going to do with Brant after all of this? You're going to end up sitting at home barefoot and pregnant if he has anything to say about it."

"He's not like that at all, and you don't know him, William. I know him, and I love him. I'm not going to abandon him."

"He's already abandoned you. It's time to come back to Los Angeles to save your career."

"I'm not going anywhere, William. I have business to attend to."

"I could always make a phone call to Mahoney and tell him that you're no longer interested."

"Don't threaten me, William," She warned, "Don't you dare presume to have power over me. You work for me, and don't you ever forget that."

"I'm only trying to look out for your best interests, Heather," He reminded her.

"Then listen to what I'm telling you. I am staying here to be with Brant, and that's not going to change. Until you can grasp that concept, we have nothing to discuss," Heather said as she hung up the telephone. She sank back on the bed and stared at the ceiling. She hated putting her career on hold, and to be honest, she was doing a good job of working on her career with Kipp. But her biggest concern was Brant, and she would do anything to get him back…even putting her career on hold indefinitely.


Thea stepped into the den, spotting Cameron sipping a glass of scotch. It was obvious he was in a foul mood, and she would have to find a way to repair whatever damage he thought had been done. She slipped onto the sofa beside him and focused her attention upon him, "What's on your mind?"

"Things are not proceeding in the way I would like them to," Cameron stated plainly before he took another sip of his drink.

"On the contrary, things are proceeding according to plan," She spoke as she brushed her fingers over the soft suede cushion along the back of the sofa, "You only have to be patient a bit longer."

"Patience is not one of the few virtues I have," He commented, sitting the remainder of his drink on an end table.

"Be that as it may," She smiled, "We do know where the painting is now. All you have to do is get what you really want out of it."

"Hmmm," He nodded, "Seth should come in handy for that."

"And then there's the ring. We now know the ring is on the finger of one Avery Morrison. That should be a simple operation to get it away from her."

"I already have someone working on that."

"And then there's the Ashford lawsuit that will be filed this week," Thea smiled as she gently reached out to him, drawing her fingers along his muscular shoulder, "So things are going better than you think."

"Perhaps," He said as he focused his attention upon her, "But there is still a missing piece to our grand puzzle."

"And that would be?" She questioned as she slid closer to him, lightly draping her fingers upon his chest.


"Why do you want her?" Thea questioned as she plucked gently upon the buttons of his shirt, "You know that I would give you anything," She whispered as she slipped her fingers inside the material of his shirt to gingerly dance across his chest, "I would do anything for you."

Cameron eyed Thea as she straddled his lap and continued to unbutton his shirt. He watched her closely while placing his hands upon her hips, "I know you would."

"Then why do you want her?" She asked as she opened his shirt and pushed it further open.

"You can't understand, Thea, but there's a history…a promise if you will…that she would be mine. And I will not be denied," He said firmly as he met her eyes.

"Is that what disturbs you so? Has she denied you?" She questioned, dropping her fingers to the clasp on his belt.

"She has, and you know that I do not take rejection well," He reminded her, slipping her dress over hips.

"Then forget about her for now," Thea whispered over his lips, "I will not reject you…ever," She assured him before sealing her lips to his with a passionate kiss.

Cameron accepted her kiss and returned it, squeezing Thea closer to him. He would not forget about Jade nor would he put off his plans for her. While Thea wasn't Jade, she would never have to know that she wasn't the woman he was thinking about while making love to her.

Avery stepped out of the mansion feeling the soft summer breeze sweep over her as she hugged her arms against her chest.  While she’d thought she’d been prepared to have a talk with Dave Warner and his men, the meeting in the mansion had fallen horribly flat for her.  If Kenneth hadn’t had piped in when he did, she feared that she may have revealed too much about Bruce.  Sure, the truth might’ve set her free as the old saying went, but given that the truth was so horrible, she feared that not only would it put her under suspicion, but it would put both Brant and Russell in a bad place and she wouldn’t allow that to happen.  She wouldn’t dare risk either one of them because of her.  It was bad enough that they knew about what Bruce had done, but for them to suffer because of what she did--well, she wouldn’t hear of it.  If either one of them had played a role in Bruce’s demise, then ultimately the guilt fell back upon her as she was the one who’d given them the ammunition against Bruce.
Now struggling against the tears that threatened, Avery closed her eyes just taking in the summer day before her as she heard footsteps from behind her.  She had half a mind to tell whomever had followed her to just go away, but as she lost herself in the moment she remained frozen in place unable to break free of the chill that had enveloped her since the day of Bruce’s attack.
“Avery,” Jenna’s voice rose above the breeze as Avery turned to see her friend beside her, “hey honey, how are you holding up?”
“Jenna,” Avery blinked back at her, “What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to come and talk with you,” Jenna explained simply, “I’m worried about you.”
“Oh Jenna,” Avery embraced her losing herself to the tears that she’d fought so hard to keep to herself, “How did my life become so miserable?”
“Hey it’ll be okay,” Jenna tried to encourage her hugging her tighter, “I know this hurts, but this too shall pass and you’ll make it out on top of this one.”
“Bruce is dead,” Avery sobbed harder, “He’s dead and it’s all my fault.”
“Avery, honey how can you say that,” Jenna questioned as Avery looked away from her.
Avery thought about her situation for a moment before it dawned in on her why Jenna was really here at the mansion.  “You’re working the case, aren’t you?”
“I never thought that I’d be walking in to see Bruce like that,” Jenna admitted honestly, “In my line of work it’s always a possibility, but when I saw him, my first thoughts were about you.  I had no idea that you and Bruce were apart and then to read in the headline that you and Brant were engaged…”
“Oh Jenna, if you only knew the half of it,” Avery turned away from her.
“Then tell me,” Jenna urged once more, “Avery, tell me what’s going on?  Why on Earth would you feel responsible for what happened to Bruce?”
“Jenna, I destroyed him,” Avery sniffled unable to contain her tears, “I’m the one who killed him.”
“You what?” Jenna’s eyes widened in surprise, “Avery, tell me this isn’t a confession to murder…”
“Oh heaven’s no,” Avery shook her head, “but what I did was almost as bad…” Avery stopped herself, “I shouldn’t be telling you this…”
“Avery, whatever you tell me stays between us,” Jenna promised her, “You know that…”
“Jenna, I know you have a job to do and it’s important to you.  I don’t want to make you feel that you have to compromise that by being my friend…” Avery began uneasily as she moved around the patio.
“Avery, girl how long have we been friends?” Jenna gave her a pointed look, “Not to mention that the bozos at the police department don’t know their head from their ass most of the time?  I mean I saw what Dave Warner was trying to pull there with you, but I also saw Bruce’s body.  While I can’t get into details about what I saw, I can say with a clear conscious that there’s no doubt in my mind you weren’t the one who did this.  Even if you’d wanted to, you don’t have the strength behind it…”
“Strength?” Avery spun around to face her once again, “Oh God, Jenna what happened to him…?”
“Avery, I can’t give you details,” Jenna frowned in response, “You know to do that would compromise things and…”
“I know,” Avery nodded simply, “but I have to know…did he suffer…” Avery searched her friend’s eyes already knowing the answer as a lump formed in her throat, “Oh God.”
“Avery, look they’re going to find who did this to Bruce.  Once they get their hands on the person who did it, the police will leave you alone,” Jenna stated firmly, “Eventually they’ll get pointed in the right direction and then they won’t be hassling you.”
“Jenna, when they find out the truth about Bruce and I, well…” Avery drew in a nervous breath.
“Avery, talk to me,” Jenna pleaded with her, “I swear to you whatever you say won’t leave this balcony.  You have my word on that.”
“Jenna, I can’t…” Avery wiped at her tears, “I just can’t…”
“Avery, look I don’t know what happened between you and Bruce, but something was never right there to begin with,” Jenna offered up as she watched Avery take a seat on one of the benches before her, “While I know you meant well, it was a given that you two would never wind up on the road to happily ever after together.”
“That’s all he wanted, you know,” Avery let out an ironic laugh, “He really thought he could tame me and make me into the perfect little wife.”
“He should’ve known better,” Jenna took a seat beside her, “Even I knew that wouldn’t ever happen.”
“He wanted to believe,” Avery admitted tearfully, “and when I left him, Jenna you didn’t see how much it hurt him.  When I walked out on him that day in his office, a part of him died with me.  I could see it in his eyes.  All he wanted was me to be his wife, but instead I wanted something more…”
“There’s nothing wrong with wanting more and if you are holding yourself responsible for what happened to Bruce because you finally realized you needed something more in your life, then Avery you’re being too hard on yourself.  There’s no law against wanting to be happy you know.”
“My happiness seems to be the cause of so much destruction,” Avery sighed thinking about the week she’d had, “Just when I think I’m getting it all together, well then something happens that blows it all up again.”
“You mean like getting engaged to one of the media’s favorite bachelors,” Jenna teased lightly, “I mean that’s something I never expected, but then again, you do tend to throw everyone for a loop every now and then.  I mean hey, that must say something if Russell‘s even supporting that one.  Who knew?”
“Russell,” Avery repeated slouching as she thought back to the chaos she’d brought to his life.  She closed her eyes feeling images of her night with Russell haunt her, “He deserves more than me, you know.”
“Avery, Russell Denton has been devoted to you since the first moment he laid eyes upon you back in elementary school,” Jenna reminded her, “Whether or not you feel you’re a good or bad force in his life, he’s always compelled to follow you where ever you wind up.  And hey if he’s supporting this thing with Brant, then that says something right there because I never imagined he’d be satisfied until the two of you were together again…”
Avery looked to Jenna feeling a pang of guilt sweeping over her as she fought to keep the truth from shining through her dark eyes.  She struggled to find the words, but nothing fell from her lips as she turned away.
“Russ is a good guy,” Avery said simply stepping over towards the ledge once again.
“Russ is a good guy,” Jenna repeated eyeing Avery closely as a frown touched over her lips, “Avery, what aren’t you telling me?”
“Jenna, it’s nothing…” Avery shook her head keeping her eyes out over the garden.
“Avery, come on.  We’ve been best friends since what?  The sixth grade?”
“Fifth,” Avery smiled over her shoulder at her.
“Exactly which is why I know when you’re trying to keep a secret from me,” Jenna prodded further, “What’s the real story here with you and Russ?”
“Jenna, I…” Avery fought for the words before finally blurting out, “we slept together.”
“Are you serious,” Jenna gasped in surprise before lowering her voice, “When?”
“The other night,” Avery confessed thinking back to her time with Russell, “It’s not like we planned on it, but it just kind of happened.  I went over for dinner and things just kind of, well they…”
“They took a turn down the rocky road of Russ and Avery revisited,” Jenna saw the pained expression behind Avery’s eyes, “and now?”
“Now Bruce is dead,” Avery explained simply, “It’s one problem at a time, remember?”
“What about Brant?” Jenna questioned, “I mean if you’re engaged to the guy, then wouldn’t it be that you and Russ shouldn’t be…”
“I never planned on it,” Avery sighed again, “Even now, I don’t know where things stand with either one of them.  I mean with Brant, he’s infuriating and impossible and so damned sexy.  Jenna, he does things to me--things that turn me inside out and send my head swimming with possibilities.  He’s so much more than I thought he was and with each moment I’m spending with him, well I’m starting to wonder if maybe Brant is someone that I was meant to find.  I mean he’s sacrificed so much for me, but then…” she trailed off.
“There’s Russell,” Jenna offered an ironic laugh, “It always goes back to that, doesn’t it?”
“It’s almost like an addiction for us,” Avery confessed running her fingers through her dark hair, “Just when I think I know where we stand on things between us, something like this happens.”
“And now?” Jenna questioned once again.
“Now I have two men in there…” Avery paused thinking about the two of them inside--of the lengths they’d go to in order to protect her, “they both are more than any woman could ever hope for in her life and they both are so special to me.  I’d do anything to keep them from being hurt by my choices.  If I could somehow just take away all the harm I’ve caused…”
“Avery, you’re being too hard on yourself,” Jenna reached for her hand giving it a light squeeze, “You should be putting the blame on the men in your life.”
“The men in my life?” Avery repeated giving her a strange look.
“Of course,” Jenna nodded in response, “I mean hey it’s always men who complicate things and give us headaches.  That’s their purpose in life, don’t you know?”
“Well I wish it wasn’t,” Avery couldn’t help but smile, “because it’s really something I could easily do without.”
“Tell me about it,” Jenna teased lightheartedly, “The last date I went on had me in court,” she finished with a groan, “Talk about a nightmare.”
“Okay so maybe you win out in the horrible department,” Avery couldn’t help but smile wider as she thought of her friend’s pitiful flight after one failed date.
“Believe me, I vow never to date a cop again, but still I don’t think I’m ever going to live that down,” Jenna shook her head at the memory, “and then with seeing that pompous windbag here with Brant…”
“That’s right,” Avery thought back to seeing Hart, “Brant did have him here.”
“It’s a wonder that anyone would see fit to do any kind of business with that shyster…especially considering the man would sell his soul to the devil for a win in the courtroom.”
“I think it’s a little too late for that,” Avery groaned slightly, “Hart Steiner crossed over to the dark side long before now.”
“Which is a wonder that a guy like Kenneth works with him,” Jenna noted shaking her head, “Kenneth seems like the ultimate good guy and Hart, well he’s a few choice words that I’d rather skip over as it’s unladylike.”
“Fair enough,” Avery nodded in consideration, “I don’t know why Kenneth works with him, but then again Kenneth was always one for lost causes back in law school,” Avery pondered the thought, “which is probably why my father adored him.  I mean hey, if my father would’ve been here today watching Kenneth take the role of my attorney, I think Kenneth would be getting offered a partnership in the blink of an eye.”
“He made that much of an impression on Richard Morrison in law school,” Jenna felt an ironic laugh tickle over her, “Now that certainly says something about Kenneth.”
“He’s the best damn lawyer I’ve ever known,” Avery agreed appreciatively, “He’s got the perfect balance of determination and yet he manages to keep his morals about him.”
“A real hero from what I hear,” Jenna thought it over, “which begs the question, does he and Brant have that in common?”
“Brant’s an adventure,” Avery admitted as her thoughts lingered to the man who’d worked so hard for her attention, “While I’d love to say he and Kenneth have the altruistic thing in common, the truth is Brant’s more of the bad boy.”
“Hence your interest in him,” Jenna teased.
“I’ll have you know I’m not only into bad boys,” Avery feigned insult, “I love a man of character and…”
“And enough rebellious sex appeal to fuel your appetite,” Jenna interrupted, “Don’t kid a kidder, Avery.  I know how your mind works.”
“Okay so maybe it does take that extra something to get me to notice someone,” Avery conceded with an afterthought, “but that doesn’t make me a bad person.”
“Not at all, but it does explain half of your troubles,” Jenna added thoughtfully, “You crave the adventure and risk that comes along with those types, but when it gets down to the getting serious, well you start weighing out your options.”
“Hey, I thought you were supposed to make me feel better,” Avery threw a glare out at her.
“I could do that, but then again where is lying to you going to get,” Jenna pointed out, “You always appreciated my honesty.”
“Unfortunately,” Avery sighed, “I do, but in this case, do you think it’s possible to be in love with two very different men?  I mean does that make me sound flighty or foolish to even think that I could really have some feelings for both Brant and Russell at the same time?”
“Avery, take a good hard look at them,” Jenna remarked offhandedly, “if I was in your shoes, I’d have a hard time not feeling the both of them period.  While you do tend to live in a world of chaos, you have great taste in men.”
“I do, don’t I,” Avery boasted as an image of Bruce flooded over her, “well most of the time.”
“Hey, we all make mistakes,” Jenna offered gently, “I mean, hey, I have a restraining order against me to prove it,” she finished accomplishing her goal as a laugh spilled over Avery’s lips and the two women took a moment to step outside the world they were in--both  hoping to enjoy the time catching up and leaving the horrors of the world behind them for a little while.


“Russ, I really wish you’d just walk away from this,” Grady frowned turning his attention to his brother once again, “This is only going to be more trouble than it’s worth.”
“Avery’s not going to suffer because of what that man did to her and if the police even think for one second that Avery had something to do with what happened to Bruce, well then I know there’s no place for me than at her side protecting her,” Russell explained simply no doubt in his mind.
“Russ, if you did something…” Grady searched his younger brother’s features wondering if Russell knew something about Bruce’s demise.
“Grady, the police are leaving.  You should probably get on home now.  I appreciate your concern, but Avery shouldn’t have called you like she did,” Russell changed the subject instantly.
“I only wish she’d called sooner,” Grady frowned shaking his head, “Russ, don’t give up your life for Avery.  If this is all about that happily ever after you’re hoping for with her…”
“Trust me,” Russell interrupted once again, “I know what I’m doing.”
“I don’t think you do,” Grady insisted, “and that’s what worries me.”
“Avery would do anything to protect me if the need arose,” Russell pointed out.
“Even if that meant walking away,” Grady reminded him simply, “She left because she wanted you to be happy…”
“My happiness is secondary to what’s going on here,” Russell sighed as he looked around the nearly empty mansion, “and even though you have your doubts about the situation, being with Avery and helping her through this, is where I was meant to be…”
“Russ, I just don’t want to see this thing you have for Avery bury you.  You’re my younger brother and I’m worried about you.”
“Grady as much as I appreciate what you’re saying and what you’ve done, there really isn’t reason to worry.  Everything is going to work itself out eventually.  I promise you that.”
“I hope you’re right,” Grady answered finally giving his brother one last look, “Just don’t do anything stupid.”
“I don’t plan on it,” Russell offered simply watching his brother leave as he let out a breath he hadn’t been aware he’d been holding.  He closed his eyes trying to get a hold of the situation he’d found himself in as Brant’s voice broke through his thoughts.
“See to it that you keep it that way,” Brant spoke up sipping his martini, “We both have to stick to our stories about last night.”
“I didn’t plan on changing mine,” Russell vowed turning around to face him, “I’m not going to let them get at Avery and if that means pretending that you and I have called a truce to make that happen, then so be it.”
“Remember the story is that she’s my fiancée and that you’re supporting this all the way,” Brant explained matter of fact, “You couldn’t be happier for us.”
“You want this to believable, so don’t ask for a fairy tale,” Russell warned sharply, “For now, we’ll go with that, but should Avery have a change of heart about this ‘engagement’, well don’t be surprised if I’m not singing your praises to the public eye because you know where I stand on this issue.”
“And you know where it stands about last night,” Brant warned as he looked around the empty room once again, “No one is ever going to find out about what really happened last night.”
“I wouldn’t dream of sharing it with a soul,” Russell nodded in response, “Not even Avery.”
“Especially not Avery,” Brant agreed realizing that last night’s chain of events were something that would stay buried forever as the last thing either man wanted was for Avery to ever know what lengths they went to in order to protect her.  She just wouldn’t understand.


Kenneth stepped out the back door in his search for Caitlin. Annie had told him where she had seen his young lady earlier, and he had decided to look for her outside. He hadn't expected for Brant's situation to take so long, and now he felt he had to apologize to Caitlin for dragging her into all of the Ashford madness.

He stepped out across the lawn looking for any sign of Caitlin. He passed a set of shrubs and stopped as he saw Caitlin sitting on a bench beneath an old oak tree. He smiled as he began walking towards her, "I was beginning to think I'd have to form a search party to find you out here."

Caitlin smiled as she heard his voice and turned to look at him as he approached her. She stretched her limbs before lightly waving to him.

"You look relaxed," He noted as he closed the distance between them and took a seat on the bench beside her.

"I am…now," She added as she looked at him, "How are things inside?"

"Well, Dave finally left which is good news, but Avery's still very shaken up…especially now that she knows Bruce was murdered," Kenneth frowned.

"Oh no," She breathed, turning her gaze out at the large expanse of greenery before her, "How'd it happen?"

"The police are holding the details close to the cuff, but I got the feeling it was a very violent end. If what he did to Avery was any indication of what the man was capable of, he probably brought it on himself," He said as he looked to Caitlin, "How was she when you saw her?"

"A complete mess," Caitlin admitted, "But I think under the circumstances, she's keeping it together."

"Her bruises were covered quite well. Did you help her with that?"

She looked to him in a sudden panic, afraid that a simple act of helping Avery had exposed her darkest secret, "I…"

"Caitlin," He placed his hand upon her shoulder, "Are you okay? You look terrified."

"It's just…I…she looked so shook up, and those bruises were horrible," She shook her head, turning her eyes away from him in an effort to keep her secret from revealing itself, "I just…I feel so bad for her."

"I do too," He said softly as he slipped his arm around her, urging her to lay her head upon him to share her fear, "But she's safe now, and he's never going to harm her again. Now I just have to make sure that she won't have to suffer any more because of him."

"You?" Caitlin questioned as she looked up to meet his eyes, "Why you?"

"I volunteered to be her attorney. I think she needs someone who wants to look out for her in all of this. Hart represents my brother, and lord knows they have the same mentality when it comes to winning. I think that in order to save a conflict of interest from arising, it was best that Avery have her own attorney. So I volunteered."

"That was so sweet of you," She said softly as she lightly brushed her fingertips along his cheek, "You're such an amazing man, Kenneth Ashford. You're much too good to be true," She said as tears formed in her eyes.

"Hey, what's all of this?" He questioned with concern humming in his voice, "Caitlin, what's really wrong?" He asked as he slipped his fingers under her chin to lift her eyes to his.

"It's just…I mean…"

"Take your time," He said softly as he eased his fingers across her cheek in a gentle comforting motion.

"All of this…it just seems like a nightmare come to life. I…" She stopped for a minute as she reminded herself not to reveal the secret which haunted her, "All of this violence. I'm attacked in the parking lot of the Courier, then Avery's bruises…and now a man is dead. When did the world become so horrible?"

Kenneth gathered her into his arms and gently smoothed her hair, "I just don't know, Caitlin. I really don't, but don't you worry about a thing. We'll keep you safe and sound, and nothing like that will ever happen to you again. I promise you."

"Shhh," She said quickly as she looked up to him and placed her fingers over his lips, "Don't make promises that you can't keep, Kenneth."

He looked at her in confusion as she withdrew her fingers from his lips, "Caitlin…"

"There are things we can't control in life. You can't promise that someone won't get hurt. I only wish it were that easy," She said as she looked away from him, easing herself out of his embrace.

"Caitlin…" He spoke her name with confusion running chaotic in his thoughts, "What aren't you telling me?"

She wrapped her arms around herself as he touched her shoulder. She felt a shiver travel along her spine as she thought of her past and how Kenneth would feel about her if he knew the truth. She would never forgive herself if she allowed the past to destroy her future. She slowly turned and met his eyes, seeing concern deep within his dark eyes. He was genuinely worried about her, but she knew deep inside her heart that she didn't deserve his concern. She looked away after a brief moment, unable to bare his caring gaze.

"Caitlin, please talk to me. What's wrong?" Kenneth urged her as he stepped in front of her to focus her attention upon her, "Let me help you."

"You can't help me, Kenneth. No one can. No one ever could," She said before she turned away, "I…I…I just want to go home. Can you take me home?"

"No, I won't," He said softly as he slipped his palm over her cheek and urged her eyes to meet his, "You can trust me. I won't hurt you," He declared tenderly before he gently pulled her into his arms and held her close to him, "Whatever it is…I'll help you with. That I promise you, and I mean it from the bottom of my heart, Caitlin," He soothed her as he gently hugged her to him, hoping to somehow caress her pain away.

Caitlin melted into his touch, feeling herself fighting desperately against the demons of her past which screamed repetitive mantras at her. She wasn't good enough, and she never would be. No one wanted her except those that took pity on her, and even those few souls tired of her in time. Why would a man such as Kenneth Ashford want to waste his time on her?

"Kenneth, I'm not good enough," She sobbed lightly as she tried to push away from him.

Kenneth reaffirmed his hold on her, "Shhh, yes you are. I told you once…whoever fed you this garbage was wrong. You are more than good enough. In fact, I feel that I'm the one who's unworthy of being with you."

"What?" She asked in shock as she looked up to him, "How can you say that? You're an amazing man with a good heart."

"And you are an amazing woman with more compassion than I've seen in my lifetime. You're tender when needs be, but you can stand your ground when the fight is on."

"If only you knew how very wrong that is…" She said as she tried to look away."

"Caitlin," Kenneth tipped her chin to meet her eyes once again, "Don't shy away from me. Whatever it is that has you running scared…let me help you with it. Let me help you to stop running from your fears," He urged her as he eased his thumb over her cheek, "Let me help you free yourself from that."

"It's not that easy."

"Nothing worth having is ever easy," He reminded her, "But if we do this together, it might be a bit easier than it would be alone."

Caitlin met his eyes for a moment longer before she wrapped her arms around him and held onto him tightly, "I don't even know where to begin."

"Just being here is a good start," Kenneth informed her as he held her in his arms, wanting nothing more than to take her pain away. He just had to learn the source of her pain, and then he would do everything in his power to eliminate it from her world.


Dave entered the police department with a scowl as various patrolmen gave him reports and other documents on his way to his office. Doing battle with the Ashfords was the last thing he wanted to do, but he was the Chief of Police in Coral Valley, and he had an obligation to do his job to the best of his ability. Still, the idea of going head to head with Ken was not an appealing one.

"Hey Chief," Lieutenant Patrick Sharpe said from behind a desk, "You've got a visitor waiting for you in your office."

"Who is it?" Dave asked as he picked up a stack of messages from edge of his secretary's desk.

"I don't know. She's blond, beautiful, and has attitude."

"Great," Dave rolled his eyes, "Must be my lucky day," He said as he opened the door to his office and stepped inside, "Well hell, what else could go wrong?" He asked as he spotted his visitor, "Shannon Pryce, to what do I owe this honor?"

"Hello to you too, Dave," Shannon said as she sat at his desk, "Long time no see."

"Yeah, I must say that it hasn't been the same in this town since Brant dumped you. I haven't had anyone to argue with," He said as he dumped the reports into the inbox on his desk, "Now get away from my desk, and let me get back to work."

She smiled as she stepped out his chair and made her way around the desk, "I do hope this isn't a sign of things to come."

"Meaning what?" He asked as he sat down and began sorting through his messages.

"Meaning that I'm here to take over your case."

"Excuse me?" He stopped as he looked up to her, "What case?"

"The Bruce Mathis murder investigation," She said as she took a seat across from him and crossed her legs, "I'm taking over."

"Since when do U.S. Marshals take an interest in murder investigations?"

Shannon smiled before removing her identification from her breast pocket and flashing it towards him, "I'm with the Bureau now."

"Lucky them. How the hell did you manage that?" He asked as he tossed some messages into the waste basket nearby.

"With good work, not that you would know anything about that," She quipped, "Nonetheless, I'm here to oversee the Mathis case."


"With the Ashford involvement in the case, it's raised quite a few eyebrows. Important people are interested, and besides you aren't capable of keeping this investigation unbiased."

"And you could?" He snorted, "Brant Ashford dropped you like yesterday's news, and you could be unbiased in a case that has his new fiancée in question? I don't think so."

"I'm not the one in question here, Dave. Besides, Brant was a long time ago, and I've moved on with my life."

"Yeah yeah, spare me the wronged but prospering ex speech. It's the last thing I need right now."

Shannon chuckled softly, "You really don't like me at all, do you?"

"God you're perceptive," Dave said as he looked up to meet her eyes, "Okay fine, you're here to investigate the case. I'll give you everything we have, but you can't have the case wholesale. I'll share my investigation with you, and we'll take equal powers in this case, understood?"

She grinned, "You think you have some kind of power here, but you don't. If I agreed to your deal, it would be merely to make things easier. But don't think for one second that I can't rip this case out from under you so fast it would make your head spin," She warned.

"Fair enough…now can I get back to work?"

"Just as soon as you give me a hard copy of everything you've got so far," She said as she adjusted the cuffs on her shirt.

"Sharp!" Dave called out. The officer stuck his head inside the office before Dave spoke again, "Give Agent Pryce a copy of everything we have on the Mathis murder so far. She'll be working with us on this investigation."

"Okay boss," Lieutenant Sharp nodded before ducking out of the office to make copies.

"Don't worry so much, Dave. I'm not going to step on you…at least not unless you give me reason to," Shannon smiled before she stepped out of his office to gather the copies for her file.

Dave rubbed his temples as the first tinges of a migraine began to haunt him. "Lord, whatever I did to deserve this….I'm sorry….a thousand times over, I'm sorry," He said before digging around in his desk for some aspirins. If he was going to have a pain in the ass around, he certainly didn't need a pain in his head too.


“Thanks for the talk,” Avery lead Jenna into the mansion once again, “I think I needed that.”
“Anytime girl,” Jenna gave her a hug as Avery looked over her shoulder seeing Brant and Russell talking to one another.
“Now there’s something I didn’t anticipate seeing for a while,” Brant piped in making his way over towards the two women, “It looks like we should keep the medical examiner around more often if it makes you smile that way.”
“Brant,” Avery took a step back, “have you met Jenna Carpenter?”
“We had a few brief words earlier,” Brant nodded simply, “Although I didn’t expect you’d look relieved to see her considering the morning we’ve had.”
“Jenna’s Avery’s best friend,” Russell added joining the group.
“Really?” Brant’s eyes widened curiously, “Well in that case,” he reached for her hand placing a polite kiss upon it, “It’s a pleasure to meet someone so near and dear to my fiancée.”
“Avery’s told me quite a bit about you,” Jenna confessed with a soft smile, “although I never imagined she’d wind up engaged to you.”
“You could say that fate has a strange way of working itself out,” Brant boasted reaching out for Avery.  He drew his arm around her waist pulling her nearer to him as he leaned forward dropping a quick kiss over her lips.
Russell watched the movement and tensed up immediately wanting to tear Brant apart limb by limb as Brant slowly pulled out of the impromptu kiss he’d given Avery.
“Things seldom are as expected around here,” Russell added throwing Brant a warning glance as Avery leaned into Brant.
“I’m sure they’re not,” Jenna looked between the trio thinking of the secret Avery had revealed to her outside, “but then again I’m sure life is never dull around here considering the action this place sees.”
“This morning isn’t typical of what goes on around here,” Brant offered simply as his fingers curled around Avery’s waist in a tender gesture, “Isn’t that right darling?”
“This place is always full of surprises,” Avery added as she heard a noise from the far end of the room.  She looked towards the entry way seeing Kenneth and Caitlin rejoining the group.  A smile touched over her lips as she thought to Caitlin’s helping her.  Remembering her desire to thank both Caitlin and Kenneth, Avery slinked out of Brant’s reach, “Excuse me.”
“Of course,” Jenna nodded in response, “I should really be getting back to work right about now.  I have a busy day ahead of me.”
“With the murder,” Russell questioned turning his attention to her, “What happened if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I really can’t get into details about it as the police want to keep a lid on this for now,” Jenna explained.
“I understand that, but they can’t really believe that Avery would have anything to do with this,” Brant added with a frown, “Given that she’s your friend…”
“I know Avery didn’t murder Bruce,” Jenna looked over to Avery, Kenneth and Caitlin, “that thought never entered my mind.”
“Good, then let those idiots over at the police department see that,” Brant smiled down at her, “Put in a good word for her.”
“I’m sure in time the truth will come out,” Jenna noted, “it always does.”
“I hope that when it does, the police really see what Bruce was all about,” Russell noted as Jenna gave him a strange look, “I mean considering that he and Avery weren’t connected to one another.  You know seeing as they weren’t in contact…”
“Oh of course,” Jenna nodded offering a curious expression, “Avery told me all about her and Bruce parting ways among other things…” she trailed off mysteriously, “I’d say she’s had one hell of a week.”
“That’s putting it mildly,” Brant quipped, “but I’m sure I can find a way to lift her spirits again because well, I love her and I couldn’t bear to see her unhappy if even for a second…”
“Her happiness is very important,” Russell added simply.
“Avery’s one lucky girl, isn’t she,” Jenna noted with a cryptic smile, “I mean to have two very amazing men in her life…I’d have to say I wish I had half her luck in that aspect of my life.”
“Keep coming over and maybe Avery and I can work on that for you,” Brant offered her his arm, “Can I walk you to your car?”
“Sure, that would be nice,” Jenna agreed, “It will give me a chance to get to know the man who’s captured Avery’s heart.”
“If that’s what you’re looking for,” Brant boasted proudly, “it might take longer than the short few minutes it takes to get you to your car.  Perhaps you’d be interested in coming to dinner this week.  Avery and I are having just a few personal friends over to celebrate our engagement seeing as the media made a field day of it before we were really able to have something intimate with our loved ones…”
“Have Avery call me,” Jenna nodded with a smile, “I’m sure I can fit it in.”
“Excellent,” Brant tossed a casual glance over his shoulder at Russell, “Tell Avery I’ll be right back.”
“Will do,” Russell nodded simply before turning his attention back to Avery, Kenneth and Caitlin.  Deciding not to linger on the past, he approached the trio offering a smile, “Peace and quiet at long last.”
“So it would seem,” Kenneth agreed with a sigh of his own.
“I thought this morning was never going to end,” Avery blurted out looking to Caitlin and Kenneth, “and if it hadn’t been for the both of you stepping in like you did, well I don’t know if I could’ve made it through this…”
“I’m just glad I could help,” Caitlin offered gently.
“It meant more than you know,” Avery smiled back at her, “The both of you did more than I ever imagined and I don’t even know how to thank you…”
“Avery, it was nothing,” Kenneth shook his head, “I know that things can get a tad overwhelming in times like these and I meant what I said, if you need anything, then I’m here for you.  I’ll give you the representation that you deserve after the media nightmare Brant lured you into.”
“Thank you,” she smiled at him, “that means a lot to me.”
“To the both of us,” Russell piped in, “Don’t get me wrong I heard your partner is one of the best, but I don’t trust the guy.  I know his history and…”
“Hart will work in Brant’s best interest,” Kenneth nodded in confession, “and that will work with them, but with Avery, well I’m more than willing to help.”
“Thanks Ken,” Avery reached out to embrace him, “That means a lot to me.”
“Anytime kiddo,” he hugged her in response, “Just don’t let my brother drag you down in this.”
“Your brother’s been a real trooper through this,” Avery admitted honestly, “As much as you might not believe it, he’s really helped me a lot.”
“You’re right,” Kenneth teased with a goofy grin, “I don’t believe it, but hey if you say it’s so, then I’ll take your word on it.”
“Hey now, be nice,” Caitlin swatted at Kenneth playfully feeling the mood lighten a bit despite the seriousness that had overtaken them outside.  While the reminder of her past hung over her, she vowed not to let that interfere--not now.
“I am being nice,” Kenneth teased with a wink, “Brant just has a habit of doing things his own way.”
“Talking about me behind my back again, huh?” Brant’s voice rose through the room as a laugh flooded over his tone, “Well this time I’m willing to ignore it since I come bearing a surprise, but next time, well we’re really going to have to work on this talking about me when I leave the room…”
“Oh you know you love being a topic of conversation,” Kenneth teased back as Avery spun around to see Brant grinning back at them.
“I suppose, but only when I know you’re not trying to make me look bad in Avery’s eyes.  I don’t need you chasing her away this early on,” Brant teased as his smile widened, “although given the surprise I have for her, I think that maybe just maybe it might erase anything you’ve said about me.”
“And just what surprise might that be,” Avery asked curiously seeing the hint of mischief behind his eyes.
“Well as I was walking Jenna out, I ran into someone in the drive and she’d said that you’d be very excited to see her,” Brant explained with a tiny laugh, “Granted I didn’t realize we’d be getting company so soon, but I must say she’s quite charming to say the least.”
“Who’s quite charming?” Avery tilted her head in confusion, “Brant, who’s here?”
“Avery, darling,” a voice rose through the room as all eyes turned towards the open doorway, “Don’t dilly dally around.  Come over here and give your mother a hug.”
“Mom,” Avery’s eyes widened in surprise as she blinked twice wondering if her eyes were betraying her.
“Avery, quit staring and come over here,” Brooke shook her head in disapproval, “that gaping jaw is very unflattering you know and if you keep that up, you’re bound to get wrinkles well before your time…”
Avery shook her head too stunned to speak as she was certain that somehow she’d truly died and gone to hell as the last thing she recalled was the feel of Russell’s arms around her as once again the overwhelming revelation sent her back into the safety of the darkness that came with fainting.

...to be continued...