Episode Forty Four

Blake stared into Seth’s dark eyes and felt her heart virtually quivering in panic. She wasn’t sure she could do this. It was hard enough to see him, but to have to speak to him…it would take every ounce of Ashford attitude to get through this…if that even worked.

“Blake, can we talk for a minute? Alone?” Seth beckoned as he continued to hold her with his gaze.

She blinked for a moment, trying her best to slow her heart’s rapid pace. She took in a short breath and began to speak before she heard another voice replying.

“Alone? Are you out of your mind?” Zack asked as he joined the conversation, “You must be to ask a stupid question like that because there is no way Blake is going to be alone with you.”

“I don’t think I asked you, now did I?” Seth spoke before he directed his attention back to Blake, “Blake, please…”

“Zack’s right,” Blake replied, “I don’t think we have anything to talk about, and I don’t want to be alone with you.”

“Blake, please, I know we had some misunderstandings last night, but…”

“Misunderstandings?” Blake shrieked, “Are you out of your mind? You lied to me in the most horrible way, and you just call it a misunderstanding?” She shook her head in disbelief, “The only misunderstanding was mine. I thought you were a good guy who was just in a bad situation, but the truth is that you’re not a good guy and any situation you’re in is of your own making.”

Seth frowned, “Blake, if you’d just listen to me, I think you’d be able to understand…”

“Oh I understand perfectly. You’re just some crony of Cameron Stone who’s set on destroying my family. Well you’re not going to do it through me.”

“I don’t want to destroy your family. Cameron Stone does, but I only want to help you, Blake. Why can’t you see that?”

“Maybe because you lied about my father directly to my face in the most horrible way possible. I think that alone speaks of how you feel about my family, and it changed my mind about you. I will not let you get to my family through me, and I’ll find a way to stop you and Cameron Stone.”

“You don’t have to stop me from anything,” Seth defended, “Blake, I love you.”

“You don’t love me. You couldn’t possibly love me,” Blake declared with tears filling her eyes.

“Blake,” Zack said her name softly as he placed his hands upon her shoulders. He squeezed her shoulders gently, “Blake, don’t let him do this to you.”

“I’m not,” Blake declared firmly as she glared at Seth, “I don’t want to talk to you ever again.”

“Blake, please, just give me a chance,” Seth pleaded.

“I think she’s given you more than a chance, and you blew it,” Zack said as he spoke up and moved in front of Blake. He met Seth’s eyes and spoke with determination, “I told you that there would be hell to pay for breaking Blake’s heart, and I meant every word.”

“This has nothing to do with you,” Seth spoke as he stood taller.

Zack matched the man’s stance, “It has everything to do with me. Who do you think she ran to when she was hurt?”

Seth seemed taken aback by the statement before he quickly regrouped, “Just get out of my way. This is none of your business.”

“It is my business, and I’m not going to let you hurt her any more,” Zack spoke as he blocked Seth’s view of Blake, “The best thing you can do for everyone is turn around and walk out of here and out of Blake’s life. She doesn’t need you.”

“I love her, and I’m not going to just stop because you’re standing in my way.”

Blake flinched as she heard Seth speak of love. She leaned against Zack’s back as she whispered, “I just want to get out of here, Zack. Please just take me somewhere.”

Zack glared at Seth for a moment before he turned and slipped his arm around Blake’s shoulders, “Come on,” He said as he eased her along with him.

“Blake, please,” Seth said as he fell into step behind them.

Zack stopped and pressed his hand firmly into Seth’s chest, “Back off, or I’ll have security escort you out of here.”

Seth met Zack’s eyes for a moment before he looked towards Blake, “Please, Blake, just talk to me, please.”

Blake leaned further into Zack’s form, “Let’s just go.”

Zack slipped his arm tighter around Blake before he escorted her down a hall and out of Seth’s sight. Seth stood with his shoulder slumped. He felt beaten, defeated, but he wouldn’t stop trying to get to Blake. He would find some way to get her to see that he wasn’t lying. He just had to find a way around her new protector.


A heavy sigh fell over Grady’s pinched lips as he looked to his father with obvious disapproval in his eyes.  Minutes had passed since Russell had followed their mother out into the yard, but the time hadn’t done anything to alleviate Grady’s concerns or anger about his father’s blatant disregard for what was happening with Russell.  To actually lead him to believe that it was okay to be with Avery again, Grady felt the thought eat away at him as he watched his father and he realized that, well, that it was just plain asinine.  Even now he couldn’t figure out where in the world his father was coming from on this issue.
“Well go on and say it,” Elliot broke through the silence that had engulfed the two of them, “I know you’re just waiting to let it out, so son, the floor is yours,” Elliot motioned to the space before him before taking a seat on the couch in a casual gesture as Grady felt his control burst open like a dam that ruptured after years of staying strong and holing things together through the worst of conditions.
“How could you encourage him like that,” Grady demanded finally, “Knowing what Avery’s done to him--how she ripped his heart out and stomped on it repeatedly before throwing it in a blender and spitting on him in between kicking him while he was down?  That woman has brought nothing but misery to his life and yet you stood there acting as though he was making a mature, responsible, well advised decision.”
“He’s not a child anymore,” Elliot explained smoothly, an evenness in his tone as he eyed his eldest son, “I can’t demand he do what I tell him to do because it’s the way I want it to be.”
“So you’re admitting that you hate the idea of him chasing around Avery as much as I do,” Grady lifted a curious brow trying to decipher his father’s responses as the tension in his shoulders traveled down his spine, still keeping him on edge as he began to step in closer towards the chair he’d been sulking in a few minutes earlier, “You remember how she tore him to pieces when she left him…”
“I’m fully aware of what your brother was going through,” Elliot nodded in response, “and of what he’s still going through each and every day.  Pain like that doesn’t fade when you find love and I think part of the reason you’re so eager to keep him from that pain is because you know full well how that feels.”
“This isn’t about me,” Grady huffed slumping down into the chair once again, “this isn’t about my life, but about my brother screwing up his all over again.”
“So you’re saying that there couldn’t possibly be something inside of you that thinks Russ is making the same mistake you made with Susan time and time again,” Elliot questioned as a silence spilled throughout the room and Grady’s featured darkened, “Son, I know you’re still hurting after the way things went down with you and Susan, but as much as it hurts, you can’t try to keep your brother from making his own mistakes.”
“I can when it involves screwing around with Avery especially now that she’s singing the praise of the Ashford clan,” Grady answer icily, “the mere knowledge that she’s Brant’s fiancée now should be enough for Russell to let it be and move on with his life.  I know that he could be so much happier without her…”
“Son, if Russell really felt that he had no chance with Avery, then he wouldn’t be this determined to have her back in his life,” Elliot pointed out with a heavy sigh.
“She’s about to be married to another man…an Ashford no less…”
“Maybe things aren’t like they seem as your brother says it to be,” Elliot took in a slow breath, “Grady, people make mistakes and eventually you can either hold it against them or you can move forward and try to rebuild upon what you lost before.  Perhaps your brother is ready to stop living in the past and he’s hoping to move forward in the future with Avery.  Maybe he’s tired of drudging up the old wounds and reopening them again and again and if she’s ready to give things another go and they can find some happiness with one another, then who are we to keep them from that?”
“Dad, are you feeling under the weather,” Grady blinked back at his father, “Avery left him for another man.  She picked up and left and never looked back, but now that she’s in trouble, she’s ready to run to Russ and lean on him like always and turn his world upside-down again.  She doesn’t care about him--she never really did and this isn’t the beginning of that happily ever after that he’s hoping for.  We both know that.”
“No we don’t,” Elliot argued with him, “We don’t know what’s going on with the two of them and it’s not our place to make it our business either.”
“So what?  We just sit back and watch him ruin his life over that woman?” Grady questioned with a heavy sigh, “I can’t do that even if you’re trying to let Russ make his own mistakes.  I know that this is going to burn him in the end and I won’t let Avery tear him apart again.”
“Maybe this time it’ll be different for them,” Elliot offered up openly as he sat forward on the couch cushion, seeing so much anger and discontent behind his son’s eyes, “maybe this time Russell will find some happiness that slipped away from him before.”
“And maybe we’ll all become millionaires and live in the Ashford Palace too while we’re at it, right?” Grady quipped with an air of heavy sarcasm, “Come on.  We both know how this will end.  Avery will dump him so fast his head spins when Brant dazzles her with his money and his Ashford reputation and she’ll see that she’d much rather have it all and she’ll leave Russ yet again for the better meal ticket.”
“Do you really believe that’s what she did before?”
“Hmm, well let’s see, it doesn’t speak well for her in having her leave the church like that and we were both there seeing how she tore him to pieces.  It took him over a year to recover from that blow she threw on him and to this day he’s never been quite the same,” Grady frowned deeply wondering if his father was suffering from the same brain deficiency that effected Russell lately.
“I realize that, but what I also realize is that until this afternoon when Russ walked through that door, I haven’t seen that smile that lifted over his features of that spark in his eyes until he mentioned Avery.  Now I realize that you have some very valid reasoning behind your not liking the girl, but the fact to the matter is that your brother is in love with her and we can’t change that.  The more we fight him on the issue, the harder he’ll pull in the opposite direction as we both know he’s clearly as stubborn as you are--if not more considering that it’s a trait that you both clearly picked up from your mother,” Elliot offered with a teasing wink.
“Even so I hate when he’s so damned stubborn,” Grady grumbled in response.
“It sure feels like it’s going around lately,” Elliot noted eyeing him closely, “although I should hope that your stubborn side hasn’t gotten you wound up in a world of trouble.  If what Russ is saying about your getting in over your head with some kind of murderer is true…”
“He’s blowing things out of proportion there in an attempt to take the heat off of his reunited romantic interest in Avery,” Grady shook his head at the thought of working for Cameron.  Sure, he’d had plenty of reservations about what was going on, but now was not the time to let his father in on those as right now was about saving Russell from himself, “It’s nothing to worry about.”
“Why does your tone tell another story,” Elliot questioned scrutinizing his son closely, “Something tells me that I should be worried about you more than your brother at the moment.”
“I’m fine, but with him chasing Avery around,” Grady began to argue with him.
“Grady, I know you better than you know yourself at times and I know how miserable you’ve been.  Sure, I’m well aware of the phone calls you’ve been giving me are more to appease me and alleviate your mother’s concerns, but I know that you’ve been troubled lately son.  I know that something’s been weighing heavily on your mind and it clearly goes beyond your brother seeing Avery again.”
“Russ is what’s been…”
“Maybe now, but it wasn’t before,” Elliot interrupted a seriousness overtaking him, “and maybe we should talk about that.  What’s going on?”
“I already told you that I’m trying to save Russell from…”
“I know what the story is with your brother, but what about you?  What’s going on in your life, son?”
“Work, the usual,” Grady shrugged his shoulders as he thought about Jade, “actually that’s not entirely true.  Something else has been happening in my life--something that I was entirely unprepared for and now, well now it changes things.”
“Oh?” Elliot lifted a curious brow, “It sounds like it could be pretty serious.”
“I’m starting to believe it very well might be,” Grady nodded taking in a breath as he contemplated his words, “as you could say I met someone--well no met isn’t entirely the right words for it as we knew one another for a while, but still it’s taken on a new level for us nonetheless.”
“So you’re seeing someone new?” Elliot noted with a simple nod, “Well I think that’s good for you considering that it’s been a while.”
“Too long,” Grady agreed feeling his concerns about Russell take a backseat to his thoughts about his blossoming relationship with Jade, “and she’s really wonderful.  Truth be told I fought like hell not to feel something for her, but when she’s around, I can’t help but feel something…”
“So Jade finally managed to bowl you over there,” Elliot felt a laugh tickle up inside of him as Grady gave him a surprised look and he explained further, “You’re not the only one concerned about your brother as Russell tries to keep good tabs on you as well even if it‘s just to keep your mother happy considering how she worries.”
“She worries too much,” Grady sighed thinking about their mother’s concerns with the happenings in her sons’ lives.
“Another trait you seemed to pick up from her,” Elliot added with a tiny smile, “You know if you’d stop worrying about carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders and saving the world from the demons they carry with them, you might find you’d enjoy life a bit more.”
“Enjoying life lead to my own set of demons,” Grady replied thinking of the carefree time in his life, “I know what it’s like to lose that sense of responsibility.”
“I’m not saying that you should give up the responsibilities you have, but perhaps you should try to stop damning yourself for the choices you’ve made in the past.  Carrying the burden with you is only going to weigh you down and life is too short to dwell on the mistakes of the past, son.”
“Are you telling me this because of how I feel about Russell or is this more so directed at me?” Grady replied simply.
“I think you know where I’m headed with this one,” Elliot explained after a moment’s contemplation, “Happiness--true happiness comes once in a lifetime and it too has it’s price.  Nothing is perfect in this world son, but if you open yourself up to the possibilities and you find a way to release the pain, then only then will you find the freedom to love and to hold on to happiness.”
“Happiness isn’t exactly an ideal I believe in,” Grady confessed with a heavy sigh, “Even as wonderful as Jade is, I know that I want to be able to have something with her--something that we can both grow from and take with us as things evolve between us, but with all the misery of the past…”
“It’s in the past,” Elliot added simply, “and often it’s best to let the past remain in just that place and we can carry with us a hope for the future as sometimes that’s all you need to pull you through your darkest moments.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Grady decided as he contemplated the way his life had been going lately.  Jade had been a breath of fresh air to his hardened heart and now that he’d opened himself up to her, he realized that there were possibilities in the world--ones that he’d stopped believing in long ago.  Still with everything that was going on, he’d had his doubts about how giving up the past could be for the best--especially where Russell was concerned, but perhaps he’d try to stop burying himself in his own demons as they’d haunted him for far too long.  Maybe now was the time to let go of the misery and move on to the promise that the future held in store for him.


“These are really incredible, mom,” Russell offered up taking in the beauty of her simple, yet colorful garden before him.  He felt a smile fill his features as he took in the fruits of her labor and he realized that while this garden was very modest compared to the ones he’d been in over at the Ashford mansion lately, it was full of life and his mother’s sense of style and that in itself made it something of great beauty to him.
“I’m glad you enjoy them,” she guided him over towards the rosebush near the end of the yard, “Do you remember when you and Grady planted this one?”
“We thought it would never make it, though we‘d both had some thoughts about what we could do to save it,” Russell nodded in confession thinking back to how he and Grady had been so eager to fight for the feeble looking remains of the bush to come back to life.  “I was about five at the time and Grady had convinced me that together we’d had a better shot of keeping it alive than if we went about doing it our own way.”
“And he was right as you both helped to keep it flourishing all these years,” Cheryl noted with a soft smile appreciating the delicate bud before her, “and it seems that all this time the two of you kept that same formula and it worked out for the best time and time again.”
“Grady and I do make a great team,” he offered up in confession thinking about the bond he shared with his brother over the years, “Even when we didn’t want to work together, it always made things easier--like when we’d got stuck raking the leaves in the yard come autumn.  He’d always tried to pass it off on me and you’d always forced him to stick around and work on it with me--of course usually around those times I didn’t want Grady around because I was too angry with him to stand the sight of him.”
“Yet you two worked together for hours raking up the leaves and when you were done, you were the best of friends,” she added thinking back to the simpler times in her children’s lives.  “Of course there aren’t any leaves around here today despite the autumn chill in the air.”
“Mama, no amount of leaves would fix what’s happening with Grady and I,” Russell sighed turning around to face his mother with sad eyes, “He just doesn’t understand how I feel.”
“Your brother loves you and he’s always loved you,” she pointed out reaching out to him and taking his hand in hers, “Even when you both haven’t seen eye to eye, he’s tried to keep your best interests in mind.”
“I’m not a child anymore,” Russell replied with a frown, “and I don’t need Grady fighting my battles for me or making my decisions.”
“I don’t think he’s trying to make your decisions, but what I do see is that your brother is trying to protect your heart,” she squeezed his hand gently, “He’s spent most of his life looking over you--taking the role of big brother very seriously and when you hurt, it hurts him.”
“That’s just it,” he sighed in frustration, “I’m not hurting anymore.  For the first time in my life, I’m alive--really truly alive again and it’s because of Avery.  She’s come back into my life and things are like they always should’ve been.  She and I are happy again and we have a chance at doing things right between us and I wouldn’t give that up for the world even if Grady doesn’t want to accept that.”
“Maybe Grady’s concern stems from what happened before,” she pointed out with a frown, “You know how hard you took things when Avery left.”
“She made a mistake,” Russell explained his voice tight with passion, “Haven’t you ever made a mistake before, mom?  Haven’t you ever been so terrified by something wonderful in your life that you did something stupid and it haunted you for years to come?”
A strange expression crossed over her features before she reached out to him touching his face gently, “Russell, this isn’t about me.  This is about your happiness and if Avery hurt you once…”
“It was a lifetime ago,” he leaned into her touch placing his hand over hers, “Mom, we both grew up and we saw what life was like without one another, but somehow fate found for us to be together again and I’m not going to let the moment pass me by again.  I love her.”
“And what about her engagement to Brant Ashford?”
“It’s not what the media makes it out to be,” he promised her solemnly, “Avery and I are in love and we’re not going to let it slip away from us.”
“That’s what you said last time and I remember the pain in your eyes when she walked out on your wedding.  Grady remembers it too and he loves you so much that he wants to spare you that kind of misery again.  We all watched you go through hell and I hated knowing that your heart was breaking like that…”
“My heart never stopped breaking until she came back into my life again,” he explained poignantly, “Without her, I wasn’t really living and it wasn’t until we crossed paths again that I saw just how dead inside I truly was.”
“But if Avery’s given herself to another man--”
“Avery’s heart has always been with me,” Russell tried to assure her, “Even when Brooke tried to keep us from one another, well it didn’t work.  It’s still couldn’t keep us from finding our way back to one another.”
Cheryl’s features darkened at the mention of the woman she’d grown to despise over the years after all Brooke Morrison had put her family through, “That woman is enough to have you rethink having Avery in your life.”
“Avery isn’t like her mother and you know that as well as I do,” Russell replied simply thinking back to the personality clashes that his mother and Brooke had over the years.
“Yet she found a way to make Avery leave you once before and who’s to say she won’t do it again,” Cheryl challenged concern flooding over her features, “Russell, maybe your brother has a point in all of this.”
“Grady isn’t right about Avery,” he argued with her, “and mom you know that as well as I do.  You wanted her to be a part of our family--”
“Not at the price you paid,” she shook her head adamantly, “Just thinking about how she almost destroyed you--”
“We were both young and foolish back then,” he explained with a sigh, “We both made our share of mistakes, but now we can make up for them.  We have that chance to be happy again and she loves me--really loves me just like I love her and even with Brant’s harassment, it’s not going to change.”
“That in itself worries me,” she frowned in response, “If she’s with Brant--”
“Pretending to be with Brant,” he corrected quickly.
“Even so, the mere fact that she’s letting the world think they are together says something about her loyalty.  If she’s tangled up with Brant, then maybe she’s not nearly as serious about this as you’d like to believe she is.  I know that Brant Ashford has a reputation for being very persuasive and charming when he wants something…”
“He can want Avery with every breath that’s in him, but it doesn’t change the fact that she’s in love with me.  She and I were meant to be together and nothing, not even an Ashford is going to get in the way of that,” his voice rose as a hint of anger laced his tone, “I just wish you’d all see that and stop lecturing me on following my heart.  Weren’t you the one who always told me to go where my dreams lead me?  That somehow I should do what I felt was right and never second guess myself when my mind was made up?  I’ve always listened to that you know and now that I’m living that out, you‘re trying to tell me that I‘m making a mistake in trying to do just that?”
“It’s not that I’m saying you’re wrong in this situation, but maybe your brother is right and you should show some caution in investing your whole heart into this.  Avery’s a nice enough woman, but I don’t want just a nice enough woman for my son.  I want someone who makes him happy unconditionally through the years.”
“She does make me happy,” he squeezed his mother’s hand in his own, “more than I’ve ever been in my life and this time, well this time it’s going to be different no matter how many ways Grady tries to spin this situation into his favor.  I love her and nothing is going to change that--not now, not ever.”
“Russell, I just wish…” Cheryl sighed realizing there would be no getting through to her son as he’d already made up his mind on Avery, “I just want you to find some peace and happiness in your life.”
“I’m well on my way to getting it,” he promised leaning forward to kiss her cheek gently, “You’ll see.”
“I hope so,” she smiled weakly as she embraced him, “I love you so very much and I only want the best for you, son.”
“I have the best,” he assured her squeezing her in his arms, “that much I’m sure of and soon you’ll see just how right Avery and I are together.  We’re not going to make the same mistakes all over again.”
“For your sake I truly hope not,” she replied holding him tighter.
“I’m not going to, and hey you never know maybe soon you’ll see that Avery and I have that wedding we’d talked about,” he threw out, his voice full of hope, “We’re already talking about moving in together again when things die down with the Ashford saga,” he rolled his eyes thinking about Brant, “and then, well then you’ll all see.”
She nodded not really knowing what to add as she looked to the house once again, “Well maybe we should go in and check in on your brother and your father.  Maybe we can find a way to fix what’s wrong between the two of you.”
“Grady’s not in the mood to fix it,” he answered remaining motionless as she took a step in towards the house once again, “and honestly, I’m not sure I’m in the mood to keep fighting this issue.”
“Russell, you can’t avoid your brother,” she began turning to face him again, “This isn’t going to fix anything.”
“Neither is him taking up with the enemy in the hopes of hurting Avery.  Did he tell you that he’s leading up a lawsuit against BBK?  That he’s working for a monster named Cameron Stone just because he wants to stick it to Avery for my loving her?”
“Cameron Stone,” she repeated an air of surprise in her tone as she took in his words.
“That’s right,” he nodded, “The same man that was murdering innocent people back in New York.  He’s got it in his mind to bring on some big lawsuit against BBK from back when Nicholas Ashford was running the show, but from what I’ve caught of this situation, it seems like it’s nothing but a ploy to bring some negative press and a ploy for Grady to get a few jabs in at Avery.”
“Grady’s working for Cameron Stone,” Cheryl let the words sink in as she thought to her son being around someone with Cameron’s reputation, “As in the Cyrus Stone’s son and heir to Stone Corp?”
“The exact same one,” Russell nodded in confession, “Come to think about it, weren’t you doing some work over at BBK in your younger years?  Like when Nicholas was running the show?”
“It was long before Nicholas was completely in the hot seat as he‘d been setting up the company with his father‘s assistance,” she admitted thinking back to her years over at BBK, “and truth be told it’s time I’d rather not reflect upon as your father isn‘t too happy about my taking a position over there.”
“I know,” he nodded in response, “and I’m sorry I brought it up, but I know a lot of what’s going on now is said to be from when Nicholas was there and I just thought--” he shook his head, “I don’t know what I was thinking considering that you wouldn’t know the first thing about Nicholas Ashford’s dealings other than you didn’t want to be involved with them when you were putting in your hours over there.”
“I just wanted to get the paycheck and find a way to better myself along the way,” she nodded as her eyes seemed lost in a moment, in a memory that Russell couldn’t quite place as it had been a lifetime ago for her, “Back then your father was struggling with finding a way to get his business going and with our having Grady, well it changed life a bit.  Still…” she drifted off as Russell watched the color drain from her face as her expression shifted completely to something totally unreadable.
“Mom,” he reached out to touch her shoulder gently, “Is everything okay?”
“I’m fine,” she nodded shaking the thought as she looked up to him again, her green eyes penetrating him, “Is there a chill coming up out here?”
“Not really, but if you’re cold you should probably go inside,” he urged her motioning towards the door to the house, “I still have some things back at work that I promised myself I’d take care of and since Grady’s here, I think it would be best if you visited with him and dad for a bit.”
“I really wish you wouldn’t leave like this,” Cheryl pleaded with him, “It’s been so long since we’ve had the both of you here again and I’m sure that we could find a way to work this out.”
“Unless Grady gives up this stupid vendetta he has against Avery, it’s pointless,” he shrugged his shoulders simply, “and besides I don’t want to give you something else to worry about in watching Grady and I go ten rounds with one another.”
“Knowing that you two are at an unrest with one another doesn’t make me very content,” she pointed out turning her eyes away from the sun, “I don’t like my boys at odds with one another.”
“Somehow it’ll even itself out,” he promised embracing her before offering up a quick kiss, “Even though I know he’s being impossible, I’ll find a way to make him understand.”
“Why not try now?” she suggested, “I could make some tea and then we all could talk…”
“As much as I’d like to find an easy solution to this, right now the only thing that will appease Grady is my giving up Avery and I won’t do that,” he added with a heavy sigh, “Not now, not ever.”
“So you’re willing to risk the relationship you have with your brother in order to be with Avery?” she questioned surprised by his tone as she watched him, “That doesn’t sound right.”
“Neither does forcing me to make the choice,” he explained shaking his head sadly, “but that’s the position Grady’s putting me in.  Avery knows that he doesn’t like her, but she still encourages me to open up to him, to try to reach him, but he’s unwilling to give her another chance.  He’s not going to see her as the woman I love, but as a reminder of how things went so very wrong in his life with Susan.”
“I think that’s a bit unfair,” she began to argue, “Grady’s just trying to…”
“Mom, he and Susan fell apart and now that Avery and I have a second chance, he doesn’t want to believe in it because he knows he and Susan won’t have that.  He sees Avery as my mistake just like he views Susan as his and he won’t open himself up enough to see just how happy I am when I’m with Avery.”
“This is ridiculous to have you both fighting over something like this…”
“What’s ridiculous is that I have to defend my actions and the woman I love to my brother.  He should just be happy for me because if the roles were reversed, I’d be happy for him.”
“Would you?” she inquired curiously.  “If Susan just walked back into his life and they decided to give romance another try, would you just accept it so easily?”
“That’s not what’s going on,” Russell began to argue, “Susan brought out the worst in Grady with the alcoholism and…”
“And you wouldn’t want your brother to travel down that dark road again, right?”
“Avery isn’t a dark road for me,” he breathed thinking about the last few weeks of his life, “Avery is my saving grace.”
“Hearing you talk like that is enough reason to worry,” she began seeing the love in her son’s eyes for the woman who’d walked away from him years ago, “If you invest your whole heart into this thing with Avery, then should it come to an end again…”
“It won’t,” he refused to listen to her spin on what could be, “Not this time because we’re not making the same mistakes.  Avery and I love one another and eventually everyone will see that and be happy for us and I hope when that day comes Grady will be able to share that with us.”
“That’s asking a lot from your brother considering…”
“Not if he really cares about my well being,” he replied noting the time as he gave her one last kiss, “but really I need to get back to work…”
“Russell,” she watched him walk away from her as a frown curled over her lip.
“I’ll call you later.  I promise,” he waved in her general direction before circling around towards the front of the house and Cheryl was left wondering if her son had found a way to get in over his head once again.  Somehow in the Denton household it seemed that the past was repeating itself and she just prayed that this time her son wouldn’t wind up broken once again at the promise of happily ever after.


Diane sat in her apartment looking around at the emptiness of the walls that surrounded her.  A few days ago she’d have been plotting some kind of way to make Ben hers--to show him that she wouldn’t be so easy an opportunity to pass by, but now as the horrible reminder of her failed attempts with him haunted her, she wanted nothing more than to bury herself in the misery that came along with it.  With a frown, Diane slumped over on her small sofa flipping through the channels on her television set as nothing seemed to catch her interest.  Sure, she’d had some tapes of old soap operas waiting for her, but to watch someone else in love would make her puke right about now even if she was certain there would be someone else in more misery than she was, but still…she needed to find some kind of distraction.
Reaching for her phone, Diane started to dial her mother’s number, but then thought twice of it as she realized that this would be the second time in the last week that she’d reached out to her mom lost in misery.  While her mother had been great for her the previous night, there would be plenty of worry to follow if she called her mother again and spun a tale of her woes once more.  Sure, her mother had been one of the best listeners she’d known, but to have to make her mother endure another endless night of bitching from her about one stupid mistake after another was unfair.  Besides, she wasn’t really in the mood to make her mother go through that, then again she wasn’t really in the mood to dive into her misery openly again.
“So what now,” Diane frowned thinking that her life was really turning into something pitiful as she started to hang up the phone.  A moment later, a thought crossed her mind and she dialed Jade’s apartment thinking of how a girl’s night out might pull her out of the slump she’d found herself in, but as Jade’s machine picked up, Diane hung up the phone realizing that Jade must’ve been out having a life like most people tended to do at a time like this.
“She’s probably having the time of her life with Grady and you’re sitting here feeling absolutely pathetic,” Diane grumbled looking her own answering machine as she tried to ignore the blinking red light before her.  It seemed to be taunting her as she promised herself she wouldn’t check the messages as the caller id had proved they’d be from the one man she didn’t want to speak with.
Sure, she’d ran into Ben at work and she’d tried to write it off as though he meant nothing to her, but the fact to the matter was that Diane was miserable at how things ended with Ben--miserable that she hadn’t seen it coming between them and more damn miserable than she’d ever dreamt possible because she still wanted him.  Even now as she thought of the way it had felt to make love to him, to have his arms around her sharing one of the most incredible nights of her life, she couldn’t help but crave his touch--couldn’t help dreaming about him and only him as he was everything she’d ever wanted.  She was still hung up on him and that in itself made her sick as she knew that Ben was once again just another mistake to add to her lists of heartaches.
“Stop feeling so damned sorry for yourself,” she demanded throwing the television remote control aside as she pulled herself up off of the sofa, “It’s time to start doing something for a change,” she decided walking over towards the answering machine as her finger brushed over the button connected to the blinking red light.  She contemplated listening to the message--to just hearing what Ben might have to say, but as she cursed herself over and over again for her weakness where he was concerned, she slid her index finger over to the button beside it and erased all five messages that had been torturing her since the moment she’d come home.  Their very presence on her machine had taunted her to no end as she wanted so desperately to hear what Ben had to say, but now as the messages began to erase from her life forever, she tried to forget how Ben’s impression would always stay.  She prayed that she could just get rid of her thoughts of him as easily as the machine cleared out his voice, taking him from her life.
“No more pity parties Diane,” she announced reaching for her keys as she opted to get out of her apartment, to find a way to kick back and enjoy a nice, long drive, or perhaps a run in to the closest fast food place where she could bury herself in empty calories and things she was certain to regret the next morning.  Then again that seemed to be par for the course lately considering that she was an open fountain of regret so how bad could stuffing herself with junk food be?  It wasn’t like she had someone to come back home to anyways, she decided with a heavy sigh as her phone began to ring once again.
Diane’s eyes almost immediately drifted to the phone as her pulse caught in her throat wondering if it could be Ben on the other end of the line.  When he’d called her earlier, she hadn’t been around, hadn’t been able to deal with the temptation first hand that he’d presented in making the effort to reach out to her, but now as she stood a mere foot away from her phone, she was possessed with the overwhelming urge to answer, to tell him what she thought of him, of how she felt for him, but as she strained to maintain a shard of self control, she felt her resolve slip away as she reached for the phone a bit too eagerly.
“I told you to stop calling me,” she snapped into the receiver as an uncertain voice began to speak up.
“Diane, hey, is that you,” the caller asked as she almost immediately recognized the voice as one of her friends from the office.
“Cathy?” Diane blinked back surprised and disappointed that the caller wasn’t Ben.
“Is everything alright,” Cathy questioned concerned as the was a long pause on Diane’s end of the line.
“I’m fine,” Diane lied trying to dismiss her thoughts of Ben, “I was just being harassed by one of those telemarketers before and it’s driving me out of my mind, so when you called…”
“Oh,” Cathy’s voice sounded more understanding, “those calls tend to drive me crazy too, but then again, maybe you should find a way to distract yourself from taking them.”
“I had the machine on, but well, I guess I just wasn’t thinking about it,” Diane frowned looking around her lonely apartment as she tried not to think about missing Ben like crazy.  “What can I do for you?”
“A few of the girls from the office were going out tonight for drinks and since you looked like you were feeling down a bit earlier, I thought I’d call and ask if you wanted to go with us.”
“Where are you going,” Diane asked struggling to feign some kind of interest as she seemed to want to mope more than anything.
“The Cadillac Ranch is having a ladies night special, so we all thought we’d head out over there and be different for a change,” Cathy explained excitedly, “You know to see how the other side lives.”
“Well that does sound like an adventure,” Diane confessed realizing that it was probably one of the last types of places that she’d run into Ben, “so why not?  What time do you want to meet up?”
“We were all planning on going down there around eight, but I can pick you up on the way if you’d like,” Cathy offered brightly, “Unless of course you wanted to drive yourself there.”
“Oh hell no,” Diane answered quickly, almost too quickly, “I’m not going to be driving tonight under any circumstances because as you said before, I’m in need of a good time--a really, really good time.”
“Great, then I’ll be there shortly,” Cathy piped back at her before Diane hung up the phone and looked to her reflection as she tried to talk herself into enjoying girl’s night out without any worries or concerns of Ben Walters as the last thing she wanted was to drown herself in misery over him--at least not in the public eye.


Mindy sat at her desk fidgeting nervously as she dialed Avery’s number. She tapped her fingers upon the desk as she held the phone to her ear and listened to it ring. She groaned as the message for Avery’s voice mail answered. When the moment came, she left a message, “Avery, Russ never came back to work. I don’t know what I can do. I don’t know where he is, and I’ve tried calling you at work and now at home. I hope this doesn’t ruin what you have planned,” She sighed before she hung up the phone. She stood and gathered her things before a figure loomed over her desk, “Can I help you?” She asked instinctively before she looked up to meet the eyes of her visitor.

“I’d hope you could help me,” Guy Morrison smiled as he met the eyes of his one time girlfriend, “How’s about it? Think you could give me some tips about what’s going on in town?”

“Guy!” Mindy shrieked with glee before she dropped her things upon her desk and threw her arms around him in a tight hug, “What are you doing here?”

“I stopped by to see how you were doing,” He smiled as he returned her hug. A moment later they parted, and he looked her over, “You’re just as beautiful as ever. You know, you really ought to let me get you a modeling gig with Beholder.”

“Guy, stop that. You always did think that a little flattery was a good way to win me over,” She teased with a wink, “But I appreciate the compliment just the same. You’re looking good…a lot better than the last time I saw you.”

“I’m in love,” Guy smiled, “And I think it agrees with me.”

“That’s wonderful,” Mindy smiled, “Where did you meet?”

“In Europe, and I have to tell you, Mindy, I’ve never been happier.”

“It seems that’s going around,” She said with a grin, “Avery and Russ are heating up again.”

“Oh boy,” He sighed with a frown, “I suppose that’s part of the reason Mum called me home.”

“So you’re not here for pleasure?”

“I’m afraid not. Mum’s been calling me in a panic, and along with Dad driving her crazy, Avery’s penchant for drama can’t be helping matters.”

“Avery and Russ are cute together, Guy. You remember how happy they used to be? Well, I think they’ve surpassed even that.”

“Are you serious?”

“I’ve never seen Russell so happy. It’s like he’s walking on air.”

“What about Avery’s engagement? All the newspapers have had her picture plastered along side Brant Ashford.”

“Yeah well, I just think that’s window dressing to make Brant look good,” She shrugged, “I’m telling you that if you see Russ and Avery together, you’ll see that their hearts belong to one another.”

“It would be a first for someone in this family to find true happiness in love,” Guy sighed as he sat on the edge of her desk.

“Guy?” Mindy asked as she placed her hand upon his shoulder, “What’s wrong? I thought you said you were happy.”

“I am happy, but I’m not sure how long it will last now that I’m back in Coral Valley.”

“Why?” She paused before gasping, “You haven’t told your mother, have you?”

“No,” He said as he quickly met her eyes, “I haven’t told her, and I don’t think I will ever be able to. Mum is very set in what she wants for her children, and if I break away from those plans…”

“You might be able to find happiness just as Avery has,” Mindy suggested as she hugged him gently to her, “She’s your mother. She’ll still love you.”

“Perhaps, but in all likelihood, she’ll set me out on my ear, and I’ll have to start from scratch.”

“That’ll never happen,” She said as she held onto him, “Everything will work out. I know you’ll have to make some adjustments, but it’ll work out.”

“I don’t have your optimism, Mindy, but I’d love to take you out for a drink. Maybe you can tell me all the gossip that’s going on before I go to see Mum.”

“You sure you can still handle drinking with me?” She teased with a nudge, “The last time you drank with me, we ended up in Atlantic City and over two thousand down at the craps tables.”

Guy grinned, “I’ve learned a few things since then, Mindy. Maybe this time we can win instead of lose.”

“And you say you’re not an optimist,” Mindy teased as she picked up her things and slipped her arm in Guy’s, escorting him out of the office to catch up on old times.


Russell opened the front door to his home thinking of all the things that were awaiting his own perspective back at the office, but somehow after he’d left his parent’s home, he couldn’t bring himself to think about anything even remotely work related.  Just the idea of another problem waiting for him would just about do him in after the way he and Grady went at it with his parents and right about now all he wanted to do was enjoy the solitude of his home before paying Avery a visit.  That in itself was the only bright spot of his day as he wondered how long she’d stay at the office today working on the ridiculous lawsuit that Grady was heading up all to spite her.  Another frown touched over his lips at the thought of his brother’s rage against the woman he loved as Russell feared it would never come to an end with Grady until everyone wound up miserable somehow.
The consideration of things never easing up between him and Grady did anything but quell Russell’s troubled thoughts as the smoke detector sounded from the other end of his home and his ponderings were put to an abrupt halt as smoke began to drape over his living room.  Immediately he rushed forward wondering if he’d forgotten to turn the coffee machine off as he’d often done in the past on days when he’d been too wrapped up in his worries, but never before had that simple mishap created such a thick, gray gust of fumes.  Now he feared that something worse could be happening as he rushed to the kitchen hearing the sounds of cursing from within.
“No please, not now,” Avery’s voice pleaded with someone or something as Russell popped his head inside the kitchen watching her trying to fan the flames away from the smoke detector while she struggled to keep the scorching inferno on the stove top from overrunning the kitchen.  She was dressed for seduction in his ‘Kiss me, I’m the Chef’ apron and a sexy black slip it seemed, but her body was laced with tension as a cry erupted from within as she turned her attention fully to the pan before her ignoring the smoke detector, “Please not tonight,” she urged on as she desperately waved her hand at the pan pulling it off of the burner.
“What’s going on?” he questioned pulling the battery out of the smoke detector before rushing over to her aid as he pulled the burning pot from her hand and dropped it into the sink drowning it in a flood of water from the faucet as the volatile flames fell to silence despite their angry protest.
“I’m trying to surprise you,” she explained hysterically as the timer sounded from the oven alerting her that whatever concoction she’d had been working on inside was finished.  Reaching for the oven mitt, she slipped it over her hand as she pulled the door to the oven open and she was met by a coughing, black gust of smoke as she cried out again, “No, no this can’t be happening…”
“Avery, what were you trying to do,” he questioned easing her out of the way as he closed the oven door and turned the dials on the range off completely before facing her once again, “burn my house down?”
“As I said before I was trying to surprise you,” her lip curled in a pout, “and you aren’t supposed to be here.  I told Mindy to keep you busy for a while so that I could have all this,” she motioned to the mess surrounding them in the kitchen, “ready for you when you got home.”
“From the looks of things I couldn’t have gotten home a moment too soon,” he couldn’t help but feel a teasing grin fall upon his lips, “as once again you’ve managed to single-handedly turn my kitchen into a war zone.”
“I was trying to make you dinner,” she explained anxiously as disappointment flooded over her beautiful features, “I told Mindy to keep you busy for a while and I was planning this Cajun dinner for us--kind of like the one you loved so very much when we went down to New Orleans for spring break.  I’d gotten a recipe a long time ago over the internet and I was hoping that you’d love it and…” she stopped herself biting on her lower lip as her eyes skimmed over the miserable remains of the mess she’d managed to make, “You’re not supposed to be here right now--not like this--not when I had so many plans for tonight.”
“So you were trying to make us a romantic dinner,” his eyes lit up at the thought of her efforts, “Something that you thought I’d love?”
“Well that was the general idea,” she nodded in confession motioning to the stove, “but you’re early and well, I’m no where near ready to present you with my surprise, though I guess it’s not a surprise anymore since I damn near blew your house up.”
“Avery, it’s wonderful,” he inhaled the fumes of the crispy, overcooked remnants of dinner while looking over to the steam rising from the sink.  A sigh spilled from his lips as he leaned in to take a closer look and poking at the blackened piece of what he thought might be some kind of vegetable, “What was it exactly?”
“Chicken,” she explained slumping against the island in the center of his kitchen, “or at least that’s what it was supposed to be before things blew up in here.  I followed all the directions and then I’d worked on baking a cake…” she looked down to the chocolate covered apron she was wearing, “but I think that one is a no go as well.  I just wanted to show you that I could do this--that I could do this domestic thing between us and give you something good to come home to every night should we take the plunge and go to the next level with one another.  You know so that I could show you that I loved you enough to want to try to do something special...”
“Oh sweetheart,” he faced her once again stepping in towards her as her head hung down gloomily, “with you being here, I know I have something good to come home to…excluding the fire,” he eased his arm around her waist drawing her in closer to him as she sank into his chest and he kissed the top of her head, “and knowing that you tried to do this for me, well words can’t even begin to express how amazing a gesture it was.  I love you for trying.”
“You wouldn’t be saying that if the firemen were here trying to salvage the rest of your house half an hour from now,” she sighed shaking her head as an ironic laugh touched over her lips, “I mean you’d think someone who could pass a bar exam and graduate at the top of her class at Harvard law would be able to figure out to cook a dinner for the man she loved, but no, I’m incompetent and I make horrible live in material.”
“Now wait just a second,” he tucked a strand of her dark hair behind her ear before lifting her chin and urging her to meet his intense green eyes, “I wouldn’t go that far.”
“Face it, Russell.  You said it yourself I always turn your kitchen into a disaster area every time I’m in it,” she frowned deeply as she shook her head and sighed stepping away from him as she looked at the disarray before her, “I don’t have the first clue what I’m doing in the kitchen if it’s not microwavable and I should’ve thought about that before I started planning this dinner…”
“Now Avery,” he squeezed her tighter in his arms hugging her before dropping his hands down over the soft curve of her spine, “I wouldn’t say that dinner is shot completely,” he explained hoisting her up onto the top of the island and urging her to take a seat on the one empty space before him as he looked to the large Tupperware bowl beside her, “because the way I see it, not everything is ruined.”
“Believe me, it’s nothing that I’d hoped for it to be and now, well now there’s no other label for it, but a complete and total disaster,” she sighed as he wiped some excess flour from her cheek.
“No, it’s not,” he kissed her forehead before scooping the bowl up in his arm, “What’s this?”
“That was frosting,” she answered reaching for the bowl and nodding towards the oven, “for the cake that will never be edible.”
“So we’ll improvise,” he shrugged his shoulders, carefully shuffling the bowl into her arms as he reached around her unknotting the tie on his apron.
“You’re being far too optimistic about this,” she gave him a strange look as he began to ease the apron over her head, “Considering that your kitchen looks like sh--”
“Shh,” he placed his finger over her velvety soft, lush lips silencing her as a smile touched over his features, “I’m sure we can find a way to make the most out of your hard work.  With all the love and consideration that went into it,” he tossed the apron aside as his gaze dropped over the thin straps on her silken slip before he teased his finger beneath the frail material, “I’m sure I can find a way to thank you for your efforts.”
“I should’ve been paying more attention, but I was in the middle of getting dressed and,” she began as he leaned forward dropping a feathery light kiss upon the curve of her shoulder as he eased the strap leisurely down her arm and his kisses eagerly followed the movement.
“I don’t mind you not being dressed,” he whispered against her warm, lustrous skin, “Not in the least as you look beautiful just the way you are.”
“I just wanted to make tonight something really special--something you‘d remember,” she sighed feeling his kisses press over her scintillating her with each tender caress upon her shoulder, “and you’re not really interested in hearing all the details, are you?”
“Right now I’m interested in the dessert I see before me,” he whispered heatedly against her silken skin, “I’ve been kicking myself all day for not taking you up on your offer to make love this morning and I must confess that the thought of not being able to do something like this with you, well it’s had me all tied in anticipatory knots praying that I didn‘t toss away the best offer I‘ve had in a while, but now here you are looking as sexy as ever and it‘s as though fate has given me a second chance to make up for my horrendous blunder from before.”
“Mmm….” she closed her eyes as a slow purr rose up inside of her as his thumb and index finger caught the other strap of her slip, “so you thought you’d seduce me to make me feel better about damn near blowing up the kitchen?”
“Actually,” he nibbled on her neck taking his time to slowly devour every inch of her creamy flesh as he teased the material of her slip down her shoulder, “I was thinking about us creating a few explosions of our own in this very kitchen.”
“Really?” she turned her attention to him once more as a smile crossed over her features.
“Yes really,” he released the delicate strap causing it to drop against her arm, “and I’m sure that together we can certainly create something between us that could melt the house down…”
“I take it you had a good day at work, or a very unproductive one given your frame of mind this evening,” she pressed her palm into his chest searching his features for a long moment before she removed his hands from her shoulders and guided them down over her thighs.
“I had a lousy day to be honest with you,” he confessed his finger tips tracing the lines of her curves sliding over her upper thighs before catching upon the lacy hemline keeping her from his hungry gaze.  A smile touched over his sexy, rugged features as he leaned forward to kiss her heatedly, “but somehow I get the distinct feeling we’re about to change that.”
“What happened today,” she questioned as he coaxed her legs apart making room for himself to step in closer to her as she held his torso between her thighs, her fingers easing over the muscular planes of his chest, taking the time to massage him gingerly with each circular motion.
“I had a ho-hum day at work,” he shrugged his shoulders as he carefully lifted her bottom from the counter top and eased the pesky satin material up around her waist pooling it over her exposed midriff as he leaned forward kissing her once again, “and then I paid my parents a visit,” he added tugging the black fabric up over the swell of her breasts to reveal her curves to him.
“Wait a second,” she stopped him mid-movement refusing to let him discard the garment as her eyes widened with curiosity, “You went to see your parents?”
He nodded in confession his fingers caressing hers gently, “I thought maybe my father would be able to help me in dealing with Grady, but then Grady showed up around the time I did and turned it into yet another argument, which lead me to believe that things between us weren’t going to be changing anytime soon, so I left…”
“So you’re still at odds with your brother because of me,” she frowned as she pressed her palms into his shoulders putting a distance between them as a seriousness flooded over her, “Russell, that’s the last thing I wanted to happen between the two of you.  If your being with me is causing you problems with Grady, maybe we should reconsider what it is we’re doing together as the last thing I wanted was to make you miserable.”
“You haven’t put me in any kind of misery,” he reminded her offering a quick kiss upon the tip of her nose, “Quite the opposite in fact as you’ve brought back some inspiration to my life.”
“Really?” she lifted a doubtful, but curious brow.
“Absolutely,” he turned his attention back to her slip wanting nothing more than to tear her out of it as he bunched the fabric up with his fingers, “as you’ve been the best muse I’ve had in a while for my novel.”
“You mean you’re working on it again,” her eyes lit up with enthusiasm as she allowed him to urge her arms up over her head and he made quick work of her slip tossing it to the floor as his breath caught in his throat and he took in the moment to admire her beautiful body before him.
“You’ve brought back an inspiration in me that I thought would never return,” he confessed reaching for the bowl of frosting that sat beside Avery.  Scooping the bowl into his arm, he used his free hand to dip his finger into it’s dark, creamy contents as he scooped out a finger full.  Smiling he carefully eased his finger in towards her, brushing it over her lower lip before he leaned forward nibbling on her chocolate mouth as his tongue swept over her sensitive flesh.
“Oh,” she managed to get out squirming beneath his kisses as she sat before him nearly naked in his arms as she ached to devour him.  He leaned forward against the top of the island and Avery could feel the heat of his desire rub up against her as their kiss continued, expanding with the moment as he swept his arm out across the top of the island sending the remainder of pots and pans crashing to the floor before he urged her to lay back on the counter top.  “Russ…”
“Shh…” he instructed kissing her all the way down to the top of the counter as she lay out before him, her body a work of inspiration to discover with every sensational contour as he tore his mouth from hers, “right now, I’d like to savor the delectable banquet you’ve given me tonight…” he dipped his finger into the bowl once again before drawing a chocolate heart over the center of her abdomen, framing her naval as a smile touched over his handsome features, “as I think you’ve given me the treasure of a lifetime here.”
“Russ, I was so hoping,” she began feeling her thoughts slip away as he leaned forward removing the traces of chocolate that graced over her soft abdomen.  A slow rush of heat filled her as his fingers dipped into the bowl once more, his tongue teasing over her naval as he collected her breast in his large palm, gently kneading and stroking her aching flesh before painting the dark confection over her tortured peak.  His kisses darted over her body, his tongue catching all her familiar hot spots before his lips dropped over her rib cage moving up towards the treat he’d leisurely prepared for himself.  Threading her fingers through his hair, she tugged his mouth away from her body much to her own protest as she yearned for him with a hunger she hadn’t thought she’d be so unwilling to control around him, “We’re breaking the rules you know…”
“What rules,” he questioned lazily as his finger skimmed teasingly over the chocolate covered bud before him causing her to writhe beneath his touch, “I wasn’t aware that we had any.”
“Well we do,” she sucked in a harsh breath as her fingers sank deeper into his dark hair.
“Oh?” he questioned lazily savoring her every response to him as a slow whimper rose from within.
“We said we’d try to turn the focus away from this,” she breathed in short gasps as his eyes drifted up towards her lips, watching the way her bottom lip quivered with each teasing flick of his finger over her.
“And what was ‘this’ exactly,” he leaned forward drawing a line over her breastbone with his tongue.
“This was us giving in to pleasure before we should be,” she answered rigidly her eyelids fluttering to a close as she fought for control of the situation, “I promised myself that we’d talk for a while, spend time together enjoying the evening and then maybe…”
“I’m enjoying this evening very much, though I’m starting to admit I’m a bit frustrated right about now as there’s so much before me to indulge in that I’m not quite sure where to start,” he traced a soft pattern over her silken curves watching her shiver upon contact.
“We should start with dinner as we never seem to make it that far,” Avery answered half heartedly as his finger tip rose over her body causing her to tremble from within.
“That’s because we’re well aware of where the greatest aspect of a romantic dinner begins,” he hovered over his breath teasing her with the promise of pleasure as his voice grew darker with passion, “dessert,” he explained whisking his tongue over her chocolate covered peak as a cry erupted from within and she dropped her head back allowing him to take her anywhere he wanted to go as she offered herself up to him completely.
“Russ,” she gasped his name, tingling at his every skilled movement over her as her nails sank into his shoulders squeezing him as the pleasure expanded within, bringing her so very close again and again as he tasted her, “oh Russ…” she began to pant unable to control herself as he eased her up into his arms taking the opportunity to devour her as her hands rushed up into his hair, tugging on it eagerly as she demanded his mouth in return for this token of pleasure he’d offered her.
Russell’s gaze collided with hers before she claimed his mouth roughly refusing to keep her set of ’rules’ about their relationship from allowing them to explore the growing hunger between them.  She threw her arms around him wildly, hands tearing at his shirt as she murmured against his mouth desperately.
“You’re overdressed,” she blurted out feeling the buzz of Russell’s attentions igniting her more primal need for him as she tore at his shirt, needing to feel him against her, over her, inside of her with every breath she took.
“We’ll get to that,” he promised collecting her wrists in his thick fingers before drawing them up over her head much to her dismay.  He urged her to lay back on the counter top as a wicked smirk pressed over his features, “but first, I think it’s only appropriate that you indulge me for a bit as I was more than eager to indulge one of your lifelong fantasies about us not so long ago…”
“But Russ…” she began to protest bucking her hips up towards him as she ached for him, wanting nothing more than to touch him, to tease him as he’d done with her.
“Tonight I want to explore every erotic inch of you,” he explained leaning forward to collect another passion filled kiss from her, “and I’m not taking no for an answer as we’re going to do this the way I’ve dreamt about doing this from the moment I had you back in my kitchen again.”
“But…” she began to protest as she watched him step away from her.  She leaned forward starting to reach out to him as a frown touched over his lips and he shook his head at her.
“Avery, darling you’re not listening,” he gave her a firm look as he tipped down drawing the apron up off of the floor before stepping towards her and lifting her arm up towards his lips.  He placed feathery light kisses over her vulnerable warmth before his fingers slipped around her wrist, carefully wrapping it with the sash from his Chef‘s apron.
“Russ, what are you doing,” she questioned her eyes widening as he reached over for her other wrist, securing it in a loose knot before guiding her arms up over her head once again.
“Turnabout is fair play,” he promised seeing the anticipation flooding over her as she realized what he’d had in mind for them.  Despite her initial protests about the situation, she seemed to settle into the role Russell had placed her in as a smile lifted over her lips.
“I suppose you have me on that,” she offered up with a tiny giggle as he reached for the bowl of frosting, eagerness coursing through his veins.  “I love you…”
“I love you too, sweetheart,” he promised touching her cheek gently before dipping his fingers into the bowl.
“Do you have any idea what it is you do to me--about where you have me in wanting you like this,” she questioned in a raspy tone as she shifted before him offering his hungry eyes a vision he was never going to forget as his grin expanded with the flight of the imagination stirring up inside of him.
“Of course I do,” he leaned forward offering up one last teasing kiss, “and it’s exactly where I want you,” he confessed wanting to delve into a whole new world of desire with the woman he loved more than life itself as tonight she would be his every fantasy as they’d finally come full circle with one another and this time even with the world against them neither one of them was running away from what they had together as it was nothing short of magic between them.


Brant walked into the mansion and closed the door behind him. He looked around the foyer for a moment before he stepped into the den and shed his jacket. He tossed his jacket upon a recliner before he sank onto the sofa and leaned his head back. He closed his eyes and took a moment to clear his head before he felt a furry bundle leap into his lap.

He opened his eyes and gently scratched the dog’s head as he met her black eyes, “Well Peanut, am I being too critical or am I playing it safe?”

“It’s not like you to even ask,” Annie spoke as she stepped into the room, “So something must really be eating at you.”

He stroked the dog’s head gently, “Maybe I’m just taking a hard look at my family and wondering if I’ve done the right thing over the years.”

“What’s going on, Brant?” She asked as she sat beside him and gently touched his shoulder, “Come on, son, tell me what’s going on.”

“Have you seen Blake today?” He asked, hesitating in speaking about his concerns.

“No, why? Has something happened?”

“No, she’s okay…at least physically she is. Apparently, her bonehead boyfriend did something, and she’s pretty heartbroken over it. I haven’t spoken with her yet, but Kenny said she was worked up pretty good.”

“Poor Blake,” Annie frowned, “She was so hopeful and happy with that young man, and he seemed nice enough. He was so respectful.”

“Apparently not respectful enough,” Brant sighed as he continued to stroke Peanut’s fur, “I just don’t know, Annie. Have I not been paying enough attention to things around here? Have I not been doing enough to protect our family?”

“And what makes you think you could?”

“This man, Cameron Stone, he seems to be haunting us around every corner. He’s suing BBK, he’s majority owner in the company Kenny’s fighting against, and it turns out that somehow this guy that Blake was seeing was working for him. Everything comes back to this guy, and I’m beginning to wonder if this isn’t something I should have seen coming. If Stone’s father had business dealings with Dad, God only knows what he’s capable of.”

“It might not be as bad as you believe it to be.”

“Annie, this guy is demanding half of BBK’s annual earnings plus interest on an investment that I can’t prove or disprove ever existed. From everything we’ve learned about him, he’s a murderer and a thief. He’s just the kind of man Dad would have wanted running BBK.”

“Now there’s where you’re wrong,” Annie spoke as she squeezed his shoulder to gain his attention, “Your father wanted you to run his company. He didn’t want anyone else holding the reins. He wanted it to be you. He chose you above your siblings to hold the company together and bring it to greater glory. You’re the one he doted on, and you’re the one he knew could handle the pressure of running the company.”

“At what cost, Annie? Do I have to become what Dad was? Do I have to forget everything I’ve prided myself on? Do I have to become what I’ve hated in order to do that?”

“Brant, you’ve never asked yourself that before. You’ve always been your own man…even when your father was here trying to mold you. You defied him in order to do what you wanted and do it with honor. You’ve never acted out of malice nor have you betrayed those closest to you. You do not have to bow down to your father’s image. You’ve done an impeccable job of creating a new BBK, and I don’t want you to ever think that you have to do anything that goes against your morals.”

Brant smiled as he met Annie’s caring eyes, “Have I mentioned lately that I love you? I really don’t know what any of us would have done without your guidance.”

She caressed his cheek gently, “You’ve always sold yourself short of who you can truly be, Brant. I’ve always seen you for all the good you have in you. While you have your father’s talent for business, you don’t share his lack of ethics. You are a good man, and I don’t want you to ever forget it.”

He leaned over and kissed her cheek, “Thank you, Annie. I needed that more than you can possibly know.”

Annie leaned over and placed her head gently upon his shoulder, “I don’t know. I know quite a bit, or haven’t you figured that out yet?”

Brant grinned, “I’m learning more all the time,” He said with a smile as he sat with Annie and Peanut, feeling just a bit more optimistic about not only himself but the future before him.


“Do you want to tell me what that was all about?” Ria asked as she placed a cup of coffee in Seth’s hands. She sat down on the sofa beside him and tucked her feet under her, “Seth, what is up with the blond and Dr. Evil?”

“Dr. Evil?” Seth questioned as he looked over at his long time friend, “Is that what you call him?”

“Yeah, he’s made a great impression,” She rolled her eyes, “So what about the blond? I heard the word love mentioned, but if you were serious, I’ll have to smack you…hard.”

“Why? Because I fell in love with a beautiful, tender woman who defied every notion I had about the Ashfords?” He shook his head, “I promised myself that wasn’t going to happen. I wasn’t going to allow myself to get involved that deep, but,” He paused, “She wasn’t anything like I expected her to be.”

“You really fell in love with that blond twit,” She rolled her eyes, “What the hell has happened to you over the years? Have you completely lost your mind?”

“Ria, you’ve missed a lot,” He said as he exhaled and placed his cup of coffee upon the table before him. He rubbed his hands together anxiously, “This guy came to me wanting me to get some information about the Ashfords. I’ve always hated the Ashfords so I figured why not. I can kill two birds with one stone, right?”

“Okay, fair enough. That part tracks for me,” She nodded.

“But then I met Blake, and she is nothing like I’d figured. She is everything good in this world.”

“I cannot possibly be hearing what I think I’m hearing,” Ria shook her head, “I’ve known you since we were in grade school, Seth, and I’ve never known you to turn on a dime like this. What has this chick done to you?”

“She made me see that she’s more than I ever gave her credit for.”

“Well, it sure looked like she wasn’t giving you any more credit with the way she turned her back on you out there. What was that about?”

“We just have a misunderstanding between us. That’s all,” He said as he stood and stepped across the on call room, “I’m going to get her back.”

“Pardon me, Seth, but she didn’t exactly look like she wanted to kiss and make up.”

“Ria, I’m telling you that I have to get her back. She’s more than I ever could have imagined.”

“You’ve got an uphill battle, buddy. She’s not looking for an apology, confession or anything else you can come up with. All she wants is to get away from you.”

“Did you bring me in here to console me or just to give me these words of wisdom?” He frowned.

“I’m just telling you how this is from a woman’s point of view. Right now, she wants to run as far away from you as possible. If you really want her, you’ll give her a little space.”

“Space? Why? To give Vaughn a chance to slime his way into her life?”

“From where I was standing, he looks pretty firmly entrenched already.”

“Ria,” He groaned.

“I’m just telling you like it is, Seth, and if you don’t want to hear it, that’s just tough. You’ve got a lot of work to do to get that one back, but if you want my opinion on it…Ashford or not, she ain’t worth it.”

“You don’t know her, Ria. She’s the most wonderful woman I’ve ever met.”

“Well pardon the hell out of me,” Ria frowned.

“You’re not a woman. You’re just one of the guys,” He crossed his arm as he sighed, “I’m serious, Ria. I have to get her back. I can’t lose, Blake.”

“Seth, I hate to break this to you, pal, but I think you already did.”

“No,” Seth shook his head, “It can’t be that bad. It just can’t be. There has to be a way to fix this.”

“Short of an act of god, I think you’re pretty much screwed,” Ria said before her pager began to ping at her waist. She glanced to the screen before she looked back to him, “I’ve got to go. You going to be able to hold yourself together?”

“Yeah, yeah,” He nodded with frustration.

“Seth, for what it’s worth, I can tell you care about this girl, but don’t let that blind you to what she is and the way she’s acting. Take a good long look at that before you decide to really get her back,” She said as she stood from the sofa.

“I have to have her back, Ria. I just have to,” Seth said before his friend left him alone in the room. Somehow, someway, he was going to get Blake back…and he would make her see that he was the man she thought him to be and that she could love him just as he loved her.


Zack knelt in front of Blake, “Are you okay?” He asked as he gazed up into her teary eyes. He’d taken her to his private lab in order to gain privacy.

She sniffled as she shook her head, “No.”

He placed his hands upon her knees before he reached nearby and retrieved a tissue. He pressed the tissue into her hand and met her eyes, “I’m so sorry, Blake.”

“It’s not your fault,” She sobbed as she desperately wiped tears away, “I was so stupid. I’m always so stupid.”

“Blake, you can’t blame yourself for having a good heart,” He said as he reached up to gently caress her cheek. He met her panicked eyes as he gingerly swept his thumb over her cheek, “You are not the one to blame here.”

“It’s just…why can’t love ever happen for me, Zack? Why can’t I find someone who will really love me for me? Why can’t I like someone who will like me back? What’s so wrong with me?” She broke down into tears as she buried her face in her hands, “Am I really so horrible?”

“Blake,” Zack said her name softly as he attempted to intervene.

“No one ever wants to be with me. No one ever really likes me for me. There’s always some other motive for wanting me, and it’s always my family. What is wrong with me? Am I so ugly that no one wants to be with me? Am I such a horrible person?”

“Stop it!” He demanded as he seized her shoulders within his hands and gave her a quick shake, “Stop it right now. You come here,” He said as he hauled from the chair and practically drug her across the room. He pulled her in front of a mirror and stood behind her as he pointed to the image before them, “Look at her! Take a good look!” He ordered as he looked at the image of her in the mirror, “That is a beautiful, vibrant, intelligent, and strong woman. She’s everything that a red blooded American man could want. If a man stops short of wanting to be with her, something is wrong with him…not with you.”

Blake blinked as she looked into the mirror. She glanced up to his reflection before she spoke in a quivering whisper, “You didn’t want me either.”

“Is that really what you thought?” He questioned before he turned her to face him. He gently swept tendrils of hair from her cheeks as he cupped the tender skin within his palms, “I wanted you more than I ever should have. You’re my little sister’s best friend, Blake. That makes you forbidden fruit.”

“Kenny’s with Caitlin. Why couldn’t you ever just…” She looked to the ground.

“Just give in?” He asked with a wry grin, lifting her chin so that she had to meet his eyes, “Because you are the exact kind of woman I want. As long as I keep you at arm’s length, I don’t have to worry about losing you. I don’t have to worry about you rejecting me or finding that I’m falling short of your needs. If I failed you in any way, that would be it for me.”

“Yeah right,” She rolled her eyes, “Don’t patronize me, Zack,” She said as she began to turn away from him.

“Does this feel like I’m patronizing you?” He asked as he pulled her back into his arms and lowered his lips to hers in a beseeching kiss.

Blake was completely caught off guard by the kiss, and she was even more unprepared for the way it felt to have his arms around her. She melted into his kiss as she held onto him, barely keeping herself from sinking into the floor.

A few seconds later, Zack ended their kiss and held her at arm’s length, “Does that make you believe I’m telling you the truth?”

Blake blinked her eyes in disbelief before she moved out of his reach and sank down into the chair she’d occupied before, “Whoa.”

He slipped his hands into his pockets as he made his way to stand beside her. He looked down at her as she continued to struggle with what had happened over the last few moments. He sat on the arm of the chair and tilted her chin to look at him, “Are you okay?”

“I’m not sure,” She said in confusion as she swallowed the dry lump in her throat, “I’m confused,” She admitted.

He smiled, “But you’re not crying, and that is a helluva lot better than you were,” He said with a wink.

“Oh you,” She groaned as she shoved him off the arm of the chair and into the floor, “I swear…” She shook her head as she listened to him thud against the floor, “Can’t I trust any man?”

Zack leaned back on his palms as he made himself comfortable in his new seat upon the floor, “You can always trust me, Blake.”

“Then what the hell was that just now?” She demanded as she peered over the arm of the chair to glare at him.

“The truth,” He stated, meeting her questioning eyes.

“Give me a break,” She snorted as she looked away from him.

“Why is it really so hard for you to believe that a man could want you for who you are? Why is it really so hard for you to believe that I could want you?”

“Because I spent years trying to get you to just notice me, and you always turned me down, Zack, always!” She declared as she met his eyes, “You always told me that you weren’t interested, and now you want me to think that you are. I may be gullible, but I’m not that gullible,” She crossed her arms and looked away from him.

“Okay, fine,” Zack sighed, “Be that way. Sull up and pull the Ashford brat routine. I’ll just sit here and wait for you to talk to me again.”

“Keep on waiting, pal,” Blake said with a huff as she tucked a throw pillow under her side and curled into the chair.

Zack smiled to himself as he looked away from Blake’s position. While the night could have resulted in total disaster, it had improved exponentially. True, Blake wasn’t talking to him, but he could be just as stubborn as she could. Besides he knew that she didn’t want to be alone, or she would have left already. So, he would sit beside her as long as it took, even if that meant staying all night on the floor just to keep her safe and sound.


“Mom, I didn’t realize that you’d wanted to go out this evening,” Jenna replied a bit uneasily as she looked around the crowded restaurant wearily as her proposition to both Douglas and Hart came to mind.  Certainly when she‘d laid out the offers, she was blowing smoke at the both of them, but they‘d both seemed so eager and overzealous about the thought of having dinner with her which was something she clearly couldn‘t even begin to understand under the circumstances.  Still as she and her mother had agreed to spend the night with one another, she‘d never imagined it would lead them out on the town--especially not out to one of Coral Valley‘s hottest spots in town, “When you’d mentioned you didn’t want to do anything too exciting since Preston is out of town, well I’d thought that somehow you’d envisioned some kind of movie night at your place--not dinner at Pavilion.”
“After the phone call I received from Preston, well you could say I was in the mood to celebrate,” Dorothy explained taking a long look at their surroundings, “Besides it’s been too long since we’ve had a mother/daughter night out on the town like this and I was thinking that perhaps now would be the perfect time to work on changing that.  There‘s nothing wrong with that, is there?”
“Well of course not, but it’s just,” Jenna shook her head realizing that the thought of any of the men that she’d encountered recently.
“Jenna, darling you seem a bit jumpy,” Dorothy noted with a tiny frown, “are you sure you’re alright?”
“I’m fine,” Jenna nodded in confession, “though with the way work has been lately, well it’s been full of ups and downs and now that I’m back at work, well I’m doing this thing with the FBI and…”
“The FBI?” Dorothy’s eyes widened in surprise, “weren’t they the same ones that got you out of work to begin with?”
“They were, but I’d really rather not talk about it,” Jenna explained as the hostess approached them taking their name and informing them that their table was ready for them.  After the two women were seated, Jenna did a quick scan of the restaurant making sure that she wasn’t in for any surprises.
“Is everything alright,” Dorothy asked again, “as you’re not usually this wound up,” she paused remembering her visit from Hart, “this is about Hart Steiner, isn’t it?”
“No, not really,” Jenna shrugged her shoulders as she tried to stay focused on the night out with her mother, “at least not entirely.”
“What has that man done now,” Dorothy demanded abrasiveness in her tone.
“Nothing really as I told him to get lost but,” a gasp fell from Jenna’s lips as she watched Hart walk through the front door leading into the restaurant, “Oh hell…”
“What?” Dorothy looked in the direction her daughter’s eyes were off in and her frown deepened, “What is he doing here?”
“He’s not supposed to be here.  I didn’t think that he…”
“That he what?” her mother demanded.
“He was aggravating me at work demanding that I go out to dinner with him and when no didn’t work I told him if he could figure out where I was having dinner tonight, then we had a date.  The only thing is that I wasn’t planning on you and I going out when you called.  I just thought we’d have a quiet night at your place since Preston was gone and…”
“Say no more,” Dorothy raised her hand in her air, “I’ll just go have a word with him and tell him to get lost.”
“No you can’t do that,” Jenna blurted out hastily, “I mean he has every right to be here and if you talk to him, well it’ll only motivate him to try to harass us all night long and neither one of us need that.  I’ll just go find the hostess and have her work on getting us another table.  I’m sure if Hart doesn’t see us, then he’ll get bored and go home.”
“I highly doubt that,” Dorothy folded her arms in front of her chest, “Though you should really learn to tell men to scram and be done with them.”
“The last time I tried I had a restraining order against me, remember?”
“Because of that man no less Jenna and I don’t like the idea of him following you,” Dorothy explained with a huff.
“Neither do I,” Jenna rose from her seat quickly, “but I’ll work on fixing that right away,” she promised seeking out the hostess.
“Obviously you still need your mother to take care of things,” Dorothy decided getting up from the now empty table and she made her way over to Hart determination in her every step as she finally stood before him glaring at him, “What are YOU doing here?”
“Well hello to you too,” Hart flashed her a sexy smile as he scanned the restaurant, “I wasn’t aware that Jenna invited you out to dinner tonight, but I suppose I can find a way to make the most out of this evening for the both of you…”
“Jenna’s not here, but she did leave me a message for you and that’s for you to leave her alone starting now as she’s not interested in you or any of your games,” Dorothy explained firmly as her eyes narrowed at him.  “Is that understood?”
“Your daughter is a grown woman and if she doesn’t want me here, then I’ll wait to hear her say it as I’m quite certain by the look on your face that she’s here somewhere and I’m not leaving until I find her especially since she invited me out tonight,” Hart answered stubbornly, “now if you’ll excuse me Jenna and I have a date that I intend upon keeping.”


Jenna moved through the restaurant heading towards the back as she was hoping to find a way to avoid disaster in the situation at hand.  Somehow she shouldn’t known better than to feel cocky about the situation with Hart.  Why hadn’t she prepared herself for the possibility of him finding her as she was well aware of his relentlessness especially where women were concerned, but then again why was he even bothering chasing her considering that she wasn’t his type, wasn’t interested and most certainly didn’t need him shuffling her life around.  Just the thought was too much to bear as she headed towards the kitchen hoping to find some kind of miracle solution to the situation she’d found herself in.
“And there she is,” A voice broke through her thoughts as she stopped mid-movement immediately recognizing the sound.  Slowly she spun around to find Douglas Mahoney standing behind her a smile upon his features.  “I was starting to believe you’d stood me up, but I’m glad I was wrong.”
“Douglas,” Jenna began her face flushed as he motioned to the table beside him.
“I took the liberties of getting us one of the best seats in the house,” he explained reaching for one of the chairs and pulling it out for her, “along with my ordering a bottle of the finest champagne I could get my hands on this evening…”
“Douglas I,” Jenna began trying to sneak a peek over his shoulder as her fears about Hart finding her consumed her, “ok, I’ll take a moment with you, but just a moment.”
“Excellent,” he helped her into the chair as he circled around the table moving in across from her, “I was almost afraid that you’d given up on the notions of our having a dinner with one another.”
“This wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind when I was teasing you earlier,” she explained nervously as he filled the glass in front of her with champagne.  “How did you find me?”
“I have a way of getting the kind of information I want every now and then Jenna,” he spoke her name smoothly as a smile lifted over his features.
“How did you?” she questioned her eyes widening with anger, “Were you following me?”
“On the contrary,” he shook his head, “I have no need to follow you as I truly am Douglas Mahoney and I have the means of discovering any bit of information that I deem necessary.”
“So you were checking me out,” she frowned back at him.
“I knew if I didn’t do my homework you’d find a way to avoid our dinner tonight,” he reached for her hand touching it lightly as his smile widened, “and I must confess I’m glad that my efforts paid off as you look truly stunning.”
“Look, Douglas,” she began politely, “I don’t know what it is you’re looking for, you I can assure you that I’m so not the girl to give it to you.”
“Of course you are and while I realize you’re not used to being scouted on the street like you were, you are still the perfect face for my film and I simply won’t accept no for an answer--not when this was a role you were meant for.”
“I have no desire to be an actress,” she offered up quickly taking another look for Hart and her mother.  “I’m a doctor.”
“I’m well aware of that and from what I’ve heard you have a very upstanding reputation which I promise won’t be tarnished by the artistic expression I have in mind.  You see my film is about a woman that…”
“I’m sure it’s all very nice, but I really don’t have time for this,” Jenna thought she saw Hart approaching from behind the plants shielding them from his line of vision, “I’m kind of busy at the moment and…”
“You have other plans tonight,” Douglas raised a curious brow, “Do I sense that I have some competition for your attention?”
“It’s not like that exactly,” she began shifting in her seat, “I just promised a friend of mine that we could have a girl’s night and…”
“Say no more,” he raised his hand in the air to silence her, “I’ll free you of this obligation to me tonight if you promise me that you’ll be my date to the party taking place this weekend at the Ashford mansion.  From what I’ve gathered you and the bride to be are friends, so I assume that our going with one another wouldn’t pose a problem, unless of course you already have a date.”
Jenna knew she should’ve lied, should’ve found an excuse to back out of the situation entirely, but as Douglas smiled at her, the truth fell from her lips, “No I don’t have a date.”
“Well you do now,” his smile beamed back at her as she couldn’t help but be mesmerized by his confidence.  Sure a man like Douglas Mahoney wasn’t exactly what she was hoping to encounter, but somehow he seemed suddenly interesting--then again she was hoping to avoid Hart all together.  “So would you care to indulge me in another drink before you leave?”
“I suppose a drink couldn’t hurt,” Jenna decided reaching for the glass of champagne and taking a quick, long swig of it as he watched her in amusement.
“I was thinking we’d toast,” he admitted reaching for the bottle, “How about a refill?”
“Of course,” she agreed watching him fill the glass as she caught a glimpse of her mother tugging on Hart’s arm before leading him towards the exit, clearly determined to get rid of him.  While Jenna was worried about Hart finding her, she was pretty certain that her mother would keep that from happening as determination was her mother’s middle name when it came to getting rid of those less than savory characters that happened to come around seeking out trouble.
“I must confess that you have me intrigued,” Douglas broke through Jenna’s thoughts, “and while I came to Coral Valley expecting nothing more than a quick visit with my son, in meeting you, I have a feeling that destiny was working with me the moment we happened upon one another.”
“Actually it was more like a run of bad luck,” Jenna teased back with a tiny smile, “as you’re lucky I didn’t do more damage on the way down.”
“You were the one who took most of the blow in the fall,” Douglas reminded her simply, “and still you still managed to carry yourself with such grace and dignity.”
“Give yourself a few days around me as I can assure you that you’ll be changing your tune,” Jenna answered honestly.
“Now I can’t see that happening as you have me completely fascinated,” he leaned back in his chair, “though I must confess that your abrupt departure does leave me feeling a bit disappointed as I’d hoped we could take the time to get to know one another tonight.”
“And give away the mystery?  Where would the fun be in that,” she teased back, “though I’m sure you’ll have plenty of time at the party to see what I’m not in terms of your leading lady.”
“You might surprise yourself when I prove to you that you are,” Douglas threw back at her confidently, “I have an eye for talent and you were born for this role.”
“I was born for something, but I don’t believe it was to act,” she confessed taking the opportunity to see her mother coming closer minus Hart thus proving that Dorothy Carpenter had her way once again, “Well I’d better get going.”
“Then I suppose this is the part where I throw out something such as until we meet again,” he rose from his chair lifting her hand to his lips and offering up a polite kiss, “and we will meet again.  You can count on that.”
“I will,” Jenna smiled back at him watching him for one last minute before she turned to seek out her mother realizing that maybe things weren’t as chaotic as she’d imagined them to be this evening as Douglas was interesting after all.  Slowly she looked over her shoulder watching him pay the bill before his eyes traveled up over her curiously.  She smiled briefly before turning to find her mother standing before her just beyond the plants.
“Who was that man and what were you doing with him,” Dorothy demanded harshly pulling Jenna aside.
“His name is Douglas and he wants to make me a star.  Apparently he‘s some hot shot producer and he spotted me on the street the other day.  He and I made plans for dinner tonight, but I didn‘t really think we‘d wind up at the same place.  Don‘t ask because I really don‘t want to get into it, but still I had a few minutes with him and he‘s rather charming and hey maybe he‘s what he says he is,” Jenna admitted with a soft smile, “crazy, huh?”
“Jenna, I don’t know how you find these men, but really, it’s bad enough that you have that lawyer following you around.  You don’t need someone like,” Dorothy’s gaze drifted over to the table that Jenna had been seated at moments earlier and she noticed the face before her.  A gasp fell from her lips as she stepped back behind the tall, green plant, “You know on second thought maybe we should get going after all.  Tonight just isn’t what I’d imagined it to be for any of us.”
“Me neither,” Jenna decided realizing that tomorrow would be another day to put her life into perspective as tonight she’d managed to do nothing more than make a complete mess of things--well except that Douglas had seemed charming to some degree.
“Fine, then let’s just find some place else to be,” Dorothy threw out one more look in the direction her daughter had come from and as she watched the man who’d accompanied Jenna reach for his jacket, she vowed not to let her daughter get sucked into anything that he was trying to sell her as the last place Dorothy wanted her daughter to be was near the likes of a man like Douglas Mahoney.


Diane entered the smoky bar wondering how she’d managed to allow Cathy to talk her into such a ridiculous adventure, but as she scanned the crowd noting that they were all lost in their own quest for lust or ignorance, she realized this was exactly where she’d needed to be.  A sigh escaped her lips as her eyes drifted over to the far end of the bar where Cathy’s pals were awaiting their arrival.  She watched as one of the brunettes waved at them with a ridiculously overzealous motion.
“This way,” Cathy tugged on Diane’s arm urging her to parade through the crowd to the corner of the dance floor, “there they are.”
“Actually,” Diane stood motionless, “I think I’m going to head up to the bar and grab a drink.”
“You weren’t kidding when you said you wanted to have a good time tonight, were you?” Cathy noted arching a curious brow as Diane made a beeline for the bar without giving her a second glance.
Diane felt Cathy’s eyes upon her all the way over to the bar, but having been through the worst couple days of her life, she found herself not giving a damn as she pressed her way through the crowd.  She needed a moment to collect her thoughts, some kind of clarity that would…oh hell, she just needed a stiff drink to numb her insides as Ben was still lingering over her, in the back of her mind which made her feel all the more miserable.
“Excuse me,” Diane called to the bartender tapping her hand on the top of the bar as the man looked up at her with curious eyes, “yeah you.  Come here for a second.”
“What can I do for you tonight, pretty lady,” he smiled in a predatory way that made Diane’s skin crawl, but then again she reminded herself that she’d asked for this kind of environment when she’d taken Cathy up on her offer, so for the time being she’d just have to grin and bear it.
“I’ll take anything you have on tap,” Diane decided with a frown as she scanned the room seeing Cathy and her pals seated across the bar chuckling mindlessly as they pointed and gawked at a few of the men in the bar making themselves apparently obvious with each poke and prodding with one another.  She slumped over on the bar top wondering if she’d been that obvious about her interest in Ben back at the office when she’d done her damnedest to make a fool of herself in front of everyone.  Even now, she could feel the ridiculousness behind her obsession as she was certain once everyone learned about how foolish she’d been where Ben was concerned, she’d be the laughing stock of BBK.
“Well hello,” a man squealed at her as Diane felt his burly presence behind her as he squeezed himself next to her at the side of the bar, “What do we have here tonight?” he grinned down at her and Diane fought the urge to keep from repressing the groan that built up inside of her as he stared at her with wide eyes, licking his chapped lips as his long red hair hung greasily over his shoulders, “Tell me how is it you walked out of my dreams into this bar.”
“You must have me mistaken for someone else,” Diane replied pulling a few dollar bills out of her purse as the bartender returned with her beer and she turned to leave.
“Now I would never forget an angel face like yours,” the man reached out to her touching her arm as she glanced back over her shoulder at him, “and from what I can see, you don’t want to be forgetting mine either.”
“That’s debatable,” she threw back at him as her gaze dropped to his hold on her, “that’s my arm you’re holding.”
“And I’m hoping to hold a lot more before the night is through,” he snorted in a drunken wail as he tugged on her arm once again, “so what do you say pretty lady, how about a dance?”
“How about we don’t and you just let go of my arm so that you can gawk at me from across the bar far enough away so that I can still be in a safe breathing distance away from you,” she hissed in response with a sarcastic tone.
“Why you little…you have a smart mouth on you, don’t you,” he frowned unamused by her words as he clenched her arm tighter tugging her towards him, “maybe I should show you what I do with smart mouths.”
“And maybe you should learn that no means no,” Diane remarked harshly bringing up her beer bottle and slamming it over his head in a haste as the crowd surrounding them stopped and stared.  Almost immediately security was coming her way and she knew that there was trouble indeed as the drunken loser before her who was now on his knees moaning and groaning up at her claiming he was the victim of an unprovoked attack.
“What’s going on,” one of the security people questioned as the man bellowed before her.
“She was harassing me and when I told her I wasn’t interested, she retaliated,” the man explained as Diane rolled her eyes.
“As if, that’s so not how it happened,” Diane yelled back at him in no mood to take any of his crap as she’d had more than her share of lying, pathetic men to last her a lifetime.
“George are you sure,” the security guard brought him up off the floor, “if you want to press charges then I suppose we could call the police and…”
“Um hello, he just became the human leech on me,” Diane shouted, her voice rising with her anger.
“Miss you’re going to have to calm down as this won’t be tolerated here,” the security guard piped in once again as another face rose through the crowd.  “Now if we can get the police on down here, then we can settle this one…”
“That won’t be necessary,” the newcomer said as Diane looked to see the handsome man coming to her rescue, “I’m Lieutenant Sharpe with the CVPD and I witnessed the entire incident and I’m afraid she’s right, George was behind this one completely.  He’s clearly had one too many and it would be in his best interest if someone had him taken to the hospital and looked at before he causes anymore chaos tonight,” he explained before stepping in closer to Diane, “Are you alright, miss?”
“I’m fine now that you’re here,” Diane replied drawing in a nervous breath as Cathy rushed over to join the two of them offering a sympathetic tone.
“Diane, are you alright?” she questioned quickly before looking to the tall, dark man before her, “And who is your handsome hero?”
“This is Lieutenant…” Diane looked over to him forgetting the name of the man who had just stepped in on the situation that presented itself.
“Sharpe,” he offered extending his arm out towards Diane’s general direction, “Patrick Sharpe actually.”
“Well Patrick,” Diane accepted his hand shaking it in response as a smile at long last touched over her lips, “thank you for your help.”
“It was my pleasure,” he nodded appropriately as he watched the security guards haul George away, “That guy has a tendency to get carried away when he sees a beautiful woman, though I’m just glad that this time he didn’t do more damage to you as that would’ve been a real crime.”
“Considering that I wasn’t really in the mood to come here tonight, it would’ve just added to the day I was having,” Diane confessed bringing her beer soaked fingers through her hair.
“Oh it’s not that bad,” Cathy piped in, “Why I was just saying to my pals over there that they don’t have enough quality men in this place--no one of any real substance, but there you are playing hero to our Diane here.”
“Diane,” Patrick kept his eyes fixed upon her, “that’s a beautiful name.”
“Thank you,” she smiled in response noticing the way his eyes sparkled as he offered up another welcoming smile and he‘d continued to ignore Cathy which was always a plus in Diane‘s eyes despite her and Cathy‘s reluctant friendship.
“You know Diane, it would seem that you need a new beer,” Patrick motioned over towards the bar, “Care to let me buy you another one?”
“Well if you insist,” she smiled brightly seeing the jealousy build behind Cathy’s blue eyes as it dawned in on her that Cathy had been clearly trying to make an impression on Diane’s white knight, “I don’t mind at all.”
“Excellent,” Patrick reached out towards her clearing a path towards the bar as Diane threw out an icy smile in Cathy’s direction vowing to have a good time one way or another tonight despite the curves the evening had thrown at her.
“So what kind were you having,” Patrick questioned glancing over his shoulder at her.
“Actually, I’m more so in the mood to dance,” Diane admitted with a flirty glance, “Interested?”
“Now with a smile like that, how could I refuse,” Patrick agreed leading her out onto the dance floor past Cathy as Diane felt a sense of empowerment rushing over her.  If for no other reason, she was going to sit and talk with this man just because she was certain with Cathy’s need for gossip and her knack of hating to be one upped, the word about Diane’s moving on with her life after Ben would spread about BBK and she could forget her heartache forever.


“Give me one minute,” Russell explained quickly searching his pants pocket as he realized he must’ve dropped his wallet in the kitchen while he and Avery were generating some very welcome heat between them.  He held his finger up in the air once again before rushing back to the kitchen eager to continue where he’d left off as thoughts of Avery clouded his mind.  A moment later he returned to the front door opening it up once again to look at the curious delivery man on his doorstep.  The man eyed Russell for a long moment noting his disheveled appearance as Russell barely had time to haphazardly throw on his pants when the doorbell rang.
“Rough night,” the guy asked with a knowing look as his eyes traveled into the living room trying to steal a glimpse of Avery lazily wrapped up on the sofa just out of his line of vision.
“Something along those lines,” Russell offered up dropping a few dollar bills into the delivery guy’s hand before snatching up the brown bag he was carrying with him, “Keep the change and hey, thanks for being so quick about this…”
“Don’t mention it,” he answered with a quick nod as he craned his neck in an attempt to see the woman within as she beckoned Russell once again.
“Russ, baby I miss you already,” Avery curled her lip in a pout kneeling over the couch rising up on her knees offering up an alluring image as the delivery guy’s nearly popped out and he silently prayed Avery would move up just a few more inches before he left.
“I’m coming,” Russell promised collecting the second bag from the delivery man.  “Thanks again.”
“Man, what I wouldn’t give to be in your shoes tonight,” the guy admitted with a twisted smirk, “She’s hot…”
“That she is,” Russell agreed closing the door quickly as he carried the bags over towards the couch and he began shaking his head at Avery, “What did you think you were doing?”
“What?” she questioned innocently rising up a bit further as she leaned across the back of his sofa, “I’m not doing anything, but waiting for you baby.”
“You’re such a tease,” he couldn’t help but laugh as he stepped in closer to her circling around the couch to indulge in all the things she wasn’t showing the man that brought dinner to them.  Just the thought of the man’s face when he caught a glimpse of Avery, made Russell’s insides fill with a sense of pride as he realized that she was all his and no one else could claim such good fortune.
“I’m not a tease,” she curled her lip in a pout as she batted her eyelashes at him innocently before reaching for the blanket to cover herself up a bit, “You of all people should realize that.”
“What I realize is that you know how to drive a man mad with desire when need be,” he answered kicking out of his pants vigorously before sliding in beneath the blanket with her wrapping her up in his arms greedily as he tickled her sides, “but I love every minute of it especially when I can have you just like this anytime I want.”
“Russ,” she laughed loudly as she fell into him, his fingers drawing out her giggles as she sank into his chest gliding her palm over his racing pulse as a smile lifted over her beautiful features, “stop that tickles…”
“You don’t want me to stop,” he taunted his fingers teasing her mercilessly as tears of laughter filled her eyes.
“This is war,” she announced her own fingers dancing over his heated skin as she shifted positions over him, maneuvering herself into his lap completely.  She pinned him down beneath her ceasing his tickle torture on her as she offered up an authoritative look, “now behave.”
“What if I don’t want to,” he challenged with a playful mischief behind his eyes.
“You don’t have a say in the matter,” she explained matter of fact as she focused completely on his stunning green eyes and she thought of the many times she’d wanted to lose herself in them over and over again--of the way he’d touched her with those eyes when he’d made love to her in the kitchen--making her feel like the most desirable woman alive as he took great lengths to please her over and over again.  Just the thought of how he‘d made her lose herself to wild abandon was enough to get her pulse racing as she struggled to stay focused on the reason why he‘d called in a late night dinner delivery to begin with, “Russ, I’m hungry.”
“I know you are baby,” he cupped her face in his hands holding her closer to him as he placed a tender kiss upon her passion swelled lips, “I haven’t forgotten about that which leads me to what‘s over there,” he motioned towards the bag on the coffee table.
“Mmm…it smells divine,” Avery admitted bending back to reach for the bag as Russell’s eyes dropped over her body, admiring her curves as she collected the bag between her fingers.
“Have I ever told you that I’m thankful that Brooke kept you in dance and gymnastics all those years,” he teased sliding his hands up over her rib cage as she leaned forward to a seated position once again.
“If you keep saying things like that, you’re bound to have her ego swelled yet again as you should never approve of anything Brooke has done,” she shook her head at him as a tiny laugh pooled up inside of her, “even if you happened to reap the benefits of those years of torture she put me through.”
“I know you hated them, but baby you’ve carried a lot of that with you and it’s nice,” he admitted touching her shoulder tenderly, “then again, I’d have to say everything about you is nothing short of perfection.”
“Now I know you’re trying to get some again,” Avery teased back with a knowing wink, “as you’re being far too nice tonight.”
“I haven’t even warmed up,” he answered with a simple shrug of his shoulders, “but I’m working on it.”
“If that wasn’t warmed up before, I can only imagine what you’re like when you’re on fire,” she answered feeling a heat rising over her features as he skimmed his thumb over her bottom lip, taking his time to drag it over the tender skin leisurely.
“I’m always on fire when I’m with you,” he admitted collecting her mouth in a exploratory kiss as he held her.
“Just wait until you have some of this food,” she breathed against his mouth as they parted, “If you ordered what I told you to, then you have a whole mouthful of sinful sensations waiting to happen for you.”
“Thank heaven for delivery,” he offered up brightly ready to share this intimate meal between them as Avery dipped her fingers into the bag pulling out the Styrofoam package within.
“Still,” she paused as a frown curled over her lips, “it’s nothing like a home cooked meal, is it?”
“Avery, I think I had the most incredible home cooked meal of my life tonight,” he saw the same frustrated look wash over her features as she was stewing over her failed attempt at dinner.  He reached out to her touching her face tenderly, “Honey, you were delicious.”
“Russ,” she sighed slumping down a bit, “tonight was incredible, but I really, really wanted you to have something to remember it by, not just for us to have Chinese take out.”
“Chinese take out works wonderfully for us,” he offered up encouragingly, “and truth be told I think the food is going to be the least highlighted part of my memory years down the road--well other than that chocolate frosting you made, which by the way was absolutely scrumptious.”
“I’m being serious here,” she frowned back at him.
“So am I,” he answered squeezing her in his arms, “tonight was perfect--better than perfect and I’m still loving every minute of this surprise you planned for me.”
“Still, it’s not exactly what I’d planned on…” her eyes darted to the package in her hands, “I’d kind of hoped to set a mood and then I’d work myself up to something--you know something really wonderful between us.”
“Well, I’d like to think that we had something really wonderful between us already,” he nudged her again, “Hey Avery, sweetie you thinking of making tonight special for me in itself was something that really touched me.”
“I know, but still,” she turned her eyes up towards him once again, “Russ, what do you love about me?  Really love about me?”
“Everything,” he answered honestly.
“Seriously Russ…”
“I am being serious,” he eased his fingers through her dark hair, “I love you like this when you’re trying so hard to make me happy or anyone else happy for that matter.  I love your stubborn, impossible streak even when you don’t want to let me know you care.  I love the way you warm my heart and the way that you say my name as when it falls from your lips, I feel like it’s some kind of hidden call of seduction that only you and I are privy to.  I love the way you complain about my hogging the blankets even though you’re in my arms most of the night anyways sharing them with me or how you complain about my putting the dishes that high up in my cabinets just so that I can watch you climb up there and fuss with them…”
“I knew that’s why you did that,” she threw back at him, “You just love to get a rise out of me, don’t you?”
“Guilty as charged,” he confessed with a tiny laugh before a mask of seriousness flooded over him, “but most of all, I love your heart.  I love you because you’re a mystery to me yet you’re that other part of my soul that I’ve always known was waiting for me inside.  You’re worth anything and everything and in being this close to you, I know it’s the closest to heaven I’ll ever be in this world.”
“Oh Russ,” Avery breathed his name feeling tears pool in her eyes as a tiny sniffle overcame her.
“Hey,” he touched her cheek wiping at a tear that fell down her face, “I didn’t say that to make you cry…”
“I know,” she nodded as the tears continued freely, “but it was just so beautiful…”
“You’re beautiful,” he leaned forward tasting the saltiness of her tears as he kissed her cheek before placing another soft kiss over the center of her forehead then he claimed her lips once again.
“I love you,” she blurted out in between tiny sobs, “I love you so very much and I don’t want to make any mistakes with us again.  I don’t want to lose you now that we’ve come so far together…”
“Baby, I’m not going anywhere,” he searched her eyes, “where’s this coming from?”
“I’m just so overwhelmed lately in between Brooke and this murder investigation,” she explained sniffling again, “I know I shouldn’t let things get to me, but I’ve been thinking about everything nonstop lately and then I talked to my father and I realized that I’ve been so incredibly unfair to you.  I’ve been living this lie going along with the story the media laid out about Brant and I, but the truth to the matter is that you’re my heart,” she reached out to him tracing the center of his chest as she leaned into his touch allowing him to wipe at her face, “You’re the only man I’ve ever truly loved and I don’t want you to forget that or think that for a second that I might be doing something to jeopardize this thing we have between us.”
“I don’t think that at all,” he admitted feeling the weight of her emotions reach into him, “Avery, I know this situation is complicated for us.”
“And that’s my fault,” she continued painfully, “if I hadn’t left you before…if I hadn’t been so stupid to keep you away when all I wanted was for us to be together….”
“Hey, none of that is important anymore,” he tried to silence her tears as he held her, “What matters is what we have between us right here and now and in the future.”
“I know and I want that,” she smiled weakly, “I really want us to have that future you dreamed about for us.  I want us to have happily ever after together and I want to believe that we can make it even with all the obstacles working against us…”
“I know we can,” he promised as he pulled her in against him, “and we’ll have all those things we talked about before starting with our moving in together.  Maybe then we can work on a wedding down the road and…”
“And this time I’m not going to run away,” Avery offered up her voice full of hope, “I want to marry you.  I want to have your children and have the kind of future you always imagined.  I want to make it happen somehow even if we have to do it in some unconventional ways as time goes on.”
“We’ll make it happen,” he promised hugging her, “I know we will…”
“Well I don’t want to wait on it.  I don’t want to fill you up with empty promises and lead you towards something that will blow up in your face which is why I’m not taking any chances this time,” she admitted wiggling off his lap.

His eyes widened in confusion as she slipped out from beneath the blankets, “Avery, what are you doing?”
“I’ll be back,” she promised leaving the room for a moment before returning with a small box in hand.  Seconds later she was back on his lap again, her dark eyes reaching into him as she drew in a nervous breath, “Russ, I know last time I blew it--that I wasn’t up front with you about everything, but well, this time I don’t want to make that kind of monumental mistake.  I want to do things right and I started thinking about your proposition about us moving in together.  Okay, that’s not entirely the truth as it’s been more like I’ve been obsessing over it to the point that I’m not able to concentrate on anything else and the truth to the matter is that I’ve come up with a decision on the subject.”
“You have?” he lifted his brow curiously as she nodded again.
“I have and the truth is that I can’t move in with you,” she blurted out seeing the disappointment rush over his handsome face.
“But I thought…” he started to protest as she pressed her index finger to his lip to silence any words that might spoil this for her.
“What I’m trying to tell you is that I can’t move in with you knowing that it won’t be enough--that it’ll never be enough for us unless I do things my way,” she took in a slow breath as her heart seemed to pound furiously in her chest with each passing second, “Russ, what I’m trying to say is that, well if we’re going to do this, then I want us to go all the way.  We both know how to play the living together game and we know what it takes to work on that scenario, but there’s one scenario that we haven’t quite perfected yet and maybe it’s time to give it a full run.”
“Avery, what are you--” he began as his eyes dropped to the box before him.
“I’m not going to blow this again,” she vowed as she reached for his hand, “Last time I was young and stupid and I made you do all the work, but this time, well this time I’m not taking any chances as I’m a woman who knows what she wants and who hopes she knows how to get it as I have some pretty amazing dreams for us as well,” she teased her fingers over his, “and what I’m trying to work my way up to here is that I don’t want you as a housemate.  I don’t want you as a live in lover unless that includes my having you as my husband, which leads me to this moment, to this decision as I’m about to prove that I’ve totally lost my mind as I’m crazy in love with you,” she opened the box before her revealing a ring she’d picked up earlier, “Russell Denton, I have loved you since the first time we met one another and I’m not willing to take the chance at you getting away from me ever again which is why I want nothing more than to make you my husband, so in a round about way, what I’m saying is that I want to marry you--that is if you’ll have me.”
“If I’ll have you,” Russell spat out too stunned to believe this was happening for them as tracks of tears spilled down her face, “Avery, you have lost your mind completely, haven’t you?”
“And my heart,” she nodded with a tiny sniffle, “I bet you never saw this one coming, did you?”
“Not in a million years, but I’ve only dreamt about it a million times,” he blurted out squeezing her in his arms as the sudden reality of the situation hung over him, “I’ve waited a lifetime for this moment and now that it’s here…”
“You’re going to leave me hanging for the way I treated you in the past,” she offered up a tiny, nervous laugh.
“On the contrary,” Russ answered cupping her face in his hands, “I’m not going to wait…well actually, yes I am because there’s something I need to say here…” he paused hating to do this, but he pulled away from her, “Avery, I can’t marry you…”
“You can’t,” she fell back onto the couch cushion as she watched him move over towards his desk in the far corner of the room, “but I thought you said…”
“I won’t be able to do this with Brant’s ring on your finger,” he explained pulling open the top drawer as he pulled out a small box from within, “but maybe if you’d find a way to get rid of that for now and you could consider wearing mine, then I might be more inclined to say yes…”
“You mean,” she perked up as he stepped towards her kneeling before her as he tugged Brant’s ring off of her finger setting it down on the table top as he shook his head at her.
“How is it you always manage to out maneuver me,” he questioned opening the small box to reveal the engagement ring he’d given her once before.
“Oh Russ,” she gasped in surprise that he’d kept the ring after all this time, “I didn’t think that you…”
“It was meant to be on your finger,” he explained pulling it out of the box as he eased it over her finger, “and from this moment on, that’s where it shall always stay…well except for maybe at that stupid party your mother is hosting…”
“After the party I’m going to tell Brant everything,” Avery promised solemnly as she felt the weight of her old engagement ring upon her finger, “I swear that I’m not going to let what we have slip away because of a story that some idiot printed out about Brant and I…”
“And I’m not going to be foolish enough to refuse a woman who’s held my heart from day one,” he admitted honestly motioning towards the box she’d brought with her, “so the truth to the matter is that there’s nowhere else I’d rather be spending my days then with you as my wife.”
“Oh Russ,” she tore the ring from the box as she held his hand.  She eagerly pressed it over his finger as tears clouded her vision.
“Avery, honey I’m going to make you my bride and we’re going to get married for real this time,” he blurted out excitedly as he picked her up off the couch pulling her into his arms completely as he danced around his living room, “I love you…I love you so much and I can‘t wait to spend the rest of my days loving you.”
“I love you Russell Denton and I can‘t wait to become your wife forever,” she replied hugging him tighter as things from this moment on were about to change for the two of them as fate had finally given them the chance at happily ever after at long last.


Guy stepped into the foyer of the Ashford mansion and took a moment to survey the decor within. He took a deep breath as he knew his mother was in her kind of heaven complete with a lifetime of possibilities before her if only Avery didn’t screw it up. He had known there was more to his mother’s calls than his father’s want for a divorce. The issue of divorce had been bandied about for years in the Morrison household, but Brooke had never allowed herself to get overly worked up about the situation as she had no intention of being a divorcee. Guy had never known her to react with such force as she had recently which led him to believe his mother was under more stress than she was letting on.

As he slowly began to ascend the staircase, he wondered just how much his mother would reveal to him about the situation. It was true that he was her closest confidante, and she would speak to him to no end about things she was usually very quiet about. It was the kind of relationship he was sure she had always wanted with Avery, but Avery had been a daddy’s girl and never had time to listen to Brooke go on and on about her troubles. Instead, that burden had fallen to Guy who had enjoyed the closeness he shared with his mother as he and his father had never quite been able to bond in the same way.

He stopped just outside the room the housekeeper had directed him to. He wanted his reunion with his mother to be private, and there was no better way to do that than to make sure they were alone. He took a deep breath before he knocked gently upon the door.

A moment later, Brooke opened the door and her face beamed with joy as she wrapped her son in her arms, “Guy, I am so happy to see you.”

Guy smiled as he hugged his mother in return, “It’s good to see you too, Mum. How are you?”

“I’m a thousand times better now that you’re here. Things just have not been very easy for me lately, but now that you’re here, I know I can get through anything,” She said as she took a moment to look at him, “You’re looking so healthy. Europe did you a lot of good.”

“It helps that there’s a spa on every corner just begging for Beholder to try some miraculous local cure for mass marketing,” He grinned, “But it’s good to be home just the same.”

“So come on in. Where are your things? Did you have the housekeeper put you into a room?” She asked quickly as she closed the door and escorted him across the room to a sitting area.

“No, I’m not going to stay here. I think there are too many Morrisons under this roof already,” He said with questioning eyes, “Why exactly has this become your new home away from home?”

“Avery is getting married to Brant Ashford. I’m sure you’ve seen him in the tabloids, but he’s not what they say he is. He’s charming, upstanding, and very handsome. I think he’s just the kind of man Avery needs in her life, and if she doesn’t screw it up, this could be the key to all her future happiness.”

“Screw it up?” Guy asked with a sigh, “I’m guessing that refers to Russell Denton.”

“You’ve been in town all of two minutes, and you already know what this is about. How come Avery’s living it every day and can’t see what a mistake she’s making?”

“Actually, I stopped by the Courier and took Mindy out for a drink. She caught me up on a lot of what’s been going on in town.”

“Mindy? Oh please tell me you’re not going to get mixed up with that girl again. She’s just not the kind of girl you should marry.”

“How many times do we have to go through this, Mum? I’m not interested in marriage with any girl much less Mindy. Right now, I’m quite content with my life the way it is.”

“Guy, I just want you to find the kind of relationship that Avery has with Brant. I just want to see you happy.”

“I am happy,” He assured her, “I know you don’t believe that, but it’s true. Besides, I met someone while I was in Europe who makes me even happier.”

“Does that mean I might actually get to see one of my children do something right with their lives?” Brooke asked hopefully, “I want you to tell me all about her.”

Guy shook his head, “I didn’t come here to gush about my life. I came here to support you in holding our family together if that’s what you truly want. However, I will say that perhaps you’d be happier if you severed your ties with Dad forever. He’s not exactly conducive to your happiness.”

“Guy, I’ve struggled to keep this family together since the beginning, and I will not let go just because your father has some tramp out on the town.”

“And that’s why he asked for the divorce? He has another woman?”

“Not just any woman. She tried to tear our family apart once before,” She shook her head before she pressed her fingertips to her lips, “I just don’t want to lose our family, Guy. Is that really so terrible of me?”

“Absolutely not,” Guy spoke as he urged his mother into a hug. He held her gently as she sank into him, “We’ll find a way to work this out, Mum. We’ll find a way to keep our family intact.”

“That’s all I want. I just want us all to be happy,” Brooke said with a smile out of Guy’s sight as she held onto her son, knowing that now that she had his support she was in the position to call the shots, and there was nothing on Earth she liked better than being in control.


Dave stepped into the precinct with a frown creasing his features. He hadn’t expected to drive so far tonight as he’d fully expected to be relaxing at home at this time of night. Instead, here he was having to do pleasantries with a fellow officer who probably wouldn’t appreciate his presence in town much less an FBI sidekick to boot.

He made his way to the front desk and put on the best smile his tired face could muster, “I’m the Coral Valley Chief of Police Dave Warner. I’d like to speak with the sheriff if at all possible.”

“Hold on. I’ll have to see if he’s available. In the meantime, why don’t you help yourself to some coffee? I just put it on,” The pretty young clerk smiled a flirty smile before she stepped back into the far reaches of the office.

“Well,” Dave smiled, “Maybe this trip wasn’t such a waste after all,” He spoke as he poured himself a cup of coffee from the stand the clerk had pointed out to him.

“Spare me,” Shannon sighed heavily from behind him.

He glanced back to her as he poured some sugar into his cup and began to use a plastic stick to stir his coffee, “You should have some coffee. Your disposition tends to get a lot better on some sugar and caffeine.”

“I’m not here for a social visit,” She replied sourly, “All I’m interested in is finding some answers about Bruce Mathis, and we’re not making any progress just standing here.”

“You should learn some patience,” He pointed out before he took a seat near the front desk on an empty stool, “I’d have thought you would have learned some in the Bureau.”

“Not likely. In the Bureau, I can at least push the right buttons and push things along if they aren’t moving fast enough for my taste.”

“Get yourself some coffee, Shannon. You really do need it,” He said before sipping from his cup.

Shannon rolled her eyes away from him as she crossed her arms and began to read notices posted on the cork boards leading into the Sheriff’s office.

The clerk returned with a smile, “The Sheriff is just finishing up with a phone call, but he’ll be with you in just a few minutes,” She smiled, “How’s the coffee?”

“It’s excellent,” Dave smiled, “And I really do mean that. I needed this in the worst way.”

“Glad I could help out,” She smiled as she extended her hand across the desk towards him, “I’m Olivia Strickland.”

“Dave Warner,” He repeated his name as he shook her hand, “Which I’ve already said but it’s much less formal this time.”

“Coral Valley, huh? I hear a lot of things happen down there. Is it really as exciting as people make it out to be?” Olivia asked as she braced herself on her elbows.

“Not nearly as exciting as people make it sound, but if you had the right guide,” He shrugged with a smile, “It might be worth while.”

She smiled as she drew circles upon the desk in front of her with her fingertip, “You wouldn’t happen to know where a girl might be able to find that right guide, would you?”

“I might be able to help you out there,” Dave smiled as he studied the woman’s delicate beauty before speaking again, “I’m definitely going to have to make some changes around my office because there isn’t anyone working there who’s nearly as pretty as you.”

Olivia blushed slightly as she focused on the desk before her.

Shannon snorted before she broke into the conversation, “Just how long is the Sheriff going to be anyway?”

“Just a few moments,” Olivia replied as she looked nervously to Dave, “Is she always so tense?”

“You could address that question to me, you know,” Shannon said as she stood tall with her arms crossed over her chest.

Dave reached out to gently touch Olivia’s arm as the clerk looked terrified by Shannon’s stance, “Ignore her. She’s just cranky because she hasn’t indulged in any of this fantastic coffee. Well, that and her demeanor is pretty much always that sour.”

“Oh, you can go to hell,” Shannon directed the barb towards Dave before the Sheriff stepped out of the back.

The Sheriff looked as if he would burst as his uniform stretched over his burly round figure. He waddled forward, adjusted his belt to keep his pants from drooping too low, and extended his hand towards Dave, “Sheriff John T. Worley, what can we do for you Chief Warner?”

“Actually, I just came by as a professional courtesy. I want to question someone in your town, but I thought things might go a lot easier if I came by and let you know we were around first,” Dave spoke as he shook the sheriff’s hand.

“Who are you here to talk to?” Sheriff Worley asked as he adjusted his black thick framed glasses.

“Bruce Mathis,” Shannon announced as she joined the men and flashed her Bureau credentials, “We want to speak to him regarding a murder.”

“You’re about two years too late. Bruce Mathis is dead,” The Sheriff said as he turned to Olivia, “Will you pull the Mathis file for me?”

“Sure thing, Sheriff,” Olivia said as she stepped further back into the office.

“Dead?” Dave frowned, “We ran some prints we had, and Mathis came up as our guy.”

“If you found his prints, they’re old ones,” The Sheriff said as he scratched his head, “Mathis was murdered just after a party. He’d just completed his residency at a fancy New York hospital, and he’d come home to celebrate a new job at the local hospital. We found him bludgeoned to death up at the river.”

Dave and Shannon exchanged glances as they thought of the similarities to their case. Dave placed his coffee cup aside as Olivia returned with the file and placed it in his hands. They exchanged quick smiles before Dave opened the file and began glancing over the information contained within.

“Did you catch the killer?” Shannon asked as she peered over Dave’s shoulder at the file.

“No, the case remains unsolved. We had a few leads, but they never went too far. The killer had to be a drifter, someone who isn’t from around here. Everyone around here knows everyone else. We’d have known by now if the killer were amongst us,” The Sheriff replied, “Say you’re investigating a murder?”

“A man was bludgeoned to death near Lake Cardinal,” Dave answered with a frown, “Can we have a copy of this file?”

“Take it with you. Maybe your guy is connected to ours. If it helps you out, then I think that’s something Bruce would have wanted,” The Sheriff replied.

“Thank you for your time, Sheriff,” Dave spoke as he shook hands with the burly man once again. He glanced to Olivia, “If you ever want that guide, you just look me up in Coral Valley.”

“I just might do that,” Olivia smiled as she waved at him while he and Shannon exited the police station.

Shannon stood just outside the station house with the file in hand as Dave joined her, “This only gave us more damn questions to answer.”

“We’ll just go over the file. Maybe there’s something in there that connects these two besides the circumstances of their death and their name. Maybe there’s something we’re not seeing,” He shrugged.

“If you had been more interested in asking questions in there instead of trying to get yourself laid, we might have seen everything there was to see,” Shannon snapped as she began walking towards the car.

“Whoa, I was not trying to get myself laid in there as you so crudely put it. Since when is polite conversation such a burden?” He asked as he fell into step behind her.

“Polite conversation? You were practically begging her to come to Coral Valley so you could nail the poor thing,” She threw her blond hair from her shoulders, “She doesn’t know just how lucky she got in avoiding that situation.”

“You know, ever since you got worked up with Brant the other night, you’ve been hard as hell to be around. Do me a favor. Go work off that energy. I don’t care how you do it or who you do it with, but if you come into the station with that attitude again, then…”

“Then, what, Warner? Just what in the hell do you think you can do to me?” Shannon asked boldly.

He met her eyes for a moment, “I’ll make sure that little invitation I snagged for you to Brant and Avery’s party gets lost. I mean, hey, I thought it might be a chance not only for you to possibly unwind a little but we can see all our suspects in action together in one arena. It might be revealing, but if you’re only interested in fighting me,” He paused.

“You’re kidding me,” She paused as she searched his features, “You’re not kidding, are you? How did you manage to get an invitation to that?”

“Ken is my best friend,” Dave shrugged with a smile, “And I’m not above exploiting personal relationships to make a case,” He said as he unlocked the car doors and stood beside the car for a moment, “So what do you say? Think you can try to get along with all the other kids for a while?”

Shannon took a deep breath and nodded as she got into the car. She might have been selling her soul to devil for a leg up on this investigation, but one way or another, crashing Brant’s engagement party was going to be the kind of fun she’d been wanting to have for years.

...to be continued...