Episode Fifty Seven


The sounds of the fireworks called to Avery bringing her back from the state of misery that had consumed her in the moments following Brant’s exit.  Somehow the source of the sound had beckoned her, brought her back to the moment she’d let slip away and as she pressed her hand to the window, pushing it open once again, she felt the soft breeze of the wind calling to her.  The colorful splashes in the sky was accompanied by a smooth Latin beat.  Their sounds colorful and energetic and though the music was faint and distant, there was something about it that suddenly opened her mind up to the possibilities of what this island could have in store for her.
“No more regrets,” Avery whispered to herself closing her eyes as she felt the wind wisp up around her hair, breezing her over with it’s tranquil promise of a new beginning--the new beginning that Brant had carried her away to find.  This night was about letting go of all the things that had kept her afraid--kept her in the darkness and now with the glittering displays of fireworks before her, she vowed to herself that she wouldn’t allow the pain of the past to be the thing that kept her bottled up inside--locked away from the world.
“It’s over,” Avery whispered to herself allowing the window to swing to a close once more as she returned to the mirrors taking in her appearance.  Her eyes widened as she noticed the sadness that had been lingering at her eyes.  The tracks of tears that she’d allowed to consume her were drying and now as she wiped at her face, she realized it was time for a transformation--one that would put her life back in her hand again.
Quickly Avery discarded the floral print sundress making her way into the bedroom finding it empty as her gaze fell upon the plastic bag lying on the bed before her.  A smile curled over her lips as she began to contemplate her next move.  Reaching out for the bag, she snatched it up from the comforter, pulling the sheer black dress she hadn’t had the opportunity to try on earlier at the store.  Bringing it up to her body, a smile curled over her features as she decided that tonight was in fact the night for new beginnings starting now as there would be no way she’d allow her fears to keep her from moving on with her life.  Pulling together the things she would need, Avery rushed back into the bathroom opting for a quick shower so that she could find herself prepared for the evening ahead of her as tonight was about being in control and from this moment on, she wouldn’t have it any other way.  That much she was certain of.
Once Avery had finished with her shower and dried her hair, she began to get dressed not wanting to waste another moment of her life on the misery that had surrounded her, but as she was finishing up with the final touches on her makeup, she heard a soft tapping on the door to the bedroom.  A smile touched over her lips as she was certain that Brant would be on the other end hoping for some kind of answer from her.  Sure, she’d thought about the decision from the moment he’d posed the question, but now, well now was about doing what was best for everyone--including her child and knowing that she couldn’t allow herself to be the victim any longer, she vowed to do things the right way.
Opening the door, Avery found Brant standing before her having changed up after their run in with one another.  His eyes looked weary and unsure and given the way in which she’d pushed him out earlier, she realized that she owed him more than a simple apology.  She’d owed him a hell of a lot more and as she mentally coached herself into what she was preparing herself for, she inhaled a slow breath watching him rub his hands together nervously.
“Avery,” he began uneasily as he looked down at her clearing his throat, “can we talk for a…”
“Shh,” she lifted her index finger up to the center of his lips in an attempt to silence him as her heart was pounding in her chest praying that she didn’t lose her courage before her head got the best of her, “Just come in.  I need to say something.”
He obliged her request with a nod as she continued to speak, “Look, I know this is probably going to make me seem totally insane right about now, but I’ve thought about what you asked me earlier and you’re right.  This is crazy of me to sit back and wait for something to happen that I know in my heart will never happen.  Sure, there are things that I’m sure we’d both like to fix about this situation as we haven’t exactly had what you were hoping for and I’m not saying that it’ll come to us overnight because there’s a lot about my heart that you aren’t aware of but…”
“Avery, you don‘t…” he gave her a strange look as he interrupted once again.
“Just hear me out,” she pleaded throwing caution to the wind as she stepped up to him, her pulse leaping in her chest as she threw her arms around his neck wildly coaxing him into a reluctant kiss.  She pressed herself against him, urging his lips against hers as she tried to force herself to believe that this was for the best--that she was making the right decision, but as she felt him stiffen against her advances a sudden gasp of acknowledgement rushed over her and she jumped back in surprise in just enough time to catch the color that had risen over his features.
“Avery,” he began shakily touching the top of the dresser as he tried to collect his thoughts and she pulled her hand to her lips realizing she’d made a horrible mistake, “I’m not Brant.”
“Oh God,” Avery gulped feeling her cheeks flush with color as she fought for an explanation, “Ken, I just thought…I mean he was here before and he…he was so persistent and…Oh God, if I was thinking clearly I would never…”
“I realize that,” he breathed slowly adjusting his collar as he cleared his throat once again, “which is why I’m strangely relieved that I was the one that showed up at the door right about now because if I hadn’t, I think you would’ve been making a big mistake Avery.”
“Ken, I don’t understand,” Avery gave him a strange look as she sat on the edge of the bed.
“No, I don’t think you do, but I think it’s time you and I had a long talk about what happened this afternoon and my brother among other things,” Kenneth sighed closing the door completely behind him as he realized that however awkward the situation that had just taken place had been, he’d arrived at just the right time.  Now as he took a seat beside her on the bed, he felt her scoot away from him a bit giving him space, “Avery, we really need to talk about what’s going on with Brant as I think it’s very important…”
“He never should’ve attacked you,” Avery began turning her eyes to the floor finding it to be the most fascinating aspect as the blatant kiss she’d thrown on Kenneth hovered over her.  Her face was hot and burning at the stupidity of such a gesture as her head was chastising her over and over again for not being more perceptive.
“No he shouldn’t have, but Brant’s doing a lot of things he shouldn’t be doing lately,” Kenneth inhaled slowly thinking about Caitlin’s unwavering suspicions about his brother, “which is why we need to talk about what happened in that store earlier.  I need to know everything that went down when that man attacked you.”
“Ken, I don’t see how any of that is relevant at a time like this,” Avery started to argue with him as she forced herself to face him in her attempts to push her embarrassment behind her.
“Maybe not, but Avery believe me, the details of what happened are more important than ever,” Kenneth explained praying that for just this once Caitlin’s suspicions about Brant were wrong--that somehow her reporters hunch was way off as if there had been any truth to her suspicions then things were far worse than he’d ever imagined them being.


Brant stepped into the empty living room area, his eyes falling upon the bar before him as his heart sank with the realization that Avery was still pushing him away.  With every step they made towards one another, she’d somehow found a way to take them further away from the goal he’d had in mind for them.  Yes, he’d certainly been trying to be supportive after her attack, but then when she’d returned home, she’d seemed so dismissive about it--so eager to put the world behind her and for the briefest of moments she had as they were kissing one another losing themselves to the promise of passion and excitement that they’d denied themselves with one another.  Certainly Brant had no secret about where his intentions were with her, but Avery clearly had her doubts and this trip to the island had to be the thing for him to find a way to diminish those doubts so that they could work towards where he needed them to be--to having Avery as his bride.
Sure, Brant knew the risks involved considering that Avery was hesitant, but it was only a matter of time until he won her over and win he would as Brant never lost what it was he’d craved.  His desires had been fulfilled and this challenge that presented itself before him would be no different.  He would succeed in winning Avery’s heart and claiming it as his and there would be no room for error in this situation.  He’d worked too hard for too long to let anything destroy his perfect dreams for the future and as he poured his drink, he thought to those dreams ready to find the methods to make them all into a reality.
“There you are,” Caitlin’s voice hissed at him as Brant glanced over his shoulder to see the petite blonde woman standing in the doorway to the room.  She placed her hands on her hips as her eyes narrowed in obvious anger, “Just who the hell do you think you are?”
“Someone who clearly doesn’t have the time to be bothered by someone like you,” Brant answered dismissively sipping his drink casually as he realized Caitlin had made no attempt to withdraw her aggressive stance as she stood in the archway for another long, unyielding moment.  With a heavy sigh, Brant lowered his glass shaking his head at her as he spoke up again, “Honestly, I don’t know why you’re lurking around when I’m sure Ken needs you to build up his hopes and dreams for the future only to have you break them apart when he discovers what you really are.”
“What I really am is someone who has no desire to take your crap any longer,” she marched into the room, her eyes fueled with a fire as she accosted him with her voice, “You had no right to pull that kind of stunt today on Avery or on Ken and if you think for one second that you’re going to get away with it, then you’re dead wrong.”
“Am I?” Brant chuckled in mild amusement at her words, “Do you really believe I should have any inclination to take you or your threats seriously?”
“I won’t let you destroy Avery and if you ever lay a hand on your brother,” Caitlin began again her voice charged with anger.
“It would seem that your laying a hand on my brother has clearly set him in the wrong direction,” Brant growled in response clenching the glass tighter in his hands as he offered a shrug of his shoulders in his fight to remain cool and collected, “I, on the other hand, was trying to find a way to get him to be leveled off again and see you clearly for what you are.”
“What I am is someone who isn’t going to allow you to stand in the way of someone’s happiness,” Caitlin charged unaffected by his words.
“And whose happiness might you be working towards?” Brant questioned cynically, “Your lover over at the Courier who’s just itching to take a stab at me and my fiancée?”
“What?” Caitlin blinked back at him in surprise, “What did you just say?”
Brant cut back with an icy laugh as he shook his head at her, setting his glass down on the counter top before stepping towards her with a determined stride, “My brother may be blinded by who he wishes you to be, but I know your kind.  The ever eager reporter looking for her big story and you think you can sink your teeth into Kenneth and land on top,” Brant’s voice darkened as he began to close in on her, “but I know your kind all too well and while my brother might be blinded by your feminine wiles, I can assure you that I will find a way to see to it that you aren’t given the chance to break his spirit in the name of your big story.”
“The only one bound and determined to break anyone’s spirit is you,” Caitlin accused back up at him in a tone of challenge, “I’ve seen the way you’ve been bullying Avery around and how you refuse to let her make a decision on her own.  I know your kind Brant Ashford and they only now how to destroy and break a woman’s spirit.”
“I love Avery which is more than you can say about your painted on feelings for my brother,” Brant hissed down at her, “He’s a good man who doesn’t need a opportunistic bitch like you tailing him around.  Tell me how much does such a task cost these days?  What is Russ Denton dishing out to keep you in good graces with Ken while he plans my family’s downfall?”
“You son of a bitch,” Caitlin lashed out at him slapping him directly across the cheek as her anger roared up inside of her.
Brant’s face coiled back in response to her slap, but as she raised her hand up towards him again, anger consuming her, he grabbed her wrist clenching it tightly as he pulled her in against him, his eyes filling up with anger and rage as he leaned in towards her, his voice a harsh whisper as he issued a warning at her, “Don’t even think about doing that again because that was your one and only opportunity to do such a thing,” Brant released her sending her back a step as he inhaled a slow breath trying to keep his temper under control as he saw the first hint of fear behind her eyes before it was replaced with a raw, untamed rage.
“I knew you’d sink this low,” Caitlin shouted out at him her fists clenched at her sides as she fought the urge to lash out at him again and again, “You are just the kind to manipulate the world to your needed, to violate anyone who opposes your opinion and you throw your weight around as though you’re some kind of god that deserves the world’s undying, unyielding attention, but I’ve got news for you Brant.  The bigger you think you are, the harder you’ll fall as you’re not going to get away with this or with that stunt you pulled on Avery earlier.  I know it was you and I won’t let you hurt her and if you choose to take my promises lightly, then that’s your mistake now isn’t it,” Caitlin charged as Brant gave her a strange contemplative look.
An icy smile spilled over his frazzled features as a hearty laugh followed, “My, my I have misjudged you now haven’t I?  Here I thought you were the meek and mild manipulator, but no, you’ve got a fire about you, don’t you?  You’re not at all what my brother thinks you to be as those are fighting words.”
“I won’t allow you to terrorize Avery like you have and you sank to a new low in my eyes this morning when you paid that man to attack her and scare the hell out of her because she was with me,” Caitlin answered her voice tight with emotion as it began to crackle a bit.
“What?” Brant blinked back at her in obvious surprise before shaking his head in denial, “Now wait just one damn minute.  While I don’t exactly like the idea of you being around my fiancée, I would never willingly put her in harm’s way.”
“Oh right and I’m supposed to believe that out of you,” Caitlin huffed with a glare, “Brant, I’m not stupid.”
“And neither am I.  I wouldn’t dream of having someone hurt the woman I love and despite all your protests and unwanted opinions via Russell Denton, I do love her and want what’s best for her and I would never…”
“You would and you did because terror is how you like to keep women in line.  You’ll do anything to manipulate them and with sending that guy in to terrorize her…” Caitlin began in a fury.
“Brant had nothing to do with what happened this afternoon,” Avery’s announced as Brant and Caitlin looked to find Avery and Kenneth in the hallway outside the room.
“What?” Caitlin blinked back in surprise, “Avery, I was there when…”
“Caitlin, this had nothing to do with Brant,” Avery explained having heard the tale end of the conversation between Caitlin and Brant just before she’d walked in, “I know that now and while I was upset earlier, I realize that man wasn’t looking for me.”
“I don’t understand,” Caitlin confessed watching as Kenneth stepped into the room beside Avery.
“Given what the man said to her, I don’t think this was something Brant was behind,” Kenneth added in his brother’s defense, “as this attack clearly wasn’t meant to be on Avery.”
“But you said that…” Caitlin’s eyes widened in confusion.
“Caitlin, we were shopping all morning and the man,” Avery looked to Brant as a sigh spilled from her lips, “He scared me…terrified me with the things he said, but the more I started thinking about it, there was no one in my life who would say such things…no one that would be that passionate and determined to frighten me…”
“Avery, what did he do,” Brant’s mood immediately shifted to concern as he stepped towards her reaching out to her.
“The man came in and he grabbed me,” Avery recounted the morning, “It all happened so fast that I’m not even sure he knew who he was with at the time.  I’d just given Caitlin her phone and was about to get dressed, when he rushed in from behind and he grabbed me.  He forced my head up so that I couldn’t get a look at him, but his mouth--his face was buried in my neck and the things he said…  He told me that he couldn’t forget me and that he wouldn’t be easy to forget.  Then he went into some speech about how when he saw me on the island, he knew that we’d never be apart…that he’d never let me go and if I thought he would allow me that…” Avery’s voice trailed off as she looked over to Kenneth uneasily.
“Caitlin, I think we need to talk,” Kenneth approached her as he strained to keep his tone calm and collected.
“Yes we do because your brother has lost his damned mind and he’s obviously brainwashing Avery,” Caitlin added with a huff thinking about Brant’s behavior before Kenneth walked into the room.
“No, this time it’s not about Brant,” Kenneth urged her to join him on the couch despite her reluctance to join him, “In fact, the more Avery and I talked about this, the more we started thinking.  The person who was after Avery was no doubt watching the two of you and since you both were in the fitting rooms next to one another at the same time…it’s a possibility that maybe just maybe Avery wasn’t the intended target…”
“What,” Caitlin saw the look on Kenneth’s face as realization dawned in on her, “no.”
Brant watched the exchange between the group before him and he turned to Avery, “What’s going on?”
“Brant, maybe you should just sit down,” shrugged touching his arm and guiding him across the room, “or better yet, maybe we should give them some time alone.”
“No, don’t go,” Caitlin looked up at Avery, “not yet.  I mean are you sure that the person wasn’t aiming at you?”
“At first I thought so, but then with what he said,” Avery began at a loss as Kenneth reached for Caitlin’s hand squeezing it gently.
“Normally I wouldn’t jump to conclusions, but after the last time when you were in the hospital,” Kenneth began with a heavy sigh, “well it’s just a possibility that…”
“Jimmy,” Caitlin blurted out wondering why it hadn’t dawned in on her earlier, “Avery and I were out in the open for so very long and then we were rushed into a fitting room and then my phone rang and I was on the phone and…”
“It all happened so fast,” Avery offered up with a frown, “I’m not saying it was, but the way that he held me…the hold on my neck…the forcefulness behind it all…”
“Would someone like to clue me in as to what’s going on,” Brant grumbled in response as the room seemed to hold some kind of secret he was no part of.
“Someone’s been following Caitlin around,” Kenneth offered up as he squeezed Caitlin’s hand gently seeing the concern in her beautiful features.
“Who?” Brant questioned in confusion.
“He’s…” Kenneth began as Caitlin interrupted.
“Don’t tell him anything.  I don’t owe him any answers about my personal life,” she threw out with a hiss.”
“You do when it puts Avery at risk, so I strongly suggest you start talking,” Brant demanded with a roar.
“Back off Brant,” Kenneth shot him a warning glance as he tended to Caitlin, “I promised you that you’d be safe.  I told you I wouldn’t let him hurt you again and I meant that.”
“Ken, I just didn’t think that he’d follow me here…that he was watching me like this…” she fought the conflicting emotions inside of her.
“Who followed you?” Brant pressed further as Avery touched his arm.
“Brant, why don’t we just give them some time alone?” Avery suggested.
“No, I want to know who’s going around terrorizing my fiancée because of Caitlin?  I want his name and then I want him found so that this stops…” Brant declared with an authoritative tone.
“It’s not that simple,” Kenneth argued with him, “though I wish it were.”
“Why not?” Brant questioned in confusion, “If some loser is on the island he can’t get far from here when we have our people looking for him.”
“If he doesn’t want to be found, he’ll find a way not to be,” Caitlin fought the tears that threatened to build behind her eyes as she wouldn’t allow Brant Ashford to see her in a moment of weakness.
“We’ll find a way to change that,” Kenneth promised hating to see the woman he loved in such turmoil as the morning’s events were beginning to make sense.
“So what happens now,” Brant asked looking to Avery as he finally took in her appearance.  Seeing how she’d changed in the short time from when he’d left the room, he found himself at a loss as he blinked once…twice…unable to believe the vision before him.  He touched her shoulder as his throat grew tight with tension, “Avery, you look captivating…”
She couldn’t help but smile despite the moment as she reached for his hand, “Thank you.”
“You just look so…wow…” Brant couldn’t help but find himself drawn to her in that moment despite the conversation taking place around him.  He pulled her aside lowering his voice to just above a whisper as his fingers grazed over her exposed shoulder, “What happened?”
“Well, I thought we’d go out tonight and enjoy the festival,” she explained softly, “After you walked out of the room I had some time to think and I realized I wasn’t going to be afraid of some random pervert, but now,” she glanced over at Kenneth and Caitlin, “maybe it’s not such a good idea.”
“No, it’s still a good idea,” Brant insisted wanting to find a way to be alone with her despite the way the day had been, “I think we can still pull off going to the festival if you’re up to it.”
“Brant, I don’t know if…” Avery looked over to Caitlin, “Now just isn’t the right time considering…”
“She’s right,” Kenneth caught wind of the conversation as he looked to his brother, “Right now we should be focusing on packing up and going home instead of going out into the party going on tonight.”
“Ken, don’t cut this short because of me,” Caitlin tugged on his arm much to his surprise, “Don’t let me be the reason that this has to end.”
“But Caitlin I thought,” he gave her a strange look.  “If we go home…”
“We can go home,” Caitlin vowed as she thought to the idea of Jimmy out there trying to terrorize her.  As she recalled all the times he’d stolen from her, all the freedoms he’d taken from her, she decided that tonight would be the one time she wouldn’t allow him to do it again.  “Not tonight…”
“But…” Kenneth began at a loss as he thought about their earlier conversation about the situation they were in with Brant and Avery.
“Tonight we’re going to that festival with Brant and Avery,” Caitlin motioned to the two of them before lowering her voice, “I don’t trust him alone with her and you know that.”
“And I don’t trust us being out there if that madman is loose,” Kenneth explained concern evident in his tone as she placed her hand on top of his.
“And I refuse to have my life stolen from me again,” Caitlin insisted as she thought about the chain of events leading her up to this moment in time.
“Caitlin, I don’t want to put you out in the open to be a target when…”
“Ken, I’ve already spent too many years in fear,” Caitlin reminded him as a flicker of something he couldn’t quite read flashed behind her eyes, “and I won’t do it any longer.  Tonight we can go to the festival with Avery and Brant and then tomorrow we can go back to where we were earlier in getting, well…in what we were planning…”
“Caitlin, I don’t want you to be an open target,” Kenneth whispered in response.
“And I won’t be with you there,” Caitlin tried to assure him having her own doubts, but refusing to let them get the best of her as she was certain there was more to this situation than what they’d all written it off as.  Sure, while it did sound like something Jimmy would do, the idea of him rushing away when someone fought back didn’t quite seem his style--though he hadn’t found the wrong woman before.  Still, there was something in the pit of her stomach that refused her to accept defeat.  As she looked at Avery knowing full well that tonight Avery would be open to whatever manipulations Brant had in store for her, Caitlin vowed to find the strength to force herself into standing her ground.
“Well, what’s going on?” Brant asked as Caitlin realized his eyes were fixed upon her.
“We’re going with you,” Caitlin replied with an icy smile.
“Are you sure,” Avery asked a bit surprised by Caitlin’s response.
“Oh yeah, I’m sure,” Caitlin nodded realizing that she’d find a way to be strong tonight if for no other reason, than to make Brant miserable as suddenly she felt the need to knock a man like him down a few pegs.


Seth banged heavily on Grady’s door as he waited for an answer. If Jade was upset there could be only one person responsible, and that person was Grady Denton. Seth was going to find out just what exactly had happened to his sister, and he was going to make sure that Grady paid for whatever it was he had done.

Grady opened the door and stared at Seth, “Jade isn’t here.”

“I know that,” Seth declared as he pushed Grady out of his way and stepped into the house, “She’s at home crying her eyes out, and I want you to tell me why.”

Grady gave the door a push closed as he turned and faced Seth, “She’s upset with me.”

“I got that much. What the hell did you do to her?”

“I didn’t do anything to her.”

“You might see it that way, but she’s mighty upset, Denton. That can only mean you’ve done something to upset her.”

Grady frowned as he walked across the room and stood in front of the fireplace, “She thinks I don’t care about her, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.”

“Then why aren’t you chasing her down to prove that to her?”

“Because she’s better off without me, and now would be the best time for her to cut her losses with me.”

“What kind of logic is that?”

Grady turned towards Seth, “You hate the idea of Jade and I being together. So why do you care if she finally decides to stay away from me?”

“I care because it’s obviously not what she wants. What she really wants is to be with you. So what have you done to upset her?” Seth demanded.

“I haven’t done anything to Jade.”

“Then why is she at home crying?”

“She’s mad at me. She thinks I care more about protecting my brother than I do about loving her. That’s crazy, but she won’t even give me the leeway to explain.”

“Well how about explaining the situation to me?” Seth crossed his arms as he focused all his attention on Grady.

Grady studied Seth for a moment as he sighed, “You’re not going to leave unless I tell you everything, are you?”

“No, I’m not,” Seth replied as he sat down on the sofa and made himself comfortable, “So you should just start talking.”

Grady took a deep breath before he sat down in his recliner and stared at the fire, “Jade thinks I’m too involved in my brother’s life. I just don’t want Russell to allow Avery to devastate his life like she did the last time. All that woman knows how to do is annihilate everything in her path, and Russell is her favorite target. I’ve been doing everything I could to make sure that he doesn’t end up being her whipping boy, but Jade says that I’m interfering in his life. Is it really so horrible of me to want to protect my little brother from heartache? I watched him go through this once before, and I do not want to see this happen all over again. It’s only a matter of time before she ruins his life and leaves him the broken shell that he was once before.”

Seth blinked in response to Grady’s explanation, “So you’re saying that all of this is because you’re over protective?”

“I’m not being over protective. I’m just looking out for my brother. What about that is so wrong?” Grady asked with a frown.

“You know Jade hates protective big brothers or haven’t you noticed that she’s been pissed at me for a while?” Seth shook his head as he eased forward to sit on the edge of the sofa, “Look, you need to fix this.”

“Are you serious? You’re actually telling me to go after Jade?”

“I’m not giving you a ringing endorsement, but you make my sister happy and that’s something that I want to see continue for a while. So you need to do something to fix this rift between you.”

“There’s nothing I can do,” Grady sighed, “The only thing that would make Jade happy at this point is if I give up trying to keep Avery away from Russell which I’m not going to do. So basically I don’t have any other options.”

“Yes, you do,” Seth nodded.

“Oh really? And what do you think I can do?”

“I’ll think of something because I refuse to watch Jade cry her eyes out over you.”

“I never meant to hurt her, Seth. It’s just that I can’t let Russell end up the same way he did the last time he involved himself with Avery. The woman is a parasite, and she destroys every man she’s ever been involved with,” Grady ran his fingers through his shortly cropped hair, “I just can’t seem to make Jade understand that.”

“Denton, you can’t just let her walk away like this.”

“I thought you weren’t giving me a ringing endorsement.”

“I’m not, dammit,” Seth frowned, “But Jade thinks you’ll make her happy, and that means a lot to me.”

“I can’t make her happy, Seth. I’m not good enough for her. It’s better that she just stay away from me,” Grady spoke as he stood and moved across the room.

Seth fumed as he stood and spun Grady around to face him. He seized the older man’s collar and shoved him forcefully against the wall, “You’re not going to just walk away from her. She worked damn hard to make you love her, and she loves you. I don’t know what the hell possessed her, but I’m not going to let you just walk away without some sort of apology. If you won’t fight for her, you’ll damn sure do some heavy duty apologizing to her.”

Grady held onto Seth’s hands about his collar as he searched the young man’s passionate eyes. He frowned slightly as he sighed, “Okay, fair enough.”

“Good,” Seth shoved himself away from Grady, “Now, I’m going home to take care of Jade. You’d better do your part, or I swear to god I’ll come back and make you wish you’d never even heard the name Alexander.”

Grady watched Seth leave his house as confusion swept over him. He wasn’t sure how this had just happened, but it appeared that Seth had given him an ultimatum about letting Jade go. Odd as it seemed, Jade finally had her brother’s approval. Too bad it came much too late to matter.


Joseph hummed a Christmas tune while tending to the poinsettias before him.  There was just something about this time of year that brought out the holiday spirit in him and as he tended to his mini home garden, he found himself filled with a jolliness that hadn’t been around in a while.  Sure things had been a bit hectic lately, but then again that didn’t happen too much in the life of a retiree and he was enjoying the simple drama that came along with his branching out more.  Even now he thought about giving Annette a call as he wondered how she and her spunky Pomeranian were doing after the ring fiasco.  His humming stopped as he reached for the phone ready to dial the Ashford mansion when the ringing of his door bell stopped him mid-movement.
“I’ll get back to you,” he promised with a wink setting his phone back on the base as he exited his kitchen making his way to the front door.  He opened it with a boisterous smile as he greeted his guest, “Why hello…” his jaw dropped in surprise as he saw the woman before him, “Susan?”
“Hello father,” she replied with a quick nod of acknowledgement as she motioned to the snow surrounding her, “It’s cold outside.  Can I come in?”
“Of course,” he opened the door wider allowing his daughter access to his home as he couldn’t help, but reveal his surprise in her unexpected arrival, “I didn’t realize you were going to be in town for the holidays.”
“I hadn’t planned on it,” Susan admitted curtly before looking to him again, “but it seems that my company has brought me here on business for a while so I had no choice.”
“I see,” Joseph nodded in response realizing that time hadn’t changed his daughter as he saw the lines upon her face alerting him to her obvious tension about coming to see him, “would you like a cup of coffee to warm up as I just put a pot on?”
“Actually,” Susan shifted on her feet for a moment, “I don’t know if I should considering that I still have to make my way over to the apartment the company has set up for me.”
“They set you up an apartment?” his eyes widened in surprise, “So then they plan on keeping you out here for a while then, huh?”
“Unfortunately,” she discarded her scarf on the couch before her as she began to unbutton her jacket, “considering that Coral Valley is the last place I wanted to be at a time like this,” her eyes fell upon the fireplace, up over the mantle where all the Christmas decorations were and a frown curled over her lips, “What have you done?”
“What?” Joseph watched her step in towards the fireplace, “Don’t you like the decorations?”
“It’s not the decorations,” she frowned heavily as she shook her head with heavy dismay, “it’s what’s not there.  Where are the pictures?”
“I took them down a few months ago,” Joseph explained after a long pause, “I’d put them in my study as I thought that…”
“You thought?” Susan glared at him, “You don’t think and that’s your problem.  Here we are having another Christmas without my mother and do you even care about keeping her memory alive?  No, because all you see is a place to bury her yet again so that you don’t have to remember her…”
“That’s not what I was doing Susan as you know I loved your mother very much,” Joseph began in his defense.
“Hardly,” she rolled her eyes at him, “because if you gave a damn about her, then those pictures would’ve stayed right here, but no that wasn’t going to work for you was it because all you care about is moving on.”
“Susan, that wasn’t my intention and…”
“And nothing,” she threw her hands in the air as she marched over to the couch and snatched up her scarf in a haste, “this was a mistake in coming here.”
“Susan, wait,” he reached out to his daughter, “Don’t leave like this--not after the last time.”
“Last time when I needed you, well you sided with Grady,” she spat back at him, “You weren’t there when I needed you to be as a father, but mom was there for me.  She understood what I was going through and she was the only support I’ve ever had in my life and you,” she wrenched her arm away from him, “I have no use for you.”
“Susan, please don’t leave again like this not when we have so much to talk about…”
“I don’t have anything to say to you anymore and in coming here, I realized that all over again,” she sighed as her eyes darted with the same hatred and animosity she’d had when she’d left Coral Valley the last time.  “Just consider this visit a warning for you to stay as far away from me as possible because I swear if you come near me, well I won’t have a problem making sure that security gets rid of you.”
“Susan, if you’d just think about what you’re saying.  I’m your father and it’s Christmas time for heaven’s sake,” Joseph pleaded with her as he felt himself in the position of dealing with the same angry little girl she once was.  Time and time again he’d tried to reach her, but she’d always shoved him away.  His wife had been the only one who’d seemingly been able to get through to her over the years, but not always and once his wife had departed after a long, hard battle with cancer, he’d found that his time with Susan was far and few especially after she and Grady parted ways.  “Susan, please just think about this as the holidays are a time when a family should be together…”
“I don’t have a family as far as I’m concerned,” she threw back at him icily before collecting her purse and marching out the door into the snow as Joseph found himself helpless in watching her retreat as it seemed that nothing would ever bring him and his daughter together again.
Poignantly shut the door behind her and made his way back into the kitchen as the photograph he’d had of his late wife was over beside the Poinsettias he’d been tending to.  He lifted it up off of the window sill as a sigh spilled over his lips.
“How I wish you were here,” he whispered behind misty eyes, “as things would be so much different for us,” he sighed slumping down into a chair at the table as he resigned himself to the fact that life had become something of a stand still since his wife’s passing and with Susan’s refusal to accept him in her life once again, he found himself in a sad state.
Slowly Joseph’s eyes lifted to the phone once more and he thought about the phone call he’d almost made before Susan’s arrival.  Reaching for the phone, he thought about how it had felt to have Annie’s company and how good it had been to be needed, but almost as soon as he’d picked up the phone, he set it back down realizing that if his daughter couldn’t bear to be around him at a time like this, then maybe he was where he deserved to be--alone.


“It’s snowing again,” Blake spoke softly as she watched the snow fall over the downtown area. She smiled as the snow fell with lovely white color over the cityscape. She’d never been able to enjoy the snow with such a fantastic view over the entire city. Sure, the view from the Ashford mansion was a great one, but it didn’t quite compare with what she was able to witness from Zack’s apartment.

“What did you say?” Zack asked as he returned to the room after cleaning up after their meal. He’d stepped into the kitchen to continue his cleaning for a moment before returning to her.

“It’s snowing,” She nodded towards the view as she kept watching the snow fall.

“It’s beautiful,” He spoke as he slipped his arms around her waist from behind her. He placed his chin upon her shoulder as he joined her in watching the snow, “How often does it snow around here?”

“We get a couple every winter, but they’re usually not too bad,” She said as she sank back into his embrace. She took a deep breath as she sighed happily and melted against him, “This is a nice way to enjoy the snow though.”

“We’re not even in the snow,” He whispered against her ear.

Blake’s grin grew as she turned in his arms and slipped her arms around his neck, “You’re right. It’s much too warm in here for snow,” She eased her fingers into his hair as she drew his lips down to hers.

Zack drew her closer as he caressed her lips with his, delving gently into her mouth to drink of her. He squeezed her body close to his as she gyrated gently against him. When their lips parted, he swept his fingers across her cheek, “Wow.”

“And we’re just getting started,” She promised as she met his eyes, “You gave me a dream come true tonight.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that I always wanted you. To be my first, I mean,” She clarified, “And there’s nothing I can think of that would make me happier than to make love with you tonight.”

“I didn’t mean that we had to take such a huge step tonight, Blake,” He said softly.

“I know what you meant, Zack, and I’ve been thinking about it all night. And I don’t really see any reason why tonight can’t be the night we make our own,” She spoke as she lightly drew her fingers down his chest, “What do you say, Zack? Ready to make my dreams come true?”

“Wow, you really have high expectations for a guy,” He said with a half a smile, “Blake, I don’t…”

“Don’t you dare deny me, Zack Vaughn. You’re the one who bold faced told me you wanted me. It’s always been pretty obvious that I want you. So what’s standing in our way?” She asked bluntly as she searched his eyes, “Tonight’s the night.”

Zack caressed her cheek gently, “Okay, fair enough. I’ve got some blankets and pillows in the bedroom. I was planning to sleep here tonight anyway to try the place out. I’ll go get them and bring them in here. Since the power isn’t on yet and I’m definitely going to want to see every inch of you, we’ll make love in front of the fire,” He pressed a quick kiss to her lips, “I’ll be right back.”

Blake smiled as she moved back to the spot in front of the hearth. She sat on the ledge of the fireplace and watched the flames flicker amongst the logs. She could feel the heat emanating from the fire, but it was nothing in comparison to the heat flowing through her bloodstream. She supposed it was probably nervous energy considering she was about to take part in a dream she’d been cultivating for years, but at the same time, she could feel excitement pulsating through her skin, anxiously awaiting Zack’s return to the room.

Zack placed a stack of blankets on the floor before dumping a couple of pillows nearby. He flashed her a smile before he began spreading the blankets into a makeshift bed. He moved the pillows into place and stood upright for a moment as he looked at her.

“What?” Blake asked as she watched him.

“I was just thinking,” He said with a smile as he moved over to her and knelt down in front of her. He placed his hands upon hers in her lap, “I’m the luckiest man in the world right now.”

She began to speak before he cut her off by placing a fingertip over her lips.

“Shhh, don’t say anything,” He urged as he brushed his fingertips down her chin and allowed them to glide down her throat.

She watched him carefully as he rose slightly on his knees and eased his lips towards hers. She steadied herself by placing her hand upon his cheek and returning his gentle kiss. Zack eased his hands down to the ledge on either side of her to balance himself as he continued to explore the sweetness of her mouth.

As their lips parted, he smiled slowly setting back on his haunches as he eased his palms down her thighs, past her knees, and along her calves until he lifted her foot to rest upon his thigh. He plucked at the laces of her sneakers before drawing the shoe from her foot and tossing it across the room behind him.

Blake chuckled as he began doing the same to her other foot, “You’re a slob.”

“No, I’m making sure that nothing gets in our way,” He winked at her as he slipped his fingers inside the band of her socks and threw each of them across the room to join her shoes, “Now then, why don’t you slide down here and join me.”

Blake smiled as she knelt before him and pushed him backwards to land atop the blankets. She pulled his foot up into the air and winked at him, “Your turn.”

“Fair enough,” Zack grinned as he watched her remove his shoes and socks, “I have to tell you. You have some very sexy feet there.”

“Sexy feet? Are you crazy?” She asked with a laugh as she discarded his socks.

“No, I think your feet are very sexy,” He smiled as he raised himself back up to his knees and slipped his arms around her waist to draw her closer.

“So, does this mean you have a foot fetish?” She teased as she wrapped her arms around his neck.

“I’m not that obsessed, but I do like a pair of sexy feet when I see them. Yours definitely qualify,” He grinned before he coaxed her into a kiss.

Blake eased her fingers into his hair as she allowed her other hand to slowly glide down his back. Zack slid his hands up her back, gently tugging her tee shirt along as he moved upwards. He parted from her mouth only long enough to draw her shirt over her head and toss it aside.

He eased his palms along her arms, drawing her closer to him while easing his palms down her back. He curled his fingertips to trace a path along her spine while his mouth claimed hers.

She murmured softly against his mouth as she flattened her palms along his chest to caress the powerful muscle beneath her touch. She eased her fingers down his abdomen and drew her hem of his shirt upwards.

Zack eased away to tug the shirt over his head and throw it away to join hers upon the floor. He eased his fingers over her cheek, drawing her mouth back to his as he held her securely within his arms. He lifted her slightly from her knees as he turned his body and lowered her upon the makeshift bed he’d constructed. He eased his body down alongside hers, continuing to lavish great attention upon her lips.

Blake fanned her fingers across his back as she bent her knee beside him to gain more contact with his body. Zack lowered his lips to Blake’s neck, learning her taste inch by inch. She arched against him while he began to lightly flick his tongue over her collar bone.

Blake eased her hands down his back, her fingertips tracing the edges of his blue jeans. Zack smiled as he continued his path of kisses along her shoulder. His lips traced the swell of her breast while his palm gently cupped her fullness. He brushed his thumb across her nipple, tracing the tender area and feeling the skin tighten beneath his attentions.

“Hmmm,” She hummed as his lips delicately traced the edge of her bra. He switched his attention from one breast to the other beginning with the same gentle caresses he’d bestowed upon the first. His fingers eased along her rib cage before he began softly placing kisses upon her stomach. He continued lower while tracing gentle circles with his fingertips along her abdomen. He slipped his fingertips under the waistband of her jeans and gently unfastened the snap. He eased the zipper down as he met her eyes.

“You’re beautiful,” Zack assured her as he grasped the waist of her jeans and eased them down her legs. He drew the jeans from her body and tossed them aside. He eased his fingertips along her calf, drawing her foot up to rest upon his chest. He smiled as he turned his face and lightly placed a kiss to the arch of her foot.

Blake giggled as she watched him, “See, there’s that foot thing again.”

“A sexy foot like this is hard to resist,” He smiled as he pressed another kiss into the arch of her foot. He began slowly dropping kisses to her ankle, several along her calf before focusing his attention upon the inner curve of her knee. He flicked his tongue upon her skin before continuing along her thigh with tender kisses.

Zack perched upon his elbows as he glanced down at her underwear, “Cotton briefs, huh? I kind of expected something silk or even a thong from you.”

“It’s below freezing outside, and it’s snowing. How warm do you think I would be if I wore a thong?” She asked pointedly before rolling her eyes, “God, how embarrassing.”

“Hey, don’t get embarrassed over this. Wait until you see mine,” He teased as he pressed a kiss to her navel.

“Promises, promises,” She breathed as he continued pressing kisses to her skin as he crawled along her body.

He held himself over her as he sealed his lips to hers with a hungry, more demanding kiss. He’d wanted her for longer than he even wanted to admit to himself. Once he’d arrived in Coral Valley and laid eyes upon her again, he’d known that he had to have her at the first opportunity. It was true that he hadn’t taken advantage of the very first opportunity at the stables, but she hadn’t been in control of her faculties then, and he wanted her to be aware of every sensual moment of their time together when he finally gave in to his lust for Blake. And now, he was going to enjoy ever second of making love to her.

Blake leaned in closer to Zack thinking about all the reasons why her being with him made sense. Sure, maybe she had a lot of confusion that had carried over her life especially lately, but he was what she'd thought about back in college. Zack Vaughn was someone she'd anticipated sharing her life with before Seth had shaken her world up, so tonight undoubteldy made sense. Her being with Zack had to be the right thing, she reminded herself.

Zack rolled to his back pulling Blake in over him. His hands eased over her hips reminding her of all the things she'd hoped for them back in college. His kisses grew in intensity as she found herself wondering if this was really happening. Was she really about to cross into forbidden territory with a man she'd been crushing on for so very long? Was Zack truly the one that she was meant to share everything with? His kisses only served to further remind her of how her dreams were becoming a fast reality. Their lips parted, and she met his eyes. She eased her fingertips across his lips, tracing their sensuous fullness.

Zack held her eyes as he drew her fingers into his mouth, gently sucking upon each digit while his fingers slipped behind her back and unclasped her bra.

"Slow down," Blake hesitated pulling back just enough to search his eyes as a flicker of uncertainty carried over her. "This is so special for us that I want to remember every single second."

"As do I," Zack touched her face lightly. "I've thought about you longer than you can imagine."

"You have?" her blue eyes widened as a warmth carried over her.

"Of course I have Blake. You're beautiful," Zack leaned up to kiss her tenderly before turning his attention to her bra straps once again. He slowly eased the straps down her arms before drawing the garment from her body and giving it a quick toss to join the other clothing upon the floor.

Blake closed her eyes feeling her stomach tied in knots as he focused his attention on her breasts. While she was no stranger to that kind of attention, Zack's hands upon her were something entirely new in this moment. She bit down on her lower lip and thought of all the romantic, wonderful novels she'd read through the years. Suddenly her mind flashed to one Donna Nevik novel in particular where the heroine was whisked away by her white knight to an exotic island where they spent hours making love on a secluded beach for the first time. Sure, maybe this wasn't close to the beach or even half as warm as an erotic summer day, but this was about to be a moment she carried with her for the rest of her life. She sank her fingers into Zack's hair and sighed wondering if this was what all those romantic fictions were all about when two people were meant to find one another. Making love just seemed to be the next logical step and sharing it with Zack certainly was a dream come true for her.

Zack smoothed his hands along her back as he drew her lips back to his. He rolled her to her back as he hovered her with eyes full of anticipation. There was an almost predatory gaze behind their depths, but along with it was a hunger--one Blake had longed to experience with him for years. Blake slid her hands down his body, finding the fastening of his jeans and plucking the button free as she anticipated bringing to life her very own romantic love scene. Today would spark the beginning of a new journey for her and Zack and she couldn't wait to explore that.

“You’re overdressed,” She murmured against his hungry kisses as she began to shove his jeans from his hips.

Zack grinned as he helped her removed his pants before he began exploring her body all over again. She writhed gently against him remembering the romance novel she'd read where the prince climbed the highest tower to rescue his princess after she'd been locked away from her evil step-mother. They'd fallen into an embrace, into a cloud of perfection and the love making that followed was undoubtedly something that Blake had hoped for in her life. Zack Vaughn was now her own prince ready to make those dreams a reality for her. She bit down on her lip, losing herself to his touch as they lost themselves to the moment. He smiled as he eased his fingertips along the waist band of her panties. He tugged the cotton underwear from her body and threw them over his shoulder.

Blake grinned as she took the chance to glance down at his boxers. She couldn’t help but break out into a full fledged belly laugh as she recognized Spongebob from the cartoon on his boxers, “Okay, I think we’re even.”

“Not even close,” Zack winked at her, “But you just keep this one to yourself.”

He smiled as he shed his boxers and tossed them aside as well. A moment later he eased in over her, the weight of his body pressing down over hers.

“Hey, you still with me?” he asked as he eased his fingertip along her lips.

“You betcha,” she declared as she pulled him back into her arms and seized his lips with hers. She closed her eyes anticipating the moment when they were together as one. Undoubtedly this would be incredible--it would be something to remember.

"How does that feel?" Zack questioned nibbling on her earlobe as Blake felt the weight of him over her.

"What?" she replied breathlessly opening her eyes as she felt his chin rest upon her shoulder. His tongue circled near her earlobe and she felt his breath skim against her neck.

She turned her head and noticed the open condom package on the floor beside them. Curling her lips in a pout, she focused on Zack over her once again. She could feel his lips against her shoulder, kissing her and tempting her in his own way, yet she found herself restless with anticipation of what making love would be like for them. Lightly scratching her nails over his spine, she felt him cringe over her.

"Blake, go easy on the nails," Zack grunted in response, "while in romance novels that seems hot, I have to tell you it kind of hurts a bit."

"I'm sorry," she apologized feeling a blush overtake her cheeks. "I'm just a little restless tonight I guess with the thought of us finally making love."

"I can understand that one Blake because most women feel that way when they are with..." he paused realizing he'd almost said the wrong thing. Instead he softened his tone and caressed her face lightly. "Blake, tonight will be so very special for us. I love you."

"I love you too Zack," she murmured carelessly as her concerns faded away and she found herself eager to make love to him.

Zack's lips found hers once again and Blake arched up towards him, realizing that tonight would be the first taste of heaven. She would no longer be pampered little Blake, but a woman who had finally given herself completely to passion. Her blue eyes searched his out again and she couldn't help but offer a nervous smile.

“Zack,” Blake whispered against his lips, “Oh…”

“Am I hurting you?” he asked as he breathed heavily.

"No, I feel fine," she confessed giving him a soft smile, "How about you?"

"This is nice," he promised bending down to kiss her as he shifted over her. A few seconds passed and Blake felt another few movements over her. Zack seemed to be concentrating on something beyond the moment. She reached out to him and guided his face towards hers once again as her lips parted in antcipation.

"Are you in yet?" she questioned greedily knowing that they were almost there with one another.

"Don't you feel this Blake?" Zack asked dropping down to offer up a sloppy kiss upon her lips. "This is what you wanted, isn't it?"

"Of course," she mouthed wrapping her arms around him as she looked at the ceiling. Suddenly she thought about those Donna Nevik books all over again and realized that she was never reading another one of those again. Donna was completely over the top about sex as she found herself less interested in the act taking place above her and more so focused on all the reasons why she was certain it had to get better than the first time.

"Can you feel me Blake?" Zack groaned above her as Blake felt a sigh rise in her throat.

“Yes,” she shook her head and sighed remembering how this was going to go, “Oh god…that feels…so…”

“How does it feel, Blake?” Zack asked.

Blake hesitated knowing full well that honesty was undoubtedly going to spoil the moment. She loved Zack--she'd wanted this and right now she needed to convey how important this moment was especially after Zack had tried to make it special for her, “It feels like…it feels…”

“Yes?” he asked searching her eyes.

“Like heaven,” she breathed as she drew his lips to hers wanting to focus on the way Zack's kisses had kept her interested in the past. He'd surely known how to kiss, so it only left to reason that everything else would fall into place. Sex was really only a small part of a relationship and with Blake's inexperience she coudln't help but wonder if Zack had noticed how incredibly awkward this had felt. She felt him stiffen above her and she looked to the clock. He slid his hand down her hip and she found herself focused on the second hand circling around the clock's face. Zack lowered his lips to her throat as he moved with determination while Blake wished like hell she could say she was seeing stars. Instead she was thinking about the first time she'd met Zack, about the times she'd wanted to capture his attention. So many women wanted him in college and still did, yet with Blake's experience in sex she found herself wondering what the heavy emphasis was anyways. Surely, there had to be more important things in a relationship--things that would last long after physical pleasures. She heard him whisper a few words of love in her ear before he stiffened above her. A few moments later Zack raised his head and searched her eyes. He smiled slightly before lowering his lips to hers in a soft, loving kiss. Blake reciprocated the gesture as she found herself fully aware of the realities of being in love and making love to the man of your dreams for the first time. It certainly was no romance novel indeed, but apparently it would have to do given how much effort Zack had put into trying. She loved him for that and she would imagine that was what made love making really special.


A waiter refilled each glass upon the table while Richard and Judy focused upon one another, oblivious to everyone else in the room. He lifted her hand to his lips and pressed a soft kiss to her skin, “You’re beautiful.”

“If you keep saying that, I’m going to have to hurt you,” Judy shook her head with a sigh as she kept holding his eyes, “You’re building me up with all this flattery, and it’s just going straight to my head.”

He grinned, “It should. You’re the beauty that keeps me sane.”

“You’ve kept your safe sane for years in the insanity you call a marriage.”

“That’s because of Avery. She’s been my rock, and I’ve been hers,” Richard admitted, “Now that she’s in her own madness,” He shook his head and took a drink from his glass of wine.

“You’re feeling completely lost, aren’t you?” Judy realized as she watched his reaction, “You want to be there for her, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do. I only let Ken go because he is probably the person best equipped to deal with his brother without killing him. I, on the other hand, would strangle Brant as soon as look at him.”

“It’s good you didn’t go. Besides, it might be good for Avery to deal with this mess on her own. All kids need to learn how to do that eventually.”

Richard looked at her doubtfully, “Deidra came home to you, didn’t she?”

“That’s a bad example,” She frowned as she reached for her wine glass.

“Still, it’s true. Our children need us in moments of crisis.”

“Yeah, but sometimes we need to make them stand on their own, and it’s for their own good.”

“Why do I feel some kind of experience talking there?”

Judy glanced into her wine glass, “Diane has been having some trouble lately with her boyfriend, but she’s trying to be stubborn and not face it. I sort of forced her to, and I’m hoping she’ll work things out there for herself.”

“Somehow I don’t feel like you have a lot of confidence there.”

“It’s just that Diane can be very stubborn. I just hope her boyfriend can be convincing,” She shrugged before sipping her wine.

“Let me get this straight. You’re don’t think your daughter knows what’s best for her in a situation with her boyfriend, and you’re actually encouraging him to do his best to work things out with her?”

“Yeah, sort of. It’s just that Diane jumps to conclusions sometimes based on half truths or observations that are taken out of context. I just want her to make an informed decision for once,” Judy sighed as she placed the glass back upon the table.

“So what about Deidra? Is she making an informed decision about her marriage?”

“Apparently. She found her husband in bed with another woman. I think that’s pretty informed.”

“Wait, you wanted Avery to give Russell the benefit of the doubt, but you think Deidra is right about her husband? That’s favoritism on your part there, isn’t it?”

“The situations are different, and you know it. Avery was about to get married to Russell because she was so in love with him and he with her. Deidra said that she and Andrew have been distant for a while. It’s two very different situations.”

“Well, we know where Diane gets her stubborn streak, don’t we?” Richard teased.

“Oh you just hush while you’re ahead,” Judy rolled her eyes through a smile.

He leaned over and kissed her upon her cheek, “I’m just glad that we have each other to talk to again. You have no idea how much I missed having you to turn to.”

She turned and met his eyes with a smile, “I missed you too, Rick. No one ever understood me quite the way that you do.”

“Think we can really make a go of it this time?”

“Hmm, kind of early to tell. You haven’t even really kissed me yet, and after all these years, I don’t quite remember what it was like to kiss you,” She pointed out.

“Well, in that case,” Richard grinned as he cupped her cheek and eased his lips to hers.

Judy hummed softly against his lips as she parted her lips, inviting him to deepen the kiss. Richard accepted the invitation and gently tasted of her sweet mouth. Over the years, the memory of Judy’s kiss had haunted him, but it had been pitiful compared to the reality of kissing her.

“What the hell are you doing?!” Guy shouted as he stood at the edge of the table, glaring at the couple as they parted from their kiss.

“Guy,” Richard attempted to recover as he looked at his son’s wildly angered eyes, “Please lower your voice.”

“Why? Because I might embarrass you? Like you’re not embarrassing my mother right now by parading around with this whore?” Guy glared at Richard, “I don’t give a damn about your feelings, but I won’t let you make a fool of my mother like this.”

“Guy, please. Stop acting like a spoiled child and listen to reason,” Richard began.

“Richard, perhaps he’s right,” Judy began softly.

“No, he’s not. He’s just acting like his mother. He’s learned all his moves from her, and throwing a fit like a spoiled brat is right up her alley,” Richard accused as he nailed his son with a angry glare, “Don’t you dare come in here and think that you have any right to order me around.”

“You think you own the world, but you don’t. You are ruining our family, and you don’t even care. What the hell is your problem?” Guy sneered, “You just want to screw around with your whore, and make a fool out of Mum. I’ll be damned if I’ll let you hurt her like this.”

“Guy,” Judy said his name softly, “Please, have a seat and talk with us. Please?”

“Don’t you dare speak to me. You’re nothing but a whore, and you’re destroying our family,” Guy accused.

“Guy, you stop this, right now!” Richard demanded with a booming voice, “Stop it. Don’t you ever speak to Judy with such disrespect.”

“Disrespect is all that she’s going to get from me. She’s a slut, and she’ll be treated like a slut,” Guy stated firmly as he lifted a wine glass and rolled his eyes, “A hundred dollars a bottle wine? On her? What a waste of money. Oh, wait, not really,” He spoke as he threw the wine on Judy and placed the glass down, “Now that’s more of a proper use for it.”

Judy shrieked as the wine dripped off of her. She felt a wave of embarrassment flood over her as she blinked in total shock at what had just happened.

Richard raged as he stood from the table and slammed his fist into his son’s jaw, “You want to act like a brat? Fine, then you’ll pay the price!”

Guy wiped a spot of blood from his lip as he glared at his father, “All right, old man. If that’s the way you want it,” He said as he lunged towards his father.

“Whoa, hold it,” Gabe called out as he stepped in Guy’s way and pushed him back, “Stop. This isn’t the place for this.”

“He deserves it. He’s destroying our family and enjoying every moment of it,” Guy sneered as he tried to reach around Gabe to attack his father.

“Stop it. Just stop it. Come on. Let’s get out of here,” Gabe held onto Guy to keep him from harming his father, “Come on. Let it go, Guy.”

“I’m not going to let it go,” Guy snapped as he glared at his father, “This isn’t over!” He shouted at Richard before he walked out before Gabe followed closely behind him.

Richard returned to Judy’s side as she sat with tears in her eyes, “Judy, sweetheart, I am so sorry.”

“So am I,” Judy dabbed at herself to dry the wine before she slumped back and sighed heavily, “Just take me home, Rick. Let’s just call this night a disaster and go home.”

“Judy,” Richard began before frowning and nodding, “I’ll get the check, and we can go.”

“I’ll be outside,” Judy said as she slid out of her chair. She cried softly as she walked outside the restaurant, wondering why she ever thought that a second chance with Richard could ever work. Circumstances had always been against them, and it seemed that fate would never be on their side.


Laughter spilled into the night as Brant curled Avery’s arm in his.  The ride from the house had been tense, but the tension seemed to melt away as he, Avery, Ken and Caitlin stepped out into the festival.  Their former concerns and worried evaporated like the lingering scent of the fireworks that had gone off earlier when they’d been at home.  Now an air of lightness and promise hung over them and he couldn’t help but allow this moment to lift him to new places with Avery beside him.  Nudging her gently as they found themselves in the thick of the festival, he leaned in towards her, his breath cascading over her bare shoulder blade.
“Have I told you how sexy you look tonight,” his words whispered over her soft skin as a shiver tingled through her body and she turned her dark eyes up towards him as a smile lifted over her lips.
“Only about half a dozen times,” she replied in a flirty fashion as she stopped mid-movement placing her hand in the center of his chest as she tossed her hair back over her shoulder, “but if you’d like to tell me again, I don’t think I’d object to it.”
“Hmm, now that is something to get excited about,” Brant tipped in towards her, “but would there be any objections if I did something like say…oh I don’t know,” he curled his arm around her pulling her taut against his powerful build before dropping his lips just a fraction of an inch away from hers, “this.”
Caitlin frowned as she watched Brant’s obvious attempt at taking control of the situation with Avery.  When his mouth met hers in a persuasive kiss, she immediately tensed up finding herself ready to tear Brant to pieces as she felt Ken’s hand clasp over her arm in a soft movement.  Her eyes turned up towards his as she saw the concern evident in his handsome features.
“It’s okay,” he spoke soothingly as though he was reading her thoughts as his fingertips brushed against her arm gently, “In fact, what do you say we forget about them for a little while tonight?”
“She’s not thinking clearly,” Caitlin pointed out unable to shake the sinking feeling inside of her as she looked to Brant and Avery once again seeing Avery wiggle her finger at Brant before he laced their hands together leading her through the crowd towards one of the clubs down the main strip before disappearing inside.
“I realize that,” Ken confessed thinking to the kiss Avery had laid upon him in a moment of confusion, but now as he saw Caitlin standing before him, looking like his very own dream come true, he couldn’t help but be swept away by the remarkable beauty before him.  Tenderly, he reached out to her framing her face with his hands as he couldn’t help but allow the moment to carry him away as the fireworks began to light up the sky once again.
“Ken…” she opened her mouth in protest as she suddenly felt the weight of his intention as he lifted her chin up towards him.
“Shh…we’ll worry about them later, but right now, well now I want to kiss you so much it hurts and if I can’t do just that,” he leaned forward his words whispering over her ripe, luscious lips, “I’m going to burst.”
“Heaven forbid we have that happen,” Caitlin smiled in response curving her arm in around his neck as his lips descended upon hers and she felt the heavens move around her with the tenderness in his kiss.  His lips beckoned her to sweet surrender as her heart filled with love for the man who’d turned her world around and as his soft mouth brushed over hers, she realized that she too had been carried away by this incredible moment between them.
Slowly they parted as a breath escaped Kenneth’s lips and he brushed his thumb over her lower lip as his eyes took in every beautiful inch of her, “Caitlin, you’re so beautiful.”
“Ken,” she felt a heat rise over her features as the soft breeze brushed against her skin in an attempt to fan the fire burning inside of her for this incredible man before her.
“That dress,” Ken’s eyes moved over her, caressing each and every perfect line of her as his appreciation for the particular garment and the woman within it flooded over him, “looks amazing on you.  No, I take that back…you make that dress look amazing.”
“Now Ken,” she reached out to him drawing him into her arms again, “Flattery will get you everywhere tonight.”
“Hmm, then does that mean perhaps we can find a way to keep from babysitting my brother until the break of dawn and fit in some time for just the two of us,” he questioned in a heated breath as his nose nuzzled the soft curve of her neck gently as he felt a faint murmur rise from within her warmth.
“It all depends on whether or not he can play nice,” Caitlin confessed with a heavy sigh, her concerns for Avery coming back to the surface upon his words.
“I’ll find a way to make him do that because I swear if I can’t have some time alone with you, then I’m going to take my brother out myself,” Kenneth replied with a low groan as he squeezed her closer to him not wanting to break the contact between them.
“In that case, you find some rope and we’ll deal with grounding Brant so that you and I can have our own private playtime,” Caitlin breathed in a low, seductive tone before offering a flirty wink, “and believe me when I get you alone Ken, you’re going to have a whole new definition of heaven,” she reluctantly took a step back taking his hand in hers as she looked to the club that Brant and Avery had disappeared into seconds earlier, “Come on tiger.  We have some work to do.”
“Unfortunately I know this routine all too well,” Kenneth groaned under his breath as he followed Caitlin into the club wondering why it always seemed that Brant found a way to be a thorn in his side at the worst possible times.


“Brant,” Avery squealed feeling him step in behind her lacing his arms around her waist as his lips dipped down over the back of her neck teasingly.  She turned to look at him from over her shoulder as they stood at the bar with one another and she swatted at him lightly giving him a firm look, “behave.”
“I am behaving,” Brant assured her as his fingers eased over the curve of her hips teasing the dark material of her flirty skirt up over her body just a bit as she moved to the music the band was playing.
“You’re a horrible liar,” Avery spun around to face him as they danced with one another surrounded by the overly populated crowd on the dance floor.
“On the contrary I’m not horrible at anything and soon you’ll see just how good I am when I set my sights on something,” Brant’s voice promised with a hint of lust as Avery felt him leaning in towards her in an attempt to steal another kiss from her.
“Oh no you don’t,” she spun out of his reach moving to the melodic beats as he eyed her every move like a hawk ready to close in upon it’s prey.
“Oh yes I can and I will,” he reached out to her pulling her into his arms in a haste as he moved her through the crowd ready to indulge in the hedonistic pleasures that the night provided them with as he managed to persuade her towards the edge of the dance floor, pressing her into the wall behind her.
“Bold words there on your end, Brant,” Avery shook her head at him before leaning up against the wall as she placed her hands beside her against the cool surface.
“You know I’m good for them,” Brant promised desire building behind his eyes as he extended his arm out on the wall beside her head bracing himself up as he leaned in towards her.
“Do I?” she questioned carelessly turning her head away as she felt him closing in upon her and his lips collided with her cheek in a failed attempt of seeking out her lips.  She felt the warmth of his touch against her skin as she inhaled a slow breath trying to steady herself as she faced him again, “I think I need a drink.  It’s getting hot in here.”
“You’re telling me,” Brant smiled seductively as he inched in closer to her before stepping away and offering his hand to her, “How about we work on quenching one of your many desires with that drink?”
“The drink I can deal with, but anything else,” Avery accepted his hand allowing him to guide her over towards the bar, “well only the night will know about that.”
“From the looks of things, I’d say that the night is full of possibilities,” Brant mused with an enthusiastic grin as he waved over to the bartender before him, “Two margaritas please.”
“Um actually,” Avery leaned into the bar, “can you make one of those a virgin strawberry daiquiri instead?”
“Sure thing,” the bartender nodded in response going off to get their drinks.
“I’m sorry,” Brant curled his lip in a mock pout, “where was my head?”
“Probably working on overload as you’re plotting the many ways to get me naked right about now,” Avery raised a curious brow, “Aren’t you?”
“Avery, I’m always thinking up ways to get you naked, but unfortunately none of them have seemed to work just yet,” Brant pressed his hands on top of the bar as he took on a predatory stance once again, “though I have a feeling tonight that one of those moves might actually work.”
“You’re awfully cocky tonight, aren’t you,” Avery shook her head at him.
“I think I have plenty reason to believe that things could go well for us considering,” he eased his finger underneath her chin turning her eyes up to him, “After all you’ve been quite receptive to my flirting which is a very welcome change I might add.”
“You could say I’ve been going through a few transformations over the last couple of hours and well, maybe my outlook has changed,” she confessed batting her eyelashes up at him as her fingers fanned out over the center of his chest, “I mean it’s not every day that I’m in the middle of paradise with a man who’s offering me the world.”
“Don’t you mean a man who will give you the world,” he placed his hand on her hip curling his fingers in over the sensuous lines of her body as his eyes twinkled with delight.
“You really believe you can do that, don’t you,” Avery questioned lowering her voice a bit as the warmth of the nearness of him flooded over her.
“I know I can, Avery and I intend to when you say yes,” Brant promised dropping down to kiss her when his lips collided with a piece of plastic that had suddenly pressed in between him and Avery.
“Here’s your mask,” Caitlin piped in brightly as she took note of the bitter expression on his features.  “They’re handing them out at the door and it’s customary for festival participants to wear one I’m told.”
“I’d rather not,” Brant grumbled clenching his fist at his side as he glared at Caitlin, “though I’m sure Kenneth might be interested.”
“Oh he already has his, but you and Avery are without and we can’t have that, now can we,” Caitlin beamed with an excitement Brant found nauseating as she tugged on Avery’s arm, “In fact, why don’t you come over here and get yours?  I accidentally left it with Ken, but I’m sure he’ll be more than eager to give it to you…”
“Actually…” Avery began with a halfhearted smile, “oh okay.  It looks like fun.”
“It’s stupid,” Brant growled keeping his eyes on the two women as the bartender returned with his and Avery’s drinks.
“Oh now don’t be a party pooper,” Avery curled her lip in a pout, “It adds to the mystery.”
“I was more interested in the romance,” Brant sighed under his breath as he touched Avery’s arm, “I thought that was the more prominent feature of the evening.”
“There’s nothing more exciting or romantic than a masquerade ball,” Avery couldn’t help but feel a twinge in her stomach at the thought, “I mean it’s kind of like walking into your own fairy tale.”
“Exactly,” Caitlin agreed all too eagerly as Brant eyed her with intense scrutiny, “and that’s all the more reason for us to go get ours.”
“We’ll be right back,” Avery promised giving Brant one last look as he silently cursed Caitlin’s tiresome interruptions once again.  Turning his attention to the bar, he noted his drink before him as he reached for it lifting it to his lips when someone from the crowd bumped into him nearly knocking the glass out of his hand in the process.
Feeling the need to channel his anger somewhere, Brant spun around to look at the masked man before him as his voice grew tight with untapped rage, “Hey buddy watch where you’re going.”
“My mistake,” the man brought his hands up in the air quickly in apology.
“Damn right it was your mistake,” Brant scowled setting the drink back down on the bar as he started to wipe at his shirt.  The man stepped in beside him leaning in over the bar as Brant tended to his drink.  Quickly the man reached into his pocket making sure Brant was looking away as he dropped a little something extra into the glass before turning to Brant once more.
“I said I was sorry man,” he offered up in a raspy tone as Brant scowled at him once again.
“You’re going to be sorry if you don’t get going,” Brant threw out sharply.
“Gees, calm down would you,” the masked man shook his head at him, “all that aggression is bound to be your downfall.”
“My aggression is none of your business,” Brant reached out to the top of the bar swiping his drink and Avery’s from the top of it before throwing out one menacing look at the unwelcome distraction, “and you’d be best to watch your back if you even think about bothering me again,” he threw out one last warning before going off to seek out Avery once again.
“On the contrary, you‘d be best to watch yours,” the masked man glared at Brant from behind his mask as he thought to all the things he’d like to do to a man like Brant Ashford, but first things first as he had a clear agenda in mind for tonight and nothing would stop him from finding a way to continue what he’d started by coming here.  That much he was sure of.


Cameron stepped into his mansion and walked into the den. He placed his briefcase on the floor and shrugged out of his jacket as he spotted Heather standing near the French doors at the balcony. He placed his jacket on the back of a chair before he made his way to stand behind Heather. He lightly placed his hands upon her shoulders and spoke, “What’s on your mind?”

“Nothing,” Heather sighed as she glanced over her shoulder at him, “I was just thinking about how my life is going to be changing.”

“By becoming a mother or by marrying me?”

She turned and met his eyes, “Both. My life is changing so quickly it’s kind of hard to keep up with it.”

“You’ll adjust in time.”

“I hope so. I tried to take the first step today,” She said as she stepped across the room, “I called my agent this morning and fired him.”

“Good for you,” Cameron smiled as he watched her, “It’s good that you too the initiative.”

“I’m not so sure. William isn’t exactly the kind of man to accept that he’s going to lose a huge source of income,” She frowned as she sank onto the sofa, “In fact, he’s the kind of man who will ruin my name in Hollywood, and I’ll never be able to have any kind of career after he gets through.”

“Then you’ll find a new career. I told you that you could start your own business with the money you’ll have access to. Start your own modeling agency. Blow your former agent and all his colleagues away.”

She cast her eyes towards him, “Are you serious?”

“I’m very serious,” He nodded, “You know the business. You have contacts in the business. What’s to stop you from building an empire from that experience?”

She considered it for a moment, “It’s not a bad idea.”

“I think you’d be great. You have ambition, determination, and you know how to work people. You’d be a success,” He smiled.

Heather smiled before the door bell drew their attention. After a moment, Franklin announced their visitor, “William Steed to see Ms. Gibbons.”

Heather groaned as she saw William standing at the door. She looked to Cameron, “Cameron Stone, this is William Steed, my former agent. William, this is Cameron, my fiancé.”

“I’m not interested in meeting anyone you’d throw away your career on,” William declared as he focused on Heather, “Get up. You’re going back to Los Angeles with me.”

“She’s not going anywhere with you,” Cameron stated firmly as he watched the smarmy agent, “She doesn’t belong to you, and she never did.”

“She has a contract with me, and I will not let her out of it,” William stepped towards her and seized her arm tightly, “Get up!”

“Let go of her!” Cameron said coldly as he glared at William, “If you don’t, I swear to you that you’ll go back to L.A. in a body bag.”

“You don’t frighten me,” William hauled Heather off the sofa, “We’re leaving.”

“You are,” Cameron declared as his fist connected with the side of William’s face and sent him to the floor. He stepped in front of Heather and glared down at William’s position on the floor, “Heather isn’t going anywhere.”

“Who the hell do you think you are?” William asked as he stood.

“I’m the man who took Heather away from you, and I’m her new protector. You’re going to stay far away from her, and I swear to you if you ever bother Heather again you’ll never have to worry about another contract…except the one that will be on your head,” Cameron warned as he pointed towards the door, “Now get out of our house.”

William glared at Heather, “She’s mine. I created her, and I’m not giving her up,” He said as he reached towards her.

Cameron slapped the man’s hand away from Heather before throwing another punch, sending William to the floor. Cameron seized William’s collar and a belt loop on his pants, dragging him through the den out to the foyer. Heather rushed along behind them to watch the commotion as Cameron opened the front door. He shoved William out the door and kicked the agent in the rear to send him down the stairs. William collapsed in a heap at the bottom of the front steps while Cameron slammed the door. Cameron turned and looked to Heather, “Are you okay?”

Heather nodded silently, not sure what to make of what had just happened.

Cameron stepped forward and touched her arm gently, “You’ll never have to deal with him again. I swear.”

Heather nodded, “Thank you,” She let out a slow breath, deciding that being married to a man like Cameron Stone would be advantageous. He was strong, determined, and he never backed down from a fight. More than that, he had stood up for her and not many men had done that for her. That alone made him worth giving a chance to.


Hart looked over at Jenna as she sat in the passenger seat of his car.  Her silence had stayed with her from the moment he’d witnessed her and Douglas Mahoney in one another’s arms at the hospital.  It was silly, but for a brief flicker of an instant, Hart found himself a tad bit jealous of the man that was holding her, but he recalled the truth she’d shared with him about Douglas being father and his concerns had died down a bit.  Now thinking about the day Jenna had, he tried to find a way to stir up some kind of conversation between them.
“So, I take it things went okay,” Hart cleared his throat as he looked to the road ahead of him once more.
“I don’t think that’s the right way of putting it considering that my brother is laying in a hospital bed fighting for his life,” Jenna answered gloomily as she looked out the window into the winter wonderland that was going on around here, “You’d think at a time like this families would come together, but mine, well look at where they are.  I don’t think it could get any more complicated or pathetic…”
“Then you haven’t met the Steiner family,” Hart offered with a hint of a smile, “as my family puts yours to shame in the pathetic department.”
“Now somehow I seriously doubt that one,” Jenna cast her eyes over in his general direction, “then again the idea of you and a family seems a bit foreign.”
“What?  I don’t strike you as a family sort of guy,” Hart raised a curious brow, “I’ll have you know that I spent a great many years in a dysfunctional family and now well, now I’d just as soon focus on the joys of the bachelor life.”
“Hence the reasoning behind your many problems,” Jenna threw back at him in mock seriousness awaiting his response.
“You could be onto something there,” he replied after a long silence as he felt a chuckle tickle over his lips, “as that would explain a lot.”
“Wait, you’re not supposed to agree with me,” Jenna turned in her seat to give him a once over, “You must be feeling under the weather here.”
“Actually maybe it’s just the time of year, or the fact that I hate seeing you so unhappy because I will admit I’m not one to share the many secrets of the Steiner family to just anyone,” Hart winked at her before a smile lifted over his lips.
“Why do I suddenly feel like I’m going to hear a lie from your end,” Jenna questioned cynically.
“No lies, though sometimes I wish I could’ve come up with some better ones growing up as you have no idea what it’s like to be the son of the Tobacco King of New Jersey.”
“The Tobacco King?” Jenna repeated giving him a strange look, “You can’t be serious.”
“Oh I’m very serious,” Hart nodded in confession, “Ever hear of Smoky Fields?”
Jenna groaned in response, “I wish I hadn’t.  That’s the company with all those ridiculous commercials that feature the ski bunnies and the guy with the costume moose head on…” she paused for a moment wrinkling her nose, “I never understood what that was all about.”
“Neither have I, but then again in my house you never asked questions,” Hart shrugged his shoulders, “because hey if my father thought he had a brilliant idea, then he went with it and he somehow thought the moose lighting up was a fitting mascot.”
“You so can’t be serious?” Jenna’s jaw dropped as she looked at him waiting for the punch line, “Your father was not the one responsible for all that.”
“Unfortunately yes he was,” Hart nodded in confession, “and believe me if you think the moose was bad, you should’ve seen the marketing pitch he threw out for the holidays.  Try having to bear the shame of being Walt Steiner’s test project standing on the front porch handing out Moose head novelties and going through the season as the strange kid…”
“No, I don’t buy it,” Jenna couldn’t help but laugh at the thoughts.
“When Homecoming rolled around, my father donated a ridiculous amount of money to the school I was at under the stipulation that I was front and center during half time doing a routine he worked up sure to boost his tobacco sales.  Of course when half time rolled around I wound up getting my ass kicked by each and every one of the football players in he name of school spirit.”
“You’re kidding me,” Jenna’s eyes widened, “I don’t buy it.”
“Yeah, well believe me if I hadn’t lived it, then I wouldn’t be buying it either, but my father got the biggest kick out of it as after that sales went up in his company,” Hart remarked with an inward groan, “and hey that was all that mattered in the Steiner household because money was the key to happiness.”
“And your mother?” Jenna questioned taking in this sudden opening up on his end.
“In and out of rehab most of my childhood,” Hart admitted with a heavy sigh, “and then when I hit my teen years, she spent most of her time drunk and seducing my friends…what few I had there.  You can imagine what it was like to have a reputation for being the dorky little moose boy with the crazy father and the mother the slut.  It was a page in the book worth skipping over considering that despite the fortune that good old Walt wound up with, he never gave me a dime.”
“Hence your competitive side,” Jenna noted taking an immediate interest in him, “so you decided you weren’t going to offer the world a fair shake since that had been overlooked with you?”
“Hey, I think I’ve had my share of moments over the years,” Hart replied before looking to the road before him, “and sure my shrink told me time and time again that I needed to get over the chip I had on my shoulder for my father, but it was there for a long time…at least until I finished up with the bar and then I wound up making my father be the first person I sued.  It took a few months, but I won that case and you should’ve seen the look on his face,” Hart chuckled at the memory, “It was almost worth the humiliation he’d put me through over the years…almost…”
Jenna thought about what he was saying for a long moment of silence before sinking back into her seat, “I have to ask…”
“Why am I telling you this?” Hart questioned as if he was reading her mind before offering up a simple shrug of his shoulders, “Well, I was asking myself the same question, but then I figured with you just meeting your father and being upset with your mother that well, maybe you’d see that people make mistakes.”
“How am I supposed to get that out of your story?” Jenna gave him a confused expression, “I didn’t get that moral at all especially when you followed up with the story of suing your father.”
“Well, he does find a way to send Christmas gifts my way now as he’s never really sure if I’ll be the one representing the next company that’s ready to take him on,” Hart chuckled unable to contain the simple pleasures he derived from taunting his father.
“So you’re saying I should just take my mother to court and that’ll fix things, huh,” Jenna groaned in response shaking her head at him.
“Well if you do go that route, I know one hell of a lawyer who’d be more than willing to back you up,” he teased back.
“I think I’ll take my chances out of court,” she couldn’t help but laugh as she looked to him, “have you no shame?”
“Not the last time I looked, but then again, at a time like this, I hardly think my moral character is of any real precedence, now is it?”
“It might be if you’re plotting out new ways to make my life miserable,” she replied unable to resist the urge as she looked to him again.
“Actually I was thinking something more along the lines of dinner as I’m certain I could find far more humiliating tales about myself to share with you…that is if you’re interested,” he put the offer out on the table for her.
“And what’s in it for me exactly?” she asked wearily.
“Hmm, well other than the chance to relish in some of my own personal mortification, I figured we could get some less than decent food, a couple of stale beers and maybe some equally horrible country western music,” he offered with his usual air of confidence.
“Well if you’re certain the music is horrible,” she began biting on her lower lip to keep the smile from forming that she knew was just waiting around the corner.
“Oh believe me, it’s downright rotten,” Hart added eagerly, “and after a couple of beers you might even be able to coax me out onto the dance floor and that, well that will be something of blackmail material for you because a Fred Astaire I am not.”
“Hmm, you’re offering me a chance to have some real opportunities to make you squirm in the future, huh?” Jenna lifted a curious brow, “Now I know something’s not right with you.”
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and you’d be a fool not to take me up on it,” Hart’s eyes shifted towards her again, “Just think of all the fun you could have at my expense.”
“Hmm, well it does sound like it would beat another night at home stewing about how miserable things are,” Jenna thought it over, “Okay, you’re on.  I’ll have dinner with you, but only if you swear to me that you’ll lay out your most embarrassing moments for me to use in the future.”
“My mortification is yours for the taking and then some,” Hart promised bringing his hand up over his chest, “and hey maybe just maybe after tonight, you might find a way to admit you actually like me.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Jenna chuckled realizing that somehow in being around Hart he’d found a way to lift her spirits.  Sure he might not have been her first choice for the evening, but somehow he’d managed to make her forget about the chaos surrounding her for a while and that in itself was well worth taking a chance on him.


Ria opened the door and glanced to Ben, “Is this Diane?”

“Who else is it going to be?” Diane asked as she stepped inside alongside Ben, “Where’s Jade?”

“She’s in her bedroom. She seemed upset,” Ria informed them as Diane walked through the house. As the door to the bedroom closed, she looked to Ben, “And that’s your girlfriend?”

“She’s just worried about Jade,” Ben explained as he stepped inside and removed his coat, “Where’s Seth?”

“He left as soon as he talked to Jade. He just told me to get in touch with you,” She frowned, “Any ideas what this is about?”

“No, but if Seth left out he knows and that’s probably bad news,” He sat down in a recliner, “What were you doing here? I thought you spent all of your time at the hospital.”

“Well, I’ve been trying to help Seth out lately.”

“With what?”

“He’s in trouble, Ben,” Ria blurted out as she glanced over at her longtime friend, “I think he’s in over his head, and it could get ugly not just for him but for Jade too.”

“What’s going on?” Ben asked as he sat forward with concern evident in his features.

“Have you ever heard of a man named Cameron Stone?”

“Yeah, real nasty guy,” He nodded, “What of him?”

“He’s blackmailing Seth. I don’t know how it got started but he’s threatened to hurt Jade if Seth doesn’t do his bidding.”

“What does he want from Seth?”

“He wants Seth to get his hands on some microfilm…something to do with the Ashfords.”

“Oh boy, I so don’t want to know about this,” Ben murmured as he rubbed the back of his neck, “I’ve got enough trouble with the Ashfords.”

“Wait a minute. You work over at BBK. You could see if there’s anything there related to this microfilm over there,” Ria said with wide excited eyes, “Come on, Ben. This could really help out both Seth and Jade.”

“Ria, I’m just a secretary,” He reasoned, hoping to keep himself out of any more trouble involving the Ashfords.

“But you work for the in-house counsel, don’t you? That’s pretty high up in the food chain. Do some digging.”

Ben took a deep breath as he shook his head, “I don’t even know why I’m considering this.”

“Because you care about Seth and Jade, and because you’ve always wanted to do the right thing. We have to find this microfilm. I’ve already searched around the hospital, and Seth went over to the Ashford estate yesterday.”

“Why don’t we just ask Blake to help?”

“Blake and Seth aren’t on good terms. I doubt she’s going to feel charitable towards him.”

“She might for me,” Ben said with a soft smile, “We grew up together, remember?”

“If she figures it’s for Seth, she’ll tell you to stick it in your ear,” Ria groaned, “Come on, Ben. All I’m asking is that you look around at BBK. Would it really be so horrible?”

“Yeah, it could be. If they catch me, I could lose my job not to mention that they could try to press charges against me,” He sighed, “Look, I’ll try to see what I can do over at BBK, but if that doesn’t turn up anything, I’ll talk to Blake myself.”

“Fine, but if she hands you your head on a platter, don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Ria warned as she crossed her arms, positive that Cameron Stone’s involvement in their lives was going to be nothing but trouble.


Diane stood just inside the bedroom door. She watched as Jade held her pillow under her tightly. She’d seen the signs before and knew that Jade was grieving in her own way. Diane could read a broken heart from a thousand miles away.

“Jade, what’s going on?” Diane asked as she dropped her jacket on the floor and lay on the bed beside her friend. She snuggled up behind Jade and placed her arms around her friend, placing her chin upon Jade’s shoulder, “Hey, want to tell me what happened?”

“It’s over,” Jade said coldly, “I walked out on Grady tonight.”

Diane allowed the shock to set in for a moment before she spoke, “What happened?”

“I guess I just decided that he doesn’t care about me.”

“What? I thought things were going well for you two finally.”

“I did too. I mean…” Jade turned around on the bed and looked at Diane as she tucked her pillow under her head, “He told me he loved me.”

“Then why didn’t you think he cared about you?” Diane asked in confusion.

“He’s been obsessed lately with trying to keep his brother away from the woman he loves. I saw how much Russell loved Avery, and I just wanted Grady to leave Russ alone…you know, to let him live his own life. It’s all I ever wanted from Seth for me, so I knew how Russ felt.”

“Wait, you’re saying Avery and Russell? What about Brant?”

“I don’t have a clue, but I do know that Russ loves Avery. He loves her with every fiber of his being. I just wanted Grady to leave him alone…to focus on us, on our life. It wasn’t fair, but…” Jade paused, “He cared more about interfering in Russ’ life than living ours.”

“Jade…” Diane began, “Can’t you try again? I’ve never seen you give up on something you wanted, and I’ve never known you to want anything more than you wanted a relationship with Grady.”

“I’ve tried, Diane. I tried to reason with him.”

“Reason doesn’t always work with men. You know that,” Diane said softly, “So try a little seduction…give him a taste, make him want it, and then tell him he can’t have it unless he focuses on you.”

“It wouldn’t do any good. All he cares about is living Russ’ life for him. He doesn’t care about living his own life. Maybe this was all a mistake. Maybe I should have just left him alone and did my job.”

“Jade, would you listen to yourself? You’re being irrational.”

“I was irrational in chasing Grady like I did. He enjoys being miserable, and I should have just left him that way. I never should have chased after him like some lovesick school girl. I was just so stupid.”

Diane reached out to Jade and brushed her hair from her cheek, “You were not stupid. You were in love. You still do love him, don’t you?”

“Of course I do. How stupid does that make me?” Jade shook her head as tears pooled in her eyes.

“It doesn’t make you stupid. It means you want your man. So go after him, Jade. Don’t let him slip away.”

“You’re so stubborn,” Jade laughed softly as she wiped tears, “You’re crazy.”

“No, I just don’t want to see my friend nurse a broken heart. I want to see you happy, and I know that if you and Grady are together you can be happy. I know that you can make him see, Jade. I know you can.”

Jade met Diane’s eyes, “I don’t know that I can, Diane. I just don’t know that I have it left in me.”

“Don’t you dare give up hope, Jade. If you do, I may just have to beat you,” Diane warned with a smile.

Jade broke down into half chuckles and half tears as she snuggled into her friend’s comforting embrace. Nothing about her day had gone as planned, and all she could think of was putting it behind her for good.


“Brant, are you okay,” Avery questioned watching as Brant continued to tug at his collar as she lead him off the dance floor away from the crowd.
“I’m fine,” Brant inhaled a breath feeling his pulse quickening as his head took on a dizzying feel and he stammered forward a bit.
“Like hell you are,” Avery frowned in response guiding him over to one of the tables before her, “Take a seat.”
“Avery, I’m…” Brant plopped down into the chair before him as he poked at his collar again, “really hot…”
“I can see that,” Avery knelt down in front of him inspecting his features as his eyelids began to droop a bit, “Maybe we should sit this one out.”
“No, really I’ll just need a second and…” he trailed off sliding out of his chair as Avery reached out to him stopping him from falling face down onto the floor before him.
“You’re not fine,” Avery frowned heavily looking around the crowded room, “Where’s Ken?”
“We don’t need him,” Brant reached for her hand instantly seeing three of them before him as his hand flopped in the wind.
“Yes we do,” she nodded concern evident in her tone, “because I think we should call it a night.”
“No, we shouldn’t…not when we’re having such a good time,” he began to argue with her as Caitlin and Kenneth emerged from the crowd as well after having noticed that Brant and Avery were off in a corner by themselves.
“What’s going on,” Kenneth questioned looking to his brother’s lackadaisical appearance as he slumped over in the chair Avery had worked to keep him in.
“I don’t know,” she frowned up at Kenneth, “One minute we were dancing and then the next, he almost fell in my arms.”
“I didn’t fall,” Brant added quickly, “unless of course you’re telling them that I fell for you.”
“As flattering as that is, I don’t believe that’s what’s going on,” Avery touched his head for a brief moment before frowning, “Brant, you’re burning up.”
“It’s all for you,” he offered a lazy smile reaching out towards her once again before nearly falling out of the chair as Kenneth reached out to him.
“That’s it,” Avery announced as she rose to her feet, “We’re leaving right now.”
“No, I don’t want to go…I can’t…we can’t…” Brant shook his head in protest, “Just get me…I’ll take some…some water and I’ll be fine…”
“Somehow I doubt that one,” Avery replied doubtful as she looked to Ken who was now beside his brother doing his own personal inspection.
“Water might be a good idea right about now,” Kenneth decided as he waved his hand in front of Brant’s face.
“Fine, we’ll go get some then,” Caitlin announced pulling Avery into the crowd as they left Brant alone with his brother.
“Hey Brant,” Kenneth called out to his brother, “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” Brant sighed heavily, “One moment I was dancing with Avery and everything was going great, but then…well, I know we had our drinks and then she wanted to dance and Ken, I have to tell you she’s a great dancer.  Did you see the way that body of hers moves?  I’m telling you if her dancing says anything about how she is in bed, then well…”
“Brant, forget about that right now,” Kenneth instructed trying to dismiss his brother’s thoughts, “Let’s talk about what’s going on right now.”
“Nothing’s going on right now except I’d like to dance and well,” Brant paused as a yawn spilled over his lips, “Maybe I’m a little worn out.”
“I’d say it’s more than a little,” Kenneth noted as Brant flopped forward onto the table top as Kenneth reached out to him trying to rouse him from the overwhelming exhaustion that had seemingly taken Brant over.
“What’s going on,” Caitlin questioned returning to the table as she watched Kenneth attempting to raise Brant’s head once again.
“He’s passed out I think,” Kenneth’s voice was laced with concern as he realized Brant wasn’t responding to his prodding, “Maybe we should go.”
“You might be right, but…” Caitlin bit on her lower lip not knowing how to tell Kenneth what had just happened up at the bar.
“But what?” Kenneth reached for Brant’s arm throwing it around his shoulders as he attempted to hold his brother’s weight upon himself in the hopes of carrying him out of the bar.  “Hey, where’s Avery?”

“That’s just it,” Caitlin shrugged her shoulders, her eyes wide with concern, “I don’t know.  One minute she was next to me at the bar and then the next, well she was gone.”
“What do you mean she was gone,” Kenneth’s eyes traveled over the club as a sense of panic swept over him, “How can she be gone?”
“Ken, I looked, but I didn’t see her.  I walked around the club a couple of times, but I don’t see her.  I don’t know where she could be as I even tried the ladies room,” Caitlin explained point blank as her features tightened with worry, “You don’t think that the man who was in the fitting room earlier found her?”
“It can’t be considering that,” Kenneth’s voice trailed off as a rush of anxiety flooded over him, “Caitlin, maybe you should check the ladies room once again, but only after we can move Brant so that you don’t have to go alone.”
“Ken, I already checked,” she began to argue before thinking twice of it, “Fine, let’s hurry because we have to find her.”
“Yes we do,” Kenneth agreed wondering what was going on as he and Caitlin lifted his now obviously zonked out brother from the table in the hopes of locating Avery safely so that they could return to the island mansion together.


“Put me down you son of a bitch,” Avery screamed from over the shoulder of the man who’d seemingly abducted her from the club.  Now as he carried her off into the darkness, she felt her limbs kicking wildly into the muscled contours of his body as her anger and fear got the best of her.  She pounded her fists into his shoulder, down his spine to the best of her ability and as she heard him let out a tiny groan, she wondered if she’d finally gotten the best of him, but with another groan, he spoke up behind clenched teeth.
“Like hell I will,” he replied roughly as he carried her out of the night and into the darkened building down the road from the club.
While Avery hadn’t expected to be plucked up from the bar, there was no mistaking the force behind this man’s movements as he hauled her into this darkened out of the way place.  She’d tried to get a better look around, but the blackness surrounded her as her eyes slowly began to take focus.  She noted a small bed in the corner of the broken down room and a few things scattered aimlessly on the floor as her heart thudded in her chest and panic fell over her.  She suddenly remembered the incident in the fitting room and with that thought, she kicked her legs harder into his chest until he had no choice, but to drop her onto the mattress with a groan.
“Damn,” he cursed under his breath as she fell back onto the blankets and she quickly tried to pull herself together enough to fight him, but much to her surprise, he stalked across the room instead of going straight for her and he locked the door they’d just come through together.
“You aren’t going to get away with this,” Avery spat out at him crawling off of the bed as she charged at him determined to get out of this broken down hideaway he’d taken her to--no doubt to perform some kind of sinister act upon her.  While she’d shouted at the bar, hoping that someone would hear her screams, the festival had carried over her voice and no one seemed to notice her abduction.  Still as the man who’d taken her away from the party turned to face her, she noticed the darkened hues of his mask as he stepped forward draped in all black as he shook his head at her disapprovingly.
“If you had any idea of who I was with, then you’d know just how much trouble you’re in right now,” Avery declared boldly not allowing her fear to show as she stammered to her feet and marched across the room straight towards the door he’d carefully chained up seconds earlier.
“Oh I know who you were with and as far as I’m concerned, you’re never going back to him,” he announced with an equal determination as he approached her seizing her shoulders in his hands as he pushed her away from the door preventing her exit.
“Let go of me,” Avery hissed at him trying to hit him--to kick at him and fight him with all she had in her, but for some reason with the way he’d held her, it was as if he’d anticipated her moves before she’d made them as he blocked all of her attempts at fighting him off with such skill and perception that it was no surprise he’d gotten the upper hand as Avery fell back onto the bed once again with a hearty bounce.
“You’re not going anywhere,” he ordered in a heated whisper as Avery felt his body over hers, crushing her down into the bed as she let out a whimper.  “I’m not letting you slip away again.”
“When my fiancé finds you, he’s going to kill you for what you’re doing to me,” she shot back at him blood pumping through her veins as the thought of her unborn child came to the front burner and suddenly she felt her will to escape double as she attempted to scratch at his neck.  As with the moment before, he’d anticipated her movement and he seized her wrist drawing it up over her head before claiming the other hand with the same lightening quick motion.
“As I said before, you’re not going anywhere,” he cut back sharply in a bit of a primal roar before he pressed her hands further into the pillow above her head and his mouth came crashing down over her in a rough, demanding kiss causing her to gasp as the intensity of it flooded over her and a whimper rose from inside of her causing her whole body to react to him despite the battle she’d been preparing for with the man who’d taken her from the bar.
Seconds passed as the kiss deepened and Avery found herself melting against his persuasions as his hold on her wrists eased up and her arms crashed down around his shoulders squeezing him in against her as the strength and power of his body filled her up inside, causing a stir of sensations to race through her--undoubtedly the beginning of her undoing.  His tongue sought out the warm recesses of her mouth as her finger tips teased up over his spine, over to the string that was tied around his head keeping the darkened mask in place.  With one quick tug, she felt the string give way and the plastic piece separating the two of them collapsed against her face leaving her with a strange feeling as he tore his tantalizing lips away from hers.
“I couldn’t allow myself to make the same mistake twice in a lifetime,” his husky voice explained as he raised one large hand to her face withdrawing the mask from her flushed features as Avery found herself face to face with the same green eyes that had haunted her dreams since the engagement party at the Ashford mansion when she’d found him with another woman.
“Russ,” Avery gasped unable to contain her surprise as he looked down at her, his eyes blazing with a hunger and determination she couldn’t even begin to place words to as he touched her cheek tenderly.
“I wasn’t about to let you walk out of my life again,” he drank up her surprise as his mouth collided with hers kissing her as if he’d never stop as this time he was bound and determined to make things right between them once and for all and nothing would stop that from happening for them.  That much he was certain of.

...to be continued...