posted on 7-May-2002 5:23:24 AM by Ashton


Banner is courtesy of: http://fallenskies.enacre.net


Rope the Wind
Sequel to Kiss the Flame

Disclaimer: I don’t own anything Roswell, GH, M/L, J/B
Rating: Ya’ll know me…probably just PG-13, but who knows?
Couple: Who else?? M/L of course!
Summary: Sequel to Kiss the Flame. Seriously complicated so it really would be best to read that one first. BUT…Max has asked Liz (Kendall) to marry and she said yes, then proceeded to disappear to L.A. to start a brand new life under the name Rachel Harris.

Hey all!!

Just wanted to at least start this to let you know there IS hope for M/L. *happy* Thanks again for all your support! Hope you enjoy! Would LOVE to hear what you think!!!

BehrHugs,
Ashton
~~~~~~~~~~~

~ chapter 1 ~

I should have said no.

That one thought had awakened her every day for the past two months.

Every morning, except this morning.

This morning it was the smell of fresh brewed coffee that first called her from the depths of slumber. Sizzling bacon, fresh tropical fruit and newly baked croissants made her stomach rumble faintly with hunger as she began to leisurely, reluctantly stretch herself awake. The sound of glass clinking against glass and the metallic sound of silverware scraping together caused her nose to scrunch up in annoyance.

Shifting in her bed and burrowing further into her pillow, she tried her best to hang on to the last sweet peaceful strands of sleep before facing the cold, harsh world of reality. As consciousness started to steal her dreams, she smiled deeply in remembrance. The dream had been wonderful this time. Full of laughter and smiles. Blue skies and warmth. Kisses and hugs.

And Max Evans’ loving arms wrapped possessively around her.

Liz Parker frowned in her semi-state of sleep as that familiar thought drifted to her once again. I should have said no.

Her awakening senses heard the soft click of a door closing and Liz let out a groan of regret. It was time to get up. No use fighting it anymore. Slowly opening one eye to look at the blurry red numbers on her clock next to her bed, the intent was to determine just how much she’d overslept this time. Both eyes instantly popped open at the sight that greeted her instead.

Liz sat up straight in bed. She rubbed her eyes and looked at her nightstand again. She blinked, shook her head and looked yet again. An electric thrill raced through her body while her heart literally stopped mid-beat. A brilliant, involuntary smile spread over her face. Chest rising and falling with quickening breaths, she reached out and touched the vision in front of her.

It was a simple thing. Silly, actually. Even…juvenile. But the gesture whispered special meanings that made Liz’s heart skip a disbelieving beat. As she hugged the recently acquired stuffed wolf to her chest, Liz’s gaze fell next on the large vase of flowers it had been leaning against.

Every kind of flower with every imaginable color greeted her hungry gaze. Wildflowers of every variety caught the sunlight streaming through the window and gaze Liz an inescapable feeling of hope. Liz bit her lower lip and reached out to take the card from its holder. Holding an excited breath, her bright eyes scanned the words…

My Little Red Riding Hood,
Our first ‘morning after’…the way it should have been. Follow the petals for more…


Immediately energized, Liz threw her feet over the side of the bed to land on a soft carpet of flower petals starting at her nightstand and leading straight out of her room. An unexpected chuckle escaped her as her toes dug into the velvety softness beneath her feet. Walking as if in a dream, she followed nature’s path out her door, down the hall and into the kitchen.

Dark eyes widened and her mouth dropped open when she saw the feast spread along the counter. Foods of every type were displayed. Eggs, fruit, pancakes, waffles. Juices and coffee. Pastries of every kind. In the center of all the food was a black tape player with a note taped on top that said “Push Play if you dare”.

Unsure of what she’d hear when she followed the instructions, Liz bit her lip in uncertainty and stared at the player in complete indecision. It was the ‘if you dare’ that kept her hands firmly clutching the wolf in her arms. She jumped when her roommate, Sydney Bristow stumbled into the living room with a sleepy yawn.

Oblivious to the current state of their kitchen, Sydney ran her fingers through her rumpled hair and tried to wipe the sleep out of her eyes. “Morning, Liz. Man, the way things are going lately I won’t have to worry about some enemy agent killing me, jet lag’s going to bring me down all on it’s…Oh my God.”

Liz turned to Sydney in time to catch the same expression she imagined was her face only moments before. Her eyes were wide with wonder and her mouth was open and practically salivating at the feast before her. Turning inquiring brown eyes on Liz, Sydney’s dimples deepened when she grinned. “Did we wake up in restaurant heaven or something here?”

“Uh…well…”

“Hey, what’s this?” Ever curious, Sydney immediately noticed the tape player with the note attached. She ripped the note off the top and read it aloud. “Press play if you dare? Hmmm…sounds intriguing…”

“Wait. Don’t…”

Too late to hear Liz’s protest, Sydney pushed play.

The apartment was immediately filled with the Latin pop sounds of Enrique Iglesias. Sydney’s grin widened as she began to move her body to the rhythm. “Oh, yeah…Enrique! I love him!” She grabbed up a pastry and shoved it into her mouth as she danced around the back of the counter to get herself a glass of juice.

Liz stood clutching the stuffed wolf to her chest as her heart pounded with each beat and danced to every word.

You can run, you can hide
But you can't escape my love

Here's how it goes, you and me, up and down at this time
We'll get right, worth a fight
Cause love is something you can't shake
When it breaks
All it takes is some trying

If you feel like leaving
I'm not gonna make you stay
Soon you'll be finding
You can run, you can hide
But you can't escape my love
You can run, you can hide
But you can't escape my love

So if you go
You should know
It's hard to just forget the past
It was good, it was bad but it was real
And that's all you get in the end our love matters

Here's how it goes
All it takes is some trying
You can run, you can hide
But you can't escape my love


As Enrique’s smooth voice began to fade, Sydney glanced up at Liz to find her rooted to the same spot she’d been when the song started. Her gaze was locked on the tape player and tears were hovering on her lashes, dangerously close to falling. Her breath hitched and the wolf in her arms received a death-grip hold in response.

“Whoa.” Sydney’s immediate concern shadowed her eyes. “Liz…what’s wrong?”

“He’s…he’s…” A tear slipped down her cheek and Liz reached up to quickly swipe it away.

“He’s….what?” Now standing in front of Liz, Sydney reached out and touched Liz’s arm. “Liz, who are you talking about?”

“Max.”

“Max?” Shaking her head Sydney tried to get Liz to relax her hold on the stuffed animal in her arms. “Who’s Max?”

Swallowing hard, Liz’s haunted gaze raised to meet Sydney’s. “The most…amazing…and I…I left him. And now…now, he’s found me and…” Her voice dropped to a whisper full of dread. “…oh, my God, how am I going to face him now?”

Leaving Sydney speechless and confused, Liz pulled back from her and headed toward her room muttering her own cryptic answer. “Alex. I need to talk to Alex. He’ll know what to do…”
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
“Ok. So, who is Max? And how is it he managed to slip by my security system to deliver flowers and breakfast to Liz?” Sydney caught the way Vaughn stiffened at the name and her curiosity grew by leaps and bounds. “Vaughn? What’s going on that you’ve not told me?”

Vaughn scrutinized Sydney’s expression a moment trying to decide how much of Liz’s recent past to reveal. If Liz hadn’t even mentioned Max’s name to Sydney yet, there had to be a reason. “What has Liz told you?”

Sydney rolled her eyes. “You’re kidding right? I didn’t even hear the guy’s name till this morning when she pretty much freaked out about him finding her. And as soon as she did, she locked herself in her room and tied up the phone line for about forty five minutes. After which time she rushed out of the apartment with this frantic look on her face and barely a word of good bye let alone an explanation.” Crossing her arms in front of her, Sydney gaze Vaughn a pointed look. “Come on, Vaughn, talk to me. Is he dangerous? Is he connected to Chris somehow? Is this something I’m going to have to worry about?”

Vaughn actually…chuckled. “Dangerous? Well, now, that all depends on whether you’re his friend or his enemy.”

Sydney let out an impatient sigh. “Vaughn…”

“Look. This is really Liz’s story to tell. All I can say is he is most definitely not associated with the like of Chris Santoro. You, personally, have absolutely nothing to worry about from Max Evans.”

“Whoa.” Sydney cocked an eyebrow of surprise. “Did you say Max Evans? As in former Agent Max Evans? As in kill-you-with-a-look-Max-Evans?”

Vaughn nodded. “That’s what I said.”

“Wow.”

Vaughn gave Sydney a ‘see what I mean’ look. “So, that should pretty much answer your ‘how did he get past my security’ question.”

“Yeah…yeah, I guess it does.” Sydney answered absently before her eyes took on a twinkle. “So, he and Liz are, uh…” Sydney wiggled her eyebrows suggestively.

Vaughn shrugged his shoulders and held up his hands in a sign of protest. “Like I said, it’s Liz’s story to tell.”

Pursing her lips, Sydney nodded her head knowing when her influence on Vaughn has run out. “Ok. Fine.” She turned on her heel and walked toward the exit, stopping only long enough to toss Vaughn a teasing comment with a note of challenge. “When I get the full scoop on Liz and this Agent Max Evans let’s just see how much intel **I** share with you.”
~~~~~~~~~~~~
“Well, it’s about time you got back to me.” Liz declared with exasperation the moment she grabbed up the phone after hearing that Alex Whitman was on the line for her.

“Sorry, Liz. Just got back into town. And to your hundred and one messages, I might add. Thanks so much for making me feel so loved, by the way.” He tried to stifle a yawn, but failed miserably. Sensing Liz’s impatience on the other end of the line, Alex cut to the chase. “So, about Max finding you. I have no idea how.”

“What do mean you have no idea?” Liz hissed into the phone. Liz glanced up at a few co-workers who were passing by her windowed office, smiled, waved then continued her conversation after they had passed out of earshot. “Alex, you and I were the only ones who were suppose to know where I am.”

Alex let out a deep, weary sigh. ”I know that, Liz.”

“Then who could have told him?”

“Well it wasn’t me, I can tell you that.” His voice sounded clipped and irritated. His next comment clued Liz in as to why. “I have the black eye to prove it. Would you like me to send you a picture?”

Liz’s mouth dropped open. “Max punched you?”

“Yeah. Apparently, he felt it was the appropriate response when I told him to consider the possibility that after he finally found the balls to kiss you, you decided to join a nunnery. That…or you became a lesbian.” Alex added with a hint of laughter in his voice.

“Oh, God.” Liz shut her eyes. “He’s that upset?”

Alex nearly chuckled at the comment. “Liz…here’s a tip. Most men do not take kindly to having their brand new fiancee’ fly the coop on them without so much as a good-bye.” Alex let out a sigh and Liz could almost hear the roll of his eyes. “He was worried, ok? That’s why he was so upset. I told you things are happening. Max knows that, so when you disappeared…”

“He thought it was because of what’s going on with you guys.” Liz finished for Alex. Running her fingers through her hair, she leaned back in her plush chair and gazed up at the ceiling. “What am I going to do, Alex? I mean…God, do you have any idea what it was like coming to work this morning? Wondering where he was. When he was going to just pop up. I actually found myself looking over my shoulder for him several times just to see if he was there.”

Amusement tinged Alex’s voice. “He’s not a stalker, Liz.”

“I know that, ok? It’s just…” Liz let out a shaky breath and leaned her head back against her chair squeezing her eyes shut. “…I thought with the way I left him…he’d give up this crazy notion about getting married. Especially once he found out about McKenna.”

Silence greeted her comment.

“Alex?”

Alex cleared his throat. “Right. See, the thing is, Liz…”

The guilt in Alex’s voice instantly clued Liz in. “Oh my God. He doesn’t know, does he?” The quickening of Liz’s heart caused her breath to catch. When Alex didn’t immediately answer, Liz’s voice hardened. “Does he, Alex.”

“No.”

Liz released the breath she’d been holding and pushed the hair back from her face in agitation. “You’ve got to be kidding me. You have had two months…why the hell haven’t you told him the love of his life is alive? God, don’t you think he has the right to know?”

“First of all…” Alex’s voice was tense and clipped, his defenses clearly on the rise. “I believe it is a tad premature to be calling her the love of his life when he’s not even reached the grand old age of thirty. Secondly, in case you didn’t notice, he’s feeling more than just a slight crush for you. A fact which he proved by asking you to marry him. A fact, he’s been proving for the past two months by searching for you. So don’t count yourself out of the running just yet.”

The tone of Alex’s voice, the curtness of his replies sent one message to Liz loud and clear…she had overstepped her boundaries. As he continued, it was even more clear that the discussion of McKenna was a topic that Liz Parker would be shut out of, once again. “And thirdly, my reasons for telling Max…or not, in this case…are my reasons and have nothing to do your current situation.”

“But…”

“Subject closed, Liz.” Alex commanded, his voice sending a shiver through Liz’s spine for the first time since knowing him.

Unsure what to say, Liz remained silent and tried to blink back the tears quickly surfacing. She could hear Alex release a regretful sigh on the other end of the phone. “I’m…sorry, Liz. You didn’t deserve that. It’s just…”

“We all have so many secrets to keep.” Liz replied quietly, understandingly. Swallowing back her revulsion at the thought, Liz’s grip in the phone tightened. “Is this a secret you’re going to expect me to keep from him too, Alex?”

“Yes, Liz, it is.” Alex didn’t even hesitate to level his command. “Under no circumstances are you to say anything about her to Max. Do you understand?”

Shaking her head, a stubborn glint flickered through her eyes. “I’m not sure I can do that, Alex.”

“You know, not two months ago you were begging me to keep him safe and happy. If that’s what you want, Liz…if that’s what really drove you away from him…then you’ll do it.” Satisfied by her silence that his attempt at emotional blackmail had worked, Alex tried to keep the edge out of his voice. “Now, I need your word.”

Liz deliberated a moment before her quiet response traveled to Alex through the phone. “Fine. You have my word.”

“Thank you, Liz.” Alex’s gratitude was quiet but sincere. Quickly shifting focus to something he had a better handle on, Alex propped his feet up on his desk and leaned back in his chair. “Now, as to why you originally called. The way I see it, you have two choices. I can get you set up in a brand new place by tomorrow night and we start this entire process all over again or…you can handle it.”

“Handle it.” Still smarting from the promise she’d just made, Liz repeated Alex’s suggestion, blinking rapidly. “Handle Max. You have **got** to be kidding.”

“Liz…the man is in love with you. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have asked you to marry him.”

“That’s the problem, Alex.” Liz’s curt response was edged with impatience.

“Look, I honestly don’t know what to tell you. You’re clearly jumping into pools with Max that I simply have no experience with. Emotional confrontations are just not my thing…”

“Rachel?” A glowing faced Evie poked her head into Liz’s office. “Steph and the board are ready for the meeting now. Our mysterious backer has finally arrived.”

Liz forced a smile and nodded. “Ok, Evie. Just getting the last few schedules printed. Tell her I’ll be right there.” She waited till the secretary slipped past her office to deliver the same message to a few other members of the staff before addressing Alex again. “Look, I have to go. I have a meeting.”

“Hey, how’s that project manager job at that artsy commission of yours coming?” Brightening considerably and in the process trying to mend any fences he might have broken, Alex asked with genuine curiosity.

“It’s called The Art of Community Cooperation, Alex.” Sensing his desire to get back on good footing with her, Liz smiled into the phone as she concentrated on the computer screen in front of her. “And I love it.”

“You know it was so nice of Maggie to offer me a place at Harmony Records after Dani went on tour, but I would have really missed helping the kids you know? This way as project manager I’m in charge of organizing benefits and charities that help the people that need it the most. Plus I get to work with a lot of great people.” Finding the page she was looking for, Liz clicked print on her screen then reached for the page as it printed.

“Sounds like you really enjoy it.”

“Oh, I do.” Liz answered, a smile clearly evident in her voice. “Take this benefit I’m working on now. We’re planning a night of gambling for charity. There will be entertainment as well as an auction. All the proceeds will be split evenly among three of our most worthy causes. Oh, and get this…” Liz paused for dramatic effect. “…there’s this anonymous patron of one of the galleries in town that heard about our plans and has agreed to match dollar for dollar everything we bring in. Not to mention they’re footing the bill for our expenses.”

“Really.” It was more of a statement then a question as Alex’s mind immediately jumped into action. “This donor…you said they were anonymous.”

“Yeah. Apparently he or she is pretty eccentric…” Liz paused as her assistant, Gabe poked his head into her office. “Didn’t want anyone to know their name. Except now we’ve got this big meeting where their identity is going to be revealed. It’s all kinda odd, if you ask me. But I guess that’s what they mean by ‘eccentric’…”

“And how exactly did hear about this job again?” Alex queried, a thought once having formed now began to take root in suspicion.

“By some weird twist of fate.” Liz stated as she stood up and began gathering folders that contained details of upcoming plans. “I’d gotten a flyer in my mailbox about a gallery opening and decided to check it out. Only the opening date on the flyer was for the wrong date.”

“You don’t say.” Alex commented quietly, a smile starting to tug his lips upward.

“I know. It was really strange.” Liz paused a moment thoughtfully then shrugged her shoulders and went on with her story. “Anyway, it worked out really great because when I got there the owner and I struck up a conversation about art and the opportunities to help the community that just slip by us every day. She told me about this position that was open with ACC, put me in touch with the director and bam…I got the job.” A thoughtful expression danced in Liz’s eyes a moment. “You know, now that I think about it, something else was kinda weird about it.”

”Weird?”

“Yeah. Steph said the position hadn’t even been open for a day so she had no idea how the gallery owner even knew about it.”

“Rach, babe, the meeting. We’re all waiting for you. Steph has started tapping her foot and glaring at everyone in the room and you know what that means. Someone’s gonna get…” He gave her the flamboyant sign of a knife being sliced across someone’s throat.

“Right. Gabe, I swear, I’m on my way.” Liz sighed into the phone. “Sorry, Alex, I really do have to go. But about Max…”

“You’ll know what to do when you see him, Liz.”

Releasing a heavy sigh, she pressed for something more. “What? No last words of instruction? Encouragement?”

Knowing eyes began to twinkle as a smile drifted over Alex’s lips. “Yeah. Take a deep breath…and enjoy your meeting.”

~~~~~~~~~~~
After hanging up the phone with Liz, Alex sat back and chuckled. “Max, you devil…” His laughter soon turned to seriousness as the implications of Max and Liz being in the same city hit him.

Letting out a loud sigh he reached for the phone again and dialed a familiar number. Waiting for the phone to ring, Alex shook his head in amusement at the plan Max had clearly been able to pull off in securing Liz her job. Max Evans truly was amazing when he put his mind to getting something done.

Alex heard the familiar voice on the other end of the phone pick up. “Hey, it’s me. Are we…”

“We’re secure.” Kyle quickly answered Alex’s question in a low voice. “For now. The shrew should be back any second so talk quickly.”

“Ok. I need your help on something.”

Kyle groaned. “Man, am I not already working overtime for you?”

Alex chuckled. “Not quite, pal. Listen. Coyote found Cinderella.”

Letting out a deep sigh, Kyle nodded. “I figured it was only a matter of time. So what do you need?”

“His schedule needs to be very busy and very, very far away from L.A.”

“Ah. So that’s where you stashed her.” Kyle’s voice took on a slight smile. “Good going.”

”Thanks. Can you do it?”

“What? Rework his schedule to put him in places he isn’t just in case inquiring eyes find a way to pry? Sure. I’ll have it done by tonight.”

”Good.” Alex nodded appreciatively. “Give him as much time as possible. I have a feeling he’s planning on sticking this one out to the end.”

Kyle hazarded a chuckle. “Did you expect anything less?”

The smile was evident in Alex’s voice. “Not really. Let’s just hope Cinderella’s ready for him…”
~~~~~~~~~~
A gentle hum of voices greeted Liz as she headed down the hall toward the large oak doors of the conference room. Unexpectedly a knot began to form in the pit of her stomach. With each step she took, the annoying knot grew larger, tighter.

Bits and pieces of conversations flitted through her mind. With no order, rhyme or reason. The tone of Alex’s voice when he was asking about how she got her job. The tune of Escape served as a mental backdrop as pieces of the past two months began to click together. Her steps slowed as she got closer to the conference room, her mind whirling with a fresh perspective. One that needed serious dissection. At another, more convenient time.

Pushing dangerously distracting thoughts of Max far to the back of her mind, Liz took a deep breath and slowly opened the paneled door to slip inside just in time to hear her boss say, “That’s Rachel’s department. Oh, here she is now. The brains behind our little operation.” Steph motioned for Liz to come forward and join a tight circle that had formed around the person Liz could only assume was their generous donor.

The moment she stepped in the room, she felt it. The energy. The electricity. The sheer power in the room. Liz instinctively stopped short and caught her breath. Her mind froze and her senses instantly picked up on a feeling. A feeling of…

“Rache, come join us.” Steph’s voice cut through the thick haze of unexplainable sensations.

Forcing a smile for Steph’s benefit, Liz’s cheeks colored with a faint blush of embarrassment at being the center of attention as she headed toward the group. Her gaze met several encouraging, recognized faces as she rounded the outside of the circle and headed in Steph’s direction.

“Rachel, I’d like you to meet a man with very generous, very deep pockets. A good friend of mine for many years, you’ll not find a better friend for our cause.” Turning to face their honored guest just as Liz reached her, Steph made her introduction. “Rachel Harris, I’d like you to meet Max Evans. Max, this is the lady I’ve been telling you so much about…”

The crowd parted and faded to nothing. All she could see was Max. Standing there with an exultant twinkle in his eyes and a smirk of victory on his lips. Liz’s steps faltered and she stood frozen to the floor. Her face paled and her breath stopped cold. Max took the first step. He reached for her hand, which she gave to him stunned and without protest.

As he brought her hand to his lips, Max’s eyes locked with hers with a triumphant gleam. His warm, soft voice washed over her. “So nice to finally meet you…Rachel Harris…”

And Liz Parker’s world stood came to a crashing halt.

Tbc…


[ edited 25time(s), last at 12-Feb-2003 9:20:04 PM ]
posted on 15-May-2002 11:58:36 PM by Ashton
Rope the Wind
Sequel to Kiss the Flame

Disclaimer: I don’t own anything Roswell, GH, M/L, J/B
Rating: Ya’ll know me…probably just PG-13, but who knows?
Couple: Who else?? M/L of course!
Summary: Sequel to Kiss the Flame. Seriously complicated so it really would be best to read that one first. BUT…Max has asked Liz (Kendall) to marry and she said yes, then proceeded to disappear to L.A. to start a brand new life under the name Rachel Harris.

Hey all!!

Thanks soooo much for the amazing feedback! I'm so glad you're enjoying this fic so far! Here's the next part. Hope you'll enjoy! Would LOVE to hear what you think!!!

BehrHugs,
Ashton

p.s. The link to my egroup is http://groups.yahoo.com/group/AMDreamerFanfiction/
I have all of the chpts of all of my stories listed there if you missed any! *happy*

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 2 ~

Five minutes after the meeting ended, the office buzz began…

"Did you see the way he was looking at her?"
"See it? Who could miss it? He kept staring at her lips like he was starving and she was his next meal…"

"For a minute there I thought Rachel was going to faint…"
"Faint? I thought she was going to have a heart attack. Then again, I can't blame her. That Max Evans is one hunk of a man. If he looked at me like that…hell, I'd faint just so he'd have to give me mouth to mouth..."

"Wow. Things haven't been this exciting around here since…well, I can't remember. There is definite sparkage with those two."
"Oh, totally. It's going to be a blast watching them work together on this project. What I wouldn't give to be a fly on the wall at their lunch date today."
"Oh, I know. What was that about? Mr. Evans making a point of picking her up. And the banter about her name and fate. It's like they were talking in secret code or something."
"That's because they were, duffus…"

"Ten dollars says they knew each other before."
"Twenty says they've slept together."
"Fifty says they haven't...but they certainly want to."
"Now, that's one bet I wouldn't take, because I'd lose big time. The sexual tension in that room was enough to explode the roof off the building."
"Totally. Let's just hope Rache doesn't explode before Max makes his move…"


Ignoring sly glances and knowing smiles Liz Parker hurried past staffers with heads bent together whispering highly accurate comments. Slipping into her office she firmly shut the door and leaned back against it before releasing a loud sigh of relief and blinking back tears of frustration.

Dazed.

That’s exactly how Liz Parker had lived the thirty minutes of her life after seeing Max Evans again. She stumbled toward her seat behind her desk and dropped into it as her wobbly legs finally gave out on her. That now familiar Max Evans induced flush of her body sent a shiver racing through her and Liz squeezed her eyes shut, trying to block out the image of Max smirking at her. Eyes dancing with mischief and victory. Hands as steady as a rock and lips as hot as a summer day. And his meaning-filled words…

It didn't work. The conversation came rushing back to her like a powerful explosion…

As he brought her hand to his lips, Max’s eyes locked with hers with a triumphant gleam. His warm, soft voice washed over her. “So nice to finally meet you…Rachel Harris…”

And Liz Parker’s world stood came to a crashing halt.

She swallowed hard as her heart tripple hammered against her chest. And there was this annoying ringing in her ears as the skin under his lips began to burn with an intense fever. Every nerve in her body began to quiver and an uncontrollable blaze warmed her from the inside out. Her thoughts were sluggish and incoherent, and Liz truly felt her body shutting down and coming to life all in the same breath. Her "Uh-huh" came out in a breathless grunt as she unconsciously licked her suddenly dry lips.

Max's smirk deepened. His darkening eyes sparked with desire as they swept over her from head to toe then back again, stopping to lock with penetrating intensity on her lips before snapping back up to meet her stunned gaze. There was hidden laughter in his eyes. "I must admit, Ms. Harris, when Steph told me your name I was rather…intrigued."

Liz blinked rapidly. The dryness from her lips instantly spread to her mouth. It felt like heavy cotton as a lump began to grow in her throat. "R-Really?" Her barely choked out question accompanied the plummet of her heart to the pit of her stomach.

"Yees." Max continued casually drawing out the word for emphasis. Never once relinquishing his grip on her hand, his demeanor was self-assured and controlled. The attitude of a man who held the upper hand…and knew it. "You see, my mother's maiden name was Harris and…" A hint of pain shadowed his eyes for a flash of a moment before he continued, his voice softening in reverence. "…I had a sister named Rachel. She was very dear to me."

It was like the room was holding a collective breath. Waiting for her response. Liz pushed back the impulse to wrap her arms around him and erase the pain she'd seen in his eyes. Though her lips didn't move, her eyes whispered an apology to him across the distance. It was only a glimmer that would have been lost on anyone else less attuned to the workings of Liz Parker's heart and mind. Seeing an almost imperceptible flicker of response in his eyes, Liz instantly forced herself to stiffen as she pulled her hand from his. Midnight eyes of resolve met a golden glow of admiration. "I can see how such a coincidence could be intriguing."

Stuffing a hand in his pocket, a hint of a smile danced on his lips. "Oh, I don't believe in coincidences, Ms. Harris. I do, however, believe in fate."

Squaring her shoulders, Liz raised an unbending eyebrow. "Do you, now?"

Max tilted his head to the side as he scrutinized her, recognizing all the signs of a woman regaining control. He fought the urge to gather her in his arms and seriously make up for lost time. There would enough time for that. He just had to be patient. "I take it you don't."

Clasping her hands in front of her, Liz forced her legs to remain steady. She briefly met his eyes, then her gaze shifted to the knotted tie at the base of his throat. That smooth column of bronzed skin that tasted so amazingly good. Liz swallowed involuntarily and licked her lips. She could practically taste him now. She squeezed her eyes shut forcing herself to focus. "Let's just say that I think the concept of fate is a convenient scapegoat for people who don't want to take responsibility for their own actions and the consequences that follow."

"Ah." Max's one sound response sent a shiver through Liz. Not because she got the impression he believed her. On the contrary, he was reading her with such unerring accuracy that Liz felt unnerved from the top of her head to the curl of her toes. Sensing his effect on her, Max continued, his words casual. His gaze, anything but as it dropped to the 'v' of her blouse hovering centimeters above her cleavage and slowly, seductively moved upward till he paused at her full, trembling lips. "Don't misunderstand, Ms. Harris. I believe in taking the blame or reward for your own decisions."

"But I also believe there are some things in life that are just…" His eyes locked with hers as his voice lowered intimately. "…magically meant to be. No matter how hard you fight against them, how much you try to deny what's going on…no matter where you run or how well you hide…those things will happen. They're… undeniable. Timeless. Inevitable…"


Inevitable.

Liz let out a sigh as she swiveled her chair to face the wall of windows behind her. With an almost amused shake of her head, Liz watched the ocean waves roll one right after the other toward the shore. Relentless. Persistent. Limitless. Just like Max Evans.

Looking back she had no idea how she had managed to string more than two coherent words together at a time. Or how she was able to remain standing somewhat steadily. How she'd controlled the shaking of her legs when Steph had interrupted the tangible connection sparking between Max and Liz to suggest they have a seat and discuss the project. How she didn’t break down crying right in the middle of the room at the hint of pain she saw behind his confident façade when her eyes would raise to meet his across the conference table. Or how she hadn't thrown herself in to his arms in defeat right at the moment his silent resolve whispered through his not so subtle declaration of a new war.

There was a knock on Liz's door. Fully expecting to see Max on the other side of the door, Liz steeled herself for her visitor then visibly relaxed when Gabe stuck his head in after she had called out her welcome. "Hey, Rache…you have a call. Line two. Alex Whitman again."

Liz practically dove for the phone. Sensing Gabe's curiosity was in overdrive, she hesitated before hitting the line to accept the call and addressed him with a knowing upraised eyebrow. "Is there something you want to ask me, Gabe?"

"Uh…well…"

"Yes?"

"This Max Evans…"

"Yes?"

"It uh…well, it was kinda hard to miss…" Gabe's face began to color. "Are the two of you uh…"

Cutting him off before he could go any farther, Liz shook her head. "Never met him before today, Gabe. And no matter what everyone out there is betting on, Max Evans' presence here is not going to be a problem for me." The determination in her voice hardened as she continued, making a promise to herself more than an explanation to her fair-haired assistant. "There's no way in hell I'm going to be distracted or let him interfere with any plans that I've made. Max Evans being here is not going to change a thing." Taking a deep breath, she gave Gabe a pointed look. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a call waiting…"

As soon as Gabe closed the door behind him, Liz hit the line and spoke into the phone. "You knew, didn't you. That's what the crack about enjoying my meeting was about, wasn't it?"

Alex chuckled on the other end of the line. "So would you have if you'd thought about it."

Liz let out a sigh and leaned back. "Alex, what am I going to do about him?"

"I take it he let you know in his own way he's not giving up?"

"Oh, yeah. That message came through loud and clear." Shaking her head, Liz chewed on her bottom lip. "We're having lunch later today."

"Really." Alex commented a bit surprised that Liz would agree to a private meeting with Max so soon. "I thought you would have turned him down…"

"Yeah, well, I tried." Liz cut Alex off abruptly. "But he trapped me."

"Trapped you?" Alex was trying hard not to laugh at the defeated tone of Liz's voice. "How did he…uh…"

Rolling her eyes, she launched into her brief tale…

"These plans look very good. Very good." Max commented as he perused the folder in front of him. "Unfortunately…" He closed the folder in front of him and folded his hands on top of it as his eyes raised to meet Liz's across the table. "…they aren't good enough."

Liz's mouth dropped open and her eyes instantly flashed with irritation. "But…"

Max held up his hand to stop her protest. "I'm not saying we don't have an excellent start. I think you've done a great job with the overall tone we're wanting to set with the fundraiser. I’m just saying that we'll need to work on the logistics a bit more." His eyes began to twinkle devilishly. "In fact, I think we should get started as soon as possible. How about lunch? Just you and me."

Liz's chin raised instantly in defiance as she stiffened in her chair. "Lunch is out of the question."

"Really?" A slow smirk turned the corner of his lips upward. "And that would be because…"

"I already have lunch plans." Liz shot back immediately.

"Hmmm." Max seemed to be thinking his options over, though the determined set of his jaw never once wavered. "Well, I guess that's to bad then…for your other party. Shall I pick you up at high noon or did you have such a large breakfast you'd rather have a late lunch?"

Staffers mouths dropped open at Max's boldness and all eyes shifted to catch Liz's reaction. They weren't disappointed. A dark eyebrow raised, her chest rose and fell with an indignant breath and she forced an indulgent smile through tight lips. Her fingers interlocked tightly on the table in front of her. "Although I appreciate your position here, Mr. Evans, I do think it is beyond your authority to order my attendance at lunch..." Liz added a last comment with an attempt at an appeasing air. "…if even only a toe over the line."

"Ahem." Stephanie cleared her throat. "Actually, Rachel, I think it would be an excellent idea for you to have lunch with Max."

Liz's head snapped to the head of the table where Steph sat. "What??"

Tossing Max a glance, Steph shrugged her shoulders. "Max made it clear to me that he has a very tight schedule to keep, so if he'd like to iron out a few details at lunch, then I think the least we can do is accommodate him. After all, he is footing the bill for our project."

Angry eyes snapping back to meet Max's, Liz's tone was curt. "Fine. We can meet at the Oasis at noon…"

Max flashed a grin and shook his head. "Uh…no."

"But…"

Giving Liz a pointed look, Max interrupted her with a meaningful explanation. "Last time I agreed to meet someone for lunch, she ended up sending her assistant in her place. Needless to say, lunch was not as pleasurable as it could have been had my date kept her word." The added level of meaning in Max's words didn't escape Liz. He wasn't only talking about the first day he'd arrived in New Haven and sent V in her place to have lunch with him. He was talking about that day in his office. The day she told him she would marry him…and then she ran away.

"Maybe something out of her control came up." Liz offered the only explanation she could muster for having left him only moments after one of the happiest experiences of her life.

Max's catlike grin deepened. "And maybe I don't plan on taking that chance this time." Pushing back his chair, Max stood abruptly. The unbending command was leveled with the barest hint of a triumphant smile. "In your office. Noon." A genuine smile touched his lips as his gaze shifted to the rest of the group. "As for the everyone else, thank you all for your efforts. I'm sure I'll be seeing a lot of you in the coming months. Steph, I'll be in your office when you're done…" One last knowing look in Liz's direction and Max headed toward the door.


"Did you really think he'd let you go that easily?" Alex commented once Liz had recounted her tale.

"Well…no. I…I guess not. Not if he's gone through so much trouble to find me." Liz admitted with a sigh. "But…Alex, he's going to want answers. Answers that I simply can't give him…"

"Why not, Liz?" Alex suggested. "I've been thinking about this. Why not just tell him everything? I mean, Kyle and I know. Max won't turn his back on you if that's what you're afraid of."

"It's the exact opposite that I’m afraid of, Alex." The frustration and fear in Liz's voice was evident. "I'm afraid he won't turn his back." Shaking her head, Liz's words were muffled and soft. "I know he won't. I need him to."

Alex sighed into the phone feeling the inevitable waste that came from reviewing Max and Liz's situation. "It's your choice, of course. And I do understand where you're coming from, but he just might surprise you, you know. If you told him everything…"

"Including that McKenna's alive?" Liz shot back, her voice laced with irritation.

Alex's words stopped cold. As silence ruled him, Liz pressed her point. "How can I risk him staying when not only his life would be in danger, but my heart would be too? Alex, the second he finds out she's alive…I'll lose him."

"Liz, you don't know that…"

"I'll lose him, Alex. He will compare what he's feeling for me to what he's always felt for her and know that I'm just a passing fancy." Liz repeated, emphasizing her point. "The only way to insure that he'll leave me alone is to tell him about her. But if you won't let me do that, then I have to keep my distance. Telling him the truth about my past would only bring us closer than we were before. And once I've breached that barrier, I don't think there will be any going back for me."

"Alright, alright." Alex stated with a level of defeat edging his voice. "I get your point. I just wish that I didn't." There was a momentary pause. "Look, I just wanted to make sure you were ok after seeing him again."

"Yeah…yeah, I'll be ok." Liz stated softly as she wet her dry lips. Squeezing her eyes shut, Liz shook her head. "I have no idea how I’m going to handle lunch or anything else he might try to throw my way, but I'll do it. I have to…" Her eyes slowly opened, new resolve flashing dangerously. "…to keep him safe."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"I want him back."

"And you shall have him back."

"When?" McKenna's face screwed up into an impatient pout as she turned, arms crossed in front of her, from the fireplace to face a man lounging in a large overstuffed chair. Dark drapes were loose, casting gloomy shadows over the elaborately decorated room. The chill in the air was only dispersed by the fire crackling in the fireplace.

He tilted his silver head to the side and eyed her with narrowed steel blue eyes. Steepling his hands in front of him, his deep commanding voice contrasted with the frailty of his body and resonated in the space around him. "You shall have him when it is time, my dear."

McKenna plopped down on the footstool in front of the man, much like an eager child. She gathered his cold hands in hers. "But father, when will that be? I'm tired of waiting. I'm tired of spending endless hours answering Kyle's tiresome questions. I don't see the point in any of it. Why can't we just make our move? Why can't I reveal to Max who I really am? Why can't I just find out where he is and…"

"Shhh, my child." He patted her hand reassuringly. "All in good time. All in good time, McKenna." A coughing spell overtook him and McKenna's concern instantly showed on her face. She reached for the glass of water he always kept on the table next to him. Putting it to his lips, she helped him to drink.

"I wish I could stay and take care of you." McKenna's voice sounded very small and childlike in the great space of the room as she helped him lean back against the chair. He closed his eyes in painful relief. "I wish…"

"Too many things." His eyes opened and he attempted a smile. His withering hand reached out and stroked her hair in a fatherly gesture. "My little girl. You always did want the best of everything. And you always wanted it on your schedule."

A playful pout touched her lips. "Is that so horrible?"

He made a sound that was close to a chuckle and shook his head. "No, no it isn't. Except now you need to learn patience."

"But father…this plan of ours…its been going on for quite some time now."

"Yes, I know, my child." Patting her shoulder, he took a ragged, painful breath. "And it must go on a bit more. You are feeding our enemies the information we want them to have. And in return you will be given your heart's desire. Max Evans will be yours again once you destroy our target."

"Liz Parker."

Blue eyes flashed dangerously at the name. "Yes."

"And I do that how again? She skipped town, father. I have no idea where she is…"

"Find her child and you'll find her."

"Her…" McKenna's eyes widened. "That little girl. At the bed and breakfast…"

He nodded his silver head stiffly. "You suspected. Now you know." A devilish smile touched his lips. "A child's place is with her father, don't you agree? I think its time you contact Chris Santoro again."

McKenna's responding smile of pure malice would have sent shivers down the spine of any normal human. Darian Wolfe was no normal human.

Darian Wolfe was McKenna Donovan's father.

And Max Evans' deadliest enemy.
~~~~~~~~~~~~
The clock ticked away.

With each second that got closer to twelve noon, Liz became more nervous. More flushed. More…petrified.

A million emotions had come and gone. Even more thoughts had raced through her mind. Liz Parker couldn't quite figure out which ones to focus on. That was, when she was able to focus on anything at all.

With instructions to Gabe to hold all of her calls, Liz had paced her office so many times her feet were sore. And she was positive she could see the wood under the carpet. Her main concern…what exactly was Max feeling. Though he'd remained staunchly casual and even affable, her guess…anger, resentment, hurt. Confusion, bitterness, rage. Any, and most likely, a powerful combination of all of the above.

She wanted to call Angel. To get her advice. To see what she thought. But contact between them was restricted to once a night at a specific time where she could speak on a secured line with both Angel and Jaedan. Her baby. Her sweet little girl that was being shuffled from place to place while Liz was trying to best to build a safe and secure life in L.A. for all of them.

It had been agreed. Before Liz even left New Haven for Max's office in New York, the bags had been packed. The bed and breakfast had been put on the market. And Angel and Jaedan had set out on a car trip from Connecticut to Virginia. Liz had planned on following Kyle's plan and disappearing into the wild blue yonder on his private jet and contacting Angel later with her final destination. Instead, Alex had convinced her to head to L.A. It had been a wise move on her part.

She'd been happy in L.A. Or at least as happy as her circumstances would allow. Sydney Bristow had proved to be a wonderful roommate. Liz didn't have to hide her identity or keep secrets from Sydney. And Sydney had found the same about Liz. In fact, Sydney had opened up to Liz in ways she hadn't expected. Told her about her double life working for both the CIA and SD-6, the organization that brutally murdered her fiance. Even reminisced at times about the love she lost and was fight for justice in which she was currently engaging.

And Liz had Vaughn. He'd been a good friend to her. He was there with a good ear when she needed to talk and willing shoulder if she needed to cry. He'd shown her around a city she'd easily get lost in had it not been for him. And he had been training her in weapons and self-defense. With her job in the music industry and now with the commission, Liz Parker was hoping this life would last for a while. All in all, L.A. was a great place to be.

Though her plans had changed, Angel's and Jaedan's had not. Their final good bye from the garden of the B&B had sent them on a car trip across the country. From Connecticut to Virginia. Virginia to Ohio. Ohio to Illinois. Eventually they ended up in Denver, where they had been for the past month and a half.

She missed them. So much. Work kept her so busy that she often found she hadn't thought of either of them the entire day. Which made the night that much harder. The loneliness that more acute. The guilt and pain so much more tangible. Never had keeping them safe been so difficult. Never had she wanted to cave as many times as she did since arriving in L.A. Wanting to just jump on the next plane to Denver and hold her little girl. See her best friend…a woman who was more like a mother than hers had ever been.

She'd cried herself to sleep many nights after getting off the phone with Jaedan. She could hear the emptiness in her daughter's voice. Each 'I miss you' ripped her heart to shreds and was only soothed with the never-ending childlike 'I love you' that came just before the phone went dead.

And Max Evans. She never, ever, let herself think about Max Evans. About the dreams she destroyed when she left his office. About the love that had danced in his eyes. The selflessness that floated through in his words and embedded itself in her heart. To think about him would be to acknowledge what she had held in her hands for one brief moment in time. Before she crushed it beneath her running feet.

And now…he was back in her life.

And she had no idea what to expect from him.

It paralyzed her with fear.

There was a knock on the door and Liz was jolted out of her daze. She immediately glanced at the clock. It was noon. Taking a few deep breaths, Liz glanced in the mirror and smoothed her hair down. Straightening her skirt she wet her lips and cleared her throat, knowing that this was the moment that she'd been dreading. The moment that, despite herself, she'd been eagerly anticipating.

Another knock. Another deep breath. Then…"Come in."

The door swung open to reveal a triumphantly smiling Max Evans. Casually stuffing a hand in his pocket he leaned against the doorframe and crossed one ankle over the other. "Hope you're hungry, Ms. Harris." His gaze swept over her, lingering in places that made Liz's blood positively simmer and her skin tingle with electric currents. Desire instantly ignited in his eyes and layered each word with a double meaning. "Because I have to say…" His intense gaze landed on her lips. "I am absolutely…" Eyes locking with Liz's, they darkened instantly to two black unreadable pools. "…ravenous."

Liz swallowed hard. "Is…that supposed to scare me?"

"No." Max's predatory smile widened. "But you have been warned."

Liz held her breath as Max made his move.

Eyes never wavering from hers, he closed the distance between them in a heartbeat. Slowly, seductively circling Liz, Max unconsciously breathed in her scent as if it were the sweetest thing in the world and smiled into her hair when he finally stopped behind her. She could feel his chest rising and falling against her back with each gentle breath. Eyes fluttering closed, Liz fought the urge to lean back against him when his feather-light fingers slid down her arm to engulf her hand in his. Liz shivered when he swept her hair out of the way, his fingers tangling in the long strands, his heated breath tickling her ear. "Rachel Harris, you and I…have a lot to talk about..."

Tbc…



[ edited 1 time(s), last at 16-May-2002 12:21:30 AM ]
posted on 27-May-2002 11:47:15 PM by Ashton
Hey all!!!

Here's the next part. It's VERY long, but I hope you enjoy anyway. Next chpt will be mostly M/L so I wanted to show kinda where Max has been and what he's been up to the 2 months they were separated. This starts one month before Max actually shows up at Liz's board meeting.

Thanks sooo much for your amazing support on this story! I'm so glad ya'll are enjoying it as much as you are!!! Please let me know what you think!! I love to hear your thoughts!!! Hope you enjoy!!!

BehrHugs,
Ashton
~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 3 ~

(One month earlier)

"Why are you so hell bent on finding your brother?" Diane Evans watched with interest as her normally reserved son paced back and forth in front of her, clearly on the verge of exploding.

"Why? You want to know why?" Max's raised voice indicated the level of irritation and frustration that Kyle's latest antics, whatever they may be, had driven Max to. His revenge plot came complete with hand gestures of each agonizing act. "I'll tell you why, mom. I want to find him so that I can rip the heart out of his chest. I want to knock him to the ground, tie him up by his toenails and make him suffer torture so painful he'll think twice before he ever, EVER thinks about interfering in my life again!"

"So, I take it you're a bit upset with him."

Max held out his hands in a 'duh' gesture and the comically irritated expression on his face spoke volumes. "Once again, mother, you are Queen of the Understatement."

A slow smile claimed Diane's lips. At least she'd gotten a more Max-like reaction with that. The smile slipped away as she began to sober, her next statement proving she knew exactly what had Max so upset. "He didn't take Kendall away from you, Max. She did that all on her own."

"He helped." Max shot back tersely as his eyes crackled with frustration and pain.

"So did I." Diane commented quietly. "Do you want to string me up too?" Giving Max a sympathetic look, she patted the seat next to her on the couch. "Sit down, son. Talk to me."

Letting out a deep sigh of resignation, Max plopped down onto the couch and leaned his head back against the cushion. "I knew she wasn't coming back. I knew it when she walked out of my office. I should have had her followed or gone after her or…I don't know what…" Max squeezed his eyes shut. "She was with me, mom. There was a moment when I knew…I **knew**…" His eyes slowly opened. "…she felt everything I felt. She wanted everything I wanted. She wanted it as much as I wanted it. And then…"

"She left." Diane finished for him softly.

Max nodded, swallowing hard. "I knew she'd run, I just didn't think she'd completely disappear on me, you know? Gone…without a trace."

"Max…" Diane steepled her hands in front of her and pursed her lips before continuing. It was as if she were trying to come to a decision about something and once having made that decision, she took a deep breath and began to speak. "Max, she isn't who you think she is."

A small smile began to tug on the corner of Max's lips at the seriousness of his mother's expression and the tale he knew she was about to tell. "She's exactly who I think she is, mom."

"No, honey, listen to me. When she was here about the school, I heard Kyle call her…"

Letting out a sigh, Max leaned his head back once more and cast his gaze toward the ceiling above. His voice was pedantic, almost bored…as if he were reciting an old poem. "Her real name is Liz Parker. She's the daughter of a billionaire businessman who shipped her off to boarding school almost as soon as she could walk. She was married to a mobster when she was eighteen, which effectively ended all of her public appearances…" Max's voice hardened with hatred. "…not to mention any chance for real happiness…"

He paused to swallow the anger that thinking of Chris Santoro always caused to simmer in his veins. Taking a deep calming breath, Max continued. "I know all about it, mom." Max's gaze shifted to meet his mother's surprised expression. "I've known for a long time now. And despite whatever Kyle may have told you about how dangerous it would be for me to get involved with her…I can't help it."

He sat up and leaned forward, his whole demeanor coming alive with excitement and passion when the focus of his discussion shifted from the facts of Liz's life to everything that made her the woman he loved. "She's so amazing. So talented. These paintings of hers…" Max let out a sigh as a smile drifted over his lips. "They're just…the most incredible thing I've ever seen. And her voice….God, mom…she has the voice of an angel."

Max continued, the love in his voice increasing in intensity. "Everything about her calls to me. She's beautiful and funny and so full of so much love it's beyond amazing in a woman who has suffered so much. She's sharp and witty. And…if you could have seen some of the tricks she played on me when I first met her…" Max began to chuckle as memories warmed his eyes to a golden glow. "The woman is first rate crafty. She's my equal in every way, mom. **Every** way."

Voice softening, Max's eyes began to shine with an added light. "And she has a daughter. Jaedan. A little girl who has somehow managed to wrap me so tightly around her little finger…" Max chuckled at himself. "…and, you know, I don't even mind admitting that. Or that I want to make more like her, with Liz. I adore her, mom. I adore them both. I want so much to make them happy. To be everything they need. I just…"

"Can't find them." Diane finished for Max.

Max sank back against the couch in defeat. "Yeah. Because of Kyle."

"Honestly, Max…I don't think Kyle knows where she is." Diane supplied her opinion only to receive a grunt of disbelief and a roll of Max's eyes. "No, now, Max, I mean it. I asked him flat out the other day when we talked and told me he doesn't know."

"Oh, right. And Kyle's always been the picture of honesty. Come on, mom…"

"Max. He doesn't know." Diane's voice hardened.

Which got Max's attention. His eyes narrowed. "What makes you think so?"

"Because I can tell when my boys are lying to me about the important stuff. This Liz is definitely important to you. And to Kyle, believe it or not." Diane let out a sigh as her gaze shifted from Max's thoughtful expression. "And because something…bigger…seems to be on his mind."

Max's eyes narrowed even further. "Bigger…as in…"

"I've always known when either of you were on a mission, ok?" Diane's admission caused Max to blink in surprise. "You both thought you were so smooth. That your old mom never knew you were out risking your necks, saving the world. But I did."

"Mom, I…"

"Kyle doesn't know where she is, Max." Diane leaned over and covered Max's hand with hers. "You'll have to find her on your own. From what it sounds like, from what I picked up about her when she came that one day, she's very much like the wind, Max. She's as fresh as spring, but just as stormy. Wild and untamable. Blowing here and there with nothing stable to root her to the ground."

"She's too afraid to get tied down by complications or emotions too deep to dismiss. I could see the fear in her eyes that day when she was trying so hard to distance herself from you. Now I understand why. Max, she's a mother. And not just any mother, but a mother with an ex-husband who terrifies her."

"Mom, I know…"

"Max, please. Just let me say this just this once. You can disregard it or take it to heart, but at least let me say it ok?"

Max nodded his consent and Diane continued with a knowing smile. "You aren't a parent, Max. You simply can't understand what she's willing to sacrifice for her daughter. I know you adore this little girl. I know you think you want a family that includes her, but Max…you are not her father. You didn't create her or hope for her. Or dream about what she would be like and pray with all your might that she'd have all ten fingers and toes. You didn't watch her fight to be born or feel her wrap her tiny fingers around yours for the very first time. Liz did all of those things. And she did them alone."

"And she's been doing them alone ever since. I guarantee you for years she's seen herself as a mother first and a woman second. Or maybe not even at all. She's put all normal dreams and desires to the side in an effort to keep her daughter safe. And then here you come. Bold and stubborn and irritatingly wonderful. You make her feel things she's forgotten how to feel. You make her want to be a woman again. She has no idea what to do with you. Because what she may want with you conflicts with what her daughter needs. Or so she thinks."

"She doesn't know where to put you in her world of black and white, or whether to trust or not to trust. That terrifies her. Perhaps even more than her ex-husband. At least with him, she knows what to expect. With you…you are a surprise a minute. She is scared to death that she's going to trust the wrong surprise and it's going to land her and her little girl in a world of hurt."

Max's eyes snapped up to meet Diane's in earnest. "I would rather die than hurt them, mom."

Diane smiled at Max's sincere, passionate statement. "That's good to know, Max. Because that's the level of devotion she's going to require of you. It'll be up to you to prove to her that loving you won't trap her, Max. And that is going to take an incredible amount of understanding and love, but most of all it's going to take patience. A lot of patience."

Blue eyes met Max's as Diane patted his hand. "Son, do yourself and Liz a favor and be very, very sure that you have the stamina to go the distance. The worse thing you could ever do to her or that little girl is promise them you'll be there only to disappear when they need you the most because out of fear, Liz has pushed you one step too far."

Gazing down at his hands, Max's voice sounded small in the large room. "You don't think I can do this, do you? That I can love that deep…"

"Oh, Max…" Diane reached over and tilted Max's chin upward till he was looking at her. Dropping her hand as she gave an encouraging smile, Diane continued. "Son, I know you can. You are your father in so many ways. Not a day has gone by that I don't thank God he was too stubborn to let me push him away."

Max's eyes narrowed in confusion. "What are you talking about, mom?"

The expression on Diane's face said it all. She'd gone too far. Said too much.

Max sensed it and was immediately curious. "Mom, is there something about you and dad that you've never told me?"

Letting out a deep sigh, Diane nodded slowly. There was a moment of silence in which she seemed to be making a decision. When her eyes met Max's, it seemed she had. "I'm only telling you this because I think it will help you understand your situation with Liz. And you are not to say a word of this to your brother."

"O…k…"

She pulled in a steadying breath and swallowed hard. "Kyle is my Jaedan, Max."

"What?" Confusion registered instantly in Max's voice.

"Phillip is not Kyle's father. We met when Kyle was about one and a half and…"

"Wait. What…I…I don't understand. I mean…we knew you'd gotten married after Kyle was born, but we just assumed that…" Max held up his hand, his expression registering the shell shock he was feeling. "Mom, are you're telling me that Kyle is my half-brother?"

"Yes."

"But dad's never let on. I mean he's always treated us the same…"

"He loved Kyle from the beginning, Max. In his mind, Kyle is his son…just as much as you are. You never knew because Phillip is just amazing that way." Love for her husband shone out of her eyes. "I honestly don't think he remembers a time when Kyle didn't belong to him."

New questions bombarded Max's mind and spilled out of his mouth. "But…but if dad isn't….then who is Kyle's fa…"

Diane stopped his questions cold. "One day I will tell you everything, ok? I'll tell you the entire story beginning to end but right now what you need to know…what you need to understand is that I know where Liz is coming from. I was a single mother who was scared to death to let anyone get close." A remembering, bittersweet smile touched her lips. "I gave your dad one helluva time, let me tell you. But he never gave up. He stuck it out…even when I really believed I didn't want him to."

"Liz's situation sounds ten times worse than mine was. That you are in love right now is an amazing thing in and of itself, Max, but you have to understand…you're not in love with a normal girl in a normal situation. This is not going to be a bed of roses for you. I don't doubt that she's going to fight you tooth and nail every step of the way. And just like Liz wants to protect her little girl, I don't want to see you get hurt. You may give this all you've got and still not end up with the girl, Max. Are you really ready for that possibility."

Answering slowly but honestly, Max's expression was one of confident resolve and innocent sincerity. "I guess I have to be, mom. Isn't that why it's called unconditional love?"

A slow smile lit Diane's eyes as she appraised her son. Love and approval radiated in her expression. "You really are your father's son." She reached out and touched the side of his face with a motherly caress. "I am so very proud of you."

"That makes two of us."

Max and Diane glanced in the direction of the voice to see Phillip Evans leaning casually against the wall. Giving his wife and son a smile, Phillip quirked an eyebrow in Diane's direction. "If you're done lecturing our boy do you think I could borrow him for a bit?"

Diane's smile was bright as she winked at Max. "Yeah, I think I can spare him for a while. I'm sure he's tired of hearing me talk."

"Never." Max answered with a grin before adding his sincere gratitude. "Thanks for the advise, mom. It means a lot to me."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. You'll probably forget every word the second you're out the door."

"Not **every** word." Max teased in response and leaned over to kiss Diane on the cheek after whispering, "I love you."

"We're taking the truck to the fields. Go on out, I'll be there in a sec." Phillip addressed Max and winked at Diane as Max slipped past him and headed outside. Once the door had closed, Phillip advanced into the room. "So you told him."

Diane nodded. "Seemed the right time."

"Yeah, it sounded like it." Running and gentle hand over Diane's hair, Phillip smiled down at her. "Is this the real deal with Max and this girl?"

Diane looked up and nodded. "Sure sounds like it. Be gentle ok? He's our sensitive one."

"Are you kidding?" Phillip chuckled and leaned down to kiss Diane gently on the lips. He grinned devilishly when he pulled back. "I'm gonna give him all the dirt on his dear ol' mom…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"You're mom's the talker in the family, Max." Phillip Evans was leaning against the hood of his truck looking out over the fenced in fields where several horses were grazing. Max, perched on top of the hood, glanced down taking in his father's profile. Phillip continued with a smile and a shrug. "I guess all I wanted to really say was that I've been where you are. Or…at least pretty close. If you need to talk or vent, someone to bounce ideas off of or get advice from…you know your way home. And uh…you have my number. Call anytime you need me."

A warm smile haunted Max's lips as his gaze shifted out to the field his father was watching with such intense interest. "Thanks, dad." After a moment's silence, Max ventured into an area he wasn't quite sure his dad would be willing to talk about. "Dad…why didn't you or mom ever tell us about Kyle?"

Phillip glanced up at Max and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "Because of your mother. Things were pretty rough for us in the beginning, Max. At one point it became clear that if we were to ever move forward together, we'd have to ignore the past. So, we drew a line in the sand and everything before that just…didn't exist. That included Kyle's father and that whole relationship. It was the only way your mom and I could survive."

"And that really worked?"

"For us…yeah."

Deep in thought, Max began to play with a piece of straw he'd found on his clothes. Phillip glanced up at Max, his eyes narrowing in curiosity. "What are you thinking?"

Max shrugged and let out a deep breath. "Just that I'm not so sure Liz and I have the kind of pasts that we could do that with. You know, it'd be great if we could just act like none of it ever happened, but…"

Phillip shook his head as he pursed his lips. "I said it worked for your mom and me, Max. That doesn't mean its right for everyone. If you both have pasts that need to be dealt with, then deal. Once you've done that, they shouldn't be issues any more."

"Yeah, I guess you're right. It's just…"

"Hard." Phillip supplied the word when Max paused searching for it.

"Yeah." Max agreed quietly. "Like…how do I tell a woman who is terrified of her ex-husband that I caused my own fiancee's death? Doesn't seem the best way to win her trust, you know?"

Phillip turned to face Max and put a reassuring hand on his knee to get his attention. Max refused to meet his father's eyes. "Son…everybody and their brother knows that wasn't your fault. Everybody it seems, except you. I know one thing for sure, she'll never be able to move past it if you can't. And as for winning her trust, you have to give it to get it, Max. Maybe this thing with McKenna's where you need to start."

As if signaling the close of that particular subject, Max slid off the hood of the truck and dropped to the ground with a dull thud. Walking to the fence he leaned against it and smiled at the sight of horses playfully chasing each other across the field. Phillip took Max's cue and joined him at the fence, his eyes focusing on one particular horse in the far corner of the field. Nodding in the chestnut beauty's direction, Phillip began to smile. "Remember her?"

A wide grin was Phillips response when Max's gaze fell on the familiar mare. "Of course. Wind Chaser. First horse I ever broke in."

Phillip chuckled beside Max. "That wasn't a horse. That was your mom's worse nightmare. You have no idea how many times I had to stop her from shipping it to the nearest horse farm just to keep you safe." Shaking his head in remembrance, Phillip's smile deepened with pride. "I had to keep telling her you knew what you were doing, but all those bruises you kept getting from falling and getting knocked down didn't seem to convince her any. So glad it turned out I was right. Twelve years old and you broke in the wildest, most untamable horse in the yard."

"I still remember that day so clearly. Kyle ran in yelling "Max roped the Wind! Max roped the Wind!" Phillip chuckled. "Of course we had no idea what he was talking about until he dragged us to the corral. There you were with a rope around Wind Chaser's neck, leading her around like she'd been born to take directions. Jake said he'd never seen anything like it. Of course that was just the first step in breaking her, but…"

Phillip continued, opening the heart of a father that was normally kept hidden. Big and warm and usually only pulled out on special occasions. This was one of them. "I was so proud of you. You know, every report card you brought home from school proved how brilliant you were, Max. But it was here you proved just how brave you are. How brilliant you are, how strong…" Phillip tapped his finger against his chest. "…in here." He paused a moment as glanced at Max in time to see him swallowed back the emotion that was lodged in the middle of his throat. "Remember how you did it?"

Max cleared his throat and nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I uh…I'd sleep in the hay in her stall at night. Thought maybe if I smelled like hay she wouldn't mind me being around so much."

"Till mom put a stop to that." Phillip reminded Max with a gentle nudge.

Max grinned and nodded. "Yeah. She didn't think that was too safe. So, the next plan…I would dip my hands in molasses and cover them in oats. That particular day, she'd eaten everything off my one hand and while she was concentrating on the other, I slipped the rope on her neck and led her around by teasing her with the rest of her treat."

Scrutinizing his son through narrowed, perceptive eyes, Phillip propped his chin on his hands. "What gave you the idea to do that anyway?"

Max shoved his hands into his pockets as he watched Wind Chaser run across the field like a streak of beautiful lightening. A light of pride danced in his eyes. "She liked it. Molasses and oats. It was the only thing that seemed to calm her down when she'd get temperamental. So, I figured if I could become what she liked, maybe she'd like me. Took a lot of patience, but it actually worked."

"Like I said…brilliant." Phillip confirmed quietly.

At the tone of Phillips's voice, Max glanced at his father who raised a knowing eyebrow in response. Max tilted his head to the side as the unspoken message passed between father and son. Phillip verbalized it. "You know, I heard your mom say Liz was like the wind. From what I hear, she's very much like a certain wild, untamable horse you knew once upon a time."

Max began to grin and his eyes began to sparkle with understanding. "Yeah. I…I can see that."

"Some people need to be gentled into love, Max. Just like Wind Chaser. You tried several methods before you finally found the one that worked. You never gave up until she was yours. And now…you've got another 'Wind' to rope. Only this one will be much more rewarding when you finally do."

Max reached out and put his hand on Phillip's shoulder, his heartfelt gratitude flowing with sincerity and ease. "Thank you, dad. I…I needed to be reminded of that."

Phillip patted Max's hand with a teasing grin. "Like I said, I'm not the talker in the family…"

Max began to chuckle when his phone suddenly interrupted the tender moment between father and son. Clicking his phone on, Max's smile disappeared when he heard the voice on the other end responding to his "Max here."

“Max?” The tiny voice preceded a very loud sniffle.

Max’s eyes widened in shock, his heart pounding with sudden hope. Hope he wasn’t quite sure he could trust. Maybe he was just hearing things…

The voice spoke again. “Max? Mr. Prince Charming, ya there?”

Shutting his eyes against the sting prickling in his eyes, Max grabbed hold of the fence for support and nodded though Jaedan certainly couldn’t see him. When he spoke her name, his voice was thick with emotion. “Jaedan?”

Another sniffle. “Uh-huh.”

Max’s protective senses were immediately alert and panic raced through his eyes. “Princess, what’s wrong?”

“I don’t like it here.”

Max's eyes connected with his now alert father. “Sweetheart, where are you? Is…is Kendall there?”

“No…she’s…she’s…” Max’s question prompted a renewed wail as Jaedan’s sniffles turned to full-blown tears interspersed with barely discernible words. “I…wanna go…home...”

Max’s heart ached for her. He wanted so much to just reach out and hold her. But he couldn’t. Distance and ignorance of her location prevented him. “Jaedan, sweetie, listen to me. I know you’re upset right now, honey, but we can’t talk unless you stop crying, ok? I’ve missed you so much and I really want to talk to you…find out what you’ve been up to. Do you think you can try to stop crying so we can do that? For me? Please…”

“Kay.” Another stifled sniffle greeting him.

Tears sprang to Max's eyes as his heart slammed against his chest. He could hear her struggling to keep her tears in check and Max smiled through the phone at her effort. "Ok, angel. Now tell me what's wrong."

“I had a night gal’p.”

“A night gal’p." Max repeated, shaking his head in confusion. "Honey, I don’t know what that is.”

“Scarwy mo'sters and…and the Evil Wizard. He…he got my mommy."

"Ok, I got it now." A measure of relief raced through Max. Bad dreams he could handle over the phone. Potentially real danger would be much more difficult to pull off. "You had a nightmare."

"No. I had a night gal'p." Jaedan responded in her typically persistent way.

Tears of joy brightened Max's eyes as he chuckled at that stubbornness he'd missed so much he couldn't help but verbalize it. "Oh, sweetheart, I have really missed you." Letting out a sigh of relief he didn't realize he'd been holding, Max sank against the fence and ran his fingers through his hair as he shifted his inquiry to other things. "Honey, is grandnanny with you?

“Uh-huh.”

“Then why didn’t you tell grandnanny you had a night gal'p?”

“Cuz she’s sweepin’. I…I miss you, Max.”

“Oh, sweetie…me too." Max glanced at his father and gave him a reassuring smile to let him know everything was alright on the other end of the phone before turning his full attention back to Jaedan. "How did you get my number?”

“I ‘memberded it.”

“Of course you did. You’re such a smart little princess.” Sinking down onto grass in front of the fence, Max's complete attention was on his phone call and Phillip stood back watching his son with increasing interest. “Do you want to tell me about your nightmare?”

“No.”

“Ok, you don’t have to. Do you want to make up a fairy tale with me?” Had Max been looking at Phillip, he would have seen both eyebrows rise in surprise and his mouth open in amazement.

“I don’t believe in fairy tales no more.”

“Oh, Jaedan…” Max’s throat choked off at the thought of a little girl so full of dreams closing herself off to the possibility of them all. Resting his forehead against his hand, Max's eyes squeezed shut and his voice softened. “I wish I was there to hug you right now.”

“Me too.”

Brightening with an idea, Max sat up straight. "Honey, do you know what city you're in?"

"No."

"Ok. Are you living with someone or are you and Grandnanny in your own house? Or apartment? Maybe a hotel room…"

"We're in a house all 'lone. By ou'selfes. And there's no garden or…or Booty." Jaedan started to tear up again. "Max, we had to leave Booty behind..."

"It's ok, honey. We'll get you another Beauty if Grandnanny says its ok. Alright?" Max desperately wanted to keep the conversation focused on figuring out their location. It was at that point he was damning himself for not having the tracker equipment needed to trace their call. "Does grandnanny have a phone book?"

"Uh-huh."

Excitement began to dance in Max's eyes. "Do you know where it is?"

"Uh-huh."

Punching the air in victory, Max tried to control the tremor in his voice. "Do you know your alphabet?"

"Uh-huh."

A bright smile lit Max's whole expression. "Ok. This is what I want you to do. I want you to get the phone book, ok? And I want you to tell me the very very first letter on the top of the book."

"Kay." Max could hear her scuffling feet as she raced to follow his instructions. Max glanced up at Phillip with a bright grin. He covered the mouthpiece. "She's getting the phone book. Maybe I can figure out where she is."

"Then what?" Phillip asked not quite sure what he was witnessing.

Max's brows knit in confusion that the question had to even be asked. "Then I'll go to her. What else?"

"Max…is it safe?"

Determination flashed through Max's eyes. "I'll make it safe, dad."

"Mr. Prince Charming?"

"Yeah, honey." Hearing Jaedan calling him, Max immediately turned his attention back to the phone. "Did you find it?"

"Uh-huh."

"Ok. What's the first letter?"

"Uh…I fink it's a D."

"D. Ok. What's the next letter?"

Silence met Max's question and he could hear her reciting her A, B, C's under her breath till she came up with the right letter. "E."

Max shook his head and smiled into the phone. "Great job, angel. Now, what's the next letter?"

"Oh, I don't know dis one."

"That's ok, sweetie." Max pursed his lips a moment as his mind was trying to run through the names of major cities that started with DE. "Why don't you tell me the letter after that?"

"Ummm…I don't know dis one either. Oh! But I know what it looks like."

Max chuckled at the excitement in her voice. "Ok, then. Tell me what it looks like."

"It looks like a bwird."

"A bird." Max repeated with a baffled expression.

"Uh-huh. Like in the sky. When it's weally, weally high up."

Max looked up at Phillip and covered the mouthpiece again, lowering his voice to a whisper. "Is there a letter that looks like a bird in the sky?"

Phillip thought for a moment as he mentally ran through the alphabet then shrugged his shoulders. "The only thing I can think of is a V."

Max snapped his fingers. "That's it. Thanks, dad." Speaking back into the phone, he continued his conversation. "Jaedan, tell me the letter after that."

"It's an E."

"Alright. So we have D. E. Letter we don't know. V. E…" Max's eyes snapped up to meet Phillip's. "Denver."

Phillip grinned and pride and nodded. "Denver."

Max sighed into the phone. "Angel, you are the best. Now I need you to look at one more thing for me ok?"

"Kay."

"I want you to look at your phone and tell me if there are numbers written on it. On the inside where the buttons are."

"Uh…" Max could hear Jaedan fumbling with the phone and he couldn't stop the grin on his face. For weeks he'd been searching. Countless hours he'd poured into phone calls and asking for favors. He'd made personal appeals to friends, like Alex, and had searched for his brother to get even the slightest hint of where Liz and Jaedan could be.

All it took was a phone call. One lonely little heart reaching out across the miles to connect with a Mr. Prince Charming she barely knew but trusted with everything she had. Max felt tears of relief and joy stinging the back of his eyes. For the first time in weeks, he felt a sense of real hope. And a confidence wash over him that whispered everything was going to turn out just the way it was meant to.

"Kay." Jaedan's voice pulled Max back to the present. "Got it! There's a five. Then anodder five. Then anodder five."

Max glanced at his dad and made a writing motion with his hand. Phillip pulled out a pen and small note pad out of his pocket and handed them to Max. "Alright sweetie. That was 555…what's the rest?"

"Uh…eight. Then one. And a fwor. Then eight."

Writing each number as Jaedan said it, Max began to nod his head. "You are the most amazing princess I have ever met, do you know that?" Jedan giggled into the phone and Max couldn't help chuckling along with her before sobering a moment to give further instructions. "Listen, honey…what we just did…you giving letters and numbers to me over the phone…I don't want to do that with anyone else, ok? And don't tell Grandnanny that you talked to me. Don't even tell her you made the call. Alright?"

"Kay."

"You understand about not giving out your letters and numbers to anyone else, right? It's very, very important that you don't."

"How come?"

Max leaned back against the fence again and let out a sigh. "Because I'm going to come visit you and I want it to be a surprise, ok?"

He could hear the gasp in her voice and the tears that were certainly shining in her eyes. "You are? Weally, weally are?"

"I really, really am." Max grinned up at his dad as his eyes began to shine with anticipation. "In fact, I'll be seeing you tomorrow."

The gasp was extra loud this time. Max began to chuckle at Jaedan's sudden exuberance. "Oh! You gonna come t'morra?"

"Yes, angel. Tomorrow. Until then…" Max stood up and tore the paper off the note pad and handed it back to his father with a nod of thanks. "Do you have Boo Boo Bear?”

“Uh-huh."

The grin on Max's face couldn't be erased now. "Ok. I want you to get Boo Boo Bear and hug him reeeeally tight, ok?" Max's eyes drifted closed as a dream of his whispered across the miles to a little girl who understood better than anyone in the world exactly what Max was feeling. "That's your hug from me, princess. See, Boo Boo Bear and I are connected and he'll keep you safe and he'll keep you warm just the way I would if I were there. Nothing bad can touch you now. Not the Evil Wizard or the scary monsters in your night gal'p as long as you're holding Boo Boo Bear. Just don't let go until I get there, ok?"

"Kay." There was one slight pause, then Jaedan melted Max's heart all over again. "I wuv you, Max."

Max swallowed back the tears that threatened to fall as his smile deepened. "I love you too, princess. I'll see you tomorrow…"

As soon as the call was ended, Max hit his speed dial. "Tom. It's me. I need the jet ready to roll in an hour." Max's eyes met his father's. "Destination…Denver." As soon as he clicked off the phone, he headed toward the truck followed by Phillip.

Slipping into the seat, he glanced at Max before putting the key in the ignition. "You're sure about this, son?"

Gaze focused on a galloping beauty across the field, Max's eyes danced with passionate determination. "Oh, yes. It's been way too long since I've roped the wind, dad. Way too long…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
(Present day)


Eyes never wavering from hers, he closed the distance between them in a heartbeat. Slowly, seductively circling Liz, Max unconsciously breathed in her scent as if it were the sweetest thing in the world and smiled into her hair when he finally stopped behind her. She could feel his chest rising and falling against her back with each gentle breath. Eyes fluttering closed, Liz fought the urge to lean back against him when his feather-light fingers slid down her arm to engulf her hand in his. Liz shivered when he swept her hair out of the way, his fingers tangling in the long strands, his heated breath tickling her ear. "Rachel Harris, you and I…have a lot to talk about..."

Liz's chest rose and fell as quick, ragged breaths and her head began to spin dizzily from a sudden lack of air. Her mouth was instantly dry and her words were pushed out in incoherent, out of order phrases. "About Rachel…talk you…we…a lot…" She shook her head slightly as if to clear her thoughts. "I…I mean…we talk…"

Max's light chuckle in her ear sent the blood rushing to her cheeks, heating them with inner flames of passion. The light brush of his fingertips running up her arm caused her body to visibly shudder. Running his fingers back down her arm, he leaned into her making sure his entire body was in contact with hers. Liz sighed as she leaned back against him, swallowing hard at the sensations that action alone sent through her entire body.

She was floating on a cloud. Every inch of her was relaxed. She could barely feel her toes in the haze of desire descending on her. And yet, she was completely alive. Vibrating with intense energy. Nerves taut and eager with anticipation.

The heat from his breath was moist against her skin as he continued to whisper in her ear. "Relax. This can be as painless as a kiss. Or…" Max moved to whisper in her other ear. "…as excruciating as a board meeting at the Graham's…"

A smile started on her lips at his inside joke but morphed into a surprised gasp when Max's hands swiftly moved to her waist and spun her around. Her chest hitched breathlessly and her hands instinctively grabbed hold of Max's shoulders for support. Intense midnight gaze locked on her lips, Max unconsciously licked his own lips. "I prefer…a kiss…" He leaned in ever so slightly. Liz mirrored his action with half closed eyes.

Mimicking the action of a kiss, Max's lips never once touched hers as his nose lightly nuzzled hers, teasing her with the promise of things to come then pulling back only to repeat the action like a perfectly timed dance. Tormenting. Seducing. Enticing.

An almost inaudible sound of frustration escaped from the back of Liz's throat as she licked her lips in helpless anticipation. A sexy smirk lifted one corner of Max's lips knowingly and his eyes danced with devilish delight as his hands fanned out over Liz's hips pulling her lower body into him. The whisper was breathed tauntingly against her lips. "Tell me what you want. Right here. Right now."

Fingers curling into the material of his suit jacket, Liz's eyes drifted closed as she leaned toward him. Her one word answer echoed breathlessly through the room. "You."

Liz instantly felt a chill sweep through her body as Max ceased all contact and stepped back from her, tilting his head to the side apologetically. "Sorry. I'm not on the menu for lunch." One playful wink and Max breezed past her, heading straight toward the door. Liz blinked in surprise at how swiftly the atmosphere changed from sultry seduction to casual amusement.

She turned around to see his retreating back and Max continued speaking as if the last few minutes had never happened. As if the ground beneath his feet wasn't shaking. As if he hadn't been envisioning the two of them performing the most intimate of acts on Liz's office desk. His tone was light and irritatingly calm. "Although, I'm sure the chef would be more than happy to prepare anything your little heart desires."

Opening the door Max turned toward her and gestured at the hall with an upraised eyebrow, twinkling eyes and a winning smile. "Shall we, Ms. Harris?"
Tbc…


[ edited 1 time(s), last at 28-May-2002 12:29:09 AM ]
posted on 2-Jun-2002 8:00:25 PM by Ashton
Hey all!!!

Here's the next part. Hope you enjoy!!! Definitely having fun with this one!!! As usual, I love hearing what you think!!! Thanks ever sooo much for the support!!! *happy* I'll either be working on the next part of this or TWT next so look for either one soon! *happy*

BehrHugs,
Ashton
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

~ chapter 4 ~


Liz Parker's blood was boiling. Her face was flushed. Her eyes, glazed.

With anger. With frustration. With embarrassment.

She hadn't known what to expect from Max when he knocked on the door of her office. She still didn't.

That he could relentlessly tease her as some sort of twisted form of revenge was certainly within the grasp of his personality, his capabilities and his irresistible charm. But that she would fall for it so swiftly and so completely…well, that was just something that would not…could not happen again. Ever.

That was twice now…twice…that he had asked her what she wanted and that one word 'you' had slipped…no, **raced** out of her mouth as naturally is if she were breathing. What in God's name was she thinking? Ah, but **that** right there would be the problem. She wasn't thinking. She was responding. She was reacting. She was letting him call the shots.

Well, THAT portion of the play was over.

With a man like Max Evans there was a well spring of carefully concealed emotions lying just under a well-crafted surface. Just waiting to break free. She had learned that lesson very well that day in his office. The passion with which that man could respond to her was downright frightening…and oh, so very exhilarating. He had the power to make her feel…irresistible. And that was something she hadn't felt since…well, never.

She could use that to her advantage. His obvious attraction and intense desire for her. If only she dared. But that was a very, very high, dangerous tight rope she'd have to walk if she went that direction. Too dangerous. Way too dangerous. So, perhaps that wasn't the best way to handle Max Evans at this point. Especially since the track record so far showed that he would end up being the one to handle her…not the other way around. It was equally obvious that there was a multitude of normal, instinctive responses just waiting to be tapped from the depths of Max's buried heart. Responses she could prompt and exploit.

Because, obviously, he wasn't acting normal for a man in his situation.

He'd been jilted. In a fairly cruel way.

He shouldn't be smiling and teasing and acting as if that day in his office had never happened. Or, at least the portions of it that were painful. And he shouldn't be acting as if she'd dropped off the face of the earth and they hadn't had contact of any kind since. Or, for that matter, he shouldn't be oblivious to the fact that his fiancee of fifteen minutes was now sporting a brand new name.

He should be hurt. Curious. Angry. And…vindictive.

Not sexy. And charming. And…polite.

That was what bothered her. His politeness. His…controlled air of cultured geniality. As if she were just some other person he'd just met instead of the woman he'd asked to spend the rest of his life with. Granted, she highly doubted he would have come on as strongly and seductively to someone he'd just met the way he had just done with her, but that made his distant, obligatory smiles cut even more deeply.

Confused, baffled and utterly at a loss, Liz Parker would simply have to make it up as she went along. And hope to God he didn't try to kiss her…

"Mmmm. Looks like something's been aroused." The seductive, double-edged words were lightly breathed in Liz's ear as Max stepped close behind her after shutting her office door.

Instantly frozen in place, Liz glanced up at him, her eyes wide with surprise at his bold words. And at the way he was touching her as one hand heavily rested against her hip, fingers curling into her flesh, teasingly light. Alluring possessive. Calculatingly tantalizing.

Liz's cheeks burned bright as the heat of his touch melted through the fabric of her skirt and seared her skin. Max responded with a knowing smirk.

Dark eyes locked with Liz's began dancing with devilish delight as Max quirked an eyebrow toward the waiting staff to clarify his comment. "Curiosity. Suspicions. Innuendo." Turning toward the seemingly abundant number of office staffers, Max's smirk deepened as one more whisper directed into her ear sent a shiver racing through Liz. "Looks like you and I have created quite a stir."

Liz's gaze shifted to her co-workers as they milled around office spaces, desperately trying to act as if they were working when in reality they were all waiting anxiously to watch the dynamic duo's interaction with each other. And to divvy up their bets as to exactly what happened in Liz's office the second Max and Liz walked out the door.

Liz stiffened and squared her shoulders as a furious blush flooded her cheeks. "Let's…just go."

Tilting his head in deference to her request, Max held out the hand not touching her as his other gave the curve of her hip a lingering caress before moving to the small of her back. "Ladies first…"

A forced smile tightened her lips as she walked down the hall with him. Acutely aware of every last eye on their retreating forms, Liz's gaze remained steadfastly locked on the exit sign. She forced her body not to feel the intense heat radiating off of his body as his very presence threatened to engulf her.

He was doing it again. He was being polite. Way too polite.

The warm hand at the small of her back that lightly guided her from her office down the hall, out the lobby and toward his waiting car was…gentlemanly. A complete contrast to his behavior of only seconds before. To the heated words whispered in her ear. To the predatory way he'd circled her, igniting a fever in the pit of her stomach. His nods to the staff they passed, genial and stately. Like a king imparting his passing blessing to a waiting, curious crowd. His practiced smile never quite reaching the depths of his eyes.

The casual flair with which he slipped his sunglasses on only seconds before stepping into the hot California sun caused Liz to shiver involuntarily. The sheer presence of power and confidence lived in the air surrounding him. It took everything in Liz's power not to be affected by it. Drawn into it's warm. Overcome by its intoxicating influence.

Opening the passenger door to a sports car waiting by the curb, the smile that haunted Max's lips matched the aura of the jet black Jaguar. Sleek. Dark. Dangerous. Predatory. Breath catching in her chest, Liz stared at Max a moment, uncertainty dancing in her eyes. An arrogant smirk curled the corner of his lips upward as Max tilted his head toward the open door. She didn't have to see his eyes to know what was waiting for her there…an obvious unspoken challenge dancing, hidden behind his sunglasses. Liz's chin instantly raised in defiance as she quirked an eyebrow at him and slipped into the leather interior with much more confidence than she was feeling.

As Max shut the door behind her and rounded the front of the car, Liz could feel a heated flush rising on her cheeks. His focused gaze bypassed midnight sunglasses to pierce her through the windshield. Though unseen, she could feel its blaze. Intense. Intimidating. Mesmerizing.

It took him only a matter of seconds to reach the driver's door and as he slipped behind the wheel, Liz Parker stiffened perceptibly in her seat. Eyes steadfastly focused on the chaotic world just beyond the car, she steeled herself against the butterflies dancing in her stomach. Her fingernails bit into her leather seat and her feet unconsciously braced against the floorboard as she readied herself for whatever form of punishment he planned to dish out now that they were truly alone.

Anticipatory silence reigned as Max's focus shifted to safely pulling his car onto the busy L.A. road and only once they'd reached a reasonable speed of travel did Max attempt any sort of conversation. Once he did, Liz Parker couldn't believe her ears.

"So, Rachel…" Max hooked his index finger over his glasses to pull them down the bridge of his nose revealing those mesmerizing amber eyes of his as he cast a sidelong glance in Liz's direction. His infuriating politeness continued as an inquiring eyebrow raised. "May I call you Rachel?"

The question caught Liz completely off guard. She just stared at him, her eyes wide with bewilderment. Rachel? He was still going to address her as…Rachel? She'd expected anything but that. She'd expected questions or recriminations or the infuriatingly frustrating teasing or…hell, she didn't know what she was expecting, but it certainly wasn't to still be addressed as Rachel when they were alone.


Seeing he'd caught her off guard, a slight shrug of Max's shoulders was her response as he turned his attention back to the road. Not before Liz caught a glimmer of amusement in his eyes that clearly made its way to his voice. "I guess I can take **that** as a yes that'll stick longer than it takes to walk out of a room."

Instantly hit by Max's not so subtle jab, Liz's chest hitched as she lost her breath mid-inhale. She opened her mouth to speak. "I…" Max continued as if he didn't even notice.

"So, Rachel. Stephanie has told me a lot about the work you've done at ACC. I'll admit, I'm very impressed. That doesn't happen often, just so you know. And I thought since we'll be working together closely on this project that perhaps we can get to know each other on a more…personal level." Deferring to her with a slight inclination of his head, he added with a seemingly endless level of cultured politeness. "That is…if you have no objections."

Barely waiting for the helpless sound of response to escape Liz when she opened her mouth to speak, Max once more continued as if her agreement or protest were of no real concern to him. "If you've heard anything about me at all, I'm sure you've heard that I have a reputation for being ruthless in business. I'm also known for being clever, crafty, a complete shark in the boardroom with few rivals who can truly best me out of any deal. And anyone who does, finds their way to the short end of a long stick before they can even blink." Pride and arrogance laced his words and there was a decided flash of conceit in his eyes. "I'm the best. Everyone knows it."

A sexy smirk flitted across his lips as he glanced at Liz. "The same, I'll admit, has been said of my, uh…" Max paused and pursed his lips as if looking for the right word. Having found it, his eyebrows wiggled suggestively in time with the deliverance of his chosen vocabulary. "…talents…in the bedroom." His smirk deepened and a sly wink sailed Liz's way. "But I'll leave you to judge that one for yourself."

Glancing in the rearview mirror with an air of nonchalance, Max smoothly maneuvered the car into the next lane. Liz took the opportunity to once more try to get a word in. "Max…"

A word was all she got.

"Truth is, Rachel…I'm not as bad as they say. In fact…" He leaned over in his seat and lowered his voice as if imparting some great conspiratorial secret about himself. "I'm actually a one woman guy. And…I must admit, I come with a sob story that usually gets me a lot of sympathy sex offers." Letting out an exaggerated sigh, Max shook his head in disapproval and Liz could just imagine the roll of his eyes behind the dark sunglasses he'd pushed back up to his eyes. "You have **no** idea how many..."

As if ticking off each offer with his fingers, Max's lips pursed in concentrated thought. "We're talking Kiki in Kauai. Simone in Paris. Tawny in Monaco. Marguerita in Madrid. Oh, and let's not even count the marriage proposals. God, Diana was positively relentless, insisting on a quick trip to her villa in the Greek Islands for ocean side nuptials. And that was on the night we met. Oh, and Amanda…the woman had the entire wedding planned before we ever laid eyes on each other. Apparently she'd seen my picture in a magazine and assumed she was the one and only that could tame this tiger. I had to duck out on her when she went to powder her nose or else I would be a married man today. Then there was Bambi." Max slipped Liz a reminding look. "Old flame of mine. Dumb as a surfboard, but God, does she have a body…"

"Max, I **really** don’t want to hear…." Terse and full of envy, Liz attempted to stop his non-stop ramble about the women of the world that wanted him.

"Oh, don't worry." Max held up a hand of silence as he bit back a smile of amusement and decided to relieve and push the envelope all in the same breath. "I didn't actually take anyone up on those offers. Although, let me tell you…very, very tempting. I mean, what red blooded American man wouldn't be tempted by weekends in various paradises with perfect models that have legs that go on for miles…" Shaking his head, Max released a low sigh of wistful regret. "….**very** hard to pass up."

"So…you may be asking yourself, why did I then?" Letting out another dramatic sigh, Max shrugged. "Like I said…sob story. See, I fell in love. I mean, we're talking head-over-heels, this is 'The One' kind of love. Even asked her to marry me, although if the rag mags get wind of this I'll deny every bit of it. Because you see, it's a little bit embarrassing. A confirmed playboy like myself nursing a broken heart doesn't really match the uh…persona…that I've tried so hard to cultivate."

"Max, please…"

Cutting her off abruptly, Max wagged his head from side to side as if chiding himself. "I know. I know. I'm stalling." Another deep sigh. "Alright. So, here's what happened. In a moment of spontaneous, unrestrained passion, I proposed." He glanced in her direction. Though she couldn't see his eyes, she could certainly hear the level of intimacy in his voice. "I really did. I mean…me of all people. I offered to chuck the single, playboy life and settle down to a life of wedded bliss. You know the kind I'm talking about, right? Complete with honor and love, trust, cherishing and all of that…"

Voice returning to self-depreciating humor, a sardonic smile skipped across his lips. "Well, let me tell you, never was a man more surprised than I was when she actually said yes. Of course, you'd have to know this particular woman to understand why that would be the case, but that's all beside the point because after agreeing to marry me…" Max paused to take a breath from his rambling sentence. "…she just…disappeared. Took off without a trace. Left no forwarding address. Never called…"

Taking his sunglasses completely off to cast a curious glance in Liz's direction, Max frowned slightly as he tilted his head to the side. "Huh. You know…now that I think about it…you kinda remind me of her…"

That was the last straw.

Liz had taken each jab in silence. She'd endure him going on about sexy models offering themselves to him. She'd even listened as he flippantly reduced their powerful connection to a few trite, over used phrases complete with the invisible quotation marked inflection of his voice. That he'd taken their…whatever…and turned it into a meaningless story to garner sympathy from the adoring female population of the world, made Liz's already simmering blood boil.

But when he still refused to acknowledge the seriousness of what happened between them by turning it into a joke…well, that's pretty much when Liz Parker exploded…

"Dammit, Max, would you just stop?!" The hitch in Liz's voice caused Max to slyly scrutinize her profile out of the corner of his eye. She was blinking rapidly a sure sign there were tears gathering behind those big doe eyes of hers. And she was biting her lower lip to keep an explosion from erupting unexpectedly.

He didn't want to hurt her, but he also couldn't help the flash of satisfaction that raced through him. Tears in this case could be a good thing. They meant she still had a heart. Still cared. Still felt things that Max was counting on her to feel.

To the casual observer, Max Evans was paying little to no attention to his passenger. She could have been a statue for all he allowed her to express herself and it wouldn't have made a difference to him. In fact, she was, for all intents and purposes, just a body with a pair of ears for him to ramble on about himself in a conceited, self-absorbed fashion.

That was to the casual observer.

At that moment, Max Evans couldn't have been further from the picture he was projecting. He heard every sharp intake of breath that had escaped Liz throughout his story. He noticed the way her knuckles changed from olive to death pale white when he was going on about meaningless sex during weekends in paradise. He saw the tremor of her lips when he admitted to being head over heels in love. And he watched her eyes drift closed in regret when he talked about her disappearance.

Still, he was tried to keep the façade in place.

Remaining innocently aloof, Max pretended to misunderstand her statement and appeared to be looking around as if he'd just missed something. "I'm sorry. Was there a store you needed to go to before lunch?"

Fury pouring out of her eyes, Liz swung in her seat to face him. "God, Max, would you just stop playing the damn mind games!"

"Frankly?" Though he tried to keep his tone light, there was an increased level of emotion. "I really don't think you could handle it if I did stop."

"Oh, really." Liz's voice hardened. "Well, I have news for you, Max Evans, I can handle anything honest you want to dish out. What you're doing now…it's just plain torture. It's obvious we have unfinished business so why not just get it out in the open and deal with it instead of this cat and mouse game you're playing, huh? Or maybe straightforward is just a little out of your league."

"Don't bet on that."

"Want to know what I think?" Liz crossed her arms in front of her. "I think you're playing games right now because you're the one who can't handle being real!"

Irritation instantly flared in his eyes turning them blacker than midnight. His jaw tightened in synch with his hands on the wheel. "Me? ME…not able to handle…" His gaze snapped to hers, a complete look of disbelief claiming his expression. His words came out clipped and terse. "You have some nerve. Who is the one who put their heart on the line huh? Yeah, me. And who's the one who walked away?" Eyebrows raising in triumph when Liz's gaze shifted uncomfortably, Max nodded once responding to her unspoken answer. "Exactly. Oh, and by the way, about not being real…it's nice to meet you Pot, my name is Kettle. I don't think we've met yet, but from what I hear you like to call me a lot of ugly names."

"This is ridiculous!" Liz practically yelled. Spinning back in her seat to face the front of the car, Liz let out an exasperated growl as she frantically push the hair back from her face in agitation. "Just…just take me back. Take me back to the office right now. Or…or drop me off at the bus station. Or…something. Anything. I just…I have to get out of here." Talking more to herself now than anyone else, Liz shook her head. "I have no idea what I was thinking. That you and I could actually have an honest to God conversation is so completely out of the realm of possibilities that I…"

Liz let out a squeal of surprise and alarm when Max jerked his car from the left lane across two lanes of traffic onto the shoulder, slammed the brakes on, shoved the gear into park and ripped his seatbelt off in one fluid motion. Liz Parker was in his arms in a heartbeat. Pressed between Max's body and the passenger side door, Liz had only a millisecond of warning in which the rest of the world faded into Max's midnight black eyes sparking with fire as they locked on hers. His heated whisper sent a current of electricity through her body. "You want to talk, baby, let's talk…"

Passion exploded between them like a time bomb that had just been waiting for the seconds to count down. Max's lips were the final detonation. Crushed in a blindingly intense kiss, Liz's felt as if her lips were on fire. Burning. Pulsating. Coursing with explosive energy. There was only a second of shock in which she didn't respond, then Liz Parker let out a moan of pleasure that reverberated from her body straight into his. Arms instantly circling his neck, Liz melted into Max Evans with an intensity that matched his ounce for ounce.

And Max was completely lost. Drowning in an ocean of staggering sensations. Reason erased, Max wasn't thinking of the silky hair slipping through his fingers. Or the warm, probing tongue relentlessly sliding along his. Or the soft, supple body curving into his like a perfectly matched instrument designed for his own unique brand of music. But he felt it all. Every frantic touch. Each penetrating kiss. The scrape of her fingers through his hair. Every tiny squeak, sigh, and moan that Liz made. They were all burned into his memory with perfect clarity.

Liz wasn't fairing much better in the thinking department. Sensations were clearly on overload. She'd ceased feeling the leather arm of the passenger door pressed uncomfortably into her back as the heat from Max's body washed over her. Feeling like a lump of clay being melted and molded into everything Max Evans wanted, Liz vaguely realized that every inch of her body became like Max's second skin. But she felt it all. Doubling her relentless pursuit of the tangy sweetness of his kisses, Liz knew that's where she wanted to live and breathe the rest of her life. In the depths of a Max Evans kiss. Sucking and prodding and penetrating so deep that she felt her entire soul being explored, there was so much passion, so much emotion conveyed in his kisses that Liz felt tears pressing the back of her eyes.

Then something amazing happened.

An unexpected tear fell.

Slipping past tightly closed eyes, the silver tear made an errant path down Liz Parker's cheek. And Max Evans felt it slip along his fingers as he caressed her face.

Any previous frustration-born passion melted into an overwhelming rush of love. The kisses slowed. And deepened. Even more emotion transferred from the heart of Max Evans through lingering kisses. Caresses became gentle, tender. In his arms, Liz Parker became a fragile treasure to be gingerly sheltered.

She shivered against the shift of emotion. Then she sighed into his mouth. It was the sigh of a wanderer coming home after a long, endless journey. A sigh of contentment and peace.

Needing air, Max pulled on Liz's bottom lip as he reluctantly ceased contact with the intimacy of her mouth. Leaning his forehead against hers, his ragged, shallow breathing matched hers. Thumb lightly brushing against swollen, red lips Max's eyes drifted closed as emotion slipped through his words. "Thank God you're still my wild, untamable wind."

Blinking back tears, Liz pulled back to look at him, her expression full of wonder and awe. Of all the things he could have said…of all the things he could be feeling… She simply stared at him trying to figure out what kind of man was sitting in front of her. His eyes opened to meet hers and his finger caught yet another tear as it tumbled helplessly down her face. "You're…you're not mad at me?

"Furious." Max whispered as he longingly traced the line of her lips once more. His eyes raised to meet hers with a hint of amusement. "But let's not go there just yet."

Liz squeezed her eyes shut and swallowed hard. She leaned back against the door and put her hands on Max's chest, feeling the heartbeat that pounded with such strength. Forcing herself to think and not feel, Liz's voice shook with emotion. "How did you find me?”

Liz’s question instantly sparked a memory from a month earlier…

“You can stop with the puppy dog eyes, Max. I’m not going to tell you where she is.”

Max let out a sigh as he pushed his dinner plate away from him. Eyes trained on Angel as she got up from her seat and began to clear away the table, he tried another approach that sounded very much like a little boy trying to convince his arch enemy on the playground that his dad is bigger and better than the other’s. “I’m going to find her, you know. I have connections. And money. Which, by the way, can be a very, very powerful combination.”

A slight, indulgent smile touched Angel’s lips as she glanced up at Max. “I’m sure they can be.” Pulling a towel from a drawer, she began to run water into the sink before adding dish soap. Max continued his appeal. “You really have no idea just how powerful. And you know, when I put my mind to getting something done, I get it done. And finding Liz is on the top of my priority list. So, finding her is pretty much a done deal.”

“I’m sure it is.” Angel replied calmly before turning the water off. Glancing back at the table, her eyes rested on the plate in front of Max. “No free loaders in this house, Mr. Rich and Powerful. Get your butt over to the sink and bring that plate with you.”

“Yes, mom.” Max teased with a chuckle as he slipped form his seat and delivered his dinnerware to Angel. When Angel handed Max the towel, a dark eyebrow raised teasingly. “I take it I’m drying?”

Angel nodded with a grin and began dipping dishes into the sink. After a few moments of silent cooperation, Angel handed a plate to Max and began stating her position slowly. “I can’t tell you, Max. No matter how much I may want to, I can’t. Liz is like my own daughter. The only real family I have left. I can’t go against her wishes. Not even for such a good cause as you.”

“And those wishes would be…?” Max prompted as he added a serving bowl to the pile of dry dished on the counter and took another that Angel was offering.

“For you not to find her.”

“I see.” Max’s hands abruptly stopped drying the dish in mid-swipe as he pursed his lips in thought. “Did she specifically state she didn’t want me to find her or does she just not want to be found…period?”

"She hasn't mentioned your name since the day she left New Haven. Stubbornly refuses to talk about you or whatever happened between you at your office. I'm assuming it was pretty intense considering her reaction every time I've tried to bring it up."

Max swallowed hard, his question a mere whisper. "What was her reaction?"

"Tears." The one word answer was enough for Max's own eyes to grow misty. Letting out a weary sigh, Angel paused, her gaze drifting out the window into the back yard where Jaedan was sitting on her swing playing with her doll. “I’m very glad you're here.”

The sadness in her voice caused Max to look over at her sharply. “You mean all of this stonewalling isn’t because you’re sore at me for showing up unexpectedly and blowing your cover?”

Shaking her head Angel's silence was finally broken with intense seriousness. "Do you know we almost didn't have a Jaedan to love? Or even Liz for that matter?" Max's eyes instantly followed Angel's gaze to rest on Jaedan playing quietly outside. He remained silent instinctively knowing Angel was about to give him another rare glimpse into the workings of Liz Parker's heart. As well as her own. "We had it all planned. Chris was out of town for a few days and Liz was to go about her normal routine so as not to raise any suspicions. And that night we were going to help her escape that monster."

Max's hands continued to dry absently…slowly, his attention on the story unfolding so vividly in his mind. "Chris found out somehow. I have no idea how…" Shoulders drooping wearily, Angel shook her head at the memory. "Everything was ready. Liz was halfway out the door when she remembered something important she'd forgotten. She ran back inside against our wishes and there Chris was. There was shouting and a scuffle. We could hear her hit the floor when he smacked her. Jay and Dan instantly ran in and got involved. Guns were fired…"

A thin film of tears filled Angel's eyes. "My husband and son were killed that night and Liz was critically wounded by a bullet that her own husband shot. The doctors weren't sure she would make it, let alone the baby. But they both pulled through. She had a difficult pregnancy because of it but…" Angel smiled with love and pride through her tears. "…the day that little girl was born was the best day. A new life. A new start. Liz named her in honor of my husband, Jay, and my son, Dan. Two very good men who simply tried to do what was right."

"My God." Overcome with horror at the events that night had put both women through, Max's voice was thick with unexpected emotion. "I'm…I'm so sorry, Angel."

"I didn't tell you for that." Angel's voice was tight with renewed grief. "I told you so you would understand the lengths Liz will go for her baby. The lengths we'll will both go. How hard she'll fight to keep her alive and safe. What she means to us…"

Max slowly put a dried glass on the counter then braced himself with both hands as he hung his head, his lips pursed in thought. His question was full of uncertainty and fear of impending rejection. "Do you want me to leave?"

"God, no." Angel answered quickly. Max's head snapped up at her response and his eyes warmed with relief when they met hers. "Now that you're here, I'm dreading the day you do leave. You have no idea what you're coming here has meant to me. To her…our little Jaedan…" Blinking back the tears of the past, Angel pulled in a steeling breath. “I’ve been so worried about her.”

Max’s gaze shifted back to the dark haired imp out in the back yard who had so completely captured his heart. “Why?”

“She’s been…” Angel paused trying to choose the right word. The only thing that came to mind was “…not Jaedan.”

Worry flashed in Max’s eyes. “What do you mean?”

“You know the excited little princess you fell in love with? The one that’s full of fairy tales and has an imagination that’s unrivaled by most adults let alone children her age?" At Max's silent nod, Angel continued. "Well, she’s been missing for a while now." Shrugging, Angel moved from the sink to wipe her hands on a towel lying on the counter. Turning she leaned against the counter to face Max. "At first it was all a game. Traveling from one city to another. That imagination of hers got to feast on so many new places she just stared in awe at times and jabbered endlessly about her new imaginary worlds at others."

"What changed?"

"Knowing there wasn't a city we were going to where her Kendall would be waiting for her. Realizing her Mr. Prince Charming wouldn’t be able to find her if she kept moving father and father away from her garden chapel where they met." Shaking her head, Angel's gaze shifted to a recent past that had been obviously difficult for her. "She’s been very withdrawn. She doesn’t talk about her fairy tales any more. Doesn’t have her ‘invincible’ subjects around her or her garden fancies. It's a fight sometimes just to get her to talk. And all of her childish excitement has just…disappeared." Eyes raising to meet Max's, Angel wearily sank further against the counter. “She is with me every day, Max, but I have missed her so much.”

“Then today…" A bittersweet smile touched Angel's lips. "…she was up before the sun. Bouncing around like a kangaroo with that old light in her eyes. Hugging Boo Boo bear as if he were her last friend on earth.” Her smile became warm as it reached her eyes. “I knew something was up. I should have known it was you.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because there are only two people in this world who light her up from the inside. You and Liz.” Taking a step forward, Angel placed a pleading hand on Max's arm. "I need you to stay, Max. I need you to be here longer than a day or two before you fly off again in search of Liz. I need her to believe again that the people she loves the most aren't going to abandon her."

"Has Liz had no contact with her?"

"Of course she has. Every night we call her on a secured line so they can talk. It's just not enough for Jaedan. For that matter, it's not enough for Liz, even though she'll never complain." Pleading eyes met his. "Please, Max. Tell me you'll stay. I…I know it's an inconvenience and that you have a life and don't need to be burdened with our problems…"

A warm hand covered hers as an equally warm smile reached his eyes. "I'll stay as long as you need me to, Angel…" Though his promise was secure, he couldn't help the teasing glint that flashed in his eyes as he tried to capitalize on his new found popularity. "…as long as you tell me where Liz is."

Relief washing over her, Angel rolled her eyes with a chuckle. "You are relentless."

"I'm in love." Max answered back quietly, his gaze not meeting hers. Shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other, Max stuffed his hands in his pockets, clearly still not used to the admission that was so obvious and so true. "None of this is a burden to me and I really don't have a life if Liz and Jaedan and you aren't in it. I can make her happy, Angel. I can make them both so happy. I just…I need the chance to prove that."

"And you'll get it, Max." Angel answered encouragingly. “Just as sure as I am that you will indeed find Liz.”

Eyes meeting hers questioningly, Max began to grin. "With your help?"

Taking a deep breath, Angel's eyes began to dance with conspiratorial mischief. "Now you know I can't tell you where she is, right? I've made my position on that subject perfectly clear…"

"Riight…" Max prompted with a devilish nod.

Pursing her lips, Angel shrugged nonchalantly as she once again picked up the towel and began to wipe down the counter. "I also can't stop you from sniffing around on you own, say…" Clearing her throat she glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. Almost bursting to laughter at the little-boy eagerness plastered on his face, Angel gave in, her voice lowering to a whisper." "…in the top drawer of my nightstand. In my address book. Looking for a new name that you happen to be very, very familiar with..."

Before Angel got the rest of the sentence out, Max had already disappeared from the room forcing Angel to call out after him. "Remember I told you nothing…"


"Max?" Liz's inquiring voice pulled Max back to the present. "How did you find me?"

“Here…under your seat. There’s a packet.” Leaning slightly forward, Max reached under Liz's seat, his hand in search of something. Pulling it out, Max sat back and held it out to her. Noticing Liz's hesitance, Max smirked at Liz. “It’s not going to bite you. Just…take a look.”

Biting her lower lip, Liz cautiously took the leather portfolio from Max and unzipped it. Flipping the cover open, her eyes immediately began to mist when her gaze fell on the first item inside. Fingers lovingly touched the top page and one whispered word slipped out of Liz's mouth. "Jaedan.”

"Jaedan." Max confirmed as he reached over and tapped the picture. "She painted a picture a day for every day you’ve been separated.” Max commented softly as he scrutinized Liz's expression. "She misses you so much."

Liz's gaze flicked up to meet his. "But how did you…"

"She called me one night." A bittersweet smile touched his lips in remembrance. "She'd had a…night gal'p."

Worry instantly raced through Liz's eyes and she sat up straight. "She had a nightmare? What…what was she…"

"She was terrified of never seeing you again." Max answered quietly, his gaze shifting from Liz's face to gaze at his hands. "Unfortunately, or I guess in this case it was a good thing for Jaedan…" Max wet his suddenly dry lips. "…I completely understood her fear."

"Max…"

"Don't, ok?" Max instantly held up his hand to stop any explanations. "I don't want your apologies or attempts to explain. Not yet." He let out a sigh and met her worried, pain filled gaze. "I just…I just want to sit with you right now and know that you're ok." Max gave her a pointed look. "Are you?"

Blinking at his penetrating gaze, Liz cleared her throat and shrugged nonchalantly. Her off handed remarks and forced excitement spoke volumes as to her state of mind. "Of course, I am. I mean…how can you not be ok in L.A.? With the beaches and the sun and all the stars you run into. You know, it's been really great. I've made great friends and love my job and my apartment is just great. Everything's really…great."

"Kendall." Liz's gaze snapped up to meet his at the use of her name as he knew it. A name she hadn't heard for two months. Max gently reached out and took her face in his hands, his intense penetrating gaze boring into her eyes as if he were searching for the answers of the universe. Having found what he was looking for, Max shook his head slightly. "You're not ok." Shifting back to his seat, Max reached up and grabbed his seatbelt locking it in place. "But it's alright. You will be." He turned the key in the ignition.

Confusion raced through her eyes as she watched Max instantly shift emotional gears. He clearly had more than lunch on his mind. "Max, where are we going…"

"Just trust me, ok?" Max looked back over at Liz, his determined expression softened with understanding. "Look…you're not going to lose anything by giving in just this one time. I promise I won't expect you to trust me tomorrow if that's what you're afraid of." Reaching over and taking her hand in his, Max's voice softened. "Just…trust me for today. For the next hour. That's all I ask. Can you do that?"

Fighting a well of tears at Max's innate goodness, Liz bit down on her lower lip and nodded silently. She received a warm smile in response and Max's hand drifted upward to softly caress her cheek. "Ok."

"Ok." Liz repeated softly before Max turned his attention to the road and their unrevealed destination.

Tbc…


[ edited 2 time(s), last at 2-Jun-2002 9:24:27 PM ]
posted on 9-Jun-2002 10:55:33 AM by Ashton
Hey all!!!

Well...I know this is not going to be what many of you were expecting, but believe me, Max is not through with Liz yet. Hope you enjoy! As always would LOVE to hear what you think!!!!! *happy* Thanks for all the amazing feedback!

BehrHugs,
Ashton

p.s. VERY HAPPY B-DAY to my good friend Angie!!! You're the best, dearie!!!
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

~ chapter 5 ~

The warmth of his body engulfed her. His intoxicating presence shifted in the air around her. His scent lingered in her lungs as she breathed him in.

Lightly putting his hands on her shoulders, Max stepped up behind Liz, his voice reverently soft in her ear. “What do you think?”

“It’s…amazing.” Eyes bright with wonder, Liz breathed in awe. Her voice was hushed as if she were afraid any normal speech would break the magical spell that washed over her the moment she stepped foot inside the place. "Like a private paradise…"

She could feel Max’s smile warm the air around her as he let his hands drift down her arms before he moved to stand beside her. His own gaze drifted over the tumbling waterfall beneath their feet. “I thought you’d like it here.”

'Here' was an exceptionally large indoor garden that very much resembled the Garden of Eden. Not an inch of wall space on either side could be seen for the forest of trees and vines crawling lazily upward. Where foliage didn't rule, an artists' brush had rendered the cedar walls as a backdrop for a peaceful sky hovering over jutting, snow-capped mountaintops. The ceiling was a glass dome that ushered each ray from the sun and every stormy cloud into the atmosphere of the garden while controlled climate created the perfect balance of a breezy, exotic ambiance.

Modeled after ancient oriental landscapes, Max and Liz were standing on an arched bridge that stretched across water tumbling helplessly into a bubbling, steaming pool below. The waterfall's source was a serene pond surrounded by a wall of craggy rocks behind them. Blossoming bushes dotted the water's edge, peeking out from behind rocky niches that directed and contained the flow of the water. On either side of the steaming pool, trees of various kinds completed the idyllic scene with flowering branches of every color overhanging winding paths just waiting to be explored.

Liz glanced over at Max as he folded his hands and leaned on the bridge to look out over the peaceful garden. “How do you know about this place?”

“It belongs to a very good friend of mine. We came in the back way to his property so you didn’t get to see their house, but it's just as amazing. Filled with items from all over the world. He and his wife are a bit eccentric as well as being nature enthusiasts. They're always on some safari or nature trek in some off the wall, exotic location. Since he's stationed near LA because of his work, they wanted to build a place that reminded them of their shared love of nature." Pausing a moment, Max's eyes warmed with a smile. "I believe this is an exact replica of a little, tucked away place they found on a trip to Tibet."

Liz's eyes drifted closed as she allowed the peaceful aura of the garden to soak into her skin. She breathed in the fragrant air around her and the radiant smile that drifted over her lips immediately caught Max's attention. "Simply amazing…"

Adoration danced in Max's amber eyes causing them to glow as he watched her intently. His heart filled with so much love just watching her that he was afraid it would burst. That thought alone sent a wry smile over his lips. Here he was the 'playboy' of the year thinking and feeling in sappy, romantic cliches.

He didn't care. It was how he felt. And he was no longer afraid to admit it. In that moment, watching Liz, the rest of the world melted away to nothing. The only thing he wanted…the only thing he needed…was her smile. Fresh and serene. Warm and genuine. This was the Liz Parker Max saw every time he looked into her stormy, pain-filled eyes. The Liz Parker she could become. A Liz Parker at peace.

And she would become that Liz Parker. Even if it took every ounce of gentleness and patience and love that Max Evans had to give.

"I agree." The whisper escaped him before he could pull it back. Her skin began to tingle at the intimate tone of his words and Liz's eyes drifted open to meet that intense, penetrating gaze of his. Blush instantly painted her cheeks and Liz's gaze shifted self-consciously away from Max's face.

Clearing her throat and tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, Liz attempted to shift his focus back to their surroundings, because it was painfully obvious he hadn't been talking about the waterfall with his comment. She gestured to the room around her as she took a few exploring steps away from Max to look over the railing behind them. "So, uh…what's the deal? Your friend just let any bum wander in here off the street?"

Max chuckled more at the adorable way she'd eased away from dangerous waters then by her question. "No. Though if the bums knew about this place, there'd be nothing to keep them out."

Liz turned and raised an inquiring eyebrow in Max's direction. Turning his back to the waterfall, Max casually leaned against the rail before explaining. "It's never locked. There's only a small group of us who know about this place so he doesn't feel the need. In fact, he actually keeps it open at all times for those of us who do know about it and feel the need to come here for…” Max shrugged at his own loss of words. “…well, whatever we might need at the time.”

“Like what?”

“Like peace. Renewal. Direction. Just to get away from it all.” Max's gaze lowered uncomfortably as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, his voice softening reflectively. “I spent a lot of time here once when I was going through an exceptionally rough time.”

Tilting her head to the side, Liz attempted to read his expression. Trying to determine if the pain in his eyes at that moment matched the pain she'd seen in the past when he'd been thinking of McKenna. It didn't.

And Liz Parker's curiosity grew. There was so much about the man standing before her that she didn't know. That he had once loved deeply and lost was a fact. Who she was and what happened, however, still remained an enigmatic puzzle of questions with no answers.

Except that she was still alive.

And Max had no idea.

Which caused a knot of dread to form in her stomach. And sharply heightened her inquisitiveness. Because there was so much more to Max then just loving and losing McKenna. An entire past was cloaked in mystery. Joys and pains that melded together to make him the man he was. The little things of every day that were as natural as breathing to him because they were uniquely Max.

He was a bundle of contradictions. Passionate and intensely greedy one moment. Gentle and infinitely patient the next. Seductive charm rippled just below the surface of arrogant aloofness.
With one flip of a coin, he was down to earth. A devilish tease, who was easy to be around. A confidant one felt they could trust with all their secrets, but walking so dangerously close to the edge of recklessness that trust was impossible.

Laughter held a waltz with pain in his eyes. Steely determination tempered by understanding coupled to haunt his lips with wry smiles that could turn to instant warmth. Confident and intelligent, Max gave the impression he'd never once faced a foe he hadn't defeated. And yet, a defeat of some kind had brought him here in the past. To this special place.

A place of peace and renewal and hope.

A secret place he was sharing with Liz.

That monumental realization hit Liz and she fought back the instant, intense desire to cross the distance between them and take him in her arms. To feel his hands caressing her face, his lips brushing against hers. To feel home again.

She cleared away the lump in her throat, her question a bare whisper. "Did it help?”

Gaze drifting back to her face, there was a moment of silence in which Max seemed to be trying to decide something. When he reached out his hand to her, it appeared he had. “Come here. I want to show you something.”

Liz hesitantly slipped her hand in his. An instant spark of electricity zipped through Liz's fingers and she drew in a sharp breath. Max's gaze snapped up to meet hers, equally affected by the sudden irrepressible warmth spreading through him. An almost shy, awed smile lit his eyes and Liz found herself responding with a smile of equal warmth as her eyes lowered when his fingers gently closed over hers. One light squeeze brought her gaze upward to see him silently incline his head toward the end of the bridge with an inquiringly raised eyebrow. She bit her lower lip nervously and nodded her consent.

Max led her over the bridge to the other side. Instead of taking the flowery path to the left, Max guided her toward the right up a series of wooden steps twisting and turning till they rounded a bend that put them on top of the rocky wall, in view of the entire garden. Immediately before them was a pagoda shaped building Liz had failed to see before. Perhaps because of the two twisted trees standing guard in front of it as if shielding it from the unworthy.

Glancing up at Max, Liz's heart stopped mid-beat at the expression on his face. Eyes fixed on the hut, a peaceful smile played on his lips and his whole demeanor reflected that of a man remembering good times…some of the best of his life. A man in love with what he was seeing. Stunningly handsome, with that expression Max was downright…breathtaking. Sexy. Delectable. And so many more words crowding together in Liz's mind she simply couldn't separate them.

Feeling her eyes on him, Max grinned when he glanced down at her, his eyes narrowing quizzically. "What?"

Liz shook her head, a bit embarrassed at having been caught staring. "Nothing. I just…" Liz bit back the words 'find you so damn sexy right now I'd do anything for you. To you. All you'd have to do is crook a finger in the direction of a bed and I'd be there before you could blink...' No. Those would not be the appropriate words at this particular time.

Because Max Evans just might take her up on it.

Quickly shifting her gaze back to the bungalow Liz frantically searched for another topic, less dangerous. Noticing two statues of Buddha on either side of the entrance, she asked a question that was clearly an attempt to wipe away images of Max, beds and hot steamy kisses from her mind. Because it clearly wasn't based on coherent logic. "So. Are you a Buddhist monk?"

That prompted a deep chuckle as Max's eyes began to dance with laughter. Shaking his head Max's grin deepened. "Uh…no."

Not realizing what exactly she'd said, Liz's brows furrowed. "What's so funny?"

"Well, for starters…my personality is to aggressive to be a Buddhist. Then there's my business tactics. I don't really follow the karma-do-unto-others rule. And uh…as to the monk part…" Max sent her a playful wink. "…I think you know better."

Liz felt her heart skip a beat when she realized exactly what she'd asked but quickly tried to cover by rolling her eyes. "Ah. Right. Yeah…I uh…I see what you mean."

Shaking his head with another chuckle, Max took a step forward and pulled on Liz's hand. "Come on. What I want to show you is inside."

Following behind him, Liz paused as Max slid the screened doors open and stepped to the side allowing her entrance. Liz stepped inside and was immediately immersed in the soft glow of candles flickering off of thin opaque walls of white. Her senses were instantly filled with the exotic scent of jasmine and Liz closed her eyes letting a stimulating calm wash over her. She heard Max step into the small entrance, leaving the door open and Liz stiffened slightly as the closeness of the space immediately set in.

Touching her arm, Max's voice was hushed and heated. "Uh…one thing before we go any further…"

Glancing over at him, Liz watched as he easily slipped his shoes off and kicked them to the side, his focus firmly fixed on her face. She quickly got the hint and looked down at her shoes. Damn. She'd worn the black heels with the straps. Quickly glancing around for a place to sit so she could also remove her shoes, her dilemma grew. There were no seats. Her eyes raised to catch a sly smirk gracing Max's lips as he took the opportunity to make a suggestion. "Why don't I help you with those?"

"Oh, I don’t think…" Before Liz could say another word, Max was kneeling in front of her, his hot hands scorching her skin. Her reaction was instantaneous. "Ok…." A dreamy, helpless sigh escaped her as her eyes drifted closed and her bunched hands rested on his shoulders for support. At the sensual feel of his fingers brushing lightly against her ankle as he unbuckled her strap, Liz felt the temperature of the enclosure spike intolerably and it once again struck her how powerful her reaction was to even his slightest touch. If he could make her blood simmer and electricity shoot through her with simple act of removing her shoe…

Making love to him would certainly kill me. It was a fleeting thought that at once sent images of intimacy running through her mind. Tangled bodies. Steamy kisses. Long, passionate nights of indescribable pleasure…

Lingering much longer than necessary, Max bent his head to focus on his task and Liz swallowed hard at the warm breath blowing against her skin. Although, the thought did race through Liz's mind that unbuckling her shoes may not have been the exact task he **was** focusing on. Especially since his fingers managed to glide upward, caressing with infinite tenderness. Brushing the back of Liz's knees, Max was rewarded with the added pressure of her hands on his shoulders when her knees visibly wobbled. Traveling back down lightly massaging, Max's fingers sparked with magic. After a tantalizing moment of such teasing, he moved on. Prompting the lifting of her foot with slight pressure on the back of her calf, Max slipped the first shoe off then allowed one hand to drift over the top lingeringly before setting her foot firmly, but gently on the floor.

Liz bit back a whimper of protest.

Repeating the other process on the other foot, Max grinned to himself. It was so very easy to make her putty in his hands. And he loved every second of it. The feel of her silky smooth skin underneath his talented fingers sent sparks of desire straight to his center. He felt the air in his lungs instantly heated and his chest constricted with an intense ache to feel so much more of her. Her breathless sighs above him filled his head with images that were dangerous in such a close space. If just the simple act of removing her shoe could make him feel this way…

Making love to her will certainly kill me. Max licked his lips as images of passion flew threw his mind. Her gleaming body beneath him, moving in perfect rhythm. Long, intense kisses that pulled him into the center of extreme ecstasy. Her shapely legs tangled with his as indescribable pleasure exploded between them…

Exhaling a shaky breath, Max willed himself to set his ultimate trap without falling into it himself. Hooking his finger through the straps of her shoes, he swallowed hard and looked up, eyes locking with hers. Both pair of dark eyes were half-dazed and half-bright with desire. Rising with aching slowness, Max's fingers sensually traveled the lines of her outer thighs, over the curve of her hips to rest lightly on her waist. Eyes never leaving hers, his body was only a breath away from Liz's when he finally stood to his full height. Liz's gaze dropped to his lips and she unconsciously licked her lips. The air between them became thick with electric heat.

Max's chest expanded, desperately trying to pull in air that wouldn't burn his insides. He failed miserably. That didn't stop him for waiting for his moment. That one perfect moment when he'd dangle in front of Liz's eyes the molasses and oats that would tempt his untamable horse into willing submission only to leave her panting and aching for just one taste of the delicious treat.

If he was truly being cruel, it was to himself. He'd already had to apply extreme restraint at least a million times that day alone. When all he wanted to do was take her in his arms and kiss her till those intimate visions became a reality, Max controlled himself. When her intoxicating scent made his head spin with desire, he fought it back. When his insides turned to lava every time her tongue sneaked out to wet her parched lips, Max began reciting the times tables in his head just to stop himself from grabbing her and fulfilling their obviously mutual desires.

There was so much more at stake than a satisfying physical coupling. Their hearts were on the line. Their futures. Their ultimate happiness.

Max could afford the time to do things right.

That didn't mean he didn't have a strategy. In fact, just about everything up to that point had been carefully planned and brilliantly executed. The verbal sparring. The suggestive touches. The seductive taunting. Of course, he'd had his moments of lost control. Like in the car with that kiss. He certainly wasn't beating himself up over that particular lack of restraint. Not when it had been so intensely perfect. And especially since it seemed to have worked to his advantage. Liz had certainly been more bendable since then.

Soon, it would be Liz Parker seeking Max Evans out and not the other way around…

There it was. His moment.

Liz's impatience was growing. The craving inside of her was beginning to race out of control. She was beginning to take the initiatives. Her hands drifted from his shoulders to the lapels of his suit jacket, curling into the material. There was another unconscious lick of her lips and her intense gaze, never straying once from his lips, suddenly snapped up to meet his with a hint of devilish desire. Her lower body made a brushing contact with his and a small smile played on her lips. She started to lean in…

It was as if a coin had been flipped. Max instantly changed from enchanting seducer to cordial host.

Thrusting a pair of heeled shoes between them, Max effectively ended Liz's quest for a kiss that had the potential for so much more. Flashing her a polite smile, his light airy tone was in complete contrast to the heavy air around them. "If I'm not mistaken, these very impractical lovelies are yours."

Liz pulled back, her eyes wide with surprise as she stared at the shoes. She felt her hand drift up to take them and only realized once her fingers closed around the straps that Max had literally guided her hand to take possession of her own shoes.

"Now, we can proceed…" As if unaffected by the overwhelmingly sultry atmosphere of the room or the obviously suggestive tone of Liz's actions, Max brushed past Liz heading toward the corner of the entrance. Glancing back over his shoulder he waved to her. "Come here. You've got to do this."

Clenching her fists in frustration, Liz pushed out an irritated breath. She struggled to bring her racing heart under control as one thought raced through her. He was seriously going to be the death of her. As to whether the cause would be the actual act of making love or all of his teasing leading up to that final act, was still in doubt. But he was, in fact, going to be the cause…

Seeing his dancing eyes still focused, waiting for her, Liz squared her shoulders, jutted out her chin in an attempt at defiance and hesitantly stepped to where he was standing. Looking down at the open book lying on an ornately engraved pedestal, her brows furrowed. "What's this?"

"A register. Everyone who comes here signs in. It's just a thing we do…you know, kinda keeps us in touch in a way. Sometimes we put personal messages to each other. That kind of thing." With a generous smile, Max pushed back the thrill of victory at his latest stunt and handed her the ivory pen that had been lying by the book. "I'll give you the honors of signing first."

Liz stared at the pen then at the book before her gaze slipped upward to meet Max's. "I…I don't think…"

"Right." Immediately sensing Liz's hesitancy and the reason for it, Max nodded once in understanding.

His gaze lowered to the book thoughtfully and Liz instantly felt as if she'd offended him in some way. As if she'd hurt him. Much like she did when she left him. Guilt rushed over Liz and the very idea of Max Evans opening up to her or accepting any of her advances flew out the window. Why should he when the last time he was totally open with her, she crushed his tender heart? Placing a gentle hand on his arm, Liz immediately opened her mouth to explain. "Max, I just…"

"You don't know what name to sign." Max finished for her softly as his gaze met hers.

Liz swallowed hard and she felt a prickling behind her eyes. That he read her thoughts like a page from a book startled her. But it wasn't that in and of itself that caused her breath to catch in the middle of her chest. It was that kind, accepting light in his eyes. She bit down on her lip to keep the tears in check when Max reached out to run a gentle finger down her face. Compassion and understanding echoed in every word. "It's ok. I didn't know who I was when I first came here either." Turning to the book, he signed his name with a flourish. Laying the pen down he turned back to her with an encouraging wink. "You'll figure it out."

Reaching for her hand, Max backed up and started pulling her toward the back of the enclosed space. "Now. What I really wanted to show you…"

Max slid the next set of doors open and once again let Liz enter first. What met her eyes not only surprised her but enchanted her as well. The bright, spacious room was a two-room studio with sections partitioned off with oriental screens. The back wall was made of glass and included french doors that let out onto a balcony overlooking the ocean. To her right there was a partition that didn't allow Liz to see on the other side. To her left an easy sitting area with a table set for one. Another screen separated the eating area from another section she couldn't view while there was a door off to the right toward the back of the studio that must lead to another room.

Stepping into the open space, Liz shook her head in awe. "Max, this is just…"

A man's accented voice interrupted her thought from somewhere to her right. "Ah, Max. You finally made it."

Stepping up next to Liz, Max smiled broadly as he extended his hand. "Pierre. So good to see you again." Turning to Liz after shaking the elderly man's hand, Max began introductions. "This is Pierre. He's your chef today. Absolutely the best food I've ever had. You're going to love whatever he's prepared."

Pierre beamed appropriately while trying to dismiss Max's praise. Flashing black eyes danced with laughter as he leaned forward and loudly whispered to Liz behind his hand. "Do not listen to him. I paid him for every word."

Liz began to feel more at ease and chuckled as Pierre rocked back on his heels and addressed Max with furrowed bushy black brows. "Where are your manners, boy? Aren't you going to introduce the beautiful lady to me?"

Max sent Liz a sly glance. "Of course, Pierre. This is…"

He raised a questioning eyebrow and Liz instantly supplied her name. "Kendall. Kendall Blake." Liz caught the gentle smile on Max's lips out of the corner of her eye and a sudden warmth flooded through her.

What he'd said outside had been true. Everything in her revolted at the very idea of signing any name but her real one to a register of Max's friends in a place that was so obviously important to him. Truth and honor and loyalty ruled this place. She could feel it in the air. She owed it to Max to be as close to the real Liz Parker as she could be.

As it was equally obvious to her that she couldn't use her real name, even though the desire had never been as strong before, Liz could at least use the name here that Max knew her best by. The name of the woman he fell for instead of the stranger she was trying to be. Feeling his smile at her choice…well, it pleased her that it had pleased him.

Liz held her hand out which was instantly engulfed in Pierre's meaty paw and brought to his lips for a gallant kiss and a firm shake. "So very nice to meet you, Mademoiselle." Releasing her hand, Pierre's gaze snapped disapprovingly to Max. He clucked the roof of his mouth and shook his head with a frown. "You did not let me know exactly when to expect you. It is because of you that lunch is not quite ready."

Max shrugged with a grin. "No problem, Pierre. I want to show Kendall around anyway. Just let her know when it's ready."

Pierre nodded and turned his attention back to Liz with a wide, warm smile. "Go. Enjoy the view. Enjoy the peace. It should not be much longer…"

Placing a leading hand on the small of Liz's back, Max maneuvered her toward the partition to the left beyond the opaque screen. Liz immediately stopped short at the wall of books that greeted her. "Wow. I would have never guessed from the outside that inside it's so spacious."

"Isn't it great? I mean, everything is pretty simple, but it has everything you need to stay a night or two." Pointing toward the door at the right, Max confirmed Liz's suspicions. "There's a bedroom in there." Nodding toward the direction they'd just come from he continued. "Of course, you know there's a kitchen. Small but efficient and always stocked." Pointing to the rattan couch with simple, black plush cushions. "Here we have a very comfy divan and over here…" Max stated as he stepped up to the center book case and motioned her over. "…is an array of literature that will blow your mind."

Liz ran her hands gingerly over some of the backs of the books. "Austen. Shakespeare. Poe. Milton. Rand. Doystevsky. This collection is amazing."

"Yeah. Not a Harlequin in sight." Max glanced at her teasingly. "Guess you'll have to do without all the steamy, sensual fantasies if you come back."

Playing along and at the same time desperately needing some kind of affirmation that she was still indeed desirable to him after that stunt with the shoes, Liz allowed a look of disappointment to claim her expression before brightening with an idea. "Hey, I know. Couldn't I just bring my own Harlequin hottie and act out all those steamy, sensual fantasies instead?"

A wicked spark flashed in Max's eyes and Liz felt her breath instantly turn to steam in her lung at the look of pure desire that he was giving her. He leaned in, his cheek lightly brushing hers as he whispered in her ear. "Only if I'm the Harlequin hottie that comes with you."

Liz suddenly felt dizzy and her eyes drifted closed as Max's scorching words sent a shiver down her spine. Breathless, she started to lean into him when Max abruptly pulled back and turned to the books in front of them as if they were the most interesting things in the world. As if he'd not just whispered an intimate suggestion in her ear. As if he weren't driving her crazy with desire.

Waving a hand in the air, Max's voice was surprisingly steady. And Liz felt the familiar fire of frustration building deep inside. How he could be so damn in control when her insides were literally on fire…

"Quite a few of those are first editions, by the way." Max's quiet explanation pulled her back to the subject they'd been discussing and she tried hard to focus as Max held up a finger and raised an eyebrow in Liz's direction. "But…here's the real treasure…" Pulling out a simple, leather bound book Max showed it to Liz.

Struggling to focus on what Max was saying instead of the perfect lips the words were slipping through, she blinked and her nose crinkled in confusion. "What’s…what's this?”

“It’s a journal of sorts." Max's voice lowered with reverence and Liz once more got the distinction he was getting ready to share another secret with her. She wasn't wrong. Frustration melted away as Max's quiet words began to whisper to her heart. "Anyone who comes here and wants to share their experiences, struggles, fears, words of wisdom or…really just anything…can do so in this book. It’s also kinda like the register out there. A history of the people who have found what they were looking for right in this room. This is our latest. There are least three or four before this one.”

Max handed it to her, his gaze shifting to the contemplative expression on her face. “You can read it if you like. That’s partially what its here for. To pass on wisdom found through struggles.”

Lightly running her hand over the treasured book, Liz’s voice was softly inquiring. “Do you have any entries in there?”

Leaning forward, a teasing grin lit Max's eyes. "Guess you'll just have to read it to find out."

Liz grinned in return and rolled her eyes. "Cute." Serious slipped over her expression as she looked into his eyes, the book held against her chest. "Thank you. For bringing me here. Sharing this with me. For showing me a little more of who you are."

Max glanced away self-consciously with a shrug. "I just…I thought you might need a place like this. You know, when things aren't going as well as you want people to think. Or when you're tired of running but you're too afraid to stop." Meeting her gaze with meaning, Max continued with a softened voice. "You can always rest here."

Liz glanced away uncomfortably and swallowed hard. Gauging her reaction, Max realized she was primed for the real reason he'd brought her here. Grabbing her hand in his he nodded toward the balcony. "Come on. Let's check out the view."

Once they had stepped outside, Max let go of Liz's hand and once more leaned against the railing as his gaze drifted over the ocean waves moving in and out, creating ripple patterns on the white sand. He smiled to himself at the beauty spread out before him. He smiled knowingly…and waited.

Liz stood next to him in silence. Gazing out over the same scene. Watching the same waves. Feeling the same breeze sweep her hair back from her face. Feeling so many things she simply couldn't name them all.

One was coming through loud and clear: confusion.

She simply couldn't understand how he could be so gentle and understanding with her. How he could tease and joke and not feel the pain her leaving had to have caused him. That was…if he loved her the way he said he did. That must be it. He must have realized, just like she thought he would, that what he felt for her was only a drop in the bucket to what he felt for…others.

That thought alone spurred her to verbal action. "Max. About what happened in your office…"

"Yeah. I've been thinking about that a lot the past two months."

"I'm sure you have." Liz answered softly, her gaze fixed on her hands folded on the rail before her. "Which is why I don't understand...any of this. Why are you being so nice? Why aren't you yelling at me or throwing things or…or calling me every dirty name in the book? I deserve it, you know."

"Is that how he would have responded?" Max answered her question with a soft question of his own. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her stiffen. He pushed the point, glancing over at her. "That monumental mistake you made. Is that what he would have told you? That you deserved it?" There was only the slightest nod of Liz's head. Not enough to confirm definitely, but enough to let him know she was listening. "I'm not him."

"Max, I know…"

Max cut her off, continuing with a voice full of emotion. "I would rather make you smile then throw something. I'd rather laugh with you then yell at you. And calling you dirty names is not only not my style, but I don't have it in me to think bad of you." He turned to lock eyes with her and shook his head slightly. "I just…don't."

Liz turned away from him and closed her eyes, daring the tears behind them to fall. Her fingers dug into the railing and she unconsciously leaned into it for support. There was a moment of silence in which Liz was trying to control the wave of emotions rippling through her, trying to make sense of his words, trying to cope with the idea of not being punished. Max was allowing her the space to do just that.

When she finally spoke, her voice was still a bit shaky. "What are you really doing here, Max? In LA, I mean?"

A wry smile touched Max's lips as he shrugged. "You're here. Seemed like the natural place for me to be."

"You know this has to stop, right?" It took everything in her to push those words out through tightening lips.

He pulled in a deep breath of salty air and gazed back over the ocean, his expression unreadable. "I figured you'd say as much."

"Then why?" Liz turned to him, confusion lacing her words. "Max, I left you. I mean…I totally disappeared on you. I had no intention of ever seeing you again. Bottom line, Max, I have no intention of us ever being together. Ever. Any normal person would have gotten that message by now."

One corner of his lips curled upward. "Right. Two things wrong with that logic." Leaning on one arm, Max turned to Liz and held up a finger. "First, I'm not a normal person." He added a second finger. "Second. I was there. You remember…the day you said 'yes'. That was the most believable 'yes' I have ever heard, seen or felt in my entire life."

Liz opened her mouth to protest. Max stopped her with a finger against her lips. Eyes meeting hers, Max continued. Logically. Rationally. Honestly. "Like I said, I've been thinking about that day for the past two months and I've come to some conclusions. The biggest one being that I handled everything absolutely wrong."

"What?" Eyes clouding with confusion, Liz shook her head and pulled his hand from her face only to cling to it with unconscious desperation. "No. Max, you weren't the one that said yes then ran away."

"No. But I was the one that asked you to marry me in the heat of passion when emotions were running high, knowing you specifically came to cut all ties. And when you said 'no', I pushed you until you said 'yes'."

"That's not…you didn't…" Liz quickly tried to pull blame from Max's court back into hers. "I'm the one that said and did all those horrible…"

Max pulled his hand from Liz's grasp and stuffed it into his pocket. His emotionally distant, rational tone continued. "Kendall, come on. How many times did you tell me no and I wouldn’t accept it?" Max gave her a pointed look before his gaze lowered along with his voice. "That's not the way a marriage acceptance should be. You should want to say yes."

"But, Max…" The earnestness in her voice matched her eyes. Max wasn’t looking at her.

"And I should accept it when…if…you say no." Pulling in a deep, steadying breath, Max's gaze finally raised to meet hers again. He was calm, in control, and so very discerning about it all. "So, this is what we're going to do. We're going to try this one more time. When we're both thinking clearly. When passion isn't controlling our every word. And if you can look in my eyes and convincingly tell me 'no', then that will be the end of it. I'll not ask you again."

Liz crossed her arms in front of her, her jaw setting with stubborn determination as a flash of fear raced through her eyes. "This is ridiculous."

"Why? What's the harm?" Max shrugged as a silent thrill coursed through him. He had to bite back a chuckle of amusement. She looked so much like Jaedan right then. Being obstinate. Being contrary to what she said she wanted. Being so very childlike in her response.

"Because it's wrong." Liz blinked rapidly trying to push back tears quickly rising to the surface. "A proposal is supposed to be passionate, Max. And…and full of emotion. And that's exactly what you gave me. And…and now? What?" Agitatedly pushing her hair behind her ears, Liz's continued as glimpses of her real fears began to trickle out. "You're acting like it's another business deal that…that you can just…just…walk away from. That marrying me is no more important to than making another million bucks."

Her bottom lip beginning tremble, Liz's eyes met his. "That's it, isn't it? I'm an old deal that fell through and you found another pot of gold somewhere with Bambi and Tawny and Tiki and now you're just wanting to what? Clear the slate so you can move on? Is that what this is really all about?"

"It was Kiki." An amused smile flitted across Max's face at the level of venomous jealousy she had for a group of models who didn't exist. Or at least, they didn't for Max.

Liz's eyes widened in irritated shock. "It was Kiki?!" Her face screwed up in disbelief as her hands landed on her hips in indignation when she mimicked him. Anger flared in her eyes. "That's all you have to say to me right now?" Throwing her hands up, she shook her head. "You're unbelievable." She turned with a flounce back to the railing and diverted her irritated attention anywhere but Max's face.

Adoration danced in his eyes as Max let out a sigh and reached out to gently turn her back toward him. Cupping Liz's face in his hands, his warm smile of amused understanding caused her to look away uncomfortably. It was so clear to Max what was going on in Liz's heart. She didn't want him to ask because she knew she'd be forced to say no. It was so clearly written in her expression. In her body language. In the light of day, amidst conversation instead of heated kisses, she'd have no other choice but to say no. She'd have no excuse like she did before. Especially given all the so-called clues she'd alluded to earlier.

So, it was either no or…she would have to truly follow her heart, say yes and actually go through with it. And **that**, Max Evans knew she wasn't ready to do.

Tilting her chin till she was looking in his eyes, his penetrating gaze locked on her face. Roaming. Gauging. Admiring. "There is no Kiki or Tawny or Bambi. There's only you." In that moment he saw so much relief mixed with fear in her eyes it nearly broke his will. But he pushed forward with sincerity and understanding. Knowing the only way to really build something lasting with Liz Parker was to destroy what had come before and start again at square one. Or as close to square one as two people meant for each other could be.

When he spoke, he couldn't contain the emotion no matter how hard he tried. "Marriage is not a business deal. It's the most important, sacred promise a person could ever make. That's why I think it is so important to do it right. What I'm suggesting will put to rest once and for all that question for us. If you really don't want to marry me, then just tell me. I'll accept it. You won't have to lie then run. If you do, then we'll move forward from there."

Liz let out a shaky, tear filled breath and Max's fingers softly caressed her face. His smile was warm, though he knew the impending outcome. He cleared his throat, swallowed hard and took a deep breath as his eyes met hers. "Will you marry me?"

Liz's eyes filmed with tears. "Max, please, I don't think…"

Max stilled her protest with a thumb against her lips. "I've heard your reasons. You've heard mine. At this point, it just a simple yes or no answer. So, let's try it again." Another deep breath. "Will you marry me?"

Liz bit her bottom lip as her gaze shifted to the ocean beyond Max's shoulder. "No."

One side of his lips curled upward and Max gently, firmly cupped her chin till her gaze met his. "In my eyes."

Liz blinked and cleared her throat. "No."

Though she said the clipped word, a flicker of uncertainty raced through her ebony eyes and Max couldn't stop amusement from haunting his lips. "Convincingly."

That smirk of his did the trick. Irritation instantly flared in her eyes. She squared her shoulders and lifted her chin in defiance. One raised, challenging eyebrow and the word rang out loud and clear. "NO."

Tiling his head to the side, Max pursed his lips and shook his head slightly as his brows furrowed in mock confusion. "No?"

Letting out an exasperated sigh, Liz placed her hands once more on her hips. "No."

Max stuffed his hands in his pockets and shrugged casually. "Ok."

"Ok?" Blinking at his sudden change of attitude, yet again, Liz's disbelief couldn't be hidden.

A playful grin spread over his lips as he leaned forward slightly and emphasized each letter. "O.K."

Her tone was that of a lost little girl not sure if what she was hearing was real. "Just like that."

"Just like that." Max confirmed with a nod. He glanced in through the windows to see Pierre pacing and Max nodded his acknowledgement to which Pierre beamed and disappeared behind the partition once again. Turning back to Liz, Max gathered her hands in his and began pulling her toward the French doors. "Now, if you'll just go back into that room, lunch is ready. Pierre's cooking is superb and you have a wealth of literature at your fingertips so I'm sure you'll enjoy…"

Quickly getting the picture, Liz shook her head and pulled back on his hands. An almost desperate fear raced through her eyes. A fear of being alone. A fear of never seeing him again. A fear of letting go of the best thing that had ever happened to her. "No, Max. Please don't leave…"

Once more stilling Liz's protest with a gentle finger pressed against trembling lips, Max's voice lowered to a pleading whisper. "Don't make it any harder, ok? Just…enjoy lunch, and this place, on me. Stephanie knows you won’t be returning to the office this afternoon so stay as long as you like. There's a limo waiting to take you home whenever you're ready."

A warm smile of love lit Max's amber eyes. "And now that you know about this place, you’re welcome here any time. Just let Pierre know if you need directions or the number to call ahead of time if you want to make sure you'll be alone. I think you'll find it’s the one place you can feel free enough to be yourself. Even if you don't know who that is at any given moment." Gently taking her face in his hands, Max leaned down and tenderly brushed his lips against hers, savoring each lasting moment.

Liz sighed in protest when Max pulled back way too soon to breath against her lips. "Have a wonderful life, Beautiful."

One final kiss.

One final whisper.

A sudden chill. Then an aching loneliness.

Liz Parker didn't need to open her eyes to know…

Max Evans was gone.

Tbc…


[ edited 1 time(s), last at 9-Jun-2002 11:05:12 AM ]
posted on 11-Jun-2002 12:56:20 PM by Ashton
Hey all!

This is only the BEGINNING of the next chpt. So many of you were so stressed at how the last chpt ended I wanted to give you at least this to show you it's ok. ;) FYI...Max did bring Jaedan/Angel in for Liz to visit with...that will be in the continuation of this. Would love to hear what you think. Thanks for the support! And don't worry...Max and Liz are going to be together in the end... ;)

BehrHugs,
Ashton
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 6 ~

That evening for Max Evans was an endless series of phone calls. Until…

There was a knock on the door.

"Yes, I know that, Barbara." Max glanced up from his computer screen at the sound and eased himself out of the chair behind his desk. "I'm just saying…" Max moved from his make shift office area past the raised kitchen on his right past the large fire engine doors to the smaller entrance Max used as a front door.

There was another knock.

"No. I don't think it would be taking too big of a risk." Another impatient knock sounded just as he reached the door. "No. No, that's not what I said. Just…hang on a sec…" Throwing the door open, Max's eyes brightened in delight and a smile started to form on his lips as his voice softened. "Hey."

Liz Parker nodded in return and brushed her way past him into his place without invitation or ceremony. Max whipped his head around to follow her movements and turned with an upraised eyebrow as polite sarcasm began to flow. "By all means, please…do come in."

Casting her glance quickly around the spacious area she'd boldly sashayed her way into, Liz spun on her heels and faced Max with fire flashing in her eyes. "You had it all planned, didn't you? Right from the start. Every last detail."

"Ah." Was Max's only response. Trying to bite back a smile of amusement, Max spoke back into his phone. His dark eyes sparkled with anticipation. He’d been waiting for this confrontation all evening. "Barbara, I have to go. Seems my own personal tornado just blew in and it looks like it's going to be a long, bumpy ride." His eyes began to twinkle at Barbara's response. "Alright. I'll tell her you said hi."

Clicking off the phone, Max tossed it onto a nearby chair. He crossed his arms with an infuriating smirk and locked eyes with Liz. "Barbara said to tell you hi."

Unfazed by his 'tornado' comment and the fact Barbara knew whom had just walked in Max's door without him telling her, Liz surprised Max by launching into a list of questions instead of her expected accusations. "Nice place. But…really, Max. A firehouse?"

"Yeah, kinda cool, huh? Every boy's dream come true." Max nodded as he glanced around with pride. Pointing toward the rear of the spacious building, Max's eyes lit up with almost childish delight. "Comes complete with a sliding pole, fire alarm and everything. I'll give you a tour if you want."

There was a slight pause as a seemingly new idea hit Max.

"In fact…" A devilish smile haunted his lips and his eyes instantly turned to midnight as they swept over Liz from head to toe. His voice lowered seductively. "…if you're a really good girl, I might even let you handle the extra long hose upstairs." One sly, suggestive wink. "I hear it's quite an experience..."

Liz felt simmering blood instantly flood into her cheeks and she stiffened perceptibly against the onslaught of sensations his combined suggestive words and intimate tone were sparking throughout her entire in her body. Folding her hands in front of her Liz's dark eyebrow raised as she focused instead on her mission. "You, uh...renting?"

Max bit back a knowing smile. "No."

"Staying with friends?"

"Nope."

"Here illegally?"

Shaking his head, Max shrugged his negative answer. "Sorry."

Seeing the arrogant smirk plastered on his face, Liz knew he was going to make her work for every piece of information. She let out an exasperated sigh. "Max, I think you know what I'm asking."

"Yes, I do."

"And?"

"Oh, I was waiting for you to actually ask." Was Max's flippant response.

Liz took a deep calming breath and exhaled slowly before meeting his gaze again. Her tone was terse with frustration. "Al-right. This…" She glanced around her indicating his choice of living space. "…is permanent for you, isn't it?"

Max paused a moment, his lips pursing as if in thought. Then… "If the question is 'have I purchased this firehouse and renovated it as a place to stay while I'm here in LA', then the answer is yes."

"Ah, yes. I see." Liz commented before pausing as if in putting more of an obvious puzzle together. "So, the proposal earlier. The little chat before hand. Making me say 'no' like ten million times and then you just…giving up. Walking away. Leaving me standing there all alone. Knowing the whole time that you were going to stay no matter what I said…"

Max jumped in. "Ok. Let's clarify something here. I never said anything about staying or leaving LA based on your answer to my proposal."

"Right. But the point still remains...you've not given up on us, have you?” She waved an impatient hand in the air. “All of that was just for dramatic effect, wasn't it?"

"Uh…” Max paused and cast his gaze upward in thought. His eyes snapped back to hers when he made a curt nod of confirmation and a generous smirk. “…pretty much."

"Hmm. Yeah. Just what I thought." Nodding, Liz appeared to be taking her time as she viewed her surroundings. She leisurely turned and headed past the spiral staircase toward the center of the room where a couch, two chairs and coffee table sat just waiting for guests to be entertained. Running her hand along the back of the contemporary styled black sofa, she continued. "See...I've been thinking a lot about today. What you've done…” Picking up a vivid solid pillow she fluffed it then tossed it back on the couch, patting it into just the right spot.

Max advanced further into the room, watching her every move with growing curiosity and interest. A small smile played on his lips as every nuance of her expression was captured by his penetrating, observant gaze.

“What you've said….” Running her finger along the frosted glass shade of a floor lamp stationed right behind the chair closest to Max, Liz’s expression reflected clearly that she was impressed with what she was seeing in Max’s choice of decor. Sleek, suave, contemporary with dashes of vivid color to grab one’s attention. Very expensive, elegant taste. But not outrageously so. A perfectly blended mixture of all his contrary personality traits. It was all very…Max. “How things played out...”

Dropping her hand, she turned fully facing him. “And I have to admit…I am impressed with the level of finesse with which you got everything to work. Takes true talent to pull off what you did today."

Max inclined his head indicating his acknowledgement of her compliment.

Liz continued without missing a beat. "And I really should have seen it coming because there were clues all around. Like…first of all, I should have known something was up when we walked in and there was only one place set for lunch. Should have been my first clue, but I missed it somehow."

She began a short, agitated pace in front of him as she held up her fingers as if counting. "Then…I should have known something was up when you so calmly advised me that there was a limo already at my disposal whenever I was ready to leave. All your comments to Pierre were about 'her' meal, not 'ours'. Again, my fault for not picking up on the fact you never planned to stay."

"But what you did after that, Max…" Ending her pacing, Liz abruptly turned to him. Shaking her head, her lips tightened into a thin line and there was a slight tremor in her voice. "…with Jaedan. Angel." She squared her shoulders and raised her chin in seeming defiance. "Well, I just have one thing to say to you…"

Angel had told Max to expect the unexpected. He should have listened. Because he certainly hadn't expected what Liz Parker did next.

With the speed of a shooting arrow, Liz closed the distance separating them. When Liz's soft body collided with his, Max instinctively wrapped his arms around her waist. When her lips hit their target a millisecond later with unerring accuracy, his response was instantaneous.

The kiss was immediately explosive. Hungry. Passionate. Max crushed Liz against him as she grabbed his face with a firm desperate grip. Helpless moans of pleasure echoed in the large spacious room as tongues began a duel of intimacy and warm pliable lips slid relentlessly against each other. Slipping her fingers across Max's skin through his hair, Liz pulled him into her and Max's fingers got helplessly tangled in long silky strands as he angled her head in response.

It was only the desperate need for air that pulled them apart. Liz reluctantly released Max's lips to a groan of protest. Gulping in large amounts of air, Liz leaned her forehead against his chest and ran a hand lightly over his thundering heart. His heavy breathing was loud in her ear as he clung to her, unwilling to let her go.

Pulling back after a moment, Liz's passion filled eyes met his briefly before dropping with a softening gaze to where her entire being had been focused only brief moments before. Running her fingers lightly over red, puffy lips she bit down on her own before whispering two breathless, emotion filled words. "Thank you."

A smile instantly began to take hold of Max and Liz's gaze raised once more to meet his dazed, but twinkling eyes. Running his fingers through her hair, Max nuzzled his nose against hers teasingly. "Well, if that's the reward for uniting you with one sweet little princess, then tell me now. I'll bring a child a day for the rest of your life…"

"She's my daughter, Max." Releasing a shaky breath, Liz Parker repeated herself as her eyes drifted closed. "Jaedan Elizabeth is my daughter…"

tbc...
posted on 15-Jun-2002 11:03:07 PM by Ashton
Hey all!!!

Ok, here's the rest of chpt 6 including the already posted 'teaser' at the end. The parts with Jaedan/Liz will be in the next chpt. Anyway, I know this is really long, but at least it might fill in some of the gaps with what's going on with other characters, etc. Hope you enjoy! Would love to hear what you think! As always, thanks for the amazing support!!!

Hugs,
Ashton
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 6 ~

That afternoon and evening for Max Evans was an endless series of phone calls. They all began with one earlier in the day between two 'partners in crime'…


"You tell him."

The answering chuckled sounded very much like a disbelieving snort. "I'm not going to tell him." There was a pause, then a challenge. "You tell him."

"Are you kidding? He's barely talking to me."

Alex Whitman rolled his eyes. "Oh, right. And I'm his special confidant right now."

"Hey, he's talking to you more than he's talking to me."

"Look, Kyle. This is a tad ridiculous. We are both grown men. Trained in the art of espionage. Skilled in the art of killing when necessary. Defending not only ourselves but entire nations in a single, super power leap. There's no reason we should be afraid to…"

"I'm not afraid."

"No?"

"No."

"Then tell him."

"I'm not telling him."

Alex let out a groan of frustration. His fingers turned white around the phone. His voice was deathly low. "Kyle…it is just an itinerary."

It was Kyle's turn to chuckle. "Oh, no my friend. It is so much more than that. It's all the questions that will follow telling Max about his dummy itinerary."

"So answer them."

"Answer them. Just like that."

"Yep. Shouldn't be that hard. Just open your mouth and say…"

"McKenna's still alive and after you're hide? And because of that we're making it look like you're the ultimate globe trotter in case she's trying to locate you?" Kyle erroneously finished for Alex. "No thank you. I'll leave that to someone else."

"That someone else you're leaving it to had better not be me." Alex answered quickly.

There was dead air on the phone line.

Finally Kyle spoke. "What are we going to do?"

"Tell him when the time is right."

"And when will that be?"

"I don't know, Kyle. You tell me. How much proof do we have that she betrayed us?"

"Practically zilch." Kyle sighed into the phone. "She's really a pro, Alex. I mean…no matter how many times I try to catch her in a lie or trip her up on her story, she comes through with flying colors. Not a chink in her armor."

"There's always a chink in the armor of the enemy, Kyle. You just have to look for it."

"You think I haven't been?"

"I'm sure you have. It's just…"

"We need the proof in our hands when we tell Max." Kyle finished for Alex again, this time correctly. "I know."

"He's not going to believe it unless we have something to show him."

"I know."

"Still…"

"Maybe we should say something, right?"

"You know how mad he is at us now for keeping him away from Liz?"

"Yeah, but…"

"It'll be a million times worse."

"I know." There was a pause before Kyle came up with an idea. "Maybe we don't actually tell him. Maybe we can do a 'what if' scenario. See how he reacts."

"That's not a half bad idea." Alex commented as his thoughts began to whirl. "But whoever presents it had better be subtle or else Max'll be breathing down our necks asking questions we're not prepared to answer."

"Right." Kyle added with a note of finality. "Which is why I'm sure you'll do…just fine."

"Kyle…"

"Oops. Look at the time."

"Kyle."

"Dude, Cruella will be back soon so I'd better run..."

"Kyle!"

"I'll check in with Max about the itinerary. You get back to me on that McKenna convo you're going to have…"

"Kyle, so help me if you hang up…"

The line went dead.

"…I'll kill you."

Alex let out a loud groan and slammed the phone down in frustration. "Dammit!" Shaking his head, he couldn't help but chuckle at Kyle's smooth, hasty maneuver. At the same time, he couldn't keep the knot in his stomach from forming.

Telling Max about McKenna was an issue he'd been stridently side-stepping since the moment he heard the truth. What he'd told Kyle had been true. Max wouldn't believe it unless he had convincing proof placed in his hands. Even then, Alex had no idea how he'd react. It was an unknown he was not eager to discover.

Pushing himself away from his desk, Alex had the sudden urge to do the one thing that always cleared his mind when things were bothering him. Mind whirling with unsettling thoughts, he went for a long unexpected afternoon run in the park.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Thirty minutes later…


"Ok. So, you know our Irish friends…"

"Kyle…"

"I know you don't want to know."

Max let out a sigh. "Then why are you telling me?"

"Because you need to know."

"Fine. Out with it." There was a warning note in his voice as he spoke into the phone. "But remember, Kyle, you are already on thin ice with me. I wouldn't push my luck if I were you…"

Max could hear Kyle take a deep breath before beginning. "Alright. So, here's the deal. Things went smooth with our Irish pals and for the time being they are off our backs."

"And I needed to know this because…"

"Because I took the liberty of making up a dummy itinerary for you."

Silence greeted Kyle's statement as Max quickly made a few keystrokes on his computer and pulled up the itinerary available to a limited number of staff. An itinerary that wouldn't be all that hard to get ahold of. His eyes grew wide. "What the hell am I doing in Paris right now?"

"Uh…wining and dining a beautiful model?" Kyle ventured a lame joke.

Max didn't laugh. "Kyle…"

Sighing heavily, Kyle shrugged his shoulders. "Alright. So, the thing is, Max…we may have gotten them off our backs for now, but there is strong indication they aren't done yet. And when they're ready for their next move…"

"You have got to be kidding me." The disgust in Max's voice couldn't be disguised. "When is this going to be over? I have some serious things I'm dealing with here, Kyle. The last thing I need to be worried about is some radical group screwing up my plans."

"Which is why I made the dummy itinerary." Kyle explained. "Alex and I figured that if anyone is trying to track you for any reason, then we'd let them. They'll be hopping all over the globe while you're safe and secure in…" Knowing full well where Max was, Kyle paused then finished his statement with a question. "…Hawaii?"

"Not telling you, bro." Max responded definitively as his gaze swept over the rest of his itinerary for the next two weeks. Not one single trip to California. Or even the West Coast for that matter. Which could be a problem for the rest of his plans for Angel and Jaedan.

"Monte Carlo?"

Max pulled out a piece of paper and began jotting down notes as he absently responded to Kyle. "Even if you guess I’m not giving it up."

"Aw, come on, Max. Why not? I am your favorite brother."

"You're my only brother. And I’m not telling you because like I said, you are seriously on thin ice with me." There was a slight pause as Max glanced back at the screen and clicked a few buttons to pull up a map of the ports along the West Coast. "Besides, I'm sure you can pretty much guess who I'm with and what my current project is. Knowing you, if I tell you where we are, you'll come and drag Liz out of her bed in the middle of the night to relocate her to parts unknown. Losing more precious time with her is not a risk I'm willing to take at this point."

Kyle let out a dramatic sigh and chuckle. "Ahhh, poor misguided Max. Don't you know I wouldn't have to drag Liz anywhere? She'd coming willingly once I reminded her of that kiss she and I shared."

Max's pencil stopped moving and his head snapped up. His voice tensed perceptibly. "Excuse me?"

"Oh. Apparently she didn't tell you about our little uh…thing." His not so subtle hint delivered, Kyle sighed as if remembering. "She is one seriously hot chick. I mean, those lips of hers could melt an iceberg. If I hadn't stopped her, things could have quickly gotten way out of cont…"

Almost certain that Kyle was attempting to goad him into a fit of envy, an irritated smile tightened Max's lips as he abruptly cut Kyle off. "Ok. Now you're just bull--"

"She tastes like strawberries." Kyle stated simply, ending any and all allusions that Kyle was just making up a lie to goad his brother.

Max's jaw tightened and his pencil unexpectedly snapped in two. Max closed his eyes as jealous rage made his blood boil. It wasn't the realization that Kyle had, in fact, kissed Liz that made the rage so intense. It was the thought of any man knowing what Liz's passion was like in that first moment of intimate contact. It was the thought of any man knowing how sweet and tangy she tasted. How utterly intoxicating. That any other man, except Max, had touched heaven while in her arms. It was…an unbearably sickening thought…

When Max finally spoke, his voice was low and deathly serious. "I'm only going to say this once, Kyle, so listen up really good. Don't ever go down that road with Liz again. Don't hint at it. Don't act on it. Don't even think about it."

"Why? Because she's yours?" The questions were almost taunts. They were strategically asked by a brother who knew so much more about what was going on than Max gave him credit for.

"Because I love her." Max replied instantly. "And if that isn't enough to stop you, then think about this…there's no chance in hell you could make her happy."

"But you can?"

"Damn straight, I can." The belief flashing in his eyes instantly turned to determination that made its way through every timbre of his voice. "I can…and I will."

"But I can't, because…what?" Years of nettling comparisons between the two brothers rose the surface of Kyle's mind and his tone was instantly bristling and defensive. "I’m not the perfect Evans boy right?"

"This has nothing to do with which of us is better or more perfect, Kyle." Leaning forward in his chair, Max's eyes crackled with confidence and belief. "You simply can't because this is Liz. And you aren't me. Which puts you on the same level as every other man on the face of the planet…utterly incapable of giving her what it takes to be happy."

"I see. So…what? You're the only one who knows what that is?"

"I was born to know it."

Max's emphatically confident statement shot Kyle down. It wasn't just Max's words. It was…his whole demeanor. An inner, unshakeable faith that breathed through every word. As if the veil of time had been split open for one brief moment and Max had been given a special glimpse into his future. Without one single doubt, he knew it included Liz Parker.

Once again, Kyle was struck with the unsettling feeling that what his brother was experiencing with Liz was something…untouchable. Precious. Rare. Destined.

It made Kyle want to protect Max and Liz even more. Kyle's tone softened and once again it became crystal clear just how important Max viewed his relationship with Liz Parker. "I…don't think I've ever heard you talk like this about anyone. Not even McKenna."

"McKenna was different, Kyle." A weary sigh Max's statement as he slumped back in his chair. "That was easy. There wasn't as much at risk. It wasn't this deep. I didn't feel…"

"Yeah?" Kyle prompted quietly, cautiously when Max's sentence trailed into silence.

"It didn't feel this right." Max commented softly as he reached for a photo frame sitting on his desk. "I firmly believe there is no one in this world…past, present or future…who fits me the way Liz Parker does. She's everything about me that has always been missing, Kyle. Corny as it sounds…with Liz, I feel like I finally found the real me. And I’m not letting that go any time soon."

"Not even if she wants you to?"

"Liz doesn't know what she wants right now." Max commented quietly as his finger lightly ran over the glass that protected the faces of 'his girls', Liz and Jaedan. He let out a sigh. "Which is why I'm staying put and giving her the time to figure it out."

"And you're convinced once she does it'll be you."

"So convinced that I've already taken steps to ensure our future."

"Steps. Like what?"

"Oh, no." Max shook his head and returned the photo to its place of honor on his desk. One last lingering look, then Max turned his full attention back to Kyle. "If you think I'm going to give you more information than I already have, you are sadly mistaken. There is no way in hell I’m letting you screw this up for me, Kyle." Max moved to a new screen and pulled up his very short IM chat list. Quickly seeing that his mother was online, Max typed in a message and hit send. Speaking back into the phone, Max waited for his mother's response. "Which reminds me, the next time you see our dear mother, you need to drop to your knees and kiss her feet."

"Oh?" Kyle's eyebrow raised. "And why would I want to do that?"

Phone cradled between his ear and shoulder, Max shuffled through a few files on his desk and kept his eye on the icon that would let him know his mother's response had come through. "Because she saved you from a very painful death."

"Max…am I supposed to know what this is about?"

"Think really hard, big brother. I'm sure you can figure it out." The window flashed and Max clicked to read his mother's answer to his hastily typed question. Max began to grin and quickly typed in another message, hit send then closed down the program.

Silence greeted Max in which he shook his head at Kyle muttering under his breath, trying out ideas of what Max could be referencing and discarding them comically. Finally, Kyle spoke. "Hmmm. Nope. Ran through all the pranks I've ever pulled or ever wanted to pull on you and I just don’t know what you're talking about. Unless you're talking about that time I locked you in that sorry attempt at a tree house with all those girls that one summer."

"Are you kidding?" Focused once more on his conversation with Kyle, Max began to grin as the memory hit him. "That did wonders for my social life. If you'll remember, I was the one with all the girls swarming all over me the next school year. And as I recall, I overheard you saying you wish you'd locked yourself in their tree house."

"Bite your tongue. I never said…"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I'm not still mad at you."

"Oh. Right. What was that about again?"

"You keeping me from the woman I love." Max's tone became lighter, teasing. Kyle breathed a sigh of relief. It was the first sign he and Max were on the mends. "You know the one I’m talking about right? Name is Liz. Brunette, beautiful, saved your sorry hide when she should have left you for dead…"

"Ah, yes. My angel." Kyle let out an exaggerated, teasing sigh.

"Watch the possessive pronoun there, Kyle." Max commented with a hint of laughter in his voice.

"Max…" Kyle's tone turned suddenly serious. "I just want you to know…about the kiss, it really was just one time. It meant nothing because I only did it to prove a point and it certainly won't happen again…"

"I know." Max's tone was casual. Confident.

"Hey, now. Don't go thinking you're little 'don't even think about it' speech did it…"

"Oh, I’m not." Max cut Kyle off with a grin. "See, I know Liz, and my guess is that you kissed her and she slapped you. Or kneed you in the balls. Or maybe she knocked you flat on your ass. Hell, it was probably a combination of all three. She's a total fireball when she's pissed."

Kyle began to chuckle. "Man, you can say that again. I'm not sure I'd wish her on my worst enemy when she's on a roll like that. You are a truly brave soul to willingly enter the ring with that one."

Max's voice softened perceptibly. "No, Kyle. I'm a lucky soul. And if takes the rest of my life to prove that to her, then that's what I'm going to do…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Ten minutes later….


"You and dad really don't have a problem with this?" Max queried uncertainly.

"Are you kidding?" The excitement in Diane Evans' voice was unveiled. "Honey, we'd love to meet your sweet little Jaedan. I've been wanting to ever since you told us about her and I think it'd be the perfect time right now too. You know we have plenty of room and with Thanksgiving coming up we have a lot of different projects we could all work on together. It'd be so much fun!"

Max began to chuckle. "I'm so glad you feel that way. With the way Kyle switched my public itinerary, well it would make it very difficult to get Angel and Jaedan back to Denver direct without raising a few eyebrows if any one is watching."

Sudden worry edged Diane's tone. "Do you think there are people watching?"

"No, I really don't." Max hastened to reassure his mother. "I've not had any indication at least. And believe me, I've put my own people on duty to cover them 24/7. So far, no activity…which is precisely what we want." He paused. "Still, I don't want to take any chances. It'll only be a few days."

"I understand, Max. And they can stay as long as they need to." The smile returned instantly to Diane's voice. "Oh, you know what else I just thought of?"

"What?"

"We could do a hay ride. Do you think Jaedan would like that?"

A wide grin spread over Max's face. "Yeah, that's definitely something Jaedan would like."

"Oh…and we could let her ride the horses and dad could take her to town so she can…"

Max's laughter filled the room. "Ok, mom. I got the picture. Jaedan and Angel are going to be two very busy campers." Sincere gratitude danced in his eyes and made its way into his voice. "Thanks for this, mom. I can't tell you what you're accepting them like this means to me."

"You love them, Max." Diane offered softly. "As far as dad and I are concerned, they're part of the family…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
An hour later….


"I swear to you, Max…"

"Don't ok?" Max's clipped tone instantly stopped Alex's explanation. His jaw tightened with annoyance. "Alex, you are my oldest, most trusted friend. I stood in front of you, looked in your eyes and asked you to tell me if you knew where Liz was."

"Max, there were extenuating…"

"You lied." Max once again cut Alex off. The silence between them was deafening. Max swallowed back a string of angry words that were threatening to explode. "I get that you were protecting her secret. And I appreciate your loyalty to her more than I think you'll ever know…"

"I didn't do it for her, Max. I did it for you."

"Really." Instant sarcasm dripped through every syllable. "And how exactly do you figure that?"

"I was keeping her safe. Something that you, my friend, specifically asked me to do."

"Right. From Chris. From our enemies. Not from me. You know…the guy that loves her." Max got up from his couch and began to pace.

Alex let out a sigh. "Look, Max, it got complicated really fast. She needed to disappear. We needed her to disappear. It seemed the best plan at the time."

"And that's fine. At the time." Inquisitive hand gestures Alex couldn't see punctuated Max's questions. "But what about when I came to you? What held you back from telling me then?"

"I was trying to do what she asked, Max. Trying to keep her trust."

"And in turn, lose mine?"

"Come on, Max. Don't be like that. I was your only link to her and the best thing for me to do was keep that connection for when it was time to tell you where she was. It was a no-win situation the two of you put me in. She didn't want you to find her…you were desperately trying to. What was I supposed to do?"

"You tell me that you can't tell me. You tell me you know but you're sworn to secrecy. **That** I would have understood. But flat out lying when I specifically asked you? God, Alex, how am I supposed to know when to trust you now?"

"Max…don't go there." For the first time in the conversation, it was Alex's voice that held a tense note of warning. "After the things we have lived through side by side…the danger and…just don't ever, ever go there."

Max let out a sigh, ran his fingers through his hair and plopped heavily onto his couch. "That was a cheap shot. I'm sorry."

Alex sounded equally contrite. "Yeah, well…I'm sorry I lied about not knowing where Liz was."

Silence held the line once more till Max spoke. "If it had been anything but that, Alex. Missions, business…I don't care. But don't ever lie to me about Liz, Jaedan or Angel again. If you do, it will be the end of our friendship. Do you understand me?"

"Yeah. I understand." Alex's voice was tight with regret. And his mind whirled with awe. Max truly had fallen hard. So hard that Liz and her family were already at the top of the priority chain. So much so that old loyalties were now on the backburner.

Then, Max asked the fatal question. "So, is there anything else you've lied about or you're keeping from me?"

Alex squeezed his eyes shut as McKenna's face flashed before his mind. A moment of indecision and Alex plunged ahead with a plan he'd formed while on his run. The straight out truth. For better or worse, it was time Max knew what was going on with McKenna. "Uh…yeah, actually, Max, there is something that's pretty uh…well, you really should know about it."

"Is this a direct lie or just something I don't know?"

"Something you don't know."

"Does it have to do with Liz?"

"No. Maybe. Perhaps…indirectly."

"Does it have to do with a mission?"

"Yes."

"Does it pose immediate danger to Liz, Jaedan, Angel or myself?"

"Uh…no."

"Will it distract me from building a life with Liz?"

"Uh…yeah. Yeah, I think this would definitely be a distraction."

"Then I don't want to know."

"But Max…"

"I don't want to know, Alex." Max stated with determination. "Look, the only thing I want to focus on right now is getting Liz in my life. Nothing else. No distractions. No missions. No…"

"What if its about McKenna?"

Alex's question stopped Max's heart cold. The breath in his lungs instantly chilled. His grip on the phone tightened till his knuckles were white. Curiosity gripped him and held him silent for a moment. Until he remembered his father's words about the past. About drawing a line in the sand. About how everything before that didn't exist. How sometimes to have a future, you have to deny a past…

"Max?"

Taking a deep breath, Max Evans made a monumental decision. "I don't want to know."

"But Max, this is really…"

"I don't want to know, Alex." Max emphasized each word deliberately. "The past is the past. I have a future I'm looking forward to. One that's going to take a bit of work before I can actually call it my own. I don't want anything to jeopardize that. Anything." Max's voice softened pleadingly after a pause. "Look. I'm in a really good place right now, Alex. Hoping and dreaming. Everything is so positive. I…I just don't want to go back to that place in my mind that talking about her always takes me. So just…don't push this, ok?"

A torn Alex hesitated. There was a pause where conflicting emotions ruled Alex, then he deferred to his friend's preference. Maybe Max was right. Maybe right now wasn't the time. Not when things between Max and Liz were so uncertain. Maybe to deal with the McKenna's ugly betrayal, he needed the beauty of Liz in his life. And that simply wouldn't happen if Max were prematurely told…

He took a deep breath, and agreed. "Ok, Max. Look, I really am sorry. About lying to you. I made a judgement call. Obviously a bad one."

"It's over now." Max answered quietly before attempting to shift the subject to a lighter topic. "So, uh…how's Beauty? Angel told me they gave her to you to watch till they got settled."

"She uh…well, you'd probably be loving her right now."

"Why's that?

"Because every morning I have to check my shoes for doggie doo doo."

Max bit back a smile. "Serves you right."

"Uh-huh. And she pees on my socks."

Max chuckled. "I knew I liked that dog from the second I laid eyes on her."

"And she's chewed holes in my sexy underwear."

"Oh? And how exactly did she get ahold of your Spidey Underoos?"

"That's really…amusing, Max." Alex quipped.

Max started to chuckle and Alex joined in, each of them glad to have their best friend back.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Fourty five min later….


"So, where's my princess?"

Angel swung her legs up onto the chaise lounge on the deck of Max's yacht. She let out a tired sigh into the phone and gazed up at the stars beginning to sparkle in the sky. "In bed."

Max glanced at his watch. "Eight o'clock? You're kidding. She puts up a fight if you try to get her in bed before nine."

"That's when she's not had an overly exhausting day. She's completely zonked out from all the traveling." Angel explained. "And after all the excitement of seeing Liz again, by the time we got back to the yacht, she was more than willing to let the rocking of the boat put her to sleep."

"Yeah?" Max's smile deepened. "Well, tell her I'll talk to her tomorrow then and give her a kiss for me." Max paused a moment before launching into the subject that had ruled his thoughts since he'd left Liz at lunch. "So, uh…how did it go?"

"Oh, Max…" Angel chuckled into the phone. "…it was amazing. I don't think Jaedan has ever been so excited in her entire life. That place your friend owns where we met up with Liz was spectacular. Jaedan had so much fun exploring. And Liz…" Max could imagine her shaking her head as a smile entered her voice. "…was beside herself with joy. I wish you had stayed to see that."

"Nah." Max shook his head slightly. "A mother-daughter reunion like that…they needed time alone. All of you did. Just your family, with no outsiders looking on."

"Max, you are anything but an outsider."

"With you and Jaedan, no. Liz…well, that's still another issue."

Sensing he needed to talk, Angel gave him an opening. "Well, let me tell you this…you made some major points with her this afternoon."

"Yeah?" Max began to grin. "That's good because I'm going to need them after what I pulled before you guys showed up."

Angel began to chuckle. "Yeah. I heard."

"Oh, really? And uh…what did our fair Lady Liz have to say about lunch?"

"Oh, Max…I don't think you really want to know…"

"He's a complete lunatic." The statement was made just before Liz popped a grape in her mouth. Talking around the juicy morsel, she shook her head and pointed an emphatic finger at Angel. "Off his rocker. Certifiable. Without a question…insane." Another grape was devoured. "I mean…I have no idea what that man will do from one second to the next."

Angel's quiet observation was accompanied by a laughing twinkle in her eyes. "Well, he seems to be consistent about one thing."

"What's that?"

"Driving you crazy."

Liz practically snorted. "You can say **that** again. I swear if he teases me one more time with those amazing lips of his and doesn't deliver the goods…" Realizing what she'd admitted, Liz allowed the sentence to trail off when she saw Angel's curiously raised eyebrow. Blushing faintly, Liz cleared her throat and quickly shifted her gaze to the wall of books in front of her. "What I uh…what I meant was that he could destroy everything here for me."

Angel bit back a laugh. "He's only been with you a day, Liz. Hardly enough time to inflict any permanent damage…"

"No, no, no." Liz held her hand to stop Angel's statement. "You don't understand. Do you have any idea what he calls me?" At Angel's silent shrug, Liz sat back in her chair with an air of offense. "Rachel. Can you believe that?"

Angel tried to bit back an amused smile as she gazed down into her coffee cup. "Honey, that is the name you're going by here. What did you expect him to call you?"

"In private?!" Liz's voice rose in shocked indignation. "He and I are…were…" Liz bit back the word 'engaged'. "I…I mean we almost…" 'Made love' took a cut too as Liz clamped her mouth shut and shifted her gaze uncomfortably.

Angel cleared her throat and Liz glanced up to see an inquiring, upraised eyebrow. Rolling her eyes, Liz leaned forward, her cheeks flushing with slight embarrassment. "Alright. So, here's the deal. Things…happened in his office in New York…"

A mock gasp of surprise escaped Angel and she couldn't hold back the sarcasm. "You don't say…"

Liz gave Angel an annoyed, pointed look. "Let me guess. You've already gotten the Max Evans version, right?"

Angel chuckled and shook her head before taking a sip of coffee. "Actually, he's been as silent as the grave when it comes to what exactly happened between the two of you. He avoids the questions just as much as you do no matter how many times I give him openings to talk about it. All I can do is assume he is a true gentleman that takes the 'don't kiss and tell' rule very seriously." Angel paused and looked at Liz expectantly. When Liz said nothing she rolled her eyes and prompted the conversation. "But, if you'd like to clarify anything…"

Ignoring Angel's prompt, Liz instantly switched back to berating Max along the same general topic. "Do you know what else he did? He went on and on and ON about all the beautiful models that have been throwing themselves at him the past two months."

Angel laughed outright at that one.

Liz turned to her with barely concealed irritation prompted by deep seeded jealousy. "What is so funny about that?"

"Liz, the only beautiful girl that's been throwing herself at Max is your daughter. And only then after she's warned him with a loud 'Catch me, Max' right before she jumps off the jungle gym in the park."

Picturing that, Liz began to chuckle. "Ok. Alright, so I guess deep down inside I knew he was pushing that one."

"Definitely." Angel agreed. "Especially since you're pretty much the only woman on his mind. Max isn't the type to take up with someone when his heart belongs to someone else. I think it's time you accept that you're the only he's got in his sights and I have a feeling it's going to be that way for a very long time."

Liz exhaled slowly. "I wouldn’t be so sure of that."

"Liz. Really. If you're worried about the models…"

"I'm not worried about the models." Liz answered quietly, her expression suddenly becoming troubled.

"Well, you're obviously worried about someone…"

Contemplating how much to reveal, Liz paused before answering slowly. "Do you remember me telling you about that woman from Max's past that he lost? The one I'm not quite sure he's ever let go of?"

"Yeah. But from what I understood, she's not in the picture."

"Yeah, well…" Liz cleared her throat and blew out a quick breath. "…it appears she might be more in the picture than what we thought."

Angel's brows furrowed and she shook her head. "That doesn't make any sense. Max has never once mentioned her…"

"Max doesn't know she's…." Liz paused trying to choose the right word that wouldn’t prompt more questions. "…available."

"I see." Angel answered quietly, her contemplative gaze shifting to the wall of books.

"Right." Liz responded automatically. "So, you see…it's a good thing he left me today…"

"You don't mean that."

Liz turned to face Angel. "Yes, I do."

"Liz…" Angel's knowing gaze met her. "…when Jaedan and I came in, there were still tears in your eyes."

Having no good response to that that Angel would actually buy, Liz remained silent. Leaning back in her chair, her gaze drifted to the balcony where Max had proposed, yet again, earlier. "I still can't believe he was with you for a whole month and you didn't let me know."

"Liz, I told you. Jaedan needed him and there was no way I was going to stop him from being with us even if it meant keeping it a secret from you."

Liz's gaze lowered to the small bowl of grapes in her lap. "He said she had a nightmare." Angel remained silent beside her. Liz glanced over. "How often?"

"For a while, pretty much every night." Shrugging slightly, Angel's gaze met Liz's. "Until Max came. He changed everything for her." A motherly smile began on her lips and spread to her eyes. "I honestly don't know what it is about those two, but they connect in such a beautiful way. If she couldn't have you, Max is exactly what she needed."

Liz's head snapped up when she heard a sudden whimpering sound coming from the direction of the bedroom where she'd laid Jaedan down for a short nap. Quickly jumping up from her seat, she headed directly into the bedroom. Jaedan was obviously still asleep, but it was disturbed. One in which she was muttering about Evil Wizards and her mommy. She'd begun to cry.

Liz quickly, gently climbed onto the bed and lay down next to her daughter. Wrapping a comforting arm around her, Liz kissed the top of Jaedan's raven head as she began to whisper soft reassurances and caress her hair. In moments, Jaedan had snuggled into Liz's warmth with a smile of contentment and drifted back into a peaceful sleep.

Liz's eyes filled with tears as her gaze met Angel's as she stood in the doorway. "I hate this…separation."

Angel nodded and slipped into the room to take a seat in a nearby chair. She reached over and patted Jaedan's back gently before her eyes met Liz's again. "It'll be over soon."

Liz nodded as she pulled back to look down into Jaedan's angelic face. With a tear-filled smile, she took one of Jaedan's hands in hers and lovingly caressed each tiny finger before kissing her hand. Her fingers gently caressed the lines of her daughter's sweet, innocent face. "I love her so much, Angel. I don't know what I would ever do if I lost her."

"You won't."

"I feel…I feel like I'm losing her already. Just by not being with her."

"Oh, Liz. You may not be physically with her, but you are so much a part of her that there is not a day that goes by when she isn't talking about you or thinking about you…" A gentle smile touched Angel's lips. "Maybe that's what makes her and Max so connected. Because when it comes to you…he's the exact same way."

"I can't believe he did all of this for us. Especially after what I did…" Gaze fixed on Jaedan's face, Liz ran her finger lightly over a dark eyebrow and down her sloping little nose. Jaedan's long, dark thick lashes feathering lightly over her creamy skin fluttered slightly then stilled as Liz's fingertip rounded her rosy cheek. "I'll bet you weren't surprised at all were you, sweetheart? I'll bet Max giving us a place to be together seems like the most natural thing in the world to you. Especially a place as spectacular as this."

A soft smile drifted over her lips. "In fact, if I weren't such a realist, I could almost believe he plucked this place right out of that amazing imagination of yours and created all of it just for us."

Liz's soft tones filled the room as she gently began to play with Jaedan's hair. "He told me I could find myself here. And then what does he do? He turns around and gives me the exact thing that makes me…me. My daughter. My friend. Everything except…"

When Liz paused, Angel commented on her unspoken finish. "Letting Max into your life isn't as hard as you think, Liz. All you have to do is go to him. Just…open up a little. You know, thank him for what he did for you today. Maybe even tell him the truth…"

Liz immediately shook her head. "No, I…I can't do that."

"Why not, Liz? He's not as oblivious to things as you may think." Angel's inquiry caused Liz's gaze to meet hers. "A man as intelligent as Max has to be asking questions. You can give him the answers. And you know, he's really proven himself to be not only a good friend but trustworthy. And if you're worried about him leaving when the going gets tough, well, I can tell you the past month wasn’t a bed of roses with Jaedan and he stuck in there without one word of complaint. He can be trusted to stick around, Liz…"

"It's not that, Angel. Max deserves to be loved with the same amount of devotion he's obviously capable of giving." Liz brushed her lips against Jaedan's forehead and snuggled into Jaedan as her eyes drifted closed. "And I…just can't be that for him. I can't…pull him into this life. The running and hiding and fear. Not when he has the chance for something normal with a woman he's never gotten over."

"Liz, you don't know that's the case."

"It's a pretty safe bet that it is." The hardness of Liz's tone told Angel that avenue of discussion was temporarily closed. "Look, I don’t want to talk about this anymore…"

"Fine." Angel sighed and reached over to touch Liz's hand. "But at the very least, Liz Parker, you owe Max Evans a big thank you for all of this…"


"Awww, come on, Angel. Just one hint."

"Well…she did call you a lunatic."

"Lunatic? That's the worst I got?" Max chuckled. "Huh. Here I was thinking it would be Son of Satan or Evil Incarnate…"

"Oh didn't I mention? Those came later."

Max laughed as he sifted through some papers on his desk. "Well, I'm glad everything went according to plan today. From what Paul tells me the yacht should reach San Fransico by morning. From there you'll take my jet to Alaska. You'll be there a couple of days then head to Seattle by helicopter. From there, back to Denver on a commercial flight under assumed names I'm setting up for you." Max paused as a smile made it to his voice. "My parents are really looking forward to meeting you and Jaedan."

"It was very nice of them to let us stay a few days while we lay low."

"Are you kidding?" Max grinned into the phone. "My mom's been planning this since the day I told her about Jaedan. Only having us guys to raise, mom has years of girlie things to try out on her. I actually don't know who to feel more sorry for…Mom or Jaedan."

"I'm actually worried about you, Max." Angel commented suddenly.

"Me? Why?" Max's brows furrowed and he suddenly wondered where the conversation was going.

He hadn't needed to worry. "Because you did something incredibly wonderful for Liz today. Which means Liz…"

Max rolled his eyes and finished for Angel with a chuckle. "…will be on the warpath." Sobering some, Max let out a sigh. "Ok. So, what do you think I should expect in retaliation?"

"If I were you, Max…I'd expect the unexpected."

"With Liz?" Max grinned into the phone as his eyes began to dance with anticipation. "Always…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
An hour later….


Max sighed into the phone. "So what exactly is the problem, Barbara." He listened a moment. "Uh-huh. Right. Ok. So, get her on the phone." Cutting off a protest from the other end, Max shrugged. "I really don't care what time it is there. Get her on the phone."

As he waited for Barbara to link him to his other party, Max walked into his kitchen and grabbed a cup from the cupboard and poured himself a cup of coffee. He'd just taken a sip when Barbara let him know she was connecting him.

"This had better be good."

"Em…" Max's disapproving start set the tone of the conversation. Emily immediately groaned. "…what's the problem? Barbara's telling me that you're reconsidering your role in this take over."

Liz Parker’s sister, Emily, let out a sigh. "He's my father, Max."

"He's a jackass, Em." Max responded with straightforward candor. "I mean, come on. How many times have you complained about how he treats you. Never giving you any credit though you certainly do all the work…"

"He's still my father…"

"And didn't you tell me once that you had a younger sister?" Max attempted to keep his voice level and devoid of emotion. Which was extremely difficult considering Jeff Parker's treatment of his youngest daughter was the driving force behind Max's current actions. "That he basically treated her like she was nothing."

Emily let out a weary sigh. "Max, that is such ancient history. My sister is not even in the picture any more. She died several years ago."

Max swallowed the bile that lie brought to his throat and attempted to continue the conversation without giving any emotions away. "So? A man that can do something like that to his own child…do you really think he won't do it to his stock holders and employees. Hell, you're living proof he does it to his employees. How long have you been with Parker Industries?"

"Eleven years."

"Eleven years." Max repeated before setting up his case. "And what has it gotten you except a ton of work and no real reward? In fact, where exactly are you on the corporate ladder?"

"Executive Assistant of Public Relations.

"Executive Assistant." Max repeated, his voice disapproving. "I’m offering to make you CEO, Emily." Emphasizing each letter, Max could feel his case becoming stronger with each passing word. "CEO. You'd be in charge of everything."

Doubts still remained. "You'd still have controlling interest."

"Yes, but I trust you, Emmy." Max hastened to reassure as he moved from his kitchen toward the center of the room where he plopped down into a comfy chair. "As long as its turning a profit, I don't think I would need to be that involved with the actual running of Parker Industries. In fact, I don't want to run it. I just want to own it."

"Why, Max? Why daddy's company? What's the motivation here?"

Shrugging casually, Max hoped that attitude would transfer to his voice. "Why else? The thrill of the take over."

"Never kid a kidder, Max." A wise Emily Parker cautioned. "I get the feeling there's something more to this."

"Well, there's not." Max paused realizing even he didn't believe what he'd just said. Hell, he knew there was something so much more to taking down Parker Industries, and Jeff Parker with it. There was justice for Jeff's treatment of Liz in the past. There was planning for the future by handing Jaedan the legacy she should have received through Liz. And…there was a bit of revenge thrown in.

Max took a deep breath and attempted a slightly different approach. "Look, all I can say is…I'm going to take your father's company down, Em. Now, you can either work with me and win or work against me…and lose. I'm there with you on family loyalty so I'll understand if you choose the later and there will be no hard feelings on my part, but I really hope you choose to work with me on the winning side."

There was a pause where Emily was clearly thinking. "Well, you do make it sound very tempting."

"It doesn't sound tempting, Em. It IS tempting. And you know why it's tempting? Because its real." A grin made it's way into Max's voice when he heard Emily chuckle into the phone at his obvious attempt to sell her on the idea. "Look, just…think about it and get back to me ok?"

"Ok. I'll let you know soon…"

As soon as the call with Emily Parker ended, Max dialed Barbara back. "Hey. It's me. Thanks for the hook up…"

Barbara's question cut him off before he got any further. "All of them, Max?"

"I take it you got my email." Max quipped with a smirk.

"Yeah. And are you sure about this? I mean…**all** of them?"

"All of them." Max glanced over a list he'd made before Kyle's call. "I want the entire list of subsidiaries for Parker Industries. The names of their CEO's. Stock holders. Family histories on each of them. I want their strengths and weaknesses. I even want to know if someone's Johnny Jr. off at Harvard or Yale has a reoccurring drug problem. Or if a wife enjoys a bit of side action with the pool boys. Anything any of them try to hide, I want it uncovered. I want every bit of dirt. I want to know who we can hit first and who we can hit hardest."

"How hard are we talking here?"

"However hard we have to in order to bring Parker Industries crashing down around Jeff Parker's feet." The level of ruthlessness in Max's voice was thick with determination.

There was a pause before Barbara made an accurate observation. "This one's personal for you, isn't it?"

"Yes."

"How personal?"

"Very."

There was a pause. Then Barbara began the lecture. "Max. How many times have I told you to keep business, business and personal far away from it?"

"A lot."

"Right. And when you listen to me, you usually get what you want. Right?"

"Right."

"Then why aren't you listening to me now?" Barbara asked in exasperation. "I mean…taking out a personal revenge in business is simply not the best policy. Emotions get involved. Risks get taken."

There was a knock on the door.

"Yes, I know that, Barbara." Max glanced up from his computer screen at the sound and eased himself out of the chair behind his desk. "I'm just saying…" Max moved from his make shift office area past the raised kitchen on his right past the large fire engine doors to the smaller entrance Max used as a front door.

There was another knock.

"Now tell me, Max. Tell me what you're getting ready to do isn't too much of a risk…"

"No. I don't think it would be taking too big of a risk." Another impatient knock sounded just as he reached the door. "No. No, that's not what I said. Just…hang on a sec…" Throwing the door open, Max's eyes brightened in delight and a smile started to form on his lips as his voice softened. "Hey."

Liz Parker nodded in return and brushed her way past him into his place without invitation or ceremony. Max whipped his head around to follow her movements and turned with an upraised eyebrow as polite sarcasm began to flow. "By all means, please…do come in."

Casting her glance quickly around the spacious area she'd boldly sashayed her way into, Liz spun on her heels and faced Max with fire flashing in her eyes. "You had it all planned, didn't you? Right from the start. Every last detail."

"Ah." Was Max's only response. Trying to bite back a smile of amusement, Max spoke back into his phone. His dark eyes sparkled with anticipation. He’d been waiting for this confrontation all evening. "Barbara, I have to go. Seems my own personal tornado just blew in and it looks like it's going to be a long, bumpy ride." His eyes began to twinkle at Barbara's response. "Alright. I'll tell her you said hi."

Clicking off the phone, Max tossed it onto a nearby chair. He crossed his arms with an infuriating smirk and locked eyes with Liz. "Barbara said to tell you hi."

Unfazed by his 'tornado' comment and the fact Barbara knew whom had just walked in Max's door without him telling her, Liz surprised Max by launching into a list of questions instead of her expected accusations. "Nice place. But…really, Max. A firehouse?"

"Yeah, kinda cool, huh? Every boy's dream come true." Max nodded as he glanced around with pride. Pointing toward the rear of the spacious building, Max's eyes lit up with almost childish delight. "Comes complete with a sliding pole, fire alarm and everything. I'll give you a tour if you want."

There was a slight pause as a seemingly new idea hit Max.

"In fact…" A devilish smile haunted his lips and his eyes instantly turned to midnight as they swept over Liz from head to toe. His voice lowered seductively. "…if you're a really good girl, I might even let you handle the extra long hose upstairs." One sly, suggestive wink. "I hear it's quite an experience..."

Liz felt simmering blood instantly flood into her cheeks and she stiffened perceptibly against the onslaught of sensations his combined suggestive words and intimate tone were sparking throughout her entire in her body. Folding her hands in front of her Liz's dark eyebrow raised as she focused instead on her mission. "You, uh...renting?"

Max bit back a knowing smile. "No."

"Staying with friends?"

"Nope."

"Here illegally?"

Shaking his head, Max shrugged his negative answer. "Sorry."

Seeing the arrogant smirk plastered on his face, Liz knew he was going to make her work for every piece of information. She let out an exasperated sigh. "Max, I think you know what I'm asking."

"Yes, I do."

"And?"

"Oh, I was waiting for you to actually ask." Was Max's flippant response.

Liz took a deep calming breath and exhaled slowly before meeting his gaze again. Her tone was terse with frustration. "Al-right. This…" She glanced around her indicating his choice of living space. "…is permanent for you, isn't it?"

Max paused a moment, his lips pursing as if in thought. Then… "If the question is 'have I purchased this firehouse and renovated it as a place to stay while I'm here in LA', then the answer is yes."

"Ah, yes. I see." Liz commented before pausing as if in putting more of an obvious puzzle together. "So, the proposal earlier. The little chat before hand. Making me say 'no' like ten million times and then you just…giving up. Walking away. Leaving me standing there all alone. Knowing the whole time that you were going to stay no matter what I said…"

Max jumped in. "Ok. Let's clarify something here. I never said anything about staying or leaving LA based on your answer to my proposal."

"Right. But the point still remains...you've not given up on us, have you?” She waved an impatient hand in the air. “All of that was just for dramatic effect, wasn't it?"

"Uh…” Max paused and cast his gaze upward in thought. His eyes snapped back to hers when he made a curt nod of confirmation and a generous smirk. “…pretty much."

"Hmm. Yeah. Just what I thought." Nodding, Liz appeared to be taking her time as she viewed her surroundings. She leisurely turned and headed past the spiral staircase toward the center of the room where a couch, two chairs and coffee table sat just waiting for guests to be entertained. Running her hand along the back of the contemporary styled black sofa, she continued. "See...I've been thinking a lot about today. What you've done…” Picking up a vivid solid pillow she fluffed it then tossed it back on the couch, patting it into just the right spot.

Max advanced further into the room, watching her every move with growing curiosity and interest. A small smile played on his lips as every nuance of her expression was captured by his penetrating, observant gaze.

“What you've said….” Running her finger along the frosted glass shade of a floor lamp stationed right behind the chair closest to Max, Liz’s expression reflected clearly that she was impressed with what she was seeing in Max’s choice of decor. Sleek, suave, contemporary with dashes of vivid color to grab one’s attention. Very expensive, elegant taste. But not outrageously so. A perfectly blended mixture of all his contrary personality traits. It was all very…Max. “How things played out...”

Dropping her hand, she turned fully facing him. “And I have to admit…I am impressed with the level of finesse with which you got everything to work. Takes true talent to pull off what you did today."

Max inclined his head indicating his acknowledgement of her compliment.

Liz continued without missing a beat. "And I really should have seen it coming because there were clues all around. Like…first of all, I should have known something was up when we walked in and there was only one place set for lunch. Should have been my first clue, but I missed it somehow."

She began a short, agitated pace in front of him as she held up her fingers as if counting. "Then…I should have known something was up when you so calmly advised me that there was a limo already at my disposal whenever I was ready to leave. All your comments to Pierre were about 'her' meal, not 'ours'. Again, my fault for not picking up on the fact you never planned to stay."

"But what you did after that, Max…" Ending her pacing, Liz abruptly turned to him. Shaking her head, her lips tightened into a thin line and there was a slight tremor in her voice. "…with Jaedan. Angel." She squared her shoulders and raised her chin in seeming defiance. "Well, I just have one thing to say to you…"

Angel had told Max to expect the unexpected. He should have listened. Because he certainly hadn't expected what Liz Parker did next.

With the speed of a shooting arrow, Liz closed the distance separating them. When Liz's soft body collided with his, Max instinctively wrapped his arms around her waist. When her lips hit their target a millisecond later with unerring accuracy, his response was instantaneous.

The kiss was immediately explosive. Hungry. Passionate. Max crushed Liz against him as she grabbed his face with a firm desperate grip. Helpless moans of pleasure echoed in the large spacious room as tongues began a duel of intimacy and warm pliable lips slid relentlessly against each other. Slipping her fingers across Max's skin through his hair, Liz pulled him into her and Max's fingers got helplessly tangled in long silky strands as he angled her head in response.

It was only the desperate need for air that pulled them apart. Liz reluctantly released Max's lips to a groan of protest. Gulping in large amounts of air, Liz leaned her forehead against his chest and ran a hand lightly over his thundering heart. His heavy breathing was loud in her ear as he clung to her, unwilling to let her go.

Pulling back after a moment, Liz's passion filled eyes met his briefly before dropping with a softening gaze to where her entire being had been focused only brief moments before. Running her fingers lightly over red, puffy lips she bit down on her own before whispering two breathless, emotion filled words. "Thank you."

A smile instantly began to take hold of Max and Liz's gaze raised once more to meet his dazed, but twinkling eyes. Running his fingers through her hair, Max nuzzled his nose against hers teasingly. "Well, if that's the reward for uniting you with one sweet little princess, then tell me now. I'll bring a child a day for the rest of your life…"

"She's my daughter, Max." Releasing a shaky breath, Liz Parker repeated herself as her eyes drifted closed. "Jaedan Elizabeth is my daughter…"

posted on 16-Jun-2002 11:33:23 PM by Ashton
Hey all!!!

Ok. So, I couldn't help myself. Had to get this next part out to you. Now, it's going to be TOTALLY corny on Liz's part toward the end, but for what I have planned, I think ya'll will like it. ;) Anyway...hope you enjoy! Would love to hear what you think as always!!!

Hugs,
Ashton
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 7 ~


Liz's confession tugged the smile from Max's face and he pulled back to look into her face with surprise. Not because of the truth he had known for months. But because she revealed it to him. So openly. So willingly. So…soon.

It was obvious Liz Parker was struggling not to cry, trying not to break down, evidence of the powerful emotions simmering just under the surface of her carefully controlled facade. Ever gentle, Max's fingers glided over Liz's soft cheeks before curling under her jaw, easing her face upward and prompting her to look at him when he whispered a tender endearment.

"Sweetheart, look at me."

Blinking back sudden tears, Liz once more bit down on her lower lip when her gaze met his. "So, you're the beautiful Queen and Jaedan's your little princess, huh?" The smile on his face warmed the amber slivers in his eyes with flames of teasing adoration. "And you think I didn't already know that?"

Liz's breath caught in her chest and a stubborn tear slipped down her face. "H--how did you…?"

Max's smile deepened as his gaze roamed her face slowly before meeting hers with an answer. "Because every time I look in those big beautiful brown eyes of hers, I see you staring back at me. Granted, there's a lot less fear and whole lot more trust, but there's no doubt." Running a finger down the bridge of Liz's nose to emphasize his point, Max began to grin. "From the tip of her cute little nose right on through to that stubborn iron will of hers, every inch of that little girl is yours through and through."

Brushing his lips against her forehead, Max's voice lowered to intense sincerity when he looked into her eyes again. "And I adore her even more because of it."

Liz's gaze shifted from Max's eyes glowing with so emotion. "How…long?"

"Since before you came to my office that day."

"You…" Liz bit on her lip to keep back the tears. Blinking rapidly, she managed to get the question out. "You…knew when you…proposed?"

"Yeah." Max answered softly as he pushed a stray piece of hair back behind Liz's ear. "Yeah, I knew."

"And you…you asked…anyway? Knowing you'd be…a…a father and not…not just a husband?"

Despite the seriousness of the moment, Max couldn't keep the twinkle of amusement out of his dancing eyes at the obvious answer to Liz's innocent question. His silence prompted her gaze to meet his in question. A smile tugged the corner of his lips upward as he shrugged almost shyly. "What better way to spend the rest of my life than with the two girls I adore most in the world?"

Overcome with sudden emotion, Liz pushed herself out of Max's arms and spun around, bowing her head as her hands became two tight fists by her side, clenching and unclenching with repeated agitation. Sensing she needed time to compose herself, Max watched in silence as her shoulders slumped while she struggled not to break down. Sensing she'd only push him away if he tried to comfort her in any way, he kept his distance.

That didn't mean his arms didn't ache to hold her. That his fingers didn't itch to wipe away any tears that stubbornly escaped her. That his lips didn't burn to brush against hers and silently prove to her just how much he meant his heartfelt confession.

He was right to keep his distance.

For Liz Parker was facing a struggle she had previously thought impossible.

And that struggle all began when he left her earlier that day. It began when she started reading the journal he'd left her after lunch. It began when she heard her own voice speaking through the scattered words of another…

My life is danger. It leaves no room for emotion. No room for stability. No room for growth.

To grow, one has to be planted. Rooted to one particular place. One has to have a home.

I have no home. I never shall. I'd have to stand still long enough to feel the warm sun against my skin. The breeze in my hair. The soft nurturing ground curl over my toes. Establishing a permanency I long for.

But, it's a risk I cannot take. To be safe, I must be free. To be free, I must keep moving. To keep moving, I cannot feel. Cannot want. Cannot love…


A knock on the door interrupted Liz's reading. Quickly shoving the journal onto the shelf, she attempted to swipe the tears filling her eyes but failed to complete the task before the door flew open and a little dark haired imp bounced through the door calling out her name.

"Kendall! Kendall! Where 're ya?"

"Jaedan!?" Rounding the oriental screen, Liz's expression registered amazing shock. "Oh my God! Sweetheart!"

Jaedan was in Liz's arms in a heartbeat. Both mother and daughter laughing and chattering through giggles and tears. Angel stood silently by the door taking in the scene. Chronicling each second to retell Max later. It was only right since he'd made this moment possible.

Tears glistening in her eyes, Liz looked to Angel and held out her hand. Angel quickly joined the reunion circle receiving a hug and kiss from both Liz and Jaedan. Jaedan's long ponytails bounced against her shoulders as she turned to Liz with an oh-so-serious expression. "Were ya s'priseded?"

Liz nodded enthusiastically as a bright smile lit her eyes. She kissed Jaedan's smooth cheek before responding. "Oh, pumpkin, I've not been this surprised in…forever!"

Jaedan began to clap as her eyes lit up with secret joy. "Yay! It workeded! It workded! Max said ya'd be s'priseded. But we had to be all…" Jaedan put her finger against her lips in animated explanation. "…shhhh for it ta workded." Turning bright eyes on Angel, Jaedan continued without skipping a beat. "I was good, wasn't I, grandnanny? Cuz I've been all shhh all dis time just like Max said!"

Angel began to laugh. "Yes, sweetie, you did just what Max said. He'll be so proud of you."

"Oh, my sweetie pie…" Liz knelt down and released Jaedan. "…let's take a good look at you." She swallowed back new tears of regret that prickled the back of her eyes. "You've gotten bigger…"

"Uh-huh! We measureded me wiff a stick and everyfing and Grandnanny says I growded a whole inches anda ha'f, but…" She lowered her voice as if conveying a private secret. "…Max thinks I growded a whole two inches. We're gonna measure me 'gain when he comes back home just ta see who's right…Max or Grandnanny!"

"When he comes back?" Liz's questioning gaze shifted from Jaedan to Angel, but Angel didn't get a chance to answer.

"Uh-huh! I got it all markded on my cowendar!"

"Your cowendar?" Liz inquired her brows knitting together as she struggled to figure out the word her daughter was trying to pronounce. Before she was able to get far in the thinking process, Jaedan produced the item from her backpack. "Here. See? I got it all markded down. Max and I maded it real special. See?"

"I can see. It's a very special, pretty calendar."

"No, Kendall. It's a cowendar!" Jaedan corrected stubbornly as her pony tails emphasized her point with a wicked bounce as she placed her hands on the hips of her jean overalls.

"Oh. Well…excuse me." Liz chuckled as she wrapped her arm around Jaedan and pulled her forward for a hug. Unable to fight the smile on her face, Liz gazed down at the hand made calendar for the month of November. "Sweetie, what are the these?" Liz pointed to a separate cut out pieces that Jaedan had obviously colored. Several of the same covered the blocks for days throughout the month while a few blocks were covered with a less enchanting figure of a comical dragon.

Jeadan pointed a tiny finger at one of the pretty princesses. "Dat's me when I's been good and when I's had a happy day." She moved her finger to one of the few dragons on the board. "Dat's me when I's not had a happy day. When I's been crwyin' or poutin' in my room."

"Oh, I see." Liz tried to bite back a smile as her gaze swept across the calendar seeing a lot more princesses than dragons. One particular day caught her eye. "Honey, why does this day have two dragons?"

Jaedan's lower lip shot out in a guilty pout as she turned regretful eyes on Liz. "Cuz I was extrwa bad."

"You were?" Liz asked, trying not to chuckle at the look on Jaedan's face. "Well, what did you do?"

Jaedan began twisting her body back and forth with nervous energy while she began her story. "I got mad at Max cuz he was leafing me and Grandnanny and I thought he was gonna get losted like you and I…I ran an hided under my bed where he couldn't finded me. He got weally scared cuz he didn't know where I got losted to. So, I got doubled drwagons cuz I scareded him so bad."

"Oh…" Liz frowned down at the calendar and realized that day had only been two days ago. "I see. Sounds like Max is really important to you."

"Uh-huh!" Jaedan readily agreed with bouncing hair and dancing feet. "He's my Mr. Prince Charming. And he's my friend. And we make sniffum and cacknaps together. And…and he prwomised to finded you for me cuz I was scarded that you got losted. And he did. See? And…and we get to go to the park and paint pictures together and…and he reads me bedtime stories and makes up fairy tales wiff me! And he makes all the scwary mo'sters go 'way in my night ga'lps!"

"Wow." Liz's impressed but accusatory gaze met Angel's. "I…I had no idea he'd become so much a part of your life…"

"Jaedan, tell Kendall what else happened that day." Angel prompted trying to head off any storm she might have seen brewing in Liz's eyes.

Jaedan's eyes brightened and she clapped her hands in front of her. "OH! I 'member! Max took me ta see 'bout getting' anodder Booty, but we didn't see no pwretty puppies like Booty. So, Max's gonna talk to the Walla Walla Fairy and see if maybe Booty can come live wiff us again!"

"Oh, honey, that would be wonderful! I know how much you wanted to take Beauty with you when you and Grandnanny left."

"Uh-huh! And Max and I had a woooong talk."

"You did?"

"Uh-huh. He told me just cuz he was leafing Grandnanny and me doedn't mean he was gonna be gone forefer. Just like you're not gonna be gone forefer. He said we'd get ta see ya 'gain. And lookie! He gave me dis! Just like he said he would!" Jaedan held out her arm so Liz could see the tiny charm bracelet hanging from her wrist.

Liz ran her fingers over the one charm currently dangling from her daughter's bracelet. Before Liz had a chance to ask any questions, Jaedan jumped in with an excited explanation. "Grandnanny just helped me put it on cuz I didn't hafe it 'fore taday! See? It's a flower…like in our secret garden. He prwomised to give me a charm for each prwomise he kepted. And he said he'd let me see a prwetty garden that would lead me to you! And it did! Cuz we just followed the path like Max said and…" Jaedan's face broke into a wide grin. "…here you are!"

"Yeah, baby…" Liz pulled Jaedan into a tight hug. "…here I am. Right where Max said I'd be." She gave Jaedan a lingering kiss on her cheek before hugging her again. "I have missed you so much…" Her tear filled gazed to meet Angel's. A dark eyebrow raised as Liz mouthed the word 'Is this safe?' to Angel.

Angel nodded with a smile and mouthed back the words 'Max made sure.'

Before Liz got a chance to inquire about anything else from her silent friend, Jaedan wiggled out of Liz's embrace and grabbed her hand. Bouncing with excitement and energy she started pulling Liz toward the door. "Come on, Kendall! Max said we could go 'xplorin'!"

"Keep this up, Max, you'll have this war won before Liz gets a foot on the battlefield." Angel whispered, simply shaking her head and grinning as two giggling Parker girls slipped through the door into a garden world made just for them…



Unfortunately, Liz Parker hadn't yet lost the will to fight.

A decision loomed before her.

The truth. Revealing it. Keeping it hidden. It was a struggle more profound than anything Liz had ever faced in the past. Because either way, the potential for losing Max was certain. The only difference would be how long she got to keep him before he disappeared out of her life.

My life is danger. It leaves no room for emotion. No room for stability. No room for growth. It's a risk I cannot take. To be safe, I must be free. To be free, I must keep moving. To keep moving, I cannot feel. Cannot want. Cannot love…

The sooner she claimed that truth, the better. For both of them.

Liz Parker had only taken a few acting classes in boarding school. Performing was like breathing for her. She was a natural. Born to rule the art. On stage, the character was real enough to touch. Liz Parker was just a ghost.

If ever there was a time to pull out that old acting garb, now was the time.

Donning her chosen character like putting on a cloak, Liz's shoulders squared. A new Liz Parker stood in her place as her head slowly raised. Her voice was steady when she began to speak. "Jaedan loves you and she needs you. I will not take that away from her."

"But…" Max prompted quietly, not quite sure what to expect when her eyes finally met his again. He didn't have long to wait.

Liz turned to face him. Determination edged eyes full of purpose. "But you and I…this thing we have going…it stops here. It stops now." Taking a deep breath, Liz's gaze never wavered. "I'm sure you have…a million questions right now so…"

"Yes." Max nodded once, his eyes narrowing as he watched her carefully. "But none that need to be answered right this moment."

It was as if any entirely different woman stood before him. A woman acting. Not feeling. Not thinking. Just…acting…a part. He could practically see the wheels in her head spinning furiously providing her with the next line in the play. His awe of her increased dramatically. As well as Max felt he could read Liz, she never quite ceased to surprise him.

The outcome of this current performance was going to be…entertaining to say the very least. Max braced himself for…the unexpected.

"Alright then. I'll say what I came to say." Folding her hands in front of her, Liz shrugged her shoulders slightly as an aura of confidence rippled over her. "It's painfully obvious that you just…aren't going to give up…"

"And they say you aren't observant." Max quipped lightly with a smirk.

Liz continued barely acknowledging his comment. "So, it seems to me that the only thing that will convince you to do just that is…to tell you the complete truth."

A dark eyebrow raised in response and his lips twitched helplessly. "What a novel idea…Rachel."

Tilting her head to the side, Liz batted her long lashes and threw him a careless smile. "You're not going to make this easy for me, are you?"

Max mirrored her expression. "Should I?"

"Well, I did thank you for this afternoon in a very…" Liz paused a moment as her gaze came to rest on Max's still red lips. A knowing smile slipped over her lips and her voice lowered suggestively. "….satisfying way."

"Mmmm-hmmm." Max deliberately wet his lips as his heated gaze landed on her lips only a few short steps away. "You certainly did." Eyes snapping back up to meet hers, he shook his head slightly. "But that was payback. Not credit. If you want me to make this easy for you, I suggest we negotiate. Maybe start with another kiss, see where that takes us…"

"And I suggest you take it up with Jaedan's father." Liz's chin raised mockingly.

That one statement alone wiped the smirk off Max's face.

Had he been drinking something, he would have choked. His face visibly paled and the breath in his lungs instantly froze. Never in his wildest dreams had he expected Liz to mention Chris, let alone…

Wait. She was too calm to be talking about Chris. In fact, she was too composed to be dealing with this entire issue altogether. The anticipatory knot that had formed in Max's stomach instantly eased. She had her game face on. Not her bearing-my-soul-this-is-too-painful-to-talk-about face. In fact, she was being Max. The way he had been…earlier today.

Max cleared his throat and waited with baited breath to see where she was taking this. "Jaedan's…father."

"Yes." Liz, the consummate actress, answered calmly as she quirked an eyebrow in his direction. "You didn't think I had her all by myself did you?"

"Of…of course not. It's just…"

"Look, Max. I'm attracted to you." A faint blush accompanied her admission. "That has been made painfully obvious on several occasions. I mean…how could I not be? You're…" She flashed him a wide, enticing smile that implied everything ever printed about him. "…the irresistible Max Evans."

Her gaze lowered guiltily and she bit her lower lip in the most adorable way. "I know that I have most likely sent you a million mixed messages. Like the kiss earlier. And in the car. The…" Blowing out a dreamy sigh she allowed a sly glance in Max's direction complete with a hint of seductive smile. "…several…in your office." Instantly lowering her gaze again, she continued contritely. "And…and I’m sorry for that because the truth is…" She took an exaggerated breath as if readying herself for a difficult admission.

Max instantly bit down on the inside of his cheek, struggling not to burst into laughter when her wide-eyed innocent gaze met his. "…I have been involved with someone for quite a while now. He's a married man. Much older. And…Jaedan's father."

"A…a married man." Max repeated.

"Yes." Liz allowed the proper amount of guilt and shame to flitter through her expression. "I know I should be…ashamed for being…a 'mistress', but his marriage really is just a sham. He only stays with her because of his career, you see. And it's because of his career that we keep everything so quiet."

"Oh, really."

Liz nodded. "Yes. In fact, I really shouldn’t be talking about this at all. If the wrong people find out…" Liz lowered her voice as if imparting high risk information. "…it could be a matter of national security."

"N-national security."

"Uh-huh. You see, he's very high in the government. And if our relationship were known….well, there would be a very huge scandal." Liz's eyes widened with appropriate fear. "Not to mention potential danger for Jaedan and myself."

Covering a chuckle by clearing his throat, Max managed to get out a necessary question. "And…this man…" Max paused as he stuffed his hands into his pockets. "…what did you say his name was?"

The smile was forced as Liz batted her lashes. "I didn't."

"Ah. Right." Max's gaze shifted. "So…this, uh…David…?"

"There's no reason for you to know his name, Max."

"Oh. Ok." Nodding as if in thought, Max pursed his lips before asking another question. "And I'm assuming that it's…" Once again attempting to force Liz to give a name, Max tossed one out. "…Tom's high government position that makes it necessary for you to have an assumed name and stay separated from Jaedan, right?"

Liz's eyes brightened. "Exactly." She paused to bestow a grateful smile on him. "See." Liz let out a relieved. "I knew you would understand. Angel wasn't so sure that I should tell you this, but I knew you could be trusted."

Max donnned an appropriately hurt expression. "But…what about us? I mean…I know what I felt from you. When you kiss me, it feels very real. And you did say yes to my initial proposal…"

"Riiight." Gaze shifting uncomfortably, it was obvious Max had thrown her a curve ball. Improvisation wasn't Liz Parker's forte for nothing. She turned on her heel and began to pace. "You see, Max…I've wanted more out of my relationship for quite a while now. I think…you know, I think having someone like you…"

She paused in her pacing to throw him an appropriate compliment. "…someone so handsome and powerful…so focused on just me. Well, it kinda went to my head. And frankly, when Jaedan's father found out about…well…" Making the appropriate hand gesture between herself and Max, she continued. "…us…he demanded that I break things off with you. In fact, he's the reason I moved to L.A. so suddenly. He's promised to spend a lot more time with us. So, in a round about way, I should be thanking you."

"I see." Max answered quietly acting as if he were trying to process all of this new information. His gaze met hers. "So, you really love this guy huh?"

"Uh-huh." Liz nodded as her gaze remained fixed on a point on the wall just over Max's shoulder.

"And Jaedan…"

"Adores him." Liz filled in quickly. "I know she doesn't talk about him much, but that's only because she doesn't really know he's her father."

"I see." Max responded again. "Because of…"

Liz joined him in finishing his sentence. "…national security."

"Right." Max bit down even harder on the inside of his cheek to keep his inner laughter from exploding and ruining one of the best performances he'd seen yet. As he began to pace himself, Liz watched his every move, anxiously tucking her hair behind her ear and biting down on her lip.

She knew it was a lame story. Then again, truth was often stranger than fiction and she did remember reading a story very much like the one she'd just retold to Max. What was the name of that book anyway? Hmmm. And it wasn't like it didn't happen. In fact, affairs ran rampant in the nation's capitol. Everyone knows that. So for Liz to be one of the participants…well, that wasn't **that** much of a stretch. Was it? No, of course it wasn't. After all, she was young and attractive. Talented…

Now, if she could only remember the guy's name from that book just in case Max pressed the point. Seemed like it was Mike. Mitch. Mort…

Max turned to her suddenly with a disappointed air. "Well, I guess there's nothing really more that I can say. You obviously love the guy enough to have his child and invest so much in a relationship that is clearly going nowhere..."

"Hey."

"Sorry. It's just…" Max shrugged. "…all you'll ever have with this guy are occasional nights in secret and a part time dad for Jaedan, but if that's what you want then who am I to argue?"

"Well…" Liz's brow furrowed uncertainly. "…thanks. I guess." Wetting her lips she cleared her throat and squared her shoulders. "Well, I must say I thought you'd have a harder time with this."

Another nonchalant shrug. "Come on. I've been around the block enough to know you can be attracted to someone while being thoroughly committed to someone else. And since you're obviously committed, I really have no choice in the matter but to wish you well and thank you for the fun I've had."

"O...K…" Not quite sure how to end her obviously convincing performance, Liz just nodded and took a few steps toward the door. She stopped in front of Max and turned to him abruptly. "I…I hope we can still be friends. Especially since we still have to work together."

Max smiled a slow smile that reached his eyes. It was the first sincere thing he'd heard out of Liz Parker's mouth since she'd begun her ridiculous story. Reaching out, he gently tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "Always, Beautiful."

A flash of uncertainty and hurt rippled through her eyes as Liz gave him a half smile before heading toward the door. Just as she reached it, Max caught up to her and grabbed her arm gently holding her back. "Wait. Just…one favor before you go?" Despite the red flags waving furiously in the back of her mind, Liz nodded with a power beyond herself as she gazed up into Max's mesmerizing eyes. "One last kiss?"

Breath catching in her throat, Liz's eyes fluttered closed as Max leaned forward and lightly brushed his lips against hers. A helpless sound escaped her when electricity zipped from his lips to hers. Her fingers curled into the material of his shirt as she eagerly parted her lips for a deeper kiss. Max complied with her silent request but refused to invade the intimacy of her mouth keeping the relentlessly gentle assault on the surface. Releasing her bottom lip after one lingering tug, Max whispered against her lips. "Tell me his name…"

She swallowed hard and leaned forward to brush her lips against his once more. Max pulled back to ghost her lips with a phantom kiss. Under Max's enchanting spell, the answer tumbled helplessly. "Mark…"

Max ran his tongue teasingly along the crease of her lips before another whispered request. "Mark who?"

A light moan of protest escaped her when Max tauntingly nuzzled her nose but kept his lips hauntingly close to hers. Snaking a hand around Max's neck, Liz's fingers began twisting the hair at the nape of his neck before pulling him back into her for a harder kiss. Max fought the smile rushing to his lips as he pulled back slightly with a breathless whisper. "Mark…who…"

Liz breathed heavily against Max's lips. "Bar-ton…"

"Thank you…." Max nuzzled her nose one last time. Brushing her lips with one last lingering caress then pulled back completely before abruptly ushering a dizzy and slightly dazed Liz through his door.

It wasn't until she heard the click of the closed door behind her that Liz suddenly realized what happened. Damn him and those lips. Then again…it was her fault for falling under his spell. And in quick succession, she suddenly remembered the name of the hero in that book she'd read. Matthew Barton. And…what had she just said in her Max-induced haze? Didn't she say…Mark?

Releasing a deep, shaky breath, Liz lightly ran her fingers over her swollen lips as a dreamy smile began to form. "Like it's going to make a difference. At least I made it out alive and now…" Determination flashing in her eyes, Liz took a step away from Max's door. "…no one will get hurt…."


Inside, Max remained silent until he reached his couch. He plopped down, glanced at the room around him. Then burst into uncontrollable laughter, falling completely over onto the couch. After a good ten minutes of controlling his chuckles then losing the battle and tumbling headlong into giggles again, Max finally felt in enough control to make a phone call.

Shaking his head at how adorable Liz had been the entire evening from the moment she stepped foot inside to the second he closed the door to her back, Max punched in numbers from his rolodex. He waited for the phone to be answered with a grin plastered on his face. When his call was picked up by a familiar White House secretary, Max cleared his throat and tried not to chuckle. "Yes, I'd like to speak with Press Secretary Mark Barton, please. Tell him it's his good friend Max Evans. And I need a huge favor…"

Tbc…

posted on 18-Jun-2002 12:02:00 AM by Ashton
Hey all!!

Hope you aren't getting tired of this one, because I really really am enjoying this story right now! I realize that I jumped ahead 7 days, but I will be going back to show the details of what all happened, including why Liz is so pissed at Max in the beginning. *happy* Thanks again for all the amazing support. Hope you enjoy! Would LOVE to hear what you think!!!

BehrHugs,
Ashton
~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 8 ~


Seven days later….


Sydney Bristow sat on the table in the cage where she and Agent Michael Vaughn usually met for discussing covert operations.

Tonight was different. Tonight was personal…

Swinging her legs lightly, Sydney bit into the apple Vaughn had offered her. "So, I really thought there was going to be a murder at my apartment tonight."

Vaughn leaned back in his chair, a slight smile haunting his lips. "Really? So, what did Max do to her now?"

Brows furrowing, Sydney paused as she tilted her head to the side in thought. "Well. Now, that's kinda hard to say."

"What do you mean?" Vaughn chuckled and popped a cookie in his mouth.

"Well…I never quite got a good handle on what exactly happened." At the puzzled look on Vaughn's face, Sydney amended her statement. "Actually…what I should say is that I never got a clear picture of how Max fit into all that happened to her today…"

Vaughn shrugged, clearly losing place in the conversation. "Explain."

Sydney cleared her throat. "Ok. So, I went home after meeting with you because you said to take it easy since I just got back into town, right? Well…I'm lying there on the couch when all of a sudden…"


Sydney Bristow sat up with a start when the front door of the apartment she shared with Liz slammed shut. With a perfect view of the door from her station on the sofa, Sydney's mouth dropped open and her eyes widened in shock. "Oh. My. God."

Instantly jumping up from the sofa she headed straight for the door and a very bedraggled Liz Parker. "Liz! God, what happened to you?" Sydney attempted to wrap an arm around Liz. Gasping for air, Liz pushed her hand away and wildly gestured to her mouth and throat while struggling to speak.

"What? What is it?" Sydney asked with rising panic.

"W-wa-wat-water."

"Water? You need water?"

Liz nodded emphatically as she stumbled toward and nearly collapsed against the counter. Concern etched in every attractive feature of her face, Sydney attempted once more to aid Liz in sitting down on the nearest chair. Quickly slipping around the counter, she grabbed a glass filling it to the brim with ice cold water before turning back to Liz. Water splashed onto the counter top as Liz yanked the glass from Sydney's outstretched hand and gulped the rest down in one long gasping, desperate drink.

Wiping her mouth with the back of her shaking hand, Liz pushed sweaty tangled strands of hair back from her face and slammed the glass onto the counter with a ringing thud. "More." The one word was a whispered rasp as Liz's head wearily dropped onto her arm resting on the counter.

Sydney silently complied and returned in moments with a new glass of water for Liz to consume. Which she did. Less desperately, more slowly, but still with labored breaths that had Sydney seriously concerned. When the glass was heavily placed on the counter, Sydney leaned over and touched Liz's arm. "Liz? Hon, do you need more?"

Liz shook her head slowly as her eyes drifted closed and she let out a deep shaking breath. Allowing her a moment of silence, Sydney filled the glass once more then came around to the other side of the counter and slipped onto a stool next to Liz. "Hey. Are you alright?"

Nodding her head slowly, Liz let out another labored breath and attempted a smile. "Thanks."

Relieved, Sydney returned the smile. "Sure." Immediate crisis having passed, Sydney sat back a little and took inventory of Liz's appearance.

It was not a pretty sight.

The hair that had been pulled back into a smooth, neat bun that morning was falling down in sweaty, tangled chunks around Liz's flushed, dirt smeared face and against slumped shoulders. The formerly crisp white blouse currently sticking to every inch of Liz's glistening skin was smudged with ugly grease stains and what looked very much like soot. The hem of her knee length straight skirt was unraveling and the natural split went much further up Liz's smooth leg than the designers ever intended. And to top it all off, the heel on one of her new Gucci shoes had broken completely off.

Though Sydney had a sneaking suspicion what the answer would be, she had to ask. "Liz. What the hell happened to you?"

As if in answer to her question, there was a knock on the door. Liz's eyes slowly drifted open as she let out a groan. Sydney grinned and patted Liz's arm. "I'll get it." Jumping up from her stool, Sydney quickly made her way to the door and opened it with a flourish. Before she got her mouth open to speak, she was met with an impatient demand.

"Where is she? I need to see her."

"Oh. My. God." Liz's head snapped up the second she heard his voice. Calling out to him, she didn't even bother to turn around. "You can march yourself right back out that door, Max Evans, because you seriously…SERIOUSLY…do NOT want to tangle with me right now."

As usual, Max didn't listen.

"Where the hell have you been? I've been looking all over…" His gasp of shock actually sounded sincere. The way his mouth dropped open and his eyes filled with horror…well, he was either truly stunned by the sight that greeted him or he was a very, very good actor.

Liz figured the second option.

"Honey, what happened?" Max took a step forward and attempted to capture her hands in his.

Yanking her hands away, Liz squeezed her eyes shut. Her jaws tightened. Her words were pushed out through clenched teeth. "Honey? I…I know I couldn't have heard the word 'honey'. Syd? You're…you're not hearing things are you? Like…the voice…" Liz's blazing eyes opened to meet Max's. "…OF A COMPLETE LUNATIC!"

Recognizing Liz's on-the-verge-of-breaking voice, Max backed up a step and held up his hands in surrender. "Ok. Sweetie, we just need to calm down right now."

"Calm down?" Liz sat up straighter. "CALM DOWN?!" Jumping from her stool, Liz took one hobbling step toward Max. "Do you have ANY idea what I have been through today because of you!? ANY idea, Max?"

Max shook his head and attempted to speak.

Liz took another hobbling step toward him, her finger emphatically jabbing empty air. "I got lost in the middle of DOWN-FREAKIN'-TOWN L.A. With a broken down car. The taxis were like…I don't know…non-existent! My cell phone got stolen right along with my purse. And when I…I tried to chase the guy, I fell in a mud puddle and…and….ruined…" Tears of frustration began to well up in Liz's eyes as she looked down at her appearance and gestured at herself with her hands. "…me…"

"Oh, honey..." Max attempted to take a step forward.

Her head snapped up. Her voice was low with barely controlled anger. "And…and you. YOU…are the one that started it all!"

Max blinked in confusion. Twice. "Me? But…but I offered you a ride…"

"OH MY GOD!" Liz spun away from Max, her entire body shaking with anger.

In the midst of that anger, Liz forgot she had only one good shoe. Spinning as quickly as she did, her ankle twisted and down she went with a cry of pain. Instantly in motion, Max scooped Liz up before her fall was complete. In one swift, smooth move he was cradling her in his arms and she was clinging to his neck as tears finally began to fall.

"Shhh, sweetie, it's ok. I've got you now. Nothing can hurt you now." Max placed reassuring kisses on Liz's forehead before glancing up at Sydney. Nodding toward the hall, Max's suggestion was more of a command. "I'm taking her to her room. I think after that, she'll need a nice hot bath."

"Right." Relieved to have something to do, Sydney nodded and followed Max down the hall taking a detour into the bathroom where she began a bath for Liz.


"And…" Vaughn prompted.

"What…and?" Sydney asked with a shrug. "I let them know the bath was ready and called you so I'd have a valid reason to leave."

"Why the hell would you want to do that?" Vaughn asked, his hazel eyes clearly confused.

Sydney rolled her eyes. "Don't you know anything about romance, Vaughn?"

"Hey." Instantly taking offense, Vaughn sat up straight. "I'll have you know that I've had my fair share of girlfriends."

"Yeah? So?" Sydney flipped her long, chestnut hair behind her shoulders. "That doesn't mean you know anything about romance."

"Alice thought I did." Vaughn muttered under his breath, but loud enough for Sydney to hear.

A flash of jealousy raced through her eyes at the mention of Vaughn's former girlfriend's name. "Yeah? Well then why did you break up?"

At her question, Vaughn's gaze snapped up to meet hers with unspoken meaning. Sydney's breath held right along with his gaze. A flicker of…something raced through his eyes. Then he glanced away uncomfortably and shifted in his chair as he attempted to get the conversation back on equal footing. "So, uh…Max and Liz."

Sydney blew out the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. "Right. Max and Liz."

"What do you think they're doing now?"

Sydney rolled her eyes and let out a groan. "That's why I called you. To avoid knowing. That's just…too much personal information for me…"

"Huh?" Vaughn's brows knit in confusion then raised in understanding when Sydney gave him a pointed look. "Oooh. So you think they're uh…"

Sydney shrugged and raised her hands in an I-don't-know gesture. "But with the heat those two generate, I just hope they don't burn the apartment down…"


Liz shivered against Max.

Max instantly pulled the blanket closer around her as he wrapped his arm around her. Snuggling into Max, Liz sighed against his chest as his fingers began to play with her still damp hair. Her eyes drifted closed as warmth started seeping through her skin right to the very core of her soul.

She felt so safe here. In her room. In his arms. In her bed.

She smiled faintly at the thought. The last place anyone would say she'd be safe from Max would be there. But she was. She instinctively knew it. Just like she instinctively knew he was a part of her life now. A part she never wanted to let go of.

A part she still wasn't fully ready to claim…

Her soft, quiet voice broke the silence. "Max?"

"Yeah?"

"Thank you for taking care of me tonight."

She could feel him smile against her hair right before kissing the top of her head. He let out a contented sigh as he snuggled closer to her. "Thanks for letting me."

The note of relief in his voice caused Liz to pull back from him and shift so she could look into his eyes. Her whisper was soft and inquiring as large doe eyes full of awe blinked up at him. "You really mean that don't you?"

Seriousness edged his voice as his gaze met hers. "Yeah, I really do." Smoothing her hair back, Max's gaze softened as his voice lowered as one finger reverently traced the curves of her face. "It's what makes me happy."

A teasing smile haunted Liz's lips and her eyes began to dance. "You mean to tell me you've not been even the slightest bit happy this past week torturing me and driving me to the brink of insanity with all of this Mark Barton stuff?"

Max's eyes danced with laughter as he began to chuckle. "Well…"

"I knew it." Liz's smile widened as she raised a teasingly accusatory eyebrow. "You have been having a blast this past week."

"Oh, and you haven't? Destroying my cell phones left and right…" Max grinned back.

Liz buried her face in his chest trying to hide her smiles, but Max felt her chuckle go straight into his heart. Soaking up her warmth, his eyes drifted closed and a whisper escaped him before he could pull it back. "I love you so much."

Liz pulled away from him, her expression serious. "Max…" She bit her lower lip and her eyes remained steadfastly fixed on the buttons of his shirt.

"I'm sorry. I just…" His fingers feathered across her skin. "…when I saw your car broken down and I could find you earlier, I got scared. And it just came back to me once again how much you mean to me. How much I love you." Max responded softly as his penetrating gaze remained locked on her face. "I…I know you can't say it. I don't expect you to, but I have to. I honestly don't know how to feel this way and not…tell you…"

Soft fingers slipped up Max's chest to cover his lips. "I…need time." Dark, uncertain gaze shifting slowly to meet his, Liz's voice shook with doubt-filled emotion. "Will you…can you wait for me?"

A slow smile began at one corner of Max's lips and spread like a gentle breeze. "I'm not going anywhere." Lowering his lips to hers, Max sealed his promise with a tender, lingering kiss. Fingers caressing her skin, he pulled back with a smile. "Like it or not, you're stuck with me now…"

"Yeah?" Liz smiled back. "Well, in that case…" Her fingers curling around his wrist as he cupped her face, Liz's eyes began to dance with teasing. "…you and I need to discuss the intolerable working conditions we've been forced to deal with this past week."

"Intolerable?" Max inquired with a responding grin.

"Uh-huh." Liz nodded her head as her eyes darkened devilishly. "You know…all those phone calls from Sasha, Bambi, Trixie…"

Max chuckled. Shifting onto his back, he wrapped his arm around Liz as she snuggled against him and laid her head on his shoulder. "I think we need to talk about your wardrobe. All of those highly suggestive clothes you wear to work every day are enough to give a man a heart attack…"

Liz rolled her eyes. "Highly suggestive? And who exactly was it that was practically stripped down to his boxers in my office?"

"Ah, but those were special circumstances."

"Uh-huh." Liz agreed with a smile. "Special circumstances that you created…"


Hesitating outside Liz's bedroom door, Sydney Bristow smiled to herself before moving on to her own room after returning from her meeting with Vaughn. Swiftly drifting off to sleep with dreams of a certain CIA agent dancing in her head, she was blissfully oblivious to the sounds of a soft, hushed conversation detailing the events of the past week. A conversation that continued long into the night…

Tbc…

posted on 19-Jun-2002 6:56:20 PM by Ashton
Hey all!!!!

Here's the next part. Now, I'm taking you back to the night Liz told that lie about Jaedan's father and will continue from that point. I'm so glad ya'll are enjoying this so much because I'm having a blast writing it. Now, this is all pretty much set up, but I do have the next part almost completed so, it should be out soon! Thanks for the AMAZING support!!! Let me know what you think!!!

BehrHugs,
Ashton
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 9 ~

The night of the BIG whopper of a lie….


Michael Vaughn watched with interest as Liz Parker paced silently in front of him.

She'd been pacing since she'd arrived at his apartment. That was fifteen minutes ago. Brow furrowed and alternating between biting down on her lower lip and her nails, she was obviously in her own world. A world that produced unintelligible mumbles and frustrated sighs. Occasionally he could make out a despairing 'No, that won't work' or a 'Such an idiot' in the middle of her hushed ramblings. But for the most part she just paced while one slender finger worried a long strand of hair as she twisted and twirled it with a furious consistency that boggled Michael's mind.

Finally, he spoke. "Ok. So, if you don't need me for that inner conversation you're having with yourself, I think I'm going to head to bed now."

Hoisting himself upward, his butt managed to clear the couch before Liz stopped abruptly and spun to face him. "I've screwed up. Like…we're talking the mother of all screw ups here. I mean, this screw up is so gigantic that I…I just…" Her eyes widened in almost comical panic. "…I don't know what to do now!"

Michael sighed with defeat. Then he plopped himself back onto the couch. Folding his hands with a patient air, Michael glanced over to the chair where his good pal and partner, Eric Weiss, had been staring at Liz with a goofy grin since she'd ruined their plans to watch the hockey game on tv by showing up unexpectedly at Vaughn's door.

Vaughn rolled his eyes. Note to self: remind Eric to wipe the drool before he drowns in it. Double note to self: make sure you never look at Sydney with those ridiculous puppy dog eyes... Shifting his focus from his awe-struck friend to the object of his friend's admiringly dazed gaze, Vaughn shrugged. "Ok. So…what's this horrible thing you've done?"

A hand flew to Liz's stomach as she took a deep breath before blurting out her two word answer. "I lied."

Narrowing his eyes, Vaughn shook his head in confusion. "O…k…" A man used to living in a world of constant lies and half-truths, he wasn't quite feeling the earth shattering moment of truth as Liz revealed it. Especially from Liz, whose entire existence at this point was a living, breathing lie. "So…this lie is the end of the world because…"

"I lied to Max."

"Ah." Suddenly the confusion began to clear.

Taking that as her cue to continue, Liz began a ramble that went around the world so many times, Vaughn felt dizzy when she was done. "Remember you told me to tell you the moment anything out of the ordinary happened? Well, it did. And I didn't. And I should have. Maybe if I had none of this would have happened. I mean…there's nothing you could have done to stop Max from actually coming to my office today, but if you'd known then maybe I could have had a valid reason to not go to lunch with him. But no, that wouldn't have worked either because he was determined to get me alone, and believe me when Max Evans wants something…he gets it."

Liz immediately began to pace again. "Which is why this whole thing is so amazingly frustrating, because he thinks the thing he wants is me. But he can't want me because…" Wild, emphatic gestures accompanied her furious tumble of words. "…hello! Witness protection program. Life in danger. Daughter to protect. But the thing is…he knows. I mean…I told him. But it wouldn’t have mattered if I told him or not because he knew anyway. Not about the witness protection, but about Jaedan. And you know what he did? He brought her to me." Spinning to face Vaughn, Liz's face broke into a glorious smile her hands folded over her heart. "Isn't that just the most amazing, wonderful, selfless…"

Her shoulders immediately slumped and her hands dropped heavily to her side, pulling the smile from her face as they went. "But then I lied to him. I mean…right to his face. A bold faced lie. And it wasn't even a good lie. In fact, it was totally lame. I mean…come on. Me and a high ranking government official? Hello! I've never even been to Washington. And now, my entire life is centered in that city. On an official who's not only married, but I made him Jaedan's father when he's probably somebody's grandfather!" She slapped her forehead as if a thought just hit her. "God, what am I saying? He's not even real. Jaedan's father is now nothing more than a phantom. A fanciful figment of my imagination…"

"Liz."

"I have no idea what in God's name I was thinking. It just…just kinda…" Liz's hands were in constant motion as she tried to find the right word.

"Popped? Slipped? Flew?" Eric offered earnestly as he tried to follow the motion of her hands and interpret correctly.

"Flew! Yes!" Liz exclaimed before bestowing a grateful smile on an appreciative audience. "Thank you!"

"Oh, God…" Michael groaned and rolled his eyes as he actually watched a blush spread over Eric's face. "Ok. That's enough." Waving his hands in the air, Vaughn's voice cut off Eric's beaming smile. "Just…stop, ok?" Taking a deep, calming breath, he turned his gaze back to Liz. "Alright. Now, if I'm hearing you right, you told Max you're having an affair with an older married man who also happens to be Jaedan's father as well as an official with the government?"

Liz bit her lower lip and nodded emphatically.

Vaughn shrugged. "So, what's the problem?"

Liz's mouth dropped open. Her gaze shifted from Vaughn to Weiss then back again. "What's…what’s the problem? The problem is who I lied to. I mean…Vaughn, you don't know Max. He is without a doubt one of the most intelligent men I've ever met."

"Ah. So, you're worried that he didn't buy the lie."

"Yes." Liz's nod quickly turned into a shaking of her head. "No. I…I…don't know. It all seemed too…easy, you know? But he also seemed…to really believe me."

"Oh. I see."

Hands landing on her hips, Liz's eyes flashed with accusation at the tone of Vaughn's voice. "And just what is that suppose to mean?"

Shrugging, Michael settled further back into the plush cushions of his sofa. "Nothing. Just that I think it bothers you more that it didn't bother him more that you were involved with someone else than it does that he actually might not have bought the lie after all."

Michael's tangled words brought a frown to Liz's face as her nose scrunched up in confusion. "Huh?"

Letting out a sigh, Michael waved a dismissive hand in the air. "Look, it doesn't matter. The point is…you have a choice now. Either you go to Max and tell him the truth, or you continue the charade and bolster the lie."

"Bolster the lie." Liz repeated.

"Yeah. You know, do something that makes it more believable."

Facing lighting up like a Christmas tree, Liz glanced from Vaughn to Weiss then back again. "Ohh, now, I like that idea." The light faded as quickly as it appeared. "But what could we do?"

"Well, you could always do little stuff. Like, have someone send you anonymous flowers, which will most definitely pique his curiosity. And when he asks who they're from you could say its this man…."

"Oh! No, I've got the perfect idea!" An excited Weiss broke into the conversation. "I could show up at your office as him! As your attractive, hot-to-trot boyfriend!"

"No. Absolutely not." Vaughn immediately shot down the idea, completely aware of where the idea was coming. His friend's crush on Liz simply couldn't be more obvious. Well, at least to him. Obviously, other concerned parties were blissfully unaware as evidenced by Liz's immediate reaction.

"No, wait, Vaughn!" Liz exclaimed just as excitedly as Eric. "I think that's a great idea! I mean, that would give me an actual arm to hang onto when Max is around. A quick introduction, a little bit of convincing coupleyness and he'd **have** to believe it!"

"Are the two of you missing the obvious?" Vaughn asked as a flash of panic raced through him. Weiss and his crazy ideas he could handle. Liz and her crazy ideas he could handle. Weiss and Liz together…well, that might be a different story.

"Obvious? What’s obvious?"

"Hello. Eric is thirty-something and you're supposed to be manacled to a grandpa."

Liz flashed Eric a smile as their eyes met with conspiratorial understanding. "A handsome, distinguished grandpa."

Eric leaned forward with a grin. "An intelligent, suave grandpa."

"A witty, elegant, refined grandpa so hot he'll blow Max Evans out of the water!" Liz exclaimed with a giggle. "Do you think they could make you look like Sean Connery in his Hunt for Red October days?"

Eric sent Liz a wink. "Undercover ops can make me look like anyone you want, baby."

Quickly getting the picture, Vaughn's dubious gaze shifted from Liz to Eric then back again. "Oh, you two cannot be serious."

"What?" Liz and Eric asked in perfect, wide-eyed innocent union.

Throwing his hands up, Michael shook his head. "I give up." Frustrated he jumped up from the couch. "Work out the details. I approve everything **before** it happens. Not one single rose is to be delivered without my permission. Got it?"

Silent, enthusiastic nods were his answer.

"Good." Running a weary hand through his hair, he shook his head. "I'm…I'm going to make a phone call. You two…do whatever…"

Liz practically shoved Vaughn out of the way to plop down in the seat he had just vacated before she eagerly leaned forward, mirroring Eric’s position. Stumbling to the side, Vaughn stood a moment and stared at the two lunatics currently invading his apartment as the planning session got in full swing…

"I think we should wait a few days." Liz suggested. "If you show up right away, he'll smell a set up."

"Right." Eric agreed. "Oh, hey. Tonight's Thursday. Why don't I show up at work Monday morning, you know…like we just spent the weekend together and I'm heading back out to DC."

"Oh, that's perfect. I could talk up the secret plans I have next meeting we have. I think he’s supposed to stop by the office tomorrow some time…"

"Yes! Hint around that it's this man…" Eric readily agreed. "Uh…did you give this guy a name?"

"Yeah. His name is Matt. Matt Barton…"

Heading to his room Vaughn shook his head and groaned in resignation as two excited voices continued hammering out the details of what Vaughn figured could only end up being the disaster of the year…
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
After having been silent for a good twenty minutes while hearing Max's version of the night's events and the plans he'd already set into motion, Alex chuckled into the phone. "Max. Have you ever considered the possibility that you are, in fact, a direct descendant of the Devil himself?"

Max grinned into the phone. "On occasion."

Shaking his head, Alex leaned back in his chair. "You are having a ball with this aren't you?"

"Oh, man, Alex." Max's short sigh was enough to give Alex indication just how much fun Max was having. But just in case he hadn't been sure, Max filled him in some more. "I am having the best time. And it's all because of Liz. I mean, there's no way this would be so much fun if she weren't so damn cute. I mean, we're talking off the charts adorable here."

"Yes, she can be that." Alex agreed.

"I swear, if you could have seen her tonight." Max continued, the love and pride evident in his voice. "You would have fallen head over heels right where you sat. She was so funny wiggling her way through that horribly lame lie of hers, it took everything in my power not to..."

"What?" Alex teased. "Throw her over your shoulder like a caveman, carry her to your room and have your way with her?"

There was a slight pause in which that image was firmly fixed in Max's mind before he answered. "Well…that too."

Alex joined Max's laughter. "Well, pal, I have to say it is good to hear you so happy."

"Yeah." Max's voice softened to a quiet seriousness. "Yeah, it feels good to be this happy." Letting out a sigh, Max settled back against the pillows on his sofa. "I want to keep this for as long as I can, Alex. So…you think you can help me?"

"Yeah, I think I can help." Alex pulled out a list and ran his finger down till he came to the information he was looking for. "Alright. For tomorrow…I can get five.”

“Five? Sure they can make it on such short notice?”

“Yeah, they’ll make it. Is that enough?”

“Should be.” Max commented before a new thought hit him. “Make sure they know the effect I’m going for, ok?”

Alex chuckled. “Believe me, Max, these five will have no problem delivering the goods.”

Max grinned with satisfaction. “Good. Why don’t they meet me here at say 7:00? That will give me enough time to take care of details before they arrive separately at the office. I want this in full swing before Liz gets there in the morning.”

“Got it.”

“Great. Now…for the second half of the plan…” Max prompted.

“Riiiight.” Alex drawled as he pulled out another list. Pondering over the names a moment, Alex’s blue eyes lit up when he ran across an unexpected name. “Oh, wow. This is going to be perfect.”

“What?”

Releasing a sigh of satisfaction, Alex couldn’t disguise his pleasure at his find. “How would you like Steve?"

“Steve? **Our** Steve?” Max asked with an edge of excitement in his voice.

“The very one.” Alex confirmed.

“Man, that would be so great to see him again. God, it’s been…years…”

“Yeah, he’s still in fine form.” Alex commented, beginning to fill Max in on the teams’ latest mission without revealing too many details. “On our last ops, he played you like he was born to the role. Our Irish pals couldn’t tell the difference.” Alex paused as an idea hit him. “You know…”

Max sat up straight. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“I think I am thinking what you’re thinking.” He paused. “What are you thinking?”

Max grinned devilishly. “I’m thinking you need to tell me how fast Steve can get here so we can strategize maximum impact.”

Getting into the game just as much as Max was, Alex chuckled as he clicked on his calendar on his computer. There was a moment of silence while he was looking up information, then… “Monday morning soon enough? Disguised to your liking, of course.”

“That’s perfect.” Max began to laugh as a new image popped into his mind.

"What?"

"Oh…nothing." Barely able to get out the words, Max could feel tears welling up in his eyes.

Alex let out a groan. "Come on, Max. Let me in on the secret."

Clearing his throat and wiping away tears of laughter, Max tried to control that inner bubble of joy that simply wouldn't go away. "Ok. So, when you said 'disguised to your liking', I just got this image of exactly the kind of man Mark Barton should be."

"Oh, no." Alex groaned, knowing the devious mind of his friend much better than most and instantly guessing where Max's line of thinking was going. Straight back into time to a certain made up character they'd often used on former missions.

Max chuckled and nodded his head. "Oh, yes."

Alex rolled his eyes as a grin began to form. "Please don't tell me you're thinking…"

"Homer Thickbottom." Max joined Alex in finishing his sentence.

Alex burst into laughter. "God, Max…you are a brave, brave man. She is going to absolutely flip."

"That's what I'm counting on, Alex." Max's eyes danced devilishly as he leaned back in his seat. "That's what I'm counting on…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Kyle slipped through the door of a rented penthouse suit to find McKenna stretched out on the couch reading a magazine. "Hey."

"Hey." Barely glancing his way, she flipped the page and continued to read the article she was thoroughly engrossed in.

Kyle tossed his keys on the nearby table and headed toward a chair where he plopped down and began to remove his shoes. Dropping them next to the chair with a thud he leaned back with a deep, weary sigh. "God, that feels so much better. I'm telling you, if all days were like today, I wouldn't see the point of getting up in the mornings."

McKenna didn't respond.

Kyle watched her through barely opened eyes. "So, uh…how was your day? Anything exciting?"

Silence.

Kyle shifted in his chair and became more alert. "McKenna. Hello…you over there?"

McKenna's emerald gaze shifted to Kyle and for the first time she really zoned in on him seeming to realize that he had indeed been speaking to her. "Huh? Oh. Yeah, it was fine."

Nodding toward the magazine, Kyle shrugged off her lack of attentiveness. "What's so engaging over there?"

"Funny you should mention engagements." McKenna commented as she shifted against the pillows on the couch till she was half sitting, half reclining.

Kyle's brows furrowed. "I did?"

McKenna shrugged. "Well. Close enough." Holding up the magazine that held her interest, she leveled Kyle with pointed look. "You said Max had never asked anyone to marry him except me."

Dread instantly formed as a knot in Kyle's stomach. "Yeah, that's right." He got up from his chair and headed to a side bar to pour himself a glass of liquor.

"So, I was thinking. If I'm the only girl Max has ever proposed to, then…in essence, we're still engaged."

"McKenna, that was over five years ago. Believe me, Max has not been living his life like a committed man." Kyle took a long swig of his drink.

Back turned to McKenna, Kyle missed the flash of pure jealous rage that raced through her eyes. Her lips tightened into a fierce white line and she had to force herself swallow the lump of disgust that rose in her throat at the idea of Max being with any other woman but her. She tried to sound casual as she pushed out the lie. "Of course not, Kyle. I wouldn't expect him to."

"So…what's the point here?" Kyle asked with a little more edge to his voice than he'd wanted.

"The point is, Kyle…" McKenna swung her legs off the couch so she could face him. "…I'm still his fiancee'. Which means, I should be planning a wedding. And I can't do that if I can't see my future groom."

"Ah." Kyle turned to face her as he leaned against the bar. "You're getting antsy again, aren't you?"

"Wouldn't you be?" She asked with a note of injury in her voice. "I mean, you told me to trust you. You said I'd get to see Max again when the time is right." She raised flashing eyes of accusation to meet his. "That was two months ago."

"Yes, it was. And the time still isn't right."

McKenna tossed the magazine to the side in frustration. "What the hell is the problem, Kyle? What is so difficult with just taking me to Max and saying 'Guess what? I've got great news. The woman you loved more than life itself is still alive.'"

Letting out a weary sigh, Kyle closed his tired eyes. "We've gone over this, Kenna. The problem with doing that is things have changed. Max has changed. He does not like to be blindsided. By anyone for any reason."

"I would think…"

Kyle slammed his glass down on the counter. "That's your problem, Kenna. You've been thinking too much and talking too little."

"You know, if that's the way you feel maybe it's time I take things into my own hands." McKenna returned tersely as she jumped up from the sofa, her blazing eyes meeting his.

Kyle smirked.

Despite his earlier comments to Alex about not knowing of any chinks in McKenna's armor, Kyle believed he might have found one. And it was time to put that theory to the test.

"Fine."

McKenna blinked, uncertain she'd heard him right. "Fine? What…what do that mean?"

"It means what I said. If you're so convinced that you know Max now better than I do…his brother that has been by his side through every major event in his life, including your death, by the way…then, fine." Moving to the phone, Kyle grabbed it up and held it out to her. "Call him."

McKenna stared at the phone in disbelief. She also stared at it in overwhelming fear.

Fear of rejection. Fear of being sent away. The way he did before…

"Go on. Take it." Kyle urged softly as he watched her reaction closely. He was calling her bluff and his gut told him, she wouldn't call his back.

Blinking back sudden tears, McKenna plopped back down onto the couch and hid her face in her hands as she shook her head. "No. No, I…can't."

A thrill of victory raced through Kyle as he replaced the phone and softly crossed the room to slip onto the table in front of her. Taking her hands in his, Kyle forced himself to remain kind as he lifted her chin so she was looking in his eyes. His smile was warm though the heart it was coming from was as cold as ice toward the recipient. "Soon. I promise you. The time will be right very soon…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Grabbing up the phone the second ring, Max stifled a yawn. "Max here."

"Max? It's Carmen."

Max was instantly alert. "Carmen. I've been wondering when I'd hear from you."

"Yeah, I'm sorry it took longer than I thought." The private detective's tone was apologetic, but also full of promise. "But I think you'll agree that it was worth it when you hear what I have to tell you."

Quickly grabbing a pen and paper, Max's eyes hardened. "Well, in that case, I'm all ears."

"First of all…you were right. Kimberly Edwards is not who she says."

"That was a given." Max commented offhandedly. "So, you have any idea who she is yet?"

"Unfortunately, no. All I have at this point is a list of aliases that keep growing by the minute."

"I want that list." Max stated firmly.

"Already on your fax machine." Carmen replied before continuing. "Although I don't have a definite id yet, I do know where she disappeared to a couple of months ago when you attempted to transfer her to a branch location. In fact, it's rather interesting because she's been spending the last two months with someone you know very, very well."

Eyes narrowing, Max swallowed hard hoping upon all hope the answer to his question wasn't going to be what he gut was telling him it was. "Really. And uh…who would that be?"

He knew the answer before he heard it.

"Your brother, Kyle…"

tbc…


[ edited 1 time(s), last at 19-Jun-2002 7:07:27 PM ]
posted on 20-Jun-2002 11:18:50 PM by Ashton
Hey all!!!!

Here's the next part. Glad you're loving this one so much!! Hope you enjoy the next part!!! *happy* Would LOVE to hear what you think!!! Thanks as always for the amazing feedback!!!!!

BehrHugs,
Ashton

If you need back chapters of any of my stories you can join my egroup at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/AMDreamerFanfiction/
Go to the files section, there are folders for each story. *happy*
~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 10 ~

Day 1:

Liz's confidence from the night before began to fade the moment she stepped in the doors of her office building. The sly smiles and giggled whispers of co-workers that stopped abruptly as she approached and commenced immediately on her passing nibbled away at that confidence even more as she headed through a sea of curious eyes toward her office door.

She paused just outside, feeling as if the entire office was watching for her reaction to something cataclysmicaly dreadful waiting just inside for her. She spun on her heels and, with one accord, a multitude of gazes dropped guiltily to folders and computer screens.

Her eyes narrowed as they swept over a seemingly busy office. The feeling of dread in her stomach tripled. Steeling herself with a deep breath, Liz squared her shoulders, slowly turned back to her office door, reached for the handle and…

"Rachel! Wait!"

Head snapping to the side where here assistant, Gabe, had practically screamed her name as he rushed up to her. Liz blinked in shocked concern. "Gabe, what's wrong?"

Face flushed with agitation, his words tumbled and tangled helplessly. "Tried…I…him…stop…but….to authorize…keep…out…Steph said..."

Turning to Gabe she placed her hands on his shoulders and looked into his frantic eyes. "Gabe. Slow down. What are you trying to tell me?"

Her door opened with a flourish and a smirking Max Evans leaned casually against the door jam while holding the door open with his hand. "I think he's trying to say that he tried to keep me out of your office, but Steph had already given me the authority to…"

Glancing past Max's shoulder into her now exposed office, Liz's mouth dropped open. "Oh. My. God." Stunned, she pushed her way past Max by ducking under his arm and entering her office.

Which was…no longer her office.

It was **their** office.

Hers and Max's.

And how could she tell?

Where one desk had previously sat in the center facing the door with one chair pushed behind it and one coat rack strategically placed in the corner, now there were two desks butted up against each other. The chairs behind both desks…faced each other. A bookcase and file cabinet had been to the corner behind one desk. Workers were quickly, efficiently installing computer equipment on Max's desk while a row of five, long-legged, bronzed-skinned models lined one wall.

"What…what is…"

"Relax." Max's voice was low in her ear. "It's only temporary."

"TEMPORARY!?" Liz spun to face Max. Toe to toe, her eyes were blazing with instantly angry fire. An emphatic finger pointed toward the workers. "Temporary is why you're having a computer and phone and fax machine installed?"

Unfazed by her anger, Max shrugged nonchalantly. "Those are standard for any viable businessman. And since I do need a base of operations while I'm here…" Max glanced around the space with an air of satisfaction. "…and your office **was** the biggest…"

"STEPH'S office is the biggest!" Liz countered heatedly.

"Right." Max agreed with a nod. "But she's the director. She can't have someone sharing her space. Not even a multi-trillionaire like myself…"

“But…”

A breathy voice broke into Liz’s rebuttal of Max's explanation. "Mr. Evans?"

Liz turned a heated glare on the tall, busty blonde in a skimpy skirt and even skimpier top. She batted long, heavily made up lashes. "Candi and I here were wondering…will we get to watch our soaps on that little tv? I'm so into that dishy corporate raider on General Hospital…"

"Uh…what tv?" Max asked as his gaze slipped to his desk in confusion.

She pointed a long wildly painted fingernail in the direction of the monitor sitting on his desk. Max’s tone was patient with not a hint of superiority. It was very much the way one would speak to a child to explain the elementary facts of life. “Oh. No, Dani, that's not a tv. That's a computer monitor. You'd actually have to use that for work…"

Rolling her eyes, Liz's furious, flashing gaze settled back on Max as her hands hit her hips with sudden irritation. "You're unbelievable."

"What?" Max batted his eyes innocently and managed to bite back a chuckle at the unmistakable jealousy ripping through her midnight eyes painting them an obvious shade of envious green.

Liz took one step closer to Max, their bodies only mere inches apart. The heat from her glare shot his temperature straight into the stratosphere and his heart began a loud roaring thud in his chest. Expression unreadable, the rest of his body was clearly fighting the urge to take her in his arms and attack her lips with a kiss so explosive the entire West Coast would think they'd been hit by an earthquake. It was the surest, most pleasurable way to capitalize on all that barely controlled passion simmering through her every cell, feeding her anger.

As his intense gaze focused on lips, Max could still feel his own burning from her kisses the night before. In response, his hands clenched and unclenched inside his pants pockets and he forced himself to ebb the flow of desire that was suddenly coursing through him.

Her next words aided his struggle rather adeptly. And at the same time made him want her even more.

Her voice was low with venomous disdain as she emphasized every word deliberately. "If you think I'm going to share my office with some beach blonde bimbo so that you can feel more like a man, you have another thing coming, buster."

"Ouch." Max winced in mock injury. "That really hurt.” Laying on the guilt rather thickly, he continued with innocent, puppy dog eyes. “After all we’ve been through, how could you say something so obviously sexist and so blatantly untrue…"

“Maxie-pooh…”

Liz’s eyes widened as a manicured hand suddenly appeared on Max’s suit jacket and slowly, seductively slipped upward over the curves of his hidden, but well-defined chest. Flashing dangerously murderous, dark eyes followed the hand to the wrist, the wrist to the arm and finally the arm to the face of the woman currently snuggling unashamedly up to Max. An eyebrow raised in disbelief when the woman gazed up into Max’s face as if Liz didn’t even exist.

Her bubble lips pushed outward in an attempt at a pretty pout and the whine of her voice and her coy upward gaze left no question what position she was applying for. “When is all this boring stuff gonna be over so we can go…” She ran a painted nail teasingly across his lips then down Max’s chin before dropping her hand to his shirt where she suggestively began to play with one of his buttons. Her seductive gaze snapped up to meet his holding very few secrets as to her definition of her next word. “…play. Just like you promised.”

Max allowed a smile to play on his lips as he gazed down at the doe-eyed brunette. His husky voice lowered seductively as he leaned toward her. “Patience, luv. When have you ever known me to welch on a promise.” He sent her a sly wink. “Especially when it comes to playtime…”

“Uh…excuse me.”

Blood literally boiling, Liz felt the fury rising to a heated blush on her cheeks. It was glaringly obvious to her if anything of real worth was going to be accomplished, it would be up to her to take control.

So, take control she did.

Using her thumb and index finger, Liz firmly removed the woman’s hand from Max’s chest with a look of disgust that rivaled that of holding a dirty diaper in mid-air. She let the stranger's hand drop heavily then placed her hands on Max’s chest as she firmly walked him backward several steps creating an adequate physical distance between Max and his…floozy. Once confident he was far enough back that she wouldn’t be treated to more of the same nauseating scene, Liz turned to face the woman and crossed her arms in front of her, the authority in her voice leaving no doubt who was the superior in the office.

Liz flashed the woman a tense, practiced smile that almost sent Max into a fit of laughter. "Hi. I'm Rachel Harris. And you are…"

"Bambi."

If looks could kill, Max would have exploded into a million pieces with the volcanic glare Liz shot him over her shoulder. It clearly screamed "THIS is Bambi?" Max simply smirked and shrugged.

Turning back to 'Bambi', a dark eyebrow raised. “Well, **Bambi**, on the off chance that you don’t have the necessary brain cells to put two and two together, let me help you out with something. When two people…” She deliberately pointed to Max then to her herself mouthing the words 'one' and 'two'. “…are standing in front of each other…” Waving her hand in the air, she indicated Max and her own position. “…and there are words coming out of their mouths…” Liz used her own lips as a visual. "…that usually means they are in a…" Eyes widening, Liz leaned forward and said the obviously long word very slowly. "…con-ver-sa-tion. And when two people are in a con-ver-sa-tion, it's usually not a good thing to interrupt.”

A look of confusion passed through Bambi’s wide brown eyes before an irritated frown touched her lips. Clearly feeling the impact of an insult when she heard it, though seemingly not sure of it’s meaning, Bambi’s eyes raked over Liz scathingly. Unfortunately, she lacked the skill for an equally scathing comeback. So, she gathered as much venom as possible for her retaliation. Which was, overall, pretty lame. "Well, I never!" Bambi crossed her arms and spun on her heels to flounce back to the all star line-up.

"Yeah? Well, if I can help it, you never will again." Liz mumbled under her breath.

Clucking the roof of his mouth with his tongue, Max shook his head disapprovingly though his eyes were shining unabashedly with admiration. He leaned forward to whisper in her ear so only she could hear his use of her ‘real’ name. "Really, Kendall. I had no idea you had such a jealous streak in you."

"Jealous?! Me?!" Liz spun to face him and opened her mouth to protest more but closed it when she saw the twinkle of laughter in Max's eyes. "Oh, I get it." Her chuckle sounded a bit forced and the grin that crossed her lips definitely was, but Max couldn't help the twitching at the corners of his mouth when Liz seemed to finally buy a clue. "This is all about last night isn't it?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about." Masking his expression expertly, Max responded seriously.

"Oh, you don't?" Liz asked, her hands landing back on her hips as she squared off with him again. She lowered her voice to a heated whisper. "You don't remember me coming to your place and…"

"Ah, yes." Max flashed her a grin, implying there had been more than one 'last night' event he had to sift through in his mind. "**Our** last night." He leaned forward locking eyes with Liz and lowering his voice as well. "See, last night was personal. Last night…you made it perfectly clear where you and I stand. And if I remember correctly, you are currently involved with someone while I am, as I always have been…a consummate playboy free to do what and…" Glancing over at Bambi, he sent her a wickedly sly wink and flashy grin that underscored the double meaning of his next word. "…whomever I choose."

"You are such a jerk!" Liz hissed back at him.

"Why?” His eyes snapped back to hers. “Because I know how to separate business from pleasure?" Max shot back with an equal hiss. "Or because as far as I'm concerned, our personal last night ended last night.” Cocking an eyebrow at her, Max’s eyes darkened dangerously. “And because of that…you just became business, my dear." Switching gears swiftly, he flashed her a practiced smile and nodded to the activity around them. Giving her a pointed look, Max leveled the phrase that he figured would render her speechless. "**Strictly** business."

He figured correctly.

Liz's mouth dropped open and a flash of hurt raced through her eyes.

Max bit back an instinctive apology and continued as if he didn't notice. If he didn’t control that urge to see her smile every second of the day, this plan of his would never, ever have a change of working. "Now, as you can see, I am trying to set up shop. To do that, I need a secretary."

Recovering quickly from Max's cold, surgical words, Liz crossed her arms in front of her to ward herself from any future chill Max might send her way. "You have a secretary, Max. Her name is Barbara. Very nice, stable, **older** woman who knows how to dress appropriately for the office."

"Yes.” Max nodded then shrugged. “Unfortunately, Barbara's not here. Which is why I need to hire someone else."

"Fine!" Liz indicated the five women standing against the wall, blowing bubbles with their gum, filing their nails, and primping in their compact mirrors. "But one of THEM?!"

"Shhh." Taking Liz by the elbow Max moved her further away from the pseudo-secretarial pool and lowered his voice. "Don't you think you've insulted them enough?"

Somewhat chastised, frustrated eyes gazed up into his. "Tell me you aren't serious about this."

Max paused as if in thought, then he did what he had planned on doing all along: he conceded. "Alright. If you think you can find me a better secretary then have at it."

"Fine." Liz nodded as she crossed her arms in front of her. "I will get you an assistant by noon."

"Fine." Cocking an eyebrow at her, Max looked at her expectantly. "Well…are there any other complaints?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact there is."

"Ok." Crossing his arms in front of him, Max readied himself for her next attack.

In the next heartbeat, he almost lost his composure.

He almost lost it, because it was the closest Max had ever seen Liz Parker whine.

Face scrunched up, her pleading, puppy dog eyes turned up to meet his. "Do you **have** to be in **my** office? I mean, come on, Max. You are so rich you could buy and entire office building if you wanted. Or…or rent space somewhere else. Or…hell, if you really wanted, knowing you, you could probably ask to buy a cloud in the sky and someone, somewhere would float one right on over to you. A big fluffy, puffy white one."

A grin split Max's face. He simply couldn't help it. She was being that all-girl adorable thing again and well, after what he'd said about her being only business he felt he should throw her a crumb or two to keep her off balance. “You are…” Eyes dancing with admiration, Max let out a little sigh as his hand reached out to tuck a single strand of hair behind her ear. He allowed his fingers to slowly trail downward barely grazing the sensitive skin on her neck before dropping his hand heavily at his side. “…so damn adorable.”

Liz glanced away and bit down on her lower lip, the surest sign Max Evans knew that he was getting to her. Forcing himself to continue the game, the confidence of a final victory surged through him. “Look, I need work space. You and I are working on the same charity project together. It’s only temporary and it overall, it made sense.” He paused waiting for her uncertain gaze to meet his. Holding up his hand in a scout salute, Max started to smile, knowing full well the fingers deep in his pants pocket were crossed to superstitiously negate any promise he made. “I’ll stay out of your way as much as possible. I swear. Scout’s honor.”

The beginning of a smile started to form and barely made its way to brighten Liz’s eyes when the sound of a high pitched voice instantly pulled any good humor from Liz's expression.

"Maxie-pooh, I'm really getting tired."

"Thinking a bit too hard, are you?" Liz asked sarcastically under her breath as she sent a scathing glare in Bambi's direction.

Max covered a chuckle by clearing his throat. Holding up a finger he winked at Bambi then turned to Liz with a gentle suggestion that was clearly more of a command as he nodded toward the door. "I think it might be best if you uh…"

Letting out a deep, resentful sigh Liz raised a dark eyebrow. "Fine. I need to find your assistant anyway. I'll be back by noon and I expect to see the uh…" She batted her lashes dramatically and inclined her head toward the row of girls. "…harem gone by the time I get back."

"You got it, Beautiful." Max responded with a smirk.

Liz rolled her eyes and pushed her way past him slamming the door behind her. Max waited till the door was safely closed behind Liz and that she wasn't coming back before he hung his head and began to chuckle. Turning to the five ladies lined up against the wall, Max grinned and raised an inquiring eyebrow. “Well? What do you think?”

‘Bambi’ was the first to answer. Her grin mirrored the laughter in her eyes. “I like that girl.”

“Me too.” ‘Candi’ responded quickly. “She’s got guts.”

“And fire.” ‘Dani’ added.

“Oh, yeah. She definitely has that.” ‘Bambi commented, nodding her head in approval. “You were right on the mark about this ‘Bambi’ of yours. Definitely a sore spot with her. Or did I just go a bit overboard?”

“Nope. You were perfect.” Max reassured as he shook her hand and winked. “Did even better than the real Bambi would have.”

“Good." She smiled with a warm suggestion. "You might need to keep that one alive for a bit. Jealousy is a good tool if used right.”

Max shrugged. “We’ll see.”

“She’s a keeper, Max. Certainly doesn't let you get away with anything and that's always a good thing in my book.” One of the previously silent candidates finally spoke up with a teasing grin before she became serious. “Don’t let that one go.”

“I don’t intend to, Linda.” Taking the woman’s hand in his he leaned over and gallantly kissed it giving it an appreciative squeeze.

“Good.” She smiled warmly at Max. “When you finally get her tied down enough, you need to bring her over for dinner. Ted would love to meet the woman that tamed the Coyote.”

"We'll do." Max promised. "Thank you. All of you. I know it was short notice and you this is certainly not agency business, so I appreciate it more than you know. It went just the way I wanted it to go."

Linda spoke for the group as they headed toward the door. "Yeah, well, we all expect invites to the wedding…"

Max chuckled as he escorted the women to the door. "You'll get them. Thanks again."

Saying their good-byes and closing the door behind the last woman, Max leaned against the door with a devilish grin. It wasn't until a technician addressed Max that he realized he wasn't alone.

"Uh…sir? Can I offer a suggestion?"

"Sure." Max answered, clearly thinking the technician had words of wisdom for his new Pentium installation.

Glancing at the other two techs, the guy whose name tag read 'Rex' began to speak dispelling any notion that only women are matchmakers. "Well, me and the guys was thinking that it's pretty obvious you're into this woman. And from her reaction to the babes that just left, well…she's certainly not willing to share any time soon."

"Yeah?" Max prompted, liking what he was hearing so far.

Rex nodded. "But see, here's the thing. You seem like the type of man that's not gonna stop till she's screaming 'yes' and well, she doesn't seem like that type that's gonna give in that easily so…"

"Yes?"

"We was thinking ya might want to invest in a bullet proof vest." The two other techs nodded vigorously at the suggestion. "Maybe even an impenetrable shield right here between the two desks here…"

Max's laughter filled the room as three very confused technicians looked at each other then back at Max as if they were suddenly standing in a loony bin.
~~~~~~~~~~~
The efficient looking receptionist looked up as Liz walked in. "Hello. May I help you?"

Liz glanced at the large company logo, Staffs Are Us, before nodding her head and pushing back a stray piece of hair. "Yes. I need a secretary by noon."

"Oh, well, we have several candidates. I'm sure we'll be able to find someone that fits your qualifications, Miss…"

"Harris. Rachel Harris." Liz answered quickly.

The woman smiled. "Alright, Ms. Harris. Would you like to give me a list of qualifications…"

Slapping a quickly scribbled list down on the desk, Liz nodded curtly. "There. I need someone like that by noon. Think you can deliver?"

The woman's smile faded as a blonde eyebrow raised. "Uh…well…these are rather…unique qualifications…"

"Really?" Liz asked innocently. "I thought they were rather reasonable."

"Yes, yes, I'm sure you do. Is this secretary for yourself or…"

"Oh, no." Liz shook her head. "I'm shopping for a…friend."

The tone of her voice caused the receptionists gaze to snap up to meet hers. Instant understanding dawned in her eyes. "Ah, I see. Husband or boyfriend is screwing around on you with the latest big busted bimbo that calls herself an assistant, right? You're looking for a little…revenge perhaps?"

Pursing her lips in thought, Liz shrugged and fudged the truth. "Something like that."

"In that case…" The receptionist leaned forward and crooked her finger causing Liz to mirror her action by leaning forward too. Glancing around, the receptionist lowered her voice to a whisper. "…have I got just the gal for you…"

tbc…


[ edited 1 time(s), last at 20-Jun-2002 11:25:49 PM ]
posted on 23-Jun-2002 12:32:25 PM by Ashton
Hey all!!!

Me again! Back with another update. Again, I hope you're not getting tired of this! Would LOVE to hear what you think! Your feedback has really been amazing and I appreciate it more than I can say!!!! Hope you enjoy!!

BehrHugs,
Ashton
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 11 ~


"No, I am not satisfied." Max's jaw tightened as he shook his head and tossed the newest reports he'd just pulled from his new installed fax machine. "Barbara, this is simply not what I asked for."

"Max…you are heading for trouble with this Parker deal." Barbara answered back in a low voice.

"That is not your call to make." Max responded back hotly. "You are to get me the information then back the hell out of my way."

Silence greeted his heated comment.

Squeezing his eyes shut, Max let out a weary sigh. "Look, Barbara, I’m sorry…"

"This has to do with her, doesn't it?" Barbara interrupted quietly. "This has to do with Kendall Blake."

After a moment's silence, Max answered knowing there was no point keeping any secrets from Barbara, especially since she had clearly already figured it out. "Yes."

"Max…"

Determination flashed in his eyes. "He hurt her, Barbara. I can't let that pass."

"Who says it's your decision, Max? I mean, has she asked you to fight her battles? Exact her revenge? Or are you using this as a way to atone for something completely unrelated to the woman you're currently pursing?"

Max stiffened in his chair and his voice tensed. "Just what is that supposed to mean?"

"It means you've always carried this weight on your shoulders, Max. Ever since I've known you; long before Kendall came into your life. There's this burden…this sense of responsibility…you carry around with you like a badge of disgrace. Like you've done something so horrific it will never be forgiven. Oh, you don't let too many people see it. You save it for special moments when feel like loathing yourself."

"Barbara, this conversation is ov…"

"You don't talk about it, but it's there, Max." Barbara continued despite Max's obvious attempt to shut her down. "And if you think she doesn't see it, you are sadly mistaken." She paused, her voice tightening with emotion. "And I'll tell you something right now. Kendall Blake is not the kind of woman who will appreciate you stirring up her pain and using grievances from her past to make yourself feel better about your own past mistakes."

"That's not what I’m doing." Max responded tersely.

"No? Then what are you doing? Do you even know?"

"Not that it's really any of your business, but I’m doing this for Jaedan." Max shot back heatedly as he leaned forward in his chair.

"For Jaedan." Disbelief rang through the phone loud and clear. "Max, all that sweet little girl wants from you is your love. Not some twisted revenge you want to carry out in her name."

"With all due respect…" The tone of Max's voice left no room for doubt. He was beyond pissed. "…you have no idea what is going on. You don't know the first thing about any of the players. I do. And if I decide that I'm going to squash Jeff Parker like the irritant he is then I will do it. And there is nothing you or anyone else can say that will stop me."

"Not even Kendall?" Barbara's question met stubborn silence. "Fine. You know what? You go ahead. Hurt your chances with her."

"Hurt my chances." Max repeated.

"Yes. I'm telling you now, Max, you're methods on this…they're going to turn her against you." Barbara's curt response caused Max's jaws to tense. "And you know, I was under the impression that you really loved this woman. That this one was for real and that you wanted to make her happy. But I see now that I was wrong."

Fire flashed in his eyes and his hands clenched in barely controlled anger. "How dare you…"

"Love doesn't use people to hurt other people, Max. It just doesn't."

"We're done with this." Max announced. "And you're off the Parker deal."

The phone line went dead and Max Evans let out a growl of frustration before furiously punching in a new set of numbers. The phone was answered in a matter of moments. "Em. It's Max. I need your answer now."

"Now?" Emily Parker sounded alarmed and confused. "But, Max, I thought you said…"

"Things have changed slightly and I need to know if you're on my side or not." Max explained tightly. "Now, what's the answer?"

There was a moment's silence. A deep breath. Then an answer. "Yes."

Max's expression relaxed a little. "You're sure?"

"I'm positive."

"Alright." Max let out a relieved breath and leaned back in his chair as his eyes flashed dangerously. "I need you to get me some information. I need to know everything, and I mean **everything** about Jeff's holdings…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"You're kidding."

"Nope." Alex responded with a grin. "He wants you there by Monday morning. Sooner if possible."

"Well, I'll be…" A slow smile claimed Steve's lips. "What exactly is his plan?"

"I think he has a few ideas that he actually wants to discuss with you." Alex explained. "He said he wanted to strategize for maximum impact."

Steve began to chuckle. "Wow. She must be…"

"Very special." Alex finished for his friend before sobering slightly. "Listen, Steve, Max is serious about this one so uh…no mention of McKenna just yet."

Steve grew equally serious. "Right. Any progress on that front?"

"Kyle's still working different angles, but she's really making it hard."

"Yeah, Duke wasn’t really able to give us much since she's pretty tight lipped about her missions. Especially to the guys she sleeps with."

Alex let out a sigh. "Yeah, I am definitely not looking forward to telling Max any of this."

"I don’t blame you." Steve agreed. "Have you and Kyle discussed exactly how and when?"

"Not details. We think we need paper proof before we really go to Max with it. He probably won't believe it unless we do."

"Sounds right." Steve nodded and let out a sigh. "Well, I'll try to feel him out a bit when I'm with him. See exactly where he is on the whole issue."

"Man, that would be great." Alex sounded relieved. "Last I mentioned it to him, he didn't want to talk about it. Says he's finally moving on and wants to put it in the past."

"Too bad it can't stay there." Steve commented prophetically.

"Yeah." Alex's quiet tone was one of regret and contemplation. "I'm really feeling for Liz right now because she thinks McKenna's this paragon of virtue that Max will go back to at the drop of hat once he knows she's alive."

"Liz knows about this?" The surprise was evident in Steve's voice.

"Yeah, she knows. She's vowed to keep it secret…"

"You think she can be trusted?"

Alex smiled. "On this…definitely."

"What makes you so sure?"

"She is way too stubborn to admit this, even to herself, but that woman in head over heels in love with Max. Despite all of her protests and best intentions, the last thing she wants to do is push him into the arms of another woman." Alex explained patient, wisely. "She'll take this secret to the grave with her if it means keeping Max by her side."

Steve began to grin. "Stubborn, huh? Sounds like a perfect match for Max…"

"You have no idea." Alex answered back with a chuckle. "In fact, let me fill you in a little bit on little Lizzie Parker…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Carmen."

"Oh, hey, Max. Did any of the names on the list look familiar to you?"

"Not yet." Max answered with a shake of his head. "But keep them coming ok? I've got a strong feeling I know this woman. I just can't put my finger on how."

"You got it. I'm also trying to track her most recent movements. Like where was she before she turned up at your office. I have to give it to her, whoever she is she's either very talented at covering her tracks or she has well placed connections that do it for her." Carmen answered confidently. "Do you want me follow up with the Kyle connection?"

"Definitely. I want to know what's going on before I approach him about it."

Scribbling a few notes on her notepad, Carmen nodded. "Alright. Anything else you want me to check out?"

"Actually…yes." Max answered though he sounded a bit hesitant. Despite his earlier determination that resulted in his blowing up at Barbara and immediately enlisting Emily's help, Max had begun to feel a bit unsure of his current plans for Parker Industries, and in turn, Jeff Parker. "I uh…well, I want you to check out a business rival for me."

"Wait, Max. You know I don't do corporate stuff."

"No, it's not that." Max hastened to reassure. "This is definitely along the personal line. I want to have Jeff Parker and Chris Santoro investigated. I need to know if there were any connections between the two."

"Well, I can already tell you about that. Hang on a sec." Carmen commented before pulling out a folder from her cabinets. Finding what she was looking for, Carmen flipped through the folder in silence a moment. "Ah, here it is. Chris was married to Jeff's youngest daughter, Liz."

"Right, I know about that." Max commented trying to keep his tone light. Trying not to reveal just how much he did know. How important the information was to him. "I guess what I’m looking for…I heard the marriage was pretty…rough. That Liz turned on Chris, ended up dying because of it." Max shifted uncomfortably in his seat and asked the question that was burning in his mind. "What I want to know is…did Jeff know how bad it was for his daughter. And if he did, did he do anything to help her?"

There was silence on the other end and by Carmen's next question, Max could tell he'd failed to cover his emotions. "What little information I have on the Parker/Santoro marriage, I had to beg, borrow and steal. This stuff is so classified it's not even funny. So, I guess what I need to know from you is…where is this going, Max?"

Max swallowed hard, his gaze shifting to the blue sky peacefully blanketing the sky. "It's going toward my next step in a very delicate, possibly dangerous game. I need to know if Jeff Parker is the kind of man who would his sell his daughter to the highest bidder with little to no concern about her well being. Or if he honestly didn't know what nightmare she was marrying into. If he cared enough to help her or if she even asked."

"And knowing this will help you decide what to do?" Carmen asked curiously.

"Knowing this will explain a lot of things and yes…it will help me know which step to take next." Max answered honestly. "Because right now…well, I'm just not sure."

"Alright. I'll get you what I can." Carmen answered, seemingly clear on her mission. "Anything else?"

Max thought a moment as he let out a deep sigh. "No, I think that will cover it for a while. Just really concentrate on the Kim Edwards thing. Something's just not right there and I need to know what it is."

"You got it, boss..." Carmen confirmed before signing off.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Hmmmm." Liz scrutinized the resume in her hands and glanced back up at the candidate Stacie, the receptionist, had hooked her up with. "This all looks very good. But I do have a few more personal questions to ask you."

A head was nodded, an indication of acquiescence.

Liz's dark inquiring eyes met the candidate's with frankness. "How do you feel about office romances?"

A wry smile touched the lips. "Well, I've never had personal experience with that particular problem."

"Right." Liz nodded quickly picking up on the use of the word 'problem'. "But you do see it as a hindrance to the efficiency of an office environment, correct?"

"Oh, it definitely can be."

"Good." Liz responded with a small victorious smile. "And do you have a problem working for say…a womanizing, philandering, flirtatious Neanderthal who seems to think women were put on this earth for his own personal pleasure?"

"Well, it certainly wouldn't be the first time." There was a paused before the answer was expanded. "You see, I think all creatures are here for God's pleasure. Not man's. Not everyone shares my view."

"And you'd be willing to tell him that?" Liz asked as her eyes began to dance with triumph.

"If the subject were to arise, yes. I am no stranger to speaking my mind."

"Perfect." Liz beamed before one more thought hit her. "Oh, one more thing. About office attire…"

"What you see is what you get."

Letting out a relieved, victorious sigh, Liz stood and held out her hand. "Well, then. I don't think I need to look any further. If you want the job, it's yours."

Her hand was taken and a deal was made. "When do you want me?"

"Can you be there at noon today?"

Another nod of the head. Another beaming smile.

"Great! Now. Let's talk about the interview with your new boss. His name is Max Evans…"

Another Liz-induced nightmare had begun…
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Max spent the rest of the next hour pacing in his office. And if he wasn't pacing he was shifting restlessly in his chair. Or flipping through documents on his computer and aimlessly looking over contracts he couldn't care less about.

Barbara's words kept haunting him. Her certainty that Liz would be firmly against his plans…well, he had to admit it was a bit unnerving. He really needed some advice. He needed some peace. He needed…

Max grabbed up his phone and dialed a familiar number. When the phone was answered, Max immediately jumped into the purpose for his call. "Hey, dad. Is Jaedan there?"

"Hi, son. Yeah, I think Angel's trying to get her ready for a nap." There was a pause. "Max, what's wrong?"

Max immediately bristled. "I just said 'hey'. What makes you think something's wrong?"

"You want to listen to yourself say that again then ask me one more time?" Phillip cocked an eyebrow at Max's defensive response.

"Look, dad, I'm sorry. I just…" Max let out a weary sigh. "…I got in a fight with Barbara about something and I have something else that's just really bothering me and…"

"Liz?" Phillip prompted hoping his son would elaborate more.

That one name brought the first smile to Max's face in the past hour. "No, dad, it's not Liz. She's actually the brightest part of my day right now so…"

"Giving you hell, isn't she?" Phillip easily translated for Max.

Max began to chuckle. "Yeah. Yeah, she's certainly not making things easy for me. But that was expected so, I'm not too surprised. I'm actually enjoying the challenging curves she's been throwing me."

"As long as you know what to expect and don't take her resistance personally." Phillip cautioned.

"I'm not." Max answered softly. "I don't expect this to be an overnight success. But I'm willing to stick it out and have fun in the process."

"Well, good." Phillip nodded with pride in his son's mature attitude. "Now, was there a little princess you wanted to talk to?"

A slow grin began on Max's face again. "Yeah. I think she's just what I need right now."

"I can see why you're so taken with her, Max." Phillip commented quietly. "She's a real doll. Mom already adores her and well…I think she wrapped me around her finger before she got a full sentence out."

"Yeah, she is definitely a sweetheart. Very much like her mom." Max responded with a smile full of love.

"Well, here she is…"

Before Phillip even finished his sentence, Max was accosted by the tiny, excited voice. "Oh, yay! Max! I's so excited! I's been wantin' to talk to ya aallll day! Cuz guess why! Guess what I got to do?"

"What did you get to do?" As the childish voice prattled on, Max leaned back with a smile and allowed the peace that had been alluding him since Liz's departure to instantly seep back into his soul.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"I'm telling you, Vaughn, this is a good plan." Liz spoke into her cell phone quietly as she walked toward her office building.

"Liz, I don't know…"

"Look. This is…sooo amazingly perfect." Beaming brighter than the California sun, Liz paused a moment to take a deep breath of air. "Today is just…" Eyes drifting closed, Liz's face split into a joyous smile. "…isn't today just the best day ever?"

"Liz. You've either completely lost it..." Sitting behind his desk at the CIA headquarters, Vaughn shook his head. "…or you're in love."

Liz gasped into the phone. "You take that back right now, Michael Vaughn."

Vaughn chuckled. "Well? Do you have any other explanation for that beaming smile plastered on your face? You know…the one I know you're sporting because I can feel it all the way through the phone?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact, I do." Liz nodded curtly. "It's called the sweet joy of victory."

"Victory." Vaughn repeated. "Liz. You ever heard that expression 'Don't count your chickens before they hatch'?"

"Ha-ha." Liz's mocking laughter caused Vaughn to chuckle again. "You think I can't do this. You think Max Evans can get the better of me. Well, I'll tell you something right now, Michael Vaughn…the assistant I chose for Max is so heavenly good that he's going to be in hell for the next few weeks. And **that* my friend, you can take to the bank…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Liz returned to a call in progress…

"You did, huh?" Max asked as he started glancing through papers on his desk.

The childish voice echoed through the speaker phone on Max’s desk. "Uh-huh. And then Nanna and Pappa took me to see the horses and I got to peted one!"

"Yeah? Which one did you pet?"

"Drweam."

"Oh, Dream's a pretty horse." Max grinned. "I'll bet you'd like Fancy too."

"Uh-huh. Pappa showed me a picture cuz he said Fancy was at a horsey show but one day when me and Grandnanny come visit again maybe I can peted her too! And tamarra I get to try to ride Drweam with Pappa. Not all by myse’f. I fafta have a adult wiff me.”

"That's only because we don't want you to fall and hurt yourself." Max explained patiently at the slight note of annoyance in Jaedan's voice. "Pappa loves riding horses. You're going to have a great time, sweetheart."

"Uh-huh. And Nanna and me and Grandnanny are gonna make pumpkin faces…"

"You are? Are they going to be funny or scary?" Hearing the door crack open, Max glanced up to see Liz framed in the doorway. His heart instantly sped up at the sight of her. Hair slightly wind blown and face flushed with emotion, he was struck once again with just how beautiful she was. The most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. Liz's beauty wasn't just surface. She had a light inside of her that, when it was lit, not another woman on the face of the earth could hold a candle to her. That light was shining brightly now. In her smile. Through her dark, dancing eyes glowing with so much love, it took his breath away.

Liz's heart was in her throat. Watching this man, hearing a few snatched pieces of conversation, sent a ripple of warmth straight through to Liz's thundering heart. It would be impossible to believe if she wasn't seeing it with her own eyes. If she didn't know him better. If she hadn't felt the goodness and love in him. Her baby's excited voice was filling the room and Max was…listening. He was actually paying attention to each little word she said. He was responding to her childish exuberance. Encouraging her to express herself. And he was loving her, accepting her, just the way she was.

Max was doing for a lonely child that wasn't his own so much more than Jeff Parker, her very own, flesh and blood father, had ever done for her. He was listening. He was caring. He was loving…

One thing was glaringly clear. Despite how he did or did not feel about Liz Parker, he hadn't been lying when he told her he adored Jaedan. And Jaedan adored him right back. And Liz Parker felt like…an outsider.

Until…

Max's face split into a grin and he waved Liz into the office encouragingly. Her eyes softened as she took a step inside and closed the door firmly behind her. Motioning for Liz to pull up a chair, he cautioned her to silence by placing a finger against his lips.

With a wink to Liz, he addressed Jaedan with a question that immediately created a groan from the speaker on the desk. "Honey, isn't it about time for your nap?"

"I shouldn’t oughta hafta take a nap." The pout in her voice was as clear as a bell. Max had to bite back a chuckle as the image of Jaedan crossing her arms in front of her and stamping her foot flitted through his mind. His laughing eyes met Liz's and they shared a smile as Jaedan continued. "Cuz I’m a big girl now. I rwode weally weally good on your big boat. I didn’t crwy or nofin’!"

"I know you did, sweetie. Grandnanny told me how good and brave you were. And you are such a big girl. But even big girls have to take naps because if you don't all of the sleep fairies will be sad because they won't get to spend any time with you. So, I'll tell you what…" Max paused and leaned back in his chair with a grin. "…if you'll be a very, very good princess and go upstairs right now and lay down on your bed, I have a surprise for you."

"You do?"

"Yes. A very special surprise." Max confirmed as he smiled at Liz. "You can get Grandnanny to help you with the phone in your room, ok?"

"'Kay!" In a heartbeat, Max and Liz could hear Jaedan's voice in the distance excitedly exclaiming that she just had to take her nap now because she needed to visit with the sleep fairies and because if she didn't she wouldn't get her surprise.

Angel's chuckling voice came on the phone. "Max, you deserve the medal of the year for the most creative ways for getting that child to obey."

"Oh he does, huh?" Liz finally broke her silence long enough to let Angel know she was listening too.

They could hear the smile in Angel's voice. "Ohhh, so that's the surprise. You know I'm not sure this is such a good idea."

"Why not?" Max asked, his brows furrowing in sudden concern.

"You honestly think she'll be able to sleep once she's talked to her two favorite people in the whole world? She'll be way too excited…" There was a second of silence in which Angel was clearly trying to hear something in the distance. "Alright, alright. I’m coming with the phone." Sighing back into the phone, Angel's comment prompted a playful comment from Liz. "Max, you're creating a monster here…"

"You think he's turning Jaedan into a monster?" Liz rolled her eyes playfully and tossed a grin meaningful Max's way. "You should have seen the harem he paraded in front of me today." Liz shuddered dramatically as her face scrunched up in disgust. "Downright horrifying."

"Hey!" Max attempted to sound offended but couldn't help the chuckle in his voice as he pelted Liz with a wad of paper. He pointed an authoritative finger at her. "I'll have you know every last one of those ladies was a highly trained individual."

"Oh, yeah? Where were they trained?" Giving him a pointed look, Liz grabbed a loose rubber band for any retaliation that might be necessary. "Bimbos 'R Us? Or Skimpy's: the Modeling Agency for the Truly Clueless?" Liz's eyes brightened with an idea and she nearly bounced in her seat with excitement. "Ohhh. Or how about this…Multitasking Unlimited: Skilled in the art of primping, blowing bubbles and filing nails all at the same time. Zero IQ required. Special discounts for students named after Disney animals…"

A burst of laughter filled the room. Adoring eyes rolled as he tried to shake his head in mock disapproval. He didn’t succeed. "You are so…" Max started to respond but was cut off by a voice from the speaker phone.

"Alright you two. Straighten up." Angel commanded, effectively ending the verbal sparring going on hundreds of miles away. "I'm heading in to her room. So, here we go…"

Sticking her tongue out playfully, Liz scrunched up her nose at Max and he shook his head with a chuckle as a few moments of silence reigned in the office while Angel was apparently setting up the phone for Jaedan. Before they knew it, Jaedan's excited voice once again filled the space between them connecting them in ways neither had expected.

"Kay, Max! I's back! And I got Boo Boo Bear and we's ready for your surprise now!"

"Alright, princess. Who is your most favorite person in the whole entire wide world?"

"Kendall."

Liz's face began to glow as a smile spread over her lips at her daughter's instant answer. No hesitation. No question. Simple, honest, childlike clarity. "That's right." Max answered, his gaze never leaving Liz's face. He loved watching her expressions shift with the speed of lighting. From playful to touched to awed, her expression softened with such beauty Max longed to reach out and caress her skin with infinite gentleness. His fingers curled around the arms of his chair to prevent him from acting on that or any other impulses. "And who did I promise to find for you?"

"Kendall." Jaedan answered just a quickly as before. This time adding a few other promises he'd made. Promises that caused Liz's softened gaze to meet his. "And you prwomised I could see her again and I did. And you pwromised to make sure she didn't get losted no more. And you prwomised to make her happy so she have a whole lots of cowendar days full of princesses and not evil bad wizards!"

A faint blush spread over Max's cheeks as he shifted a bit uncomfortably in his chair. Note to self: teach Jaedan not to talk so much on speaker phone… His gaze lowered shyly and he quickly cleared his throat in an attempt to ward off the revelation of any other promises concerning Liz that he might have made. "That's right, sweetie. Well, guess what?"

"What?" The breathlessly awed voice fell silent.

With an approving wink, Max grinned at Liz and nodded, his eyes dancing with sincere delight. Liz leaned forward toward the speaker. "Hi, sweetheart."

The gasp echoed in the room. "Kendall!!! Grandnanny, it's Kendall! I just gots to see ya yesterday and I's didn't fink I could talk to ya till we got back from Nanna and Pappas cuz I's didn't fink you'd know where we's was!"

Liz laughed at the tumble of excited words, her dancing gaze meeting Max's across the desk. "Yeah, well…your Mr. Prince Charming kinda figured out a way for us to talk early."

"YAY!"

Realizing the need to control the situation before childish exuberance reached fever pitched heights, Max quickly stepped in. "Alright now, honey. Since it is naptime I think what we need to do is make up a fairy tale together and then right after that, you'll be a very, very good princess and lay down for Grandnanny, Nanna and Pappa. Right?" Max paused as a doubtful gaze met Liz's and he raised his fingers in the air, crossing them in hope. "Think you can do that for Kendall and me?"

"I's try weally, weally hard."

Max and Liz's gazes instantly locked on each other and shook their heads as they simultaneously mouthed the words 'It won't work'. Liz covered her mouth to stop the giggle bubbling up inside of her. Max bit down on his lip to keep back his own chuckle before continuing. "Ok, sweetie. Let's see…what should we name our princess today?"

“Kendall.”

Noting Liz's softened gaze, Max winked at her. “You always name our princess Kendall.”

“That’s cuz I wuv her.”

"Oh, honey…" Liz pushed her bottom lip out in an adorable expression which was a cross between an 'isn't-she-so-sweet-I-think-I-want-to-cry' and a pretty pout. "…I love you too."

“You know, I think with all this love between all of us, we should be able to come up with a really good happily ever after together. Don’t you?” Max's voice lowered meaningfully, his own gaze unashamedly roaming Liz's face as the double meaning of his words gently whispered their way into Liz's heart. It was a struggle not to add his own out right confession of love. But now was neither the time nor the place. Still…with the way Liz's chest just hitched with a stilled breath when bright her gaze met his, he doubted he really had to say the words for her to get the message anyway.

Liz felt a heat rising in her cheeks. She felt the smile tugging at her lips. Knew instinctively that her eyes were bright with inescapable stars. A surge of emotion washed over her. She didn't recognize it. Couldn't name the feeling. Didn't know how to label it. How was it possible to feel this way with just one word from him? How was it possible to feel this way at all? Hadn't someone somewhere declared it eternally forbidden for Liz Parker to be…happy? To feel…good? Is that what she was suddenly feeling? Or was it something so much more? Something…lasting. She bit down on her lower lip and pushed a strand of hair out of her eyes as the warring thoughts drifted briefly through her mind.

Max was watching her. Reading her expression. Sensing her confusion. She was feeling things she couldn't explain and it was scaring her. Unnerving her. Freedom often does. If you're not expecting it. If you don't believe you deserve it.

Sensing Liz getting lost in dangerous thought, Max swiftly shifted gears back to Jaedan's story and cleared his throat. “Since Kendall's actually with us today, why don't we make up a fairy tale about our other princess? Sweetie, you want to tell Kendall what her name is and why we picked her?"

"Uh-huh!" Jaedan answered enthusiastically. "We's got a Princess Kendall and a Princess Liz. Liz cuz that's short for 'liz'beth and that's my middle name."

Panic raced through Liz. Eyes narrowing slightly, her gaze snapped up to Max's face. His expression was relaxed, unreadable. Innocent. Though the use of her real name as a princess could be indication he knew so much more than he was letting on, Liz doubted it. At least, she tried to doubt it. Still, he truly seemed focused on Jaedan and using her middle name…well, that did make sense…

"That's right, sweetie. So, Liz is our princess today, and who is our prince?”

“Uh…how ‘bout…”

“Maximus.” Liz stated, her lips twitching with the beginning of a smile.

Max's eyes snapped up to meet hers in remembrance. "Oh, no you don't."

"What?" Batting her eyes innocently, a devilish smile danced on her lips.

"You know full well what." Max responded with a 'don’t you dare' look in his eyes as the conversation of his boyhood nickname came rushing back to him.

Liz grinned. Then played her trump card. "Jaedan, sweetheart. Don't you think Maximus would be a peeeerfect name for our prince?"

"YAY!!!!"

Max let out a groan and sank back into his chair. Though his protest was loud and exaggerated, he couldn't keep a light of amusement from his eyes as he gazed at Liz. He even bit down on his lip to keep his smile in check. Again, he wasn't successful.

Liz chuckled and did a little 'dance' in her seat knowing she had effectively won another point for the day. Letting out a sigh, she leaned forward and began speaking directly to Jaedan. "Ok, honey. How do we start our story?"

"Uh…well…Max always starts with 'Once upon a time…"

And together, the three of them made up a tale to remember…

tbc…


[ edited 2 time(s), last at 23-Jun-2002 12:57:21 PM ]
posted on 2-Jul-2002 5:53:43 AM by Ashton
Hey all,

Sorry I've been MIA. An unexpected opportunity came up and I've been in the process of moving from one place to the next. Hence no computer, no disks, no updates. As soon as I get settled back in I'll be back to writing. The next chpt has quite a bit done already, I just need to find the disk I have it on! Thanks for the encouragement and patience!

BehrHugs,
Ashton
posted on 5-Jul-2002 10:01:18 PM by Ashton
hey all!!

Sooo sorry its taken so long to get back on this. I'm totally moved now, but now comes the agonizing process of figuring out where everything is! I've already moved the computer 3 times!! *happy* Anyway...this is pretty much ALL fluff and probalby not all that great but at least it's done! ;) Hope ya'll enjoy. Thanks sooo much for the support and I'd love to hear what you think!

BehrHugs,
Ashton
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 12 ~

An hour later, Liz was still grinning.

So was Max.

Though the call with Jaedan had ended long ago, secret smiles and amused glances filled the room with a sense of intimacy that hadn't been there before. Through the shared love of one little girl, an emotional connection had been formed.

They didn't talk about it. They just…felt it.

And what they felt…made them both smile like silly fools.

Biting down on her lip to keep back a chuckle, Liz cleared her throat and glanced up at Max, whose golden eyes had just cast her a sly glance. His gaze lowered instantly the second she looked up, a slight tremor racing through his lips as he tried his best not to smile.

Liz felt her heart start to pound.

His suit jacket having been discarded, Max's tie was loose and the top couple of buttons of his crisp white shirt were undone. He'd run his hands through his hair several times causing dark strands to fall haphazardly over his forehead giving him a slightly mussed, casual look. A downright sexy look.

Gaze lowering shyly, Liz tilted her head to the side and tried to focus on the notepad she was supposed to be making a list on. Instead, a picture was taking shape as her pencil unconsciously flew across the page. Outlining features. Softening gazes. Curling the corners of a perfect mouth.

Having pulled her hair up into a messy bun on the top of her head, a few strands were falling gently against the soft curves of her face. Her eyes were bright while a soft blush covered her cheeks. Max couldn't stop himself from stealing glances at her. She was…

Max couldn't quite come up with the word to accurately describe exactly what Liz Parker was. No matter how hard he tried. No matter how large his vocabulary. A thousand adjectives popped into his mind. Each covert glance discarded every single one.

'Pretty' wasn't strong enough. 'Beautiful' was too common. 'Gorgeous' didn't quite fit, though she certainly was. 'Attractive' was too lame. 'Angelic' definitely didn't capture the deliciously devilish side of Liz Parker.

'Exquisite'. Now, there was a word that Max could get behind in describing Liz. She **was** exquisite. Rare. Timeless. Classic.

An unconscious sigh escaped him and before he realized it, Max found himself staring at Liz. Again. Outright. Unashamedly. Like a fool.

Shaking himself from the embarrassing action that was quickly becoming a habit, Max forced his gaze to remain focused on the contracts on his desk. Aloof. Approachable, but aloof. That's what he was going for. And so far…well, he'd been failing miserably. In fact, if he didn't watch it, his whole plan would crumble before it even got underway.

In theory, it was a good plan. No pressure. No strings. No commitments. Keep it fun and light. Be patient. Be her friend. Lull her into a false sense of security by giving her plenty of freedom and space to fall in love with him…or admit she already was, all the while showing no expectation that she would do so. Stay put. Prove he was reliable through good and bad times. That she could trust him. Ease into Liz Parker's heart in such a way that she wouldn’t see it coming and once he was so deeply imbedded, she'd never be able to let him go.

In practice…

Well, he never imagined just how hard this loving Liz from a distant closeness was actually going to be. Or how irresistible she'd prove to be the more time he spent with her. How everything about her just thoroughly…delighted him. Even her stubborn streaks. No…especially those. But it was the way she was with Jaedan that was so mesmerizing. The priceless connection between mother and daughter was palpable even through a long distance phone call. Max could only imagine what it would finally be like to watch them interact in person. When all walls had been destroyed and all lies had been revealed. When hiding was no longer necessary.

It was a future Max Evans wouldn’t stop dreaming of until it became a reality. No matter how much resistance Liz Parker gave him.

As Max's thoughts turned toward the daunting task facing him in his pursuit of Liz, she was becoming aware of the picture forming on the notepad beneath her skilled pencil. It was a scene from the previous day. In Max’s magical garden. With her precious daughter.

They had been exploring the hidden paths through lush shrubbery and twisting trees. Coming to a small clearing, Jaedan had grabbed both of Liz’s hands and begged her to play ‘Ring Around the Rosy’. Spinning round and round, Liz and Jaedan slipped into a crumpled heap of giggles as they ‘all fell down’. Taking a moment to catch their breaths, Jaedan noticed for the first time that the ceiling was made of glass.

“Ohhh, lookie, Kendall! Prwetty clouds!” She’d exclaimed excitedly. “Let’s make a pi’ture!”

“A picture?” Liz inquired as she shifted to her back and put an arm behind her head.

Jaedan snuggled up to Liz and pointed to the sky. “Uh-huh. Me and Max make pi’tures aaaaalll the time.”

“You do, huh?” Liz asked as she began to smile, a note of challenge in her voice. “Well, then. I guess if Mr. Oh-So-Wonderful Max can make pictures with you, so can I…”

The result was staring up at her from her notepad. A woman and a child lying on the ground under the protective leaves of an overhanging tree. A sky full of clouds staring down at them. And if one looked closely enough, one could see the outline of a crown. The features of a face. The image of a prince who looked very much like Max Evans…

Liz glanced back up at Max again, her eyes roaming his face. The smooth planes. The full lips. The exquisite eyes. The likeness couldn’t have been any more perfect.

Focus irresistibly drawn to his lips, Liz let out a tiny sigh. What those lips could do to her…

His knowing smirks were infuriating. His tender smiles warmed her from the inside out and made her stomach do a funny little dance that was not altogether unpleasing. The words that flowed so easily from those lips could stop her speech cold and bring tears to her eyes or make her feel like she was soaring on a cloud of laughter.

With lightning speed, a whisper from those lips could send a shiver racing through her.

Speaking of shivers, there was always her favorite use for Max Evans' lips…those amazing kisses of his. They had the power to transport her into an entirely different world altogether. One she'd never even knew existed until that very first touch. One she'd like to explore to the fullest and maybe even risk staking her own permanent claim. Whether gentle and feathery or demanding and explosive, Max's kisses were full of passion. Intense. Focused. And oh, so very captivating.

Bewitching. Fascinating. Mesmerizing. Max's eyes. Chocolate brown at times, an amber fire could rip through them in a heartbeat. Inky midnight skies dotted with the brightest stars couldn't possibly rival the brilliance of Max's passion-filled eyes. Or the emotion that could soften them in the space of a breath. And when he was amused…the way they crinkled a little at the corners and literally danced like sunbeams on a sparkling lake.

Just like they were dancing right now…

Liz caught herself just in time to stop a dreamy sigh. He was just so…damn irresistible. Biting back a grin, Liz cleared her throat and finally broke their comfortable, intimate silence with a flat-toned attempted insult.

"You're unbelievable." Liz commented as she firmly fixed her gaze on the notepad in front of her and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.

An eyebrow raised in response. Max added a few last letters to the end of a sentence while responding with a smooth, unperturbed tone. "You know you keep saying that, but it seems to me that Jaedan believed just about everything I said." A hint of pride and satisfaction edged the smile haunting his lips.

Biting the eraser on the tip of her pencil to keep the amusement dancing in her eyes from making it to her voice, Liz cocked an eyebrow before flipping to a new page and labeling a column on a list she should have started an hour ago. "That's because she is a little five year old girl who can't tell the difference between fact and fiction."

"Oh, I see." Dotting an 'I' and crossing a 't' before signing his name to a contract with a flourish, Max glanced up at Liz. "And are you trying to tell me that what I told her didn’t happen?"

Liz met his gaze with challenge. "Not the way you told her."

"Well, of course not." Max gave her a clear 'duh' look. "I mean, what was I supposed to say? Jaedan, sweetheart, your mommy is the best saboteur in the entire world. She attacked me with equipment that seriously makes me question what kind of lessons she took in school because she obviously wasn't studying history and math." Pursing his lips, Max shook his head as if in thought. "No. See, that's just not going to work." Laying his pen down, he casually folded his hands and leaned back in his chair. "First we have the issue of her not knowing you are, in fact, her mother."

Liz raised an acknowledging finger. "That's only because of…"

"National security." Max stated simultaneously. A smile haunted his lips as laughter danced behind his eyes. "Right. Because of Mark…"

Liz glanced away uncomfortably, wetted her lips and cleared her throat.

Max held back a grin and debated for a split second if he should pounce on that particularly sore subject or let it pass for the moment. He continued. "National security aside, we also have the whole issue of actually explaining to her why you, her precious Kendall, would want to do so many bad things to her adored Mr. Prince Charming." Max paused to let out an exaggerated, arrogant sigh. "I have to be honest with you…I really don't think she'd like that."

"Well, of course not." Liz rolled her eyes. It was her turn to give him the 'duh' look. "You made Princess Liz into a complete shrew."

"Yeah, well…I had a good model to draw from." Max quipped back quickly.

Liz's loud gasp prompted a chuckle from Max. Until she pelted him with a wad of paper. The smile instantly disappeared from his lips. Knowing full well Liz wouldn't be able to resist, Max leveled a warning challenge. "You sooo do not want to start that particular war with me."

"I don't huh?" Liz eyes sparkled with a devilish smile.

"No. You reeeeally don't."

"Why not?" A grin began to light her eyes as if a new thought struck her. "Ohhh. Is this one of your games with Bambi during playtime?"

"Games?"

"Uh-huh. You know…" Liz pursed her lips into a pretty pout and batted her lashes innocently as she tried her best to mimic a brainless brunette she'd met earlier. Her breathy voice was almost perfect Bambi-pitched. "…you're the mighty hunter, the paper wads are your speedy bullets and Bambi tries to not get hit as she scampers brainlessly here and there in skimpy little outfits that wouldn't cover a flea."

Dropping all pretense, Liz shrugged her voice barely concealing her distaste. "At least that's how I assume it goes since it's glaringly obvious Bambi wouldn’t be able to actually think her way out of a wet paper bag let alone a full scale paper wad fight."

"Oh, Kendall..." Max's predatory grin caused his eyes to darken dangerously as they raked over her suggestively. His voice lowered to a seductive huskiness. "You seriously underestimate my creativity when it comes to games and playtime."

"Yeah?" Liz's voice mirrored his as she leaned forward, her devilish gaze roaming his face before locking with a challenge on his eyes. "Care to prove that?"

It took everything in him to remain outwardly unaffected by that glow in her eyes. To remain in his seat. To keep his voice controlled and his body from acting out every urge ripping through him. He seriously had to get hold of himself if he was ever going to pull this off. Donning a cloak of indifference, Max drew on past experiences where his poker face brought down the staunchest of enemies.

Never before had the stakes been so high.

The unreadable mask slipped into place. His eyes held the barest hint of apology but his tone was all business. "Sorry. In case you haven't noticed, this…" Max indicated the room they were in. "…is an office. Which implies this is a business. And business is something I take very seriously." Max shrugged. "I simply don't play games while on corporate time."

Liz's mouth opened in disbelief as Max studiously turned his attention back to the contracts on his desk. A momentary feeling of embarrassed rejection raced through her as she watched him return to his work as if she were nothing more than a fly on the wall. There was that damn politeness of his again. That…aloofness that kept her at arm's length.

She felt a lump rise in her throat. Until…

Her uncomprehending stare landed again on his lips. Though his gaze was steadfastly focused on the task in front of him, the barest smirk of triumph ghosted his lips. Liz's dark eyebrow raised in understanding. If that was how he wanted to play, then that's how they'd play…

"Fine." Liz commented flippantly as she shifted back into her seat.

"Fine." Max responded barely glancing up at her.

"Let's get to work then." Eyes never leaving Max's face, Liz deliberately hardened her voice.

Voice registering his apparent lack of attention to her, Max began scanning figures on his computer screen. "Already ahead of you…"

Reading him like a book, Liz hid a grin as a plan instantly formed…

For the next ten minutes, the silence of the room was interrupted only by the steady ticking of the clock.

And Liz's bouncing pen.

The more it bounced, the more Max shifted restlessly in his seat. The more his face scrunched up in attempted concentration. The more annoyance flashed in his eyes when he'd occasionally glance up at her. Liz was aware of every changing nuance. She would pause, and Max would let out an unconscious sigh, settle into reading again and relax in his seat.

The bouncing resumed.

Max finally put his pen down, sighed and looked up at her his annoyed frown turning up into a boyish grin when he saw her relaxed position. Liz had her legs propped up under her and had her head leaned back against her chair rest. Her eyes had just drifted closed in concentration and a knowing, devilish smile haunted her lips.

Max's eyes suddenly began to twinkle with mischief. He quickly went to work on a surprise attack.

Thoughts were running through Liz's head a mile a minute. Actually, it was more like a tune that was tapping out an upbeat yet haunting Latin dance. A tune she'd never heard before. One without words. One that flowed through her fingers into the pen relentlessly pounding out a beat. One that moved her. Inspired her…

Liz was just getting ready to open her eyes to grab a piece of paper and quickly jot down the notes floating through her mind when suddenly she felt herself being pelted with something crinkly and hard.

"Hey!" She yelled suddenly as she jolted upright surprised by the sudden attack. "Just what do you think you're doing?" She asked in mock irritation the beginning of a smile twitching at the corners of her mouth.

Max turned back to his papers quickly trying to hide the grin that had surfaced when he saw the cute annoyed look on her face as he attempted to put a level of irritation in his voice. "Either wake up and start working or go to sleep and stop that irritating noise."

A mischievous grin broke out on Liz's face. Her plan had worked. "What noise?" She glanced down at her pen then held it up in front of her. "Oh, you must mean *this* noise." She exclaimed as she began clicking it fervently in a teasing effort to annoy him.

Noticing how Max twitched with each click, Liz got up from her chair and slowly advanced toward him, clicking the pen at least three times with each step. "You know, I never realized a pen could do so many things. I mean, it writes...it clicks. And then it clicks again. Over and over and over...just like the Energizer bunny. It never stops."

Knowing she would take the bait he'd dangled in front of her, Max waited until she was almost to him before turning on her and bombarding her with stored up paper wads that he had hidden behind his back.

Liz let out a scream and put up her hands to ward off his attack. She turned around and ducked as she started grabbing paper of her own and quickly began flinging them back at him. Before they knew it a full-scale wad throwing war was in place. Max ducked down behind the desk as Liz cowered behind the chair occasionally popping their heads up to launch new and used ammunition.

Each claiming victory as every target was nailed, Max and Liz had begun laughing so hard they were having a hard time keeping up the pace. A sudden thud and "Ow!" caused Max to pop his head up once more.

"Kendall? Hey, are you ok?" Concern edged his voice.

"I think so..." Her muffled reply came back to him.

"What did you do?" Max asked as he quickly dropped everything and rushed to where she was stationed behind her chair. Coming around the chair he saw her lying on the floor face down.

"Well, I...." Liz quickly flipped over, pointed a water gun that had been hidden under her desk at Max and began shooting. "....gotcha!!"

"You are going to pay for that!" Max proclaimed amidst his laughter and his attempt to block the water shooting straight toward him. He made a sudden move that place him on the floor almost on top of Liz as he grabbed her hands and tried wrenching the gun away from her.

She made a valiant effort, but Max finally grabbed the gun and turned it on her spraying her a few times before she was able to knock it loose from his grip. Squirming beneath him trying to get away from the sprays, Liz was laughing so hard it made it almost impossible to fight him. "Now who's got who, huh?" Max asked as he discarded the gun and began to tickle her.

Giggling uncontrollably and gasping for air, she couldn't answer him. Tears were beginning to stream from the corner of her eyes as she continued to fight the losing battle.

Neither saw the door open. Neither heard the footsteps approaching. Neither noticed the black robed figure standing near their feet, clearing their throat.

Until…

"Yes! I just won a hundred smackeroos!"

At the sound of the victorious shout, Max and Liz abruptly stopped their war. Max whipped his head around to see Gabe's fair, excited face flushed with triumph staring over the shoulder of…

Eyes widening, Max's mouth opened in surprise. "Holy sh…"

Liz clamped her hand over Max's mouth effectively shoving back the curse he'd begun to utter. Stifling a giggle, Liz's beaming smile greeted their visitor. "So, I see you found us."

A withering gaze swept over Max as he remained in full body contact with Liz, frozen by a host of memories. "I have." She gave Max a knowing look. "And apparently some things never change…"

Making no attempt to move from under Max, Liz nodded toward him. "I know Max being your new boss will be a bit of a switch for the two of you." Gaze shifting to Max's still stunned face, Liz could barely contain her pleasure at Max's growing unease as she watched his face grow paler with each word she spoke. "Max, this is a nun over at Our Lady of Perpetual Hope and…she's going to be your new assistant. Her name is Sister Mary Margaret, but…from what I hear…you already know that..."

Tbc…

posted on 20-Jul-2002 10:23:48 AM by Ashton
Hey all!

Sorry this took so long to get to you. I've been having issues with my arm hurting so it's kinda hard to type when it does. Anyway, I know this skips ahead a bit, but I will be going back and explaining about the Max/SMM connection. A lot of the next chpt is already done so hopefully it'll be out soon. *happy* As always thanks sooo very much for your support! I hope you enjoy!!! PLEASE let me know what you think! I love getting your feedback!! *happy*

Hugs,
Ashton

p.s. if anyone needs back chpts, they can join my egroup at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/AMDreamerFanfiction

~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 13 ~

Later that evening…


"I can't believe he actually knew the nun." Sydney commented between chuckles.

"Oh, I know! A stroke of pure coincidence that is sooo going to work to my advantage." Liz explained, her eyes bright with laughter. "And I'm telling you, Syd…I've never seen anyone move so fast. That is, once he realized he was trapped, of course. He literally jumped away from me like I was a leper or something."

The knock on the door interrupted a fit of combined giggles.

"I'll get it." Sydney jumped up from her seat on the sofa and headed toward the door tossing Liz a grin over her shoulder. "You know…since you've had **such** a rough day and all."

"Hey!" Liz tossed a pillow at Sydney as payback for her last comment. She missed by a mile.

There was a moment of hushed tones at the door. Liz tried to recognize the voice of their visitor but it wasn't until seeing Gabe's innocent face that anything registered with her. She instantly sat up straight, concern etching her voice. "Gabe? What are you doing here? Is something wrong?"

Rushing forward in his overly dramatic way, Gabe nodded his fair head. "Oh, Rachel. I just…I just can't concentrate on anything since this afternoon. I couldn't eat a bite at dinner. I was so afraid you were mad at me. And I just **had** to explain what happened about the money and the bet and all of that…"

"Oh." Liz cast a wary, apprehensive glance in Sydney's direction. That was the one part of the day Liz hadn't bothered to mention to her overly curious roommate. Immediately trying to head off a tidal wave of questions she was sure Sydney would certainly have waiting for her, Liz began to shake her head at Gabe. She waved her hands dismissively in the air. "Really, Gabe, that's…that's not necessary."

"Oh, but it is, Rachel." Gabe plopped down on the couch next to Liz, his earnest gaze fixed worriedly on her face. "I just feel so…awful about the whole situation. I mean, you were totally right. None of us have any business prying into your relationship with Max…"

"Gabe. Really. That's quite enough." Liz hurriedly cut him off before anything else incriminating could escape. Especially since she saw Sydney's face light up with a bright grin at the mention of Max's name. Seeing the white envelope in his hand, Liz's next statement was a pointed attempt at changing subjects. "Is uh…is that for me?"

Gabe looked down at the envelope she indicated. "Oh. Yeah." He handed it to her. "This was put on my desk for you. Not sure who left it."

Liz eyed the envelope suspiciously before her gaze snapped back up to Gabe's inquiringly. "You're…not…sure." The tone of her voice was clearly disbelieving. Rolling her eyes, Liz pointed the envelope in the air at Gabe as an accusatory eyebrow raised. "And I'll just bet that's what Max Evans paid you to say, right?"

Gabe's innocent gaze became confused. "Mr. Evans? Uh…no. He was still in his…" Liz's eyebrow raised even higher. Gabe cleared his throat and corrected the possessive pronoun. "…**your**…office when it was delivered."

Liz's brows furrowed. "He was?"

"Yeah. In fact, he'd called me in to ask about the invitee list for the project." Gabe continued to explain. "When I returned to my desk…it was there."

Liz began to investigate the envelope a little more closely. The handwriting on the top wasn't Max's. She pursed her lips in thought. "Was anyone else around?"

"Nope. I tried to see who might have delivered it. Practically asked the entire office. No one had a clue."

Sydney's face split into a grin and her voice lowered tauntingly. "Ohhh, looks like Rache has a secret admirer."

"Secret, my foot." Gabe commented with a near snort. "Now that I think about it, he could have always had someone else deliver it. In fact, I'd bet double or nothing my winnings today that it **was** from Mr. Evans."

Liz let out an exasperated growl. "Gabe! You did NOT win the bet! There was absolutely **nothing** going on between me and Mr. Evans today!"

"Oh, I don't know, Rachel." Sydney piped up at the crestfallen look on Gabe's face. "Apparently something happened to make Gabe here so obviously distressed over the uh…" Turning to Gabe, Sydney placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "…what did you say it was again that you wanted to explain?"

"About the bet."

"The bet."

"Honestly, it's not that big of a…" Liz's hasty interruption wasn't allowed to be completed.

"Yeah." Gabe nodded emphatically toward Sydney, glad to have at least one pair of willing ears to talk to. "The one that practically the entire office is involved in."

"Really? The entire office?" Sydney grinned at Liz from over Gabe's shoulder. "So, uh…what exactly is this bet? I just might want to get in on it."

Casting Liz an uncertain glance, Liz's assistant turned to Sydney and began hesitantly. "Well, you see…there's been a bet going as to how long it would take for Rachel and Max to be uh…well, caught in a…" Gabe's face colored appropriately as he lowered his voice to a hushed whisper. "…compromising position."

An eyebrow raised as Sydney's laughing eyes flicked to Liz. "A compromising position?"

Letting out an exasperated sigh, Liz rolled her eyes. "Oh for heaven's sake, Gabe. We were not in a compromising position."

Hand to chest, Gabe gasped as if Liz had committed a horrendous sin. Then the inquisition began. "Were you or were you not lying on the floor?"

"Well…yes, but…"

"Was or was not Mr. Evans lying on top of you?"

"Yes, Gabe, but you have it all…"

"Were you or were you not rolling around together?"

"That's only because…"

Anticipating her excuse, Gabe asked her directly. "Was he or was he not tickling you?"

Liz let out an exasperated sigh and ran her fingers through her hair in frustration. Her voice began to gain in decibels. "Yes, Gabe. Which is **why** we were on the floor rolling around! We were just playing! It was completely innocent!"

Gabe chuckled. "Oh, you were playing alright. In fact, I believe the proper term Sister Mary Margaret used was 'foreplay'."

"Sister Mary Margaret…" Liz was desperately trying to keep her voice even and calm. She was failing miserably. "…simply walked in at the wrong time."

"Oh, I think not." Glancing at Sydney with a significant look, Gabe lowered his voice conspiratorially. "Any longer and we would be dealing with an entirely different bet altogether."

"Oh, really?" The accusatory laughter in Sydney's eyes did not go unnoticed by Liz.

Gabe nodded emphatically. "In fact, there are about four different bets involving Max, Rachel and…" Gabe wiggled his eyebrows. "…extra-cirricular activities."

"Alrighty. I think we've heard enough for one day…" Deciding it was way past time to end Gabe's little confession session, Liz stood up and clasped her hands in front of her. Gabe took her cue and began to rise as well. Sydney pulled him back down onto the couch.

"So, these bets…" Sydney leaned toward Gabe and egged him on with an encouraging smile. "What exactly are the details…"

Throwing her hands up, Liz let out a growl of frustration. "Fine. Fine. Be that way. I'm soo not going to stick around and listen to this." Flipping her hair behind her shoulders, she held up her anonymously sent note. "**I** have better things to do than discuss non-existent relationships and bets that will never be won!"

Gabe and Sydney watched as Liz flounced out of the room before turning to each other with a knowing smile. Sydney wiggled her eyebrows. "Sister Mary Margaret actually called it foreplay?"

Chuckling, Gabe nodded his head. "You should have seen Mr. Evans' reaction to **that** one…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The restless blue eyes roamed the majestic mountain peaks as the sun's last rays cast a softening glow over the entire countryside. One more day had passed. One less day he would live.

There was still so much to do before the end…

Darian Wolfe let out a weary sigh before turning from the window to slowly edge his way toward the elegant chair sitting scorchingly close to the roaring fire. He paused, his breathing labored. He was instantly surrounded by two massive bodyguards, one on each side supporting him as he progressed forward. Part time keepers, part time sentry, they each had a weapon well hidden under the black suit coats.

Darian sank into his chair as his tired eyes drifted closed. A knock on the door didn't change his expression. The command was given and a guard moved to quickly fulfil the request.

The click of the door opening, the shuffling of feet and the air rattling in the old man's lungs were the only sounds in the room. A disheveled man scooted his way in front of the ancient and with hands clasped behind his back, he bowed his head reverently...waiting.

"Well?"

Head remaining bowed, the lackey's eyes never raised from the new scuffs on his old shoes. "It is done."

"You are sure it is her?"

"Aye."

"Where was it delivered?"

"Her office."

"When?"

"This afternoon, my lord."

"And the child?"

"No sign of her. Or of her keeper." Came the quiet answer.

"Continue the search. Immediately advise me of Ms. Parker's reaction upon receiving the message."

"Aye."

He waved an ancient hand in the air. "You may go."

As soon as the door was closed behind the lackluster servant, a figure stepped out of the shadows to address Darian Wolfe. "How long will you play this game if it is, in fact, Liz Parker you have found?"

"Until I'm tired of seeing her squirm." Came the hushed reply. "Until I feel she has suffered…as much as me."

"Is that even possible?"

Piercing blue eyes opened to meet those of his inquisitor. "No. But who ever said that I can't try?"

One silent nod was his answer. "What about the child?"

"We need her so she will be unharmed. She has what I require."

"And McKenna. Does she too know the plan?"

A wry smile touched the old man's lips. "McKenna knows nothing except her own selfish desires. As such, she's just another pawn in my game of revenge. Her hatred of Liz Parker serves me well, so I feed it. Her desire for Max Evans…equally meets my purposes. I allow her to believe her dreams will be realized because that makes her a loyal, pliable subject." Blue eyes turned to steel. Voice hardened icily. "The second she steps out on her own, I shall have no more need of her. As with all who fall under the Code, death is the punishment for betrayal."

"Yes, my lord." Another understanding nod. "Do you require anything else this evening?"

"Yes." A slight nod of his graying head and final command. "Bring prototype A for her lessons. I want her to be ready when it comes time to destroy Liz Parker and Max Evans."

"Yes, my lord." One last bow and Nathaniel Carter, former member of the Stars, slipped out of the room to deliver his master's latest command.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Much later that night…


Her nerves were on edge. Her senses, on over-drive.

The bright light cut through the dense darkness of her bedroom as it swung around before disappearing. She tensed, forcing her body to remain as still as possible, as her ears strained to carefully listen. Waiting. Holding her breath. Wondering whose footsteps were falling on the crisp ground below her window.

The prowler eased pass her window moving along the backside of the apartment building in the general direction of the French doors that would allow access to the apartment's living room. Silently as she could, she slipped from her bed and inched her way toward her bedroom door. Slipping through the narrow opening, she hesitated only a moment in the doorway before inching her way into the hallway, past her roommate's room then on to the living room.

Staying in the shadows, her steady hands never once fumbled when she reached under a shelf on the bookcase to find the gun tucked safely out of the way. She checked it. A bullet was in the chamber. Eyes focused on the un-accosted French doors, she inched past the kitchen toward the front door. Quietly unlatching it, she eased her way through, closing it with a soft click behind her.

She covered the perimeter of the apartment building in a matter of a few silent moments. Pausing at the corner she flattened herself against the building, her gun ready, her breath held in anticipation.

There was the soft sound of metal against metal. She risked taking a glance around the corner. Her fears were confirmed. The figure dressed in all black wasn't content to remain a mere prowler. At that moment, the lock on the French doors to her apartment was being picked. By a professional.

That much, she could tell.

If there had been any doubt, it was erased with the ease and swiftness in which the task was accomplished. Through the mouth of the ski mask, she could make out a faintly conceited smile of arrogance.

Every muscle tensed in her body and her finger slipped over the trigger of her gun as the gloved hand belonging to the would be intruder curled around the door knob. The knob slowly turned. Her hands gripped the gun so tightly her knuckles turned white. With aching slowness the door began to open. She counted to three. One. Two. Three...

Stepping boldly from her hiding place, Sydney Bristow leveled a command that the gun in her steady, trained hands backed up with no room for question. "Remove your hand from the handle or I'll remove it for you."

The startled figure immediately held his hands up in the air and slowly turned to face Sydney. The dark eyes shining through the two holes in his black mask gauged her warily a moment before attempting conversation. "What we obviously have here is a case of…"

"Breaking and entering?" Sydney offered casually as she inched her way forward, her ever vigilant gaze constantly gauging his every move. "I agree."

A half smile curled his lips upward. "Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of mistaken intentions."

"Mistaken?" Sydney's eyebrow rose. "Oh, I don't know. Seems your intentions are very clear." Though her gaze didn't move, she noticed the silent movement of another agent coming from behind the intruder. She recognized him immediately. He nodded to her. She kept the intruder talking.

He didn't seem to mind. As a foot inched ever so slightly toward the door, the man in black spoke again. "From your vantage point, I'm sure they do. However, I feel I need to clarify." One more slight move. "You see…I have every intention of getting inside that apartment for purely altruistic reasons. And you…"

"Intend to stop you cold if you take one more step toward that door." Sydney finished for him. Her accomplice was only inches away from the intruder now. His gun was raised to strike.

"Actually…" In one swift move, the masked man slammed his elbow into the gut of the man who had crept up behind him and grabbed the hand that held the gun aloft. Snapping the agent's arm downward against his knee, he swiftly disarmed the agent in an alarming matter of seconds before spinning on him. Then, with a knee to the groin and an upward jab to the agent's chin, he knocked him out cold.

Whirling back to face Sydney, the man leveled the gun at Sydney's heart while flashing her a brilliant smile. "You're going to be a gracious hostess and let me in."

"You're government." The deduction was made after watching the moves he'd used to down a trained, armed agent. Without breaking a sweat.

Tilting his head to the side in acknowledgement, he made an observation of his own. "So are you." Lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, the man made a statement that surprised Sydney. "No need to report the little incident with bozo back here." He indicated the agent behind him. "I'm sure it would not only be a little embarrassing to him, but to you as well."

"To me." Sydney repeated as her eyebrow rose in interest.

He nodded. "Yeah, I wouldn't think your superiors would be too thrilled to know you willingly put yourself in a situation where at least three high powered rifles were trained on you at one time."

Sydney followed his nod behind her toward a large tree on the perimeter of the apartment complex to catch a glimpse of a man disappearing behind the tree. Her eyes quickly scanned the rest of the trees lining the property. A glint of shiny black metal alerted her to the position of the second gunman. She never did find the third.

He spoke again, his voice droll and bored, his shrug nonchalant. "My men. They follow my orders only. Which mean that you're safe…as long as you do as I say."

"What branch are you?" Sydney asked, for the first time a level of recognition flickering across her mind. "Actually…just skip that. Who the hell are you?"

"A visitor who wants nothing more than five peaceful minutes inside." He answered coolly.

Sydney rejected his enigmatic reply by cocking her gun. Her voice was firm. "Who are you?"

The man remained silent, seemingly weighing his options.

Finally, he let out a sigh of defeat and lowered the gun he'd taken from the agent still lying on the ground behind him, completely dead to the world. "I'm the guy that's been driving your roommate crazy the last few days." He quickly removed his mask to reveal the handsome face of a stranger Sydney instantly recognized.

"Max Evans?"

A genuine smile broke out on his face and he actually began to chuckle. "I see she's mentioned me."

Sydney nodded, her eyes widening in awe. It wasn’t every day you meet a legend. It wasn't every legend that was as yummy as the man standing in front of her. From his toned physique to the startlingly beautiful eyes of his, Sydney Bristow was duly impressed. How Liz Parker could resist such a…hunk… Especially when said hunk was obviously in vigorous pursuit. Well, it was certainly beyond Sydney's comprehension.

She shrugged casually trying to mask her growing fascination of the would be intruder standing before her. "She's mentioned something about a lunatic…"

Another flashing smile and a slight bow of acknowledgement. "I get that a lot."

Sydney bit back a smile. "So what exactly are you doing here? And why were you trying to break in? Was knocking on the front door a little too difficult for you?"

Max's grin disappeared. His moment of gallant charm had passed. Her question had sharply brought back to him the reason for his visit. "Actually, I wanted to check on Rachel."

"Check on her." Sydney repeated, her expression suddenly shadowing with seriousness. "Why? Is there a reason…" Her question ended abruptly as her eyes scanned the trees once more before flicking back to meet Max's. Suddenly, puzzle pieces clicked into place. "Oh my God. You know, don't you?"

Max's face was unreadable. His words faintly clipped. "Know what?"

"And she has no idea that you know." Sydney continued, with awe in her voice.

Max shrugged, his steady gaze never once leaving Sydney's. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

Eyes narrowing warily, Sydney paused a moment trying to decide her next course of action. With the connections a multi-billionaire like Max must have not to mention his obvious covert background, it made sense that he would have the resources to find out what Liz Parker had had for breakfast on her birthday…when she was eight…if he wanted to. Of course, he would have found out about Liz's past with Chris.

After all, his friend, Alex, knew. And an inquiring mind like Max's wouldn't easily accept Liz just suddenly changing her name and location on a whim. He'd done research. He knew the truth. She could see it in the way he denied it…

Almost by silent agreement neither of them said the words out loud. They understood each other perfectly with one look. Taking a major risk that didn't feel all that risky, Sydney lowered her gun. "Are your men permanent fixtures now?"

"They work in shifts."

"Shadow her to work?"

Max lowered his gun as well. "Grocery store, gas station. Wherever she goes, they go too."

"For how long?"

"Since I found out she was here." Max answered quietly his gaze shifting to the apartment building. "Nice place. Thanks for giving her a home."

Sydney's heart instantly warmed at the tone of his voice. The regret that someone else was giving her what he could not. The gratefulness that Liz had at least one other person to lean on in her period of relative solitude. Sydney let out a sigh of contemplation. "She's going to hate this when she finds out."

"Then make sure she doesn't." Max responded in a voice that was much more like a command than a suggestion or even a request. Gaze wavering for the first time, Max swallowed hard. "How did she react to the anonymous note."

"How did you…"

Max's head snapped back up, concerned she'd think he had been the culprit. "I spoke to Gabe this evening. He told me he delivered one to her. I know it wasn't from me and given the fact no one is supposed to know she's here, well…"

Sydney nodded, his logic making perfect sense. "It wasn't good. She was ready to run."

Stuffing his hands into his pockets, Max's voice softened. "What made her stay?"

"You gave her a princess on her cowendar instead of a dragon." Sydney stated, alluding to Jaedan and Max's calendar project. Syd shrugged. "Maybe she couldn't resist seeing if you can do it again tomorrow." She paused, amazed by the light of hope that flashed through Max's dark eyes, then nodded toward the door. "Come on. Front door's open. I've got the note inside. Maybe you can make something out of it."

Max breathed a sigh of relief as he followed Sydney Bristow into the apartment. It would make things so much easier to have an accomplice on the inside. Though he got the distinct impression that Sydney was fiercely loyal to her roommate. She may have budged an inch just then, but that certainly didn't mean he had a reliable source. She'd protect Liz from anything and anyone…even him.

Which is precisely why he trusted her.

His eyes narrowed as he stared down at the note Sydney handed to them once they were inside. It was typed on standard typing paper. There was nothing out of the ordinary with the typeset. Nothing identifying about the style. The words were instantly confusing…and alarming.

The Code makes no exceptions. Remember the Massacre.

"She understood this, didn't she?" Max asked quietly.

"Oh, yeah. She understood." Sydney whispered back.

Max's eyes snapped up to meet Sydney's. "She tell you what this is about?"

Nodding Sydney's gaze shifted as she crossed her arms in front of her, a sudden shiver racing through her body. She swallowed hard and her face paled considerably in the shadows of the dark living room.

"That bad?"

Sydney nodded again.

Max pulled in a steadying breath as horrifying images raced through his mind. With her past, her ex husband…anything was possible. Once again he was overcome with an overwhelming rush of hate. Hate for a man he'd never met. For a man who killed with the snap of his fingers. Who destroyed with such callous disregard. Hate for a man who crushed the tenderest without one iota of regret.

He wouldn't crush Liz. Not this time.

Firm resolve replaced rampant fear. From Max's jacket pocket he quickly pulled out a small device that fit in his palm of his hand. Placing the note flat on the kitchen counter, he laid the black object at the top left hand corner and began to slowly run it across the page.

Instantly curious, Sydney leaned forward to watch the task in progress. "What is that?"

"Fingerprint scanner." Max answered softly, his eyes glued to the inch long screen that suddenly exploded with jagged lines.

"You're kidding. I didn't even know they had scanners like that."

"Latest in technology. We're talking prototype here." Max glanced up at Sydney's silence. He shrugged as a sheepish grin flashed over his expression. "It's amazing what money can buy."

A beep from the scanner instantly pulled Max's attention back to his task. Scanning the words popping up on the screen, Max let out a disappointed sigh. "Either this thing needs more R&D or Sydney Bristow, bank agent with Credit Dauphine, Los Angeles California is the person who sent this to her or…"

"They wore gloves."

Max looked back up at Sydney and nodded. "They wore gloves."

"Think this is from…"

Sydney raised an eyebrow, not venturing to say the dreaded name. Max shook his head. "I doubt it. But that doesn't mean he didn't have someone do it for him."

"Which means he knows where she is."

"Or he's guessing and this is a shot in the dark to get a reaction. If she runs, he knows he's got her. If not…" Replacing the scanner into his pocket, Max slipped the note back into its envelope and tucked it into his pocket for safe keeping. Sydney opened her mouth to protest. Max raised his hand to stop her. "I know the CIA has numerous resources. None of them match mine. If she asks what you found out, just tell her the Agency is checking on it. If I get anything, I'll let you know."

"How did you…but what if she didn’t ask me…what makes you think…"

Max genuinely grinned for the first time. "Bristow. As in Jack. He used to talk about his daughter, little Sydney, all the time. That is, when he did actually talk."

Sydney sank down onto a stool, her mouth gaping with surprise. Max continued, his eyes beginning to twinkle with amusement. "Given your parentage, his rank with the CIA and the fact you are also government, I just put two and two together. It comes up to an obviously accurate number four that spells out Sydney Bristow, secret agent for the CIA. As for knowing you'd be checking on this for her…I know her well enough to know that's about the only thing that would really make her stay instead of run." Max paused as a soft smile haunted his lips. "That, and her princess days."

"Now, if you don't mind, I just need to see with my own eyes that she's ok." Max started to step away from the counter when Sydney stopped him with a piercing question.

"Why don't you just tell her the truth? That you know about her. For that matter, why don't you tell her who you really are."

The quiet, thought reply came back with stunningly patient wisdom. "She makes me who I am now. And that's a world away from who I used to be. I need her to trust that enough to let go on her own." Max's eyes met Sydney's. "And she will. It's just going to take time. Until then, I think you and I both have reasons to keep this under our hats. Don't you agree?"

His pointed question caused Sydney's chin to jut out in resolve. "She won't hear it from me."

"Good." Nodding with satisfaction, Max turned and stealthily slipped toward Liz's room but not before tossing Sydney one last command. "Next time you see your dad, tell him Max Evans said that I'm only alive now because of what he taught me then."

Moments later, he paused a moment in her doorway, his eyes focused on the very treasure that was closest to his heart. Inching his way forward, Max noiselessly knelt by Liz's bed and hesitantly reached out to lightly touch her hair.

Max's heart broke at the picture before him.

Tear tracks stained her face. Her brows were scrunched up in disturbed sleep. Her arms were clutching the stuffed wolf Max had given her tightly to her chest. She shifted uneasily as her lips trembled against fearful dreams deep in her subconscious.

Shutting his eyes against the sight, Max rested his hand gently over hers and bowed his head. She instantly stilled. Her grip on the wolf relaxed slightly. She let out a sigh of relief. Max's eyes drifted back open as a hushed promise slipped through his lips. "I'm going to end this for you, sweetheart. I swear I will."

A soft smile claimed his lips as his eyes drifted to the calendar hanging over her night stand. The past two days had pencilled in smiling princesses. Softened gaze slipping back to Liz's face now full of peace, Max swallowed the lump in his throat. "Two down. A lifetime to go. And I'm going to do everything in my power to make every day a princess day. You deserve…nothing less."

Unable to resist the smell of her hair and the warm of her skin, Max cautiously leaned forward and brushed his lips against her smooth cheek. A whisper in her ear and Liz Parker's hand unconsciously held onto his. "Stick with me, honey. Stick with me and don't run. Please. Please don't turn your back on us. Not when I've only just begun to love you…"

A half an hour later, Sydney Bristow dialed a familiar number. The groggy voice answered. Sydney offered an eight word explanation for her rude interruption of sleep. "We've got a problem. We need to meet." Without waiting for a response, she hung up the phone then grabbed a blanket from the hall closet and headed toward Liz's room.

Standing a step inside the doorway, she halted in reverent awe once more at the sight that greeted her before silently unfolding the blanket and laying it over the still kneeling form of Max Evans. As he slept. Head on Liz's bed next to hers. Hand in hand with the woman he loved.

Tbc…

posted on 29-Jul-2002 7:38:27 AM by Ashton
Hey all!

Here's the next part! It's a long one. Definitely not one of the funnier chpts, but we'll be getting back to all of that really soon. *happy* Hope you enjoy and as always would LOVE to hear what you think!!!

Hugs,
Ashton
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 14 ~

"He knows." Sydney's worried pacing stopped abruptly as she turned to face Vaughn.

Wearily wiping the sleep from his eyes, Vaughn tried to stifle a yawn. "Ok." His tone was distracted and totally unconcerned.

"Vaughn." The sharpness of Sydney's tone caused Vaughn to sit up straight in his hard metal chair.

"Huh?" Shaking his head to wake himself, he tried his best to recall something…anything…of Sydney's jumbled, hasty explanation for the middle of the night meeting. There had been something about Liz and Max and a note. Beyond that, he wasn't quite sure why he was sitting on a cold, hard chair in the middle of a warehouse in his…

Vaughn groaned inwardly. He had his slippers on. His fuzzy, wuzzy bunny slippers. The ones his crazy Aunt Trish had given him for Christmas and made sure he wore each time he came to visit. She was visiting now. Apparently, she still thought he was six. Great going Mr. Secret Agent Man. Sooo totally not the way to make an impression.

Especially when Sydney looked as if she'd just walked out of a salon. Well…not exactly. No make up, hair slightly messed up, it was clear she’d had very little sleep. But despite all of that, she still had that glamorous 'thing' going for her. What he wouldn't love to see what she looked like after a night of mad, passionate…

"Vaughn. I swear if you don't start paying attention…"

"Right. Sorry." Recognizing Sydney 'don't mess with me' tone, Vaughn snapped to attention. "So, uh…you're saying Max knows about…"

Sydney let out an exasperated sigh. "Liz's past. Chris. The note. You name it, he knows it."

"And he's put guards on Liz?" Slowly coming alive, Vaughn's tone at least gave the impression he was finally picking up on the details.

"Yes."

"How many again?"

Sydney sat down on a chair opposite Vaughn. "Two that I saw. He said there were three. I have no reason to doubt him."

“Sounds like Liz Parker is quickly becoming the most guarded woman in LA.” Vaughn commented, a level of irritation edging his voice. He had always hated dealing with other agencies let alone arrogant multi-billionaires who felt they could make the world stop or start with just a snap of their fingers. But since he was Alex’s friend, not to mention a legend in his own right, Vaughn would try to deal with Max Evans on his terms.

Until those terms stepped on the wrong toes.

Running a hand through his already rumpled hair, Vaughn tried to focus once more on the immediate issue: Liz’s safety. "Ok. So, tonight…he just dropped by and tried to break in because…"

"He knew Liz had received the anonymous note." Sydney responded automatically as worry clouded her eyes.

"The note from Chris."

"We don't know.” Sydney corrected Vaughn with a shake of her head. “We don’t think so. I called when I was with Liz earlier and verified that Chris is safe and sound in his cell at the federal pen. So, even if he’s responsible, he’s not physically here to cause any danger to her." Swallowing hard, Sydney’s voice registered honest to goodness fear. "Frankly, that’s the only reason Liz isn’t on her way to a new identity tonight.”

“She’s positive this was related to Chris?”

Sydney nodded. “Oh, yes. Whoever sent that note, Vaughn, they know about her past. Because it…it certainly came from that time in her life." Sydney's eyes met Vaughn's. "Vaughn. She was seriously freaked. And I have to be honest…after what she told me tonight, I'm right there with her…"

A quick knock proceeded Sydney's entrance into Liz's room. "Liz, you'll never guess what Gabe was saying about Max…" Her chuckles instantly turned to a gasp. "Liz. What are you doing? What's…what's going on?"

Tears streaming down her face, Liz Parker was racing around her room, pulling clothes down from the closet and throwing them into suitcases lying open on her bed. "I'm…I'm sorry, Syd. I've…" Liz pulled open a dresser drawer and dug all of the clothes out before quickly spinning to the bed and dumping them unceremoniously in the suitcase. "…I've got to get out of here."

"Stop. Liz…talk to me." Sydney rushed forward, instant concern etched in her expression. "Liz, stop!"

She reached Liz just as she yanked a drawer completely out of the dresser, dumping it all over the floor. She let out a frustrated yell and sank to her knees as a million emotions tumbled over her and battled for control. Overwhelming fear was the clear winner. Liz bent her head, a flood of tears began shaking her entire body. Catapulted into action, Sydney dropped to her knees next to Liz and instantly pulled her into a hug. "Shh, Liz. It's going to be ok. Whatever it is, we'll figure something out. You've got so many people on your side…"

"I…I can't…" Liz's broken speech was barely discernable amidst the sobs echoing in the room. "…can't…put him…in…in danger. He'll…he'll kill…him. To teach me. He won't…won't forgive this. Especially since I…I…" The sentence was finished with new burst of tears.

"Liz." Shaking Liz gently by the shoulders, Sydney tried to get Liz's attention. "Liz. You have to calm down. You have to tell me what's going on so I can help."

Her only response was to thrust a sheet of paper into Sydney's hands.

Sydney read the words out loud. "The Code makes no exceptions. Remember the Massacre." Her gaze snapped up to Liz with alarm.

A shaky hand angrily swiped at the tears still flowing down her cheeks. Rocking back and forth, Liz’s gaze was unfocused. Her face was pale. She was still shaking uncontrollably.

Sydney attempted to get control of the situation. Covering Liz's hands with hers, her voice was gentle and calming. "Liz. What's this about? Is this…is this about Chris?"
Liz nodded before burying her head in her arms, a fresh waterfall of tears beginning.

For a woman used to running from whizzing bullets and disarming nuclear bombs, Sydney felt honest to goodness panic beginning to grip her. When she spoke, her voice was sharper than she intended. "Liz, you have to stop this right now. I can't help you unless you talk to me. And you can't talk unless you stop crying."

Whether it was her commanding tone or her words, something clicked with Liz. A few last sobs escaped as she valiantly wiped the tears from her face. She struggled to speak. "I'm sorry, Syd. I'm…I'm so very sorry. I…I have loved being here with you but…"

"You are not leaving, Liz." Sydney stated calmly as she rubbed Liz's arm reassuringly. Attempting to prompt a smile, Sydney made her first mistake. "Especially not with all the revenge plots you've planned for Max." Liz's lips quivered and her eyes instantly filmed over with new tears. Sydney quickly cut off the flood before it started. "Alright, let's forget Max right now."

Then, Liz Parker said something that surprised Sydney. Not for the implication of the statement, but for the admission itself. "I…can't forget him. He's the reason I…he's the reason I have to leave."

"Why?"

"Because…” Liz pulled in a shaky breath and tried again. “Because…"

Voicing the suspicion she'd harbored since the first time she'd heard Liz say his name, Sydney softly rendered her pronouncement. "You've fallen in love with him."

"No." Liz shook her head emphatically. Her lips tightened. "I have not. I **will** not."

"Liz, come on. It's obvious from today alone that you adore…"

Liz's tone hardened and her eyes became two black beads of resolve. "I had a good day today alright? Nothing more. It…" Her gaze wavered as her voice trailed off in a whisper. "…it can't be anything more."

"But what if it is?" Sydney asked gently.

Gaze snapping back to Sydney's face, Liz blinked suddenly. "You deal with 'what if' scenarios every day, don't you?" Sydney nodded once. "Well, I have one for you. What if you’re right? What if this thing between Max and me is the beginning of something…more? What if Max and I do it all. We fall in love, we get married, have kids of our own…the whole bit."

"Sounds good so far."

"Right." Liz nodded once, then continued the version of her future she feared most. “So, what if say, five or ten years from now, Max and I are still together, in love and happy with our little family. And what if Chris finds out his wife is living with another man."

"His wife…living with another man.” Sydney repeated slowly, Liz’s chosen words creating a flash of confusion in Sydney’s expression. “Liz, you make it sound like you'd be cheating on Chris."

Voice deathly low, Liz’s eyes met Sydney’s with meaning. "According to the Code, I would be.”

“That’s insane.”

A wry, sickened smile touched Liz’s lips. “That’s my ex-husband.”

“But…” Pushing her chestnut hair behind her ears, Sydney shook her head. “…Liz, he'd have no legal rights…"

"Laws don't matter to those who live by the Code." Liz shot back heatedly. "To them, I'm his wife until death parts us. Period. I'm his…possession…until I draw my last breath. If I dishonor my husband…in any way…the penalty is…" Liz broke off, unable to say the words.

"What, Liz? What is the penalty?"

Squeezing her eyes shut, Liz forced the words out of her mouth. "Death. Max first. Execution style. After he'd tortured him for daring to touch me. I'd be made to watch." She swallowed hard and pulled in a shaky breath. "And our children? I'd never set eyes on them again. He'd take Jaedan and…crush her spirit." Her voice faded to a whisper. "Just like he did mine."

Running her fingers through her hair, Liz licked her parched lips before continuing. "And as for my children with Max, he might spare their lives because they're just kids, but if he did, he'd only sell them to the highest bidder and they would never know they had two parents who loved them and never wanted to let them go." Liz's eyes opened as she asked the question she knew Sydney was thinking. "How can I be so sure?"

Her voice was even; her gaze distant. It was as if she were on automatic pilot, reciting a story told time and time again. Sydney would have never guessed she was the first person Liz Parker ever told this particular secret to. “I had been commissioned to write a musical score for a movie. The title of one of the songs was The Massacre. It was one of my more difficult pieces and I spent quite a bit of time in the studio on our property working on it.”

Leaning back against the wall, Liz pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms protectively around herself. “Chris was gone a lot at the time on business trips. I was actually…happy. If you can call it that. For the first time since marrying him, I was relatively alone. The servants and guards were around, but they didn’t bother me in the studio. They knew the truth of my situation and tried to help any way they could without putting themselves in jeopardy. As a result, I was able to do what I loved.” A faint bittersweet smile haunted Liz’s lips. “I painted. Created music. I found inspiration…whenever Chris was gone.”

A stillness filled the room. Sydney didn’t move a muscle knowing the story was far from over. Liz seemed lost in her thoughts as her eyes glazed over with guilt and pain. Until she unexpectedly introduced a new character into her tale.

“His name was Adrian. He was a sweet, young kid. Had an encouraging word for everyone he met. Always very helpful and courteous. He was awed by…everything. The fact he was working for the great Christopher Santoro.” A smile of sarcasm turned to one of remembrance. “Awed by how many shades of blue could be used on a single canvass. He was even awed by me. By my music. My paintings. He'd come into the studio sometimes just to hear me practice. You see, Adrian wanted to be a musician. He loved music…so very much. I’ve never seen anyone with such a thirst for a tune. And he was good. Very talented. Even helped me through a very difficult bridge on my piece.”

Eyes brightening with tears, Liz swallowed the lump that was lodged in her throat. “I swear to you…not one moment we spent together, not one word or even one glance between us was ever inappropriate. He was simply…my friend. A young man who didn’t know enough about the real world to see the truth behind all of the lies surrounding him. I never told him anything about the horror of being Chris’ wife. I wanted one part of my life to be simple and honest and true…”

Like a song building to a grand crescendo, there was a pause. A rest. A moment of silence only broken by the steady drumbeat of the ticking clock.

Until Sydney’s horrified whisper shimmered in the room. “What…happened?”

Liz shifted uncomfortably and pulled her knees even tighter to her chest. Her clasped knuckles began turning white with the fierceness of her grasp. “Chris came home from a trip early one time to find Adrian and myself in the studio working on a song together. He went…stark raving mad. The guards were called to haul Adrian away for a time where Chris could attend to him personally. Later I found out Adrian had been buried…without his fingers. Chris had them all cut off…as a warning to others to never touch me…his property...ever again."

Sydney's gasp echoed in the room and sent a shudder through Liz. She swallowed hard. "That night…that night after taking Adrian away…Chris turned his attention to his cheating, slut of a wife.” Liz’s eyes drifted closed as the memory began to chill her. “That’s what he called me. For an innocent friendship with a boy that wouldn’t hurt a fly, I had been denounced as…unclean.” The brief pause emphasized Liz’s nightmare. Her hushed whisper chilled the room. “He spent the rest of the night teaching me what happens when a wife breaks the Code. When a wife…dishonors her husband.”

“Oh, God, Liz…”

Brushing away tears that had trickled down her face, Liz continued, her voice hard with hatred. “It took me a week to recover enough to get out of bed. By that time, it was all over. There was no sign of Adrian. No hint he had ever existed. Except…” Her chest hitched with unshed tears as her lips quivered. “…I heard…the servants’ whispers. And when I…when I…was finally able to slip away unseen, I headed to the one place they’d all…mentioned."

"The studio walls…my…piano…the pure white…sheets of music…we had worked on together…” Covering her face with her hands, Liz’s broken speech made it hard to understand her. Despite that, Sydney got the picture. “…everything was stained…with Adrian’s…blood…”

Despite the bile rising in Sydney’s throat, she was by Liz’s side in an instant, attempting to wrap her arm around her shoulders. Unwilling to accept anyone's comfort, Liz pushed herself off the floor and began to pace as she wiped away resentful tears. Sydney watched her in stunned silence until Liz felt controlled enough to continue.

Which took a few moments. Moments in which Liz felt the weight of the memory bearing down on her with increasing pain and guilt. Not just for the past, though that was horrible in and of itself. But for the present as well. The burden of current decisions and how they would effect the future of so many lives weakened her knees as she unconsciously sank down on her bed. Absently picking up the stuffed wolf Max had given her, Liz clutched it to her chest, closed her eyes and breathed in Max's scent as it still lingered in the soft fur.

It triggered a new memory. A recent one. One that was happy and…completely unexpected. But to understand the significance, Liz needed to finish her tale. Pulling in a deep breath, she swallowed hard and finally continued. "I never went back to the studio again. I never wrote another piece of music. In all of these years…nothing." Liz's eyes shifted to meet Sydney's. "Until today."

"Today." Sydney repeated as realization began to light her eyes.

"We were in the office. We weren't…even talking." A faint smile touched her lips as Liz remembered the exact moment the music entered her head. "He…glanced up at me. Our eyes met and…he smiled. The song started…right at that moment." A helpless shrug was Liz's response. "He…gave me…a princess day. Just like he does for Jaedan. It felt…so good. But it's so wrong."

"Liz…"

"He'll die, Sydney." Liz's voice hardened once more. "If I don't stop him, I won't be able to stop…me." The pause before she repeated herself emphasized the one truth Liz Parker knew. "The Code makes no exceptions. I've been warned. If I don't stop…because of me…Max Evans will die..."


Growing concerned with Sydney's silence, Vaughn finally spoke. "Syd. Are you ok?"

There was a pause. "It's just…so sad. To be so terrified to love someone. Knowing with just one wrong move, if the wrong people found out, you might be forced to watch the person you love…die."

The parallel between Sydney's past and Liz's present weren't lost on Vaughn. For that matter, the irony of his own situation was glaringly obvious. He loved her…Sydney Bristow. He'd known it for a while now and had ceased trying to deny it, at least to himself, months ago. But he would never let her know. He'd never risk putting her in that kind of danger. He'd never let on just how desperately he wanted to say the three words that so many people in the world take for granted.

Living in a world of danger simply didn't allow for casual 'I love you's'.

Vaughn knew that. Sydney Bristow knew that. Liz Parker knew that. It seemed…Max Evans still had that to learn.

"So, how did you get her to calm down?" Vaughn asked quietly, his searching gaze fixed on Sydney's face. Wherever she had just traveled in her mind, it hadn't been pleasant. Knowing Sydney, she would tell him…if she could. So, Vaughn could only assume the silence that had gripped her had to do with Liz's dilemma and not her own tragic past.

"I gave her a sleeping pill. She'll be dead to the world for hours."

A flicker of worry raced through Vaughn's eyes at Sydney's soft answer. "Sleeping pill."

Nodding, Sydney tucked her hair behind her ears. "I had some left over from right after Danny…"

Vaughn's gaze dropped at the mention of Sydney's murdered fiance'. "Oh."

Shifting uncomfortably, Sydney cleared her throat and attempted to move past the painful subject of her finance's murder. And how her innocent lack of judgement caused it. "So, she agreed to stay put for a few days to see if anything else comes up. If it does, she's out of here. But until then…"

"Right." Vaughn nodded, relieved to be back on solid thinking ground. "So, where's Max now?"

"I left him with Liz."

"Why? Are they talking…"

"He's asleep."

"Asleep." Vaughn repeated.

Sydney's expression softened as her eyes met Vaughn's. "He wanted to make sure she was ok so he went in to check on her. When I went in to check on them, they were both asleep." A small smile flitted over Sydney's lips. "He was holding her hand."

"Great way to keep watch." Vaughn commented with a note of sarcasm.

Sydney's eyes snapped with irritation. "Look. I don't know what your problem is with him…"

"My problem is…" Vaughn's voice tensed. "…if Max Evans loves her as much as everyone keeps claiming he does, and if he knows the truth about her past and how dangerous this is for her, then he wouldn't be pursuing her so openly. You don't knowingly put someone you love in danger. You just don't."

"He just wants to be with her, Vaughn. What is so wrong with that?"

"We don't always get what we want, Syd." Vaughn's lips tightened into a thin line as his hazel eyes met hers meaningfully. "Not by a long shot. And it's pretty damn arrogant of him to think he can."

Sydney swallowed hard, her gaze shifting uncomfortably. When she spoke, her voice was full of emotion. "Arrogant or not, right or wrong, at least he's going for what he wants. He's not letting fear rule his heart."

"He should be." Vaughn shot back without hesitation.

Sydney's eyes raised to meet his, the hurt his reaction caused was obvious. "I'm sorry you feel that way, Michael." Rising from her chair, Sydney quickly grabbed her purse her eyes never once leaving his. "You have no idea just how sorry I am…"

With that quiet denouncement, Sydney Bristow turned and left a stunned Michael Vaughn sitting in the middle of a warehouse with a racing heart and a head full of explosive questions.

And a rare sense of…awed contentment.

For the first time since knowing him, Sydney Bristow had called him by his first name.
~~~~~~~~~~~
The door opened after the second knock.

Sydney slipped inside without a word. Her father closed and locked the door behind her. It wasn't until they'd both moved into his sparse living room that either of them spoke. Brown eyes raised to meet his. "Thanks for seeing me. I know it's late…"

Stiff and unemotional, Jack Bristow's words were clipped as he ignored his daughter's gratitude. He handed her a packet. "This is highly classified information. No one is to know you have it. Not even Vaughn."

Sydney nodded in understanding as her eyes dropped to the benign packet in her hands. "He said something about you training him."

"Yes." Jack answered quietly. "He was the best I've ever seen for his age. Rose through the ranks even faster than you." He paused. "We lost a great man when we lost Max Evans."

"Lost?" Sydney's eyes edged with confusion. "You make it sound like he died or something."

"In a way, he did. As far as the Agency is concerned, Max Evans never existed." Her father continued, his voice taking on a level of urgency. "Sydney." Sydney's eyes met his. "If your friend cares anything about her little girl…anything at all…tell her to stay as far away from Max Evans as she possibly can..."

"Why?" Sydney's voice sharpened in worry.

"Page forty-two should answer that question."

Sydney quickly flipped through the pages till they fell open to the page her father indicated. Scanning the words quickly, her eyes widened. "Oh my God."

"Max Evans has my highest respect, Sydney. Even my friendship. And I think you know how rare that is." Her father spoke slowly, deliberately. It was the way he spoke when emotions were rising to the surface that he was desperately trying to keep under control. "I wish he could love free and easily without fear. But…" Nodding to the time bomb of information in Sydney's hands, Jack's eyes met hers. "…right there is the reason he never will."

Stuffing the papers back into their folder, Sydney flipped her hair behind her shoulders. "I've got to tell Liz."

"No." Jack's one word negative and the restraining hand on her arm stopped her from making any rash decisions. "No, Sydney, you can't. You have no idea what kind of trouble it could cause."

"Dad…what am I supposed to do with this? How can I let her fall in love with Max when…"

Worry flashed in Jack's eyes. "Is it that serious?"

"From what I've seen so far…" Sydney nodded. "…yes. I really think so, Dad."

Jack's lips tightened as his mind obviously began to whirl. A few brief moments of silence, then Jack's gaze met hers again. "Leave it to me."

"But…"

"I'll talk to him." Jack explained curtly. "Maybe I can help him see the danger of going forward. If he really loves her then…he'll let her go."

Sydney hung her head. "What a waste."

"What is?"

"So much love…all around us…" Sydney felt a tear trickle down her face. It was as much for herself as it was for Liz. Her words echoed the deepest wishes of her own heart. "No one's willing to risk it all to have it all."

"The person who has it all, Sydney…has the most to lose."

Sydney's gaze met her father's. "But at least they'll lose knowing they took the chance…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"She is such a delight." Diane Evans handed Angel a cup of coffee before sitting down next to Phillip on the couch.

"Yes, she is." Angel smiled and took a sip of the hot brown liquid before adding a comment that prompted chuckles from her host and hostess. "She's also quite a handful."

"Well, Max adores her." Phillip commented with a smile as he wrapped an arm around Diane's shoulder. "And we can both see why."

"And she adores him right back." Angel commented with a smile. She let out a sigh and settled back into the soft cushions that surrounded her. "You have no idea how good it feels to share all of this with someone. Your son has been wonderful…about so many things."

"You mean Liz." Diane stated with a knowing smile.

"Yeah, Liz has been…" Pursing her lips, Angel tried to find a more delicate word then settled on the one that really described Liz Parker. "…difficult, to say the least."

"All the more reason our son loves her, I would say." Phillip commented. "Max has rarely ever taken the easy way out of anything. And he's always loved a challenge. Though I've not met her yet, I am certainly looking forward to it. From what Diane says she's definitely a match for Max. Unlike…"

Diane's sharp glance in Phillip's direction and his abrupt silence wasn’t lost on Angel. She looked from one to the other. "Unlike who?"

Phillip and Diane shared a look before Diane let out a sigh as she turned to Angel. "Unlike McKenna. She was Max's fiancee'."

Angel blinked at the newest piece of information. "His fiancee'."

"It was years ago." Phillip began to answer the questions immediately popping up in Angel's mind. "Diane and I were never all that comfortable with the girl. In fact, we really thought it was all the result of a rebellious phase Max was going through. I'm firmly convinced it would have never lasted if…" As Phillip's voice trailed off, Diane reached for his hand and squeezed it reassurance.

"What happened?" Remembering her last in depth conversation, Angel's eyes darkened with curiosity as she leaned forward.

"She was killed." Diane answered softly. "Max blames himself."

"It wasn't his fault." Phillip stated stubbornly. "Not a bit of it. It was a mission gone wrong and they tried to pin the blame on him. But we know our son. We trust what his team told us. He wasn’t responsible."

"We just wish Max knew that." Diane offered quietly as her eyes met those of her husband.

"How…long ago did she die?" Angel asked suddenly.

"About five, six years ago." Diane answered her gaze resting on Angel curiously. "Why?"

Angel shrugged, her mind instantly shifting into overdrive. "I just…I thought Liz had said something about her, but I guess I misunderstood."

"Really." One of Phillip's bushy brows raised. "Max actually talked to Liz about McKenna?"

"Oh, I'm not sure how much they've discussed it." Angel answered quickly with a shake of her head. "In fact, I'm not even sure if Liz knows her name…"

"Grandnanny." A tiny voice drifted down from the balcony above where the three adults were sitting.

Angel immediately looked up to see Jaedan's face stuck between two of the bars in the railing. It was obvious she'd been crying as she hugged Boo Boo Bear to her chest with one arm. "Honey, what are you doing up?"

"I's had a night ga'lp cuz there's monst'rs under my bwed." Jaedan answered as a pout formed on her lips and her wide, dark eyes gazed down at them imploringly. "Can I call Max? Pwretty pwlease?"

"Sweetheart, it's really late…"

Recognizing the note of 'no' in Angel's voice, Jaedan's eyes began to tear up and her lips began to quiver. "But Max's the on'y one who can make my monst'rs go 'way."

"Let me take care of this." Phillip immediately jumped to the rescue. He got up from the couch and headed toward the stairs. "You say there's monsters under your bed, huh?"

Sitting on the landing, Jaedan turned to face the stairs as Phillip ascended. She nodded vigorously as she rubbed her eyes sleepily. "Uh-huh. It's a bwrand new monst'r. She's all scawry with horns and a big, long, ugly tail."

"She?" Phillip inquired as he reached Jaedan and knelt to her level.

"Uh-huh." Another nod of her head and her long dark curls bounced against her Winnie the Pooh jammies. "She's weally mean and she wants Mr. Prince Charming to follow her into a big, black cave."

"She does?" Phillip asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Uh-huh. And I's scared." Her tiny feet sticking out from under jammie pant legs began to move back and forth. Her large dark eyes plead with Phillip as she hugged her stuffed bear to her heart. "Can I call Max? Pwlease? He knows howta get wride of my monst'rs. He makes 'em all go bye-bye."

"What's this?" Phillip reached out and tousled Jaedan's hair. "You don't think Papa can make the monsters go bye-bye just like Max?"

Jaedan bit down on her lower lip uncertainly as she innocently blinked up at him. "Do ya weally fink ya can?"

Phillip's smile was wide and warm. "Of course, I can. Who do you think made all of Max's monsters go bye-bye when he was your age?"

Jaedan's steady gaze never left his as she answered Phillip's question in all seriousness. "Nana."

Angel and Diane burst into laughter as Phillip's face fell. Before she had a chance to blink, Jaedan was swept up in Phillips strong arms and heading straight to the nearest phone to call her Mr. Prince Charming…
~~~~~~~~~~
"You want me to do what?" McKenna's voice raise almost an entire octave.

Kyle shrugged, unfazed. "Think about, McKenna. Max didn't recognize you as you are now. The operation didn’t alter anything that can't be changed back."

"You're serious." Her green eyes widened in surprise. "You really want me to have plastic surgery."

"It's not like you've not done it before." Kyle reasoned steadily. "Besides, you want Max to remember the past, well…he needs to **see** the past first. Most logical place to start is…your face."

"But…"

"Look, I've already spoken to the best plastic surgeon there is. He says the procedure can be done in a matter of hours and you're recovery time will only be a week or so." Leaning forward, Kyle gathered McKenna's hands in his. "Say the word, Kenna, and I'll give you everything you had before. Starting with your looks."

Instantly taking offense, McKenna pulled her hands from under Kyle's. "So, what are you saying? I'm not attractive enough now?"

"No, Kenna. Not at all." Kyle's smooth voice soothed ruffled feathers. "You're as beautiful now as you were then. But, the fact is…you aren't Max's McKenna any more."

Worry clouded her expression. "You think Max won't want me now…"

"What man in their right mind wouldn't want you, Kenna?" Kyle flashed a smile and swallowed back the bile rising in his throat. "That's not what I'm saying at all."

She stiffened. "Then what are you saying?"

He let out a dramatic sigh as if he were handing McKenna the keys to Max's heart. "I'm saying that he loved you so very much. When he lost you, the only way to even think about moving on was to forget you ever really existed. Block that period of his life out of his mind completely. Seeing you as you are now…well, that's not going to really get to him. But seeing you as you were before…" Kyle paused and raised a knowing finger. "…now **that** will hit him right where you want it to." To emphasize his point, Kyle laid a dramatic hand over his heart. "Right here, Kenna. It's where you've always been. He just needs to remember that now."

There was a moment's pause before she relented with a sigh. "Alright, Kyle. Set up the surgery."

Kyle's blue eyes sparkled with victory. "Already done. You're going in the day after tomorrow." Covering her hands once more, Kyle nodded his approval and smiled. "You're doing the right thing, Kenna. Once this is done, nothing can stop you from being with Max. Nothing…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Max woke with a start.

The first sensation that hit him was warmth. Somewhere in her sleep Liz Parker had wrapped one hand around the hand that held hers. She was clinging to it as if her life depended on it.

Blinking a few times, Max quickly got his bearings and realized he'd fallen asleep kneeling by Liz's bedside. His gaze shifted to her face prompting a smile. Reaching up, Max gently pushed the hair back from her face before his gaze roamed her figure then settled on her face once more.

The soft, gentle rise and fall of her chest with each breath was like a miracle to him. The way her hand curled around his…comforting. And her lips, slightly parted. Her long lashes laying so dark against her skin. The smooth, creamy cheeks. In the depths of sleep, Liz Parker was all innocence.

It was hard to imagine she had ever shed a tear.

But she had. Many, and each one a bitter reminder of a mistake she made so very long ago.

His mind drifted back to what brought him to her side. How a simple errand could take such a drastic turn. The panic that gripped him the moment he'd found out she'd received an anonymous letter…

His cell phone rang, jarring him from the disturbing thoughts. Quickly digging into his pocket, he retrieved his phone and answered it before the second ring was complete. "Max here."

"Max? It's me. It's Princess."

"Jaedan?" Max's brows furrowed with worry as he whispered into the phone. "Sweetie, what's wrong?"

Unconsciously mimicking Max, Jaedan dropped her voice to a whisper too. "I had a night gal'p."

"Oh, honey…" Max's voice trailed off as his gaze shifted to Liz. She shifted in bed, her face scrunching up in annoyance. "Sweetie, can you hang on a sec?"

"Uh-huh."

Easing his hand from Liz's death grip, Max rose and slowly, quietly exited her bedroom. Once in the living room he put the phone back up to his ear. "Alright hon. I'm back. Now, tell me what's wrong…"


Sydney Bristow entered her apartment with a heavy heart. She'd seen a dramatic change in Liz Parker over the past few days. She'd watched Liz blossom right before her eyes. Until earlier that night, she'd never heard Liz laugh. She'd never seen her eyes sparkle with life. Had never even heard her crack a joke.

Max Evans changed all of that.

And now, with so many forces against them, it all had to end. Sydney's heart ached for her new friend. For a woman whose circumstance she understood much better than she ever wanted to. It was…heartbreaking to live through. Even more heartbreaking to watch.

Slipping the door quietly, Sydney was surprised to hear a male voice whispering gently from the direction of the living room. She quietly inched her way forward and was astonished by what she heard…

"It's alright, sweetie. Papa knows how to make all the monsters go bye-bye. He's actually very good at it." His white smile gleamed in the dark. "Yes, honey, I used to let him chase my monsters away." He listened a moment then spoke again. "I'm very glad you had a princess day. And if you try to be really good tomorrow, I bet you'll have another one." Smile deepening, Max's eyes drifted closed. "Oh, sweetie, I love you too. Ok. Night…"

A moment of silence followed in which Max let out a contented sigh and shook his head with a chuckle. His grin faded as his gaze moved toward the hall leading to Liz's room with determination. As he stood, he deposited his phone back into his pocket and took a step forward.

Sydney stopped him with her words. "You really love them, don't you?"

"Yes." Max answer was soft with a core of firm belief centering him to the truest thing he'd even known. "With all my heart. More than I thought I ever could."

In that moment, Sydney made a decision. She rounded the couch to face Max. "You know someone by the name Darian Wolfe?"

Max's face paled visibly in the darkness and Sydney noticed a slight tremor of his hands before Max's eyes went hard and his lips tightened. "Despite what people like to believe, there is evil in the world, Sydney Bristow. It has a face. It has a name. And that name is Darian Wolfe."

Sydney nodded once. "Then you need to know he's on the warpath, and you are his next target."

Max sank back down on the chair and swallowed hard, his mind quickly putting pieces of a puzzle together. "Chris didn't send the note. Darian did. He knows about Liz."

"But how?"

"He has the power and resources to find out anything about anyone. If it were important to him, he'd know the how many corn flakes you ate for breakfast." His midnight eyes snapped back up to meet Sydney's. "Tell me everything you know about this."

She handed him a slip of paper. "That's my dad's address. He has all the details."

Staring at the paper for a moment, Max memorized the address then handed the paper back to Sydney. "You'll be here to watch her, right?"

Sydney nodded.

"Do not…I repeat, do **not** let her out of your sight. I'll double security for the next few days, which will help, but she cannot be alone. Ever." Max's voice was hard, leaving no doubt he meant business. "I mean it, Sydney. Even if you have to use the Agency." His eyes bored into hers searching for a responding promise to his command. "Whatever it takes, keep her safe."

Sydney accepted his grave challenge with a nod. "What are you going to do?"

"Talk to your dad. Then I'll do…" Letting out a deep sigh, Max ran his hand through his hair, his gaze wavering uncertainly. His eyes met hers once more. "I'll do whatever I have to do to keep my girls safe." With that quiet, determined answer, Max slipped past Sydney and headed straight for Liz's room after announcing his immediate intentions. "I need to say good bye."

He paused in the doorway of Liz's room, just listening to her steady breathing. It brought a lump of emotion to his throat. Silently slipping toward the bed, Max knelt beside Liz once more. His fingers instantly drawn to her warmth, Max lightly, reverently caressed her cheeks with a featherlight touch. His eyes danced with love and filled with fear as they focused on her face. "I'm sorry, sweetheart. I…never wanted 'good-bye' to be in our vocabulary. But I never want you to be in danger because of me either. So…forgive me. Forgive me for leaving when I promised I wouldn't. It's not forever. It'll never be forever. I simply can't stay away from you for that long."

Fingers sliding along the smooth strands of her hair, Max's eyes misted. "I promise I'll be back, Liz. On my life, I promise you that." Capturing her hand in his, a faint smile slipped over his lips. He leaned forward and gently kissed her hand, his eyes closing briefly as he made a solemn promise. "And when I come back, we'll pick up…right where we left off." Eyes roaming her face once more, Max seemed to memorizing each perfect feature. "With me loving you." A loving smile brightened his eyes. "And you trying your damnedest not to love me back."

Soft gaze landing on her lips, Max took one last chance and leaned forward. Her breath mingled with his just before he brushed his lips lightly against his target. In the midst of her sleep, Liz Parker responded. Her fingers tightened around his hand. Lightly, longingly she opened up to him and deepened a kiss that was intended for good-bye but felt much more like the beginning of something entirely new. Max's fingers slipped through her hair as he felt himself being pulled in to a strong, irresistible current of love. Forcing himself to gently pull away before things went too far, Max searched her face for any sign of consciousness. Letting out a reluctant sigh when he saw none, he breathed his love against her lips. "Stay wild and untamable till I get back ok, Beautiful?"

One last brush of his lips. One last I love you.

Liz Parker sighed contentedly in her sleep and burrowed further into her pillow as a four-word confession unconsciously escaped her red, swollen lips. "Love you too, Max…"

Max Evans never heard the words.

He was already gone.
~~~~~~~~~~~
"She received the note."

Darian's marble blue eyes crackled with curiosity. "And did she run?"

There was a shake of a blonde head. "No, my lord."

A devilish smile curled Darian's lips upward. "Good. Very good."

"My lord?"

Eyes drifting closed in satisfaction, Darian Wolfe's smile deepened deviously. "Though terrified, she stays. Though horrified by the warning, she doesn't run. Why? Because something beyond her power is holding her in place." His eyes opened with diabolic delight. He steepled his hands and pursed his lips in thought. A chuckle escaped him. "Oh, how I shall enjoy destroying them both with their greatest weapon…love."

Tbc…

posted on 7-Aug-2002 10:11:45 PM by Ashton
Hey all!!

Here's the next part! Sorry it took a while. Some of my family are in town. Hope this part explains a little more what Kyle's trying to do with McKenna. I HOPE. ;) I also hope you enjoy!! As always would LOVE to hear what you think!! *happy*

hugs,
Ashton

~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 15 ~

Day 2: Saturday


“Maaaax!!!!!” Jaedan’s excited squeal filled the house. Scrambling down from her chair in the kitchen, Jaedan’s little feet flew like lightning across the living room catapulting her straight into Max’s outstretched arms the moment he stepped through the door to his parents' house and called out to the surprised occupants having breakfast inside.

Closing his eyes, Max squeezed Jaedan tight and smoothed down her rumpled hair. "Boy, have I missed these hugs!” Pulling back to give her a radiant smile, Max’s dark eyes danced with love. “How’s my princess?”

Clasping her hands in front of her and bobbing her head from side to side, that one question prompted a volley of answers as she seemed to continue their conversation from the previous night without a pause. “I's aaallll better now cuz Papa did know how ta make my monst'rs go bye-bye.” Her large dark eyes widened as she shook her head. “But he didn’t do it as good as you cuz they came back later.”

Moving strands of hair from her excitedly flushed face, Max frowned. “I’m sorry, Princess.”

A shrug of her tiny shoulders preceded the swing of her feet as she absently wiggled from excitement in Max’s arms. “That's 'k cuz you're here now and cuz the Walla Walla Fairy came by and gave us sniffum and kacknaps to eat this mornin'. And now I’s get ta have a Princess Day wiff you! And we can go petted Dwream together and we can make lots of funny faces on the pumpkins and I’s just so very, very happy now cuz I get ta see ya!”

“I would have never guessed.” Max’s smile deepened as he tweaked her nose playfully. Hugging her once more, Max’s eyes drifted closed in desperate relief. His whisper was fierce and sincere. “I've missed you so much.”

"Max!" Diane was the first of the adults to acknowledge Max's visit. She stepped forward and pressed a motherly kiss on his cheek. "Honey, what a surprise!"

Max nodded to his dad and Angel as he slipped an arm around Diane giving her a light squeeze. "Yeah, I uh…well, I needed to drop a few things off. Things that need a bit of personal attention." He gave his father a pointed look. "And explanation. Hope you don't mind."

Phillip's eyes narrowed as they met Max's in silence. Despite Max's obviously joyous reunion with Jaedan, the worried determination in Max’s eyes silently stated this was definitely no social call. "Of course not, son. You know you're welcome any time."

"Thanks. There's a lot going on so if we can talk in a few minutes…" Seeing his father’s nod and knowing time was of the essence, Max quickly turned back to Jaedan, his first priority coming through loud and clear. “As for you…” Max bounced Jaedan in his arms and tickled her eliciting a fit of giggles. “…I think you said something about sniffum and kacknaps…”

Jaedan nodded enthusiastically as she pointed toward the kitchen, her childish babble a direct contrast to the sudden dread that gripped the adults left behind as they exchanged worried glances in silence.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Liz Parker did not want to open her eyes.

The dream was way too wonderful to leave. Kisses as sweet as candy. Lips as soft as cotton. Whispers as gentle and warm as a summer breeze. Tender, loving caresses as reverent as a prayer…

The ringing of a phone somewhere in a distant reality she didn’t want to join made Liz groan out loud. One eye popped open when she heard the voice just on the other side of her bedroom door.

"Yeah, I'm at Syd's right now. She's not up yet. No. Alright, I'll see how this afternoon goes then I'll give you a call. With everything going on, I doubt she'll want to party this weekend, Eric. Alright, I'll ask. Ok. Bye."

As the phone clicked off in the hallway, Liz Parker sat up and rubbed her eyes as she called out to the man apparently guarding her door. “Mike? What are you doing here?”

The door slowly swing open as Michael Vaughn stuck his head inside, the grimace of apology on his face contradicting his words. “It's about time you got up. Lounging around all day, I'll bet you were a complete diva when you were in the biz weren't you?"

Liz blinked in confusion. "What are you talking…" Glancing over at the clock on her nightstand, Liz's eyes widened. "It's after twelve? As in…twelve noon?"

Fully stepping into the room, Vaughn nodded. "Yep. I've been waiting at least three hours for you to decide to join the rest of us in the real world."

Liz's eyes narrowed as she turned to him, her gaze sweeping his appearance. From his white t-shirt, jogging pants and sneakers Liz it was clear he was in the mood for working out. Why he'd been waiting outside her door for three hours just to say 'good morning' was not, however, all that clear. She crossed her arms in front of her as her eyes snapped up to meet his. "What's this all about?"

Vaughn shrugged trying to appear nonchalant. He didn't pull it off very well. Her eyebrow rose as she gave him a pointed look and Vaughn's shoulders slumped slightly in defeat. "Syd told me about the anonymous note."

Liz's gaze dropped. "Oh."

"Right." Vaughn nodded. "And she had to go on a mission at the last minute so she…"

"Asked you to babysit me." Liz filled in for him as her fingers picked at the threads of her comforter. Liz's shrug of nonchalance was no more convincing than Vaughn's. "I'm fine, Mike. I don't need anyone to watch over me twenty-four-seven, contrary to what I'm sure is becoming popular opinion. I am not fragile or helpless, you know."

Vaughn silently came forward and sat down on the edge of Liz's bed, his voice warm and sincere. "I know. And I'm not here to babysit." Breaking normal protocol, Mike reached out and covered Liz's hand as she continued to nervously pick at her comforter. "I'm here to be a friend. Maybe keep your mind off things. So, talk or don't talk. Cry or don't cry. Scream or don't scream. If anyone understands holding it all in because of fear…" Vaughn paused as his voice softened empathetically. "Well…you're not alone any more."

Liz's eyes met his. "I know." She smiled at the truth she saw in his eyes and tucked a piece of hair behind her ear as she pulled her knees up to her chest. "Thanks for that."

Nodding, Mike smiled back, flashing Liz his famous dimples before donning a mock serious expression. "That doesn't mean I'm going to let you laze around all day, missy. We have work to do." Vaughn jumped off Liz's bed and clapped his hands together, a raised eyebrow of expectation quirked toward Liz.

She shook her head in confusion. "And that’s supposed to mean what exactly? It is Saturday you know."

Hands landing on his hips, a look of disgust crossed his expression as his gaze swept over her. "It means you'd better get yourself looking at least half-way presentable. I'm not going to be seen in public with…" Sweeping his hand in the air over her, Mike shook his head. "…**this**."

Liz cracked a smile. "I'll bet Eric wouldn't mind."

Vaughn's face split into a grin. "Ah, so you finally bought a clue and figured out my partner is deep in crush with you."

"Yeah, it kinda hit me after he's pursued an uncalled for kissing portion of our upcoming play. Several times. Unsuccessfully, I might add." Liz's smile drifted as her eyes dulled with concern. "He's a great guy, Mike. I don't want to hurt him. I'm just not…available. On so many levels."

"Don't worry about Eric. He knows the score, ok? He knows you're not going through all of this trouble…"

"Just for the fun of it?" Liz queried, her gaze lowering. She let out a sigh and ran her fingers through her hair. "God, Mike, I'm so confused. I have absolutely no idea where to go from here with Max."

"You really care about him." It was more of a statement than a question. "Enough to want to be with him."

Liz nodded.

"Despite the risk." Vaughn added quietly.

A bittersweet smile touched Liz's lips. "**That** is the million dollar question." Her voice lowered in a soft confession. "And I have no idea what the answer is." Shaking her head, a harsh chuckle escaped her. "You know, I was going along just fine. I knew what I needed, what I wanted, to keep myself and the people I love safe. And then Max burst into my life. This big, beautiful bundle of spontaneous contradictions that I simply wasn't prepared for."

"We rarely are prepared for love when it comes, Liz. The best and truest usually hits us when we least expect it." Vaughn ventured quietly.

"Is this love, Mike?" Liz asked suddenly and unexpectedly. "See, I wouldn't know. No one has ever really loved me before. Except Jaedan and Angel. And they are miracles in and of themselves. But romantically, as a woman…Chris was the first man I ever dated. I think it's safe to say that wasn't love. Sean Graham…he never really knew me. I never let him. So whatever was between us…it was convenience so I didn't have to be alone, but it wasn't love either. So, how do I know, Michael? How can I be sure what this is between Max and me?"

Vaughn sat back down on Liz's bed. "I guess the first question to ask is how does he make you feel?"

"Well…" Sighing, she pushed her hair back behind her shoulders and continued. "…with Max…I know I feel something…powerful…when I'm with him. He knows me, Mike. He knows me at times, I think, better than I know me. I can't stand the thought of him being with anyone else, but I want him to be happy. As much as I wish I could be that person, I know that I can't. If he stays near me, I'll only end up causing him pain. I know as terrified as I am of getting closer to him, I'm just as terrified that he'll walk away."

"A large part of me wants him to just so he'll be safe. But…he's changing me, Mike. He's changing me in a way…" Her eyes drifted closed. "…I only feel truly safe…deep inside…when he's with me. How absurd is that? Feeling anything for this man is risky and reckless and trouble with a capital 'T'. He's the very man that can bring danger right back into the center of my life, not only physically but emotionally. But he's also the one man that makes me feel invincible against it all."

"But you're not." Vaughn's statement commanded Liz's attention. A slight shake of his head and worry edging his eyes, Vaughn continued. "You're not, Liz. That note last night proved it. Someone knows who you are. They know where you are. Max can't change that. And unless you're willing to pick up and move again…to live your life constantly on the run…"

"No. No, I don't want to do that." Liz interrupted as fierce determination flashed through her eyes. "That would mean even more separation from Jaedan and I will not do that to her."

"Alright, fine." Vaughn's gentle agreement eased the storm that appeared to be brewing. "Then you have to be as prepared as you can be for whatever comes. Even if that means real love with Max Evans." Letting out a sigh of resignation, Liz's dark eyes met Vaughn's in a silent plea. Reading her look, Vaughn switched topics without missing a beat. "How are you on personal safety?"

"What? You mean self defense?" At Vaughn's nod, Liz shrugged. "Angel's taught me some things. I know how to shoot. I know some karate. I could hold my own against you."

Vaughn's grin was challenging. "You think so huh?"

Liz's eyes lit up as a grin began to tug at the corners of her mouth. "I know so."

"Fine." Grabbing the robe Liz had draped over a nearby chair, Vaughn tossed it to her. "Get up and be ready in fifteen minutes."

With that command he headed toward the door when Liz's question caused him to pause. "Wait. Where are we going?"

Vaughn wiggled his eyebrows as a teasing smile lit his eyes. "To a place, my dear friend, where I am going to watch you eat those words…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"How many will there be?" Phillip Evans finally broke his silence after hearing Max explain the newest developments in Liz's situation and his plan to counteract them.

"Four. Two men, two women." Max answered. "They trade off every four hours so everyone can stay sharp. It'll only be for a few days then I'll move Angel and Jaedan to an undisclosed location. The guards can stay in a couple of the guest chalets behind the house. Jaedan will only see the women who I will introduce to her myself. The men will be taking care of tech and the perimeter. They'll report to me every two hours unless, of course, there's a problem." Max paused his eyes meeting his father's. "Now, all of this depends on your permission, dad. I don't want to put you and mom in danger…"

"Let me take care of your mother. That is not your priority, Max. Jaedan and Liz are." Phillip stated before deferring to Angel with a nod. "Since Jaedan's your responsibility, Angel, what do you think?"

Angel let out a sigh and pursed her lips in thought. "Sounds like all the bases are covered." Her eyes met Max's. "Liz knows nothing about this, does she?"

"No."

"Don't you think it'd be wise to…"

"No." Max interrupted Angel's question before she got to finish it. "I don't want her more worried than she probably already is."

A small, wry smile touched Angel's lips. "You could lock Jaedan up in the highest tower of the most remote castle. There could be ten moats and a hundred fire-breathing dragons and every other available security measure in play and Liz will still worry about her little girl, Max. It might actually help her to know you've taken appropriate steps to protect her."

"You think I don't want to assure her Jaedan's going to be safe? That I don't want to tell her what's going on? Believe me, I've struggled with this decision all the way up here. It all came down to one question: how exactly do I explain what I'm doing, Angel?" Max asked with a helpless shrug. "I'd have to reveal a past I've been sworn not to divulge not to mention one that I don't particularly relish. Beyond that, if I tell her my real fear…she will go ballistic. You know she will."

"Liz is stronger than you think."

"Oh, I’m not so sure about that." Max commented prompting a raised eyebrow from Angel that he quickly explained away. "I already think she is by far the strongest woman I have ever met and perhaps to have ever walked the earth. In so many ways, she's stronger than even me. I have no doubt she could handle this situation right along side of me."

"But…" Angel prompted.

"But she shouldn't have to." Max stated with determination as he leaned forward his eyes locking with Angel's. "This is my enemy, Angel. He's coming after me. It's my fight."

"Even so, Max, he's beginning to use Liz and Jaedan as the weapons…"

"Not after tonight."

Phillip cleared his throat. "Son, what exactly are planning on doing?"

Max met his father's eyes and shook his head deliberately. "I can't say, dad. Just know I'm taking care of it as soon as I leave here."

"Are you sure that's wise?" Phillip asked as worry edged his voice. "Max, you look absolutely beat."

"I'm fine." His voice was curt and defensive.

"When's the last time you got a full night's sleep?" Angel asked, quickly catching Phillip's concern.

Max shrugged and let out a short, frustrated sigh. "I…don't know. Look, it really doesn't matter…"

"It does if you're making major decisions or putting your life in danger on little to no sleep." Angel countered. "Think what it will do to Liz and Jaedan if something happens to you because you didn't take the time to think…"

"Angel." Max's eyes snapped up to meet hers angrily. "They are all I've been thinking about since I spoke with my contact. I'm not putting this off. I will not let Darian Wolfe think he can start playing games with the people I love. He needs to get that message…" Standing, Max's determination came through loud and clear. "…and he's going to get it tonight."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Kyle…" Alex looked at the computer screen as it rapidly ran through a program. As he watched the numbers in the center of the screen rapidly decreasing, he shook his head, a grin spreading over his face. "…there are times even I must admit your brilliance rivals the sun."

Kyle raised an offended eyebrow. "Only times?"

"Don't push it." Alex chuckled and leaned back in his chair. "Seriously, man, this was a great idea."

Mirroring Alex, Kyle leaned back as well as a blanket of arrogance covered him. "Of course."

Pursing his lips, Alex drifted to his monitor once more. "So how exactly did you get these confidential medical records?”

“Well, I started by convincing McKenna she needed to look as much like her old self.” Grinning deviously, Kyle’s eyes danced with delight. “For Max, of course.”

Alex responded with a knowing smile. “But of course.”

Kyle let out a satisfactory sigh. “Then I took her to the doc today. He did all of the x-rays, labs, pictures and whatever else he’ll need to do the surgery. After taking her home for a much needed evening of rest, I headed back to the doc's office. He happens to be a very good friend of the family so getting the records wasn't really that big of a problem.” Pointing to the files he’d place on Alex’s desk, Kyle nodded. “Of course, I’ll need those back so I can slip them back to him tomorrow.”

Tossing the files toward Kyle, Alex chuckled as he glanced back at his screen. “With the way this new composite program is working I’ll say this is going to be our first major break through in figuring out just exactly who McKenna is.”

“And exactly what happened to her.”

“And who she’s really working for.” Alex added before shifting his gaze back to a list lying on the center of his desk. “So, you really think one of these guys did it huh?"

"Had to." Kyle answered with a shrug. "Unless she had her own personal Dr. Frankenstein hiding in the closet. Which is a distinct possibility." Propping his feet up on Alex's desk, Kyle locked his hands behind his head. "But given the time frame we're talking about here, this list represents the available plastic surgeons in that area that could have possibly given McKenna her new identity. We find out which one, and we just might be able find out who footed the bill and trace it back to her source."

"Right.” Alex nodded. “Ok, so, let’s go over the facts as we know them. First…we know Max saw McKenna the night before the mission."

"Sure did." Kyle agreed before continuing. "For that matter, we all saw her at the club that night. And she was the real deal. I don’t think any of us could argue that.”

“No, we can’t.” Alex commented before tracking their movements from that fateful time in their life. “So then the very next morning we headed out. The night of the mission, Max was captured. We went in early morning to get him out…"

"That’s when we found out McKenna was also inside being held as a bargaining chip to get Max to crumble."

"Which he didn't…"

"Right. But that didn't matter because she was shot anyway." Kyle let out a sigh as he came to a conclusion. "So, we're pretty much talking about twenty four to forty eight hours here where she could have staged her own kidnapping and death.”

"Looks like it." Alex agreed before his eyes narrowed in thought.

Kyle instantly noticed. "What?"

"What if it wasn't McKenna."

Kyle let out a hrmph and shrugged. “Well, that **is** the story she’s floating…”

“No, I mean, what if she’s really telling the truth about that?” Alex’s relaxed position changed as the new thought took hold of him. “We've been going on the assumption that McKenna was really the one in the warehouse and that the shooting itself was a set up to make us all believe she was dead. But what if…there really was another woman that was really shot.”

“Come on, Alex. We’ve gone over that theory. It doesn’t wash because of Max, remember? He actually identified her body. Held her in his arms…”

“Right. But Max had also been drugged as well as beaten. No telling what kind other torture he’d been through. And there was blood. A lot of blood.”

“So you’re saying…”

Tapping his finger on the top of his chaotic desk, Alex emphasized his idea. “McKenna waits till we leave the morning of the mission then she disappears till the fall out happens while an innocent girl, a very good facsimile of McKenna, is kidnapped and killed in her place.”

“With McKenna’s knowledge?”

Alex shrugged. “Why not? She’s already tried to kill Liz once already. She's responsible for the deaths of seven agents. Those are only the ones we know of. Why be squeamish about setting someone up to be killed if it serves her purposes.”

“Well…that’s true.” Face scrunching up in uncertainty, Kyle shook his head. “I don’t know. Doesn’t really explain why go to such lengths.”

“Think about it, Kyle.” Alex paused a moment before putting his theory on the table. “McKenna’s commissioned by…we don’t know who yet…to infiltrate the Stars and destroy us. Her initial contact with us is as Nate’s long lost sister who had seen once when he was a kid. Next she works her way into Max’s heart, creates more friction then there had ever been between the two…”

“Yeah, but they’d come to an understanding.”

Alex held up a finger interrupting Kyle. “Precisely why she needed a dramatic conclusion to her mission. Nate had already started questioning her about a few childhood issues that didn’t make sense to him so she wouldn’t be able to keep up the ‘sister’ pretense forever. She’d never really intended to actually marry Max…”

“Well, now, I’m not so sure about that one.” Kyle interjected. “She seems rather…fixated…on being Max’s fiancee’.”

“Then she’s going to have to take a number.” Alex quipped absently as his gaze shifted to the monitor after an alerting beep caught his attention.

Kyle’s brows furrowed at Alex’s comment. “Take a number? What are you…”

Alex let out a low whistle as he motioned Kyle to his side of the desk. “Get a load of this.”

Kyle’s eyes widened as he came around Alex’s desk and stared at the screen. “Whoa."

Nodding to the screen, Alex began to explain. "Based on the bone structure in her x-rays and medical records these are the possible facial composites McKenna could potentially use."

"How many of those match known intelligence suspects?"

Alex clicked a few buttons on the keyboard and waited for a new screen to pop up. "Ten. Of course, these don't include standard disguise tactics. This is purely biological."

"We have the DNA on any of them?"

Having anticipated Kyle's next question, Alex had already begun punching in commands. A few more moments of silence then a new figure appeared on the screen. "Five possible matches."

"Five." Kyle repeated before a low whistle signal his awe of the latest technology. "Any names we recognize?"

The printer immediately began working to spit out a list of potential suspects Kyle and Alex eagerly poured over. "Can we run these profiles through the system…"

"I'll get on it right away." Alex answered before Kyle finished. "It'll take a while, but if McKenna uses even one signature action in her work…a particular gun, a certain kind of bullet, even a favorite type of hotel…we'll find it."

Kyle nodded then folded the list up and stuck it in his pocket. "Good. Until then, I’m heading out check on McKenna. Tomorrow's the operation…"

"Really think it's going to work?" Alex asked as he leaned back in his chair. "Think she'll look like she did before?"

Kyle shrugged. "I really don't give a damn. I just wanted her records for profiling." He paused his eyes meeting Alex's. "For the first time since this started, Alex, I really think we have a chance of finding the truth."

Alex let out a sigh and nodded. "Yeah. Especially now that we've got another under cover in the field."

Kyle nodded. "How's that going?"

Alex shrugged. "He's not been able to contact us, but Steve's on it. They're meeting tonight before Steve heads to LA to see Max."

"Steve's going to see Max?"

Alex cracked a wide smile as his blue eyes danced with genuine delight. "Yeah. It's a uh…"

Kyle rolled his eyes. "Oh, no. Don't tell me he's going to pull something on Liz."

Alex burst into laughter as he nodded his head. To which Kyle immediately planted himself in the chair opposite Alex's desk. "Alright, pal. Spill the beans. What exactly is my little brother up to and just how pissed is Liz Parker going to be when she finds out?"

Another burst of laughter was all the answer Kyle Evans needed to know this tale was going to be a wild one.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Hands on her hips, Liz looked down at Vaughn. He was sprawled out on his back. On the floor. Panting to catch his breath.

Tilting her head to the side, Liz was the picture of innocence. "You said something about eating my words?"

Vaughn groaned as he eased himself into a sitting position. "Where the hell did you learn to kick like that?"

A playful smile danced on Liz's lips. "Good move, wasn't it?"

"Uh…yeah." Vaughn's tone was incredulous. Until his eyes narrowed. "Oh, wait. I get it. Angel's not the only one who's taught you a few things, is she?"

Liz's face was a blank. "I have no idea what you mean."

"Sydney. As in Bristow." An admiring light danced in Mike's eyes. " That woman can kick some serious…"

"Liz! Mike!" Eric Weiss entered the CIA gym from a side door, clearly not in the mood for working out. "I've been looking all over for you two. A group of us are going out to a club. Did you want to come?"

Liz's face scrunched up in disinterest. "I'm not really a club kinda girl."

Eric's face fell. "Oh." An idea hit him and he instantly lit up. "But you have to come tomorrow night though. It's a must."

"Tomorrow?" Liz glanced curiously from Eric to Mike then back again. "Why is it a must?"

"Because it's his birthday." Vaughn informed Liz as he slowly got off the floor. "Every year we go to his favorite club and…" Scrunching up his face, Vaughn rolled his eyes. "…we do karaoke."

Eric grinned widely as he slapped Vaughn on the shoulder. "Best present I get every year is watching this guy get totally sloshed then stand up in front of everyone and sing a Britney Spears song."

Liz burst into laughter. "Britney?" She winked at Vaughn. "Big fan, are ya?"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah…laugh now. What he failed to mention is Birthday Boy here gets to choose the song as he pushes you kicking and screaming up on stage." Vaughn waved his hands dismisively in the air as he began to put equipment he and Liz had used into a cabinet near the wall. "Wait till he gets you up there. He'll probably make you sing…" Vaughn paused as a thoughtful expression crossed his face. "…well, actually, you could sing…you."

"Oh no. No, no, no." Liz began shaking her head emphatically as she saw Eric's eyes light up with delight. "I don't do stages any more."

Eric clasped his hands in front of him, dropped to one knee in front of Liz and turned pleading eyes upward. "Oh, please. Just…one itty, bitty song." He batted his long lashes. "For me. It **is** my birthday. And I **am** giving you a pretty fabulous pretend boyfriend on Monday."

Sudden wickedness danced in Liz's eyes as she glanced toward an unsuspecting, busy Vaughn. A dark eyebrow raised as she tried to keep laughter out of her voice. "One condition. Make Mike sing I'm Not a Girl."

Vaughn turned toward them as Eric nearly fell over with a loud burst of laughter. His eyes narrowed suspiciously. And when Liz Parker doubled over in a fit of giggles, Michael Vaughn got a sneaking suspicion he was in serious trouble…
~~~~~~~~~~~~
After a somewhat frantic search inside the house for one missing-in-action child, one of Max's guards informed him that Jaedan could be found in the tree house. Max stood at the bottom staring up and wincing against the sobs he heard coming from above. He quickly ascended the rope ladder and pushed open the trap door in the tree house floor.

Popping his head up through the door, Max quickly found her sitting in the far corner. Her knees were pulled up to her chest and her head was buried in her arms as tears shook her tiny body. "Jaedan? Honey, why are you crying?"

Through her sniffles and sobs, Max could barely make out her words. "Cuz no body…wants ta…play wiff me. Everybody's…always leafin'…me…all the time."

"Jaedan…" Max pulled himself through the door and closed it behind him before moving to sit in front of his littlest princess. He reached out and smoothed her hair reassuringly. "…sweetie, you know that's not true."

She lifted her tear-streaked face. "Uh-huh. I don't got no daddy cuz he lefted me and my mommy went bye-bye and then you did and then Kendall did and then you did again and now…" Her lips began to quiver and her eyes filled with new tears. "…and now you're gonna leaf again even though you just gotted here. I just hearded you say you was."

"Ohh, sweetheart…" Max pulled Jaedan into his arms and gave her a tight hug. "…I love you so much. I don't think you'll ever know just how much."

Jaedan pulled back and looked into Max's eyes, her own full of sadness and confusion. "Then how come ya gonna leaf me again?"

Max took a deep breath and settled Jaedan on his lap before leaning forward and planting a tender kiss on the top of her head. When he spoke his voice was soft and conspiratorial. "I'm going to tell you a secret, ok? It's a very, very important secret and you can't tell anyone that I've told you." Max pulled back to look into Jaedan's eyes as he pushed wayward strands of hair behind her ears. "Do you remember when we first met and you told me your mommy was out fighting the Evil Wizard?"

Jaedan sniffled and nodded.

"Well…" Max took another deep breath. "…I know who the Evil Wizard is now."

"You do?" The fear in Jaedan's widened eyes filtered into her voice. "Is he…is he gonna hurt my mommy?"

"No." Max shook his head emphatically as he tilted her face upward so she could see the truth of his words in his eyes. "Listen to me, Jaedan. He is not going to hurt her or you or Grandnanny. Not if I can stop him." Pausing, Max's gaze met Jaedan's meaningfully as his voice lowered. "But…honey, for me to do that, I have to go where he is. Which makes me really sad because I want to stay with you and play. I love you so very much and we always have so much fun, but if I stay, I can't help mommy fight the Evil Wizard."

Max paused to let his words sink into Jaedan's tender heart before making her part of the solution. "So, I have a decision to make. And I need you to help me make it. Either I stay with you and make sure you don't cry any more…and that you have a Princess Day…or I find the Evil Wizard and make sure he doesn't hurt your mommy." Watching her expression very carefully, Max paused once more before asking his question. "So, Princess, which do you think I should do?"

It only took Jaedan a matter of seconds to react.

Wiping the tears off her face, Jaedan sniffled one last time and sat up straight as she turned her large doe eyes on Max. "You gotta go stop the Evil Wizard so he won't hurt my mommy. I's ok now. See?" She shook her head causing her pony tails to dance in the air as a bright smile lit her face. "I's not cryin' any more. And mommy needs you more 'an me. She needs you to make all of her monst'rs go bye-bye now just like you do for me."

Max fought the smile threatening to break out on his face and the tears prickling his eyes. "Are you sure?"

"Uh-huh. I's got Papa and Nana and Grandnanny but mommy doesn't got nobody." Nodding her head emphatically, Jaedan took Max's hand in her tiny ones. "You gotta pwromise to be weally, weally careful, k? Cuz I don't know how much more magic potion mommy has. She maybe can't give you any if you have to fight the Evil Wizard."

Max couldn't stop the smile that softened his eyes. "Oh, sweetheart…" He leaned forward and brushed his lips against Jaedan's forehead before pulling back to look into her sweet, innocent, believing face. "…don't you know? Mommy's magic potion…that thing that keeps her so safe for you…that's love, honey. And now, because of you…I have more than enough magic potion to keep both mommy and me safe."

As Max continued, a solemn promise was forged in the old walls of a childhood hideout. "And I promise you that your mommy and I are going to destroy the Evil Wizard and slay all of our dragons and make all of our monsters go bye-bye. And once we do, we're going to be together, Jaedan. And once we are, no one's going to leave you ever again…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Day 3: Sunday 2 am


Bogota, Columbia
Darian Wolfe's compound


The click of a gun echoed in the pitch black room with the force of a cannon.

Nate Carter's eyes snapped open.

"I hear you sold your soul to the devil and got a brand new boss." A familiar voice rasped steely and hard close to his ear as the cold steel pressed against his temple. "I hope you've enjoyed working for Darian Wolfe because you've got exactly five seconds to give me a reason not to pull this trigger and end what I can only assume is a pact of pure evil."

Nate swallowed hard, his eyes snapping to the face hovering close to his. "Max. It's not what you think."

Max Evans pressed the gun into Nate's temple emphasizing his seriousness. "Try again."

"You know I always knew you were crazy. This just confirms it." Nate's hand slowly inched toward the pillow next to him where he concealed his own weapon each night.

"Not a good thing to say to a man with a loaded gun." Max shot back heatedly before a harsh command flowed instantly after. "Move your hand one more centimeter and I'll blow it off."

Nate instantly stilled.

"Hands in the air."

Nate complied.

Knowing his former associate well, Max answered the unspoken questions racing through his mind. "If you think the guards in this place are going to come to the rescue, you should know…they've all been knocked out cold and tied up rather well, if I do say so myself. And as this place is so conveniently secluded, help is miles upon miles away. It's a good thing your new master, Darian, left the grounds earlier or my mission would be entirely different right now."

"Different how?" Nate inquired as beads of sweat broke out on his forehead. "Killing a defenseless man is still murder whether its your sworn enemy or one of your own team."

Max flashed Nate a devious grin. "Ah, but one would be necessary. The other…pure pleasure."

Nate swallowed hard. "Am I supposed to guess which one I would be."

"You could try, but I doubt you'd get it right."

A voice from the shadows interrupted Max's interrogation. "Max. Lower the gun."

Max's head snapped up and his eyes widened in surprise as the owner of the voice stepped from the shadows into the light streaming through the window. The moonlight fell on his face. And on the gun he held in his hand pointed straight at Max. Max's eyes narrowed. "Steve. What is this? You're on his side now?"

Steve shook his head, his gray eyes meeting Max's. "No. I’m on yours. And believe it or not…" He nodded toward Nate. "…so is he."

A wry, disbelieving smile touched Max's lips as his gaze shifted from Steve to Nate then back again. Taking one step back, Max nodded but kept his firearm trained on Nate. Both men knew the stance of their leader. Both men knew he was giving them one chance to prove themselves. To make him believe…or suffer the consequences.

They were right. "Alright. You've both got one chance. Five minutes." Max's eyes met Steve's. "So help me God, this had better be good…"

Tbc…

posted on 15-Aug-2002 5:56:07 AM by Ashton
Hey all...

Here's the next part. Hope you enjoy! Would love to hear what you think as always. Thanks sooo much for the constant support! *happy* Time Will Tell will probably be out next so you don't get too bored! ;)

Behrhugs,
Ashton
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 16 ~

Day 2: Sunday 4:30 pm


Liz sat in her car just…staring.

Her palms were sweaty. Her gaze was unfocused. Her heart, racing a mile a minute.

She wasn't quite sure how she ended up outside Max's door. One moment she'd been pacing relentlessly in front of Michael in her apartment. The next, she was…staring at the closed doors of a renovated firehouse.

It all started when Sydney came home from her mission to find Vaughn sitting on her couch…

Sydney's hard gaze landed on Vaughn as he glanced up at her hopefully. "Interesting."

Mike's face immediately fell. Liz noticed the obvious coolness emanating from her roommate and her other friend's apparent, sudden discomfort. Since Vaughn didn't seem to want to pursue whatever it was Sydney meant, Liz did it for him. "What's interesting?"

Dropping her luggage behind the couch, Sydney crossed her arms in front of her and slowly came around to where Liz was standing. She answered Liz though it was clear the real person she was addressing was sitting on the couch, his gaze boring a hole into the hardwood floor. "Well, you see, Liz…protocol only seems to be mandatory in certain circumstances. Secret Agent Man here can come see you anytime he wants, but if I'm the object of the visit, we have to meet in a warehouse."

Ignoring the implication of her caustic comment, Vaughn's gaze snapped up to meet Sydney's. He opened his mouth to answer then clamped it shut as he re-thought his words. Certainly 'I don't love Liz, I love you' wouldn't help him win his apparently on-going argument with Sydney. His eyes met hers with determination. "Syd…you know everything I said the other night was true."

"What I know, Michael Vaughn, is that you…" Sydney's eyebrow raised as her next words shocked Liz perhaps even more than Vaughn. "…are a coward."

Liz's mouth dropped open. Her gaze shifted from Sydney to Vaughn where her heart immediately began to ache for him at the pain that flashed through his eyes. Vaughn's gaze lowered as he slowly stood. "Look. I know we had a disagreement about…" Vaughn stilled his words, painfully aware that the object of their difference of opinion was standing in the very room with them. He tried a different tactic. "I'm sorry you can't see my point of view. I only hope it doesn't cause you to make rash decisions that will put the lives of people we both care about in danger."

Swallowing hard, Vaughn attempted a smile in Liz's direction. "Since you're covered now, I'm going to head out. I'll pick you up for the party tonight…"

Sensing Sydney stiffen next to her, Liz hastened to stop Vaughn's offer. "Actually, Mike, I'm sure I can find my own way…"

Vaughn shook his head, the determination in his voice firm. "I will pick you up at 7:30." His gaze slipped over to Sydney, who suddenly refused to look at him. Letting out a sigh, Mike nodded to Liz then left Sydney with one last commanding comment. "I expect debriefing in an hour. The usual place."

The moment the front door closed behind him, Liz turned to Sydney with concern. "Sydney, what…just happened?"

For the first time since meeting her, Liz Parker watched as Sydney Bristow's eyes filled with tears. She flopped onto the couch and let out a frustrated sigh, while blinking rapidly. "That man is so infuriating. We had a…disagreement…the other night. He says nobody can have it all. That safety is more important than love. But for some reason that only seems to apply to me..."

“Oh. I see.” Liz slipped onto the couch next to her and reassuringly touched her arm. “This…disagreement. It had to do with Max and me didn’t it?”

Sydney shrugged. “Maybe a little. At first. But that wasn’t all it was about and it certainly isn’t why he’s so…” Unable to find the proper word, Sydney’s denouncement ended in a frustrated sigh.

Nodding in understanding, Liz’s soft comment only seemed to add to Sydney’s aggravation. “Mike just doesn't want to lose you, Syd."

Sydney's gaze snapped up to Liz, the sarcasm thick. "I'm sure he doesn't. Wouldn't look too good on his record, now would it."

"Syd.” Liz gave her a pointed look. “He doesn't want to lose **you**." Smiling meaningfully, Liz continued with a shrug. "Come on. Do you really think he likes hanging out here because I'm such great company? Especially this weekend?" Shaking her head, Liz grinned and lowered her voice conspiratorially. "I've been driving him crazy."

"You have?" Sydney’s eyes began to brighten for the first time since her return home.

"Yeah." Nodding emphatically, Liz tucked her feet under her and pushed her hair back from her face. "Yesterday he attempted to teach me self-defense. He got a reeeally good view of the ceiling since he was on his back most of the 'training' session."

"Good for you." Sydney giggled. "Did you use that move I taught you?"

Eyes twinkling devilishly, Liz nodded. "Sure did. Oh, and then, not five minutes ago I'm positive, if it were humanly possible, he was ready to flush me down the toilet."

"Why?"

"Because I was pacing rather relentlessly and mumbling under my breath. Again." Liz chuckled. “He hates being left out of a conversation, especially if you’re determined to have it only with yourself.”

Sydney's brows furrowed. "Why were you pacing?"

"Well, you see…” Giving Sydney one of those ‘I know. I know’ looks, Liz let out a mortified sigh and squeezed her eyes shut anticipating the amount of teasing Sydney would heap upon her once she heard the truth. “I've not heard from Max since Friday afternoon. Which makes me a bit…antsy."

"Ah." Sydney commented with a knowing twinkle in her eyes but without the expected volley of jokes. Clearly Sydney Bristow was distracted. Liz assumed it was by a certain CIA handler who obviously had her attention more than she wanted to admit.

In truth, Sydney’s mind instantly jumped to the night Max left for parts unknown. He'd given no indication where he was going, when or if he'd be back. The way her father, and even Vaughn, was so sure that Max was in some kind of danger, that it would be best for Liz to forget him…well, it left Sydney a bit uneasy about the whole situation. Not to mention Max’s reaction when he heard the name Darian Wolfe.

Sydney silently debated the urge to tell Liz everything she knew about why Max hadn't been in contact. Part of her believed it was only fair that Liz be told everything. With the truth as her weapon, she just might be able to defend herself and the people she loved. On the other hand, the other part of her knew and understood just how dangerous the truth could really be.

Her mind screamed to keep her mouth shut.

Her heart wanted to tell the truth. Just like she had with Danny.

Danny. Her fiance. Her **murdered** fiance…

With a split second of indecision, caution, protocol and Vaughn’s warning to her eventually won. Syd rolled her eyes and attempted to sound much more sure about Max's whereabouts than she really was. "Well, from what you've told me about him, he's probably off raiding a corporation or planning a major coupe de ta that will render you helpless against his massive amount of charm."

“Massive amount of charm, my foot.” Liz rolled her eyes. “Much more like irritating, persistent, obnoxious, arrogant…” Letting her list of quality traits Max Evans possessed only on occasion, Liz let out a sigh her final description a mere whisper. “…amazing.” Sobering, her gaze lowered as she began to bite down on her lower lip. "You know…I had this really weird dream the other night."

"Yeah?"

Liz nodded, her eyes softening as she hugged a pillow to her chest. "I dreamed that Max was in my room. He was holding my hand, kissing me. He begged me to wait for him. That he had to go away for a while to protect me, but it wouldn't be forever and that he'd come back to me." Letting out a worried sigh, Liz shifted uncomfortably. "Ever since then I've had this…feeling…that he's in trouble."

"Hmmm. Sounds kinda…soulmatey to me." Sydney purposefully teased in an effort to keep Liz’s mind from wandering down the right path for too long.

Liz rolled her eyes again. "Right. Max Evans and me…soulmates. I seriously doubt it." Sensing her chance to shift the conversation back to Sydney's point of obvious contention, Liz cast her a sideways glance. "Unlike you and Vaughn. Yeah, I see some serious soulmate potential there."

It was Sydney's turn to roll her eyes. "Right. Which is why I'm meeting him in a cold, dark warehouse in forty-five minutes while he's been lounging around here all cuddly and warm with you the entire weekend."

"Hey." Liz hit Sydney with her pillow. "We were not all cuddly and don't you even go there because Mike and I sure aren't." Catching Sydney's smile of relief, Liz's smile deepened as she let her in on a secret. "I think he's in love with you, Syd. You're like…**all** he talks about. He likes being here because this is your home. It's the closest he can get to being with you without actually…being with you. I'm just his excuse."

"In…love with me?" Sinking back into the cushions of the couch, Sydney let out a deep sigh as she allowed Liz's suggestion to sink into her heart. She had to admit it wasn't the first time the thought had crossed her mind. But Vaughn was her handler. He'd never made any advances and any that she had attempted to make, he had gently but firmly rebuffed. She voiced the glaring question that had kept her from actually believing her own imagination. "If…that's true, and I'm not saying it is…but **if** it is, I can't understand why he won't say something then."

"Because he's scared of what he's feeling. Of rejection. Of not being rejected and where exactly that would lead the two of you. He’s scared for you.” Liz answered slowly. "Like I am for Max. It's like there's this invisible line that once it's crossed, there's no going back. Mike is dancing as close to that line as possible without actually stepping over it. If anyone understands that, it's me."

Sydney's sympathetic gaze met Liz's. "How are you doing with that? Any new revelations on the Max front?"

Liz shook her head. "Nope. I'm just as confused as ever." A small, amused smile played on her lips. "Just like Mike is." Eyes brightening with an idea, Liz glanced at the clock. "Hey. You said you have forty-five minutes, right? Why don't we find a way to warm up that cold warehouse and maybe clear up his confusion a bit…"

Sydney’s eyes narrowed warily as she stared at her suddenly animated roommate. "What are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking…." Liz jumped off the couch and grabbed Sydney's hands pulling her upward. "…you've got a date to get ready for…"


After Sydney had left for her meeting with Vaughn, Liz had found herself pacing once more. Her thoughts never drifted to Max because they had already taken up permanent residence on that particular topic.

Which is probably why she was sitting outside his firehouse. Actually, it was more because of the delivery that had appeared at her door only moments before she raced to her car and sped through almost every yellow light in L.A.

A poem. One page. Beautifully written in handwriting now so familiar to her.

As her eyes slipped over the carefully chosen words, a melody began to play in the back of her mind…

I don't mean to be the teardrop spilling over your resentments
Don't intend to be the cry with which you voice your discontentment
Don't want to be a picture fading slowly from your memory
Don't intend to be a shadow simply darkening your passage

Only want to lose myself behind the mirror of your eyes
Be the only balm that soothes the secret passions in your life
Only want to lose my senses, lose your sorrow, calm this madness
Be the only one you count on to alleviate your sadness

I'll steal your heart and set it free
Tear down the walls that would surround you
I may hold you close to me
But these ties will never bind you

I don't mean to be the fire that's igniting your temptations
Don't intend to be the sword that runs you through with adoration
I don't want to be a whisper my emotions wrapped in silence
Don't intend to be the shout reminding you that time is priceless

Only want to be the wind that lifts you high above the ground
Living only to unleash that sacred powers that we've found
Only want to breathe your essence to your comfort
Fill with laughter every moment that we live from this day on forever after

I'll steal your heart and set it free
So free I'm sure it will astound you
Without my love you'll never be
In some way I'll always find you

I'll steal your heart and set it free
Tear down the walls that would surround you
I may hold you close to me
But these ties will never bind you


That was the real reason she was sitting outside Max Evans’ door.

He'd inspired music to flow through her heart. Again. She just wanted…no, needed…to see him. To look in his eyes. See his smile. Hear his laughter.

Taking a deep breath, Liz forced herself to open the door of her car and step out into the warm California sun. Running over her cover story one more time, Liz advanced to the front door. She took one more deep breath. Her hand raised to knock.

The door flew open before she got a chance.

Liz blinked in shock at the sight that greeted her. "Oh. Hi."

The attractive blonde tilted her head to the side, her blue eyes narrowing suspiciously. "Yes? May I help you?"

Quickly taking in her appearance, Liz's stomach felt like someone had just slammed a giant fist into it. About ten times. And her heart…something powerful was gripping it with cold, death-like fingers. The woman standing before her was dressed in nothing more than a man's blue jean shirt that came to the middle of her thighs. Her curly hair was wet from a recent shower and it was clear Liz was keeping her from something important.

Shaking herself out of the haze of jealousy and panic that quickly descended around her, Liz thanked the stars she was wearing her sunglasses and that the wind was blowing her hair in her face, hiding her features. Clearing her throat, she attempted a bright smile. She could only guess how weak it really looked. A quick story popped into her mind. "Hi. I'm Sam Rivers from the local school board. We're doing a survey…"

The woman looked down her nose at Liz with disdain. "I'm not interested in anything having to do with little people. So, whatever you're trying to sell, you can just…" Waving a well manicured hand, she tossed her blonde curls. "…go bug someone else."

Liz sighed deep inside and donned an appropriately crestfallen expression. "Oh. Well, sorry to have bothered you."

Quickly turning on her heels, Liz began a beeline straight for her car when the woman called out to her. "Hey, you. Wait."

Plastering a smile on her face, Liz turned around slowly and prayed the woman ensconced in Max's doorway wouldn't recognize her. Forcing hopefulness into her expression, Liz pushed fear out of her eyes. "Yes?"

"Do I…know you from somewhere?"

Liz's calculating smile widened. Her head shook. "No, no I don't think so."

The woman took a step forward, her arms crossed in front of her. "Are you sure? You look so familiar."

Liz shrugged nonchalantly. "I must have one of those faces." There was an uncomfortable pause. "Well, I'd better moving on…"

"My boyfriend, Max Evans, might be interested in your survey." The implication hung in the air between the two women an obvious fishing expedition on the part of Max's self-proclaimed girlfriend.

Flashing a smile, Liz forced herself not to react to his name or the jealousy suddenly coursing through her. "Well, then, I'll put his name down for someone to come back later then. What did you say it was again?"

Her blue eyes narrowed once more. "Max Evans. Ever heard of him?"

Shaking her head, Liz shrugged once more. "Nope. Can't say that I have." Clearing her throat, she began walking backwards. "Well, thanks again."

Refusing to breathe, Liz could feel the woman's piercing stare on her back the entire walk to her car.

How Liz made it to her car with calm, steady steps she would never be able to explain. How she slipped into her car without one single fumble or panicked movement was beyond reason. How she managed to not peel out of the driveway when everything in her screamed to press the accelerator all the way to the floor and keep driving forever was a complete miracle.

She didn't stop till she made it home. Then, with shaking hands, she rushed into the apartment and grabbed up the nearest phone, frantically punching in a well-used number. Pacing while the phone rang, Liz stopped abruptly when she heard the familiar voice on the other end. "Alex."

"Liz? Are you…" Worry instantly edged Alex's voice. "What's happened?"

"Tess. Tess Harding is in town, Alex. She's…she's at Max's place. Wearing his shirt. I think…I think she…" Liz paused only long enough to release a panicked breath. "God, Alex, if she recognized me…I'm as good as dead…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Bogota, Columbia
Sunday 2:45 am


The intense interrogation had been going on for half an hour…

"What is the Code?"

Nate shook his head. "I don't know."

Max's tone sharpened. "And this Prototype A? What's that?"

"I have no idea."

Jaw tensing, Max's eyes flashed angrily. "Is there anything you **do** know?"

“Max…” Steve’s warning was soft and low.

Running a hand through his hair, Max let out a sigh and tried a different approach. “You said Darian ordered you to get this Prototype A. Where did you get it?”

“The lab.” Nate answered promptly. “But I don’t know what it is.”

“How can you not know?”

Nate let out a sigh of impatience at the barrage of questions Max was hitting him with. And the lack of answers he was able to supply. “Darian tells me to get something…say this Prototype A. I go to this tiny little room at the lab, place the order and leave. I don’t get to see past the front window, I have no access to the back rooms. I don’t even get to be anywhere close to Darian before, when or after it’s delivered.”

Closing his eyes in an attempt to stop the well of pure frustration building inside of him, Max’s fists tensed and relaxed then tensed again. His chest rose and fell with a steeling breath before he began once more. “Alright, let’s back up. **If** you're to be believed…" Max raised an unbelieving eyebrow toward Nate referring back to the story he’d been told of how Nate came to be in Darian’s employ in the first place. "…Darian contacted you and not the other way around."

Nate nodded.

Max crossed his arms, having laid the ready-to-fire gun on the stand he was leaning back against. Only a breath away to be used if necessary. Crossing one ankle over the other, Max gave the impression of casual curiosity. The careful observer saw how tense his muscles were…how quickly he could turn from lax to deadly. How hard his eyes were with suspicion. How tight his lips with distrust. "Now, why exactly would he do that?"

Nate shrugged. "Probably because he knows I have an ax to grind against you."

"An ax to grind." Max chuckled harshly. "Is that what you call your blood oath to kill me?"

"Put a bullet in you." Nate corrected.

"'Send me to Hell' were the exact words if I remember correctly." Max shot back, his amber eyes flashing dangerously in the darkness of the room. "You even had a bullet engraved with my name…"

"Guys." Sensing an escalating battle, Steve quickly jumped in. "Now isn't the time." Stepping between the two, Steve took a deep breath that could be heard in the strained silence. "There are innocent lives at stake here. Your own personal vendettas can wait till later."

Nate was the first to relent and look away from Max's penetrating stare. "Steve's right. As much as I would love for this to be my final payback to you, Max…it simply isn't. I know Kendall…” Nate paused then quickly corrected himself. “…Liz. I know that little girl. I can't stand the thought of them being hurt…or worse. There have been enough innocent women and children lost because of you already. I don't want them to be next."

Max's gun was back in his hand and pointed straight at Nate's heart before Nate took his next breath.

"Max!" Steve's fervent hiss echoed in the room.

Max's response was deadly low and barely controlled. "One more cheap shot like that, I'll pull this trigger and I won't give a damn whose side you're on."

Fear flickered in Nate's eyes.

"Are we clear?" Each emphasized word rippled through the tense air.

Nate swallowed hard and nodded, his eyes never leaving Max's gun.

Another moment of Max-induced silence reigned. In that moment, it was abundantly clear why Max Evans had been the hand-picked leader of the Stars. While Nate loved to talk big, it was Max who never made threats he wasn’t willing and capable of carrying out. It was Max who knew when and where to draw the line and Max who commanded ultimate respect. Even from his enemies.

Having established who was in charge, Max lowered his weapon and addressed Steve, his eyes still cautiously trained on Nate. "So, Darian contacted Nate and you guys thought it the best way to get the goods on why Darian is targeting me after all these years. Up close and personal with an undercover."

Steve nodded and relaxed some now that Max was clearly beginning to believe at least what Steve had to say. "Thing is, Max, it doesn't look like you're Darian's only target."

"Meaning?"

Steve and Nate exchanged glances in which the task of explaining further details was quickly, silently passed on to Nate. Nate cleared his throat. "What Steve's saying is that…well, Darian wants Liz to pay just as much as you."

"Because I love her." Max stated with a note of dread in his voice.

"Actually…" Still smarting from Max's territorial victory, Nate scratched behind his ear as his mind raced with the best way to drop the latest bombshell on his former leader. "…with or without you, Darian would want Liz dead. You're involvement with her is pretty much icing on the cake to him."

Max's brows furrowed in instant concern. His voice tensed with fear. "Why? What could Darian possibly hate Liz for?"

Nate simply shrugged.

"You've got to be kidding me." Max's disgust was evident in his expression. "You've been working undercover for this psycho for about a month now and you still don't know why he'd want Liz dead?"

Nate's eyes flashed with instant insult. "I resent what you’re implying. I’ll have you know, Max Evans, that I have not been bowing and calling this bastard 'my lord' for the fun of it, ok? He doesn't trust easily. Up to this point all I've heard about is some cryptic, mysterious code and some highly advanced experiments being conducted in one of his may labs. I follow commands without question. No one questions Darian…no one. That I'm even as close as I am at this point is evidence that Darian is either setting a trap or getting desperate."

“And what? You haven’t been able to figure which one out by now?” Shaking his head, Max’s lip curled into a disdainful snarl. “What the hell good are you? You can’t even ascertain whether you’re using or being used.”

“Max, calm down.”

“Calm down?” Fiery gaze snapping from Nate to Steve, Max’s eyes narrowed. “Within the past twenty four hours I have been informed that the woman I love received an anonymous note set up to look like it was from her nightmare of an ex-husband, I'm assuming with the intent to make her run. When all the while it was really sent by my own very personal, very deadly enemy, who not only happens to be a nightmare, in and of himself, but is also a walking madman.”

“I then find out that one of the men I used to trust with my life is working for said madman and that, given the way our organization works, everyone in our unit knows this except for me.” Taking his first breath since he’d begun, Max quickly continued with a pointed glare in both men’s direction. “A fact which I do plan to remedy as soon as I leave this place. No more secrets. No more protecting me from whatever the hell you think I can’t handle. There will be daily reports from here on out and I **will** be able to tell if you’re holding anything back.”

“Furthermore, this…” Max cast a disdainful look in Nate’s direction. “…former associate of mine doesn’t have the first clue as to why a man of pure evil would want the woman I love killed any more than he knows his butt from a hole in the ground and you expect me to remain calm??”

“I can see you’re upset.” Completely fed up, Steve’s understatement prompted a harsh chuckle as Max threw up his hands in disgust and turned his back on his men, walking toward the window. Steve glanced at Nate and shook his head indicating Nate should let Steve be the one to sooth the ruffled feathers of their leader.

Stuffing his hands in his pockets, Steve approached Max slowly. “Ok. So, I can be an idiot at times.” Standing side by side with Max, Steve glanced over at his leader as Max’s eyes were firmly fixed on the apparent darkness beyond the window. “Everyone’s been telling me just how important this…Liz is to you. I guess I didn’t realize you were in this deep.”

Max’s eyes flickered with emotion though his expression gave away nothing.

“Look, Max…maybe it’s best if you just…”

“Don’t.” The harsh command rumbled through Max’s voice. His jaws tightened. “Don’t tell me to stay out of it. Don’t tell me to lay low.” Max turned to face Steve, powerful emotions raced through his eyes as they sparked golden. “And don’t ever tell me to walk away from her.”

Steve’s sincere gaze met Max’s unwaveringly as he shook his head. “I wouldn’t dream of it.” Seeing Max visually relax, Steve continued quietly. “What I will suggest though is that you don’t let the panic you’re feeling right now hinder your judgement. You’re gut is telling you to trust us…**your** crew, Max. Go with it.”

Silently, Max nodded before turning back to Nate. "So, what, if anything, have you figured out as to Darian's plans?"

Taking that as his cue to finally tell what he did know, Nate took a deep breath and spilled whatever beans were left. "Right now, he's trying to determine just how deep the two of you are. How far you're willing to run or stay for each other. From what he's seen so far, he's pleased."

Max paused a moment to process Nate's words. "Because?"

"He can use you against each other."

Nate's chilling words caused Max to swallow hard, his question barely breathed. "How?"

"That's the question of the hour." Nate responded as his gaze shifted to Steve, signaling for his continuance.

"We're thinking that at this point, Darian is getting…desperate." Steve commented quietly before continuing to explain. "He's sick, Max. Really sick. The reason he left the compound so suddenly earlier is because he needed to be flown to a specialist that's been overseeing his case."

"How bad is he?"

"He's dying."

"I see. And let me guess…" A sarcastic smirk touched Max's lips. "…he's setting his affairs in order by starting with my torture and death."

"That pretty much sums it up." Steve concurred evenly.

Max let out a deep sigh and ran his fingers through his hair, his thoughts a sudden whirl of activity. "I still don't see why Liz and Jaedan. Other than the obvious."

"I honestly don't know yet." Nate ventured suddenly. "He blames her for something that happened to him in the past. What…I've not been able to weasel out of anyone. But I promise you, I will find out. As I will about the Code and his experiments." Nate paused before continuing. "Look…if it makes you feel any better, there is one thing he's made very clear…the little girl is not going to suffer."

"Not suffer." Max repeated scornfully. "And you believe him? God, Nate, the man will only keep her safe till he's through with…whatever he has planned. And in the process, she'll lose her mother and every other person she loves. Darian will make sure of it. You honestly think she's not going to suffer when all is said and done?"

"Max, look." Once more the mediator, Steve stepped in to calm a brewing storm. "It's obvious Liz and Jaedan are important…"

"Important?" Max repeated as his eyes snapped with protective fire. His voice intensified with each emphasized word. "They are my life, Steve. My future. My family. Darian even gets the chance to lay one finger on either of them…I will show no mercy to him or anyone else that stands in my way of protecting them." He paused, the determination edging his voice. "And that includes you because I am holding you both personally responsible if anything happens to them."

Steve and Nate exchanged glances once more. Something Max said triggered an unspoken message between the two. There was a slight nod of Nate's head. Steve's jaw hardened as his eyes met Max's with utmost seriousness. "Alright. We take the oath."

Max swallowed hard and blinked in surprise. It had been years since anyone had mentioned the oath. Years since Max had even thought about it. It went beyond mere camaraderie. Beyond a team working together to accomplish a successful mission. It was the most sacred, solemn promise between a band of self-made brothers. Each life willingly pledged in sacrifice to protect the most innocent. To protect family.

His gaze shifted from Steve to Nate as a lump instantly lodged in his throat. Nate responded to the question in Max's golden eyes with the equally solemn pledge. "We both do."

"Are…are you sure?"

Shrugging nonchalantly, Nate's gaze shifted uncomfortably. "Like I said, I know them. Just because they've had the dumb luck of falling in love with you doesn’t mean they should pay for it with their lives. So, I'll protect them with mine if need be."

A moment of silence. Max accepted Nate's pledge with a slight nod of his head.

Steve stuck out his hand, palm up. The six-pointed star stared up at Max. "Yours is mine...family, one and all. My life for yours. My life for theirs."

Nate's hand topped Steve's, adding yet another star. "Yours is mine…family, one and all. My life for yours. My life for theirs."

Max slipped his hand over Nate's, his voice thick with emotion. "Yours is mine…family, one and all. My life for yours. My life for theirs."

A moment of silence followed as each man felt the weight of the pledge they'd just made with their lives. Steve was the first to speak in an attempt to lighten the mood and keep their exposure to a minimum. "I think its time we let Nate get some sleep if he’s going to have the strength to get us everything we need to bring Darian Wolfe down."

Max nodded silently.

"Besides…" Steve's dancing eyes met Max's. "…we need to head out ourselves. I hear you've got quite a situation brewing back home that I'm supposed to help with. I can't wait to meet this Liz of yours, Max."

A smile of adoration slipped across his lips as Max's expression softened for the first time as his mind was clearly captured by the image of a woman he couldn’t wait to see again. "All I can say is…prepare to fall in love, my friend. Prepare to fall in love…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
L.A. Warehouse
Sunday 4:30 pm


Vaughn paced impatiently in the cage of the warehouse. He was not expecting this meeting with Sydney to go smoothly. Especially not after her reaction to him being in her apartment.

Running his fingers through his hair, Mike let out a sigh. There was simply no way this meeting had any hope of being good. Nada. Zilch. No way, Jose. "Focus." The whisper word slipped out as if it had the power to keep his heart from filling with dread.

It didn't.

Then again, he doubted anything would at this point. There was so much that had to be left unsaid between him and Sydney. So much, that if he could just allow himself to give in…

But, that was impossible. Protocol, the mission of bringing SD-6 down, Sydney's life…all very good reasons not to even think about telling her how he really felt about her. But oh, how he wanted to.

It was in that moment he envied Max Evans.

For a man absolutely, completely surrounded with reasons not to let his feelings show, Max Evans thumbed his nose at all of them, faced Liz with open arms and handed her his heart. No fear. No regrets. Just…love.

How Mike wished he could do the same.

The click of heels against concrete alerted Vaughn to Sydney's presence long before he saw her. Taking a deep, steeling breath, he braced himself against a shipment stacked high behind him, his gaze fixed on the floor.

The cage door opened. She entered and closed it behind her. Vaughn never once looked up. Not even as she approached him.

Her spiked shoes were the first thing that caught his attention. The thin laces wrapping around her ankles drew his gaze immediately to the long, shapely legs exposed beneath a red skirt that snuggly hugged her hips then flared slightly an inch above her knee. Vaughn instantly wet his lips as his widened gaze shifted slowly upward to take in the seductively fitted bodice attached to the skirt clinging to Sydney's body. He swallowed hard at the neckline that plunged much lower than 'just business' ever would. Her exposed skin caused his heart to thud loudly in his chest.

Mouth suddenly going dry, Vaughn's gaze finally reached her face. That beautiful face. Those soft brown eyes full of…

Vaughn swallowed hard.

Desire.

"Hi." Sydney smiled.

Vaughn opened his mouth to speak. Nothing came out. His darkening gaze swept over her once more as he cleared his throat. "Going out on a date?"

Sydney shook her head slightly and took one step closer. "The only date I have…is with you."

The breath froze in his chest. "Syd…Syd, we can't…"

Sydney placed a stilling finger against his lips. "I know it goes against all protocol. I know it's dangerous and I know you are terrified to death something is going to happen to me." She gave him a pointed look. "Well, it's not. And you can call that arrogance or stupidity or just plain foolishness if you want, but the simple truth is, Michael…you make me feel. For the first time in a very long time."

Vaughn's protest was a labored whisper. "Sydney, think of the risk. We slip up just once and it's your life on the line."

Sydney took one step closer, her body a breath away from connecting with his. She gazed into his eyes steadily. "It's worth it for me."

Placing his hands on her shoulder, head shaking slightly and pain ripping through his expression, Vaughn pushed Sydney a stop back. "Well, it's not for me. Don't you get it? You're the one out in the field. I'm the one with the cushy desk job. If someone is going to get caught, it will be you. And then you'll be dead. Where does that leave me?"

"With everything I had to give." Syd moved forward again, this time taking Vaughn's face gently in her hands. The plea in her eyes nearly made him come undone. The plea in her voice did. "Michael… I want to feel alive again. Because of you. Please don't ask me to stop."

Hesitantly, Vaughn's arms circled her waist as he pulled her closer. One last protest wavered on his lips. "If we cross this line…"

A sly, knowing smile lit her eyes. "It just might make us happier than we've ever been." Her gaze dropped to his lips as she leaned forward. "Cross the line with me, Michael. Cross the line…and don't look back."

When Michael Vaughn's touched hers for the very first time, he knew he would never look back again.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
LA Max's firehouse
5:00 pm


Tess Harding couldn’t let it go.

The woman seemed so familiar to her. So…familiar.

Pacing back and forth in Max's room, she couldn't put her finger on what it was that bugged her so much about the petite brunette that just left Max's door. Mind choosing and discarding faces from dinner parties and business meetings through the years, her memory eventually wandered back into a distant past. A past where Max Evans had never existed but a man named Chris Santoro did. A brutal man with a wife Tess Harding despised.

Eyes widening in sudden realization, Tess quickly found the phone in Max's bedroom, picked it up and began to dial a well-known number. As soon as the familiar voice came on the line, Tess began to bark orders. "Get this down and do research. I want to know everything you've got on Liz…"

An arm shot out around her and disconnected the call with lightning speed. Tess spun around with a shocked gasp to stare up into the blazing eyes of Max Evans. Her face broke into a smile. "Max!"

Max didn't return the favor. "Tess, what the hell are you doing here? How did you find me?" For the first time, he really took in her appearance. Which only made his anger grow. "What the hell are you doing in my shirt and who exactly were you talking to?"

Taken a bit back by the untamable rage she saw in his eyes, Tess took a slight step back and replaced the phone. Her practiced pout and batting eyelashes did nothing to help her case. She didn't seem to notice. "Max, darling…what do you expect? You disappear for months on end without calling or returning any of my calls. I was worried about you. So, I did a little investigating and found out where you were." She flashed him a smile. "And…here I am."

"Yes. I can see that." Max's droll tone and crossed arms did not bode well for Tess. Max's mind was in overdrive. To have Tess show up now with everything else going on, well…Max simply was not in the mood to deal. Tess' romantic delusions could be placed on hold for a moment though, since another issue loomed large in his mind. He could have sworn she was getting ready to say Liz's name to whoever was on the other end of the phone. "Who was on the phone and what did they want?"

Batting her lashes, Tess took a slight step forward. "Actually, I was placing the call." Her penetrating gaze bore into his. "Ever hear the name Liz Parker."

Max tried hard to control his expression as he shrugged nonchalantly. "No. Should I have?" He managed to say the words without the fear rippling through him making it to his voice. Or his expression. Or even his body language. Everything about him was carefully controlled. Except for his eyes.

Tess instantly caught the flash of emotion and it triggered yet another memory. One more recent. In a gallery in a place called New Haven. Max had the same look in his eyes then…when he was watching a petite brunette slip out his reach. Tess immediately pounced on her prey. "I'm not sure. I thought you knew her. She stopped by earlier today looking for you."

A dark eyebrow raised with barely a hint of interest. Tess continued. Pressing buttons she sensed were ripe for use. "I told her you were unavailable. That we both were actually." She took another step forward. "I told her…" Slipping her arms lightly around Max's waist, Tess gazed up into his eyes. "…that we were celebrating our engagement making wild passionate love in bed and wouldn't want to be disturbed for quite a while…"

Allowing Tess to play her game, Max's expression didn't change. "Now why the hell would you tell a complete stranger that you and I were engaged when you know damn well that's the furthest thing from the truth?"

A catlike smile touched Tess' lips. "Oh, I don't think it is." Her blue eyes hardened. "No, I don’t think it is at all. Not if you don't want the world to know Liz Parker is alive and well and living right here in Los Angeles…"

Tbc…

posted on 19-Aug-2002 3:58:56 AM by Ashton
Hey all!!!

Ok. I know I said I'd be working on TWT next, but this just came to me. I couldn't decided EXACTLY how to deal with Tess so I kinda did 2 diff things. Hope this first part isn't confusing and that you enjoy it. *happy* As always would LOVE to hear what you think!!! Thanks ever sooo much for the constant support and amazing feedback!!!

Hugs,
Ashton
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 17 ~

Allowing Tess to play her game, Max's expression didn't change. "Now why the hell would you tell a complete stranger that you and I were engaged when you know damn well that's the furthest thing from the truth?"

A catlike smile touched Tess' lips. "Oh, I don't think it is." Her blue eyes hardened. "No, I don’t think it is at all. Not if you don't want the world to know Liz Parker is alive and well and living right here in Los Angeles…"


Max looked down at Tess in stunned silence.

Never in his life had he thought she would stoop so low. Or go so far. Never had he thought he could feel so much revulsion for another human being. And a female, at that.

He was wrong.

His skin began to crawl and his stomach churned. Not for himself. Not for what Tess was suggesting. Not even for the blackmail she was attempting to impose on him. But for Liz. For her safety. Her fears.

Max’s mind began racing with questions. Two caused constant prickles of fear to race down his spine: How did Tess know Liz? And did she hate Liz enough to really expose her if pushed to revenge?

He’d have to handle this one with kid gloves to keep Liz safe.

Or he could just do what he really wanted and toss the nutcase out the door…

Instantly, forcefully, removing Tess' arms from around his waist, Max took a few steps back, his eyes flashing with hard determination. "Here's what's going to happen. I'm going to forget this conversation. In fact, I'm going to forget you were ever here. And in exchange, you have the use of my private jet to take you wherever you want…provided you leave LA in the next thirty minutes. And since this is a non-negotiable deal…"

Side-stepping Tess, Max headed to the phone and immediately began to dial a number. He stopped when he heard Tess' breathy whisper behind him. "Sure that's wise, Max? I still know your secret. Yours and Liz Parker's." There was a slight pause. Tess' voice dropped seductively. "Besides…if you make me leave now, how will you ever get your shirt back?"

Max spun around and blinked at the sight that greeted him. Tess was standing in the middle of his room, his shirt now pooling at her feet, completely naked. Max struggled to fight back the lump of bile that rose in his throat. It wasn't that Tess didn't have all the appropriate curves to make any man melt. Because she did. And it wasn't that Max wasn't all man when it came to seeing a beautiful woman. Because he was.

But Tess was deficient in the most important way. She wasn't Liz.

Forcing himself to play the part Tess would expect for maximum effect, Max allowed a sexy grin to spread over his lips. Taking slow, deliberate steps toward her, Max stopped only a breath away from her. His gaze lowered in apparent appreciation of the show as he let out a quiet 'wow'.

A smirk drifted over Tess' lips. Until Max's eyes snapped back up to meet hers. Cold, hard and unrelentingly distant. "Here people think I've been missing something special. Somehow…I just don't see it." In one smooth move, Max scooped his shirt off the floor and tossed it at Tess. "Keep the shirt. I have no use for it now that you've worn it."

Dropping back a few paces, Max swiftly moved to retrieve the two bags she’d placed at the end of his bed. With purposeful strides he turned to the loft bedroom’s railing and carelessly dropped each bag over the side. A flicker of satisfaction lit his eyes when he heard their loud crash on the first floor below.

With a cry, Tess rushed forward. “Max! What are you doing?!”

Ignoring her question, Max spun to face Tess, his eyes blazing with sudden intense fury. “Leave. Now. And for God's sake, put the shirt back on.”

Tess silently obeyed as her lips pouted in anger.

Max pulled out his cell phone and once more dialed a number. "Yeah, Pete. Be at my place in ten. Thanks."

Quickly recovering from the shock of Max’s treatment of her, a treatment that could only be prompted by the obviously raw nerve she hit by mentioning Liz Parker, Tess cocked an arrogant eyebrow at him. “Not so fast. I believe we have a proposal on the table.”

Hands clenching at his sides, Max’s lips tightened. “You know…if I weren't so pissed right now, this might…on some level…actually be comical."

“Max…” Tess took a step forward.

She stopped abruptly at Max’s barked command. "Stay."

One more step forward and Max raised a pointed finger along with a furious eyebrow. "I **said** stay."

Irritation flickered through Tess’ blue eyes and she placed her hands on her hips. "I'm not a puppy, Max."

"Then stop acting like one." Max shot back heatedly. Tess looked as if she were ready to move once more and Max’s jaws tensed, his voice low and commanding. "I swear to God, Tess, if you come any closer I will not be responsible for my actions and you might just follow your bags over that railing."

Tess took a step back and swallowed hard. "I've…I’ve never seen you this angry before."

"That's because you've never done anything so blatantly infantile before. Not to mention despicable, glaringly idiotic and downright pathetic.” Max’s denouncement came in rapid-fire succession.

Despite the tense cloud of contention that descended between them, Tess couldn’t control the flicker of victory in her eyes. “It’s because of her isn’t it? It’s because of Liz Parker. I’ve threatened to expose her little secret and you can’t stand it.”

“No, Tess.” Shaking his head emphatically, his tone hardened as he forced himself to not picture the pain in Liz’s eyes when she saw Tess answer his door. In his shirt. With a ridiculous story that Liz Parker in all of her unfounded insecurity would most likely believe. “It isn’t about her. And you know why it isn’t? Because I have **no** idea who the hell you are talking about!”

Tess flipped her curls with a toss of her head as she continued to press her point. “Then why are you so angry?”

“Why?” Disbelief raced through Max’s expression. “You show up unannounced and uninvited. You make yourself at home, lie to perfect strangers about the level of our relationship which, by the way, is non-existent. Then on top of that, you try to blackmail me into marriage.” Max threw his arms out in frustration. “Blackmail, Tess? Where the hell do you get off thinking you could force me into marrying you? For any reason? And especially over something I know nothing about!”

“You can’t fool me, Max.” Tess crossed her arms in front of her. “I know you know her. I know you want her. I know…”

“What, Tess?” Max interrupted heatedly. “What exactly do you know? Have you ever met this woman before? Did she actually say her name was Liz Parker? Or have you simply gone of the deep end with your delusional fantasies about you and me and assume I am involved with every woman that happens to knock on my door?”

Throwing his hands up in the air, Max shook his head. "You know what? Don't even bother to answer that. Because it doesn't really matter. I don't know this woman. I'm certainly not marrying you to keep whatever you think she's done under wraps. And you have a plane to catch."

Tess crossed her arms in front of her. "I'm not leaving."

A harsh chuckle escaped Max. His eyes darkened dangerously. His voice lowered to deliberate determination. "The hell you aren't."

He reached her in two strides, hoisted her over his shoulder and carried her down the spiral staircase kicking and screaming to put her down. Once downstairs Max headed straight for his front door, swung it open and dumped Tess on the step, slamming the door behind her.

Less then ten seconds later, the door opened again and her two bags joined her in disheveled shock. Tess looked up at Max as he dropped one last item...a big fat rejection. "I would thank you for stopping by, but the only thing this little invasion of yours has given me is a great suggestion."

Tess blinked up at him in utter confusion. Max's eyes began to dance as a smirk raced across his lips. "Making wild, passionate love to my fiancee'." A wicked smile deepened in his eyes. "By the way, I'll be sure to tell Liz you said hello…" With a final wink, Max Evans closed and locked the door on Tess Harding for good.


Max felt his own inward sigh.

If only he **could** act on every impulse coursing through him and toss Tess out on her rear. If only the fantasy running through his mind could be reality. If only he didn't have to think about his actions affecting Liz in the most adverse of ways…

Max looked down at Tess in stunned silence. The ringing of his cell phone interrupted his glorious fantasy and subsequent decision on how exactly to handle a petulant, blackmailing Tess Harding.

He clicked his phone on. “Max here.”

“It’s me." Alex usually calm voice sounded rushed. "I know Tess is there and I have a solution on the way.”

“What?” Max inquired, his narrowed gaze resting on Tess who was taking in his every move.

There was a smile in Alex's voice. “It’s a surprise. Do me a favor…play nice enough to get her talking about her past with Liz. You just might learn something."

"Got it." Max nodded, his eyes locking with Tess. He ran a finger down the curve of her cheek as he purposefully lowered his gaze to the top of his unbuttoned shirt. "Look, I need to go. I'm in a very important meeting, so…"

"Good boy." Recognizing the playboy tone in Max's voice, Alex chuckled. "Play her like the fool she is. Call as soon as she's gone. Over…"

"And out." Max finished seconds before he clicked off his phone and deposited it back in his pocket. Max wrapped his arms around Tess' waist and gazed down at her, forcing a smile. "Now…where were we?"

"We were discussing our future." Tess nearly purred.

"Ah, yes." Max responded. "Our future." Running his hands up Tess' back then down again, his grin deepened. "You know, I just had a revelation."

"Oh?" A blonde eyebrow raised. "And what would that be?"

Tilting his head to the side, Max appeared to be appreciating every feature of her face and every hidden curve of her body. "That you look pretty hot in my shirt."

"I thought you'd see things my way." Tess breathed as she leaned her body into Max's. Her piercing gaze met his knowingly. "Especially after I mentioned Liz Parker." Her blue eyes dance with mischievous triumph. "She must really have you hooked."

Max couldn't hide the bob of his adam's apple at the mention of Liz's name. Tess didn't miss a beat.

Taking his silence as a signal she had him right where she wanted him, Tess began to press her point answering at least one of the silent questions racing through Max's mind. "You know, I have no problem telling the world Liz Parker's little secret. In fact, it would be quite a pleasure after what she's done to me."

Forcing his voice to remain calm and his expression barely curious, Max shrugged casually. "And what would that be?"

A slight smirk appeared on Tess' face. "She stole my man."

Max's voice lowered seductively as he leaned in close to Tess. "Isn't that what we're trying to remedy right now…"

Tess' words stopped him cold. "I wasn't talking about you."

Max's expression faltered. His eyes flickered with confusion and his heart began to pound in uncertainty. It wasn't possible that Tess knew Chris…was it? Is that what Alex what had meant about him learning something? Or had there been someone else…

Seeing she had his full attention, Tess' story began. "I knew her in boarding school." Her mind wrapped in the past, Tess released Max and side-stepped him beginning an even, reflective pacing in front of the bed behind him. "She was nothing then. Klutzy, unattractive, no talent. She was this meek, mousy little thing that barely spoke to anyone. A loner. The only time a guy looked at her was to make fun of her. The girls, only when we wanted to play a practical joke. And she deserved every last one."

"Then…she was discovered. A painter. A musician. She became an overnight sensation. Her entire image changed." Tess' voice hardened. "People couldn’t get enough of her. Interviews. Concerts. Photo shoots. She drew attention that she should have never had." A harsh chuckle escaped her. "I warned her she'd better enjoy the ride because it would be short-lived. She didn't have what it would take to be anything more than a flash in the pan."

"And that's what she would have been. If not for Chris." At the softening in Tess' voice, Max, who had been listening intently, turned around. Focused on the past, Tess didn't even notice. "Everything was so perfect. He was an associate of Daddy's. The best lover I've ever had. We were going to be married. He promised me we would. It's the reason I gave myself to him. My very first time was with Chris Santoro and it was magnificent."

A sneer curled her lips and her eyes hardened to blue steel. "Then he met her. He met her and everything changed."

Max swallowed hard and managed a quiet 'how'?

Tess' gaze snapped up to meet his. "How? He became obsessed with her. With being with her. Having her. She didn't have enough sense to give him what he wanted which made him only want her more."

"What happened?"

"He got her eventually." The loathing in Tess' voice surprised even Max. "The way any man gets a woman. He pretended to be what she wanted. He lied. Told her all the pretty things she wanted to hear. All the things he never said to me."

"I don't understand." Max commented quietly. "I thought you said he promised to marry you."

"He did." Tess snapped back. "But he never lied to me about who he was. I knew. From his business with Daddy. I knew he was ruthless and rough. I knew the charm could turn to danger in a heartbeat. I **knew** Chris Santoro. **I** was his equal. She was a fragile little nothing that became someone just by hanging on his arm. His possession. The shiny star that he couldn't get enough of. Or let out of his sight."

"Sounds a little twisted to me." Max ventured, managing somehow to keep his own loathing out of his voice.

Blue eyes turned to ice. "Twisted is what she did to him. She tortured him with her flagrant flirtations. Made a mockery of his love. And then…she turned on him and sent him to prison."

A dark eyebrow raised. "Prison?" Max's tone was all innocence. "What for?"

A smirk touched Tess' lips. "What's this? Little Lizzie hasn't told you her sob story yet?" Flipping her hair behind her shoulders, Tess' face scrunched up in disgust. "She claimed she was married to a mobster."

"Wasn't she?"

Tess' voice hardened. "It doesn't matter. As his wife, she had no right to dishonor him in public the way she did. She had no right to send the man who gave her everything to prison simply because she couldn't live by the…" Tess stopped herself, her expression clouded with fear.

Max instantly picked up on her hesitancy and a few puzzle pieces began to fall into place. "Couldn't live by the what, Tess?"

Shaking her head, Tess' gaze lowered. "I've already said too much."

Max saw his opening to turn things around. "Well, if that's the case, I don't see how you think you can expose this woman for whatever you think she's doing now without saying even more. Do you?"

A flicker of amusement raced through her eyes. "Nice try. But that still doesn't get Liz Parker…or you…off the hook."

Shrugging, Max took a step forward and poured as much sincerity into his expression as he could muster. "I honestly don't see myself as 'on the hook', Tess. I don't know this woman that you're talking about. I swear."

Eyes narrowing suspiciously, Tess shook her head in disbelief. "Then who was keeping your interest in New Haven? I know there was someone there, Max. I saw the look in your eyes that day in the gallery when that brunette left. You look like you'd just had your heart stolen. And after that, you couldn't wait to get me out of town fast enough."

Max let out a sigh and ran his fingers through his hair. It seemed the time had come. Honesty being the best policy and all, Max took a deep breath…and lied. "There was someone. You're right. But her name wasn't Liz Parker. It was V Cosmorelli. I met her on a business deal and was instantly attracted. I pursued her for a while, but she was involved with someone else. Someone she truly loved and didn't want to give up. Not even for me. So, I gave up instead."

"And then found your way out here. To LA for two months. Where Liz Parker just happens to be." Sarcasm laced Tess' statements.

"I've not been here for two months, Tess. In fact, I only got into town this past week." Max's calm rationale answers were putting doubts in Tess' eyes. "I only bought this place because I'm considering a sizeable, long term business purchase here and need a base of operation." Holding his hands up in an attitude of surrender, Max flashed her a winning smile. "Honest. I am not here on any romantic missions. It's all strictly business."

One more step forward, his eyes wide and innocent. "And I swear to you, I know nothing about anyone named Liz Parker." Allowing a small smile to play on his lips, Max's stomach knotted at the thought he just might have to kiss her to prove his point. "But I have to say, I'm rather touched you'd go through so much trouble just to be with me. Do you really want to marry me that much? Enough to…blackmail me into it?"

Tess nearly melted. Gazing up into his eyes, her own softened with emotion. "You're the only one I've wanted in…forever, Max. Of course I want to marry you. I…love you. I've dropped more than enough hints, but you've just not been paying attention."

"Well, I'm paying attention now." Max whispered as he reached out and touched her face. "So, convince me."

A sly grin spread over Tess' face as she leaned in to Max, her lips only moments from meeting his. As her arms wrapped around his neck, Max squeezed his eyes shut awaiting the coming onslaught with inner dread and praying with all his might Alex 's plan wouldn't wait too much longer to show up.

As if his prayers were answer, the loud ringing of a doorbell below sent a ripple of relief racing through him. He instantly pulled back from Tess. Donning an appropriately apologetic expression, Max pretended to be disappointed in the interruption with a quiet 'damn' muttered under his breath and eager to return to her with a light kiss on her cheek. "I'll get rid of whoever it is and then…" Another light kiss. "…I'm all yours." One last wink and Max disappeared through the bedroom doorway.

Bounding down the steps, Max threw open the door and grinned when he recognized the two faces on the other side of the door. Acutely aware that Tess, in all likely hood was listening above, Max kept his tone abrupt and professional. "Yes? May I help you?"

"Are you Max Evans?" Steve Gordon's eyes twinkled with mischief as they began to put the plan Alex mapped out for them into play.

Max nodded. "Yes. And you are…"

Steve flipped open an impressively official looking badge. "Ted Sanders. FBI." Turning to his 'partner' who nodded to Max with a grin of acknowledgment, Steve introduced Duke. "This is my partner, Pete Macey. I'm sorry to interrupt you, Mr. Evans, but we have information that there is a Tess Harding on the premises. Is that true?"

Instantly curious to the game plan and obviously unable to ask, Max shrugged and played the part of reluctant host. "Maybe. May I ask what the FBI would want Ms. Harding for?"

Duke spoke up. "That's confidential. If Ms. Harding is here, it would be best that she, and I might add that you too, sir, cooperate with the Federal government. To do anything less at this point could prove to be…detrimental…to any further inquisitions."

"Well, then. By all means. Neither of us have anything to hide." Max instantly stepped aside and called up the staircase. "Tess! Can you come down here please? There are a couple of gentlemen from the FBI that are looking for you."

After a few moment's wait, Tess sashayed her way down the stairs with a toss of her hair. Sidling up to Max, she wrapped a possessive arm through his. "Yes?"

"Are you Tess Harding?" Steve asked with a quick glance in Max's direction.

"Yes."

Steve flipped open his badge once more. "Ted Sanders. FBI. Ma'am, I'm afraid to inform you of this but you'll need to come with us."

Instantly alert, Tess' eyes narrowed. "What for?"

"Questioning." Duke entered into the conversation. "There seems to be a few discrepancies in our records. I’m sure it's all a misunderstanding and should only take a small amount of your time to clear up."

Tess' brows furrowed. "Records? What would the FBI have records on me for?"

"That is something we can discuss with you down at headquarters." Casting a glance in Max's direction, Duke's implication was clear. "Alone."

Tess looked up at Max, for the first time with pure fear in her eyes. "Max, I…I don’t…I have no idea…"

Covering her hand with his, Max's voice lowered reassuringly. "It's ok. I'm sure they're right and it's all one big misunderstanding. Why don't you go on with them and I'll be down as soon as I can."

"You might want to contact a lawyer." Duke inform Max, his voice sounding low and ominous. "Just a precaution."

"Max…" Fear raced through her voice as Tess swallowed hard. Steve stepped up next to her and wrapped an authoritative hand around her elbow. "Max, don’t let them take me…"

"Shh, Tess." Max leaned down, his voice sincere and reassuring. "I promise I'll take care of things. Just do what they say for now and I'll get you out as soon as possible."

With that final promise, Tess was ushered out the door, her curls bouncing and her blue eyes full of terror fixed on Max as he shut the door behind her. The moment the car carrying Tess and Max's two cohorts was out of the driveway, Max pulled out his phone and rang Alex.

"What took you guys so long?" Was the first question Max asked.

Alex chuckled. "We got on it as soon as possible. I tried timing it according your past performances. You didn't have to do anything too disgusting did you?"

"No, thank God." Max answered with a roll of his eyes. "If that door bell hadn't rung when it did though, I'd be owing you a big fat lip because we were on the verge of kissing."

"Riiight." Alex commented. "Like kissing her was going to kill you."

"Kissing anyone after knowing what kissing Liz is like…" Max let out a sigh. "I'm telling you, Alex, it'd be torture." Max quickly switched topics back to Tess' current fate. "So where are they taking her?" Moving to his office area in the back of the firehouse, he began sifting through faxes.

"Hotel room where she'll be pampered for days." Alex responded with a grin.

"And interrogated?"

"Like her life depends on it." Alex answered back before asking a question of his own. "Do you mind? We didn't go too far did we?"

Before Max could answer that, he had a few questions of his own. "Did Liz really come to my place?"

"Yes."

"Was Tess wearing nothing my shirt?"

"Yes."

"Did Tess imply we were together?"

"Yes."

"Is Liz upset?"

"Very."

"In that case, you didn't go far enough." Max grinned deviously. "Nix the pampering. Her diet for the next few days should be military standard. And interrogation should be very intense. Find out everything she knows about Liz, Chris…anything."

"Speaking of which…" Alex prompted. "Did you learn anything?"

Max grew serious for the first time since the conversation began. "Yeah. She and Chris were lovers before he married Liz. They planned on marriage. Liz changed all that. Her father and Chris were in business together."

"Which means Mr. Harding is involved in the mob."

"I wouldn't put it past him to have a few side-businesses that are not run legitimately." Max answered flatly. "Tess blames Liz for Chris being in jail."

"Makes sense since she's the one who testified." Alex commented rationally.

"Yes, but…" Max paused in thought. "…it was more than that, Alex. She mentioned Liz dishonoring her husband. That she…couldn't live by…something. She wouldn't say what though. She actually looked a bit frightened to say it."

Alex was instantly interested. Unaware that Max knew of the team's extra-curricular activities with Darian Wolfe, Alex mentioned a term Max was beginning to know well. "Could it have been that Liz wasn't living by the 'Code'?"

Max instantly tensed. "That's exactly what I was thinking." His eyes darkened with irritation. "But if that were the case then that would be something bigger then the mob now wouldn't it? Especially since Darian Wolfe has a Code he apparently lives by? And we both know Darian's into stuff that's way beyond the Organization."

There was a moment of stunned silence. Then Alex began to speak. "Ok. So, you know about Darian."

"Gee. What was your first clue?" Max responded sarcastically.

"Max, we were going to tell you."

"You're damn right you're going to tell me." Max's voice hardened with authority. "Every day from now on until this thing is over. I want daily reports. Steve and Nate already know. You'll pass the message on to Kyle and I'll let Duke know."

"Max, are you sure about this?" Alex's voice edged with concern. "That'll put you right back in the center of things."

"Daily reports, Alex." The determination in Max's voice rippled over the phone line. "My entire future is riding on this and I'll be damned if I'm going to let you guys run things without knowing what the hell is going on. Liz and Jaedan deserve nothing less than my direct involvement. So, nothing, and I mean **nothing** is be left out, got it?"

"Yeah, I got it." Alex let out a resigned sigh. His mind instantly drifted to the one secret none of them would dare spill to Max yet. Quickly switching topics, Alex brought the conversation back to their current problem. "So, uh…did you learn anything else from your time with Tess?"

"Yes." Max's softened perceptibly. "I learned just how much I miss Liz. After the weekend I've had, all I want is to hold her in my arms. So, to come home and find Tess, well, that wasn't exactly what I'd hoped for. In fact, if you hadn't called when you did, I might have gone with my baser instincts and tossed her out on her rump in her birthday suit."

"Yeah, well, Liz has had a rough weekend too." Alex commented. "Took me forever to convince her to follow through with her plans for tonight."

"Her plans?"

"Yeah, she's going to a party."

An eyebrow rose in surprise. "A party? What like an actual party, party?"

Alex chuckled. "Yeah. It's a friend's birthday. They're heading out to a karaoke bar."

"You're kidding." Max began to grin. "Man, I'd love to see her in party mode."

"Max…"

Max ignored the warning tone of Alex's voice. "Where's the party going to be?"

"You know, she's pretty upset about Tess…" Alex began but was quickly interrupted by the confidence in Max's voice.

"I can handle her, Alex. Just tell me where the party is."

Letting out a loud sigh, Alex acquiesced. "Fine, but don't say I didn't warn you…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Michael Vaughn let out a low whistle the moment Liz opened the door. Gaze taking her in from head to toe, his eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. "Wow. I mean…seriously wow."

Hair piled on top of her head in a messy ponytail, a few wavy strands hung loosely around the curves of her face showcasing her best features. With just the right amount of make-up, her eyes were bright, cheeks flushed, and her lips full and red. The see-through black lace top had a dipped neckline and was short cropped showing off her firm, tan stomach just above the black leather mini- skirt hanging low on her hips and hugging her curves snuggly. Leather, thigh-high boots completed the outfit that oozed sexy, fun party girl.

Liz grinned and cocked an eyebrow at him. "Watch it, Mike. Sydney might get jealous."

At the mention of Sydney's name, Vaughn's gaze lowered uncomfortably. "Did she uh…"

"She told me what happened." Liz answered, her expression sobering. "Sounded pretty intense."

Mike swallowed hard and nodded. "I just…I couldn't put her in danger like that. I thought I could do it…follow through, start something, but…" His worried gaze met hers. "Is she uh…"

"She's hurt, but she'll be ok." Liz quickly assured him. A slight shake of her head, Liz's sympathetic gaze met his. "You kissed her, Mike. That's…pretty big."

"Yeah." Gaze glued to the porch he was standing on, Mike shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. "It was…a mistake."

"Sydney doesn't think so."

Mike's head snapped up defensively. "Well, it was. We can't…ever do that again. She knows the rules and…and she knows the danger…."

"And she wants you anyway." Liz answered softly. Letting out a sigh, Liz's eyes dulled perceptibly. "As least she knows what's waiting for her at the end of the road. Max has no idea." A harsh chuckle and Liz shook her head. "Not that it matters about Max any more anyway."

Mike's brows furrowed with concern. "What do you mean?"

Liz swallowed hard, her gaze lowering. "I stopped by his place today and who should open his door?" A wry smile curled her lips upward. "A beautiful blonde wearing nothing but his shirt."

"Oh." Vaughn's eyes clouded with sympathy, then brightened with a hint of hope. "Well, maybe it's not what you think. Maybe it's just an old friend…"

Letting out a sigh, Liz shook her head. "I know this woman. I knew her a long time ago. When she wants a man, she gets that man and believe me, she wants Max." Shrugging her shoulders, Liz's voice hardened. "I guess he really meant it when he said I was just business now."

"Liz, I'm sorry."

Flashing Mike a smile, Liz forced herself to not feel the dull ache wrapped around her heart. "I think what you and I need, Michael Vaughn, is to get away from all the decisions and confusion and pain and just…"

"Have fun?"

"Yeah." Liz nodded with a widening grin. "I'm ready to dance a certain man out of my system. How about you?"

Vaughn grinned. "Well, I don't know about the man part…"

Chuckling, Liz wrapped her hand through his offered arm. "Let's party!"

"You got it, Cinderella." With a wink and a smile, Michael Vaughn ushered Liz into the night.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Dancing Max out of her system was not the only thing Liz Parker did at the party.

She drank. A lot. When Eric approached her for her promised song, Liz strutted up on stage without a hint of hesitation, fear or doubt. Commanding the microphone, her soft tones filled the place and silenced the audience in awe. Her second song was a spirited selection, and the place began to rock to the sounds of her voice, then stilled when Liz moved to a piano on stage.

Concerned about over-exposure, Mike attempted to get her to come down from the stage, but she just waved him off with a smile. As her fingers began to magically move over the keys, Liz's eyes drifted closed and the audience instantly felt they were in the midst of a master.

Then she began to sing again.

The words of a poem written to her, delivered to her door, signed by a man she was desperately trying to forget.

Max walked into the bar at that precise moment and halted abruptly.

He knew that voice. Recognized each tone. Felt each note piercing his body. Causing his soul to come instantly alive. Making his heart dance in perfect time.

Then to his utter amazement, he recognized even more.

His own words, captured on paper, filling the room, accompanied by a tune he'd never heard before. His heart stopped beating. His mind went numb. His soul swelled with pride and love. His words, her melody. Creating a perfect song of desire, pursuit and devotion.

As if sensing his presence, Liz's eyes drifted open and immediately found his across the crowded room. Shining brightly, the midnight eyes flickered with emotion as the music swelled to a grand crescendo then drifted into a haunting silence. Gaze still locked on Max, Liz rose from the piano, oblivious to the thunderous applause and calls for more. She descended the stage and headed straight for the one person she'd not been able to forget, despite her desperate attempts.

She stopped only a breath away from him.

Max swallowed hard. His whisper was hard to hear over the still cheering crowd. "That was…amazing."

Eyes blazing into his, Liz acknowledged the compliment with a compliment. "I had amazing material to work with." Her eyes hardened. "Too bad it was all a lie."

A flicker of pain flashed through his eyes. "I know you came by my place. I know what you saw…what you were told." Shaking his head, Max's eyes softened with sincerity as he reached out and gently grabbed her arms. "It was all a set up. A lie. I wasn't even there. I've been gone all weekend. Tess tried…"

The slap came hard and unexpected. Max's head snapped to the side and his eyes squeezed shut in pain. When he looked back at her, her eyes were clouded with hurt and bright with unshed tears. "Don't you dare say her name." Voice shaking with intense loathing, Liz's eyes shimmered with irrational jealousy. "Never again."

Aware of their increasing audience, Max ignored the stinging pain across his cheek and gently tugged on Liz's arm. "Ok. I won't. But we do need to talk." He glanced around at the curious faces. "Just not here. Let's go somewhere…"

Liz yanked her arm from Max's grasp. "Why? I have nothing to hide." Her eyes darkened with accusation. "Unlike you."

"It. Was. A. Lie." Max emphasized each word as he leaned in toward Liz and locked eyes with her. "I swear to you, nothing happened. Ever." The plea in his eyes made it to his voice preceded by a deep, weary sigh. "Look. I've had a nightmare of a weekend. The only thing that kept me going was the thought of coming home and finding you. And you know what? I didn't even care if all we did was fight or if you gave me the cold shoulder or told me to go to hell. I just wanted to be wherever you were." Capturing her face in his hands, Max's plea continued. "You are so deep into my heart there is no way what you think happened this weekend could ever happen. You've changed everything for me. I don't want her. I don't want anyone else. I only want you and if there is even an ounce of a chance that you could believe me right now…"

Max never finished his sentence. That would have required the use of his tongue, his lips. Without warning, Max found them otherwise occupied when Liz attacked him with reckless abandon.

The kiss was instantly hot and fevered. Her fingers burned against his skin before burying themselves in the hair at the nape of his neck while her body collided with his and began unconsciously moving in time with the music filling the club. Max responded instantly, pulling her into him and opening up to the sweep of her tongue as she plunged inside his hot, eager mouth. With each duel of their tongues, Max felt a responding tingle race through his spine. Every time her body brushed against his, fire exploded deep inside. His hands were searing her exposed skin and as one hand slipped up her back to support her neck, Liz let out a whimper that set Max's blood on fire. His knees nearly buckled when her gyrating hips settled against his, pressing heat against desire. Her moan of discovery nearly did him in.

Gasping for air, Liz pulled back and gazed up into Max's dazed eyes, her own clouded with too much alcohol and overwhelming passion. She licked her lips and swallowed hard, her breath coming in short, erratic pants. What she said next shocked Max more than even the kiss. What she said, was more than he had hoped for. What she said could open an entirely new world to both of them.

Lips red and swollen, eyes bright with stars, Liz Parker said the one thing Max hadn't expected when he walked in that night. "Take me home, Max. Take me home and make love to me. Prove to me just how much you want me, and I swear…I'll prove to you just how untamable I can really be…"

Tbc…


[ edited 1 time(s), last at 19-Aug-2002 4:24:09 AM ]
posted on 24-Aug-2002 4:02:14 PM by Ashton
Hey all!!!

Another part. This evening isn't over yet, just so you know. *happy* I hope you all enjoy! *happy* Please let me know what you think!!! *happy*

Hugs,
Ashton
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 18 ~


"Whoa." Eric Weiss propped an arm on Michael Vaughn's shoulder. "Now, that's what I call a liplock."

Vaughn followed the direction of Eric's pointing finger and groaned at the sight of Max and Liz involved in a rather heated make out session in the middle of a crowded bar room. "You've got to be kidding me."

"Who is…" Eric's eyes widened when Liz pulled back from Max and he got his first good view of the man kissing his 'date' for the evening. "Is that…?" His eyes widened. "That's not…" Then they narrowed. “That is!” Eric let out a low whistle. "That's Max Evans."

Sighing deeply, Mike nodded. "I know."

Eric began to grin. "Man, wouldn't I love to be in his shoes right now."

"Get a grip, Eric." Vaughn's sharp look wiped the gin off of Eric's face. "We're supposed to be protecting her not…"

Eric put his hands up in surrender. "Chill out, man. I was just teasing." His gaze shifted once more to Max and Liz. "Wonder what they're talking about."

"Whatever it is, it can't be good." Vaughn's commented worriedly.

A look of confusion passed through Eric's eyes. "Why do you say that?"

"Because it Max and Liz, that's why." Shaking his head, Vaughn put his drink down. "Those two are an explosion just waiting to happen."

Eric put a restraining hand on Mike's arm when he took a step forward. "Hey. What are you going to do?"

"Stop the fuse from getting lit." Vaughn's confident statement turned to a quiet mumble of uncertainty. "Or get caught in the crossfire trying…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Stunned.

Speechless.

Tempted beyond belief.

A million questions raced through Max's mind. Had he really just heard what he thought he heard? And if he did, what did it mean? Was Liz really ready to take their relationship to the next level? Or was this yet another side of Liz Parker he hadn't seen yet?

Well, there was only one way to find out…

Max's question came out in a heated rush. "What did you just say?"

Liz delivered the request without a blink. "I said, take me home and make love to me."

Unable to reconcile the woman he knew with the woman standing in front of him, Max asked the one question racing through his mind. "Why now?"

"Why not now?" Liz shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly. "You say you want me." Liz's statement was flippant. Reckless. Brazen. "And its not like neither of us haven't done it before. I really don't see what the big deal is."

"You don't see…" Eyes wide with disbelief, Max began then stopped himself and pulled in what he hoped would be a calming breath. It wasn't. His heart was still thumping and jarring inside his chest. His throat was closing off on him. Swallowing hard, he licked his suddenly dry lips. That's when he tasted it. The whisper of alcohol on his lips. His eyes narrowed as they locked with hers. "How much have you had to drink tonight?"

A roll of her eyes. A flip of her hair. Her eyes met his with challenge as she crossed her arms in front of her. "I'm not drunk if that's what you're implying."

"You're not?" An eyebrow rose, unconvinced.

"No."

"Fine." Max crossed his arms in front of him, mirroring Liz. "Then you'll have no problem giving me a **good** reason why I should do what you've asked."

Instant anger flared in Liz's eyes. "You know what…just forget it." The curt shake of Liz's head brought a dead emptiness to her eyes. "I knew you'd do this. You know, I offer myself to you free and clear and what do you do? Nothing. And do you know what that proves to me, Max Evans? It proves you are all talk and no action when it comes to me."

"Well, excuse me for questioning your sanity before doing something irreversible." Max shot back heatedly. "You know, your resistance of me up to this point has been beyond stellar and then all of a sudden you want me to take you home and make love to you? Out of the clear blue with no explanations. How the hell did you expect me to react?"

"Like you do with every other woman that throws herself at you." Liz's eyes darkened with irrepressible pain. "Like you did with Tess Harding this weekend."

Max squeezed his eyes shut. His jaws tensed. "I told you…**nothing** happened."

Sarcasm ripped through Liz's words. "Riiiight. And I should just…what? Pretend I don't have a brain? Or eyes? Or sense enough to know when a woman is secure enough with a man that she has no problem answering his door in his shirt?"

"God, you are the most infuriating…" Max pulled out his cell phone and began furiously punching in familiar numbers. He glared at her and tapped his foot impatiently as he waited for the other party to answer. "Hey, it's me. Sorry to interrupt your evening, but I have someone here with me who has a few questions she needs to ask. Answer each one completely and honestly."

Max handed the phone to Liz with an upraised eyebrow. "Well? Go ahead. Ask if I was in LA this weekend. Ask how I react when Tess Harding decides to drop into my life with all of her romantic delusions. Ask the last time I willing took that woman to anything let alone let her into my bed."

Challenge darkened Liz's eyes. "Believe me, Max, you do **not** want me to call your bluff."

Max smirked. "Baby…I'm praying you do…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The closer Mike got to Max and Liz, the less confident he was. There was definite fire blazing in Max's eyes and the way Liz was glaring up at him gave Mike the impression they were ready to throw down some serious weapons. Or attack each with passion previously unmatched.

He paused.

Maybe he shouldn't get involved. It was, after all, a personal decision that Liz would have to make. Whether to let Max into her life. Or not. On the other hand, she had been throwing back quite a few shots of alcohol.

Having started the evening on a recklessly determined note, Liz's record for actually listening to Mike was already dismal at best. She hadn't heeded him when he suggested she slow down on her intake of drinks. And singing…well, that was a complete disaster. He'd urged her…no, actually forbade her to not get up on stage. The withering look of warning she gave him before she took her first step in the spotlight actually sent a tingle of fear down his spine.

Perhaps it would be best if Max handled her.

Mike turned to head back to Eric when he saw Max thrust a cell phone in Liz's face. From the smirk on Max's face and the way Liz was scowling back at him with studious perfection, Mike had a feeling Max Evans was about ready to make a drastic move.

Which meant, it was time for Mike to make his…
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Eyes flashing with determination, Liz snatched the phone from Max. Fully expecting the voice of one of Max's buddies on the line, Liz emphasized her greeting. "Answer all you want, just know I'm not going to believe a word you say…"

"Kendall, dear. How nice to speak to you again." Barbara's professional tone softened. It was obvious by Liz's tone that she and Max were in the middle of another 'discussion' as Max liked to call them. Must be a big one if Max actually resorted to calling her for back up. Barbara bit back a knowing smile and jumped to the task at hand. "Max said you had a few questions…"

"Hi…Barbara." Blinking in surprise that she was, in fact, speaking with Max's assistant, Liz glanced up at Max warily. "Yeah. I uh…well, I was wondering…was Max in LA this weekend?"

"LA? No, he was out of the country." Barbara answered promptly. "I talked to him very early Saturday morning when he was in Alaska getting ready to head out. He said he had an emergency he had to take care of and if anything earth-shattering came up, I was to page him. I'm actually surprised he's back so soon. He sounded rather worried when he left. In fact, he made sure I had the red list by my side just in case something should happen because he thought it would be at least several days before he got back."

"Really?" The edge left Liz's eyes. "What uh…what is that?"

"The red list?" There was a pause in which it was clear Barbara was trying to determine if she should divulge such personal information or not. Apparently she felt it was allowed as she began to explain. "It's a list of the most important people in Max's life. Anything happens to any of them or if they need him for any reason, I'm to get in touch with him immediately no matter where he is or what he's doing." She paused, her voice lowering conspiratorially. "Your name sits at the top."

Gaze softening, Liz bit her lower lip. Damn. That was something she didn’t need to hear. Not with Max standing so close to her looking all gorgeous and sexy. Not with the way her head was beginning to swim with desire. She needed something to fight against. An excuse to push him away. To create much needed distance. Fighting to maintain the level of anger that had been building against Max since that afternoon, Liz's voice hardened perceptibly. "What about Tess Harding? Where does she fit…"

Barbara released a sigh of frustration cutting off the rest of Liz's question. "She doesn't. That woman is a complete menace. She follows Max all over the bloody place. Do you have any idea how many messages I have taken for him over the past few months from her? And does he make my job any easier by returning any of them?" Liz could practically feel Barbara roll her eyes. "Uh…no."

Her disgruntled ramble continued. "And he leaves me to make up the excuses. Honestly…how many times can one person be out buying a newspaper in a day, you know?" She let out another sigh. "I'm just glad he's finally connected with you. Maybe you can straighten him out for me."

A faint smile drifted over Liz's lips. "I'll uh…I'll try. Sorry to have bothered you with so many stupid questions."

"Don't even worry about it, dear." The smile in Barbara's voice was genuine. "Anything for the woman that's responsible for my boss slowing down on work. It's like vacation around here now that you have his entire focus. I'll owe you a debt of gratitude if you keep on doing whatever it is you're doing…for many years to come."

After quiet good-byes Liz clicked off the phone and handed it back to Max without looking at him. Her face was burning with embarrassment. She could feel his penetrating gaze settled on her face. His victorious silence was deafening.

After making such a colossal fool of herself, Liz Parker found herself wishing an earthquake would hit. Or lightning would strike. Or the floor would open up and swallow her whole. **Anything** but the humiliation she was sure to come.

Instead, she heard Max's quiet question. "Well? Do you believe me now?"

She opened her mouth to speak…

A ripple of relief raced through Liz when Michael Vaughn stepped up next to her. "Everything ok over here?"

Liz and Max responded simultaneously. With two different answers.

"No."

"Yes."

Max and Liz's eyes met. Liz took the opportunity handed to her and ran with it. So she could run from Max. Squaring her shoulders, Liz's eyes flashed with dangerous determination. "No, everything's not ok."

"Rachel…" Painfully aware they were in public, Max began with a note of warning in his voice and a plea in his eyes.

Liz ignored both. She flipped her hair behind her shoulders. "And no, I don't believe you." As the plea in his eyes turned to disbelief, Liz hastened to bolster her conclusion with an explanation. "You pay her salary for God's sake, Max…did you really expect her to tell me the **real** truth?" With that final question, Liz Parker turned on her heels and fled.

Max let out an exasperated growl and took a determined step forward.

Michael Vaughn blocked him.

Max's furious eyes connected with Michael's and for a split second, Mike felt pure fear. "If you value your life, you'll get the hell out of my way."

Masking the tremble in his voice, Vaughn stiffened and met Max's glare steadily. "And if you value hers, you'll back off now."

“If **I** value….” Incredulity raced through Max’s eyes as a smirk haunted his lips. “You have no idea who you’re talking to, do you?”

Mike immediately listed off various facts of Max’s biography, his voice lowering to keep from being overheard. “Max Evans. Formerly led the elite black ops US division of the IFCI known as the Stars. Current corporate raider, playboy and general thorn in the side of every Fortune 500 CEO. Claims to be in love with that beautiful woman that just made it very clear she isn’t interested. Has yet to prove himself to me on that point.” Mike cocked an eyebrow. “Did I cover the bases?”

“And then some." Max’s eyes narrowed. Instantly recognizing his current antagonist from a background search he'd had run on people Liz had frequently been in contact with the past two months, a light of envy flashed in his eyes. On paper Michael Vaughn was an A-class agent. In person, Max didn't like this self-proclaimed protector. At all. "So, I guess it's my turn now."

Dropping all pretense, he crossed his arms in front of him and followed Michael's expository example. "Michael Vaughn. CIA handler for secret agents, one of which happens to be the lovely Sydney Bristow. Claims not to be in love with said double agent. Of course, that's nothing but the Company line. Enjoys hockey, both playing and watching. Collaborated on several missions with Alex Whitman who has asked that you take a personal interest in protecting one very beautiful and talented Liz Parker. A request you have taken to heart, though given the amount of drinks I assume she's had, you seem to have failed miserably tonight."

Ignoring Max's intuitive remarks about Sydney, Vaughn concentrated on the mission at hand: keeping Liz from getting hurt again. "Oh, you think so?" His dimples flashed as he smirked at Max.

Eyes darkening dangerously, Max leaned in. "I know so."

Mike raised himself to his full height unconsciously. "Despite what you think, she needed tonight. She's had an amazingly rough weekend. Mostly because of you. In fact, I think it would be best for everyone if you just leave."

"Well, then." Max's gaze slipped to the bar where Liz was currently nursing a new bottle of beer. His eyes snapped back to Mike with resolve. "I guess you'll just have to get used to disappointment because…" He flashed a charmingly dangerous smile that underscored that he meant business and he was taking no prisoners. "…I’m not leaving without her."

"She doesn't want to go with you." Mike stated authoritatively.

Mock confusion knit Max's brows as he pursed his lips in thought. "I'm sorry…did I miss the announcement when you became her official spokesman?" Max's tone was cordial, but the barely controlled level of impatience in his eyes was definitely on the rise.

Mike forced a chuckle. "Oh, I'm not her spokesman. I'm just Mike." Mike's hazel eyes met Max's meaningfully. "The guy whose shoulder she cried on most of the weekend."

"Yeah?" Another flashing grin belied the jealously racing through Max's hardening eyes. "Well, I appreciate you filling in for me, but I'm home now and I'm more than capable of handling it from here on out." Max slapped Mike on the shoulder and attempted to side-step him.

"You don't get it, do you?" Mike grabbed Max's arm and whirled him around to face him. His eyes were blazing with protective fire that went much deeper than watching over a friend. "She's hurting right now because of you."

"No." Max jerked away from Mike, his voice low and dangerous. "She's hurting because she won't let herself go. She won't give in. She won't let herself be free."

"Who are you kidding?" Mike hissed. "We both know when that woman finally gives in, that's when the real hurting begins."

Instant understanding stampeded through Max's mind. There were only two reasons why Vaughn would be so desperate to keep Max away from Liz. So protective. So bold his assertions. He was either in love with Liz or he was blaming himself for putting tears in someone else's eyes and taking it out on Max.

"Are you talking about Liz…" Max's eyes flickered with anger as he followed his gut instinct. "…or Sydney."

Mike was hit. His gaze faltered. His mouth clamped shut.

Eyes dancing victoriously, Max nodded once. "Yeah. Just what I thought." Hearing Liz's tinkling laughter from across the room, Max glanced back over to where she was currently dancing with another man. Her smile was bright. Her eyes were full of laughter. Max let out an unconsciously held breath. Free. Uninhibited. Having fun. That's all Max wanted for her. Even if he wasn't the one making her feel that way.

Relinquishing a hint of control, Max nodded toward the side wall of the bar. "Tell her I'll be at that table over there when she's ready for our next round."

"What if she doesn't…"

Irritation laced Max's tone. "Fine. Tell her. Don't tell her. I really don't care." Confidence flashed in his eyes. "In fact, I hope you don't. Then maybe you'll get the picture."

"Oh? And just what picture might that be?"

"That being together for us is instinctive. Irresistible." He paused, his eyes glued to Liz across the room. As if sensing his gaze, Liz's warm brown eyes met his and held. Max's voice lowered reverently. "It's fate. I know it. And she knows it. That's why she'll find me when she's ready to let me in." Max shot Vaughn a pointed look, as a smirk of knowledge haunted his lips before he stepped away leaving three words ringing in Michael Vaughn's ears. "She always does…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Liz Parker knew exactly where he was in the room every second for the rest of the night. She saw every woman that approached him. Watched his polite, plastic smile flash as he said something and shook his head at each one. Felt a ripple of relief and satisfaction as each woman turned away with a disappointed air. She noticed the songs he seems to enjoy and the ones that completely lost his interest. She even counted how many drinks had been delivered to his table.

And she did it all without giving one hint that she was paying attention.

Or at least, she thought she did.

For the most part, Max had been enjoying the show with a great deal of amusement. He'd meant it when he told Alex he wanted to see Liz in party mode. And boy was he getting an eyefull. Strangely enough, it made him happy to see her letting down her hair and having a good time. Even if he wasn't officially invited to the party. And even if it was because she was more than a bit tipsy.

He knew she was watching him. He had to hide more than one smile when she'd glance away from him the moment his eyes would meet hers. Then he'd bit back a chuckle when she'd renew some feigned interest in one of the many guys swarming around her. The only man in that circle that wiped the grin of amusement off Max's face was Michael Vaughn. Perhaps it was the way Vaughn only danced the slow dances with her. Or the way they spoke with such ease and at times such earnestness.

Yes, Michael Vaughn was going to be a potential problem…

The ringing of Max's cell phone interrupted his thoughts. "Max here." Max strained to hear the voice over the music. "Wait. I'm sorry. I can't hear you. Just…hang on a sec." Glancing to his left, Max saw an exit sign that surely led to an alley. He took it and stepped into the crisp night air propping it open slightly so he could re-enter easily. "Hello?"

"Max."

"Steve..." Max responded with a slight smile when he recognized the voice. "I'm sorry about that. I couldn’t hear…"

"You know, if I were you I'd be apologizing for something much more serious then making me wait to complain to you."

Max's brows furrowed in concern. "What are you talking about?"

"Tess."

"Oh."

"Yeah." The irritation in Steve's voice couldn't be masked. Not that he was trying. "She is an A-class witch." Max tried not to chuckle. Steve heard his attempt. "Yeah, go ahead. Laugh now. All Duke and I have to do is let her loose and I promise you your hide will be the first one she'll hunt down."

"So, she's giving you problems huh?"

"As if you didn't know." Steve shot back heatedly. "She's demanding first-class cuisine. She made a list of the stores we need to go to in Beverly Hills so she doesn't have to spend her 'time with the government' in rags. She even gave us the name of a hair stylist, manicurist and massage therapist we need to contact if her confinement lasts longer than twenty four hours. She's treating us like freakin' servants, Max!"

"Yeah, that sounds like her." Max agreed with a grin. "So, what'd you guys do?"

"What else?" Max could hear Steve's shrug through the phone. "We brought her back a Big Mac and dropped in to the local Walmart to get her a nightie and some nail files." He paused dramatically. "She was not pleased."

Max burst into laughter.

"Max, I'm telling you…you're going to need to put in a personal appearance on this one."

Trying to sober, Max cleared his throat of the laughter. "So, how long can you keep her under wraps?"

"A day or two at the most. Any longer than that and she'll end up dead because of us will go insane and kill her."

Chuckling, Max quickly formed a plan. "Alright. This is what you do. Tell her I've been in contact with your supervisors and we're trying to straighten out the details of her release. I'll stop by tomorrow afternoon to make her think I'm really on her side and we'll discuss how to deal with her long term."

"Works for me." Steve let out a sigh. "I'm just glad that I won't be dealing with her any more tonight."

"Got a replacement?"

"Yeah." Steve answered. "Alex sent a couple of guys over so Duke and I could get some sleep. I'm actually heading to your place. I take it you're not there."

Max glanced back at the door to the club. "No, I'm on a mission of my own."

"Ah. Let me guess…Liz."

"The one and only worth pursing." Max commented with a grin.

"I'm surprised she's not given in yet." Steve remarked with a note of teasing in his voice.

"Oh, she did." Max informed Steve. "Even offered me a night of passionate love making."

Steve's voice was incredulous. "And you aren't home taking her up on it because…"

"She's drunk." Max stated simply.

"Ah." Understanding laced Steve's tone. "And Heaven forbid the Prince take advantage of such a situation."

A wry smile haunted Max's lips as his tone lowered seriously. "She's had people take advantage of her all her life, Steve. I don't want to be another name on that list."

The sincerity in Steve's voice matched Max's. "She really has you hooked, doesn't she?" Without waiting for an answer, Steve's voice lightened. "Alright, pal. I'll let you go. Sounds like you've got a damsel to rescue."

"Right. I'll make sure she gets home then I'll head back to my place. It'll probably be late so don't wait up."

Steve chuckled. "As if. We both know you won't be home tonight so I'll see you at the appointed time tomorrow." His smile deepened across the phone line. "Max. I'm going to enjoy this charade you have planned."

Max returned the smile as his eyes began to dance. "So am I, Steve. So am I…"

No sooner than Max clicked off his phone, it rang again. "Max here."

"Max. It's me."

"Carmen." Max's smile disappeared the moment he heard her voice.

"Are you good to talk?" Carmen questioned before jumping into her report after hearing Max's confirmation. "Look, I've been doing some digging on the Paker-Santoro connection and I came up with some info I thought you'd be interested in."

"Alright…" Max unconsciously held his breath. "What'd you find out?"

"Jeff Parker is a serious SOB." Carmen's statement was delivered with flat conviction.

Max swallowed hard. "Why? What exactly did he do?"

"Just what you thought." Carmen commented, her tone laced with instant loathing. "Basically sold his daughter to the devil to save his soul."

Max squeezed his eyes shut and leaned back against the wall of the club for support. Pulling in a steadying breath, Max swallowed again. "Alright. Hit me with it. And don't leave anything out."

"Ok. For you to understand just how twisted this man is you need to first know that Chris was double dipping in the female department. Seems that while he was heatedly pursing Liz Parker, he was getting some serious loving on the side with a girl named Tess Harding. Mainly because she's almost insatiable as he is and Liz wasn't putting out for him, like…at all. He had to get action from somewhere…"

"So he got it from Tess."

"Exactly." Carmen affirmed as she continued. "Anyway he could. Said he loved her and he promised to marry her, etc, etc. Clincher is, he was not only using her for sex, he was also using her the whole time to get closer to Liz."

"How?"

"She was a classmate of Liz's and to say the two girls didn't get along would be an gross understatement. Tess always made Liz the butt of just about every sick joke she pulled. It got doubly worse once Liz started getting popular and after Chris made an obvious play for her and she turned him down flat. Come to find out, half of those sick jokes were suggestions Chris would whisper in Tess' ear while they were rolling around in the hay, if you get my drift."

"Yeah, I got it." Max swallowed around the lump rising in his throat. "Let me guess. Tess would carry out these suggestions. Liz would be upset, distraught and probably a million other things and Chris would be there to wipe her tears proving to her that he wasn't the bad boy that she thought he was."

"Old trick, but it works every time." Carmen's comment confirmed Max's theory.

Max let out a weary sigh and leaned his head back as he stared up into the glowing sky above the bright lights of LA. "Alright. Get me to the part about her dad."

"Well, Parker made it clear from the time she was little that Liz was definitely not his fav. Some think that was because she wasn't really his. Others think she reminded him too much of her mother, a woman who understandably left him when she caught him helping the maid dirty the laundry. Again, if you get my drift…"

"Got it."

"Right. So, Liz is pretty much shuffled from here to there. Tutors, boarding schools. It didn't matter as long as he didn't have to be bothered with her. Until…she was 'discovered'. That was the first time Jeff Parker really took interest in his youngest daughter. And when he did…"

Carmen drifted off and Max's heart began to ache. He could only imagine what was coming next. His hand tightened around his phone. "Yes?"

"He screwed her over. Big time." Carmen stated bluntly.

Assuming the worst, Max's question came out in a harsh whisper. "Oh, God. You don't mean he…"

Realizing Max had misunderstood her, Carmen hastened to clarify. "No, no. He never laid a hand on her…physically." She could hear the sigh of relief in Max's whispered 'thank God'. His reaction confirmed a few suspicions of her own. She quickly continued to explain. "No, Jeff's weapons were emotional. Mental. And when it came to business…he basically set up every contract for his maximum benefit leaving little to nothing for Liz. Problem was, Chris quickly caught onto what Jeff was doing with Liz's contracts and other business dealings…and trapped him."

"Trapped him…how?"

Carmen let out a tired sigh. "Here's where the connection to Tess Harding comes back in. You know I said they'd been pretty hot and heavy. Well, her dad got wind of it and demanded Tess stop seeing the thug from the streets. Tess refused. Chris came to her father with a deal: help him take Jeff Parker down and he'd never touch Tess again. Tess' father jumped at that one."

"I'll bet he did." Max commented softly with a shake of his head. "So what exactly was Harding supposed to do to bring Parker down?"

"Get Chris access to Jeff's rather unsavory business dealings. If turned over to the feds, it would have bankrupt Jeff as well as landed him in jail for a good thirty years. Chris used them to blackmail Jeff."

"Blackmail." Max repeated, his mind already a step ahead of Carmen. He just didn't want to believe what he was thinking was true. "So…Chris would lose the info on Jeff's deals in exchange for what?"

Carmen paused, knowing her next bit of information was going to make an impact. "Chris' cut of any profits and Jeff's influence over Liz to convince her to marry Chris."

Pure loathing rippled through Max. "Let me guess…Parker didn't blink once."

"No. He didn't." Carmen answered softly. "And poor Liz…"

Max hung his head as the ache hit him. To be born to such a…

Carmen continued, her words barely registering with Max's mind but burying themselves deep in his heart. "She just wanted to be loved. That's all she ever wanted and all she ever got was to be used. Her father. Her husband. It's such a shame. She was so beautiful and so talented for someone so young…"

She still is Max's heart screamed. Unable to hear any more of Carmen's accurate assessment of a woman she'd never met, Max cut her off his voice hard. "Did Jeff know how rough Chris was with her?"

Carmen paused. Her answer quiet and certain. "He knew."

Max's jaws tightened with instant rage. "And he did nothing?"

Letting out a sigh, Carmen paused again. "Max…"

Sensing Carmen's hesitation, Max prompted her with a two word command that was not to be disobeyed. "Tell me."

Reluctantly, Carmen complied. "She got away from Chris once. That was all. She made it back to her father's…" Pausing again, Carmen swallowed back the words she had to say. "Max, he sent her back."

"That lousy…" Max's rage cut off his own words. His eyes began to sting. His breath thickened with pain. His heart began to break. Eyes drifting closed, Max asked one last question. "Did she know about all of this?"

"I don't know." Carmen answered softly.

Pulling in a deep breath, Max nodded. "Thank you for the information. It looks like I have some decisions to make."

"Max…" Carmen stopped Max just before he clicked off the phone. "…Max, before you decide anything, maybe you should just ask her how she feels."

Max's eyes snapped open. "How did you…"

"The security on this information spelled one thing loud and clear to me. She's still alive and trying her best not to be found." An understanding Carmen made an observation Max took to heart. "Obviously you've done exactly what she didn't want and in the process you've fallen head over heels. And now that you have, you want to destroy Jeff Parker and Chris Santoro for what they did to her. My advice…concentrate on the one thing that's always alluded her, Max. Forget revenge and just…just love her. You do that, and there's no way either of you can lose."

Voice full of emotion, Max thanked Carmen once again, this time for more than just her services. Clicking off his phone, Max barely had time to process all he'd been told when he heard her tear-filled voice calling his name. A split second later Liz Parker was rushing out the door into the alley. "Max! Max!"

Instantly alert, Max turned just in time for Liz to throw herself in his arms. Her tears began to wet his shirt. "Hey." Wrapping his arms around her, Max began to run a hand over her hair to soothe her. "Hey, it's ok. Shhh, whatever it is, I'm here."

"But…but that's…that's just it." Liz pulled back to look up at Max, her eyes bright with bubbles of tears. "I…I thought you…you left me. I looked up and…and I didn't…didn't see you and…" Throwing herself back into Max's arms, Liz dissolved into tears once more. "I'm sorry. I’m so sorry I didn't believe you. And…and I'm sorry I slapped you and please…please don't leave me…ever again."

Ah. We've obviously moved from the angry phase of intoxication to the gentler weeping phase.

Placing a tender kiss on the top of Liz's head, Max grinned as he pulled back far enough to capture her face in his hands. His eyes danced with love and hope. "Hey…it's ok. I'm not going anywhere. Especially since I'm getting used to you slapping me." His grin deepened as Liz began to smile through her tears. He gently reached up and wiped them from her face. "As for not believing me the first time I told you the truth…it's a trust thing. We'll work on it. We have plenty of time."

Liz sniffled. "You're so good to me. How can…how can you be so good to me when I'm always so bad to you?"

A knowing smile lit Max's eyes as he let out a deep sigh of contentment. "I love you. Which means I love when you're bad…" His fingers slipped through her hair, the adoration in his eyes was inextinguishable. "I love when you're good…" He nuzzled his nose against hers, their breath mingling. "I just…love you…"

As his lips gently brushed against hers, Liz felt a tremble race through her. Her arms slipped around his neck with a will of their own as she willingly sunk into his kiss. The delicious feel of his lips against hers ended way too soon and Liz protested with a light moan. Her eyes drifted open to meet his so dark with passion. His breath was warm against her lips. "I'll take you home on one condition."

"What's that?" The breathless question hung in the air between them.

"You've danced with every guy in this place…" Max glanced at the crowd partying through the open door. His meaningful gaze met hers once more. "Every guy except me."

Liz's lips turned down slightly at the corners and her eyes hinted with sadness. "You didn't ask."

"I'm asking now…"

Max's request was abruptly interrupted when Vaughn burst through the door into the alley. "Rachel. What happened? You just disappeared on us." He glanced over at Max, his eyes instantly hardening. "What are you doing out here?"

Max crossed his arms and scowled at Mike. Mike raised an eyebrow as he looked from one to the other the answer to his unasked question was obvious. "Am I…interrupting anything?"

Max and Liz answered simultaneously. Each with a different answer.

"No."

"Yes."

Max and Liz's eyes met. Misunderstanding her response, Max's chest heaved with a disappointed sigh, the flash of pain dulling his weary gaze. Liz's heart instantly melted. When her answer unexpectedly changed to a quiet, profound explanation, sparks of hope raced through the amber in his eyes.

"You're not interrupting, Mike…" A hand reached out and gently caressed the side of Max's face. "…because Max is taking me home."

"Ah." Mike simply stated without moving.

"After…" Eyes locked with Max's, Liz gently reached out and uncrossed his arms by pulling on one of his hands. "…we dance."

Mike stepped aside as Liz turned and led a relieved, smiling Max back into the club and out onto the dance floor. As she turned and smiled up into Max's eyes, Vaughn got the distinct impression Liz Parker had made a decision. As her arms slipped around Max's neck and his around her waist, Vaughn couldn't help but wonder how long that decision would last…

Tbc…


[ edited 1 time(s), last at 24-Aug-2002 4:17:11 PM ]
posted on 28-Aug-2002 11:42:28 PM by Ashton
Hey all!!!!

Ok, guys...it's a LONG one. Hope you don't mind. And I hope you enjoy. Again, I simply can't thank you enough for your support and consistant feedback. I'll be getting back to some of the fun stuff in the next chpt and I appreciate your patience. You guys are THE BEST! *happy* As always, let me know what you think!!!!

Hugs,
Ashton
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 19 ~

As their bodies slowly moved as one, Liz pulled back to look into Max's eyes. Breaking their self-imposed silence during the past two songs, Liz's quiet question softened her gaze with concern. "Are you ok now?"

"What makes you think I wasn't before?" The question was a bare whisper full of wonder and curiosity.

Lips turning upward, Liz repeated to him an answer he'd uttered to her so long ago. "Your eyes."

A faint smile brushed his lips. Amazing. They'd not spoken a word since they'd begun dancing, yet she could sense the tension draining out of him. Could feel the strain of the weekend slip away with each gentle, innocent caress of her hands. Even as tipsy as she was, she was in tune to him. Letting out a sigh of contentment, Max ran a finger down the side of Liz's face tenderly, gently tracing her features, his gaze following every languid movement. "Yeah." His smile deepened as his eyes met hers. "I'm just about perfect right now."

"Was it really that bad?" Liz asked innocently as she leaned her head against his shoulder and snuggled into him. "The weekend. You said it was a nightmare."

Max closed his eyes and soaked her in. The smell of her hair. The way her body moved against his, with his. Her warm breath against his skin. His finger tangled in a few silky strands falling softly around her face. "Yeah. Yeah, it was…pretty bad."

"Do you…" Liz pulled back again and bit down on her lower lip in uncertainty. "You…wouldn't want to tell me about it, would you?"

Max's gaze faltered. "I would but…"

"Right." Misinterpreting his response, Liz nodded curtly. Her body stiffening unconsciously in his arms as she tried to mask the hurt in her eyes. "I'm sure it's just some big boring business deal…"

Max placed a stilling finger against her lips and began again his eyes meeting hers meaningfully. "I would, but if the goal here is to make both of us feel better…talking about it isn't going to do it."

"What will?" Hope raced through her eyes.

Pulling her back into his arms, Max sighed against her hair. The soft whisper sent chills through Liz's body. "This will." Arms wrapped around her waist, Max nuzzled her exposed neck placing a few gentle, benign kisses against heated skin before pulling her into him as they continued to wordlessly sway to the music.

Wrapping her arms around his neck, Liz sank into Max 's embrace willingly. Her fingers languidly played with the hair at the nape of his neck, her gentle caresses lulling Max into a contented state of tranquillity. In direct contrast, Max unconsciously held onto her tightly, desperately. As if he were afraid letting go would shatter the peaceful world he'd found in her arms.

Then something amazing happened. Trapped in their own private world, Liz began to hum. The vibrations of the gentle tune rippled through Max till they found their target and burrowed deep into his heart. Instantly swelling with love, Max's heart recognized the tune Liz had written in response to his own words.

As Liz continued to hum, his lips moved unconsciously, repeating words hastily scribbled on a piece of paper and sent to a woman who needed to believe not every surprise in her life had to hurt…

“Only want to lose myself behind the mirror of your eyes
Be the only balm that soothes the secret passions in your life
Only want to lose my senses, lose your sorrow, calm this madness
Be the only one you count on to alleviate your sadness…”

The humming halted abruptly. Pulling back simultaneously, Liz gazed up into Max's eyes breathlessly as he stared down in captured awe. Max was the one to break the silence. "I…can't believe you made that into a song."

Fingers caressing the length of Max's face, a shy smile painted Liz's lips as her eyes began to glow with wonder. "You made the song, Max. I just listened to the music that echoed in my heart." Her smile deepened. "Your words were beautiful."

A faint blush rose on Max's cheeks as his gaze faltered at the compliment. His fingers laced through hers. "Not as beautiful as my inspiration.” His penetrating gaze raised to meet hers as his whisper softened. “Nothing I could do will ever be as beautiful as you." Dipping his head for one light brush of his lips against hers, Max pulled her back into a warm embrace and continued to slowly move.

Liz relished the safety of his arms. She basked in the warmth of his body moving against hers. Sighing deeply, her eyes drifted closed and Liz Parker allowed the sensations of being with Max Evans simply take her over. The hard chest beneath her cheek rose and fell with steady, strong breaths. His heart…one persistent, rhythmic beat after another. His warm breath against her neck sent chills to all the parts of her body aching for the heat of his touch.

Part of Liz wanted to stay forever in the world he was creating for her. There. On the dance floor. Swaying softly to an inner tune shared between two strong, stubborn hearts. A world of ease and peace. A world of safety where nothing could harm them. The other part of Liz wanted more. She wanted to feel the fire and passion hinted at in his kisses, his touch. She wanted to know what it was like to look in his eyes as they blazed with insatiable hunger. She wanted to recklessly walk into the volcanic storm she knew Max Evans was more than capable of creating deep inside of her.

She always had. From the moment their eyes met, she'd wanted to feel him against her. Moving, entwining, cresting on waves of passion. It was only now, in a dizzy state of inebriation that she was capable of openly make her desires known without thought of the consequences…

Locked in his arms a few silent moments gave way to one more question. "Max…you're taking me home. Does that mean you're going to make love to me?"

She could feel his smile against her hair and could imagine the crinkle lines around his eyes as they danced with amusement. One hand traced the hem of her lacy top before slipping inside to lightly trail the lines of her spine then softly, teasingly caress smooth unexposed skin. Max's returning question was husky and low. "You have a good reason this time?"

Liz nodded against his shoulder. "I really want you." The whisper was delivered in his ear followed by a light nip of his ear lobe. Her lips ran the length of his jaw before she pulled back, eyes dark with desire gazing up into his. She pressed the curves of her body fully into his and thrilled with satisfaction when Max's eyes drifted closed and his body involuntarily shuddered at the contact. Her heated breath against his lips emphasized the intensity of the desire raging in her eyes. "Really bad."

"Well, in that case…" Eyes danced with desire. A tiny, teasing nip at her lips. A nuzzle of his nose against hers. A light caressing gaze that turned abruptly to penetratingly intense. The breath in Liz's chest instantly froze. Her eyes flickered with hunger. Her heart began to thunder like the hooves of a thousand horses.

A breathless moment of anticipation hung between them.

Without warning, Max dipped his head and hungrily claimed her lips. One hand moved upward to support Liz's neck as his tongue slipped inside her inviting mouth with instant ease. Max deepened the kiss with intensity as Liz's nails scraped against his scalp, her fingers tangling in his hair. Pulling him harder against her, she pressed her body into Max with a vibrating moan of pleasure.

He knew he was playing with fire. He knew Liz really wasn't ready for what she was asking. He knew if they took things to the next level, there would be heartache and regret. On both their parts. But he couldn’t resist. Holding her in his arms. Feeling her lips slide against his. Losing himself in the probing kisses. He could stop them. He knew he could. But before he did, he just wanted one unrestrained moment where Liz Parker showed no fear, no doubts, no regrets.

Liz Parker did not disappoint him.

Her body trembling against his, Liz pulled back breathlessly from his heated kisses. Running her tongue over her lips, a helpless sound escaped her. "God, Max…you taste so good." As if she were starving, Liz instantly latched onto his lips once more. Her hunger was fueled by the way his fingers unconsciously dug into the leather of her skirt as he pulled her lower body hard against his. Her lips slipped down his chin to his neck where a new form of attack began. An attack that nearly buckled Max's knees when Liz's hands added a level of torture by slipping below his waist to brush shamelessly against the front of his jeans.

Max's eyes popped open. Breathing heavily, he was painfully aware he needed to slow things down. Fast. Capturing her roaming hands, Max pulled back from Liz and looked into her dazed eyes. An innocent, breathless question escaped her and nearly undid Max's resolve. "What? Did I do something wrong?"

"Oh, no, baby…you were doing everything just right." Max whispered as he placed a chaste kiss on her swollen lips. His eyes met hers meaningfully. "Which is why we need to stop."

"Stop?" Confusion raced through Liz's eyes.

Max quirked a smile. "Unless you want to take me here in the middle of a public bar, I think stopping is the answer."

Liz glanced around them and blinked as if realizing for the first time they weren't alone. "Oh." She turned back to him with a bemused, slightly embarrassed grin. "Oh." Burying her head against his chest, Liz's shoulders began to shake as a giggle bubbled up inside her. Glancing back up at Max, she bit her lower lip self-consciously. "I uh…I guess I got a bit…"

Max raised an eyebrow as he tried to fight a grin. "Eager?"

Giggling, Liz nodded. "Yeah. That's…that's a good word for it." Letting out a sigh, she wrapped her arms around Max's neck and stepped back into his arms as they wrapped around her waist. Her voice lowered suggestively. "So, why don't you take me home now? We could always pick up where we left off."

Pushing a few loose strands of hair back from Liz's face, Max's eyes met hers meaningfully. "I'd love nothing better. Believe me. Making love to you, without a doubt, figures into my favorite fantasies of all time. I'm dying to make each and every one a reality." Max let out a short sigh of regret. "But…despite what you think…you're drunk. And you don't really know what you're asking."

Answering each accusation in turn, Liz shook her head. "No, I'm not. And yes, I do." Pulling his face down, Liz nuzzled her nose against his, her breathy announcement causing him to inwardly groan. "I know exactly what I want, Max. And what I want is for you to make love to me."

Max pulled back, forcing himself to remain logical and not go with the urges raging inside of him. His voice lowered with a promise he intended at all costs to keep. "And I will…when we're ready. And when you're sober enough to remember it in the morning."

"I'll remember. I promise." Holding up four fingers in an attempted salute, Liz's eyes met his with wide-eyed innocent appeal. "Triple girl scout's honor."

Max shook his head as amused awe danced in his eyes. Bring her hand to his lips, his eyes drifted closed as he kissed the palm of her hand. His chest rose and fell as he let out a deep sigh and placed her hand against his chest, covering it with the warmth of his own hand. "Do you know how much I adore you?"

Eyes lighting with hope, Liz's slow seductive smile matched her enchantingly suggestive tone of voice. "I know one way you could show me…"

Max shook his head with a chuckle, though his eyes maintained a mock sense of seriousness. "Not going to happen tonight."

"But why?" The pout was pronounced as her long lashes batted alluringly.

"Because I want you to be a full participant. Cognizant of every touch…" His fingers curled possessively into the material of her skirt before slipping upward and under her top setting off sparks of fire against her skin as he leaned forward to breath lightly against her lips. "…every kiss..." The tender, lingering kiss slid with rhythmic ease and perfection. Lacking the depth and frantic pace of earlier kisses, it held so much more intense emotion than Liz ever expected. As Max pulled back, her lower lip was tugged lightly eliciting a groan of protest at the too early conclusion of the delicious sensations rocking her to her very core.

Max's seductive voice continued. "…each and every last explosion." Hands landing on the curves of her hips, Max deliberately moved his hips against Liz causing her eyes to drift closed as she bit her lip to keep from verbally gasping at the pleasure that simple friction gave her. Her fingers bit into the flesh on his arms as she held on for support.

Leaning forward once more, Max's heated whisper sent shivers down Liz's spine. "I don't want anything dulling your senses for what I have planned for you." A gentle nibbling kiss at a spot just below her ear and Liz shuddered against him. "I promise…when we finally do make love…it'll blow your mind…"

"Uh…excuse me for interrupting."

Max's head snapped to the side to see none other than Michael Vaughn standing next to them with a forced grin. Max instantly scowled. His voice hardened. His eyes darkened dangerously. "Yes. You are. What do you want?"

"Max…" Liz's quiet voice of warning pulled his gaze to hers. Eyes still dazed from his most recent show of seduction, she shook her head slightly in reprimand before forcing herself to focus on someone other than Max. "You're not interrupting, Mike. Did you need something?"

"Well…" Mike's gaze shifted from Max to Liz. "I was hoping for one last dance before I go."

"Uh…no." Max's response was instant and definite.

"Max." Her voice sharp, Liz inclined her head toward Mike. Realizing he wouldn't interrupt an obviously private moment if it weren't important, Liz showed her agreement by attempting to convince Max. "It's just one dance. I'm sure it'll be fine. At the end of this one, I'm all yours again."

Obviously not pleased, Max relinquished his hold on Liz, stepped back and watched as Michael Vaughn took his place in front of her. Eyes flashing with envy when Liz smiled up at Mike, Max spun on his heels and stalked off toward the bar.

Liz sighed with regret as she watched him go. "This had better be good, Mike."

"It is." Mike stated as he took Liz in his arms and began to lead her into the appropriate dance steps. His eyes met hers with worry. "Do you really know what you're doing? Liz, the two of you are…"

"Explosive." Liz acknowledged without a hint of embarrassment as her eyes brightened a few notches.

Vaughn's tone was dripping with sarcasm. "That's one word for it." His eyes met hers. "Another word is flat out stupid. And…and reckless. Or how about insane?"

Liz blinked as his words twisted around in her mind. When she spoke it wasn't to address his concerns. "That's more than one."

"What?"

"You said another word but you used more than…"

"Oh for heaven's sake, Liz." His tone sharpened. "See? This is what I’m talking about. You start out this evening convinced Max has been holed up in his apartment all weekend with a curvaceous blonde that won't take 'no' for an answer and now you're practically salivating at the chance to follow suite."

"Yes. I am." Nodding with certainty, Liz's voice was soft as a dazed smile drifted over her lips. "And it feels so amazing."

"Feels." Mike repeated. "Another word I was going to mention. Because you see, your situation doesn't require feeling, Liz. It requires thought. Like…what happened with this woman? Earlier you were convinced…"

"I was wrong." Liz stated with a simple shrug. "He's telling the truth."

"Just like that."

Nodding, Liz's smile deepened. "Just like that."

Rolling his eyes Vaughn let out a frustrated sigh. "And how exactly did he pull that one off? What lies did he make sound perfectly logical so you'd buy into…"

"He isn't lying." Liz's eyes began to flash with irritation before she turned the tables on him. "You've not known Sydney that long, but when she lies to you…you know it don't you?"

Reluctantly Mike nodded. Liz immediately pounced. "See? It's the same thing with me and Max. I don’t know why or how, but I know him, Mike. I know when he’s being sincere. I know when he’s playing games. I know when he’s lying.”

“Or you think you do.” Mike commented doubtfully. Noticing Liz’s darkening eyes beginning to harden, he hastened to clarify. “Look, Liz, I’m not trying to hurt you. I’m just trying to keep you safe.”

“And you don’t think Max is safe for me?”

“You mean to tell me you do?” Mike asked incredulously. After the discussions they’d had over the weekend about Liz’s fears regarding Max, to see her do a complete one-eighty was flooring Mike.

“Nope.” Shaking her head emphatically, Liz beamed a smile up at Mike that nearly knocked him off his feet. “He’s gloriously dangerous. That’s one of the reasons I feel so alive with him.”

“I am so not understanding you right now. After all the trouble you’ve gone to to disappear, you’re willing to throw it all away for one night with Max.”

“Who says it’ll only be one night?” Liz asked with a devilish twinkle in her eyes.

“Fine. Believe what you want.” Mike let out a deep sigh and tried once more to reason with her. “All I’m saying is that you need to take things slow. I know you've had a lot to drink tonight and I'm not sure that going home with Max right now is the best thing for you to do. Especially if the show you two just put on is any indication how the night will turn out."

An excited flush colored her cheeks as Liz began to grin. "You know what's so great about feeling the way I do right now? I don't have to think. And I don't have to worry. Or fear. Or doubt that what I'm doing is right. Being with Max…Mike, it feels so right."

"Liz. You have a daughter to think about…"

Liz pulled out of Mike's arms abruptly. Her eyes flickered with protective fire as she pointed an accusatory finger at Mike. "Don't you even dare use Jaedan to blackmail me."

Mike's eyes narrowed in further confusion. "Blackmail you? Liz, that's not…"

"Look." On an obvious emotional roller coaster, her eyes darkened to midnight as Liz took a step forward her voice low and trembling with emotion. "I am beyond tired of people telling me what I should or shouldn't do. How I should feel. Who I should trust. And I certainly don't need to be reminded that I have a child depending on my every decision. I live with that truth every single second of my life. And it makes me…so very tired. Tired of…" Tears began to well up in Liz's eyes. "…of not feeling…anything but…but fear…"

"What did you say to her?" Unexpectedly Max was by Liz's side, his eyes flashing dangerously in Mike's direction. Wrapping a reassuring arm around Liz's waist, Max's glare didn't lessen when Liz turned into him and held on with all her might. His voice lowered commandingly. "What did you say?"

Mike opened his mouth to speak when Liz made a quiet request. "Don't, Max. Please. Just…just take me home."

Max raised a dangerous eyebrow in Mike's direction. "This isn't over." Turning his full attention to the sniffling woman in his arms, Max leaned down and brushed his lips against her cheek whispering in her ear. "You ok?"

Liz nodded in response her quiet request filled Mike with even more worry than before. "I just want to be with you, Max. Just please…take me home."

Gently taking Liz in his arms, Max shot Mike one last parting look of anger before he turned Liz and led her from the dance floor and out of the club.

Michael watched them leave with growing dread. As soon as they were out the door, he pulled out his cell phone and dialed a number. "Jack. It's Vaughn. I need to meet with you. It's an emergency." He listened a few moments then nodded. "Alright. Twenty minutes. See you then."

Clicking off his phone he was greeted by a grinning Eric. "You screwed up, didn't you?"

"Shut up."

Eric's smile faded. "Me thinks the man is feeling a bit defeated." He inclined his head toward the door through which Max and Liz had just exited. "From the looks of it, after tonight, you're job is going to be about a million times worse than before."

Determination flared in Michael Vaughn's eyes. "No. It won't. And I just set up a meeting to make sure it doesn't…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
After a gentle inquiry as to what happened with Vaughn on Max’s part and a harsh decline to talk on Liz’s, the drive back to her place was full of silence.

Max was fuming over that arrogant Vaughn's interruption of what had been undoubtedly one of the best nights of his life. An open and trusting Liz. A giving and eager Liz. A Liz that wasn't full of fear at each and every turn. **That's** what gave him the strength to get up in the mornings. What made him smile through all of her attempts to reject him.

The hope of a free and happy Liz. The one thing he found himself living for…

Granted, her lack of inhibitions had much more to do with her intake of alcohol than his ability to actually defeat the demons in her life. But it was a glimpse. A glimmer of what they could be together. And it was glorious.

Until Vaughn stepped in between them and ruined it all. Including his Liz’s precious smile.

For her part, Liz was fighting with Mike in her mind. Everything he'd said, she successfully combated. Everything except "You have a daughter…" It was the one argument of his she couldn't reason away. Her baby girl deserved the best Liz could give her. And that meant love. And happiness. And freedom. But most of all, it meant safety.

Something Liz couldn't guarantee either of them would find in Max Evans' arms.

By the time they'd reached her home, the alcohol in Liz's system was in full control. On the verge of tears, she began to giggle uncontrollably at the slightest provocation. If she didn't she would fall into a state of depression blacker than a black hole of doom. Max helped her as she stumbled into her apartment and patiently led her to her room where she stumbled once again before flopping heavily onto her bed. Flipping on the nightstand light, Max glanced around her room. It looked like a storm had blown through it.

Letting out a low whistle, Max scratched behind his ear as his expression filled with dismay. "Sweetie…is there a reason every piece of clothing you own is taking root on your floor?" Max's innocent question was meant to start a conversation.

Liz simply shrugged before another giggle escaped her.

Still preoccupied by thoughts of what Vaughn could have said to Liz to change her entire disposition, Max let out a weary sigh and turned to the task at hand. Kneeling by the bed, he took one of Liz's feet and began to remove her boot. "Tell you what. I'll help you get comfortable then I'll clean up a little while you relax. And then, if you're still awake, I'll make you something magical that'll help with that whopper of a hangover you're going to have tomorrow. How does that sound?"

There was a sudden catch in Liz's voice when she asked an unexpectedly serious question that went much deeper than just that moment, that one night. "Why can’t you just leave me alone?”

Max's eyes flickered with emotion as they met hers. “Because you don’t want me to.”

Liz looked away. “Yes, I do.” She sounded petulant. Sad. And totally unconvincing.

Dropping one boot on the floor, Max took her other foot and repeated the process attempting to keep the focus of the conversation on lighter matters than the obvious intent of her question. “No. You don’t. Remember? You’re the one that begged me to bring you home.”

“But that was before.”

“Before what?” Fully expecting Liz to mention Vaughn's interruption, Max dropped the other boot then reached up and began to remove the bracelet from Liz's wrist.

“Before you winked at that waitress.”

His hands instantly paused in their task. Max's brows knit in confusion as he shook his head in firm denial. “I didn’t wink at any waitress.”

“Did to.”

“Did not.”

A pout edged Liz’s tone. “Did to.”

Shaking his head, Max let out a sigh that bordered on a chuckle. “Alright. Tell me…” Pulling Liz into a sitting position, Max showed her two fingers. “…how many fingers am I holding up?”

She blinked, her gaze unfocused. Leaning forward, she concentrated really hard on the fingers in front of her face and blinked again. “Uh…eleven.”

“Riiiight.” Max nodded once and mumbled under his breath. “You can’t even tell the difference between two and eleven and I’m supposed to believe you saw me wink at a non-existent waitress.” Removing the bracelet and placing it on the night stand Max then turned his attention once more to picking up the wayward clothes strewn across Liz’s floor.

After a few moments of silence, Max stopped dead in his tracks when Liz spoke.

“Do you have any idea how much I want you?”

Slowly turning toward the bed, Max lost his heart all over again.

Having flopped backwards without Max’s support, Liz was sprawled out on the bed in the most seductively innocent way. Her dark eyes sparkled in the faint light in the room while her cheeks were flushed with an alluring glow. The redness of her lips contrasted sharply with the creamy smoothness of her skin as it shimmered from the pale light on her nightstand. Propping herself up on her elbow, Liz's luxurious hair looked raven black as it playfully danced against the light colored comforter. The desire flickered like flames in the depths of her midnight eyes, giving her a positively devilish aura. In direct contrast an angelic, silver halo hovered in the air above her, courtesy of the moonlight slipping through the window behind the bed.

Max was completely enchanted. Mesmerized. Captivated.

The air in his lungs instantly turned to steam and his heart began pounding out loud, irregular beats. As his intense, penetrating gaze slowly swept over her, Max felt his own knees begin to shake. The sleek, smooth curves of her leather skirt gave way to a toned, flat mid-drift. The exposed skin looked like smooth vanilla satin. Aching to touch her, his palms became sweaty. His chest tightened with labored breaths. His lips burned with need. Then his gaze shifted upward. Over curves barely hidden by see-through lace and a low neckline that gave him just a hint of secret treasures. Treasures that had kept him up on more than one occasion as various fantasies played out in his mind while he should have been sleeping.

Instantly, Max Evans was fully aroused and fighting for control.

He was also having sudden, serious doubts about the wisdom of being so close to a bed, alone…with Liz in such a precarious state. Those doubts doubled when Liz continued her verbal seduction.

“I want you, Max." Unfocused, she raised a wayward hand to cover one eye. Then she switched and covered the other eye. Letting her hand drop heavily, she squinted at him before laying her head down wearily on her arm and letting out a deep sigh, her words becoming a bit slurred. "All three of you.” Her comment brought a quiver of amusement to his lips and a hint of laughter to his eyes. Until her next breathless question. “Do you want me too?”

“God, yes.” It came out in an immediate, heated rush. Undeniable. Powerful. Whispered.

Tilting her head to the side, a coy smile slipped over her lips as she gazed up at him through a veil of thick, long lashes. “All three of me?”

Merriment dancing in his eyes, a smile tugged at the corners of Max's mouth. Unconsciously dropping the clothes in his hand, he took a slow step forward. “Well…I only see one of you.”

“Oh.” Liz let out a disappointed sigh as her gaze dropped to the languid patterns her index finger was making on her comforter.

“But if it makes you feel better…" Another hesitant, irresistible step forward. "…every part of all three of me that you see wants every part of the one of you that I see.”

Liz's nose scrunched up in charming confusion. “Max. I think…I think you're drunk cuz you didn’t make any sense just now."

Grinning, Max knelt with an awed shake of his head as he laid his arms on the bed and propped his chin on his folded hands. He'd simply never met a more delightful person than Liz Parker. She was irresistibly mesmerizing. Staring into her eyes, his smile deepened as he answered her accusation. "I've not had any alcohol to drink tonight."

"Oh." Liz bit her lip as her gaze shifted. Her brows furrowed in thought. "Well, then maybe I’m drunk.”

“You don’t say.” Amber eyes beginning to sparkle with adoration, Max was struggling not to chuckle.

Eyes flickering with sudden emotion, Liz's voice softened. "Max."

"Hmmm?"

"You're doing it again." The accusation was barely whispered as her eyes locked with his.

"Doing what?"

"Looking at me like…"

An eyebrow raised inquiringly. "Yes?"

A gentle sigh escaped her as she reached out and caressed the side of his face. "Like you love me."

Max swallowed hard, the sincerity of his words matching the light of love in his eyes. "That's because I do."

“Even when I’m drunk?”

One nod of Max's head. “Even then.”

The little-girl innocence of her tone belied her question. “Then why won’t you make love to me?”

Running a finger along the exquisite planes of Liz's face, Max's gaze turned thoughtful before he answered as honestly as he could. No games. No teasing. Just simple, pure truth. “Because I respect you too much to take advantage of the way you’re feeling right now.” His finger slipped over to still her lips from making a response. “And before you start thinking I’m being selfless, I’m not. It’s important to me to do this right. To take time and build something solid between us. I really want to be sure we’re both ready to take any next steps that come our way so that we can take them…together." He paused. "Do you understand?”

Liz bit her lower lip as her eyes began to film with tears. Mistaking her tears as hurt, Max squeezed his eyes shut against the sight and took a deep breath, attempting once more to explain. “I don’t want to be another mistake you regret. It's worth it for me to wait. Believe me…it'll mean so much more if we do.”

Liz propped herself up on her elbow again. “But Max…”

"Please, sweetheart." Max's gentle plea stopped Liz's words. "I'm trying my damndest to be noble here." A shy smile raced over Max's lips as his eyes filled with inquisition. "Will you let me?"

Eyes shimmering with emotion, Liz nodded slowly.

"Ok." The whisper was tender. The smile was grateful. His eyes were full of love. Trying to shift Liz's attention from a subject where his will power was only so strong, Max turned his focus back to getting Liz comfortable. "Let's take your hair down and then after that you can tell me where your night clothes are and I'll let you change while I go make that miracle cure I mentioned earlier."

Max leaned forward, reaching up to release Liz’s hair from its clasp. His fingers brushed against Liz’s neck setting off sparks of fire that zipped through his fingers up his arm.

Max froze. Liz’s sharp intake of breath indicated she felt it too.

A hush fell. Their eyes locked. Their chests rose and fell with heavy breaths. The air in the room suddenly became oppressive with sexual tension. Electricity crackled in the space between them. Seductive currents of energy began wrapping around Max and Liz, twisting and spinning and making them both dizzy with desire.

Avoiding Liz’s penetrating gaze, Max swallowed hard and forced himself to concentrate on the simple task of letting her hair down. Movements slow and lingering, his entire focus was on his fingers as they fumbled and slipped and fumbled again before finally releasing her hair from its confines. As her hair fell, Max tried not to let the way she purred his name in satisfaction ripple through him. He tried not to feel the shaking of his hands as her roaming fingers found his face. And he tried not to let the aching need in his own fingers gain control.

He tried in vain.

His gaze shifted to meet hers and held. Along with his breath. The dazed, encouraging light dancing in her eyes pushed him forward. His fingers slipping upward from the base of her neck through the tangled mass of thick hair, the amber strands in his eyes began to glow when Liz tilted her head back, her eyes drifting closed and her lips parting slightly at the sensations beginning to flow through her. Her sigh of pleasure sent shockwaves through him. Massaging gently, Max coaxed her hair downward as his fingers buried helplessly in its thickness before smoothing the mess of tangled curls around her shoulders.

Eyes drifting open, Liz’s focus landed directly on Max’s lips. She licked her own unconsciously before her focus shifted to her fingers. They were moving with a will of their own over his skin. A finger traced from his eyebrow down his temple to his cheek before targeting his lips for conquest. Tracing the outline of his lips, Liz tilted her head to the side, a small smile hovering over her lips. “Of all the things in the world, you are the most delicious thing I have ever seen.” She leaned forward nudging her nose teasingly against his. “Or tasted.”

One brush of her lips against his and Liz Parker was lost. She quickly wrapped her arms around Max’s neck and pulled him hard against her, shuddering when she felt an arm wrap around her waist. Before she knew it, she was on her back with Max sliding on top of her never once breaking their heated kiss. When he settled between her legs and moved his hips in time to their deep, intense kisses, Liz Parker gasped at the fire blazing deep inside of her.

Max was in heaven. Without a doubt. With Liz wrapped around him and their probing kisses taking them both higher, Max was drowning in sensations. Her hands were hot against his back as she pulled his shirt from the back his jeans and began an exploration that deepened his desire. He shifted his weight against her, his hands slipping up her back as his lips left hers, dropping to her neck for a fevered attack that caused a deep moan to escape from the back of her throat as she arched into him.

It was if that one sound, that one movement, slapped Max back to reality. Reminded him where he was. What he was doing. The state Liz was in. And all of his well-intentioned plans for taking care of her. Plans he was failing miserably to carry out. Groaning almost painfully, Max shifted his weight off of Liz and rested his forehead against her shoulder. His breath was short and warm against her skin. “God, sweetie…I'm so sorry. I shouldn’t have…we…we have to stop.”

Hurt echoed in Liz’s eyes as she pulled back from Max and looked into his eyes. Her lips began to quiver. “But…why?”

Making direct eye contact, Max captured her face in his hands hoping he could finally get through her fuddled brain once and for all. "Why?" The question was repeated breathlessly, sending shivers down her spine. Explained tenderly, wrapping her heart in instant warmth. "Because I want to make love with someone who loves me back and isn't afraid to say it. Someone who will remember every glorious moment in the light of day." His voice softened. "Someone who isn't under the influence of anything else…but me."

Tears filled her eyes instantly. She furiously blinked them back. "I…I want to be that someone, Max. We…we just never seem to be in the same place. I…I need to push you away when…when you need to be close. And…and I need to be close when you want to wait. I just…I don't know how to be with you, Max. How to…to give you what you deserve…"

His own eyes filmed with a light sheen of emotion. Caressing her face, his voice softened with a gentle smile. "Oh, honey…you just did."

Confusion raced through Liz's ebony eyes. "I…did?"

Nodding, Max’s eyes began to shine with love and gratitude. "Yeah. You did. You trusted me enough to open up to me.” Max gently wiped away Liz’s tears with his thumb. “And by showing me what's in your heart. By telling me what you really want." Placing a gentle, loving kiss on her cheek, he pulled back to lock eyes with her. “You showed me I’m not hoping for you in vain.”

Liz sniffled and swallowed hard. "That's…that's all you want?"

A grin began to light Max's eyes. "Yeah." He shrugged a carefree smile darkening his eyes as they began to twinkle with promise. "For now."

Biting down on her lower lip, Liz shifted onto her back and stared up at the ceiling, lost in thought. He was…amazing. Head beginning to spin, Liz wasn’t able to make sense of all he’d said. She couldn’t seem to reconcile it with her past. How she’d been treated. How she’d defined love up to this point in her life. What he was saying…how he was treating her…it just didn’t jell with what she’d experienced in the past.

Yet, she instinctively knew his way was the right way…

She was aware of the fuzziness in her brain. She was equally aware her resistance had been broken. Not only by the alcohol, but by Max’s persistent patience and love. She wanted to give him more for all he’d given her. But how? What? As if a light flickered in her mind, Liz found her answer. He wanted her trust. He wanted her to open up. He wanted her heart. She had no other choice, but to give it all to him. If she ever hoped to break the cycle of pain and fear in her life, she had to relinquish something. Control. Her past. Her fears.

Who knew when she’d feel free enough to surrender anything to him again…

Max silently watched Liz. Her changing expressions. The way her eyes flickered then dulled then flared to life again. Still she remained silent. Lost in her own thoughts, Max began wondering if the precious connection they'd seemed to establish was quickly slipping away from him even though she was still resting in his arms. That fear was banished when Liz suddenly spoke. "Do you know how long its been since I’ve wanted any man to touch me the way I want you to touch me right now?”

Max's heart stopped beating. The world around him came to a screeching halt. Breathless anticipation gripped him. He instinctively felt they were on the verge of a major break through.

He was right.

Liz continued slowly, lost in her own world. "I hated the feel of him. Of…Chris. The way he'd look at me. How he would touch me…" Her eyes squeezed shut as memories began to flicker through her mind. "I could always tell. I knew when he was in a mood and I was going to be the one to pay. For anything that went wrong. It could be something as simple as a servant bringing his meal a minute too late to…the sky being the wrong shade of blue on the canvass. Any reason to flaunt his authority. Show his power."

A single tear slipped down her face. "Before he would come to me…I would…I would take pain pills. I had plenty from all of the private doctors he’d order to the house after he’d been especially attentive to me." Swallowing hard, Liz held tightly to Max's hand as he slipped it over hers. As if taking courage from his touch, Liz continued in a broken voice. "The pills…helped. They…dulled my senses. Made me blissfully unaware of the bulk of the pain…of what he was doing to me. It…it wasn't right. I know it wasn't, but it…it was the only way I could endure…” A silent sob shuddered through her body. More tears fell. “…the feel of him. His breath. His hands…”

Revulsion ripped through Max's eyes and he struggled to push down the bile that lumped in his throat. She was actually talking about Chris. Sharing her pain. Opening up to him about some of the most intimate moments of her past. The hurt. The disgust. The fear. Her way of coping. Horrified by the tale, Max stopped her with a gentle kiss against her temple and a quiet whisper as he wrapped his arms around her. "Shhh, sweetie. You don't have to relive this for me."

But the floodgates had opened and for Liz Parker, in that moment, there was no going back. Turning to Max with tear-filled eyes, Liz held onto his hand with increasing intensity. "It's part of me, Max. It's…it's not a part I'm proud of. But it's part of what makes me who I am now. Of why I’m so afraid of anything remotely real.” Her hands captured his face as her voice lowered earnestly. “Do you know how terrified I am that you'll love me and how devastated I'll be if you don't?"

“Sweetheart…”

Liz interrupted him with a shake of her head, bubbles of tears shining brightly in her eyes. "The Code will kill you, Max. It's merciless and makes no exceptions. I couldn't bear it if I lost you simply because you dared to take me into your heart.” Tears slipped silently down her face as Liz’s inner struggles surfaced with rapid fire speed. “But if not you…who? I've never known anyone so brave. So fearless. You make me believe it's possible to love and be loved. I just…I'm so afraid you don't know what you're getting into and I…I won’t be able to stop them…from taking you away…”

“Shhh, honey…” Sensing Liz’s increasing agitation, Max pulled her into his arms and began to soothingly run his hands over her hair. “It’s ok. No one’s going to take me away. No one. Just hold onto me and we’ll be alright…together…” Feeling Liz’s arms instinctively tighten around him, Max’s eyes drifted closed as his heart began to ache. It was only a small step. Only a portion of her pain. And it was already breaking Max’s heart.

Max's mind was whirling with what to do. What to say. How to handle the pain coursing through the woman he loved. How to calm the fears causing her body to shudder and the tears shaking her petite frame.

True to form, Liz Parker was much stronger than people gave her credit.

After a few moments of quiet sobs, Liz untangled herself from Max’s embrace and sat up, propping herself against the pillows along the headboard. Wiping a few tears from her face, she took his hands in hers. Bringing them to her lips, Liz kissed them gently, her voice thick with emotion. “I don't ever want it to be like that with you, Max. The way it…it was with him. I…I don't want to not know what I’m feeling when you touch me. When I'm in your arms.”

Her softening gaze met his. "I love the feel of your hands too much. They're so gentle. So warm. They make me feel safe." Taking his face in her hands, Liz emphasized each sincere word. "**You**, Max…you make me feel safe." Eyes flickering with intense emotion, Liz’s whisper danced across Max’s heart. "Max…if I…if I let you into my life right now…will you promise me something?"

Max swallowed hard, his eyes flickering with breathless emotion. He felt as if his entire future rested on her question. And his answer. "What?"

"Will you promise to leave me when I ask you to?" Her gaze shifted as she attempted to blink the moistness from her eyes. "When things get…too dangerous. Too difficult. Will you walk away when it's time?” Her eyes locked with his in a silent plea. “Walk away and…be happy?"

"No.” An instant refusal was given. Max shook his head slightly, the intensity of his response rippling through his words. “No, I won't promise you that."

"Why not?"

"Because I don't walk out on people I love." With a deep sigh, he wrapped a hand behind her neck and pulled her down to lean his forehead against hers. His eyes locked with hers as his breath brushed across her lips. "And I am positive that 'happy' will ever describe me…without you."

Liz shut her eyes against the gentleness of his words and fought to focus on the reason why she should be pushing Max away. “Max…you don’t know what they’re capable of…”

“Then tell me." Pulling back, Max propped himself up on his elbow and tilted his head to the side inquiringly. "Tell me what the Code is and who follows it." A dark eyebrow raised, the mind of a strategist kicking into gear. "You know, sometimes half the battle is knowing your enemy. If you'll just tell me what you know, it'll go a long way in helping us protect each other. I have resources. Resources you've not even dreamed of yet. We could use them, you know?" Running his fingers through Liz's hair, he pulled her into his web of partnership. "We could make sure all of those fears of yours don't come true."

Liz bit her lower lip in uncertainty as her gaze shifted. "I…I don't know."

"You mean you don't know if you want to tell me or you don't what the Code is."

Liz shook her head. "I…I don't know who follows it. Daddy. Chris…" She paused, her information slowing. "There were secret meetings. No one was supposed to know."

At the mention of her father, Max stiffened unconsciously. Trying to keep the loathing to of his voice, Max probed deeper for facts. "Tell me about your father."

Liz's gaze snapped up to meet his. "Why?"

Max shrugged, hoping it came off casual. "Because it's the first time you've mentioned him."

Her gaze shifted uncomfortably. "He's rich and powerful. Like you." Her voice hardened. "He's also heartless." Her hand rested delicately against Max's chest, her tone softening as her gaze met his. "Unlike you."

She swallowed hard. "There's not much more to say. My father…hated me. I reminded him of my mother too much." Liz paused as her gaze lowered, hiding years of pent up pain behind long dark lashes of vulnerability. "I…think he must have loved her a great deal. Once upon a time. That changed with all the affairs. First her then him." Pausing to wet her lips, she took a deep breath and swept her hair behind her shoulder. "Eventually she left him for another man. Left us…both. And my father never quite got over the betrayal."

Voice dropping to a new whisper, Liz swallowed hard. "He was a very cruel man. Hard and closed off. At least he was from me. Rarely had a kind word to spare and never ever took failure as an option. Every mistake I made, my punishment was this cold, hard stare of his…the one that told me he was somehow seeing my mother deep inside of me."

"I'm sorry." The apology was barely breathed as Max's reached up to caress her face.

Clearing her throat, Liz shrugged nonchalantly. "You know, its no big deal. I got over it a long time…"

"No…" Max shook his head, his negative response coaxed Liz's eyes to meet his. "…I meant that I was sorry for you father."

Confusion raced through her eyes. "Why?"

"Because in seeing only your mother, he missed the magnificence…of you."

Her smile was bittersweet as she captured his hand and held it to her heart. "Where have you been all of my life?"

"Holding my breath. Waiting for you." Max stated simply, wisely. His eyes glowed warm with love. "Waiting for the chance to finally breathe."

Liz's eyes darkened to fathomless depths of midnight as she leaned forward, stopping when her lips were only a breath away from his. "You sure there's no chance of us making love tonight?"

A finger ran the length of Liz's face as Max's eyes held hers in apparent indecision before a teasing smile haunted his lips. "Only in our dreams."

"In that case…" Liz's eyes drifted closed as her lips brushed his. "…maybe we should lay down."

Max's eyes began to dance with devilish delight when Liz pulled back. "And go to sleep."

The teasing light in Liz's eyes matched his. "I was thinking more along the lines of snuggling under the covers together."

"And going to sleep." Max repeated.

Tilting her head, her voice lowered seductively as her fingers moved to the top button on Max's shirt and began to play with it. "Maybe we could both get a little more comfortable…"

"Right before we…you know..." Max winked "…go to sleep."

Liz bit back a chuckle. "Maybe I could even wear your shirt…"

Max grinned. "Do you promise to wear it to the door if someone knocks?"

Enthusiastically nodding her head, Liz's eyes brightened with excitement.

"Well, then. I guess I have no choice but to oblige the lovely lady's request." Reaching up to unbutton his shirt, Max's hands were instantly stopped in their task when she covered them with hers. Liz's dark eyes met his with a quiet suggestion. "Let me."

"One condition."

"What's that?"

"When tomorrow comes and you don't remember anything that happened tonight…"

"I'll remember." Liz stated with a stubborn pout.

"When you don't remember…" Max's knowing smile faded as his eyes darkened with seriousness. "…know…believe deep in your heart…this has been the best night of my life."

Doubt clouded Liz's eyes. A wry smile touched her lips. "That can hardly be true, Max. You've had how many women in your life…"

Max stopped her protest when his lips unexpectedly captured hers.

Any lingering doubt was washed away in that kiss. As his fingers slipped through her hair pulling her into his web of pleasure, his lips slowly, tenderly moved over hers deepening with each brush. Holding her captive in a world of pure love and passion. Mesmerizing her with his taste. Enchanting her with the perfection of his rhythm. As she sank into the kiss, she let out a sigh of the deepest contentment. Peace. Pleasure. Liz felt she was surely floating in the air.

When Max finally pulled back to look in Liz's eyes, his plea was a bare whisper. "Promise you'll remember."

"I promise." A slow nod of Liz's head accompanied her solemn vow. "I'll always remember…"

tbc…


[ edited 1 time(s), last at 29-Aug-2002 5:36:40 AM ]
posted on 2-Sep-2002 7:21:19 PM by Ashton
Ok. I'm trying now! LOL!! Ya'll please bear with us...we're goofing with a banner for this story! ;)



posted on 2-Sep-2002 11:08:44 PM by Ashton
Hey all!!!

Hope you enjoy this next part!!! *happy* I'd LOVE to know what you think. I kinda like this part for several different reasons, but I'd love to hear your reactions! *happy*
Also, the banner below is courtesy of DrEaMPrYnCeZz and her cousin at the website below. I LOVE the job they did and wanted to share it with ya'll! *happy*



Banner is courtesy of: http://fallenskies.enacre.net


BehrHugs,
Ashton
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 20 ~


Liz Parker didn't remember a damn thing.

The night before was a complete blur. This morning…a baffling puzzle of dazed confusion, enigmatic hints and unexplained events.

The only thing she could be sure of was that Max Evans was at center of it all…

Liz Parker woke to the feel of a solid chest at her back, protective arms wrapped around her waist, warm breath on her neck…

And a ragging headache.

She groaned slightly and squeezed her eyes shut against the swimming dizziness that swept over her. That's when she felt warm, moist lips dropping kisses across her exposed shoulder. The huskily purred whisper in her ear echoed in her sluggish brain jarring her entire body with sharp pain. "Mmmm, morning, Beautiful. I wondered when my own personal tigress would join me in the land of the living." A lingering kiss against her cheek was delivered before Max snuggled against Liz's shoulder with a sigh. "The morning after and though I'm feeling thoroughly ravished, I could also go another four or five rounds. How about you?"

Absently, one hand found Max's lips while the other pressed a finger against her own in a silencing motion. "Shhh. Shhh. Tiny, tiny, wee bitty voice."

Max kissed the tips of her fingers and removed her hand from his lips. "See? Told you you'd have a headache. Not to mention any other aches our…" Max paused, his voice lowering suggestively as his foot ran seductively up her leg then back down again. "…activities caused." She could feel Max grin against her cheek and felt the bubble of laughter ripple through his body. A body that was hard and warm and pressed tightly against hers. A body that was smooth and toned. A body that was…naked.

Liz's eyes popped open at the realization. One hand hesitantly snaked behind her, under the covers, to touch the warm skin of a muscled thigh before absently moving upward. Still, no clothes. She swallowed hard and bit back a groan as she squeezed her eyes shut again. She felt Max's chuckle as he slipped his hand over hers effectively stopping any further movement upward where she would surely encounter his boxers and ruin his plan to tease her unmercifully about the events of the previous evening. Events that never happened. He began with a whisper. "You truly are insatiable…" As Max shifted next to her, she felt him entwine their fingers before he returned their arms to tighten against her exposed stomach, his body pressing into hers from behind.

Feeling his fingers dance across her bare skin, one eye re-opened and Liz glanced down at her own appearance with growing dread. Her right shoulder was uncovered and the sheet was wrapped around her bare chest, where she felt an increasing restriction of movement but couldn't ascertain from what. The question didn't remain in her mind long. "Last night was…amazing." Max nipped at her ear. "I mean, I had dreams of what it would be like but…" Turning her face toward him, Max planted a teasing kiss against her lips before staring down into her eyes as his fingers lovingly caressed her face. "…nothing prepared me for you last night."

Liz blinked up at him. "Max…I…"

A flash of a smile. "I know what you're thinking. After all the exploring we did…" His eyebrows wiggled suggestively. "…as many times as we did, I would have expected to be satisfied too." His voice lowered seductively. "But it just seems the more I touch you the more I want you." His gaze followed his fingers as they blazed a trail down her breastbone stopping right above the top of the sheet covering Liz. Lowering his head he placed a lingering kiss under his fingers against her heart before returning to her lips for another teasing kiss. "And as much as I'd love to replay every last moment of last night right here, right now…" Max dropped another kiss on her shoulder. "…there's no time this morning. I have a busy day ahead..."

With that announcement, Max slipped out of bed taking a blanket with him and gathering it around his waist before Liz got a chance to fully view the man who'd shared her bed the night before. He leaned over and planted a solid kiss on her lips. His whispered promise was accompanied by a wink. "Don't move. I'll be back with something that'll make you feel better."

Liz watched him leave her room with growing dread. The pain shooting through her head was unbearable. Her stomach was getting queasy. She let out another groan and instantly regretted the sound. Thoughts instantly began to shoot through her fuddled mind.

What exactly had happened last night? The last thing she remembered was dancing in the bar. Mike interrupted. Then they came home. Or was it Max that interrupted her dancing with Mike? And what in hell had happened once they got home?

She pulled the sheet away from her and let out a sigh of relief. At least she was clothed. Well…partially clothed. Two buttons were the only thing holding Max's shirt on her body. It was way too big to stay on right, which accounted for it falling off her shoulders and twisting uncomfortably around her petite frame. Which brought her to the question how she came to be wearing his shirt in the first place. God, what was she going to tell Max? She simply didn't remember a blessed thing that happened and he seemed so…happy…

Liz let out a frustrated sigh.

Having discarded the blanket, a jean-clad Max returned with a grin and a tray. Carefully sitting down on the edge of the bed, he placed the tray at the end and picked up the glass turning to Liz with a look of disgust. "I know it looks bad, but trust me…it really will help with the hangover blues."

Propping herself up against the pillows, Liz's expression mirrored Max's as she reached for the glass. "What is this?"

"A miracle cure." Max stated simply.

Liz's eyes narrowed at his choice of words as a flash of a memory flickered on the edge of her mind then faded as quickly as it came. Seeing Max's expectant gaze fixed on her, she gave him a wary smile and downed his miracle potion. A shudder wracked her body as the nasty concoction went down and Max responded with a chuckle before leaning forward and planting a kiss on her cheek as he slipped the glass from her hand. "That's my girl. I promise you'll be feeling better in no time."

Biting her lower lip, Liz nervously watched every move Max made as he placed the glass back on the tray and removed it to the floor before turning back to her with a smile. The smile vanished the moment he saw her expression. "What's wrong?"

"Oh…nothing. Nothing's wrong. I just…" Pushing her hair back from her face, Liz's gaze shifted as she began to finger Max's shirt. "Max…I'm a little…fuzzy. How did I uh…end up with…"

"My shirt?" Max asked with a knowing grin. He plopped back down on the bed and leaned back against one of the four posters, crossing his legs at the ankles. The motion caused Liz to wince in pain. Max pretended not to notice. Placing his hands behind his head, a teasing grin began to dance in his eyes as his torture began. "You insisted on wearing it and…frankly, I was too weak to protest." His gaze shifted to some point in the corner of the room as his expression turned thoughtful. "I believe that was either after the lap dance or maybe it was right after our third time…"

"L-lap dance?" Liz's eyes widened. "Third time?"

Max smirked as his gaze snapped back to hers. "Amazing. You were just getting started." Letting out a sigh, Max grinned, his eyes sparkling with devilish delight. "Your energy is out of this world. The way you kept wanting more…" Max bit back a chuckle at the pure look of panic in Liz's eyes.

Uncrossing his legs, Max knelt on all fours and moved across the bed with the slow, predatory movements of a lion. His dark eyes were golden with passion as his gaze never left hers. "Last night was…without a doubt…" He fought a smirk of satisfaction when Liz swallowed hard and the breath in her chest caused it to hitch and hold. "…the best experience of my life."

Crawling over her body, Max nuzzled his nose against hers. "So, I say we make a date." Tilting his head to the side, he brushed his lips against hers. "Tonight." Mirroring his action, he tilted his head again in the opposite direction. Another brush of his lips. "We can…" Max nipped at Liz's lips before dropping to her neck where he began to lightly lick and suck. Liz tilted her head back with a moan and ran her fingers through his hair pulling him harder against her. Her breaths came out in short, heated pants. "…replay last night when you…" Max whispered something secretive in Liz's ear. Her responding gasp echoed in the room. "Then I can…" Moving to her other ear, Max whispered a new form of pleasurable torture he'd allegedly apply during the previous night's escapades. Liz's face instantly flushed with desire. Pulling back, Max nuzzled her nose once more. "Then…we can both…"

Max never finished his sentence.

The heat of her kiss nearly drove Max insane with desire. Right then. Right there. The way she shifted against him before wrapping a leg around his. How she sought entrance to the inviting warmth of his mouth as her gentle hands captured his face in a fierce grip. The breathless sounds coming from the back her throat sent a weakening shiver to his knees. It took everything in him to pull away. Everything…and the desperate need for air.

Max pulled back breathlessly. "Baby, stop…"

"No. No, Max…" Liz's purr raced across his lips as she attempted to pull him back into another earth-shattering kiss. "…please…stay…"

"I can't." Max whispered, his eyes meeting her with regret. "I…can't. Meetings." His gaze burned her lips as he unconsciously licked his own. "And…and…meetings…"

Liz's pout nearly did him in. Chuckling, his dropped his head with a shake and let out a sigh before raising his eyes to meet hers again. An adoring smile played on his lips. Running a finger down her face, Max pulled her face toward him for one last lingering kiss. "I'll see you at work, my little love machine." With one wink, Max jumped off the bed and headed out of Liz's room. He reached the door and stopped short.

"What is it?" Liz asked, half full of hope and half concerned.

Max spun back around to face her. "Uh…my shirt."

Liz's eyes began to dance with devilish teasing. She held out her arms and tilted her head to the side as an adorably irresistible smile spread over her lips. "You want it…you'll have to come get it…"

Eyes narrowing warily, Max stood a moment in indecision. Everything in him wanted to return to the feel of her accepting arms and willing kisses. Everything in him wanted to resume his place by her side in her bed and really act out the things he'd whispered shamelessly in her ear. Everything in him knew it was still too soon. Everything in him knew as soon as she really started to remember…

Seeing the risk was too great, he shook his head. "Tell you what…keep it." He flashed her a charming grin. "You look much sexier in it anyway…" One last wink and a kiss blown across the room, Max Evans forced himself out the door without a backward glance.

Liz let out a dreamy sigh as she leaned back against the pillows. Her tongue ran over her lips, savoring the taste of Max. Her eyes drifted closed…

A disturbing thought hit her.

Her eyes popped open. And she instantly dove for the phone. Dialing a familiar number, she waited for the voice on the other line to answer with a groggy hello. "Mike, it's me. I think…I think I did something horrible last night…"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
He stepped into his office. Flicked on the light. Turned toward his desk. And pulled up abruptly. "What the hell…"

"Good morning…Mike." The mocking voice emphasized his name. Dark, dangerous eyes flicked to a nearby chair with silent command followed by verbal instruction as Vaughn's guest tossed a file on his desk. "Have a seat." The mandate was issued with no hesitation. No doubt it would be obeyed. No room for question.

Michael Vaughn pushed his luck.

Slamming the door behind him, Mike stepped further into his office, but no closer to the chair sitting opposite his desk. "Just who the hell do you think you are breaking into my office…"

Casual. Nonchalant. Unaffected. In control.

Max Evans leaned back in Vaughn's chair, ankles crossed, feet propped up on his desk. He smirked though his eyes remained hard and unreadable. "I'm your worst nightmare. Unless…" He quirked an eyebrow, the impression Mike had only one last chance to comply coming through his not so subtle order. “…you have a seat."

A moment's hesitation. Eyes locked in silent battle. Michael Vaughn was the first to look away. He moved to the seat Max had indicated and slipped into it wordlessly. Shifting uncomfortably under Max's unbending gaze, Mike finally spoke after a moment of hesitating silence. "Well? You called the meeting. What's this about?"

Max let out a heavy sigh and dropped his feet to the floor as he sat up in Mike's chair. Folding his hands on Vaughn's desk, Max's eyes casually scanned the items in front of him. "It seems, Mr. Vaughn, that we've gotten off on the wrong foot.” Eyes snapping upward, he gave Mike a pointed look. “Or not.”

“And frankly, that’s what I’m here to find out.” His voice was smooth as he continued. “I think, despite our rocky beginning, we can both agree on one thing…trust is very important in this game we’re playing. Especially since it could cost the lives of people we both know and care about. So, let me be perfectly candid, Mike.”

Max paused, his steadfast gaze never leaving Mike’s face like a judge giving sentence to a criminal. “Up to this point, you have given me no reason to trust you. Considering the amount of information you have on me and my past, not to mention the self-appointed and rather obvious mission you’re on to keep Liz as far from me as possible, I could very easily consider you…an enemy.”

Disbelief edged Mike’s voice. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Do I look like I’m kidding?” Max asked in a voice low with seriousness. There was a pause in which Mike’s adams apple bobbed as he swallowed hard. A silent flicker of satisfaction raced through Max’s eyes before he continued. “Alex Whitman vouches for you and Liz considers you a friend. So, on Alex’s advice and for Liz’s sake, I thought I'd give you a chance to make your case to me as to why I should do the same. You have one shot, so make it good."

“And what if I don’t convince you?”

Max deliberately picked up a letter opener lying on Mike's desk. He eyed it carefully before running his finger tentatively against the edge as if checking its sharpness. Touching the point lightly with his index finger, his dark eyes snapped up to meet Mike's. A lethal smile touched Max’s lips. “Let’s just hope that you do.”

Vaughn squared his shoulders. "Are you trying to intimidate me?"

"When I want to intimidate you, you'll know it."

"Either you're really this arrogant…" Eyes narrowing, Vaughn made a quiet observation. "…or you're just bluffing."

"The arrogant only think they're good. The confident are." Max responded glibly. "Guess which one I am." Without waiting for a response, Max moved on to Vaughn's next accusation. "As for bluffing…I really don't see the point. It wastes time and gets messy when the other person doesn't believe you will do what you say you'll do. Or that you're not capable. Since I don't fall into either of those categories, I skip bluffing altogether and go straight for the bottom line."

Vaughn smirked. "Ah. Now come the threats."

"No threats. Just a friendly exchange of services."

A flash of a smile and Vaughn leaned back into his chair. "Let me guess…you want me to help you convince Liz to be with you."

Max's first response was the hint of a grin. Amusement raced through his eyes. He shook his head with a chuckle as his gaze lowered. "That's…funny. You actually think *I* need *your* help to convince Liz to be with me." Letting out a deep sigh, Max's mocking eyes met Mike's once more. "Oh, Mike…either you overestimate your influence on her or you seriously underestimate mine." All amusement vanished. "You're wrong on both counts."

Mike's smile disappeared. "Then what kind of exchange are you talking about?"

"It's very simple really." Max leaned forward. "You say you're Liz's friend…be a friend. If she need to talk, listen. If she needs to cry, have a supply of Kleenex on hand. If she needs to laugh…tell her what you just told me. If she wants your advice on the state of our relationship…" Eyes dancing dangerously, Max's voice lowered with authority. "…keep your mouth shut and your opinion to yourself. And in exchange, I won't require your resignation as Sydney Bristow's handler."

Instant anger flared in Mike's eyes as he stiffened perceptibly. "You can't do that."

"Sure I can." Picking up a folder he'd carelessly tossed on Mike's desk earlier, Max opened it and slid a one page paper from inside. He held it up to Mike. "See? Already typed and signed. All I have to do is put it on Devlin's desk and you lose your chance to work with a certain CIA asset we both know holds more than just Company interest for you."

"That's blackmail."

"No." Max's tone rumbled meaningfully. "That's holding you to the same standard you want Liz and me to live by. If Liz and I shouldn't have any contact, neither should you and Ms. Bristow." There was a pause as Max put the resignation letter down on the desk. "You know, I think I know what's going on here. You're transferring your rationale and decisions about your own love life onto Liz and mine."

He folded his hands over the folder, his tone taking a step toward conversational. "Liz and I are not you and Sydney, Mike. Granted, I see the similarities…the danger, the forbidden love, both women have painful past love lives…but in reality our worlds are vastly different. No matter how much you try to make them the same."

"Is that so?"

"Yes, that's so." Max retorted with a returned edge to his voice. "Liz isn't a double agent sworn to take down enemies of the Unites States. And I, myself, have been out of the spy business for years now. Neither of us have bureau regulations breathing down our necks or inquiring eyes watching our every move just waiting to report us to our superiors. Millions of lives do not depend on our ability to focus on our mission and not each other. All the mixing business and pleasure rules simply don't apply to us."

"And you would know all about that, wouldn't you?" Feeling cornered, the venom in Mike's voice was lethal.

Max felt as if he'd been punched in the stomach. The sneer on his lips matched the level of guarded pain in his eyes. "You'd better not be going where I think you are…"

Ignoring Max's comment, Mike leaned back in his chair and smirked. “You know, I’ve heard about you. How ruthless you can be. I’ve heard how you…” Vaughn paused and placed invisible quotation marks around his next word. “…'handle’ problems that get in your way.” Reaching over to pick up his briefcase, Vaughn set it on his lap. “I must admit, after last night…I had a feeling you’d view me as just that. A problem.” He flicked the latches of his briefcase open. “So, I did a little research just in case we’d have a moment like this…”

Voice tense, Max’s eyes flickered with barely controlled irritation. “If this is your way of presenting a case for trust and cooperation, I must inform you…it’s not having the desired effect.”

Vaughn didn’t flinch.

Pulling out a folder, he shut his briefcase and tapped the folder lightly against the leather top. “Quite impressive.” Mike’s eyes met Max’s over the edge of the folder. “The list of enemies you’ve accumulated over the years. All of these names just happen to be on the ‘scum of the earth’ A-list. All, very powerful with long memories and short fuses. Not a single one would turn their back on a chance to bring you to your knees. And they have the resources. We're talking connections with not only SD-6 but every other SD cell in operation, K-Directorate, KGB and various terrorist cells throughout the world including the IRA and Islamic Jihad.”

“And your point?”

“You say you love her.” Vaughn tossed the folder across his desk. It slid and stopped in front of Max. “You just made her a target for every name on that list.”

Max pursed his lips as he slowly opened the folder. His eyes scanned the names before turning the page. The list continued with even more names, each one increasing the level of dread fluttering in his stomach. When it was clear the list didn't stop at the end of page two, Max gave up trying to associate a face with each name. Snapping the folder closed, his expression remained unreadable as he fixed his gaze on Mike. “And this is supposed to do…what? Make me tremble in fear? Shake in my boots?" He paused. "Or would you prefer I lock myself away from the world for the rest of my life?"

"How about showing a little restraint with Liz?" Mike shot back.

"Restraint." A dark eyebrow raised. A disbelieving shake of his dark head and a smirk of knowledge. "Do you have any idea how many times she offered herself to me last night? Any?" Seeing Mike's unresponsive expression, Max continued. "No? Well, let me assure you…it was a lot." He leveled Mike with a superior gaze. "Yet, she remains, as she was before, untouched." Max's eyebrow rose higher. "So don’t lecture me about restraint. I cornered that market all on my own last night."

"She thinks you made love last night." Mike accused.

"She'll remember that we didn't." Max responded curtly. "She'll be relieved."

Shaking his head, Mike's incredulity couldn't be hidden. "How can you be so blasé about this?"

"I'm anything but blasé about Liz. She thinks we made love last night because I wanted her to. It's called strategy and frankly, something I really don't have to explain to you." Max shrugged. "If you're talking about the information you have on me…if I seem unconcerned, it's because you're not showing me anything I don't already know." Max responded calmly, a feat that took a great deal of control. "I've lived with the knowledge any one of these people could come at me any time for quite a while now."

Mike leaned forward in his chair, his eyes holding an earnest, sincere question. "Then how can you pull her into the center of your world? How can you make her the target of every crack pot out there that has a gripe against you? How can you put her little girl in that kind of danger?"

For the first time, Max's eyes filled with emotion. His jaw tightened. His knuckles turned white as his folded hands struggled not to shake.

When he spoke, his voice was terse and rippling with emotion. "I didn't pull Liz into the center of anything, Mr. Vaughn. I was in my office, minding my own business, conducting a meeting when she burst through the door and changed my entire life. I didn't expect to fall in love. And I certainly go looking for it. But it happened and now that it has, she’s the only thing in my life worth living for."

On a roll, his voice hardened. "And if you think I've not tried to walk away for the exact same reason you shoved these names in my face, then you are once again mistaken. I tried. Several times. I've agonized over what could happen to her, what she could lose, how she could suffer. I even let a business rival of mine walk all over me so I could effectively cut myself off from her. It didn't work. She showed back up at my office, once again uninvited, and turned my world upside down."

Voice softening, Max's eyes began to shine with an inextinguishable light of love. "For the first time in weeks, I felt this suffocating ache in the center of my chest just…disappear…the moment I looked into her eyes again. That's when I knew without a doubt, it was real. It was forever." Gaze raising to meet Mike's, Max's eyes flashed with determination. "Contrary to popular opinion, Mr. Vaughn, I don't need to be hit over the head too many times before I get the point. Liz and I belong together. Together is how we're going to be."

His gaze shifted as his tone lowered with intense seriousness. "I am not, however, naïve enough to think that all I have to do is wish it for it to be true. We both have pasts that haunt us. We both have enemies we need to deal with. Does that mean I give up on the dream of being together? Give in to the fear?" Max shook his head definitely. "No. We don't live in a perfect world, Mr. Vaughn, but there are in this world…perfect moments. I held one in my arms last night. I know to make that a consistent reality will take work and planning and a lot of patience and caution. I know that, better than anyone. I will do whatever is necessary to keep both Liz and Jaedan safe and loved. And that includes leaving them if the situation warrants. But **that** is something Liz and I will decide when and if that time comes, Mr. Vaughn. Not you."

"And as for her daughter…have you ever met Jaedan, Mr. Vaughn?" At the slight shake of Mike's head, Max continued. "Have you ever rocked her back to sleep after she's had a nightmare? Or felt her crush you with her hug just because she had missed you so much? Have you ever wiped her tears away as she's begged you not to leave her again?" Max's eyes began to blaze with golden light. "Have you ever made a promise you'd die to keep?"

Mike swallowed hard.

"I have." The intense whisper echoed in the silence of the room. "To Jaedan. To Liz. To myself." There was a pause. "*No one* will stop me from keeping it. Not her ex-husband, not the names on this list…and certainly not you."

A hush fell over the room.

Mike looked away from Max uncomfortably. Max struggled to keep the emotions racing through him from taking control. He needed to focus. Think. Do anything but feel. It was the only way to deliver his message to Vaughn without doing something he'd surely regret.

Drawing in a deep breath, Max forced himself to relax. He placed his hands flat on Vaughn's desk and struggled to keep his voice calm. "The way I see it, we can keep butting heads on this subject or we can stay out of each others' love lives and work together to keep Liz and Jaedan safe. Now we've both been trained to listen to our guts in this business. What does yours say about me?"

Mike met Max's eyes, his answer slow and reluctant. "That what everyone says about you is true. You're arrogant but not foolish. Ruthless, but only with your enemies. You do things for the right reasons. Most of the time." Mike paused, his voice lowering with sincerity. "I believe you love Liz. And Jaedan. I believe you want a future with them. My gut says you'll do whatever it takes to make that happen. No matter how insane it may be."

Max's eyes flickered with understanding. In that moment, Michael Vaughn admitted defeat. Albeit reluctantly.

A curt nod was Mike's response. "Now that we have that straight, this is what's going to happen…I'm going to go with my gut instinct on this as well. I think you've made some pretty stupid moves against me so far, but your heart is in the right place. You don't want to see Liz hurt and you're willing to protect her from anyone you see as a threat to her safety. Including me. As ironic as it may sound, in my book that means you get another chance." His eyes darkened with determination. "Only one."

Max stood and picked up the letter of resignation he'd laid on Mike's desk. "As a sign of good faith, I'll leave you with this." He tapped the folder under his hand. "This is the research I've done…on you. Sydney features quite prominently as I'm sure you'll see. You'll also note that you are being monitored by your superiors and might want to take appropriate steps to keep your budding romance under radar." Showing Vaughn the resignation letter, Max's expression was unreadable. "As insurance, I'll take this."

"But…"

"The lives of the people I love are at stake here. Would you really expect anything less from me?" Max cut off Mike's protest with a commanding air. Grabbing the folder full of Mike's research, Max tucked it under his arm and headed toward the door pausing only long enough to give one last admonition. "One more chance, Mike. Use it wisely…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Max arrived at the safe house to the sound of Tess' incessant whining.

The moment he stepped into room, she jumped up from the sofa with a torrent of practiced tears and threw herself into Max's arms. Steve and Duke crossed their arms and smirked at Max from behind Tess. He responded with a look of disgust. And by sticking his tongue out at both of them in typical juvenile fashion.

After a moment of soothingly spoken words of reassurance, Max firmly but gently pushed Tess away from him, held her at arms' length and poured on the charm. "Tess, darling, I know this has been difficult for you. I'm sorry it's taken so long to get the authority to see you." He cast Steve and Duke an appropriately disdainful looks. "The cooperation level has been pretty non-existent."

Sniffling, Tess stuck her lower lip out. "But…I don't understand why they're keeping me, Max. They just keep asking me all these questions and not telling me anything. And the service here is atrocious. You should see what they brought me for breakfast!" A shudder went through her at the thought and Max had to bite back a chuckle. He knew exactly what she'd been served. He's the one that ordered it.

Turning his attention to Steve and Duke, Max's eyes snapped with annoyance. "Well? The deal was that I'd have time alone with her…"

"Right." Duke stated with a nod. He motioned Steve to the door and followed giving Max a last instruction before closing the door behind them. "Ten minutes, lover boy. Don't do anything I wouldn't do…"

Letting out an overly exasperated sigh, Max turned back to Tess with sympathetic eyes. "I'm so sorry about this. I tried to get to see you as soon as I could, but the legalities about this are difficult to say the least."

Tess blinked up at him in all innocence. "What is it they want, Max? I…I don't know anything about what they've been asking me."

Eyes narrowing protectively, Max led Tess to the sofa and sat down with her. "What questions have they been asking you?"

Tossing her hair back from her face, Tess scrunched up her face. "Something about some code and they've asked me questions about Chris. And I…I don't know what any of it has to do with me."

"I'll tell you what it has to do with you." Max stated solemnly as he gathered her hand in his. "They're trying to link your father to Chris Santoro."

"What?" Tess' blue eyes widened and appropriately surprised. "But…but daddy hated Chris. He thought he was nothing more than a two-bit hood. Even forbade me to see him…"

"That may be so, Tess, but…" Max paused, his grip on her hand tightening for emphasis. "…that doesn't mean they didn't do business together. Which is precisely what the Feds are trying to prove. I have to admit, Tess, the evidence they have so far is pretty damaging."

"What…what would happen to daddy if they decided to pursue this?"

"He could go to jail. Just like Chris." Max stated solemnly. "And not only that, his fortune could be seized. Which means your entire inheritance would be gone. You'd be…penniless." Max allowed his latest news to sink in before offering her a way out. He could see the fear racing in her eyes. The uncertainty. The panic. "Unless…"

"Unless what?" Tess jumped at the chance for a way out.

"Unless you cooperate."

"But I don't know anything." Tess whined with a shake of her head and tears that gathered appropriately in the corners of her eyes.

"Are you positive? I mean…there might be something you know but you don't realize you know." Max paused as if in thought. Suddenly he brightened as if he'd just thought of something. "You know…you mentioned something about that woman not living by something. You know what I'm talking about. The thing with her dishonoring Chris. What was that…"

Shaking her head emphatically, Tess' expression hardened. "No, I…I don't know anything about that." Seeing Max's doubtful expression, Tess rejoined with more explanation. "It's just…just something I heard Daddy say once. I have no idea what it meant."

Max's eyes narrowed slightly. His gut was telling him she knew so much more than she was saying. He recognized a closed door when he saw one. Obviously, even he didn't have the influence to get the truth out of her. Apparently, he was going to have to go with plan two. Going with her lie, Max held up a finger for emphasis. "You mean you don't know…yet."

Blinking in confusion, Tess shook her head. "I don't know what you mean."

"I mean…" Max leaned forward, his voice lowering conspiratorially. "…what if you met with Chris to get information? Information the feds want."

Her gasp was sincere. "You…you want me to…spy on Chris?"

"I don't want you to. The feds do. And it's not really spying." Max hastened to clarify. "Look, it's taken me forever but I think I have a deal of sorts worked out for you. If you were to see him in prison and find out if your father knew about this code they're asking about and went to these secret meetings the feds are interested in…it could go a long way in helping to prove your father has no ties to Chris." Seeing the hesitancy in Tess' eyes, Max continued. "Think about it, Tess. You've been banned from his visitors list all of these years. That must have been hard for you. After all, you're the one who told me how much you loved him once upon a time. Here's your chance to see him again and in the process clear your father's name."

Tess was clearly lost in thought at the possibilities when Max threw in his final curve ball. "I think…I could even arrange for your visits to be in private. You know, so you and Chris could…re-acquaint yourselves." Max allowed the suggestion to trail and Tess' eyes lit up. "Of course, you'd not want to mention anything to him about this Liz woman you think you saw."

Instant suspicion clouded Tess' expression. "And why not?"

Max shrugged. "Well, I guess I assumed you wouldn't want to because of his obsession with her. I mean, you're the one who told me that he couldn't get enough of her once he met her. I just figured the last thing you'd want is to divert his attention from you. Especially when you'd have so little time with him."

"That's…a good point." Tess acquiesced.

"It's a win-win situation for you, Tess." Max continued, adding the icing to the cake. "Think how grateful your father will be when he finds out you saved him from jail, not to mention how happy Chris will be to see you." He paused before appealing to Tess' sense of revenge. "Look, you and your father are small fish to these people I've been talking to. You're not their main target, but they're certainly willing to use you to get what they want. So…why not use them back to get what you really want?"

Batting her lashes, Tess' momentary attention was focused on the man in front on her instead of the one from her past. She leaned forward and ran her hand up Max's chest. "What I really want…is you."

Gently removing her hand, he shook his head slightly with a frown. "I'm sorry, Tess, but I can't be linked to someone with criminal ties…"

"But…"

"Which is another reason I think you should do this." Max interrupted hastily. He reached up and caressed her face, his eyes appropriately pleading. "Do this for us, Tess. For our future."

Confusion raced through her eyes. "But…but what about Chris. If I do what you're suggesting and he and I…"

Stilling her question with his finger, Max shook his head slightly. "What I don't know won't hurt me. Besides…" He flashed her grin and leaned in, his eyes locked on her lips. "…I can be a pretty forgiving guy…if I get what I want in the end…"


"Do you really think this is wise?" Duke asked Max once Max had left Tess alone and returned to the outer surveillance area.

Max wiped his lips with the back of his hand, his face scrunched up in disgust. Steve chuckled and handed him a washcloth, which Max readily used to scrub the feel of Tess off him. "Wise or not, it's all we've got." Tossing the cloth to the side, Max placed his hands on his hips and addressed Duke's question. Seeing Duke's doubt, Max continued. "Look, she knows a helluva lot more than she's letting on to any of us. Given their history the information should flow rather easily once Tess and Chris hook back up together."

"Yeah, but what if it’s the wrong information?" Duke pursued.

Max shook his head. "She won't mention Liz. I can pretty much guarantee that."

"How?"

"Because she won't want him thinking of anyone else while they're engaged in conjugal visits." Max answered promptly.

"I don't know, Max. It seems like a pretty big risk to me." Duke commented softly as his gaze drifted in thought.

"You have anything better?" Max challenged as his gaze shifted from Duke to Steve then back again. Neither said a word. "Right. So, we go with what we've got." Letting out a sigh of resignation, Max's tone lost its edge. "Alright, how about this. We'll give them one meeting, ten minutes. Depending on how that goes, we'll decide from there if there are to be any more and if so, how long."

Duke nodded. "Yeah. Sounds like a compromise that's workable."

"Ok." Steve agreed. "We'll put the pressure on her the first meeting about her inheritance. Might keep her mind focused on her own issues instead of anything to do with Liz."

"Sounds good." Max agreed. "Get a room that's wired for sound so we can pick up the conversation. Until then…" Max's voice trailed off as he addressed Duke. "…keep the Happy Meals coming. While…" Turning to Steve, Max grinned. "…you and I, my friend, have a date to trick a beautiful lady…"

A huge grin spread over Steve's face. "I have been looking forward to this one ever since Alex told me about it."

"What are you guys talking about?" Duke asked curiously.

Max and Steve exchanged looks and burst into laughter. The gestures they were making with their hands were enough to clue Duke into the general plan. "Oh, no. Homer Thickbottom." Nodding emphatically, Max's sparkling eyes were the only answer Duke needed. He joined their laughter with a shake of his head. "Man, wouldn't I love to see that one."

Eyes brightening with an idea, Max slapped Duke on the back. "Why don't you? Just call Alex and get a replacement. We're not doing this till this afternoon anyway…"

"Really?" Duke began to grin. "Alright. I'll uh…I'll check with Alex and get back to you so I don't end up in the wrong place."

"Sounds great." Max agreed as he inclined his head toward the doorway. "We'll check in with you later…"

As soon as the door closed behind Max, Duke dialed Alex's number. Once the phone was answered, he immediately put in his request. "Hey. I hear Homer's being resurrected. I'd love a front row seat. Any chance of getting a sub for me?"

Alex began to chuckle. "I should have known the whole crew would want to show up for that one." Running his finger down a list, Alex nodded. "Yeah. I'll have someone there by noon to relieve you." He paused. "How's everything going?"

"Let's just say I understand Max's aversion to this particular beauty." Duke commented dryly. "She's driving us nuts. What about on your end?"

"McKenna got her make over." Alex informed Duke. "Kyle's keeping her under wraps, so to speak."

"Did the medical records help any with a list of ops?"

"Still running the data." Alex stated with a sigh. "I swear, Duke, I think we should just tell Max flat out and get this over with. He's going to be so pissed when he finds out we've known this all this time and haven't told him."

"Yeah, he will." Duke agreed. "But I honestly don't think now is the time. He's got a lot on him with this Tess thing and Darian. The fact he just walked out of here with a grin is quite remarkable."

Alex smiled through the phone. "Remarkable is the woman putting that grin on his face. Just wait till you meet her, Duke. Max's state of mind right now will make a whole lot more sense once you do."

Duke let out a sigh. "Hope she's remarkable enough to put up with everything that's coming down the pike."

"She is, pal." Alex assured Duke. "Liz Parker is strong enough to handle anything that comes her way... "
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Oh, boy." Liz pulled in a steady breath and closed her eyes. Rocking back and forth slightly she shook her head. Her hand flew to her stomach to stop the flutters deep inside. "No. No, I don't think I can do this."

"Liz, you have to." Sydney stated calmly. "It's for the good of all womankind."

"But…but I'm going to feel so foolish. Acting like Max and I have…when we both know we haven't…" Liz's breath came out in a big 'swoosh' as she waved her hands in the air nervously.

"You didn't seem to have a problem with it this morning when you thought the two of you had." Sydney reminded her.

Liz let out an exasperated sigh. "Of course not. Because I thought we already **had**."

Shaking her head, Sydney began to chuckle. "Liz, you're making no sense."

Pushing her hair back from her face, Liz turned to face Sydney, her eyes flashing with worry. "Thinking Max and I made love is an entirely different thing from acting like we did when I know damn well we didn't!"

Sydney cracked a smile and flashed her dimples. "Look, the guy not only didn't clarify that you didn't sleep together but he actually went out of his way to make you think you two had a wild night of sex. I think it's time he pays."

Eyes narrowing, Liz scrutinized her friend's expression. "You're just mad at Michael."

Shrugging, Sydney didn't deny Liz's accusation. She cast Liz a sly look. "You are seriously looking hot. He is going to drop his…" She shrugged as a sly smile lit her eyes. "Let's just say the whole issue of whether you did or didn't won't matter once he takes one look at you. And just an FYI…the nearest hotel is precisely five minutes and thirteen seconds from your office building, walking distance. I could reserve a room for you…"

Liz slapped Sydney playfully as laughter bubbled inside of her. "Would you stop!"

Straightening in her seat, Sydney nudged Liz then inclined her head toward Liz's office building. "It's time."

Gaze shifting to the closed door opening to her office building, Liz bit down on her lower lip. Clearing her throat, Liz pushed her hair back behind her shoulders and nodded once. "Right. I'm doing this for women everywhere."

"Right." Sydney nodded firmly. "Women who never get the chance to screw the guys who screwed them."

Liz raised an eyebrow. "Wrong choice of words."

Waving a dismissive hand in the air, Sydney chuckled. "You know what I mean. Now, quit stalling and get…scr..."

"Don't say it!" Liz pointed at Sydney before pulling in a steeling breath and throwing open the door to the car, stepping out into the bright morning sun. Bending down to look at Sydney, Liz grinned. "Wish me luck."

"You don't need it, sis." Sydney smiled. "You've got revenge on your side…"

Eyes dancing with devilish schemes, Liz nodded once and slammed the door shut before heading toward her office building with one word on her mind…

Tbc…


[ edited 1 time(s), last at 2-Sep-2002 11:14:27 PM ]
posted on 26-Sep-2002 7:38:40 PM by Ashton
Hey all,

I'm sooo soooo soooo sorry I've not been around. I've been out of town and then I've been getting involved in a few extra-cirricular things that used to be my career and are now more like a hobby. ANYWAY...I'm currently working on a chapter for TWT. If you guys have any requests for stories, etc I'd love to hear them. *happy* Thanks soooo much for the continued support and your wonderful patience. I appreciate you so much more than I can ever say! *happy*

BehrHugs,
Ashton
posted on 4-Nov-2002 7:43:49 PM by Ashton
Hey all!!!

I am overwhelmed by your amazing patience. I really, really am. Unfortunately, I don't have anything ready to post yet, BUT I am working on it. I just wanted to drop a line to let you all know I've not forgotten you (yeah, like THAT could ever happen) and I am planning on continuing. *happy* The election is tomorrow so after that I'll have more time hopefully to actually focus on writing. *happy* Sooo, this is a BIG thank you to all of you who have been so supportive, encouraging and patient. You truly are the BEST!!!! *happy*

BehrHugs,
Ashton

p.s. If you're of registered to vote PLEASE go to the polls tomorrow and exercise your Constitutional right as an American citizen. Trite and cliched as it may sound, one vote really does make a difference. *happy*
posted on 13-Nov-2002 4:25:32 AM by Ashton
Hey all!!

I honestly, again, can't thank you enough for your amazing patience. I just hope this will be worth the wait for you all. *happy* As always, I'd LOVE to hear what you think!! You truly are the best for your steady support and encouragement!!! *happy*

Hugs,
Ashton
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 21 ~


One day. One event. One grand finale.

Two conversations. Two perspectives. Two diametrically opposed plans for the evening…


"It was a disaster."

Sydney tried to hide a reactionary grin as Liz buried her head under her arms with a moan of defeat and disgrace. Clearing her throat, Syd slipped onto the park bench next to Liz. The worry that had gripped her from Liz’s frantic phone call demanding they meet in a nearby park slipped away to nothing. “What happened?”

Shaking her head, Liz's muffled reply slipped through the cracks in her folded arms. "It's too horrible to describe. A debacle of catastrophic proportions. A complete, utter, undeniably colossal failure. A…"

"Liz." Holding up her hands in a halting motion, Sydney's sharp tone of voice stopped Liz cold. She waited till Liz's wide, mortified eyes met hers. Fighting back a bubble of laughter at the comically distraught expression on her roommate's face, Sydney continued in mock seriousness. "Though your stroll through the thesaurus is fascinating, it doesn't tell me what happened. So…spill!"

Liz let out a deep sigh and rolled her eyes. “Well, for starters…” Liz pulled in a shaky breath, her eyes raising to meet Sydney’s, wild with curiosity. “…I arrived first this morning, right? And of course, as Fate would have it, it took Max forever to finally get there. Which, of course, meant that the entire pep talk you gave me was totally wasted. By the time he showed up, I was shaking in my boots and totally convinced I could never pull this charade off like we planned."

"Oh, no." Sympathy skipped over Sydney's expression. Her eyes narrowed knowingly. "So…you didn't go through with it, did you?"

"Oh, well, now…" Gaze shifting hesitantly, a thick veil of lashes covered the flickering emotions in her eyes. "…I…I wouldn't say that."

"Well, then. What would you say?"

Forehead crinkling in thought, Liz blinked rapidly as her fingers began a nervous fidgeting motion in her lap. "Well, I guess you could say the plan kinda…took a detour."

"A detour." Sydney repeated.

"Yeah. Like…a **huge** detour." Taking a deep breath, Liz bit her lip as her nose scrunched up in complete mortification only seconds before she covered her face with her hands. "God, this is the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me. That I've ever done. It's just so horrifying and in the grand scheme of things why should I have expected anything different? I mean, my entire life is one huge stumble into idiocy…"

"Liz!" Sydney's frustration level was quickly rising. "Would you just spit it out!?"

"Well…" Squeezing her eyes closed, Liz took a breath and began. Her words tumbled forward like a bubbling waterfall. "I think Max caught me dancing. On his desk. While singing and doing this pop-rock-Britney Spears-J Lo kind of thing. And that wasn’t even the worst part.” Liz paused dramatically as her eyes opened and her gaze shifted uncomfortably from Sydney's shocked face. “I think the priest he had with him saw too.”

Sydney bit back a burst of laughter, choking out an instant request as she leaned forward and excitedly grabbed Liz's hands. "Details!"

Which Liz provided. With great animation and agitation. Jumping up from the bench, Liz immediately began to pace frantically flipping her hair behind her shoulders before wringing her hands in front of her. “Alright, so….like I said, I got to the office before Max, right? And I was totally not thinking I should…could…pull this off, so I remembered something I used to do before every concert…"


Revenge is sweet.

Or so they say. Liz Parker wouldn't know. She'd never tried to exact revenge in her entire life. And especially nothing in this particular vein.

Liz Parker was about to attempt…the impossible. She was going to seduce the master seducer.

She looked at herself once more in the mirror. Sydney was right…she looked hot. She attempted a smile. It looked more like a sickening grimace. Sydney was wrong…this was never going to work. Liz scrunched up her face with a groan and turned from the mirror.

She was going to fail. No doubt. No question. No pretending. There was just no way Liz would be able to pull this off.

She simply didn't know the art of seduction. Or the mechanics of revenge. Or how to lead a man like Max Evans to the edge of temptation and not fall headlong into the raging river herself.

Which is rather odd for a woman who had not only been known for her steamy videos and energetically charged performances, but a married woman at that. Her history, however, explained everything.

Back in boarding school, while her classmates were learning to use their feminine wiles against the unsuspecting male population in town, Liz was spending her time painting. While other girls were dishing about their latest make out sessions with the hottest boys, Liz was composing music in her head.

Then she was discovered. If ever a stage were a kingdom, Liz Parker was it's Queen. Under bright lights, in front of cheering crowds, her performances took on a life of their own. On stage, she was everything any young man could ever want, and everything any young girl could want to be. A devilish sex symbol with a core of unassuming innocence that drove people insane with adoration.

She ruled without effort.

But backstage, away from the adoring eyes of the public, Liz would instantly revert to the shy young woman with little to no confidence in herself. Alternating between borderline negligence and heated verbal tirades, Jeff Parker ripped to shreds what little esteem she garnered through adoring fans. Nothing she did was ever good enough. No matter how much money she was pulling in or how many people clamored for her attention. She was never good enough for him.

In Jeff Parker’s presence, she was reduced to a peasant.

Then Chris Santoro entered her life. From the start he was clearly the pursuer and Liz was merely the prey. Chris, the seducer. Liz, the unsuspecting victim. Desperate to escape her father’s overbearing personality, she was drawn to the image Chris expertly portrayed. Liz didn't have a clue what she'd stepped into when she stepped into Chris Santoro's world.

She soon found out.

Seduction was an unwelcome guest in the Santoro household. Sex was a physical act of mechanics. Never anything emotionally bonding. Never about true desire or longing. Or love. While power and control were her husband's weapons, submission and timidity became Liz's most consistent companions. Her every glance, every move, was gauged with a critical eye of the overbearing master of the house. One blink out of place and Liz would know swift and sure retribution.

In his domain, the Queen became a slave.

As a result, the creative Liz Parker learned to exist in a very controlled life. Escaping from Chris hadn't changed that control. With the constant fear of being discovered, of losing not only her own life but the lives of her daughter and best friend, Liz simply hadn't had time to put 'learn how to seduce a man' and 'plan out a revenge' on the top of her 'To Do' list. Not when there were so much more pressing matters. Like survival.

Liz closed her eyes and took a deep breath. If she could just put herself into someone else's skin. Pretend to play a part. Be the girl who used to seduce crowds into frenzied admiration…

An idea hit her.

Letting out an excited cry, Liz raced to one of the drawers in her desk and pulled out her cd case, beginning a hurried shuffle through her cds. A huge grin appeared on her face when she found the song she was looking for. Snapping the cd in place, Liz pressed play and adjusted the volume so the pulsating rhythm vibrated through her entire system. Her eyes drifted closed, her lips began to move and her body instantly swayed to the tune filling the room.

Before she knew it, the song had done it's magic. Just like it used to all those years before. She was no longer Liz Parker, a woman trapped in a false identity in order to save her life. A woman running with all her might from the most powerful thing to ever hit her. A woman desperately trying not to let the gentle touch of Max Evans' love to break her will.

She was Liz Parker, super star. High above the crowd. Liz Parker, the artist, the talented, the gifted. Liz Parker, the woman in control. Untouchable. Carefree. Uninhibited…

It wasn't until much later that she had any indication her energetic and carefree dance had been observed.



"What song was it?" Sydney choked out.

Nose scrunching up, Liz squeezed her eyes shut. "I Wanna Be Bad."

"Oh. My. God." Sydney whispered to keep a giggle from exploding.

Nodding, Liz continued her ramble. "I know. Of all the songs for Max to catch me singing. Absolutely horrible choice. But it's just so…catchy, ya know? It's so easy to pretend I'm in front of an audience with that song. You know, kinda gets me out of my own skin and into my stage persona. Not to mention every time I hear it, I want to grab the next cutie pie I see and just kiss him silly. Which was perfect for what we were going for, right? I mean…you have to understand…I don't normally do seduction. Or revenge for that matter. So I was totally looking for inspiration.”

Pausing, Liz cast her eyes upward toward the sky dramatically. “Oh God." Letting out a groan, she buried her face in her hands. "I am **such** an idiot…"

“No, you aren’t.” Sydney reassured Liz as she fought another bout of giggles. “You’re just…" Pausing, Syd pursed her lips trying to find the right word. She failed. 'Destined to be with Max Evans', ‘Going to lose this battle big time’ and ‘Not up to the challenge of resisting the irresistible’ came to mind but were summarily dismissed. Clapping her hands together, she quickly changed the subject as an eyebrow rose in inquisition. “Ok. So you think Max saw you because…why?"

Biting down on her lower lip, Liz spun to face Sydney. Her gaze shifted to the ground where her toe was busily trying to knock a stubborn rock from its heavily rooted home in the earth. Liz mumbled her answer. "Cuz he said something about teaching me the real meaning of ‘bad’ in a private show for him later."

Sydney couldn't hold it in any longer. Her laughter danced with the leaves on the trees as her sparkling eyes filled with tears. "God, Liz, that is the funniest…!"

"Hey!" Liz plopped back down onto the picnic bench. "It is not funny! It's the most embarrassing thing that happened…" Liz stopped her own protest, a thoughtful expression darkening her eyes as they shifted to focus on the park's deserted slide. "Well, now…actually, that's not completely true."

Trying to control her merriment, Sydney wiped away tears from her eyes and cleared the chuckles from her throat. "What's not?"

"It…" Letting out a deep sigh, Liz's mortified eyes met Sydney's. "…it wasn't the **most** embarrassing thing that happened to me today."

"Oh, you've got to be kidding me." Sydney bit down on the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing again at the thoughtfully crestfallen look on Liz's face.

"Nope." Shaking her head slowly, Liz shrugged. "See…you've not even heard about Father O'Neil. Or the Barton brothers." Liz's eyes met Sydney's. "Believe me, Syd…things get so much worse…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Across town, the meeting between the masterminds was obviously underway.

Entering his apartment, Michael Vaughn was greeted by rowdy, boisterous
laughter. As he tossed his keys on the hall table, he squeezed his eyes shut and nearly groaned out loud at the raucous sound. Not that he begrudged his partners-in-security their fun. But after the day he'd had, Vaughn simply wasn't in the mood for company--let alone company that was ready to party.

Before announcing his arrival, Vaughn paused a moment in an effort to shake his poor attitude and in the process caught a comment that instantly piqued his curiosity.

"Man, I wish I could have seen the look on Max's face when he walked into his office. Liz must have been a sight dancing on the top of his desk in that tight outfit she had on today."

"**His** face?" Duke's voice chimed in. "You should have seen mine. Here I am playing the prim and proper Father O'Neil and she's every bit the forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden. A perfect picture of what you **know** every celibate man dreams about.”

He shifted forward in his seat, his eyes dancing with laughter. “Ok. So, picture this. Max is standing right next to me, right? And his eyes were totally bulging out. I swear, he had to lean against the door for support the second he saw her. Because…" Duke paused dramatically, his grin widening. "…Liz is on the desk with her back to us, right? And she's dancing away and singing this song totally unaware either of us are there and here I am trying my damndest not to react like any normal red-blooded American man who is confronted with a virtual goddess.”

Letting out an exasperated sigh, Duke shook his head. “That mission seriously failed. Max was totally on to me. Jammed his elbow into my ribs and then…” He paused, his gaze shifting from his newest acquaintance to a man who would truly understand the meaning of his next announcement. “…he gave me ‘the look’.”

“Ohhhh.” Steve’s long, drawn out exclamation coupled with the exaggerated shudder that went though him revealed more about Max Evans’ ‘look’ than the actual look might have. “And you survived the rest of the day?”

“Only because he shoved me out the door as fast as he could to stop my drool from forming a puddle at my feet.” Duke quipped back.

"Glad you mentioned drool." Steve piped up. "I was getting concerned that you weren't aware of all that disgusting dribble running down your…"

Steve's sentence was muffled by a pillow that was unexpectedly shoved into his face. The room erupted into another fit of laughter accompanied by the sounds of a friendly struggle between friends over the possession of one worn out pillow.

Vaughn took that opportunity to enter the picture, indicating the pillow with a nod. "You rip it, you face my crazy Aunt Trish for certain punishment."

"Hey, Mike." Eric greeted Vaughn with a grin as his two compadres settled down. "Man, you totally missed all the action today."

"Yeah?" Mike asked as he plopped down into his favorite chair and proceeded to take his shoes off. "So, what devilish games did Liz and Max play on each other this time?” Raising his hand, Mike shook his head. “Wait. Before you answer that, just tell me one thing…are they both still alive?"

Mike's three visitors exchanged glances and began to grin. Eric leaned forward, his expression eager. "They were when we left.”

“Though for exactly how long was questionable.” Steve added with a widening smile and dancing eyes.

Vaughn rolled his eyes and shook his head as he leaned back into his chair. “Alright. Hit me with it. What kind of damage control should I prepare?”

“No damage control yet.” Eric informed Mike. “In fact, you might not need to plan anything at all. Something tells me Max has everything more than handled for a while."

An instant burst of laughter jolted the room and all eyes turned toward the source. Steve's head was still shaking as his eyes crackled with secrets. "Are you kidding? That's the understatement of all eternity. That poor girl is putty in his expert hands. In fact, Max is probably having the time of his life right this minute."

"Why? What's going on right now?"

Duke's inquiry was greeted by a chuckle of amusement and a look of disbelief from Steve. "Didn't he tell you? Max is over at Liz's tonight. He planned a surprise for her."

"Another one?" Duke's eyes widened in shock. "God, is he a glutton for punishment or what? After today I would have expected him to take a little break…"

"Max? Our fearless leader? You've got to be kidding." Steve scoffed at the notion. "He's got serious momentum. Especially after today. Why in the world would he cease and desist from such a satisfying and hilarious battle?"

Nodding, Duke agreed. "Well…that's true."

"Besides, he felt a little…” Steve added with suggestively wiggling eyebrows. “…loving was in order after the hell he put her through today."

"Good luck to him." Eric quipped. "You know she's not going to let him anywhere near her after what he pulled."

"That's why he's not planning on getting her permission." Steve remarked with a devilish grin.

"Ok. So…" Cutting through the cryptic discussion of the future, Vaughn's hesitancy was evident in his voice as he asked about the events of the day. "…what exactly **did** Max and Liz do to each other today?"

Eric's gaze shifted to Duke and Steve nodded his consent for Duke to begin the tale. Letting out a sigh, Duke sank back into the plush pillows getting comfortable. An eyebrow rose above twinkling eyes as he allowed silence to rule a moment before launching into the events of the day. "Well, for starters…"

"Are you sure about this get up?"

Max sized up his friend's disguise with one glance. "You're perfect. Just remember to toss in as many bits about how we’d be the ideal couple that you can, ok? Make marriage to me sound perfectly delightful. Tricking her into an 'I do' wouldn't be bad either. Of course, it wouldn’t be legally binding, but it’d be awfully fun to pretend it was." Winking, a grin split Max’s face as he clapped Duke on the shoulder. "Now. You ready to meet my future bride?"

Duke opened his mouth to answer but was stopped by a giddy exclamation at Max's elbow. "Dude. Whatever you've been doing to Rache…keep it up."

Max's grin disappeared in an instant as confusion clouded his eyes. "Gabe, what are you talking about?"

"Rache." Gabe nodded toward the door heading into Liz's office. "She is, at this very moment, in your office…" Gabe's voice lowered to a secretive tremor. "…dancing on your desk."

"She's what??" Eyes growing wide with disbelief, a grin began to tug the corner of Max's lips upward.

Gabe's blonde head nodded vigorously as his fair complexion began to darken a few shades of blush. "Can I just say how lucky you are, Mr. Evans? I mean, I had no idea she was that hot. Gorgeous, yeah. Sweet, definitely. But she's been all stiff and quiet since she started working here, ya know? Kinda withdrawn, hard to get to know. Until you came. I just didn't know she had it in her to be that…free and, and uninhibited and well…hot." His voice lowered as his gaze shifted from Duke to Max. He leaned forward hoping to keep his final declaration from the prying ears of the visiting priest. "Seriously hot.”

Max and Duke exchanged amused glances over Gabe's head. A dark eyebrow rose in response to the silent question in Duke's eyes. "I've got to see this. You in?" At Duke’s enthusiastic nod, Max turned his full attention back to Gabe. "You. Stay here. Don't say a word to anyone about what you just told us." The command was leveled with a pointed finger at the spot on the floor Gabe was currently occupying.

“But sir…” Gabe’s voice cracked as he reached out and stopped Max’s exit. His gaze shifted guiltily toward Duke. Leaning forward, his whisper carried much further than he realized. “Isn’t it like some kind of unpardonable sin to tempt, well…” Nodding toward Duke, Gabe’s face flushed with embarrassment. “…you know…the holy ones?”

Patting Gabe on the back, Max flashed a knowing grin. “I’m sure the good Father can handle any temptation that might be behind that door.”

“But, Mr. Evans…” Gabe’s breathless whisper and wide eyes nearly sent Duke into a fit of laughter. “…you’ve not **seen** that particular temptation!”

“I promise…it’ll be ok.” Max stated reassuringly while fighting back a chuckle.

“Alllright…” Gabe responded doubtfully. “Just remember I warned you when you have a heart attack and end up dancing in the flames of hell for subjecting a man of the cloth to the…”

Foregoing the rest of Gabe’s righteous ramble, Duke was on Max's heels as they bee-lined to the office door. Max took one glance around him to be sure the coast was clear of any other prying eyes then slowly, quietly turned the knob. As the door slipped open, Max’s jaw almost hit the floor at the sight in front of him. Duke swallowed in mesmerized awe.

Before them was a petite brunette with the aura of a goddess. With her back to them, Duke wasn't able to see her features, but if they were anything like the view he was seeing, she was a knockout. High heeled leather boots ended mid-calf exposing a column of porcelain skin that disappeared underneath a tight black mini-skirt hung low on Liz's hips. Her smooth shoulders and back were the color of creamed milk, broken only by the black lace back of what looked like a halter top. The long stream of hair cascaded downward, bouncing in time to the poetic movements of her body as she danced to the song filling the room. Gyrating with each beat. Seducing with each fluid movement…

The second the shock of seeing Liz Parker putting on a show on top of his desk wore off, Max glanced over at his friend and instantly scowled. Jabbing him in the ribs was an instinctive reaction to get Duke's attention. Once he had it, he pointed toward the hallway indicating their exit was immediate. For added incentive, Max gave Duke a look that usually withered grass.

It didn't have the desired effect.

Duke's eyes shifted back to Liz's flowing movements. He didn't move an inch. Unconsciously licking his lips, Duke followed Liz's every move with an increasingly mesmerized gaze. Rolling his eyes, Max quickly shoved a wide-eyed Duke backward before quietly swinging the door closed. Turning to face his friend, Max exhaled a loud breath.

"Wow." Duke breathed with as his jaw went even more slack than before. His eyes glued to the door as if he had x-ray vision, Duke's stammering impression of Liz Parker was incoherent at best. "She's…that's…she's…"

"Mine. So, you can just pop those eyes right back into your head, pal. She is seriously hands off to you." Max reminded Duke with a warning look before an awed smile slipped across his lips. "She is pretty amazing, isn’t she? Am I the luckiest man in the world or what?" The awe quickly turned deviously as Max's eyes began to sparkle with a sudden realization. "Oh, man. She remembers."

"Remembers?"

"Last night." Max answered distractedly as his mind was forming and discarding ideas as fast as they came.

"Max, what are you talking about?" Duke inquired curiously.

Grin widening, Max's eyes snapped up to meet Duke's as his voice lowered to a whisper. "I spent the night at her place last night and I made damn sure she thought something happened between us this morning when she woke up. But now…she remembers. There's no way she couldn't know I was lying. And I'll just bet she's got something up her sleeve."

"She had sleeves on?" Duke quipped.

Max ignored him as his focus was clearly on the object of his conquest and the best plan for claiming victory. "Oh, boy…that's perfect. She is so going to kill me."

"What?"

Shaking his head, Max's chuckle followed him as he pushed himself away from the door and immediately headed back toward Gabe. His excitement was evident in his hurried stride. Duke followed close behind, his own curiosity getting the better of him. He caught up to Max in time to hear him giving further instructions to Gabe. "In Steph's office. Now remember, wait five minutes and knock really loud. Do not…I repeat, do **not** just walk in on her. I don't want her knowing anyone saw what she was just doing. Got it?"

At Gabe's emphatic nod, Max turned to Duke and began to grin again. "New plan. You'll need to improvise and prepare for fireworks." Giving Duke a pointed look, Max's grin deepened. "Ready for this?"


"And were you?" Vaughn asked as Duke's tale wound to a close.

"Hell, no." Duke responded with a grin. "Max wasn't even ready for what that woman had planned for him."

"Seriously?"

Eric, Steve and Duke exchanged glances. Leaning back against the chair he was in, Eric addressed his best friend and partner. "Mike, my friend, you might want to grab yourself a drink and get comfy. This is going to be a long night…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Did ya get everyfing on the list that Grandnanny gave ya?"

Max Evans grinned. "Sure did, sweetie." Phone between his shoulder and his ear, Max struggled with an armful of bags as he turned the key in the door.

"And did ya get everyfing we sent ya from Nanna and Pappa's?"

"Yep." Max switched bags from one hand to the other.

"And do ya fink it's time to give her our specialist gift?"

"Yeah, honey, it's time." Max responded with twinkling eyes as the door swung open and he stepped inside. "In fact, I'm giving it to her tonight."

"Weally?"

"Uh-huh. I've got it all wrapped and everything. Just like you wanted."

Jaedan's gasp on the other end of the phone brought a brand new smile to Max's face. "Yay! I's so 'xcited!" Jaedan paused only long enough to take another deep breath before asking another question. "Kay! So can we make 'em now? Can we?"

Kicking the door closed behind him, Max responded patiently to his little caller. "Well, I was thinking we might need to wait just a few minutes before we start, ok?"

The pout in Jaedan's voice was evident. "How come?"

"Because I just walked in the door." Chuckling at the sound of Jaedan's hrumph on the other end of the phone, Max dumped the bags onto the counter. "You are such an impatient little thing, you know it?"

"That's cuz I's 'xcited!"

"I know you are, honey." Glancing around the kitchen, Max began flipping switches trying to find the right light. He smiled to himself when his last attempt produced the desired effect. "Tell you what. If you'll let me talk to Grandnanny for just a few minutes, then I'm all yours and you can help me make those super-duper awesome cookies you love so much."

"But I don't wanna stop talkin' to ya."

"Aww, sweetie, I miss you too." Max answered Jaedan's unspoken confession with a soft confession of his own. "Which is why I only need Grandnanny for a few minutes. You know we've got to make this day a Princess Day for Kendall and to do that I need a little help. Not just yours but Grandnanny's too." Max paused and leaned against the counter while feeling the chill on the other end of the phone starting to thaw. "So, you think you can help me out a little here? Be the little sweetie that I know you can be?" He paused. "For me?" Another pause. One last ditch effort. "For Kendall?"

Without hesitation, Max heard Angel's voice come on the line. "I sure hope your influence over the women in this family extends to the party you're trying to impress tonight."

Rolling his eyes, Max pushed himself away from the counter and began to empty the grocery bags he'd carried inside. "As if there are any doubts."

Angel chuckled at his arrogantly flippant remark. "So, today was that bad huh?"

"Depends on your definition of bad." Max quipped back without missing a beat as he began opening and closing cupboards in an effort to familiarize himself with the kitchen he was invading. "Truth is, she had a lot of fun. She just doesn't know it yet."

"Ah. One of those days." Shaking her head, Angel sighed into the phone. "You two truly have met your matches in each other."

"You have no idea just how true that statement is, Angel." Max responded softly before focusing on his mission for the evening. "Alright. So, this dinner I'm making…you're positive it's going to do the trick?"

"Trust me, Max. This is her all time favorite meal." Angel's voice softened and Max instantly knew he was about to receive a pearl of wisdom from the woman who knew Liz Parker the best. "Whenever she's unsure about herself or feeling threatened…it makes her feel safe."

"Well, then…" Max's eyes began to shine with determination. "…if safe is what Liz Parker needs, then safe is what Liz Parker is going to get…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The flickers of light danced across the room illuminating the still form of a patient on a bed. He held her hand. His ancient gaze never shifted from her bandaged face. The surgeon nervously waited behind him until he spoke. "Your prognoses?"

Shuffling forward anxiously, the surgeon bowed before speaking. "The surgery was a success, my lord. The pictures you provided of the model were precise. I was able to make your daughter's features to be the exact likeness."

"And the substitute?"

"Safe with Kyle Evans, sir."

Eyes narrowing deviously, Darian Wolfe didn't even bother to turn as he addressed the doctor. "He won't suspect anything?"

"How could he, my lord?" Clearing his throat nervously, the surgeon continued. "He will not suspect a thing. Once it is time to remove his charge's bandages, your daughter will be far from his grasp. Disappeared without a trace."

"Taking on a new identity." Darian added, more to himself than anyone else in the room. "Destroying my enemy with a brand new face." He gently touched the patient's long dark hair, his malicious whisper shimmering between the two of them. "Soon, my dear McKenna. Very soon you'll have everything you ever wanted…" A wicked smile haunted his cracked lips. "…and then…Liz Parker will feel the final wrath of the Code…"

tbc…


[ edited 1 time(s), last at 13-Nov-2002 4:31:24 AM ]
posted on 1-Jan-2003 8:40:01 PM by Ashton
Hey all!!!

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!! Thank you SOOOOOO much for the support and patience. You guys are AMAZING!!!! Ok, so, this chapter is pretty much all fluff. Hope you don't mind. Hope it's ok cuz it's been a while since I've written the 'fluff' stuff! ;) ANYWAY, as usual would LOVE to hear what you think!!! Thanks again for being so amazing!

hugs,
Ashton
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 22 ~


"Do you think it's possible to be addicted to a person?"

The question came out of the blue.

In the absence of an immediate answer, Liz plunged forward with her line of questioning, complete with nervous hand gestures and expressively thoughtful eyes. "I mean, I think it is. You know, there are just those people in the world that **do** something to you, you know? Make you feel this incredible high when you're around them. A desperate low when you're not."

"And once they do whatever it is they do that makes you feel, you know, the way you feel, you just can't stop thinking about them." Gaze shifting absently to a point in the distance, she continued with a dreamy smile. "About their eyes. Or their smile. The feel of their hands on your body." Cupping her chin in her hand, she propped her elbows up on the picnic table. "And God, those kisses. So intense. Deep." Eyes drifting closed, she let out a long, deep sigh as her final description shuddered across her lips. "Volcanic."

Amused, Sydney Bristow cleared her throat. "Uh…Liz? You're not gonna explode on me, are you?"

At the sound of another human voice, Liz snapped out of the self-induced daydream beginning to run through her head. "Huh?"

A wide, teasing grin spread over Sydney's face. "Maybe I should just call Max. It's only fair that he be the one to help with your 'withdrawls'. You know…" Syd gave Liz a pointed look. "…since you obviously didn’t get enough of your Max 'fix' today."

"That's certainly true." A disgruntled and unthinking Liz agreed absently. "Whatever powers of seduction we thought I might possess, Max seems somewhat immune to them."

"No!" Syd responded in surprise.

Nodding her head Liz's expression registered disappointment before something Sydney said earlier finally registered in her brain. Gasping in mock shock as the thought hit her, Liz's eyes narrowed in protest. "Wait. What makes you think I'm talking about being addicted to Max?"

Giving Liz a clear 'puhleeease' look, Sydney shook her head and quirked a grin. "Besides the obvious, you talk in your sleep." Syd informed her with a slight shrug of her shoulders as she dug a spoon into her yogurt. "Naps on the couch aren't a good idea if you want to keep your fantasies to yourself."

Enjoying herself immensely at the mortified look on Liz's face, Sydney chuckled. In utter misery, Liz groaned. Taking another spoonful of yogurt, Sydney prompted Liz with a knowing grin and an eager question. "So, what's the story with this Father O'Neil you mentioned?"

Rolling her eyes, Liz let out a deep sigh. "It was unbelievable. Right in the middle of my big seduction scene, he just…"

Catching on quickly to expression on Liz's face and her appropriate hand gestures, Syd's mouth dropped open and her eyes grew wide. "No!"

"Yes." Liz confirmed the suspicions dancing in Sydney's brown eyes. "He walked in. A priest, of all people. I have never been so embarrassed in my entire life. Syd, I'm telling you, if the floor had opened up right then, I would have gladly sold my soul to Satan just to get out of that room…"

"Details, girl!" Sydney demanded impatiently. "From the top!"

Flipping her pair behind her shoulders, Liz took a deep breath and began. "Ok. So, Gabe came to my office to let me know that Max asked me to meet him in Steph's office. So, I fixed myself up like we planned and headed out to meet him…"


Hand on the door knob, Liz squared her shoulders and took a deep breath. Her eyes sparkled with determination as she felt a rush of adrenaline color her cheeks. Opening the door, she quietly slipped in, closing it behind her and leaning against it as her eyes scanned the room for her target. Her fingers found the lock and deftly, silently turned it.

Max was sitting in the large leather chair behind Stephanie's desk. He apparently didn't hear her. His attention was fully focused on a folder in front of him.

Heart racing with nervousness, Liz's voice was sultry and low. "Good morning."

Max's head snapped up and his reaction to seeing her was instantaneous. And obvious. His chest stilled mid-breath and his eyes descended the color palette ten degrees till they were two coal black pits of desire. His heated gaze moved slowly, provocatively from her heeled boots to her exposed legs, lingered there a moment then shifted to the shirt draping her shoulders. Tied into a knot just below her breasts allowing ultimate exposure of her creamy mid-drift, Max could only guess what was waiting for him beneath the material she'd carefully arranged to show just a hint of skin from bust to neck.

"Well, good morning." Voice registering an unusual level of huskiness, Max casually tossed the folder onto Stephanie desk. He leaned back as a knowing smile played across his lips. "Nice shirt. Where'd you get it?"

"Some guy I picked up in a club last night." Liz pushed herself away from the door and took a slow step forward as she absently ran her fingers along the knot floating above her belly button. "He came home with me and left me this as a memento of a very long, memorable night."

"Memorable, huh? You don't say." Not missing Liz's double-edged lie, his eyes began to dance with amusement as Max folded his hands and propped his feet up on the desk. Given the creative flow of Liz Parker's mind, Max had no idea what to expect from her. Then again, that was half the fun. And he was certainly ready to have some fun. "So, this guy…I wouldn't happen to know him, would I?"

"Hmmm." Batting her lashes coyly, Liz's expression was a study of pure innocence as a finger began twirling a strand of hair. "I'm…not quite sure."

Though he'd taken steps earlier to shut down an obvious irritant, Max wanted to know where Liz Parker stood on one possible point of contention. Taking an obvious opportunity, Max continued the game but added a new twist. "Maybe some guy named Mike perhaps?"

At the sudden mention of Vaughn's name, Liz blinked as a flash of confusion raced through her eyes. Why Max would be bringing Vaughn up at a time like this was…odd. It would be interesting to see where he was going with this. If he knew more about Michael Vaughn's role in her life or if he was simply inquiring about a possible rival. There seemed to be only one way to find out. "Mike?”

“Yeah. Mike.” Max repeated as his eyes continued to rake over her without easing in heat or intensity. “See, I happened to be at that same club last night. And if I remember right, there was one particular guy you were hanging all over practically all night.”

“Ooohhh….Miiiike.” Stretching out Vaughn's name for maximum impact, a knowing grin lit Liz's eyes as she took another slow step forward. The jealousy in Max's tone was clear as a crystal bell. Definitely something she could play on. And play she did. “Pretty cute isn’t he?”

Max shrugged, trying to act totally unaffected by the way Liz was lighting up at the mention of another man's name. He tried to keep the flash of jealousy out of his eyes. He failed to keep it out of his voice. “If you’re into dimples.”

“Oh, I adore dimples." Purposely allowing her voice to drop to breathy purr, Liz's eyes were bright with tantalizing mischief. "Always have. In fact…" Liz paused, flashing Max a smile and leaned forward as if she were imparting an age-long secret. The movement caused his shirt to inch open a little revealing more of Liz's porcelain skin. Max's temperature spiked. He swallowed hard. "…they’re my personal weakness.”

Completely aware of the effect she was having on Max and taking courage, Liz wiggled her eyebrows and let out a dreamy sigh as she continued to taunt him. “Give me a guy with a pair of flashing dimples and I just…" Tossing her hair and fanning herself, Liz glanced at Max out of the corner of her eye to catch his reaction. "…whew…we’re talking nuclear meltdown."

Meltdown was exactly what Max Evans was experiencing.

No woman he had ever known in his entire life had ever affected him the way Liz Parker was affecting him at that very moment. Had been affecting him since the moment he met her. Sure, he'd been attracted to women. Aroused. Intrigued. But no one had every made him feel…Max couldn't even describe what he was feeling. He couldn't name it. He certainly couldn't categorize it.

It was an uncontrollable, spinning tunnel of emotions that spiraled Max straight into the stratosphere of dizzying recklessness one moment. The next, he was firmly grounded to sensibility. Caution. Responsibility. Anchored by an overwhelming sense of destiny. Soaring on an euphoric cloud of delight. Infinitely, permanently, head-over-heels in old fashioned, once-in-a-lifetime love.

He wanted to protect Liz and possess her all in the same moment. To take and give. To be intense, but tender. Greedy, but patient. He was certainly going insane with desire. Yet, he'd never felt more rational or more sure of himself in his entire life. Just hearing her voice filled him with so much calm. And yet, his heart was erratically, excitedly thumping out the rhythm to the melody her ebony eyes were dancing to. And that completed him somehow.

Then there was his body.

And it's feverish reaction to hers.

She wasn't what the fashion industry would consider 'perfect'. She was short in comparison to the models that usually hung on his arm and compared to the ample size of certain assets they possessed, Liz would have been passed over in a heartbeat for a photo gig. But to Max, everything about Liz **was** perfect. Seductive. Mesmerizing. And sexy as hell.

He was in a constant battle with himself around Liz Parker. To appear aloof. Unaffected. Unmoved.

To control raging desires that zipped powerfully through his entire body. To not let his spiking temperature and inability to breathe become apparent obstacles to normal speech patterns. With everything in him he fought to draw his focus from one uncomfortably persistent member of his body that responded with rising urgency to every move Liz made. And he certainly couldn't let on that his mouth became drier than the Sahara Desert every time she tauntingly ran her fingers against her skin. Or hinted at the curves and hills brushing against his very own shirt.

Oh, to be that shirt.

It was all the small things. The fact she was wearing an insignificant piece of material that had been on his body just the night before. The way she absently tucked her hair behind her ear. Or twirled a strand around her finger. How she nervously bit on her lip the more excited she became. Or how an enchanting flush spread over her cheeks as his heated gaze scorched her from the inside out. Then there was the way she'd look up at him under bashfully lowered lashes. Innocent mischief sparkling in her eyes, and every cell in Max's body came alive. Every nerve ached to connect with that electrically charged magic shimmering invisibly around her skin.

What made each carefully planned movement effective was the seemingly absent way each one flowed effortlessly into the next. Fingers playing with a threadbare necklace around her neck, Liz allowed them to trail lightly down the skin peeking out from Max's opened shirt. Max's eyes were instantly glued to Liz's cleavage as her fingertips tauntingly hung there a moment before she continued in a highly seductive voice. "A man with dimples…could do just about anything to me and I wouldn't protest one…itty…bitty…bit.”

“I uh…" Instantly wetting his lips, Max cleared his throat and shifted unconsciously in his seat. "…I have dimples.”

“Really?" Expression instantly blank, Liz batted her lashes once more. Her hands dropped to her side effectively cutting off Max's reason for continued ogling of certain feminine assets. "Hmmm…I never noticed.”

Jaw tightening and a knowingly raised eyebrow were the non-verbal responses to Liz's delicious teasing before Max asked his next question, his tone forced and edgy. “So…who is he again?”

“Maaaax." Liz took another step toward the desk. A slow, flowing step. Hips shifting slightly as her hands rested lightly, teasingly against the curves of her body. "Are you getting…" Pausing, Liz pouted appropriately and was rewarded with a flicker of desire in Max's eyes. "…jealous?”

“No. Of course, I’m not.” Max responded a little too quickly and not convincingly enough. Seeing the light of satisfaction in Liz's eyes, Max scurried to regain solid footing. “Although…" He paused a moment as his gaze shifted thoughtfully. "…I must admit I was a bit surprised to see the way you two danced together. Looked rather…" Eyes snapping back to Liz's, Max stated his adjective with a hint of a nonchalant, unaffected smile. "…cozy.”

“Cozy?" Purposely allowing a flash of confusion in her eyes to clear with realization, a small smile haunted her lips. The purring continued much to Max's discomfort. "Ohhhh…you mean because he had his arms around me.”

“That and you had your head on his shoulder at one point, if I remember right.” Max wanted to kick himself for bringing Michael Vaughn into this discussion. Obviously, Liz was in seduction mode. It was equally obvious he, Max Evans, was the target. Not Michael Vaughn. Although, it wasn't helping that she seemed to only be responding positively to anything and everything Vaughn-ish. Not that Max couldn't see her purpose in that. He certainly was making it worth the show with each envious comment he made. Much like she had with the five 'bimbos' he'd purposely brought into her office for that very reason.

To clarify: not that he **was** jealous. He was just not…comfortable…with the obvious closeness Vaughn and Liz shared. She apparently talked to him. Turned to him. Allowed him to protect and support her. But…that was Max's place. He was the one in love with her. He was the one she would marry one day. He was the one with a soul connection that was as obvious as the dimple in Vaughn's chin.

It just wasn't fair. Or right. Or…

Max sighed inwardly as the feelings more than the thoughts raced through him. He desperately needed to get control of the conversation. Regain the focus. Make her forget any other man but the one in front of her…

“Riiiight.” Liz nodded understandingly at Max's recollection, more than willing to leave the unexplained exactly that: unexplained.

Unfortunately, for some irrational reason, Max wasn't able to resist further questioning. “So, what was that all about?”

Liz simply shrugged and cast Max a coy, teasing glance over her shoulder before she turned and walked around the chair she'd been leaning against. Slow and sleek, her predatory gait as she approached him caused Max to swallow hard as he eeked out another biting observation. “Seriously. No way can those abundant dimples of his be real.”

“Chill out, Mr. Suspicious." Biting back a chuckle, Liz cast Max a casual smile as her fingers moved to the knot on his shirt she was wearing. "He's just my friend. Seriously nothing to worry about. You see, he's in love with my roommate, Sydney." She took a few more steps toward him as she finished undoing the tie holding his shirt on her body. "And besides, he's not the irritable hottie who took me home." The shirt fell open as her last word drifted to Max.

"Ah. I see." Gaze having never once drifted from Liz's nimble fingers, Max swallowed hard. From what little he could see, the top she'd been wearing during her infamous desk-top dance showed almost as much as the back had, plunging dangerously low in front to unveil porcelain skin as smooth as creamed milk. Max felt his lungs burn as he pulled in a ragged breath and released it ever so slowly. "Well, you certainly look…"

"Yes?"

Gaze raking over her, Max's voice was beyond breathless. "Ready for…something."

A shadow of a smile touched her lips. "How perceptive of you." Coming around the corner of the desk, Liz stopped when she reached Max's chair. She paused. With one finger finding a home under his chin she tilted his face upward till their eyes met in an electrically charged gaze. "I have some very, very productive plans for us today."

Clearing his throat, Max leaned further back in his chair and pursed his lips thoughtfully. He forced his voice to remain steady. Detached. Business-like. "I'm having a bit of trouble determining how productive the day will be with you dressed that way."

Tilting her head to the side, Liz leaned back against the desk, her eyes roaming his face a moment before dropping with unveiled suggestion to his lap. She punctuated the innuendo with a strategically placed hand on Max's thigh. A hand that inched slowly upward stopping only a breath away from real danger. Her eyes met his again. "Depends on what our goal is."

Fighting back a groan, Max shifted again, his fingers beginning to dig into the arms of his chair. "Ah, I see. And uh…" Clearing his throat once more, he licked his lips unconsciously. "…what is our goal?"

Liz Parker smirked.

Max Evans instantly knew he was in trouble.

He was right.

Achingly slow, Liz began the tantalizing task of undressing. Trailing one hand upward along the buttoned half of Max's shirt, she slipped it off her left shoulder. Slowly. Oh, so slowly. Watching with satisfaction as Max's eyes darkened to a depth of ebony she hadn't realized existed as his gaze followed her every move. "You do realize, don't you, that you were a very, very bad boy this morning." The statement was ironic. The casualness with which she said the words, her very own breathlessly seductive tone belying her meaning. Personifying 'bad' in the very way she ran her tongue along her lips, how she inched her fingers along the edge of her top with agonizing slowness, there was a hint of erotically charged mischief dancing in Liz's dark eyes.

Tossing her hair behind her right shoulder as her attention shifted to removing his shirt completely from her body. Hooking a finger in the material, Liz slowly pulled it downward. Fingers rounding her shoulder, the shirt fell revealing more creamy skin as Liz continued. "Leaving me with all these questions about what exactly happened between us last night." Eyes never leaving Max's, Liz shook his shirt completely from her body with the agile moves of a powerful, sleek panther. "What little you did tell me simply had my imagination running wild." Picking his shirt up between her thumb and index finger, Liz held it a moment in the air before letting it drop with a soft plop at her feet. Almost as soft as her breathlessly whispered confession. "You aroused a wickedly creative streak in me, Max."

For the first time in his life, Max Evans was presented with a sight that took more than his breath away.

As talented at thievery as she was seduction, Liz Parker reached straight into his chest and stole his heart for the millionth time as it triple-hammered then came to a screeching halt in the most delightful way. The coyness of her glance, the suggestively delicious shape of her lips as they parted slightly, the very way her scent permeated Max's senses. These were her weapons. This was how she'd win this battle. Aided by her 'uniform', of course. The barely-there top she was wearing was a mixture of black lace and velvet, revealing and yet concealing. Creating the illusion of mystery. Promising a fantasy come true. His fingers ached to touch the luminously smooth skin. As her chest rose and fell with erratic breaths, his lips burned to make contact.

There were numerous red flags of warning flashing furiously in the back of his mind. The first and foremost was just how out of character this was for Liz. A dedicated mother in the witness protection program who had been abused by her ex-husband in so many ways, Max couldn't even fathom them all. A woman who had fought tooth and nail to keep a safe distance between them. This present performance was simply not the cautious Liz full of inner fears Max was only beginning to discover.

Unless, of course, she did know the truth about the night before and this was her payback. And what a payback it was. Because she had no intention of delivering the goods she was advertising. The hint of amusement in her eyes, the nonchalant way in which she was handling herself was proof enough of that.

If Liz Parker were really serious about such a monumental step, she wouldn't be so casual.

Max gave up. Stopped thinking. Decided to go with the flow and see exactly what she had up her sleeve. Ignoring the fact she could still be acting on false information. Rationalizing that she was an adult, sober, and knew what she was doing. Forgetting also that Duke was only several feet away tucked into the safety of Stephanie's bathroom.

She was playing the game in such an alluring way, he was simply had no willpower to resist the woman in front of him. So he dove into the game with as much flirtatious nonchalance as Liz Parker herself.

Gaze raking over her enticing body, Max couldn't stop the hint of a smile that shadowed his lips as his voice lowered huskily. "I'm liking the aroused part of this conversation already." Hand making contact with Liz's skirt, it drifted slowly upward till rounding her hip. Fingers brushing against the bare heated skin of her back, a flame of desire flickered in Max's eyes as his the timbre of his voice filled with tantalizing intimacy. "And wicked definitely has potential."

"You have no idea." Liz whispered back as her eyes darkened with instant desire. "You see, after you left me with oh-so-many ideas, all I could do was lay there in bed and…" With a commanding sweep of her hand, Max's feet slipped from the desk to land on the floor with a dull thud. Max instantly straightened in his seat. "…imagine what we could be doing if you hadn't skipped out on me so early."

"So, is the goal to make me regret having left your bed so early?" Max quipped with amusement sparking in his eyes.

"The goal…" Liz languidly, seductively slipped her black skirt higher than Max had expected, revealing more creamy thighs. Without hesitation, she swung one leg over both of his. Towering over him, she repeated the playful endearment he'd whispered to her that morning as her small hands captured his face in a gentle caress. "…my little love machine…" Slowly lowering herself down onto his lap, Liz effectively straddled Max causing him to shift in his seat and bite down on the inside of his cheek to keep a groan from escaping. A knowing smile tilted the corners of her lips upward. "…is to see how creative we can be in making up lost time."

"Here?" Whoa. She was taking this farther than Max had figured she would. Panic instantly raced through his eyes as Max's breathless question was accompanied with fluttering eyelashes. "In…in the office?"

"I locked the door." Liz breathed against Max's lips before languidly wrapping first one arm then the other around his neck. "We're all alone." She nipped at his lips. "And you can't possibly tell me you've never done this in an office before." Brushing her lips against his, Liz attempted to deepen the kiss.

Max pulled back, slightly unnerved. His eyes met hers, searchingly. Though he desperately tried to at least appear in control, he knew deep inside he was anything but. If Liz really wanted this…wanted him…he was more than willing to oblige, but he needed to know where exactly this was coming from. Where she was coming from. "Depends on what 'this' is."

"Well, I was thinking I could…" Following his example of that morning, Liz whispered a delightfully wicked secret in Max's left ear. She ran her lips along his jaw before brushing them lightly against his lips. "…then you could…" Another secret act was delivered with heated intensity into his right ear. A quick nibble followed then another light, teasing kiss against his lips. "…then we both could…"

"Stop. Wait." Max pulled back once more, placing his hands on her arms and slightly pushing her back. "Before this goes any further...before you do what you're obviously doing there's…there's something you need to know."

Liz quickly placed a finger against his lips. Her question was as penetrating as her gaze. "Max. Do you want me?"

Call him cruel. Call him wicked. Call him anything but stupid.

Max Evans knew exactly what Liz wanted. What she expected him to say. Which was, how much he wanted her every second of every day. How even the thought of waiting for her even one more moment drove him insane with impatience. How it would take the rest of their lives to play out all of the fantasies he'd already had in the short time they'd known each other. And nothing would give him more pleasure than to admit in that moment exactly just how much he did want her. And then act on that admission.

Nothing, that is, except foiling her current plans. And furthering his own.

Max allowed his playboy personae to descend like a mask. The flirtatious grin slipped across his lips as his eyes held an aloof note of distance. Reaching up, he ran his fingers through Liz's silky hair and ignored the fireworks shooting throughout his body. "Beautiful Kendall…of course I wanted you…" As a satisfied smile sent a blush across Liz's cheeks, Max lowered the bomb. "…before."

Eyelashes fluttering in confusion, Liz stiffened. "What do you mean 'before'?"

Shrugging, Max's hands dropped back to the arms on his chair. "Before I realized how perfect you and Mark are together."

"M-Mark?"

Max held back a burst of laughter at the utter panic racing through Liz's expression. Nodding solemnly, Max continued. "Yes. Mark Barton. You know…your older gentleman lover. Jaedan's father. I met him earlier. Very understandable why you're so committed to him. I've never known a couple more perfectly suited. In fact, I have a surprise for you…"

Right on cue, the door to Stephanie's bathroom opened with a flourish and slammed shut with a loud bang. A squeak of surprise escaped Liz as she jumped and turned in the direction of the noise.

A blustering Duke, dressed in a priest's robe, stopped short when he saw the provocative sight before him. One eyebrow raised as he donned an appropriately disapproving expression. "Really, Mr. Evans. I've heard of kissing the blushing bride but aren't you taking things a bit too far?"

"Oh, my God." Liz's whisper of mortification echoed in the room.

Max took the opportunity to lean forward and whisper in her ear. "I'm not sure God's listening with you dressed like that."

If looks could kill, Max would have been twelve feet under. She instantly tried to cover herself with her hands, which didn't cover much at all.

He merely smirked at Liz and leaned back in his chair, his hands behind his head. "Ms. Harris, met Father O'Neil. He's here to conduct your wedding…"

"My WHAT?" Liz practically yelled as she forgot all aobut trying to cover herself. Her hands hit her hips in instant anger. "To who?"

A blank expression was Liz's response only seconds before Max lowered another bomb. "Why…to Mark Barton, of course…"


tbc...


[ edited 1 time(s), last at 1-Jan-2003 9:02:30 PM ]
posted on 12-Feb-2003 9:18:20 PM by Ashton
Hey all!!

Thanks sooooo much for you support and patience!!! I'm working 2 jobs again, so it's been hard getting time at the computer. Anyway, this is pretty much fluff, but it does advance the story a wee bit. Hope you enjoy and I'd LOVE to hear what you think!!!! *happy* As always, you're the BEST!!!!!!!!!

hugs,
Ashton
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 23 ~


Max merely smirked at Liz and leaned back in his chair, his hands behind his head. "Ms. Harris, met Father O'Neil. He's here to conduct your wedding…"

"My WHAT?" Liz practically yelled as she forgot all about trying to cover herself. Her hands hit her hips in instant anger. "To who?"

A blank expression was Liz's response only seconds before Max lowered another bomb. "Why…to Mark Barton, of course…"


Vaughn's mouth dropped open. "You're kidding."

"Mike, my friend, it looks like Duke here just won your 'balls of steel' title." Eric Weiss piped up as his admiring gaze shifted to Duke. "I can't believe you just walked in on them like that."

"I can't believe you're still alive." Steve threw in as he punched Duke's arm playfully.

Holding his hands up, Duke began to grin. "Hey, I told you it was a close call. The wedding angle was a stroke of genius that Max just came up with on the spur of the moment." He began to chuckle. "I have to admit, it couldn't have gone any better if Max and I had weeks to plan this."

A little more cautious in his praise then his companions, Mike's green eyes narrowed with protective concern. "And uh…how exactly did Liz react?"

Duke's grin was bright as his eyes began to twinkle. "Let's just say whatever frustrations Max had before I walked in, he definitely worked them off with the 'discussion' that followed." Chuckle escaping him, Duke shook his head and let out a sigh. "I'll tell you now, you'll never know the meaning of the word 'explosive' till you actually watch Max and Liz go head to head in battle…"

"Mark? MARK?" The pitch of Liz's voice hit an all-time high as she furiously flipped her hair behind her shoulders, her blazing eyes boring into Max's. "Just who the hell do you think you are?"

Lips twitching with amusement, Max shrugged nonchalantly. "Max Evans last time I checked. Then again, maybe you know something I don't." Lowering his voice, the seductive shift of his tone sent a rush of heat straight into Liz's cheeks as his eyes openly raked over her. An added wink caused her chest to hitch in anger as desire shot through her with that one simple gesture. His eyes met hers knowingly when his hands began lightly caressing her silky smooth legs. "You are, after all, the one sitting, oh so provocatively, on my lap."

"Jackass." Exasperation rippled through Liz's body as she pushed Max's roaming hands away and swiftly, smoothly emptied his lap. She began to storm out of the room and Duke fully expected to hear the slamming of the door behind her nicely retreating form.

Max held up three subtle fingers of delay in Duke's direction and winked. Each finger disappeared in time to the mouthed words "three, two, one" as a smirk of victory haunted Max's lips when what he silently predicted became reality.

Surprised by Max's accuracy in anticipating his beautiful opponent's next move, Duke watched with growing interest as Liz reached the door, stopped abruptly, spun around and marched straight back to Max's side. Hands on hips, her entire focus was the antagonist in front of her, having completely forgotten anyone else. Including the 'priest'. "You know what? You are without a doubt the most intrusive, meddling, annoying, exasperating, presumptuous…"

Holding up a restraining finger in response to Liz's string of accusatory adjectives, Max quirked an eyebrow at her seeing the word her mouth was getting ready to form. "Now, now. Watch the bad language. We do have a priest here in case you forgot."

A flicker of embarrassment raced through Liz's eyes before she did something entirely unexpected. Instead of falling all over herself with apologies…she enlisted the priest's help. Addressing Drake while never taking her hands off her hips or her eyes off her target, Liz's eyes darkened with a challenge. "Tell me, Father…is the word 'jackass' in the Bible?"

Duke shot Max a look, but Max wasn't paying attention. He was too focused on the fireball standing in front of him. Too mesmerized by her glare. Too enchanted by the angry flush spreading across her cheeks. With no obvious help forthcoming from his fearless leader, Duke cleared his throat and nodded. "Uh…yes, yes, actually it is."

An eyebrow of triumph raised. "And isn't one of the Ten Commandments 'Thou shall not lie'?"

"Uh…well, technically its 'Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor' but yes, that is what it means."

Victory danced in her dark eyes. "See? It can't be bad language if it's in the Bible. And I'm only telling the truth. Pure and simple." A deliberate insult instantly fell from her lips. "But what would a manipulating liar like you know about that?"

From his station near the corner of the room, Duke plopped into a chair, leaned back and prepared to enjoy the show. And what a show it was…

"Manipulating liar." Max repeated. He winced dramatically. "Ouch." A dark eyebrow raised as Max imploringly held his hand out to Liz, a small pout beginning to pucker his lips. His long lashes batted a few times resulting in the age-old puppy dog look. "Oh, come on, now. You know you don't really mean that. Especially after last night..."

"Last night?" Liz's eyes began to glow with fury. "Last night?!" Leaning forward, Liz's voice lowered dangerously. "Last night, I was drunk. Last night, I didn't know what I was doing. And I certainly didn't know the man I let into my bed. But I can tell you with increasing certainly that it wasn't you! **That's** for sure!"

"No?" A small smirk floated over his lips. "Because I seem to remember waking in heaven with an angel wrapped in my arms. One that looked a lot like you. Granted, this particular angel could double for the devil anytime she wants given her wandering hands and addictive kisses. Not to mention her most recent penchant for romantic interludes in locked offices…"

Seething, Liz ignored Max's obvious baiting and pulled in a ragged breath, answering his previous question. "The man in my bed last night was kind and sweet and gentle. He cared enough about me to not take advantage of me or…or play games. He held me and protected me. Even from myself. He made me feel safe and wanted. And now you…**you** want to push me off onto the first stranger that strolls into your path!"

Still enjoying the upper-hand of surprise that he obviously held, Max leaned back and laced his fingers together behind his head before propping his feet back up on the desk. When he spoke, his tone was a tad on the condescending side. "Mark is hardly a stranger, Kendall. He's Jaedan's father. A man that you admitted to being in love with just last week. Someone you say you're committed to." A dramatic sigh and a shrug of his shoulders. "Then again, that didn't seem to stop you from trying to jump me last night. Or this morning, for that matter."

Letting out a groan of frustration, Liz ran her fingers through her hair. "Why are you doing this to me?"

"Doing what?" The innocent question only fueled Liz's rage.

"This…this…" Hands flying furiously in the air, her stutter was adorably cute. Duke had to bite down on the inside of his cheek to keep his laughter from interrupting the entertaining show. "…this wedding you've planned for me. I mean, come on, Max…what is so damn important about getting me married off? Do you think I am so utterly pathetic that I need someone to plan every second of my life even down to who I marry and when?"

"Is that what I'm trying to do?"

"Aren't you?" Her retort was as heated as the fire blazing in her eyes. "First, you propose, then you follow me here to propose again. And now…now this! A marriage to a man that doesn't even…" 'Exist' echoed in her mind a split second before finding its way to her voice. Liz bit down on her lip, abruptly stopping the disastrous confession.

Max instantly picked up on the unfinished sentenced. His eyes narrowed and his heart began to pound. He'd trapped her sooner than he thought and now, it was going to be fun to see her wiggle her way out of it. "A man that doesn't…what, Kendall?"

Frantically trying to remember the story she'd told Max about Mark, Liz spat out the most obvious reason. "That isn't free!" She took a step forward, righteous indignation racing through her eyes. "You do remember, don't you, that I told you Mark was married? Not to mention the other reasons we've kept our relationship such a secret."

"Ohhhh. Right. His career and…" Nodding in feigned remembrance, Max pursed his lips. "…national…"

"…security." Liz ended for him. She crossed her arms with an air of triumph. "Exactly. So, you see…no matter what you've planned, Mark and I simply can't get married."

Another pause.

Duke leaned forward in his chair, lapping up the energy sparking in the room. Waiting on the edge of his seat to see exactly how Max was going to pull this off. And of course, what her explosive response was bound to be.

As Max's mind was in constant motion, it only took a second to find a proper counter. Face brightening with a smile, Max shrugged away her reasons. "All taken care of." He continued, not missing the utter panic that raced through Liz's expression. "Mark and I talked it all out. We're both very powerful men with extensive resources so security is no longer an issue. As for his career, he's been dying to leave his position for a while now. I was able to convince him that private life is so much more appealing…and lucrative. And it seems you were entirely correct about his feelings regarding his wife. Their divorce was finalized yesterday."

"Oh." Liz's instantly knees turned to jello. Her brain froze. All the fight left her body.

Deflated. Stunned. Blinking slowly, she absently sank down into the chair behind her. Though, honestly, the position of the chair was the furthest thing from her mind. She would have undoubtedly landed on her butt had the chair not been there. As Liz tried to wrap her mind around the latest turn of events, curiously, something else was missing instead. That little thing we, the living, like to call fresh air.

It became absolutely suffocating in the room. Hot. Oppressive. Liz's head started to spin. Large black dots discoed in front of her eyes. Her chest tightened with a searing chill. Before Liz knew what was happening, her breaths came in short, frantic gasps. Waving her hands in the air, Liz's eyes were wide with panic. "C-can't…c-c-can't…b-b-b-re-breath."

Amusement at Liz's obviously overwhelmed reaction to his news swiftly turned to concern when Max realized Liz was hyperventilating. His face paled instantly. Opening and slamming desk drawers, Max's frantic gaze flitted across the room when his search came up empty. Duke instantly shot out of his seat to join the search. Turning to a side table, reaching deep inside a barely used drawer, Duke retrieved a brown paper bag and rushed toward Liz with it. Max sidestepped the desk and snatched it out of his hand, waving him back.

Duke backed off. The protective fire flashing in Max's eyes said it all: this was **his** girl. **He** would take care of her.

Falling to his knees in front of Liz, Max stuffed the bag into her hands and guided the opening to her mouth. "Ok, hon…breathe deep. Long, slow, and deep." Gazing intently into Max's eyes, Liz attempted to follow his orders as Max nodded his encouragement while he gently, reassuringly rubbed her back. "That's it, sweetie. There you go. Just keep breathing slow…"

But now…Liz Parker couldn’t breathe for an entirely different reason. It wasn’t because of the shock. It wasn’t because there was no air. It wasn't because she was hyperventilating. It was because…

The absently reassuring brush of Max's fingers against Liz's bare back was setting her skin on fire. Sizzling. Searing. Scorching. Wherever skin touched skin, Liz felt a bolt of penetrating lava shoot straight to her gut. As her hair got unconsciously tangled in his fingers, chills shivered down her spine. She watched his lips form a perfect 'O' as he absently breathed right along with her. Long. Slow. Deep. Shutting her eyes against the sight, those three words drummed out a perfect rhythm as visions invade her mind. Visions of those lips doing the most wicked things in the most intimate of places. And fantasies of his body mimicking the cadence pulsating through her body...

As color flared in Liz's suddenly flushed face and her breathing, though still erratic from an entirely different form of stimulus, began to settle, Max took his own first real breath since her crisis began. The relief in his eyes was evident until her eyes, ebony with indescribable hunger and pervasive fear, met his. Max's own breath caught in the middle of his chest. The sheen of desire in her eyes was dazzlingly enchanting. The tremor in her touch when she deliberately pushed his hand away, staggering. And when Liz gulped a few last slow breaths, removed the bag from her face and glared at him, her voice low and intense, Max Evans got a glimpse of his unintended affect on her. And the lengths she'd go to keep him from knowing. "Don't…you…dare…'sweetie'…me…"

Max cracked a smile.

Duke bit back a chuckle.

Liz squared her shoulders for battle.

So did Max.

Flashing her a smile, Max resumed his game, confident the crisis was over. His eyes began to twinkle with teasing. "You know I've heard of cold feet and wedding jitters, I just never expected them in the form of hyperventilation."

Rolling her eyes in exasperation she tossed the bag onto Stephanie's desk, stood and pushed her way past Max heading straight toward the window behind the desk. A million questions crammed into Liz's brain. Why he was doing this to her? Did he really want her married off to some other guy? What exactly was up his sleeve because it was pretty obvious he was up to something? Especially since she knew for a fact there was no Mark Barton.

Or was there?

Eric. Of course. He must have shown up and Max ran into him before Eric ever made it to Liz's office. Naturally, he would have gone with their established plan and introduced himself as Mark Barton. Which was perfect. At least he was on her side. They could easily come up with a plan for this newest curve ball Max had thrown. And if worse came to worst, pretending to marry Eric wouldn't be that awful. In fact, it might work best to her advantage. It would never be legal and she could get Max to back off...

But until she could get a moment alone with Eric, she'd have to do her best to halt this dreadful wedding plan in its tracks.

Crossing her arms in front of her, her gaze was steady with determination. "For your information, I am not getting married. Not today. And certainly not because you say so."

Sliding into the seat Liz had just vacated, Max leaned forward placing his elbows on his knees. His penetrating gaze settled on her back as she stared out the window. "So, what exactly is the problem here?" An innocent tone of voice asked the question, giving a fleetingly false sense of security before going in for the kill. "Are you upset that I've planned your wedding without your consent? Or are you upset I've planned your wedding…" Pausing, Max's eyes darkened with secret insight. "…to someone other than me?"

A disbelieving smile spread over Liz's lips as her gaze met the ceiling. "Oh, no, you don't." Shaking her head, Liz immediately saw where Max was heading. Her jaws tightened as her voice lowered with determination when her eyes met his as she turned to face him. "I am not falling for that trap."

"What trap?" Amusement danced in his eyes as he tried to keep the smile out of his voice.

That smug smirk of his set her off. "You know damn well what trap." Liz shot back angrily as she crossed her arms in front of her. "The one where you push me until I get so angry I'll admit anything you want me to."

"Hmmm. That would be nice for a change." Gaze having drifted in deliberate thought, his eyes snapped back to meet hers to concede the truth. "But I know you too well. Even when you know I'm right, you won't admit it. Because to you, my dear, that would be giving me too much control."

"Control." Liz repeated. "Is that what this is all about for you? What it's always been about? From the moment we met, you simply haven't been able to wrap your mind around the fact I will not be controlled. By anyone. For any reason." Her eyes shimmered with emotion. "And this…this wedding you've planned? It's nothing more than you're pathetic attempt to play God with someone else's life." Pushing herself away from the window, Liz took a demanding step forward, her eyebrow raised inquiringly. "So, tell me, Max, does it make you feel superior to ruin other people's lives like you're ruining mine?"

"And how exactly am I ruining your life?" An edge entered Max's voice for the first time.

"How?" Blinking rapidly in disbelief, Liz tossed her hands into the air in an exasperated gesture. "I don't know, Max. Planning my wedding to a man you barely know. A man who, by the way, hasn't even proposed to me. Being the ultimate Prince Charming to my daughter. Making yourself so much a part of our lives that we'll never get over losing you. By just **being** here. You're ruining everything for me! God, don't you get that?"

Max was out of his seat in a heartbeat. Towering over her, his gaze bored penetratingly into hers. "What I get, Kendall, is that you want me so bad you can taste it. I get that it terrifies you to be so out of control around me. I get that you've done everything in your power to push me away. It's not working. You know it's not working. And that terrifies you even more." His eyes darkened as he took a flying leap into the truth and waited for her reaction. "You've even gone so far as to make up this fictitious lover…"

Her nearly inaudible gasp registered in Max's mind. As did the instant flush on her cheeks only seconds before she ignored his accusation and lobbed a few of her own. "Me? ME making things up? My God, you never stop, do you?" Eyes blazing with refueled anger, Liz pushed Max backward a step then took a step forward. "Which one of us lied about what happened last night, huh?" Her righteously indignant finger jabbing the center of his chest, Liz took another step forward, forcing him to take another step back. "Which one of us pretended to have had the best sex of his life?" Another jab. Another step. "Which one of us was willing to let the other seduce him right here in this office…"

"Hey!" Max raised an imposing finger as his chest brushed against hers when he moved to tower over her. His piercing eyes flashed defensively. "I was **trying** to tell you the truth before you went too far, but you didn't want to hear it."

"And I was trying to prove a point, you moron!" Liz retorted.

"Yeah? Well, the only point this little exercise of yours proved is that you can't resist me. Fortunately, I don't have that dilemma!"

Hands on hips, an eyebrow raised. "Oh, yeah?" The disbelieving sarcasm dripped from every syllable.

"Yeah!" Max shot back heatedly.

An unexpected blur of movement. A body colliding with his. Hot hands grabbing his face, pulling him firmly forward. A demanding challenge was unleashed as her lips met his in a heated kiss. A stunned Max stumbled forward and responded with explosive eagerness a split second later. His fingers dug into her silky hair and control instantly shifted from Liz to Max as he tilted her head to deepen the kiss. Lips, tongues and bodies dueled with a feverish intensity.

Liz's moan of pleasure signaled her certain defeat until Max dipped lower to better gather her in one strong arm as a hand began to roam over her hip and down to her exposed thigh. In a clear sign he was losing control, Max's hand curled around the back of her leg before hiking her into his arms with one swift move. Her legs instantly wrapped around his waist and Max spun around and sat Liz on the desk never once breaking his assault on her lips as he stepped between her legs.

A silent observer caught between voyeuristic pleasure and embarrassed discomfort hiked himself out of the chair. Duke grinned from ear to ear as he shook his head. No telling exactly where this little battle was going to lead given the utter unpredictability of the leading lady, but he certainly couldn't stay to watch. There were some things that weren't meant for prying eyes. Explosive passion like Max and Liz's was definitely one of them…

The moment his posterior cleared the leather, however, Duke stopped as the action in the center of the room halted with a heatedly breathed question. "What were you saying…" Max groaned in protest and nipped at Liz's lips, trying to initiate a newly explosive kiss but she pushed him away. Both hands on his chest, the distance between them grew. Eyes dazed with passion raised to meet his as a victorious smirk flitted over her lips. "…about being able to resist me?"

Blinking with dazed incomprehension, Max pulled back abruptly, his chest rising and falling. One look in her eyes, he knew he'd been had. His hands dropped to his side as his chin raised in defiance. Max opened his mouth poised to shoot back a heated retort. The knowing look in her eyes halted his speech. The sharp ringing of Max's cell phone interrupted the intense staring contest between the two. Eyes still trained on his opponent, Max flipped the phone opened and shouted his abrupt greeting. "What?!"

Max entire demeanor melted when he heard the voice on the other line. It was Alex. But Liz didn't know that. Liz only knew that she'd won a point by kissing him. She'd gained the upper-hand by pushing him into a contest of resistance. Well, he was about to win that upper-hand back. The smirk was slow. His eyes took on a glow of…seductive triumph. "Bambi."

Liz stiffened perceptibly. Her eyes hardened. Her chin raised as her arms crossed defensively in front of her.

"Bambi?" Max could practically hear the crinkle of Alex's forehead as it wrinkled in confusion. "Uh…no. It's Alex. Your buddy. Your pal. Your partner who is definitely of the human, and might I add, **male** persuasion."

"Hey, baby." Max practically cooed into the phone as his smile broadened and his eyes danced with devilish delight.

Entire body strumming with envious energy, Liz jumped off the desk and angrily knocked into him as she pushed past Max, her piercing glare deadly in its silent vehemence.

"Baby? Baby!?" Alex tapped his finger against the mouthpiece. "Is this thing working right? Cuz I thought I just heard you call me 'baby'."

Max turned to face Liz who was gallantly trying to act uninterested and unaffected by his intimately toned conversation. "I was just thinking of you. Just this very second actually." His voice lowered meaningfully, suggestively, as his eyes locked with Liz implying his answer to her earlier question. "Oh, I was just imagining I was kissing you. Touching you. The fantasy was quite vivid. Almost like you were in my arms. Would you like the details of our mid-day rendezvous?"

Liz's back stiffened and her hands clenched and unclenched unconsciously by her side. Profile turned to Max, her stormy gaze settled on a point in the distant city skyline as she struggled to erase the infuriating, sickening images of Max touching any other woman...

"Dude, that's just…ewww. What is wrong with you? Are you on crack or something?" As if a light suddenly switched on, Alex began to chuckle. "Oh, wait. I get it. Liz is there isn't she? Giving you trouble so you're giving a bit back." He sighed into the phone. "You two need to just do it and get it over with, man. I mean…how long can you really hold out before one of you explode?"

"You want the details in person? Oh, I think that can definitely be arranged." Casually leaning back against the desk, Max continued his imaginary conversation, practically purring. "Why…now, of course. You know I always have time for my number one girl." Max nearly sighed with anticipation. His eyes held a silent challenge to the woman only a few feet away as his double edged words hit their intended target. "Nope. Nothing of any real importance here. I'm as free as a bird, in fact. Nothing and no one tying me down. So when and where do you want…"

Liz had heard enough. Spinning on her heels, she crossed the distance between them in a flash and grabbed the phone from Max's hand. Her tone was clipped and cold when she spoke into the mouthpiece. "This is the operator. Please deposit five-forty five in change to continue this call." Without missing a beat, her eyes narrowed as her gaze locked with Max's. "Oops. You're time has elapsed. Try again in, say…never!" Liz clicked off the phone with an obvious look of satisfaction flitting across her expression.

Instantly jumping to his feet, Max blinked and sputtered in shock. "W-wha…what the…what the hell did you do that for?"

Toe to toe, Liz glared up at him. "You do **not** make play dates with your snow bunnies when we are in the middle of an argument!"

"I'll do whatever I damn well please!" Max held out his hand commandingly. "Now, give it back."

Hiding the phone behind her back, Liz's expression was adorably innocent. "Why? So you can call her back?" Shrugging, she took a cautious step backward as Max stood to his full height, his eyes glowing warningly. "Oh, don't worry. She's probably sitting by her phone at home looking for five dollars worth of change to put into a non-existent slot." Liz's eyes raked over him scathingly. "Believe me, with her IQ, she'll still be searching looong after I'm done with you…"

"Give it." Authoritarian and low, Max's issue was absolute.

"When hell freezes over." Liz shot back stubbornly as her shoulders squared.

A growl of impatient frustration echoed in the room. "In that case…" Snatching his shirt from the floor, Max threw it in Liz's face. "…you might need that because it's going to get really chilly, really fast. Now…" His determined gaze locked with hers. "Give. Me. The. Phone."

"You want it, lover boy?" Waving it in front of his face, a delightfully impish look danced in Liz's eyes as she inched backwards. "You'll have to come and get it."

A moment of intense silence reigned as the two eyed each other suspiciously, cautiously, challengingly. Then Max made his move and all hell broke loose. Wide-eyed, Duke watched the most hilarious few minutes of entertainment he'd seen in years as Max lunged for his phone. With a shriek of alarm, Liz danced out of his way barely escaping his grasp. His advancement was hampered by the chair Liz managed to shove forward as she slipped by it and rounded the corner of the desk.

They circled the large mahogany desk for endless minutes, Liz always two steps ahead of Max. But he finally gained speed as he rounded the outer corner and reached out barely touching Liz's shoulder before the room erupted into a volley of choice expletives when Max stubbed his toe against the heavy leg of the massive desk. Liz took the opportunity to escape him for good as she jumped on the desk and slid along the top of the grained wood, landing with a thud on the other side.

"Wait, wait, wait." Spinning to face him, Liz threw up her hands and tried to catch her breath when she was safely a desk-length away from Max. "Look at us. Do you have any idea how ridiculous this is? Max, chasing girls around a desk are for old men with reluctant secretaries and little boys with crushes."

"Hey. You started it." Max shot back, his chest rising and falling with labored breaths, the wince of pain not quite disappearing from his expression.

"I did not." She blinked with deliberate innocence.

"You're the one who kidnapped my phone!" Arms waving in disbelief, Max's tone jumped an octave before he took a deep, much needed calming breath, placed his hands flat on the desk and raised his head to meet her gaze. The moment his eyes met hers, they instantly began to dance with laughter and a smile began tugging the corners of his mouth upward. He fought the smile though he could do little wipe the general expression of merriment from his face. "Look. The irony of this is just…" He paused. "I mean…you do see what you're doing, don't you?"

This time her innocence was real. "What are you talking about?"

Max took way too much pleasure in explaining it to her. It was evident in his eyes. The smile crawling over his lips. His entire body language screamed his delight at having the opportunity to point out the obvious. "According to you, you don't want me. You don't love me. You never will. In fact, you want nothing to do with me. And yet…" He paused allowing his point maximum impact in the silence. "…you can't stand the thought of me with any one else. The very idea of me touching anyone the way I was touching you, kissing someone the way we kiss…you looked positively ill. And jealous. And…"

Liz instantly scoffed and rolled her eyes as she cut him off. "Oh, please. That is soo not what this is about."

"Really? Then what is it about?"

The patronizing tone of voice went hand in hand with her condescending expression. "Max. I'm simply trying to keep you from making a horrendous mistake."

"A mistake."

Nodding her head vigorously, Liz's finger deliberately ran over the edge of Max's cell phone tauntingly. "I know you, Max. I know what you really want."

A smirk was her response. "Oh you do, do you?"

"Uh-huh." Liz paused as her eyes met his. Her voice softened unexpectedly. "You want the fairy tale. And you want it with someone who is your equal." Ebony eyes glowing with a warmth she was unable to hide no matter how hard she tried, Liz cleared her throat and attempted to maintain a distant control. "Bambi is not that someone. So, by keeping your phone, I'm saving you from yet another unfulfilling encounter with a brainless bimbo that leads to nothing but emptiness."

"Oh, I see. So you're doing this out of the goodness of your heart as opposed to, say…uncontrollable jealousy?"

One nod. Liz placed her hands on the desk, mirroring Max's stance. Meeting his challenge. "That's right."

Max pursed his lips in contemplation. "So…my equal, huh?" An instinctive knowledge caused his eyes to dance with golden light. He seized the new opportunity to tease and prove his point all in the same breath. "Well. In that case, she'd have to be a knockout because…" A slight nonchalant shrug. "…just look at me." The arrogant tilt of his head caused Liz's heart to literally skip a beat. She swallowed hard when he winked and held out his arms in a look-at-me gesture. "Need I say more?"

"Riiight." Jumping immediately into the newest game, Liz pushed the desire to jump across the desk and attack Max's lips as far from her conscious as possible. It was not an easy task. Her eyes began to sparkle with taunting laughter. "And with statements like that…a sense of humor wouldn't hurt her either. And that thing about opposites attracting? In your case…" Her nose scrunched up adorably. "…I would suggest someone with a healthy dose of humility."

"And on **that** note…" Max's smirked. Love of their spontaneous banter danced in his eyes. His retorts were quick. His object never forgotten. "…she'd have to be quick. Clever. Witty. Not afraid to speak her mind." Leaning forward slightly putting more weight on his extended arms, his eyes caressed her lips with heated intensity. "Throw in a deliciously sassy streak, and she'd be just about perfect."

"Oh, I don’t know about perfect." Liz commented glibly though pebbles of desire were doing jumping jacks in the pit of her stomach. "I mean, let's not forget her intelligence level. I'd think she'd have to have an IQ that's at least fifty and no higher than seventy-five." Fighting the flush rising rapidly throughout her body, Liz raised her chin defiantly. "You know…to keep up with such brilliant, riveting dialogue as this."

Ignoring her obvious attempt at an insult, Max sparred back without missing a beat. "And the chemistry. It would have to be out of this world." His hand raised to brush back a strand of hair that had fallen across Liz's cheek. Eyes trained on his task, the gravelly tones of his voice sent a ripple of electricity along every nerve ending in her body.

He tucked the hair behind her ear. "Undeniable." Grazing his fingers against the soft skin along Liz's cheek down to her jaw and over to her chin, the tantalizing sparks igniting against her skin were downright torturous. "Profound." As his thumb lazily brushed over her supple lips, Liz's eyes drifted closed and her breathing became slightly erratic. "Volcanic." She barely bit back a moan as his heated whisper breezed across her skin. "Like spontaneous combustion."

She felt his breath mingle with hers. Sensed his lips only a hair away from hers. Swam in the sudden warmth that was Max as he leaned across the desk, lulling her into a state of desire, leading her to certain pleasure.

The heat of his kiss caressed her lips long before physical connection was achieved. She nudged her face forward, nuzzling his nose against hers before seeking the softness of his lips. Her lips quivered. They burned. They ached. The gentle brush of his lips against hers was in direct contrast to the fire boiling in her blood. Tender. Warm. Wet. The graceful dance began. In. Out. Over. Sensuous. Possessing. The delicate tug on her bottom lip nearly brought her to her knees with desire as Max pulled back.

Fingers tangling in her hair, Max lost himself in the sensations of Liz's kiss. The floating. The fire. The dreamy haze of pleasure. The kiss was slow and sensuous. Barely brushing. Tenderly caressing. Moving with rhythmic depth as they breathed each other in. Who needed air when they had this? Each other. The intimacy of the moment. The delicious taste of surrender…

Every cell of her body ached to be taken by this man. Every nerve screamed to connect with their counterpart in the intimacy of his embrace. Every bone-deep desire reared its head. Her heart longed to nestle deep inside of him and take root. To become so much a part of him, he'd never let her go. Her mind was the only objector. The only part of her that registered the danger. That recognized the warning signs of the treacherous game she was playing.

A game that would end in certain death. For her. For Max. For Jaedan.

Two to one. Heart and body against mind. Soft and quivering against determined. Empty and flushed against stubborn. Two to one. Not surprisingly, cognizant fear over-ruled the two the moment Liz thought of her defenseless daughter…

Liz's eyes snapped open unexpectedly. She jumped back from Max and quickly pushed his hand from her face. Clearing her throat, Liz's chin raised in defiance as her eyes met his with determination. "I wouldn't know anything about that."

Recovering quickly, Max's eyes danced with adoration as his hand dropped to once more brace his weight on the desk. "Did I mention stubborn? I mean, I have a tendency to be a bit on the stubborn side, you know. So, I would expect my equal to have a spine of steel."

The sarcasm hung heavily in the air between them. Her eyes met his challengingly. "You don't say."

"Oh, yes. She'll definitely have to be able to hold her own against me." His gaze shifted from Liz's pursed lips to the long creamy neck framed by luxurious cascades of chocolate hair. "It's important to have a partner who won't allow herself to be walked all over. Someone who will take a stand for herself. Be independent." Max unconsciously licked his lips as his gaze drifted to the cleavage produced by Liz's current pose. "That way the occasional battles of will tend to be a bit spicier." Voice lowering huskily, his eyes snapped back up to hers. "And you do know what they say about make up sex, don't you?"

"I've heard rumors." Liz quipped as her gaze dropped to his tilted, irresistible lips.

"Hot. Explosive. Passionate." Eyes descending to the color of midnight, Max's tone lowered seductively. Gravitating toward her, he was practically hovering over the desk. "That's the word around town, at least."

She quirked an eyebrow, her tone matching his in intimacy. Despite the danger, she too leaned forward. Unconsciously. Pulled toward him by an intense, invisible force. "You've never experienced it yourself?"

A casual shrug. "Never made up with a girl before. Most women I've been involved with don't get close enough to reach the fighting stage. And if they do, obviously it won't work and its time for us to go our separate ways."

"What about Kenna?" Unexpected. Honest. Curious. Without hint of antagonism.

Swallowing hard, Max paused. Hit by realization. The difference between the two women was…astounding. Glaring. Obvious. Gaze lowered, unable to hide the hint of pain she always saw when the illusive woman's name was mentioned. Soft. Truthful. His answer was straightforward and revealing. "Kenna and I never fought."

"Lucky you." Responding quietly, Liz's gut felt like it had been kicked with the full force of a sumo wrestler. Of course they never fought. Kenna was the love of his life. His perfect woman. His one true soulmate…

Max's eyes snapped up to meet her gaze catching a hint of hurt and sympathy before an imposed distance took its place. "I wouldn't be so sure." He licked his lips unconsciously. The sincerity darkening his eyes nudged her heart, quickening its pace. "Seems to me the emotions needed to fight are just as raw and primal and…real…as the emotions needed to love. An element of passion permeates a fiery anger just as much as it does the deepest devotion. I'm not quite sure you can really love without being able to fight. Opposite each other. For each other. Side by side, against the world."

It was Liz's turn to swallow around the lump that had risen in her throat. She was ashamed of how shaky her breath sounded in her own chest. Clearing her throat, she attempted to sound more confident than she felt. "Sounds rather idealistic to me."

"Not if you're my equal." Max responded softly, meaningfully.

"Who says I am?"

"You do. Every time you look in my eyes." Eyes flickering with sudden warmth, Max's smile was a mixture of sincerity and devilish taunting. His grin widened as he made his subtle point obvious. "After all, who have we really been describing this whole time?"

The intensity of the silence permeated the room. Duke once more felt like an intruder who desperately wanted to fade into the woodwork, disappear and give the two obvious would-be-lovers much needed privacy. But he was terrified to move. Afraid any disturbance in the air would break the wicked spell of desire weaving a beautiful dance between Max and Liz.

In all of his years of knowing Max Evans, Duke had never seen his friend so taken with a woman. So…in love. So intense. And never so determined to win her heart. Not that Max seemed to have much work to do on that front. Liz Parker was as head over heels in love with Max as he was with her. If the two of them could just get on the same page at the same time…if they could just break down the stubborn walls they had built to protect each other from the horrors of their past…Duke truly believed they could, **would** make it.

If only…

Liz instinctively knew she had to get out of there. The desire was suffocating. The intense urges ripped through her at lightning speed. Shattering her into aching fragments of a deep, soul-piercing hunger. Pulling her in so many directions, her head was swimming. Light-headed. Dizzy. Irrational.

He was right. She was his equal. He knew it. She knew it. Hell, by now, the entire world probably knew it. It made her giddy with happiness and tortured with the impossibility of it all. In the midst of the delightful torment of the deepest truth, there was only one way Liz Parker could possibly escape this latest stunt of Max's unscathed. Only one way to evade ultimate truth for a while longer.

She would simply…agree with him…

"Alright." Liz's eyes began to dance with sudden mischief. Leaning forward suggestively, her smile widened brightening her eyes in the process. "I'll do it."

"Do it?" Max sucked in a breath as her suggestive tone and carefully selected words him hit his sense full force. A dark eyebrow raised in question as a teasing smirk skipped across Max's lips. Voice lowering seductively, Max leaned toward Liz slightly. "Why…Ms. Harris, I had no idea you were the 'night of unrestrained passion after just one date' kind of gal…"

Liz mirrored Max's questioningly raised eyebrow. "You call last night a first date?"

Shrugging nonchalantly, a smug smile drifted over his lips as he let out an arrogant sigh. "Well…I **was** in your bed." Wiggling his eyebrows, Max's eyes danced with suggestive teasing. "For me that **is** pretty much how a first date ends."

Grin deepening, Liz rolled her eyes. "Correction…you are ON my bed. You are way too full of yourself. And if your idea of a typical first date is a taking an intoxicated woman home, securing her virtue by being a true gentleman and then lying to her like a scoundrel the next morning, then I now know why you've a reputation for being such a playboy." She shrugged at Max's inquiring gaze. "It only makes sense. Since the women you normally date have Swiss cheese for brains, they'll believe anything you say."

"Since I'm not one of those women and I do have you all figured out…" Liz shrugged. "…the great Max Evans mystique is gone. So…alright."

"The Max Evans mystique?" A dark eyebrow raised in inquisition as confusion raced through Max's eyes. "What does that…" Breaking his question off mid-thought, Max jumped to the immediate question dancing in his mind. "Wait. Alright?" Shaking his head, Max's face registered a comical level of incomprehension. "I don't understand. Is that an invitation?"

"It's an answer."

A grin began to weave its way through Max's expression. This woman was truly unpredictable. As well as he felt he knew her, he never quite knew what she would do next. "Did I miss the question?"

"It was implied."

Standing to his full height, Max crossed his arms in front of him and eyed Liz warily. She was clearly up to something. He couldn't quite tell what yet, but… "And exactly what was this implied question?"

And then…Liz Parker turned the tables…

Taking a deep breath, Liz mirrored Max's actions. Dragging her hands from the desk, she stood and tilted her head to the side. "I'll marry Mark."

The grin disappeared. Shock raced through his eyes. His shoulders slumped. His voice sounded small and unnerved. "You…you will?"

Nodding enthusiastically, Liz grinned. "Uh-huh. I mean…your case is solid, Max. Mark and I belong together. He is, after all, Jaedan's father not to mention the love of my life, and…now that we're both free…"

"But…but what about…" Panic began to shift through Max's stormy eyes. His hand waved dramatically through the air between them. "…you know. This. Us. Spontaneous combustion. You being my equal."

"Oh, Maaaax…" An appropriately sympathetic pout traced Liz's lips as she gripped Max's phone in her hand and slowly rounded the desk stopping in front of him. Eyes bright with delight, Liz gazed up into Max's distraught face. She reached up and touched the frown lines forming around his lips. "I'm not your equal. I'm your better. And although spontaneous combustion with you **is**…" Her smile widened as she let out a dreamy sigh. "…out of this world…I like my feet planted firmly on the ground. Mark does that for me."

"Though I do have to admit…" Running her finger lightly over his lips causing them to tremble under her touch, her voice lowered in a whisper. "…you are the most **fabulous** kisser I've ever known."

Liz's hand dropped to her side. A deepening smile. A wink. A flip of her hair and Liz Parker spun on her heels, walked to the door and paused. "Oh, Max…" Turning back to Max, the condescending tone permeated her whole demeanor. "…don’t worry about Bambi distracting you from your search for Ms. Right." Dramatically holding his cell phone over a pitcher of water, Liz sent him one last wink.

Taking a lurching step forward, Max's loud gasp echoed in the room as she let the phone slip through her fingers to land with a loud plop in the ice cold water. "Now." She clapped her hands together as if knocking the dust off after a hard day's work. "I'm off to find my fiancee'." One last nod of acknowledgement indicated Liz hadn't entirely forgotten the presence of the priest. "Father. I'll see you at the altar. In the meantime…" She pointed to Max. "…whatever Hail Mary's I just racked up can be assigned to him. You see, I'm not Catholic, but I hear Max has plenty of practice in the confessing and atoning for sins department." One more mischievous wink and Liz disappeared.

The moment the door slammed behind Liz, the room was instantly filled with a burst of laughter and a growl of frustration. Tears forming in the corner of his eyes from all his laughter, Duke approached Max who had slumped into a nearby chair and buried his face in his hands. "That is one fiery woman you got there, Max. Unpredictable. Gutsy. You truly have your hands full with her."

Rolling his eyes, Max flopped back into the chair. "She wasn't supposed to say yes."

"Which is probably why she did. She really does have you figured out." Leaning against the desk, Duke cracked a smile as his blue eyes danced with laughter. "You two are uh…" Unable to find the right word, Duke just shook his head with a chuckle.

At Duke's dangled sentence, Max's lips began to twitch as his gaze met Duke's. "We are, aren't we?"

"Uh…yeah." Agreeing, Duke shifted his weight against the desk and questioned Max's next move. "So…this wedding. Exactly how are we going to pull this off?"

"How the hell am I supposed to know?" Max looked slightly annoyed. "Like I said, she wasn't supposed to say yes."

"But now that she has…" Duke prompted noting the hint of mischief slipping through Max's eyes as a smile, and a plan, began to form.

"Now that she has…" Max repeated as his gaze fixed on a point in the distance. "Now that she has, I'm going to give her the wedding from hell…"

"From hell." Duke repeated. "Right." Duke uncrossed his ankle, pushed himself away from the desk and clapped Max on the back. "So, uh…good luck with that. I’m just going to, you know…escape the wrath of Liz…"

"Oh, no you don't." Max stopped his suddenly retreating friend. "One for all and all for one…"

Rolling his eyes, Duke groaned and plopped into a chair. "Fine. But if she breaks anything of mine in a fit of rage, you buy it." Chuckling, Max nodded his agreement. Duke sighed with resignation and propped his feet up when Max leaned forward, a devilish twinkle in his eyes. "Alright, pal. Hit me with it. What disaster are you planning for Liz Parker's fictitious wedding?"

Max's grin deepened. "Only the most spectacular disaster of all…Homer Thickbottom for a groom and a perfect best man…"


Tbc…