posted on 8-Dec-2002 7:16:51 PM by Ashton
Disclaimer: I don't own anything Roswell, etc
Rating: PG-13, for now
Categories: M/L with the rest of the gang thrown in
Summary: Explained in prologue. I think everything will be self-explanatory. If not, ask. I don't bite!

VERY IMPORTANT Author's note: Throughout the story you will see a series of 'clicks'. When you do, imagine someone outside of the story, such as yourself, taking a freeze frame 'picture' of the particular moment, look or emotion described. Since this is to be the 'album' of Max and Liz's love, each new 'click' will add a picture so that, hopefully, at the end we will have a visual story of their lives as well as a written one.

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~ PROLOGUE~

We all take pictures in our minds. Of things we see, of places we've been...a moment we never want to forget. If we're lucky, at the end of our lives, these pictures will have created an album of laughter, love and a life full of fulfilled dreams.

"Mirror Images" finds Max and Liz creating their own separate albums full of struggles and pain. Grief and laughter. Love and loss. When they meet suddenly at a photo shoot where Liz has been hired to take wedding photos for Max's impending wedding, they find it increasingly difficult to focus on anything but each other.

Lost dreams and common loves create a bond that Max's obsessive fiance', paranoid brother, and 'touched' grandmother along with Liz's protective friends and children can't deny. Before they know it, the mental 'click' they hear when their hearts take a picture begin to fill a shared album that clearly brings into focus the rest of their lives.

As Max and Liz try to make sense of their budding relationship and balance it with the commitments and duties of life, forces work against them to show they are anything but 'picture perfect'. True love has a force of it's own, though, as old photographs and new feelings begin to mesh together proving once and for all that one picture really is worth a thousand words. "Mirror Images"…if you will…of enduring love.
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~ chapter 1 ~

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. They…are usually right. For a twenty-eight year old man only moments away from his very own wedding, it was especially true. The picture he held in his hands conjured up enough thoughts and feelings that not even the Library of Congress could catalogue them all.

But he felt them.

Every single last one, all at once…and so strongly that he literally felt his body ache with the proposition before him. Conflict. Discovery. Fear. Beauty. Longing. Desire. Rejection. Confusion. Love. Like a kaleidoscope, he saw each emotion mirrored in the images staring up at him.

Resplendently dressed in his newly bought black tuxedo, Maxwell Evans sat on the edge of his bed staring down at a photo whose memory came rushing back to his mind like Niagra Falls. Swift. Powerful. Overwhelming. In truth, it had been one week ago today he last saw those eyes looking at him and felt her lips on his. One week ago since she broke his heart. One week ago that she demanded he fulfill his commitment to another.

But for all those seven days, it felt like a lifetime ago.

His unsteady gaze moved to the note attached to the photos beneath it. "One million dollars buys a lovely gift for your new wife…my silence. Payment due after the required 'I do'. Both conditions must be met or the first picture goes public…and the second never comes true…"

More words came to Max's mind: Deceit. Invasion. Fear. Protection. Disgrace. Embarrassment. Worry. Blackmail…

Max let out a shaky breath as an unsteady hand came up to rake through his thick raven locks then moved to loosen the collar that suddenly seemed to be choking him. He grasped the picture tightly in his hands and jumped off his bed to begin an agitated pace back and forth in front of his large bedroom windows. His head was hung low and his eyes trained on the floor as his mind whirled with ideas.

What was he going to do? How was he going to get all of them out of this with the least amount of embarrassment? And was it possible that 'he' really was behind all of this? It would have to be. But to go after her, of all people…it made no sense. Yet, there was no one else. Or was there?

Max's head shot up when he heard a rapid pounding on his door and the voice of his brother calling. "Max? Hey, Max? Are you in there?" Michael Evan's anxious voice called out to him as Max headed toward the door. Once face to face, Michael's face split into a relieved grin. "Glad to see those cold feet didn't find the strength to run. Both Dad and Mom were getting worried about you."

Pausing to re-button and re-tie Max's bow tie, Michael commented glibly. "And I don't blame them from the looks of you. What's wrong with you? Too nervous to tie it right? Ah, don't worry…that's what the best man is for."

Michael slapped Max's shoulder once he had finished his duty as best man and moved past him to enter his room. "You do realize you should be downstairs now. The guests have arrived and are seated, Tess and her entourage are impatiently waiting the wedding march and I'm…about 10 seconds shy of 'losing' this wedding ring at a local pawn shop for some extra dough." Michael stated with a teasing light in his brown eyes as he held up the diamond studded wedding band to Max. "How much do you think it's worth anyway?"

Max swallowed as his eyes focused on the ring in Michael's hand. Unconsciously, his own fingers, hidden in his pocket, clenched a ring meant for another in desperate hopes that all of this was a dream. "A million dollars." He managed to croak out.

Michael's eyes widened in shock. "A million? Wow!" Michael shook his tawny head. "All I can say is I'm glad this day is over with for me and that prices were much lower when I tied the knot. I think I paid close to a hundred thousand for Maria’s…"

"Maria’s ring was free, don't you remember?" Max asked absently. "It was Mom's heirloom ring…"

Michael snapped his fingers. "That's right!" A puzzled look came to his eyes as he headed for the door and began to muse with himself. "Well, then what did I spend a hundred thousand for?"

Max let out a sigh as he watched his brother's retreating back. How he wished he could stop Michael and tell him everything. Michael would understand. Or would he? Recent arguments popped into Max's mind as he shook his head slightly and looked down at the floor. No, Michael wouldn't understand. He was on his own on this one.

"Max?" Michael turned and called out to him when he hadn't received an answer. "Hey, Max. Are you ok? Not nervous about the honeymoon, are you?" Michael asked as he tossed him a suggestive wink then punched him playfully on the arm.

Michael was riding on cloud nine right now. Max was about to be married to a beautiful, sophisticated, completely connected woman. Nothing could be better for business…or Max, of course.

"Max." Michael's grin quickly turned to a frown when he finally observed how silent his brother was. It was as if Max was in another world. He'd been like that a lot lately. For the past four months to be exact. Ever since meeting that…woman. From the absent, agitated look in Max's eyes, Michael could tell the sooner he got Max downstairs and hitched the sooner this whole insane obsession of his would be over.

Michael took a step toward Max so he was standing right in front of him. Face to face. Eye to eye. "Max, it's time to forget her. Tess and you are meant to be. You know that. You've always known that. Dwelling on what would never work out…what never can be…it's foolish. Think about it…if she really loved you she would have held on…"

Putting a leading hand on Max's shoulder, Michael moved him slowly toward the door. "Come on. Let's go downstairs. Once you’re down there, look into her eyes…and follow your heart…"

The cloud of confusion in Max's eyes suddenly disappeared. For the first time since receiving the picture he'd hastily stuffed into his pocket, Max knew what to do.
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Click. The photographer's flash caught the determination in Max's chestnut brown eyes as he entered the Great Room from the side door, Michael and Kyle Valenti in tow. As the music began to play Max unconsciously rubbed the precious ring in his pocket and allowed his eyes to scan the guests in search of her beautiful face.

He doubted she'd be there. They'd both agreed never to see each other again. Actually, she'd told him she'd never come to him again or accept him if he came to her. He'd numbly agreed to abide by her decision since she'd been so determined and he had literally felt like he'd just been run over by Mac truck.

He was just too stunned to protest at the time. Then afterward, when the shock had worn off, he'd been too hurt. Too angry. His pride had been damaged beyond repair. Or at least he thought it had. Right this moment, pride was the furthest thing from his mind as his eyes began to scan the guests for her face. The section to his left prompted Max to continue his search. The middle…no one.

As his quiet, soulful eyes moved to the right set of chairs he saw a billow of white out in the corner of his vision advancing toward him. He glanced long enough to see that Tess was now making her way down the invented aisle toward him. Her blonde hair pulled up under a flowing veil. Her eyes bright with happiness.

A pang of guilt swept through Max and he couldn't be sure what he felt guiltier about…marrying a woman he didn't love or hoping and looking for another while his bride was coming to him. As quickly as the guilt came, it left leaving Max once more free to do as his heart told him.

His eyes moved once more to the right section of chairs and swept from front to back. Left to right. They stopped suddenly and began to shine when they came to rest on the person standing in the back by the last row, the last seat. The camera being held up to her eyes dropped when he focused on her and a small, brave smile passed over her lips while her eyes became bright with unshed tears.

Click.Max Evans didn't think. He moved as if in a trance. Everyone and everything was forgotten except getting to her. Touching her. Talking to her and telling her what he was being faced with. Only she could tell him what to do…

Before anyone knew what was happening Max had rushed to the back of the room and grabbed her hands making it difficult for her to hold the camera she'd been taking pictures with. "Oh, my God. You're here. You're really here." Max's shallow breath came out in little puffs against her face as his hands moved to cup her cheeks.

Click. He had to touch her. He had to make sure she was real. A brief, warm smile passed his lips as he unconsciously positioned himself so that his body was shielding hers from the rest of the room.

Convinced now that she was real and that it wasn't a dream, Max's voice dropped to a whisper as he anxiously began to pour out the turmoil he'd experienced over the last half hour. "Liz, I've got to talk to you. There are pictures. Pictures of us…"

"What?" Liz whispered back her eyes filling with concern and fear at Max's behavior.

"I'm being black…"

The conclusion of Max's sentence was drowned out by sheer pandemonium that erupted in the room. The music came to an abrupt halt and gasps and murmurs sounded loudly throughout the room as Michael and their father, Phillip Evans, headed toward the back. "Max! Max, what in the name of God is going on?!" Phillip Evans’' voice boomed out over the crowd and reached Max's ears causing Max to turn just as he heard Tess begin to scream out his name.

"MAX! Get away from her! Get away from that slut this instant!" Tess screamed as she turned and rushed toward him much like a bull rushing toward a matador.

"Max. Oh my God. I shouldn't have come." Liz whispered breathlessly as she saw the commotion her presence had cause. Never in her wildest dreams had she imagined Max would leave his bride at the altar to come to her. "Please. Let me go." She tried to pull away from him but Max turned back to her and held her firm shaking his head.

"No! You can't leave. We have to talk. I don't know what to do…Liz, you have to tell me what to do…"

Liz opened her mouth to answer when the doors at the middle back of the room burst open and a brown-haired man came running into the room. "I OBJECT TO THIS WEDDING!"

Max spun around and Liz moved from behind him to gaze at the man who was now stopped short standing in the middle of the aisle. She'd recognized the voice before seeing his face. Now that she did, her eyes widened in shock and her head began to shake in disbelief as she gripped Max's arm for support. "Oh, my God. No. No. This isn't…."

At the sound of Liz's voice, Max turned to her just in time to catch her as she slumped into a dead faint, never finishing her sentence. Click.

Tbc…

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~ chapter 2 ~

Four months earlier…

Twenty-six year old Liz Parker let out a low whistle as her co-worker, friend and roommate's boyfriend, Alex Whitman, pulled through the elaborately scrolled, enormous iron gate entrance. As they followed the winding driveway through shaded woodlands, Liz cast a sidelong glance at her co-worker. "Are we going to a residence or to a park?"

Alex chuckled lightly. "Residence. But we have to pass through the 'Deep Dark Forest' first to prove our worthiness to step inside the untouchable 'Golden Palace'."

Liz laughed at Alex's strange and sometimes twisted sense of humor. "This job's that big, huh?"

"Oh, yeah. The biggest. This could actually either make or break old Hewitt. You should have heard the lecture I got from him before we left. I felt like I was a kid again and my mother was reminding me not to put my elbows on the table during dinner, you know. He read me a list of do's and don'ts as if we were off to meet royalty or something."

"I was actually surprised when he didn't suggest we address them as Lord and Lady of the manor or Your Highnesses. Oh, but it was great the way he finished…" Alex adopted a elderly male accent, scrunched up his face and proceeded with an impression of their boss, Lloyd Hewitt, owner of Hewitt Photos. "…for heaven's sake, Whit…" Alex paused a moment and pointedly turned to Liz, dropping his fake accent. "Notice our boss' proper use of my favorite nickname…"

Liz rolled her eyes and let out a loud sigh. "How many times do Isabel and I have to tell you, Alex? When you can prove to us that you *have* wits, then we'll call you Whit." She batted her long dark eyelashes at him and flashed him a smile before reminding him of his previous subject. "And Hewitt was saying…"

"Oh. Right." Alex grinned back at her then easily slipped back into his imitation of Hewitt. "For heaven's sake, Whit, don't point the camera at any portraits. They’re liable to think you have an x-ray lens that pinpoint their wall safes. Oh and when you eat, don’t use the silverware. With the way you’re dressed, you’ll be the first suspect if any of their silver ends up missing.”

Liz burst into laughter at Alex's impression, which was terrifyingly true to form, then suddenly grew contemplative as a mischievous light entered her eyes. "Do you really think they’d be so traditional as to have wall safes? I didn’t think anyone ever did that any more."

"Have them?" Alex responded jokingly. "Honey, they invented the concept. In fact, tradition is probably their middle name. I'm not kidding. Two crack, street-wise punks like us…I bet we’ll be able to walk in and immediately tell that Aunt Gertrude’s bearded portrait is only a cover-up for the family jewels…"

”You’re too much, Alex.” Liz shook her head with a grin as she looked out the window once more. The landscaping was beautiful…what little landscaping could be done with woods. There was an almost frozen stream that ran through the property and Liz couldn't help but smile at the arched stone bridge they had to drive to cross it. "So, what's the deal with this job?"

Alex let out a little sigh. "Wedding. Actually, these are the pre-wedding shots. The actual wedding isn't for four months."

"Why are we taking photos so far in advance?"

"The fiancee', Tess Harding, is a high society chick that wants to make sure the photos get to the right magazines so the world knows she's been the one to conquer the great Maxwell Evans."

"The great who?" Liz turned from the window in all innocence to face Alex.

Alex's head snapped to the side and his eyes widened in surprise as his mouth opened slightly. "You're kidding right? You mean to tell me you don't know who Max is?"

Liz shrugged and shook her head. "Max? Uh…nope. Sorry, can't say that I do." In answer to Alex's silent stare of disbelief Liz defended herself jokingly. "What? You forget I'm from a little place called Roswell. I never even heard of the 'Big Apple' until I took that wrong exit on my way to Jersey last year and got so lost I decided to stay…"

Alex began chuckling to himself. "Well, I never thought I'd see the day…" He turned to Liz abruptly and made a sudden request. "Do something for me. When you meet him, make sure he knows you've never heard of him before."

"Why?"

"Because he's a man used to throwing his name around to get what he wants. It'd be interesting to see what he does when he tosses his name and no one catches it."

Liz shook her head with a laugh. "You're sick."

"No, I just like watching the rich and famous squirm a little as they're stood up to and brought down to earth once in a while by the likes of us."

"The likes of us." Liz repeated with a raise of her slender eyebrow.

"Yeah, you know. The 'regular, working class' people. The kind they'd never waste their time talking to."

"Do you have any idea how prejudiced you sound right now?" Liz crossed her arms in front of her and took a stance of offence. She loved working with Alex if for no other reason than to get him up on one of his soapboxes. From the look on his face, he was taking a step up on that box right now.

Alex shrugged. "Yeah, well, with my brother being a lawyer for all the bigwigs, I've dealt with their kind before. I know what they're like. In fact, I did a shoot for the bride once. Believe me, she is the mascot for the elite. Perfect, preened, sophisticated, saying all the right things at all the right moments, cool as a cucumber, never gets her hands dirty…and oh, so very high above every one else."

"She wouldn’t stoop to pick up the Sunday paper if it was lying on the porch. She's the kind that's in danger of drowning when she goes out in the rain because her nose is perpetually turned up. If things aren't going her way, she just runs to daddy and he throws money at all of her problems. I guarantee you the only catastrophe she's ever had to endure was at the senior prom when her nail polish and lipstick didn't match. She's an untouchable goddess.”

Alex paused a moment from his non-stop ramble as a thought seemed to hit him. “Guess that's why she and Max make such a perfect pair. I guarantee you within 5 seconds of meeting you she'll forget your name because it's not about you, you know. It's all about her..."

Liz stiffled the urge to burst into laughter by asking about the groom. "And this…Max…what's he like?"

"Just as bad." Alex said instinctively then paused to think a moment. "No, wait. I think he's worse. See, he used to be one of us. He started at the bottom of his father's company and worked his way up. Now, that he's at the top, he's turned into one of them."

"Greedy. Proud. Aloof. Thinks he deserves to have the world handed to him. You know, there used to be a time he'd grant interviews. Now nothing. I'm even surprised he's allowing this little layout. He's the proverbial Prince Charming when it suits his purposes and a cutthroat pirate when it doesn't. On the outside…smooth, handsome, charming. But from what I hear, on the inside there's a beast to equal his god-like looks whenever a camera is present."

"Something must have happened then." Liz voiced thoughtfully as she gazed out the window contemplating Alex's words. "I mean, if he's changed so dramatically, then there must have been something that prompted the change, don't you think?"

"Yeah…he succumbed to the Dark Side." Alex quipped as he came out of a curve that suddenly pulled the van from shadows into the brightness of the morning sun. Alex let out a whistle and Liz gasped at the sight before them.

"God, Alex, look at this place. It's…it's…"

"I think 'palatial estate' is the word you're looking for. Or maybe the model mansion for 'Lives of the Rich and Famous with Robin Leech'." Alex supplied another fake vocal impression as he slowly drove forward his eyes trained on the immense edifice before them. He'd never seen anything like it.

The smooth gray stonework gave the mansion a medieval feel adding to the sheer size of it giving it the earned title of 'fortress'. There were at least four levels signified by the countless number of windows and the stone staircase leading to the arches at the front entrance was very reminiscent of the stairs where Cinderella must have lost her slipper. In short, it looked like a fairy tale castle…and it was breathtaking.

Liz shook her head as she changed her position so as to get a better view. "Actually, I was looking for French Renaissance with Gothic undertones and a bit of turn of the century thrown in. Did you notice the steep pitch of the roof and it's elaborate detailing? Definitely French Renaissance. Yet the archways on the…."

"Blah, blah, blah." Alex interrupted teasingly as he brought the van to a stop in front of the wide stair entry into the grand estate. Alex turned the ignition off and faced Liz with a confused grin. "You know I still don't understand what you're doing snapping photos when your real love is architecture."

Liz shrugged as she tore her eyes away from the manor before them and began to gather up the bags at her feet. "You know how they say 'Love will keep us alive?'"

"Yeah."

A wry grin spread over her face as she reached for her faded denim baseball cap and plopped it on her head backwards. "Well, they lied. Architecture may be my greatest love, but it doesn't put food on the table. The only thing that does that is hard work with a little bit of talent thrown in. "

"A little bit?" Alex responded as he turned and began gathering his orders and equipment. "You've got a heck of a lot more than just a little. You're one of the best I've seen. Hewitt should be more appreciative of you."

"Hewitt should be more appreciative of all of us." Liz replied back before tilting her head toward the 'castle' they were about to enter. "Well, guess it's time to go and make the boss proud and while we're at it why don't we case the joint and see which family portraits hide all of the wall safes, huh?"

"Yeah…" Alex confirmed with a chuckle before tossing one last jab in. "Just don't forget to curtsey when Queen Tess enters the room…"

tbc...
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~ chapter 3 ~

"Don’t forget your 9:45 call to Mr. Gates. Then at 10:00 you have the meeting with the..." She cleared her throat and practically whispered her finishing word. "...photographers." Emma Stanley, Maxwell Evans' assistant, stood before him with her schedule book in hand and braced herself for the inevitable eruption.

She wasn't disappointed. Max's head snapped up as his usually calm eyes suddenly began to blaze with anger. "The photographers? What the hell are you talking about?"

As if on cue, Diane Evans entered Max's study and nodded to Emma with a knowing smile before turning to Max. Diane began addressing the problem as if she'd been in the room the whole time. "Now, Max, you know this is to be expected. You're getting married, dear. That means pictures, and pictures mean photographers."

Max's gaze flicked to Emma who was trying to back out of the room as slowly and inconspicuously as possible. "Just where do you think you're going?"

"Um...I...um...well, I have..." Emma stammered her explanation unsuccessfully.

Max dismissed her with a wave of his hand and a disgusted look on his face. "Just go, Emma. And don't let anyone in here. Got it? No reporters. No photographers. No one. I'll deal with them when I'm good and ready…which may be never!" His final words were hurled at the newly closed door.

Once Emma hurried out of the room and closed the door behind her Diane turned back to Max with a disapproving look as she put her hands on her hips. "Maxwell Evans what has gotten into you? This means a lot to Tess…"

"What? Telling the world what color of garter she's going to wear at the wedding is actually important to her? If that's the case, why don't we just let them take pictures of her trousseau and announce I wear boxers instead of briefs before they get a chance to ask. That ought to keep the fashion world's knickers in a knot for months. Better yet, we could just invite them along on the honeymoon…"

"Max…"

"What?" Max got up from his chair and came around to the front of his desk to pace. One hand found its way into his pocket the other flailed through the air in frustration. "That's what this is all about, isn't it? Exposing every last private detail imaginable to the world. Answering questions that no one has a right to ask let alone know. Smiling for cameras that don't smile back when the final copy comes out. If that's the case…if this is what I have to be exposed to…then maybe I should just rethink this whole marriage thing."

Max let out a sigh and plopped down in a nearby chair. "I'm sorry, Mom. This is supposed to be a wedding not a media event. I just…I hate having our privacy invaded like this."

"By 'ours' you mean…"

"Alright, fine." Max amended hotly with a wave of his hand. "I hate having my privacy invaded like this. Why can't Tess understand that and cease and desist with all of this publicity drivel?"

Diane smiled lovingly at her son as she came around to the front of the desk and leaned against it. "Because she's excited, darling. And I don't blame her. She's about to marry the man of her dreams." Diane's smile deepened as she reached over and pushed back a stray hair that had fallen on Max's forehead allowing her hand to run the length of his face to tilt his chin upward. "Who am I kidding? She's about to marry the man of every woman's dreams. She just wants the world to celebrate with her. Is that really so wrong of her?"

Max looked away without answering. He had no idea what was wrong with him lately. The closer time got to this wedding of his, the more Max wanted to resist it, the more irritated he became at the smallest things and the more anxious he was to just get it over with. Maybe because the sooner it was done, the sooner his chance of backing out would be over.

Why should he want to back out anyway? Max chided himself silently. Tess was a beautiful, well-bred, sophisticated woman. She'd make the perfect wife for Maxwell Evans, the corporate big-wig. Maybe that was the problem. Maxwell Evans, the corporate big-wig was not all that Max was. What about the other side of him? The private Max. Was she the perfect wife for him? Maybe he was just doubting because he felt a bit forced into all of this in the first place. It had been Tess' proposal that had been accepted, not his. Accepted at Michael's prompting at that…and both families' overwhelming approval. Still, even now, he just wasn't sure…

As if reading his mind, Diane spoke up. "Son? Are you having second thoughts about this?"

Max looked back up at Diane with a guilty look. "Would you hate me if I said yes?"

"Of course not, Max." Diane assured him as she pulled up a chair and sat so they were eye level. "Every person on their way to the altar has moments of doubt if they're taking it seriously. It's the nature of the beast. Marriage is a lifelong commitment. The biggest step you'll ever take in your journey on this road called life. Your spouse can either make you or break you. Choosing the right partner is the most important decision you'll ever make."

"So, it's natural to wonder if there might not be someone still out there that you haven't met yet…someone you might feel more for." Diane Evans eyed her son for a moment. "That is the problem, isn't it? Not whether you're ready to take the step, but if the person you're taking it with is really the person you want for the rest of your life?"

Max swallowed hard as his gaze dropped to concentrate on the patterns in the rug under his desk. "How can I be sure I want her for the rest of my life when I wasn't even sure I wanted her for a date less than 4 months ago?" Max questioned quietly then shook his head in frustration. "I don't know mom, everything just seems to be moving so…fast. I mean, how can I be sure we really even know each other?"

"Not know each other? Max, you've known Tess practically since childhood. If you think that's moving fast, I'll just have to chalk you up as hopeless." Diane started to chuckle as she leaned over and patted Max's hand. "Oh, son. You're such a wonderful man. It's time you found someone to share yourself with."

"Is Tess the woman you would have chosen for me, mom?" Max asked suddenly.

Diane tilted her head to the side and pursed her lips as she tried to come up with an answer to Max's simple question. "If you're asking if Tess is the kind of woman I always pictured you with, then honestly, I'd have to say no. I always thought you'd pick someone with more spunk…more fire. Tess is a bit…"

"Cold." Max finished for her with a sigh.

"Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of cultured and practiced. She's not very...spontaneous, I guess you could say." Diane stated more tactfully.

Max looked away sheepishly. "I'm sorry for what I said, but I can't help it…that's how I feel sometimes when I'm with her, you know. Cold and lonely. Like she really doesn't understand me. Or finish my sentences like Gramps and Grams did. Or you and dad. Hell, even like Michael and Maria do."

Max let out a loud sigh and forced a bright look on his face trying to improve the outlook of his heart. "At least she's loyal…and predictable. The two things I absolutely won't do without again…" Max continued after a moment's pause to blink away the pain that shot through his eyes. "And she certainly isn't marrying me for my money."

"That's true." Diane smiled thinking of the billions that Tess would inherit if her father decided to keel over today. Not to mention the millions she owned on her own now. No, money was definitely not the driving force behind Tess' desire to marry Max. "She may have a different way of showing it than you or I may like, but she does love you. She's stood with you through a lot." Diane continued to encourage his optimism, understanding his need to lay all of his pros and cons out on the table. "She's been a good friend. And friendship is the basis for all good marriages…"

"But she doesn't make my heart…" Max started then stopped.

"What?" Diane asked quietly.

Max shook his head as his darkening eyes clouded in confusion. "I don't know, mom." He chuckled wryly at his own inability to explain himself. "How can I expect Tess to live up to something I can't even describe? That I don't even understand?"

Diane patted Max's hand once more with a sympathetic smile. "Max, your father and I have always been able to trust your judgement because you've always been such a level-headed young man. Maybe it's time to stop thinking and just listen to your heart. It'll lead you where you need to go. Whether down the aisle or as far away from this place as possible…I just want you to be happy…for you. No one else but you."

She stood up, leaning over to squeeze him lightly and plant a motherly kiss on his cheek. "Until then, come down stairs and try your best to smile for the cameras, ok?"

Max nodded silently as he squeezed her hand then released it as she walked away from him. Diane turned once more to look back at Max before closing the door. What she saw nearly broke her heart.

Max's hands were steepled in front of him providing a rest for his faintly dimpled chin and his amber eyes misted before closing in weariness from his inner struggle. Instead of a man head over heels in love and anxious to begin sharing his life with another, the picture Diane saw was a scared little boy being led by the hand to the doctor's office. A boy unsure that the procedure he was about to undergo would heal the hidden wounds of his heart. A boy lost, lonely and confused with no one to show him where his heart truly belonged… Click.

tbc…
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~ chapter 4 ~

"Come in, come in. Welcome to our home." An elderly lady with her graying dark hair cut into a wavy bob ushered Liz and Alex from the front door through a gilded entranceway down a long hall. Liz couldn't help but think she looked exactly like a picture straight from the Roaring Twenties.

She was dressed in the old style of the twenties with a flowing sheer skirt that flared at the bottom edged with elegant lace and a square cut neckline. Long strings of pearls complimented her ensemble and clinked against each other as she swept them all into a large, elaborately decorated room.

Liz's eyes swept the room they had entered in delight as Alex stood and gazed around him uncomfortably shifting his camera bag from one shoulder to the other. Seeing the shine in Liz's eyes the woman patted her arm. Her dark brown eyes danced as her lilting Australian accent filled the room. "Lovely, isn't it? For some reason, I'm filled with happiness when I'm here in this room."

"I can see why." Liz agreed instantly with a beautiful smile as she glanced around once more. "It's so bright and warm…"

The woman's ebony eyes widened in surprise and delight. "Why, yes it is. In fact, I call this the 'Happy Room' because it is so bright and sunny….and happy."

Liz's smile widened before disappearing in a cloud of confusion and surprise when the old woman reached up at spontaneously took Liz's face in her worn thin hands. Looking intently into Liz's face she stated rather sweetly. "Such a pretty thing, you are. Such life and dreams in your eyes. And the wisdom to make them come true. Oh, that he could find that…please help him find it. He needs you. Maybe then there wouldn't be so much loneliness…"

As if suddenly breaking herself from her own spell, the woman released Liz and turned to Alex with a smile. "I hope you enjoy your stay here. Father throws the loveliest parties. I'll just go see that your carriage is properly stowed."

With that enigmatic promise the woman moved out of the room humming a tune to herself, bobbing her head from side to side and leaving a stunned Liz behind. Liz stared after the woman as the strangest feeling came over her. Her words had unexpectedly touched Liz somehow. Without understanding her, she did understand. When the woman held her, it felt as if somehow Liz were looking into her own future through the eyes of the woman's past.

Alex came to stand next to Liz as he started to chuckle. "What was that?"

Liz shook her head slowly. "I don't know, but…do you believe in Fate?" Liz asked suddenly as she turned an inquiring gaze on Alex.

"Uh…no." Alex put his hands on his hips. "I refuse to believe that anyone, including Fate, could be so cruel as to allow someone like that…" Alex indicated the old lady by inclining his head toward the door. "… to live in a place like…" he swept his arms in a wide circle dramatically. "…this while I'm stuck in a one room apartment with 2 roommates. Uh-huh. No. Not buying it…"

Liz shook her head and punched him playfully on the arm. "You're amazing, you know it?" She quipped sarcastically.

"Yeah, but not…as amazing as this place!" Alex exclaimed as his eyes began to shine with appreciation.

"I know! Can you believe how awesome this is?" Liz exclaimed as she slowly turned around and gazed in awe at the décor surrounding them. The walls were bright white and soft yellow tempered with light blue accents. The white ceiling and wall moldings were elaborately carved and Liz couldn't resist running her hand along the side to feel the designs beneath her fingers. She felt as if she'd stepped into a world of beauty that she'd only seen in books before. She instantly felt she could lose herself with all she could learn about architecture here…

"Uh….Liz…I don’t know if I'd be doing that…" Alex began.

"No, you shouldn't be." A cold stern voice called out behind them. Liz spun around to see a middle-aged woman standing before them. Her hair was pulled back from her face so tightly that her face bore a perpetually pained expression.

Taking a step forward Liz attempted a smile. "I'm sorry. I just…it's so beautiful here…"

Folding her long slender fingers in front of her, the woman cut Liz's explanation short to introduce herself. "Sheridan Harding. Wedding coordinator…" Her eyebrow raised with a air of pride. "…and the bride's aunt. You must be…" She consulted her notes then turned back to them. "…Ms. Parker and Mr. Whitman, correct?"

"Actually, I just go by Whit and this here is Liz." Alex corrected the staunch person standing before them.

"Right. It's nice to meet you." She glanced around the room and pointed to the front where the large stone fireplace stood as the focal point of the room. "You can set up your equipment over there, but before you do there are a few rules to observe. There will be no unauthorized pictures taken of the grounds, house or the family. We will break for an hour at 12:00 precisely since Ms. Harding has a luncheon planned for her attendants. At that time you may advance to the kitchen where you will be served lunch. Finally, the standard rule--if you break it, you've bought it, so to speak. So, don't touch anything." She added pointedly looking at Liz. "Ms. Harding and the rest of the party will be along shortly."

As if hearing her name announced the doors at the far end of the room opened with a flourish and five debutantes entered the room with an air of assumed royalty that couldn't be denied. Alex echoed Liz's sentiments as he leaned forward and whispered in her ear. "Well, lookie here. The Queen and her Ladies in Waiting…"

Liz bit her bottom lip to keep from laughing at Alex's appropriately phrased comment just as the female half of the wedding party reached them. Not bad. Liz thought to herself. Polished. Confident. Every hair in place and her make-up blended so perfectly across her fair skin it was as if she weren't wearing any. Beautiful enough to easily pass as a model. Yeah, the camera will love her…

Tess Harding held out her delicate but cold hand to Liz and flashed a practiced smile. She spoke as if reciting the opening lines of a play in which she'd been cast as the gracious hostess, Lady of the Manor, mistress of the home. "Good morning. I'm Tess Harding. You must be the photographers. Ms. Parker and…" She turned to shake hands with Alex. "Mr. Whitman, if I'm not mistaken."

Liz turned to Alex with a look that said 'you-were-certainly-wrong-she-did-remember-our-names'. Alex caught the look and returned one of his own that said 'oh-yeah-watch-this'. Smiling at Tess, Alex corrected her. "Actually, I just go by Whit and this here is Liz."

Tess's face dropped for a split second then she regained her composure. "Right. Whit and…Liz. So, why don't we get started on the photos? Or do we have to wait for Max? He should be making an appearance soon, but I'd really hate to wait for him. We might lose some good light and I do look best in morning light. Sometimes he can take a while when he's gotten caught on the phone with business..." She smiled after a flicker of disgust flashed in her eyes. "That's why I've taken to reading 'People'. It's so much more interesting than those boring stock quotes he's always ranting about."

Moving gracefully past Liz and Alex, Tess swished her dress appropriately and turned to face them with a sigh. "You do know these photos will be sent to 'People' as well as every popular magazine in the country. So, I want to make sure that they're done properly, Liv."

"Liz." Liz corrected her as a slight smile tugged at the corner of her mouth when she felt Alex's nudge.

"Oh, right. Lib."

"No, Liz."

"Yes, yes, I know." A pause then a turn. "Now Lynn…" The Queen stated with a sigh.

Liz let out a sigh and shrugged her shoulders in an attitude of defeat when she heard Alex chuckle softly next to her. "Yeah. Whatever…"

Tess continued as if not having heard. "As I was saying, these photos will be in all the high fashion magazines and they need to be just…perfect. You know, we simply can't have the world thinking Max is marrying beneath him." She turned with an affected laugh toward her attendants. "Imagine that…Max being the one they'd think that of when the reality is things are just the opposite."

Seeing the surprised raise of Liz's eyebrow Tess hastened to explain. "Oh, not that he is beneath me. I didn't mean that at all. In fact, it has nothing to do with Max personally. It's his family…actually one member of the family. There are some in my circle who think I'm crazy for tempting Fate with my union with Max." Another affected laugh and Liz's dislike for this...person...rose dramatically. "Crazy. Hummm. What an odd choice of words for me to use. Especially when you consider…" Tess lowered her voice and leaned forward slightly. "…his grandmother. She's a little touched."

Instantly realizing the identity of the woman who had invited them into her home, Liz's defenses rose. She painted on a smile and hoped her words wouldn't cost them their jobs. "Oh, you mean that sweet little lady that showed us in? I thought she was so delightful. And I think what she said about you and Max made perfect sense." Liz glanced at Alex with a 'play-along-with-me' look and smiled. "Don't you think, Alex?"

Alex gave Liz a 'what-do-you-think-you're-doing' look and nodded with a quiet "Uh-huh. Perfect sense."

Tess's face clouded in confusion then spread into a smile suddenly with the sound of a door opening and closing somewhere behind Liz. Liz guessed the identity of the newest addition by the look of love, albeit restrained, on the bride's face before she heard the bride call out his name. "Max, darling. So glad you could make it to our little party. We were just getting started."

She brushed past Liz and held her arms out to the advancing figure as Liz turned and got her first glimpse of Maxwell Evans. Her open curiosity soon turned to stunned admiration. The man before her was the most perfectly sculptured person she'd ever laid eyes on. The strength of his jawline. The perfectly placed ever-so-lightly-dusted hint of a cleft in the middle of his chin. The cheeks that had the potential to give him a perpetually adorable, boyish look. The way his raven hair fell lightly over his forehead drawing ones' eyes to his deep, chestnut eyes. Even from her distance, Liz could make out tiny flecks of gold that lightened his ebony eyes to the color of chocolate.

There, Liz's fascination grew. Eyes that were meant to glow with warmth seemed dull and void of emotion. There was a coolness in the nut brown depths that made Liz wonder what it would take to make them burn with fire. And the disinterested way he kissed his bride-to-be on the offered cheek spoke volumes to Liz. Volumes she hadn't expected to read…volumes she hadn't expected to suddenly understand as tears stung the back of her eyes. Click.

As Max's aloof gaze swept over the waiting crowd, the spell of his movie star good looks was broken. He nodded curtly to Tess's attendants with a brief smile for each and glanced once in disdain toward Liz and Alex before turning back to Tess. "Well, what are we waiting for? Let's get this three-ringed circus started. I don't have all day to sit and say 'cheese' for the greedy public and I'd like these people out of my home as soon as possible." Max practically growl to his waiting audience.

Liz and Alex exchanged glances before snapping to attention and quickly moving to set up their equipment. "What did I tell you?" Alex whispered as he began unfolding his tripod. "The god turns into the beast…"

Liz glanced once more at the impressive figure being pampered and petted by his intended. "Yeah. Is it just me or did things suddenly get downright chilly in here?"

"Frigid." Alex replied flippantly.

"I'm just glad his grandmother isn't around. She certainly wouldn't consider this a 'Happy Room' now, poor thing..."
~~~~~~~~~
For lunch, Liz opted to feast her senses on the architectural masterpiece in front of her instead of the ham sandwiches in the kitchen. She wandered outside and so engrossed herself in the multi-period designs of the mansion that before she knew it she was literally lost. She rounded the corner of what she could only imagine was one of the many gardens and stopped short when she saw a lady with slightly grayed-blonde hair sitting on a stone bench gazing intently ahead of her.

Guessing this was a member of the family by her dress and easy manner and not wanting to intrude, Liz started to turn and go when the woman looked in her direction suddenly. She smiled widely and motioned Liz to come join her. Liz smiled back warmly and headed toward the bench as the woman put her finger up to her lips to caution Liz to silence before pointing to an opening in the bushes in front of them.

Liz bent down to see a handsome young boy of about six sitting in the middle of a round alcove surrounded by shrubbery busily playing diligently with a pile of blocks. His dark unruly hair fell over his brown eyes while his lips moved in almost silent conversation.

"My grandson, Phillip Michael." The woman whispered to Liz as her eyes began to shine with love and pride. "I love watching him when he doesn't think anyone's around. He has the most wonderful conversations with himself. It reminds me so much of watching Max as a boy." She let out a sad sigh in remembrance of days gone by. "He was such a joy back then…"

Turning to Liz suddenly she stuck out her hand and introduced herself still maintaining her whisper. "Diane Evans. But you can just call me Diane, mother of the groom."

"Liz Parker. Photographer for the wedding." Liz held up her camera for Diane to see.

"Ah, yes. The photographers. Tess did remind us you were coming today much to Max's displeasure. I hope he wasn't rude earlier..."

"No, not at all." Liz lied as she glanced back at the little boy unaware of the way Diane's eyes flickered with disappointment. The boy's head was now bent in concentration as if he were piecing the blocks together in his mind first before placing them in front of him. He was so much the miniature of the man Liz had met earlier that she had to ask. "So, is Phillip Max's…"

"Oh, heavens no. He belongs to my other son, Michael and his wife, Maria." Diane corrected Liz's misconception that Phillip was Max's son. "He does look very much like Max though, doesn't he? Such a beautiful boy..." A motherly smile touched Diane's lips as well as her eyes even though her voice hardened slightly to become more businesslike. "Tell me. What did you think of my son, Max?"

Turning her blue eyes on Liz she placed a hand on Liz's arm. "And please tell the truth, unlike you did a few moments ago. I won't be offended no matter how disappointed I may be in my son's behavior."

Liz blinked back her shock at Diane's insightful and forthright manner. Suddenly, Liz realized how much she liked Diane Evans without even knowing her. This was the kind of woman a girl could cherish as a mother-in-law. Straightforward. Honest. Yet she couldn't picture Tess and Diane having a close relationship. Well, that was certainly Tess' loss.

Liz took a deep breath trying her best to put her first impressions she'd gathered while watching Max take pictures into words that wouldn't overstep her bounds. "Well, he's certainly very handsome. I think the camera would love him...if he could find a genuine smile to give to it. But his eyes..."

"Yes?" Diane asked as she tilted her head to scrutinize the beautiful young woman sitting next to her.

"They're so distant...and cold. As if nothing really touches him. Like he won't really allow anything to. It's almost…as if he feels trapped somehow and he's searching for a way to escape. Who knows? Maybe he's trying to escape all of this…" Liz suddenly brought to her eyes to meet Diane's. "Oh, wow. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said..."

Diane gave Liz a reassuring smile as she shook her head slightly. "Don't apologize for speaking your mind, dear." Looking back at her grandson still playing peacefully in the alcove Diane nodded toward him. "Sometimes I think Max longs to be like Phillip is now. Lost in his own world of dreams. Protected from anything and anyone that will harm him. I don't know if I really know how to reach him anymore…"

Diane's face brightened with a smile. "Would you do me a favor?"

"Sure. What?"

"Take pictures of Phillip, through the bushes here without him knowing. People change so much when they know a camera is pointed in their direction. I just want to preserve these moments of his for as long as I can. Will you do that for me?"

Liz nodded as her eyes began to sparkle. "I'd love to. In fact, taking candid shots are my absolute favorite. They're certainly a lot better than the stuffy pasted on smiles I see every day in the studio." She glanced back toward Phillip with a smile. "Why don't you join him? Let me take a few of him alone then I'll get some of the two of you together."

"But, won't that ruin the 'candid' shots if I know?"

"You won't know when I'm taking the pictures." Liz nudged Diane and nodded toward the alcove with a warm smile. "Go. Play with your grandson. Enjoy him while you have the chance."

Diane patted Liz's hand as she began to rise. "You're such a dear. Thank you…"

As Diane turned and disappeared behind the bushes Liz held her camera up to her eye turning her focus knob to get the right distance and lighting for her next 'photo shoot'. Liz smiled to herself. Candid shots. They were what photography was all about. They were the best…

Everything was focused. Lighting was perfect. Little Phillip had a small smile of anticipation on his face just as he lifted a block to place it. Liz's finger began to press down…

Like an eclipse, Liz's picture was instantly blackened as a large object covered the lens. Liz pulled her eye away from the viewer just as her camera was forcefully yanked out of her hands. "Just what the hell do you think you're doing??" Maxwell Evans yelled as he glared down at her, camera in hand.

Liz found the answer to her earlier question as she gazed up at him in shock. What would it take to make his eyes burn? Rage. Pure and simple, unadulterated...rage... Click.

To be continued…









posted on 8-Dec-2002 7:26:37 PM by Ashton
~ chapter 5 ~

Max glared down at Liz as anger poured out of his furious eyes. Whether his knuckles were white from grasping the camera in his hand too tightly or his attempt to control his rage was something Liz didn't even think to ask. She was too busy trying to understand where this instant fire of his was coming from and how best to quench the flames before they cost her more than she could afford. Namely, her job.

"Well?? Answer me! What the hell do you think you're doing with this?" Max's interrogation began as he held her black camera up to her and shook it in her face.

"I…Mr. Evans. Please. I can explain. It isn't what you think…" Liz started as she quickly jumped to her feet causing Max to take a step back or risk being thrown off balance by the force of her sudden movement.

"Like I haven't heard that one before!!" Max's growl filled the open air around them. "Don't you people ever get tired of invading other people's privacy? Don't you even stop and think about whom you could be harming by your invasive lenses and…and ill-timed photos? No, of course you don't! All you care about is getting that picture, right? That picture that will end up in every gossip column and magazine in the country. The one that'll make your career…regardless of what pain it brings others!"

Max shook his head vehemently as his chest rose and fell rapidly, the pace of his breathing matching the rising level of his contempt. His eyes bore into hers, his subconscious vaguely aware of just how extraordinarily beautiful the woman before him was.

Later he would remember how unwavering her returning gaze had been and how incredibly luminous those dark eyes shining with life really were. He'd think of her nose sloping down adorably to point to her full red lips that were just begging to be kissed right along with that smooth, creamy neck that reminded him of creamed milk. And he'd remember most of all how she spoke to him somehow without making a sound.

But in that moment, Max saw none of these things. He only saw the profession she represented. The people he'd learned to loathe. Instead, he saw the enemy before him. An intruder that needed to be removed before the people and things he held dear could no longer be protected. "Well, I’m not going to let you do it! I'm just not! Not this time!"

Liz heard the words he said and realized just how much of his speech was being drawn from some past experience instead of the situation at hand. Obviously, it had been a painful one. Even so, that didn't prepare her for his next actions. Her eyes widened and her hands flew to her mouth as she let out an involuntary shriek when Max swiftly opened the door on her camera and yanked the film from its container. "No! What do you think you're doing? You…you can't…!"

Max pulled the film out into the sunlight and smiled with almost giddy delight. "I can…and I will!"

"Max!" Diane Evans rounded the corner of the shrubbery in time to see Liz's eyes flash with instant fury when Max dropped the film on the ground. "What are you doing? Stop this instant!"

Max didn't even hear her. His own malicious revenge was underway and nothing or no one could stop him now. Not even Liz's feeble attempts to grab her camera away from his vice-like grip. All of the repulsion and hatred for every photographer in the universe culminated in that one moment for Max as he took Liz's ancient camera and raised it in the air. Holding it aloft for an agonizing moment, Max spun around and hurled it against the stone wall that stood behind them.

"NO! Not Ethan's…" Liz's eyes misted with tears as she watched what was once one of her most treasured possession shatter into pieces on the ground.

As tears threatened to fall down her face, Max turned back to Liz with a venomous smile. "How does it feel? To watch something you love destroyed right before your eyes?" Not waiting for an answer Max grabbed Liz's arm and roughly pulled her forward heedless of Diane's voice calling after him to let Liz go.

He opened a wooden door imbedding in the stone wall and moved Liz through it before she
got a chance to say another word of protest. Even if she'd had the chance she wouldn't have had the words to say. They seemed to be all caught behind the lump that had lodged in her throat. "And if you even think about coming back, I'll have you arrested faster than you can focus for your next shot!" As the ivy-laden door slammed in her face the tears she'd fought to keep back finally found their release and tumbled unchallenged down her cheeks. Click.
~~~~~~~
A pair of dark eyes closed in pain as they observed the scene unfolding below. So much grief…so much suffering that hadn't yet been eased. It never would be as long as he was allowed to wallow in it unable to see what he was doing to himself and those around him.

Her eyes focused on the door that had been slammed so unceremoniously as a scheming smile sent a shiver of light through her eyes. It was high time he was shown the way out of his pain…and she knew just the person to show him…
~~~~~~~~~
Max turned with a satisfied air from the door to face a mother who's wrath he'd seen many times. Especially as a little boy when he and Michael would take turns seeing who could top each other in the torment department. Michael usually won since Max's heart was often too soft to carry through even his most cruelly laid plans.

Still, Max couldn't remember when he'd seen his mother's blue eyes darken so quickly and so deeply that they were almost black with rage. Her hands were on her hips and steam was literally pouring from her ears while her nostrils began to flare.

Her attempt to keep her voice calm failed miserably as Diane began speaking to her youngest son. "Maxwell Phillip Evans! Just what in Hades was that all about? How could you even think about treating anyone that way? I have never been more ashamed of you…" Diane dropped her hands and Max watched with upraised eyebrow as his mother's hands clenched and unclenched by her side.

Pointing a hand toward the house, Diane did something she hadn't done in years. She gave Max an unalterable command. "Go to your room right this instant!"

Max's mouth dropped open and his eyes widened in surprise. When he spoke his voice was full of wonder. "You're ordering me to my room? Mom, you can't do that…I'm 28 years old."

"Then you should start acting like it!" Diane shot back hotly. "Now, go! I have some things I need to say to you, but I'm afraid I can't do it right now without the risk of strangling you. Now, I'm going to try to talk to that poor girl out there and I don't want her to have to see the likes of you when I do it! So, go to your room!"

"Mom, this is ridiculous! You have no idea what she was doing…"

"Don't insult me, son. I know a lot more than you think. Now, I'm giving you to the count of five. One…two…"

Max felt as if he'd been transported back in time when he heard that ancient countdown given. Memories of nights spent reading Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice out loud as punishment flashed before his mind. Before Diane got the chance to say the word 'three', Max was halfway down the path heading toward the door that would lead him to his room.

Diane shook her head as she watched him scurry to escape her indignation before turning to the door and opening it. Hoping against hope to find Liz still somewhere in the vicinity of the house instead of halfway up the road toward the comparative sanity of the city, Diane opened the door to find the road before her empty.
~~~~~~~~
Slipping out of her room and down the steps, she shaded her eyes as she headed into the afternoon light. Moving daintily along the stone wall toward the path that lead to the road she stopped suddenly when she heard the sound of soft sobs coming from the other side of the wall.
Heading around a nearby corner, she poked her head around to see a woman sitting along the wall, her long dark hair falling around her face as her head was bent in anguish over a treasure that could never be replaced.

Liz's head snapped up when she heard the withering grass crunch under the sound of a soft footstep. "It's…it's…ruined." Liz stammered quietly to her visitor before wiping her tears away quickly. Blinking back more tears she tenderly looked down at the remains of the camera she'd slipped back inside the gate to rescue after Max had smashed it in his fit of anger. Click.

The older woman stooped down next to Liz and reached out to touch the precious item and wrapped her arm around Liz's shoulder. Smiling understandingly the older lady, now verified to Liz that she was Max's grandmother 'who was a little touched', asked a perceptive question a woman of her 'mental stability' shouldn't be able to make. "You loved it, didn't you? The photo-maker. Because of who gave it to you."

Liz nodded silently as her gaze faltered to the ground.

"And I love the one who took it from you." She reached out and patted Liz's arm gently.
"Even so, he was wrong, dear. He was so very wrong. And now you hate him..."

Liz's face flushed with anger and her eyes took on a hardness that shocked even the old woman who had seen much in her life. "I have never met anyone so...openly cruel..." Liz's voice was shaking with emotion she could no more control than she could the rising and setting of the sun.

"I know, luv." The family matriarch agreed as her eyes dulled with sadness. "He wasn't always like this... Only you can help him now." She let out a light sigh then straightened her shoulders reached out taking Liz's warm hands in her own as she lowered her voice to a childish whisper. "Come with me. I know I secret passage."

Liz's bewildered look was lost on the woman as she guided Liz through an opening in the shrubbery and onward to the house.
~~~~~~~~~
Diane slammed the door behind her causing Max to jump at the sound before turning to face his mother. "Well, I hope you're happy now! I can't seem to find her anywhere!"

"I honestly don't see why it would matter..." Max began as he lazily picked up a file from his desk before leaning against his desk and attempting to act unaffected by his mother's mood.

Diane stomped over to Max and ripped the file from his hand, tossed it on the desk and gave him a once over with her eyes. Max nearly withered from the heat of her gaze. "Since the moment you were born and I held you in my arms, you've been a joy to me, Max. My perfect, sensible, responsible son. Although there have been times in your life you have pulled some doosies, I have never ever seen you be more foolish or...downright ugly as what I just witnessed. The way you treated that lovely girl was abominable..."

"She was taking pictures..." Max began his defense hotly.

"I am well aware of that, Max!" Diane's exclamation was accompanied with a wave of her hands that ended with her forefinger pointing to herself. "I'm the one who asked her to! And if you'd just taken a few moments to listen to her instead of jumping to conclusions and acting like a beast you would have known that."

"Oh..." Max's gaze dropped to the floor in shame as the guilt and realization of what he'd done washed over him.

"Yeah. Oh." Diane repeated with a shake of her graying blonde head before pointing her finger into Max's chest for emphasis. "You messed up, son. Big time. Now it's up to you to fix it…big time."

An older lady leaned her graying dark head against the door and listened to the conversation inside while Liz watched in amused silence. "What are you doing?" Liz whispered as Grams' eyes began to dance.

'Grams' was the one word answer whispered back to Liz when she requested the name of her guide as she was lead back into the house moments before. "I'm timing your entrance, luv." Grams whispered back in response to Liz's most recent question.

"My entrance?" Liz's eyes widened and her head began to shake when she realized what the sweet little lady was up to. She put her hands up in protest and began backing away from Grams. "Oh, no. Uh-huh. No. I don't ever want to see him again..."

Grams grabbed her hands and stopped Liz from retreating any further. "Now, Sarah dear, you need to do this. For once in your life you need to stand up to Daniel and tell him how you feel. Tell him exactly what you think about him. You'll never be able to hold your head high until you do..."

"What?" Liz's confusion increased dramatically. One minute Grams seemed to be completely in tune with the world around her...the next like she was living in a different time and place.

Before Liz knew it, Grams threw the door open and pushed Liz through it whispering to her as she passed. "Let him have it, dear. He needs to hear it..."

Max's head shot up and Diane spun around when they heard the door to Max's room open and slam behind Liz. She stood for a moment staring at Max uncomfortably, unsure of what to do next. Diane made the first move as she rushed to Liz's side taking her hands in hers and beaming with relief. "Oh my dear, I'm so glad to see you again. I tried to find you but you were gone. I was so worried..."

"I'm fine." Liz's voice had turned icy the moment she laid eyes on him. Something about the casual way he was leaning against his desk, the arrogant tilt of his head as his eyes swept over her figure and the smug way he crossed his arms in front of him brought back to Liz all of the ire she had felt over the last 15 minutes.

Before she knew it, Liz was doing exactly what Grams had suggested she do...letting him have it. "Actually, that's not necessarily the truth. I'm in one piece...which is more than I can say for my camera."

Diane moved to the side as Liz brushed past her stepping toward Max, her ebony eyes beginning to dance with fire while Diane looked on with increasing interest. Max raised himself to his full height as Liz came to stand in front of him, toe to toe, locking unfaltering, fearless eyes with his, which quite frankly was a new sensation for him. He was used to withering people with his gaze or vanquishing foes with a look. The woman who stood before him was not even phased. Click.

Perhaps it was her anger that fueled her boldness. Maybe the knowledge that right was on her side allowed her righteous indignation to spill forth. Whatever the reason, the words she hadn't been able to voice earlier made their way from her heart as she began to give Max a clearer view of himself the way she saw him. "Just who the hell do you think you are anyway, huh? Some high and mighty gizzillionaire that can push people around without a second thought? You know you may be rich enough to own every mansion in the world and it still wouldn't give you the right to be the arrogant a--hole you've been to me today!"

"Ms. Parker, please. Let me explain..." Max began as his eyebrow raised a warning flag.

"NO! You asked some questions downstairs and spewed a lot of pretty heavy accusations that had absolutely nothing to do with me then didn't even give me the chance to respond or defend myself. You've had your say, Mr. Evans." Liz spat out his name. "Now it's my turn."

Liz put her hands on her hips and Max was taken back by how her lovely eyes crackled with contempt and disdain when they focused on him. "I came here to do a job. To take photos of a wedding party. You know what? I was actually awed by this place."

Liz swept her arms wide to encompass the room. "One look at it and I lost my heart. Even more so when I met Grams and experienced the warmth of the 'Happy Room'. I thought how incredible it would be to live here...to experience this kind of beauty all the time."

Max exchanged a look with his mother at the mention of his grandmother's nickname. Only Michael and he ever called her Grams. Maria only acquired the privilege when she gave birth to Phillip. No one else was ever allowed the privilege…his future bride, Tess, would probably never be allowed to call her that.

Liz continued not having noticed the exchanged, her tone of voice bringing Max's full attention back to the conversation at hand. "But from the moment your snobby aunt-in-law-to-be ran down a list of rules to be observed, I no longer felt as if this were a home. It's more like a museum where dead things reside." Liz paused as her voice began to shake with emotion. "You appear to the be deadest one of all..."

Click. Max's eyes flickered as if he'd been struck in the heart. He looked away briefly before bringing his eyes back to Liz's and steeling himself for more of the same. By the look in her eyes, she certainly wasn't done with him and he just didn't have the strength to fight her. Besides, deep inside he knew he deserved every word even though that knowledge didn't lessen the sting.

"You asked me how it felt to have something I loved destroyed. Well, I'll tell you…it tore my heart out to not only see one of my most precious possessions crushed by your bitterness but you've also destroyed the dream of this place for me as well. I hope it was worth it for you…I hope it made you feel important or back in control of your life or whatever the hell your problem is because I'd hate to see all your efforts at being the biggest jack-a-- this world has ever seen go to waste!"

The door behind Diane opened and Tess swished into the room unannounced. "What's going on? Why all the slamming door and raised voices? You both know I have a party going on downstairs..."

Tess stopped short when she saw Max's eyes locked on the beautiful face of her photographer. He looked as if he'd just been cut open with a knife as his eyes darkened with pain. "Max? What is it?" Click.

Tess floated to his side and turned on Liz sure that she was the cause of Max's trouble. "Lynn...what have you done..."

"MY NAME IS NOT LYNN!" Liz yelled suddenly as her face turned red with anger.
"And it's not Liv or Lib or any other 'L' name you want to come up with! It's Liz. Liz Parker. L-I-Z! A name you would have known if you'd just listened to me the first 3 times I told you! But you know what? That would be too much for you, wouldn't it? Because that would actually require you to think about someone else for a change!"

Tess' mouth dropped open as she let out a little gasp in response to Liz's rudeness. "Well, I never... How incredibly rude you are…" She turned injured eyes on Max. That Max had not jumped to her defense not only irritated Tess but made her uneasy as well. Perhaps because of the way he was looking at this…Liz person…more than anything else. Click. It was as if she held him in a trance or something. "Well? Aren't you going to say anything to her?"

Max, never having taken his eyes off of Liz's face, swallowed the lump in his throat by clearing it. His voice was low and detached…flat…as if he were reciting a line of poetry he'd learned as a child but never internalized it's meaning. "Is that all?"

Liz shook her head as tears began to shimmer in her eyes. "It's just so sad. To have so much potential beauty in your eyes...and lose it all on bitterness and anger… They only leave a person feeling lost and cold..."

Seeing Max's gaze drop to the floor as if he were afraid she'd be able to read his soul if she looked into his eyes any longer, Liz's anger drained considerably. She tilted her head to the side and announced in a flippant tone of voice. "As for arresting me…go right ahead and call the police since I did come back. For proof that I was here, you'll find my fingerprints on a piece of molding in the 'Happy Room'. I broke the rule of not touching anything before I knew there was a rule."

"I mean, my God, who would have thought that you people are so accustomed to the incredible beauty that's surrounding you that you actually have the willpower to resist reaching out and touching it every once in a while to remind yourself that it's real. In fact, you might try it sometime. It might bring you down from that pedestal you've built for yourselves. It just might make you a little more human…"

Liz spun around and took Diane's hands in hers with a smile. "Diane. It really was a pleasure to meet you. I would have loved to have taken those pictures of Phillip for you. They would have been wonderful memories. I'm sorry things had to end this way, but I won't apologize for speaking my mind…"

"I wouldn't want you to, dear." Diane whispered as she leaned forward. "I don’t even know you and I already feel as if I'm going to miss you…"

Liz smiled as tears stung her eyes when she looked into Diane's wise eyes. Squeezing her hands once more she made a request. "Please say good-bye to Grams for me. For the record, she's more sane than any of you know…"

Liz tossed Tess a heated look at her last comment then left a stunned silence hanging in the room as the door slammed behind her. "Well?" Max turned to Diane with a mildly irritated and expectant look. "Now that I've been effectively chewed up and spit out, what was it you wanted to say?"

Diane shrugged as she nodded toward the door Liz had exited from. "I think she about covered it all. Don't worry...I'll let you know if I have any additions though." She paused to level him with a knowing look. "I think I'm going to give Mom Liz's message." With a nod, Diane exited the same way Liz had leaving Max alone.

Well, almost alone. "Max? What in the world was that all about?" Tess asked as she came to stand in front of him trying to gain his focus the way the dark haired beauty who'd just left had claimed it.

Max looked at the door as a sad smile tugged the corners of his mouth and his eyes filled with pain. "The truth, Tess...the awful truth through the eyes of Liz Parker…photographer extrodinaire." Click.

to be continued...
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 6~

Liz let out a heavy sigh and tossed her keys on the table as she leaned back against the door to her apartment. Closing her eyes she felt the weariness of her varied emotions descend upon her all at once resulting in the appearance of tears in her eyes.

What a day. Liz had been given the chance to relive some of her passion for architecture by walking the grounds of the magnificent Evans' estate. She'd fallen in love with Grams and Diane in the first 30 seconds of meeting them, watched a precious gift of hers destroyed beyond repair, told off a snooty socialite and stood up to a man 10,000 times her net worth.

A man with enough bitterness and cruelty hidden in the depths of his heart too completely mar the perfection and beauty of his physical appearance. A perfection Liz had never even dreamed possible in another human being. Even though anger had been her ruling emotion of the day, she couldn't help but feel a sense of sadness and loss every time she thought of the distant coldness in Max's amazing eyes.

Loss. Another emotion that was prevalent in her mind. That was to expected, after all. Especially after what happened when she got back to the studio following her confrontation with Max. All of this in the space of a morning. No wonder tears hung like dewdrops on the tip of her eyelashes. And apparently, at four in the afternoon, her day wasn't quite over. She turned to head toward her room when she heard a rustling sound coming from the direction of the apartment where the kitchen and Isabel's room lay. Glancing at her watch, Liz knew it was too early for her roommate, Isabel Guerin to be home. That could only mean one thing…a burglar. Liz quietly put her bags down and quickly scanned the room for a weapon of any kind that she could use.

Seeing a nearby umbrella she grabbed it along with the blanket from the back of the couch and slowly tiptoed toward the noise, which grew louder with each passing second. Poking her head into the kitchen quickly, her nose scrunched up in confusion when she saw the refrigerator door opened and heard the rustling noise coming from inside. What could a burglar want to steal from the refrigerator? Liz shrugged to herself. Maybe it was a hungry burglar...or a very large mouse.

Liz slipped into the kitchen inching her way towards the door. Once there she took a deep breath and tossed the blanket over the door to land on the unknown intruder causing him to jump up with a yell. By this time Liz had run around the door, jumped on the intruder's back and began pounding him with the umbrella.

"Take that!" Hit.

"Ow!"

"And that!" Hit.

"OW!"

"And this--and this--and that!" Hit. Hit. Hit.

"OW! OW! OW!"

The intruder spun around and tried to grab Liz's flailing arm, but unable to see through the blanket he only managed to grab her legs which were tightly wound around his waist and her left arm which was practically choking him.

"OW!!! HELP!!!" He began to yell while Liz continued to pummel him with blows from the umbrella. From behind Liz the sound of running feet and a gasp from a familiar voice echoed loudly throughout the kitchen. "Oh my God! Liz! What are you doing to Alex?"

Liz's head jerked up to look at Isabel's robe-clad body and her hand hung in mid-air while the rest of her body froze in action. Looking down at the blanket-covered head just below her chin, Liz slowly raised the blanket and leaned to the side. With a grin and a suddenly cooing voice Liz let the umbrella drop and patted Alex's head. "Hey there, Alex. Anything good to eat?"

Isabel burst into laughter at the sight before her while Liz released her grip on Alex's body and slid down to the floor with an embarrassed chuckle as she came to stand in front of him. "I thought you were a burglar." Her gaze swept over him and a mischievous smile curled her lips while her eyes began to shine. "But I can see now you'd have no where to hide anything…"

Alex quickly glanced down at his nearly naked body checking to make sure the blanket was indeed covering all the right places and quickly tucked in the corners to make sure it would *stay* covering the right places. Liz doubled-over in laughter at the look of fear then relief that passed over his face. "I'm glad you're having so much fun with this…" Alex began as he shook his finger at her. "You know, I should have known it was you."

Isabel stepped up next to Liz and crossed her arms in front of her. "Oh, really? And just who did you think it was?" Alex looked from Liz to Isabel not quite sure how to answer her question. He opened his mouth to say something then closed it knowing how it would sound.

At the sight of Alex's cheeks beginning to turn red, Liz nudged Isabel. "Yes, Alex. Do tell. Who did you think it would be jumping on your back like that?" Alex cleared his throat. "I…uh, well…I thought…"

"Yes???" Both women said at the same time.

Alex threw up his hands. "I thought it was Isabel, ok? I mean, she sends me to get food then the next thing I'm being jumped…"

"Oh, I see. And being hit over the head didn't clue you in…" Liz asked with a raised eyebrow.

"How was I supposed to know it wasn't some weird kind of Brooklyn foreplay she's picked up around town?"

Both Isabel and Liz looked at each other, shook their heads and burst into laughter. Alex shook his head himself and tried not to join their laughter but couldn't resist when Isabel sauntered over to him and wrapped her arms around his neck whispering something in his ear. Their chuckles quickly turned to kisses that blocked out the rest of the world and Liz sighed quietly to herself remembering how it had felt to be in love like that. Click.

Seeing her presence was no longer needed to keep the milk and eggs protected, Liz quietly slipped from the kitchen, once more flooded with a sense of loss. Just as she reached the doorway, Alex called out to her. "Hey, Liz! You never did tell us what you're doing home so early. What happened with Hewitt after I finished my shift?"

Liz turned and shrugged her shoulders trying not to allow the sudden tears in her eyes to make it to her voice. "It's no big deal. I just got fired today, that's all."
~~~~~~~~
Max sat at his desk pouring over piles of legal papers trying to determine the last time he'd seen a contract that brought him real satisfaction. He couldn't remember. He also couldn't remember the last time someone's words had affected him so much that not even work could drown out the voices in his heart telling him just how lost and lonely he really was. Or the last time someone's eyes looked right through his facade to see the real him inside.

A knock on the door temporarily put his thoughts to rest until he saw Tess' blonde head enter the room before the rest of her. "May I come in, darling? I'll only stay a moment."

Max waved her in without a word before returning his gaze to the pile of work on his desk. Tess' gracious float toward his desk was lost on Max as his eyes never once looked back up at her. He was once more back in a world of work that he desperately hoped would pull him through the next four, long months.

"Well, it's taken care of." Tess commented before slipping into the chair opposite Max's desk.

"What is?" Max asked absently as he reached over and pulled out some notes from his briefcase.

"That woman. *Liz Parker*." Tess emphasized Liz's name with a decided note of disdain. She leaned over and picked up a picture frame that Max had sitting on his desk. A frown tugged the corners of her mouth downward when she saw its contents. It was the same old picture of his loony grandmother and the grandfather with the tainted reputation instead of their engagement picture. A picture she'd given Max with the express intention of replacing this photo that he stubbornly held onto. "I had her fired."

"You did what?" Max's head shot up and his eyes blazed with unexpected fire.

"I called Lloyd Hewitt and had that wretched woman fired." Tess dismissed the thought with a wave of her well-manicured hand as flippantly as she had Liz dismissed from her job earlier that day.

"Why the hell did you do that?" Max put his pen down with a thud that caused Tess to get a queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. She had thought he'd be pleased, but with the way he was looking at her now she wasn't quite so sure.

"Well…I thought that's what you'd want…after what happened…" Her stammered explanation sounded rather lame even to her.

Max got out of his seat and came around the desk to pull the photo frame out of Tess' hands. Returning it with decided agitation back to it's place on his desk Max turned back to Tess, his voice rising a level in terseness. "After what happened? Weren't you listening to her at all? Tess, she wasn't out to hurt us. Mom is the one who asked her to take the photos of Phillip. Ms. Parker was just doing her job. Actually, she was doing more than her job…she was doing a favor. I'm the one who saw her with camera in hand and over-reacted to what I assumed she was doing. I'm the one who was wrong."

"Even if that is what happened…"

"It is." The finality in Max's voice gave Tess no more room for argument.

"Fine. That still doesn't excuse the way she treated us. Saying all those horrid things about you of all people. I mean, you are Maxwell Evans, the most rich and powerful man in the state of New York if not all of America. She simply had no respect for who she was talking to." Tess flipped her wavy blond hair back over her shoulder as she crossed her long legs daintily in front of her. "She didn't even act as if she knew who you were…"

Max was tempted to roll his eyes at the arrogance in Tess' voice but instead his hands flew up in frustration at her constant focus on social status. "That's probably because she didn't, Tess. Despite what you think, not everyone uses our names as household words. They don't spend every waking moment sitting around saying, 'Gee, I wonder what Max and Tess are doing right now'. And you know what? I don't think it would have mattered if she did know who I was. I deserved every last word and she knew it…"

"And as for showing respect…why should she? I certainly didn't show her or her property any respect. She has every right to sue me if she wanted and I'd gladly pay. Whatever the cost, I deserve it."

"Well, I certainly didn't deserve what she said to me." Tess countered as she crossed her arms in front of her and looked away while raising her perfect nose in the air.

"Really? Tell me, Tess, did you call her Lib?" Max tilted his head to the side and leaned back against his desk casually.

Tess' brows knit together as she sat lost in thought. "I think I did…once."

"What about Lynn?"

"Maybe."

"Well, either you did or you didn't. Which is it, Tess?" Max's frustration level was reaching an all-time high as he uncrossed his arms and placed his hands firmly on the desk behind him.

For the first time, Tess allowed her rising irritation to get out of control as her gaze snapped back to his face. "Does it really matter, Max? She's out of our lives for good. End of story."

Taking a deep breath to once more calm her voice, Tess stood to face Max. Putting on a sweet but practiced smile she leaned forward and pecked Max on his warm cheek while her voice oozed sweetness. "Don't forget dinner at Daddy's tonight. Come prepared to make decisions. We'll be discussing more wedding plans. Oh, and can you wear the blue suit? Mother loves it when you wear the blue. Remember, seven sharp. Don't be late, darling. You know how daddy hates when you're late…"

As Tess sashayed her way out the door, Max let out a sigh of frustration and ran his fingers though his hair. "End of story. Right." Max shook his head in annoyance before going back to his seat and rolling it forward, grabbing the phone as he did so. "This story isn't over till I say it is..." Click.
~~~~~~~~~~~~
"You lost your job." A few minutes later, Isabel joined Liz on the couch and took her hand up with a little squeeze while a now-robed Alex sat opposite them on the chair. "What happened?"

Liz shrugged as she leaned her aching head against the back of the sofa. "I read the riot act to one of our clients. Correction…to our biggest client. Maxwell Evans." Isabel's mouth opened and she exchanged a look with Alex when she heard the name of their client.

Being a native New Yorker, Isabel had heard plenty of the Evans family because their home was the large in the state. Isabel’s eyes widened instantly when Alex nodded and shrugged confirming Liz’s story. "You're kidding. You met Max Evans and then you just…told him off?"

Liz rolled her eyes. "It wasn't like that, Iz. He deserved everything he got. And then some."

Isabel turned on Alex. “Whoa. Wait. Why didn’t you tell me this?”

Alex rolled his eyes. “Like you gave me time, Izzy. I knocked on the door and you yanked me straight to your bedroom for an afternoon of…” His eyes shot to Liz before he quickly amended his thought. “…refrigerator rummaging. Except for the occasional ‘Oh, yes, Alex. Right there. More. More.’ we haven’t had the chance to talk…”

"Why, you bum!" Isabel’s face turned flaming red at Alex's casual recounting of their afternoon activities and she grabbed a pillow from the couch, throwing it at Alex. Alex caught it with a good-natured laugh and even Liz joined in the merriment for a moment before slipping back into a reflective mood. Isabel noticed immediately and turned her full attention back to Liz.

“I still can’t believe you met him." Isabel' voice was full of awe. "I mean, my God…he's gorgeous! The last picture I saw of him" Isabel began to fan herself with her hand as if she were suddenly burning up. "…whoohoo! It was so hot it literally took my breath away!" Isabel leaned forward her brown eyes beginning to shine. "What's he like up-close? Do those eyes just make you want to drown? Or is that rare, sexy smile that crosses his lips once in a blue moon…"

"Hey, excuse me!" An offended Alex exclaimed. "I *am* still here, you know…"

"I'm sorry, honey." Isabel's apologetic grin spread over her face when she reached over and kissed Alex quickly. "You know, Max may be the most gorgeous hunk on the planet, but you'll always be my number one guy."

Alex looked back to Liz with a 'can-you-believe-this' look and commented sarcastically. "Gee, thanks. That makes me feel so much better…"

Isabel patted Alex's hand lovingly then turned back to Liz. "So...details. What happened and what did you say to him?"

Liz looked away nonchalantly. "Oh, I just called him an arrogant ass and a few other choice words."

"You didn't!"

"I did." Liz confirmed then threw her hands up when she saw the shocked looks on Isabel' face. "What? He is!"

"What did he do to you, Liz?" Isabel sobered immediately. She had known Liz since their freshman year of college. Although she had plenty of spunk and fire, there was one thing she knew about Liz…she didn't just 'go off' on people without just cause. He must have done something big for Liz to cause such a fuss that she would lose her job over it.

Liz's eyes began to cloud with tears and her voice shook a little after she took a ragged breath. "He ripped out the film in my camera. Then he…smashed it."

Isabel gasped and looked at Alex, whose expression showed just how un-shocked he was by Max's behavior. "You mean the camera Ethan…"

Liz nodded as a tear slipped out of the corner of her eye and her nose turned bright red. "It was…the last thing I had of his…" Click.

"Oh, hon..." Isabel leaned over and gave Liz a comforting hug while Alex sought a way to focus Liz’s thoughts on the future and not the past.

"What are you going to do now?" Alex asked sympathetically while handing her a Kleenex.

Liz wiped her eyes and shrugged slightly. "I guess I'll get a new camera and try to find another job. I don't really have any other choice. I have responsibilities…"

"You know you could go work for Parker Global. I’m sure your father would love to finally have you at the old family helm." Alex began to suggest even though he knew Liz's reaction before stating the offer.

Liz gave him a slight smile. "Thanks, Alex, for the thought but...well, there are too many memories there. I left Roswell and Global to start a new life. To forget the past. And it's been hard, but I've been doing well...till now." Liz's voice lowered to a whisper. "Something about seeing his pain...it reminded me of my own somehow."

Silence filled the room as Liz sat lost in thought while Isabel gave her a quick squeeze around her shoulders and looked to Alex for help in making things better for Liz. Click.

"May I make another suggestion then?" Alex's eyes began to shine with an idea as he glanced at Isabel and caught her silent cry for help. "Instead of buying a new camera...why don't you shake off some of your old dreams? Pull out those old drawings of yours. You know there are tons of architectural firms here in the city. I'm sure with my brother’s contacts, I could help set you up with someone..."

Liz's eyes took on a light of their own as she began to consider Alex's suggestion. Tapping her teeth with her forefinger in contemplation she began to nod slowly. "You know...you may be right."

Liz sat up suddenly taken with the idea of drawing again. Turning to Isabel and Alex, Liz's face became animated with former dreams and future plans. "Why should I let this get me down, right? I mean, this might be exactly what I needed. Nothing like being kicked to the curb to get the creative juices flowing. And oh, if you could have seen their house...I had hundreds of ideas just looking in that one room..." Liz jumped up from the couch and headed toward the hallway while Isabel and Alex began to grin with satisfaction.

Stopping suddenly, Liz turned back to them and smiled. "Thanks, guys and...Alex, I'm sorry about the umbrella thing and for interrupting your little..."

Isabel dismissed Liz's apology with a wave of her hand while Alex's crooked grin was sign of his acceptance as well. "Ok. Well, I'll leave you alone now." Liz added with a slight tilt of her head. "Just make sure you're not 'rummaging through the refrigerator' when you know who gets home, ok?"

Isabel and Alex nodded as Isabel slipped into his arms with a chuckle and a sigh while Liz rushed to her room to find her past...
~~~~~~~~~~~~
Max followed the solitary pathway covered with arches and vines to the little stone cottage at the end. Opening the door he took a step inside and shut the door behind him, closed his eyes and allowed the comfort of this place to fill him. To Max, this was home. It was full of memories of laughter and love and a closeness that the massive edifice located further on up the grounds couldn't give. It was where he'd spent most of his time as a child.

His grandparent's home. Their first one in New York. The home that had meant so much to his grandfather that he kept in it the many momentos he'd collected over the years instead of moving them to the 'big house on the hill'. It was where he'd come to sort out all of life's little questions. Where he came to think and feel and just be alone.

Now, years later, Max had learned to do the same. Max moved into his grandfather's study and smiled at the sight that greeted his eyes. "Grams."

"I thought you might like a spot of tea and some cookies. They always used to perk you right up when you were feeling down as a boy."

Max's grandmother had already set out the teacups and a plate of cookies on the table in front of the fireplace. "Thanks, Grams." Max leaned over and greeted her with a loving kiss on the cheek before sitting in the chair opposite her and reaching for a cookie. "How did you know I'd be here?"

"You always come here when you're disturbed about something. We both do. After what happened this morning, I'm surprised it took you this long to come." Grams poured the tea into Max's cup first, then into hers. She even had a third cup set and poured only half a cup then filled the rest with cream and sugar.

"Mom's pretty angry with me. Tess…" Max let out a sigh as he shook his head. "…she just doesn't understand. After all I did, she went and had Ms. Parker fired on top of it. I can only imagine what Liz must be thinking of me now…"

"Does it matter?" Grams added a few cookies to Max's plate then took one for herself.

"Yeah." Max gazed into the fire lost in thought a moment. "I don't know why, but for some reason…it does."

"What about you, Max? How do you feel?" Grams leaned back in her chair and began delicately playing with her pearls as she watched the varied emotions play out on Max's face.

Max brought his gaze back to his Grams with a deep sigh. "Like I've been cut open for surgery. Only the surgeon left me open and bleeding on the table with no idea how to sew myself back up." Max shook his head slightly as he pursed his lips. " I don't know, Grams. I…I guess I feel like I've been told I need a brand new heart…only there's no hope I'll ever find one."

"Oh, I'm sure you'll find one, luv…now that you know what you've been missing." Grams took another cookie after her double-meaning words were delivered then continued, trying to bait Max into admitting his real need for help. "As for healing yourself, perhaps all you needed was someone to show you were indeed in pain. And now that you know…"

"No, Grams, I already knew. I've known for a while now. I just…I didn't want to face myself." Max shook his head in quiet reflection. "And now that I have, I get the feeling this is something I can't do alone."

"Then don't." Grams smiled quietly knowing Max had finally reached a turning point on a long struggle, glad that she'd been right about the Parker girl bringing him to this point. He'd been suffering for a few years now, but lately the pain seemed to be escalating. He needed one final push to make him realize he couldn't continue to shut the world out and expect to live a normal, happy existence. Liz had given him that push by showing him what he was becoming.

"You know, that sounds like something Gramps would say. 'If you need help, boy, ask.'" The sadness in Max's voice was reflected in the misty depths of his eyes. "Grams, I miss him so much."

"So, do I, luv. So do I." Grams looked into the fire then back at Max. "You know when I miss him the most, I suppose I have two things you don't have to make it easier."

"What's that?"

"Many long years of precious memories. They get me through. I can escape back into them and know he'll meet me there when I need him to. Oh, I'm sure some people think I'm crazy for it, but in those moments, I know where I belong and where I'm needed."

"The other thing that gets me through...I get to look at him every time I see your face." She reached out and tenderly touched Max's cheek as her dark eyes began to shimmer with tears. "You look so very much like him, you know. Your deep eyes that show your every thought and the way your hair falls…those adorable ears. And that smile that can light up a room…when you let it. Do you know it was his smile that I noticed first?"

Her voice became dreamy while her eyes looked far away into the distant past. "I was at Nan Fletcher's party when I first met your grandfather..." Grams stopped then brought her eyes back to Max's face. "Oh, but you already know that story..."

"I'd love to hear it again." Max stated as a smile came to his face and lit up his eyes with boyhood delight. He slid over into the seat next to her and took her hand in his. "If I remember right...you were there with your fiance’, Horace Finkleberry, wasn't it?" Grams began to chuckle. "Yes, it was. Can you imagine if I'd married him? Your name would be Maxwell Finkleberry."

Max shuddered with a grin. "Precisely why I'm so glad you married Gramps." Max paused to chuckle before continuing the story. "So, you and Horace were dancing..."

"Yes." Grams confirmed with a feminine nod of her head. "And your Gramps was dancing with that stuffy Stella Gould and smiling like there was no tomorrow. He let out a laugh that filled my soul so thoroughly I can still hear it today. I knew in that moment I wanted to be the one to make him laugh and smile for the rest of my life."

"But you didn't let him know that, did you?" Max reminded her as he propped his chin against his hand and watched his grandmother intently. He loved this part of the story and never tired of hearing it. Perhaps it was the way her eyes shone with love when she talked about. Or the memory of the way his grandfather looked at her when she'd tell the story. Whatever it was, it wove a spell that kept Max coming back for more.

"Certainly not." Her dark eyes flashed with indignation. "I was, after all, an engaged woman."

"But you couldn't take your eyes off him..."

"No, I couldn't. And I didn't even realize I'd been staring until he looked straight at me...and smiled." Grams let out a dreamy sigh and smiled so that her eyes were twinkling.

"Then what happened?" Max prompted quietly knowing the next part of the story as well as he knew his own name.

"Then, your grandfather left Stella standing in the middle of the dance, walked right up to me while I was still in Horace's arms and told me I was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen then he asked me to finish the dance with him." Grams' chin tilted upward with an air of pride. "I told him I was taken, of course, and that he would have to find someone else to sweet talk. That made him angry since he was so sure of his conquest he'd already made such a spectacle of himself by leaving Stella for me."

"A verbal match began and soon the whole party had stopped dancing and all eyes were on the two of us. Maxwell said he knew the moment our eyes met that we were meant to be and of course, he wouldn't allow me to dance with anyone else since I was his and his alone." Grams' eyes dropped to the lace handkerchief she was playing with in her hands. "I thought it rather arrogant of him to say something like that, and like a fool, I told him so, which made him even more angry. Then he took my dance card and tore it up in front of everyone before turning and stalking away. I was so afraid I'd found the love of my life and lost him forever all in the same night."

Max reached over and took her hand in his once more. "But you didn't. You and Gramps found each other again and once you did you never let go after that..."

Grams smiled when she patted Max's hand. "You're right, luv. For two days I couldn't eat or sleep. All I could do was sit in my room and think of him. Then it came. A letter for me with the return address to your grandfather's house. Inside was a new dance card with his name at the top of the page and a note saying..."

"Let's start a new dance together. One that will last the rest of our lives..." Max finished the familiar story for her with a smile.

Grams's eyes began to puddle with tears as she patted Max's hand. "That's right, luv. I put his name on each and every dance listed then sent it back to him. He arrived the next day at my house to take me for a walk and we were never apart from that day till the day he died."

"He loved you so much." Max's awed voice broke the stillness of the moment. "I remember watching him watch you. He absolutely adored you. Your love...it was...magical."

"He was magical." Grams corrected before reaching out and caressing Max's handsome face. "So are you, luv. When you let yourself be." Smiling into Max's eyes, Grams captured his face in both of her slim, fragile hands. "Find her, Max, and make it right. You won't be able to dance again until you do." Click.

Max smiled and nodded his head quietly before leaning forward and kissing Grams gently on the cheek. "I love you." Max whispered before turning and leaving the old woman alone with her memories and her three cups of tea. Click.
~~~~~~~~~~
Later, Max went to his room to dress for dinner. He only had fifteen minutes to get ready and meet Tess downstairs to leave for dinner or else he was going to be late. And heaven forbid Max be late to one of 'Daddy's dinners'. Max rolled his eyes thinking of 'Daddy's dinners'. They were always so stuffy and boring. Discussing business till Max at times felt like he couldn't hear one more word without screaming.

Pulling a tie from his closet, Max hurriedly threw it around his neck and began to tie it when his gaze wandered over to his bed. Max's eyebrows knit together in question as he saw a package laying at the foot of his bed.

Picking it up he saw a note laying on top in his grandmother's handwriting. "A new dance card is in order." A bright smile lit Max's face as he held the package up to his ear and shook it a little. By the size and shape he could just guess what it was.

He glanced at his watch. Only ten minutes left before meeting Tess. There'd be hell to pay if he missed this dinner. Max looked back down at the package as an image of Liz's beautiful face flashed before his mind. The tears he remembered seeing in her eyes was enough to drive him to action. He knew exactly what he needed...no, what he wanted to do.

Oh, well. He'd rather pay hell then his conscience. Max practically ran into Tess as he flew down the winding stairs. "Max, I was just coming to get you. Where's your blue suit…"

Max moved Tess to the side as he continued to put his charcoal gray suit jacket on. "Can't talk now, Tess. Gotta go..."

"But...what about dinner? Max, where do you think you're going?" Tess's questions went unanswered as the door slammed before she'd gotten half of them out.

Turning in exasperation, Tess almost ran into Grams who had seemingly appeared from nowhere and was standing on the steps grinning from ear to ear at the closed door in front of her. Tess shook her head with a roll of her eyes and attempted to pass Grams when Grams suddenly said something that made Tess' heart sink with the sheer eerieness of her tone. "I wouldn't wait for him. He's going to ask for his first dance. And it'll last longer than either of you think..."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The sound of running feet and a sweet little, "I wanna get it!" greeted Max's knock from inside the apartment. The door flew open before him and Max's gaze lowered considerably to meet the steady curious gaze of a dark haired, dark eyed little girl. The curls of her hair framed her round face and she tilted her head to the side before flashing Max a dimpled smile. "Hi!"

Max couldn't resist her smile and instantly felt one of his own break out on his face even though he was slightly confused by the presence of this child. "Hi, there. Does Liz Parker live here?"

"Moooommmmyyy! It's some reeealllyy biiigg maaan..." The little girl yelled out.

Max's face lost a bit of it's shine when he heard the little girl reference a 'mommy' in response to his question. Hearing the sound of footsteps approaching the door Max suddenly wasn't sure if he'd made a mistake or not. Maybe this wasn't where she lived. Maybe it was and he wouldn't be welcomed.

Max suddenly felt his heart begin to pound and his stomach tie into knots. Of course, he wouldn't be welcomed. Not after the way he'd treated her. What had he been thinking... Well, too late now. He wouldn't be able to leave if he wanted to. Max heard Liz's voice and froze in place.

Apparently she was speaking to the little girl who'd just opened her door. "Ok, Angel-face. I've got it now. You go back to the kitchen and eat your supper." Liz finally came to the open door, towel draped over her shoulder, and stopped short when she saw who the 'really big man' was.

Folding her arms in front of her, Liz's eyebrow raised and she shook her head. "You've got to be kidding me..."

To be continued...

posted on 8-Dec-2002 7:27:54 PM by Ashton
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 7 ~

"You've got to be kidding me." Liz's face was a play of varied emotions. Surprise. Disbelief. Anger.

"You're still angry." Seeing the final and most pronounced emotion, Max stated the obvious.

"Damn right I am!" Liz exclaimed before placing her hands firmly on her slender hips. "Do you have any idea what you did today? Any at all?"

Max looked away uncomfortably thinking of the little girl who'd originally greeted him at the door and how the loss of an income would make it all that much harder to provide for her. "I think I'm beginning to. That's why I'm here." Looking back up at Liz he shuffled his feet much like a little boy who was going to the principle's office. "Please, may I come in? I'd really like to explain."

"Oh, you want to explain do you? You mean the way I wanted to explain today but you wouldn't let me before you ripped up my film and destroyed my camera?" Liz crossed her arms in front of her and looked up at the ceiling as if in thought before bringing her defiant gaze back to meet his. "Uh…no, I don't think so."

"Look, if you'd just give me a chance…"

"I can't believe this. You certainly have a lot of nerve to show up at my door after what you've done." Liz's rage was evident not only in her voice but also in the fiery flash of her dark eyes. "Or have you decided you're not through with me yet? You kicked me out of your home, took away my job and now you're here to…what? Finish the job by telling me I'm evicted or something?"

Liz grasped the side of the door and continued, her momentum building with each passing second. "Well, to quote a very rich, powerful jerk I met earlier…I'm not going to let you do it! Not this time!"

Liz slammed the door with all her might and was shocked by the dull thud she heard when it closed on the foot Max inserted into its path. "Ouch!" Max yelled as he doubled over in pain while bringing his foot up to his knee and leaning against the door jam. He would have rubbed his foot if it hadn't been for the shoe that had probably protected it from being broken. "Could you…" Max glanced up at Liz with a grimace. "…help me…" Click.

"Oh, you poor thing. That must have really hurt. Do you need to sit down?" Liz cooed appropriately while stepping up to Max and putting her hands on his shoulders in a gesture of friendship. "Here let me help you..." Liz's next action betrayed her true intentions when she forcefully pushed Max back so that he landed on his butt on the floor with a thud effectively knocking the box wrapped with a blue ribbon he had been holding out of his hands. Click.

"Hey!" Max looked up at Liz in complete surprise. "What did you do that for?"

"He says as if he didn't deserve it." Liz said more to the air than anyone else. Bringing her focus back to Max's surprised face Liz offered a possible scenerio. "Leave, Mr. Evans, or there will be no next time. I *will* call the police and have you arrested for harassment. Now how would that look in the check-out tabloids?" Liz inquired sarcastically before slamming the door on Max barely missing his foot again by an inch.

Max sat staring at the closed door a moment before he hung his head and let out a sigh, which turned to a light chuckle. Max shook his head when he began to talk to himself. "What were you thinking? After this afternoon you should have known it wasn't going to be that easy..." Moving to stand up, he once more winced in pain. "Well, Grams, at this rate, I'll never dance again..." Click.

Suddenly a small voice somewhere down the hall calling out a familiar phrase made Max's eyes twinkle with a plan. He'd just found his way into Liz's home. Now if he could only find a way into her good graces long enough to say what he had to…
~~~~~~~~~
The chiming of the half-hour on the clock prompted Weston Harding to look at his watch and let out a sigh subtle enough to wake the dead. Tess sat staring absently in front of her, looking as disappointed as if she'd just lost a beauty pageant. CiCi Harding tapped the table with her red-painted fingernails and gave Maria DeLuca Evans a disapproving look when she caught Maria blowing a stray strand of hair out of her face. Maria rolled her eyes at Michael before winking at him playfully and Michael smirked back before shifting uncomfortably in his seat after sneaking a peek at his own watch. Click.

Clearing his throat, Michael tried to ease the tension created by his brother's absence. "So, Tess, how are the wedding plans coming? I've asked Max, but he's not up to speed on the latest wedding fashions so his details are a little obscure."

"Apparently his details are obscure about more things than just his wedding." Weston's loud growl was joined by noises from his stomach signaling the end of his patience. "Did he not know that dinner was tonight at 7:00?"

Tess nodded silently before pushing her plate away from her absently. Michael and Maria shared another look before Weston continued directing his statements first to his daughter then to Michael. "I'm not sure I like this. I'm not sure I like it at all. I put a great deal of stock in punctuality and reliability in business, Michael. Even more so in a future son-in-law. So far, Max hasn't been measuring up. He keeps missing dinners…he's not involved in the wedding plans. That doesn't speak well of Max's sense of commitment."

"Wes, I'm sure there was some emergency that came up Max simply couldn't avoid." Michael leaned forward in earnest. "Come on, you've known Max practically since he was in diapers. Have you ever known him to not to do what he says he's going to do?"

"No." Weston conceded after a moment's pause. "Then again, he is your grandfather's protégé. The one he took under his wing. The grandson that's most like him. In business he's a genius, but when it comes to matters of the heart…" Weston glanced at his daughter before proceeding. "…well, let's just say Max isn't as smart…or predictable."

Before Weston could continue the sound of the doorbell rang throughout the house. Tess jumped up out of her seat and gave her father a flighty, nervous smile as her eyes brightened with hope. "There. That's probably him now. I'll just go check…"

Less than five minutes later she returned to the dining room with eyes cast down and a slight shake of her head. "It was just a few trick-or-treaters." Tess slipped into her seat with a tear-filled sigh.

Weston picked his napkin up with agitation. "Well, that's certainly appropriate since I get the strong feeling I'm being tricked here somehow…"

Michael let out an uncomfortable chuckle as he tried to deflect the conversation to lighter issues. "Don't worry about that, Weston, really. Max is awful at pulling pranks. When we were kids, I always got the best of him no matter how hard he tried to come up with something…" Seeing Maria' eyebrow raise, Michael stopped his boyhood reminiscing and cleared his throat. "Why don't I go call him? I’m sure he'll have a reasonable explanation…"

"I'll come with you." Maria piped up suddenly, eager to leave the dullness of the dining room troupe. Shrugging her shoulders slightly as she glanced around the table she offered up a lame excuse for departing their company with such willingness. Especially since Phillip had left to go trick-or-treating an hour ago. "I want to check on Phillip and see if he's decided which costume he'll wear tonight."

Michael and Maria slipped out into the adjoining room and Michael grabbed his cell phone while Maria leaned forward to listen to the conversation the best she could. "Max?" Michael's eyebrows knit together in confusion when he heard his brother's voice. "Is that you? It sounds like you're in a tunnel…"

"Wmmll…I'm trmmmg to pmmt thmm…" There was a pause in Max's conversation then his voice came through the phone loud and clear. "…damn tail on right and I couldn't get the head to…" Sighing into the phone Max could almost envision Michael's confused expression and decided it wasn’t worth the effort to explain. "Never mind. What's up?"

"What's up? You're thirty minutes late to one of Harding's gatherings and you ask me what's up?" Michael shook his head at Maria who shrugged her shoulders with a slight frown and placed her hand on Michael's arm leaning in even further to hear what Max was saying.

"Look, Michael, something…came up that I…have to take care of. Just…stall for a while. I'll be there as soon…as I can." Max distraction was as evident as the lavish, ostentatious taste of CiCi's decorator in the room they were now standing in.

"Max, what are you doing?"

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you." Max stated with a note of awe in his own voice as if he couldn't believe it either. "Listen, I've got to go, Michael…"

"But what do I tell Harding?" Michael asked hurriedly afraid Max would hang up and leave him with making up the details of a lie that would cover his posterior.

"Tell him…" Max let out a sigh and Michael could picture him running his fingers through his thick hair before he heard Max begin to chuckle. "…tell him I'm out making an ass of myself."

"What?" Michael asked into the phone in confusion, but Max had already hung up the phone. Michael clicked the phone off and stared at Maria, his disbelief overshadowing his agitation. "Did you just hear Max…laugh?"

Maria scrunched up her face as she tapped her cheek with her forefinger. "It was more like a…chuckle, I'd say. And after a joke, no less. True, it was a joke I didn't understand, but still…"

She tilted her head to the side and pushed her hair out of her eyes. "Michael, do you think it's possible with all of this wedding stuff Max has suddenly gone…insane? Especially after what happened…you know…before. I mean he's been acting kinda odd lately."

"Just lately?" Michael's teasing grin let Maria know he wasn't overly concerned with Max's behavior…yet.

"Alright, I stand corrected." Maria grinned back. "So…"

"Nah. The only time Max could be considered 'insane' was when he had a heart. Those days are long gone now. He's as level-headed as they come…I hope." Pulling Maria to him, Michael gave her a slight squeeze and a kiss on the forehead. "Don't worry, Ria. Max will come through for us. In four months he'll be married and our family will get back to normal…whatever that may be."
~~~~~~~~
"Hey there!" Liz welcomed the little dark haired girl she'd called Angel-face earlier into the apartment with a large smile. "Did you get lots of candy?"

'Angel-face' nodded her head excitedly and held out her bag to Liz. "Uh-huh! Lookey, Mommy! I gots lots from Mrs. Wag'ner and Jimmy gave me some of his cuz he said he got too much. And I already 'cided what I'm gonna give to Brett."

Liz smiled proudly at the little girl dressed as a princess and gave her a hug before glancing up at Alex and Isabel who were still standing in the doorway holding hands. "You're so sweet to share, honey. Why don't you run inside and lay everything out so I can see what you got?"

"Kay!" 'Angel-face started to run past Liz then stopped and turned around to wave at Isabel and Alex. "Bye-bye, Alex. T'ank you for takin' me trick-or-treatin'!"

"You're welcome, sweetie." Alex’s half-grin deepened into a full-blown smile as he waved back at her before she turned and ran into the apartment.

"So, was she any trouble?" Liz asked once they were alone again.

"Are you kidding? She was her usual sweet little self…" Isabel said with a smile as she glanced up at Alex. "I think she even got 'Mr. I'm-never-having-children' to actually concede there's at least one perfect child in the world."

Alex started to chuckle as he wrapped his arms around Isabel. "Yes…and she's all Liz's. That's why I don't plan on messing with the perfect record and trying for my own…"

"Thank God." Liz commented. "Can you imagine Alex’s offspring? They'd be guitar-playing, refrigerator robbing miniature versions of ‘Thumbs Up Whit’, here."

Isabel and Liz started laughing at the picture Liz's description of Alex's children conjured in their minds as well as the disgusted look on Alex's face. "You're funny. Really." Alex said sarcastically before turning to Isabel. "Alright. I think I've taken enough abuse from Liz today. First, the refrigerator raid, now this…"

"Awww, Alex, you know I’m just teasing." Liz commented before leaning up and giving him a quick peck on the cheek. Reaching out and squeezing Isabel' hand Liz smiled at the both of them. "Thanks so much for taking kid duty tonight. I really think Brett's coming down with something…"

"No problem, really. She was a delight." Alex reassured Liz with more sincerity than he thought was possible when speaking of the younger generation. "We'll see you later. And, hey…don't forget to let me know if you need me to call in any favors on your interviews…"

Liz waved Alex's offer away with her hand. "Thanks, but this is one thing I want to do on my own with no help from anyone. It's about time I see just how far my talent will carry me."

Alex winked at her. "If that's the goal, you'll be at the top in no time. I guarantee it.."

A call from inside the apartment interrupted any further conversation. "Moooommmyyy! Where are you? I wanna show you my stuff!!"

"Well, looks like the master's calling." Liz chuckled. "Have fun you guys."

Waving good-bye, Alex and Isabel turned to walk down the hall to the stairs. "I wish she'd get out more. You know, date once in a while…fall in love maybe." Isabel commented.

Alex wrapped his arm around Isabel' shoulder. "You know Liz. She already thinks Mr. Right has come and gone in her life. Love's the last thing on her mind."

"Yeah." Isabel agreed sadly as they rounded the corner and began to descend the steps. "She certainly won't go looking for it, that's for sure. Nope. Love's going to have to come to her. And I think it will. One day, it'll come knocking on her door..."

"Knocking on it?" Alex replied with a chuckle. "It's going to have to practically beat the door down…or fall through it…whichever comes first."

Just as they rounded the corner, Alex almost ran into someone having difficulty coming up the stairs. "Oh, I’m sorry. Do you need help with that?" He asked to the masked individual trying hard not to laugh at the costume he saw before him. The person's difficulty seemed to be in rounding the corner of the stairs with the rear legs of his costume.

"Uh...no. I've got it, thanks." Came the low reply as the man slowly trudged up the steps with a slight limp.

Alex and Isabel watched with amusement until the animal had turned the corner. "What an…interesting costume."

"Yeah…certainly makes a statement, don't you think?" Alex responded with a chuckle.

"Definitely. Wonder who he's going to see."

"Don't know, but I hope that's not the 'love' you're talking about because he might want to pick another door to knock down looking like that…"
~~~~~~~~~
Liz opened the door with flair and a bag of candy when she heard the knock and the now familiar chant of the evening. Her eyes widened in surprise when she saw the person before her wasn't a child but an adult…a very large adult. "Oh, hi." She glanced around the hallway to see if there were any frightened or shy children present. Not seeing any she turned back to the costumed person before her. "Is there something I can…do for you…"

A fury arm reached out toward Liz holding a package that looked familiar to her for some reason as the front half of the costume bent low before her. The package he held out was a box wrapped with a blue bow. She tilted her head to the side then looked back up at the masked face suddenly realizing who was standing before her by the soulful chocolate brown eyes shining out of the mask. Surprisingly, she wasn't as furious as she had been earlier. She was just merely angry now. "You just don't give up, do you?"

"What can I say? I'm as stubborn as a mule."

"Or as stupid as a jackass…" Liz retorted allowing her gaze to sweep over his costume.

Max shrugged. "Stupid or not, I don't stop till I get what I want. And I really want to talk to you. To explain about today…" Max stated without any introduction since it was obvious Liz recognized him.

"Well, at least the costume is appropriate." Liz stated dryly crossing her arms in front of her and trying her best not to allow his comical appearance to affect her judgement.

"I thought you'd appreciate the symbolism." The creature in front of her spoke in a low, muffled voice glad that at least she hadn't slammed the door in his face or called the police...yet.

"Oh, I do." Liz acted as if she were looking his costume over from every angle. She was really trying her best not to burst into laughter or allow the amusement she was feeling inside to make it to her eyes. "I'm sure they'll get a big kick out of it down at the police station."

Click. Max was standing before her dressed as a donkey...or what Liz really thought of him...as a jackass. The fur-covered gray shirt and pants that he wore connected to a section of costume that looked like the bare back and rear legs of a donkey with a tail that fell halfway to the floor. His head was completely covered with the face of a donkey with pointed gray ears, a long snout and a smiling mouth. "So, tell me…did you really rent this or did you just run home and put on one of the many jackass costumes you have hanging around?"

"Rented, but I can see how you'd think I have a dozen."

"Try a million." Liz shot back as her chin raised defiantly.

Max sighed. "Alright. A million. Look, can I please come in? This thing is really hot…not to mention a little embarrassing…"

"No." Liz stated firmly as she once more remembered the injury that he'd done to her earlier in the day. Her eyes once more flashed with that angry fire Max was becoming familiar with. "I bet you think you're cute, don't you? I mean, what did you think would happen? You'd show up here in this…oh so appropriate outfit…and I'd think it was so amusing that I'd just forget everything you did and let you in my home just so you can ease your conscience or try to buy me off somehow? Well, I'm not that easy, Mr. Evans."

"Believe me, I can see that." Max retorted quickly before reaching up and taking off the costume head and holding it in under his arm. "Look, I just want a moment."

"You've had more than a moment." Liz stated before backing up from the doorway and preparing to close it. "Now it's over. Good-bye, Mr. Evans."

"Please…wait…" Max started to call out then took a step forward. "Owww!" Feeling the pain shoot through his injured foot, Max fell against the door that Liz had almost closed in his face and landed on her floor with a thud.

Max could hear the patter of little feet as they rushed toward him and stopped just short of his head. "Mommy, look! It's the really big man again! He's back! Only…he's a an'mal now…"

"I know, sweetie." Liz stated absently while noting the look of pain on Max's face as he reached for his foot. He wasn't play-acting. This wasn't a trick to make it into her apartment. He must have really hurt it earlier.

Seeing someone else in pain literally took the wind out of Liz's sails of rage, but not so much that she could resist crossing her arms in front of her and leaning forward for one last comment. "For the record, you should never put your foot in a closing door. It could get broken."

Max looked up at her and flinched in pain. "Gee, thanks. I'll remember that the next time I see a door getting ready to slam in my face."

"Happens that often, huh?"

"Only since meeting you." Max quipped sarcastically. Wincing in pain once more he commented painfully. "Has anyone told you how strong you are for someone so petite?" Max sat up and felt his foot carefully. "Great. I think it's swollen…"

She watched Max struggle to stand back up and put weight on his foot but he barely got to a kneeling position because of the combination of his cumbersome costume and the sharp pain. Letting out a sigh Liz tucked her hair behind her ears. "Oh, for pete's sake. I know I’m going to regret this but…" Liz moved to where Max was seated and unhooked the back of his costume. Then she put his arm around her shoulders helping him to stand up. She moved him with some effort into the living room and dropped him on the couch in the middle of the room. "There. Don't move. I'll get some ice."

Max took the opportunity of Liz's absence to look around him and get a feel for the type of woman he was about to apologize to. Her apartment was decorated tastefully in the latest of home decor, yet it had a very comfortable feeling. Every detail was lovingly chosen and placed in the most perfect of places. Old world charm blended perfectly with romantic sensibilities. In fact, Max suddenly felt the way he did whenever he stepped back into his grandfather's cottage…at home.

Glancing around him he saw many photos on the walls. Mostly candid shots in black and white of two children. One little dark-haired girl…the one she'd referred to as Angel-face. The other of a little boy with curly blonde hair and big blue eyes. They were adorable children. Some of the most adorable he'd ever seen…and the way that she captured them…he could literally feel her love for them in her work.

When he heard the sound of feet, it's wasn't Liz's returning to him but the padding of feet only large enough to fit a child. Expecting to see 'Angel-face' his confusion turned to an encouraging smile when the little boy he'd seen in the photos stopped suddenly then hesitantly approached him. "Hey there. What's your name?"

His hands were hidden behind his back as he twisted back and forth and tilted his blonde head to the side observing Max cautiously. While his big blue eyes stared at Max, it was obvious he wasn't going to make any moves to introduce himself. Suddenly, 'Angel-face' popped up from behind the couch and peered at Max over the back. "His name's Brett. He's my brodder. He doedn't talk much."

"Your brother, huh?" Max said as he looked back up at her hanging over the edge of the couch. "And what's your name?"

"Autumn."

"Autumn. What a pretty name." Max commented before moving his foot up onto the couch so he could turn to face her better.

"Whatcha wearin'?"

Max looked down at his costume trying to figure out to a little girl exactly what he was wearing. "Um…I…well…I'm uh…wearing a…donkey costume."

"Why?" Autumn's large dark eyes grew larger with her question.

"Uh…well…" Think Max, think. You can't tell this little girl that you were absolutely awful to her mom today… "…well, I…did you know the donkey is a very hard working animal? It's also very strong. So, I guess I just wanted to uh…"

"Is it cuz ya like the color?" Autumn interrupted in all innocence giving Max a better reason than he was obviously coming up with.

Max chuckle. "Yeah. That's it. The color." Clearing his throat Max decided to turn the tables and ask her a few questions. "So, why doesn’t Brett talk much?"

Autumn shrugged her slender shoulders. "Don't know. Mommy says it's cuz he's shy with strangers."

"Oh, I see." Max nodded his head and made a face. "I don't like strangers that much myself anymore."

"How come?"

It was Max's turn to shrug. "I don't know. I used to, but now…"

Max's sentence dangled when he noticed Autumn's head disappear back behind the couch again. "Autumn?" He raised himself up and looked over the back but he couldn't see her. Turning back toward Brett he jumped when he realized Autumn had somehow managed to come from behind the couch to stand in front of him in a matter of seconds without making a sound. "Oh, God. You scared me."

"I sorry." Autumn said as she tilted her dark head to the side and held out her bag of candy. "Wanna share?"

Max's smile lit his face. "Sure. What do you have?"

"Lots of stuff!" Autumn answered with great enthusiasm as she dumped the whole load down on the couch next to Max then turned to her brother. "C'me on, Brett! Let's share candy with Mr. Donkey!"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Standing in the kitchen Liz was surprised to hear laughter coming from the living room. It wasn't the normal sound she was used to. Not that laughter was a stranger in this home, but this time there was a masculine chuckle added to the usual boisterousness of the kids. This time the laughter had a strange affect on her…as if something that had been missing had suddenly been replaced. His laughter literally filled up the room…and brought an unexpected irrepressible smile to her face. Click.

Stopping in the doorway for a moment, Liz's eyes began to shine with interest as she watched Max interact with Autumn and Brett. His eyes…for the first time since meeting him she saw them in reality the way she imagined they should be…bright, sparkling and full of laughter. Click.

Clearing her throat she announced her presence to the trio and advanced into the room holding the ice up to Max. "Here you go." She sat on the table and slowly took his 'shoe' off his costume then gently placed the ice on his swollen foot. Liz turned to the children with a smile. "Ok, guys. I think it's time to get ready for bed. Say good-night to Mr. Ev…" Liz glanced up at Max with a half-smile then back at the kids.

"Mr. Donkey." Max supplied quickly with a raised eyebrow.

Liz bit back her laughter. "…Mr. Donkey…and go to your rooms. Autumn, help Brett pick out his jamies. I'll be in after a while."

"Kay, Mommy." Autumn said before turning to Max with a smile and a cute shake of her head. "You shouldn't be shy of strangers, Mr. Donkey…cuz you're really nice."

Click. Max's grin lit up his eyes once more and Liz had to remind herself to breathe at the sheer beauty of it. "Thanks, Autumn. It's easy to be nice when strangers are little angels like you and Brett."

Autumn leaned up and gave Max an unexpected peck on the cheek then hugged Liz before grabbing Brett's hand and waving good-bye. Max watched them till they were down the hall and he couldn't see them any more. Turning back to Liz he released an unexpected sigh. "She's such a doll."

Liz tried not to let the scene she'd walked in on soften her anger as she attended to his foot. "Yeah, she can be…when she wants to be. Then there are times she can be a little beast…" She added with a loving smile she couldn't hold back.

Max looked down guiltily when he remembered the same term being applied to him earlier by his mother. "Much like I was today…to you. Only mine was on a much larger scale." Max looked back up at Liz who was staring at the ice as if watching it melt was the most important thing in the world.

He reached over and touched her arm gently causing Liz to look up at him to not only hear the sincerity of his words but to see it in his eyes as well. "I'm sorry, Liz. I really am. In fact, you have no idea how sorry. I should have never reacted the way I did…I destroyed your film, your camera…"

Liz shook her head sadly. "You know what I think bothered me most? You didn’t just destroy a piece of equipment. You destroyed a memory."

Max looked down at his hand and blinked quickly as his voice softened. "The camera was special to you…"

"Yes, but that's not what I'm talking about." Liz stated as she turned toward him. "We all take pictures in our mind, Mr. Evans. Of things we see, of places we've been...a moment we never want to forget."

"A camera is just a way of making those pictures in our mind tangible…something to hold on to for years. That’s what your mother wanted today. A tangible remembrance of your nephew's childhood. A picture to look back on that would remind her of the days Phillip used to sit and build castles on the ground with blocks. Something she could hold when he's getting ready to walk down the aisle."

"She'll never have that now…because of you and your…" Liz sighed then looked away.

"Go on." Max prompted softly. "Because of my…what?"

Liz hesitated then saw the openness in Max's eyes to listen. "Your bitterness and pain. Take it from me, it can make you cruel…and heartless. And frankly, Mr. Evans, your eyes are too warm for your heart to be so cold." Liz stated calmly before looking back at Max in time to see his eyes cloud with pain before he looked away.

Feeling that she'd said much more than she had intended, Liz cleared her throat and checked his foot one more time. "Well, I think you'll be ok. You might want to get it checked by a doctor or something…"

Seeing that Liz was bringing their time together to a close, Max felt a sudden emptiness in his heart. He didn't want to go but he knew he had no right to stay. In fact, given the circumstances, her generosity had been beyond what he deserved. Now it was time to repay her. Max reached down next to the couch and picked up the box with the blue bow. He handed it to her with a slight smile. "It's not your old one, but…"

Liz shook her head as her chin came up in injured pride and defiance. "You don't have to do this. In fact, I don't want you to…"

Max shrugged and shook his head. "I didn't. Grams did and she'd be really offended if you didn't take it. Please."

Hearing Grams' name brought a beautiful smile to Liz's lips. One of the most beautiful that Max had ever seen. Suddenly, he wished he could bring more smiles like that to her gorgeous face. A face beyond any beauty he'd ever dreamed enhanced by the spirit he saw shining out of her eyes.

Liz hesitated then reached out and took the box from Max's hands grazing her fingers against his and felt her heart skip a beat at the shock of it. Her eyes snapped to his face to see if he felt the same and instantly knew he had by the penetrating gaze he'd leveled on her face. Click.

Averting her eyes quickly when she felt a heated blush come to her cheeks, Liz undid the bow with shaking fingers and lifted the top off the box taking a look inside. Sudden tears sprang to her eyes and her breath caught in her throat. She reached into the box and pulled out an exact replica of the camera Max had broken. "It's…it's the same…"

Max smiled at his grandmother's gesture when he realized exactly what she'd done. He reached out and tenderly touched it. "It's her old camera. She must have seen yours and recognized it as being the same. She has a gift for doing and saying things that…well, that set things right." Looking into Liz's face and seeing the tears wavering on her lashes he added softly, "It appears she's not the only one."

When Liz didn't say anything, Max became concerned. "Liz? Are we…is everything between us ok now? Will you please…accept my apology?"

Liz nodded silently then quickly laid the camera down and stood up. "I…I think you'd better go now. Here. I'll help you to the door." She removed Max's ice then waited till he put his arm around her shoulder and helped him put his weight on his foot. Once they reached the door, Liz released Max and gazed up at him almost sorry this time had to end.

Taking an exaggerated breath, Liz opened the door and leaned against it. "Well, I wish I could say it's all been a pleasure…"

Max looked down and swallowed. "Would it sound strange if I said it has been…for me."

It was Liz's turn to look away as she bit her lower lip and tucked her hair behind her ears. Regaining her composure, Liz's steady gaze met his when she chose to ignore his comment and focus instead on a fact that brought them together in the first place…his wedding and the fiancee' he had waiting for him somewhere. "Tell Theresa I hope the wedding goes as she wishes…"

A slight grin began to curl the corner of Max's mouth. "It's Tess…"

"Oh, right. Tava."

Max nodded as a full-blown smile reached his lips and made his eyes dance. "Didn't you mean to say Tamara?"

Liz chuckled lightly once more amazed at how incredibly handsome he was when he allowed a real smile to shine through his eyes. "Good-bye, Mr. Evans…"

"Please. Just call me Max." His eyes spoke a plea to be on equal footing with her that she couldn't deny…especially since she'd probably never see him again.

Liz smiled with a slight nod. "Ok. Max. I hope your foot gets better in time for the wedding. Wouldn't want you to miss that first dance, you know." She held out her hand as a gesture of good-will, but when their hands met Liz felt a surge of warmth that started at the fingertips and ran all the way up her arm straight to her heart. Looking at their hands clasped together, she couldn't tell where one hand ended and the other began.

Neither could Max. He swallowed hard at her words and the sudden fire that spread through him with her touch. Unable to verbally respond, Max simply nodded before moving through the open door holding onto her hand till it was absolutely necessary to let go.

He turned back for one last look before Liz smiled with a wave and closed the door. Feeling a sudden, overwhelming sense of being lost, Max closed his eyes and took a deep breath after reaching out and touching the door lightly with his fingertips. Sighing heavily, Max grabbed the remains of his jackass costume, turned and limped away. For some reason he felt as if he'd been dancing this whole time and the music had suddenly come to a screeching halt with the closing of the door.

Inside, Liz leaned against the door and closed her eyes as a slight smile matched the rhythm of her heart when it danced across her lips. For the first time in a very long time, Liz heard the gentle strains of a love song stirring deep within her soul…
~~~~~~~~
Across town in a cottage where love used to live, an old woman stood alone in the middle of the room. Dainty flowers adorned her graying hair and the pearls around her neck swayed in time to the music filling the room as she slowly danced. She held in her hands a picture frame and smiled happily at the handsome face smiling back at her.

"Oh, Maxwell. You'd be so proud of him tonight." She began speaking in a dreamy voice as she shared her heart with her best friend. "He went to her…just like his heart told him to. Despite the demands being made of him…despite the deadness in his eyes at times, there's still life in him. And she can see it. She can see it so clearly."

She turned in a circle as she hugged the picture to her, her face glowing with love and the tears in her eyes twinkling in the firelight. Slowing her pace she once more held the photo of her husband out in front of her. "Soon, my love. That promise I made to you to take care of him…to make sure that he's whole…it will be completed soon. I can feel it. And once it is…oh, Maxwell…once it is, I'll be free to be with you again. Just the way you promised…dancing through the seconds of time...together...right into forever…"

To be continued…
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 8 ~

Diane sat at the breakfast table glancing over the entertainment section of the paper when a bouquet of flowers was suddenly thrust into her face from a person standing behind her. Surprised, Diane turned to look up and see Max smiling down at her with a boyish grin and tousled hair. Click.

"Max! These are beautiful!" Glancing back up at him her expression changed to that of suspicion. "Alright. What have you done now?"

Max feigned offence with a 'who-me?' expression then shrugged and chuckled as Diane took the flowers from his hand. "Nothing..." Holding them to her nose she smiled at their fresh scent but mostly at the memory of similar gestures from what seemed like years ago. "I love you, that's all." Max leaned down and kissed Diane on the cheek before hobbling over to a seat and grabbing a plate for breakfast.

"Well…" Diane was at a loss for words. "…this is certainly…a surprise. It's been a while since…" She stopped short when she realized what she'd almost said and didn't want to ruin the lovely moment between the two of them. A moment that used to not be so rare.

Max's hand stopped mid-air as his fork was about to stab a few pancakes to drop on his plate and turned to his mother with a frown. "It's been a while since…what?"

Diane shrugged as she got up from her seat and fished around the antique sideboard for a vase. "Oh, you know…since you said you loved me."

Max put his plate down and watched his mother busy herself with arranging the bouquet he'd bought for her after pouring water in the vase. "Mom…what do you mean? I say I love you all the time."

Not looking up, Diane smiled slightly as she continued to absently play with the flowers in front of her. She seemed to be intent on making sure all of the baby's breath was spread evenly throughout the vase. "Yes, but it's usually in response to me. You used to tell me you loved me everyday without any prompting." Blinking back the unexpected shine that made it to her eyes, Diane's smile seemed rather sad to Max. "But, I guess that's natural when kids grow up…"

"No, Mom." Max shook his head as he gazed at his mother's face. He never realized how tired she looked. As if the weight of the world was sitting on her shoulders and she was struggling just to keep it from bringing her to her knees. "It's not natural to take the people you love for granted."

Click. Max looked down at his plate as guilt and realization washed over him knowing part of the weight she was carrying was his own. "Apparently, I've been doing a lot of that lately…"

Diane came to sit back down. She placed the flowers in front of her and reached for Max's hand patting it gently. "Don't be so hard on yourself. You may not realize it, but it is a natural tendency to take people for granted…you were always the exception to that rule because you never did…"

"Mom, have I changed that much?" Max held onto her hand in return and looked back up at her, the expression of a lost little boy usually hidden in his eyes began to peek out and show his vulnerability.

Diane tilted her head to the side. "Where is this coming from, Max?"

Max let out a sigh and looked away knowing he'd been caught. His mother always did have a way of doing that. Seeing behind his conversations to spot the real root of his thoughts. "Liz…the photographer from yesterday." Max pushed his plate to the side and leaned his arms on the table in front of him. "I went to see her last night…"

"Oh. So that's what Michael was ranting and raving about." Diane nodded at the events of last night that brought Michael to his father panicked about Max's actions. Although, none of them had known where Max had been, his late appearance at the Harding's, including the way he looked when finally did show up, had made quite a stir. "You missed dinner with the Harding's because you were with Liz…"

"Yes." Max made a gesture with his hand that matched the agitation in his voice at his brother's reaction to his whereabouts...or actually, the lack of them. "And it was worth all of Michael's rants and Harding's wearied sighs or even a lifetime of disapproving looks from Tess."

Click. Max paused a moment, his eyes softening with emotions Diane hadn't seen reflected in those soulful eyes of his in what seemed like a lifetime. "Liz...she reminded me of something last night, Mom. She reminded me that parents love their children no matter how their children behave. As angels or beasts...the one thing you can't escape is your parent's love." Max half-grinned up at her as he cast a sidelong glance. "Not that I want to escape it..."

Diane smiled lovingly as Max continued. "Still...I just wanted you to know..." Max reached over and took his mother's hand in his. "You can't escape mine either. I love you, Mom. And I love how you and dad raised me. How you still love me enough to confront me or send me to my room when I do something deserving of it...even if I am 28 years old." Max added with a grin, which brought a chuckle from Diane.

Max sobered and his eyes held a look of repentance. "Most of all, I wanted you to know how sorry I am for what I did to you yesterday..."

"To me?" Diane asked with upraised eyebrow.

"Yes, to you. I stole a memory from you...of Phillip. The pictures Liz could have taken would have been treasured for years to come. I know that now, and I'm sorry my...stupidity...took that from you."

Diane reached over and caressed Max's face with her soft warm hand. A hand that had often brought comfort when he was sick and wiped tears from his eyes when his heart was broken and at other times held onto him to keep him from running headlong into danger...a hand that he loved and counted on more than he'd realized. Tears shone in her eyes and her voice softened when she finally spoke. "That's ok, sweetie. We'll have other chances to capture the beauty of Phillip's childhood..."

"Yeah, we will." Max confirmed with a smile as his eyes began to twinkle with a light that she thought had been extinguished long ago, but was suddenly attempting to re-spark. "In fact, you might get her to take some pictures today for you."

"Liz is coming back?" Diane's blue eyes brightened at the prospect. She'd only met the girl once, but that one meeting brought a breath of fresh air blowing through the house that had apparently made it's way into Max's heart and gave him back a little bit of his much-missed sparkle.

"Yep." Max nodded as he turned back to the job of fixing his breakfast plate. A slightly annoyed frown made it to his face as he recounted the details of the previous day's events. "Tess decided to call Mr. Hewitt after yesterday and have Liz dismissed from her job..."

"She had Liz fired?" Diane's eyes widened in disbelief. "Why that little..."

The expletive hung in the air between them and Max shot Diane a look before a smirk claimed his lips. "That's what I thought too." Shrugging he turned back to his breakfast. "Anyway, I called Hewitt and explained what happened taking full blame. I then told him in no uncertain terms she was not to lose her job over what happened. In fact , I even convinced him to give her a promotion. Then I scheduled another shoot for this morning. They should be here around nine-thirty."

"Tess will be thrilled with the new photos. She was quite distressed yesterday after finding out the film had been destroyed." Diane commented before buttering a piece of toast. "Of course, she blamed it all on Liz..."

"I know." Max's annoyance with Tess was clear in the shake of his tousled head and the stubborn set of his jaw. "Which makes me wonder how she's going to take having Liz back here again. I hope she's not rude..."

Pointing a fork in Max's direction Diane interrupted with another thought so she didn't have to respond to Max's last one. "Wait a minute. I thought you didn't want pictures taken at all...at least not for the magazines. In fact, yesterday you were dead set against having them made."

Max swallowed a bit of food before answering with a slight tilt of his head. "For Liz, I can make an exception. I mean, I do owe it to her after how horrible I was. And no matter how Tess reacts, I'm going to make sure Liz doesn't regret coming back here. That's what she did for me last night... Besides, somehow it doesn't bother me now that I know her heart."

"You think you know heart?" Diane's eyes twinkled with amusement. He just met this girl and already thought he knew her. She'd been married to John for years and wasn't sure if she could say the same. She had a feeling Liz was going to be much more of a challenge than Max imagined.

Click. "Yeah, pretty well." Max grinned at the look on Diane's face that he took as surprise. "Don't look so surprised, Mom. She doesn't leave much to the imagination when it comes to where she stands. She has these two beautiful children that she absolutely adores and who adore her right back. She loves her work. And hated me for destroying it."

"Hated. As in past tense." Diane commented as she reached for a pot of coffee to fill up her cup then offered some to Max which he refused.

"Well...maybe not hated, but definitely in past tense. In fact, when I left...well, I felt that we had a certain..." Max let out a sigh as he thought of the feeling that had come over him when he shook Liz's hand. "...connection between us, I guess you could say."

Both of Diane's eyebrows raised at Max's choice of words...and the sigh that accompanied them. "And..." Diane continued his thought knowing there was more to his thinking than he was saying.

Not picking up on her subtle tone of voice, Max explained the details of his deal with Hewitt. "And...Hewitt promised me first look at any and all photos. I can keep the ones I want and he'll destroy the negatives of the ones I don't. For an extra fee, of course. Nothing will be sent to the magazines without my approval regardless of Tess' instructions."

Stuffing a forkful of pancakes in his mouth, Max sat back with a satisfied light in his eyes that Diane couldn't help but admire. "You did a good thing, son. She shouldn't have lost her job over what..."

"...I did. I know. I tried to tell Tess but she just wouldn't listen." Max's eyes darkened with irritation as he picked up a glass of orange juice to drink it then suddenly set it back down with a mumble. "She never listens…"

Click. The light surrounding Max faded as he began to absently play with the food on his plate before pushing it away absently. Suddenly, he wasn't all that hungry. Probably due to the way his stomach had instantly tied into knots when he thought of Tess and just how different she was…from Liz. Pushing the thought to the back of his mind, Max swallowed the lump that came to his throat. "You know what...I'm not all that hungry any more. I think I'm going to get some work done before she gets here. I have a feeling once she does, sparks will be flying..."

Diane smiled knowingly with a slight nod of her head. The light in his eyes and the nervousness way he pushed his food around on his plate before deciding he couldn't eat any more gave Diane all the information she needed about the state of her son's heart. Even though he may not know it, the 'she' he was talking about getting ready for wasn't his future bride...it was the beautiful photographer that had somehow managed to change part of his outlook on the world in just one day. And those 'sparks' he was expecting…

Sensing the stirrings of a new love in the air, Diane Evans smiled secretly to herself as Max leaned over and kissed her cheek once more before squeezing her shoulder. "I'll see you later..."

"Ok, hon." Diane responded as she patted his hand lovingly. As she heard him shuffle away, Diane looked back to see Max's slow, pained progression to the door. "Oh, Max...one thing. What's with the limp?"

Max stopped and turned back to her with a sheepish grin as he ducked his head to the side in the adorable way he used to do when he was embarrassed. "I had a fight with a door last night."

"A door." Diane repeated as her eyes began to sparkle with curiosity.

"Yeah. It tried to slam in my face and I stuck my foot in its path." Max's vague answer spoke volumes that Diane was eager to read.

She bit her lip to keep from laughing at the scene she could picture in her mind. She was sure the door being slammed belong to one very spunky, fiery, opinionated photographer. That Max cared enough about his mission to risk the injury of his foot told of the importance he placed on the visit. Not to mention missing his dinner date. "Just out of curiosity...how many times did the door get slammed?"

Max's grin widened. "Three...or at least she tried three times. My foot stopped it once and...well, I fell through the door into the apartment on the last time."

Diane's blonde eyebrow raised as she tried to keep a straight face. "Was it worth it?"

"Even making a literal ass of myself?" Click. Max tilted his head to the side as if in thought. Even though moments had been painful for him, both physically and emotionally, Max couldn't help but smile contentedly when he remembered the kids sharing candy with 'Mr. Donkey' and seeing Liz's tears of acceptance when he gave her Grams' camera. And that smile of hers... There was simply no other answer to his mother's question.

"Yeah…I'd say it was worth every last bit of it..." Max shook his head with a disbelieving chuckle then turned and limped out the door with a sigh that Diane could hear all the way from where she was sitting. A smile claimed her lips and refused to let go as her mind began to turn…
~~~~~~~~~~~~
The loud incessant pounding on the door made Liz growl with irritation as she stumbled down the hall almost tripping over one of Brett's trucks. "Aaarrggghh, these kids! When I told them to pick up their toys I didn't mean to pick them up from the middle of the hall and deposit them at the end!"

Making her way into the living room, Liz yelled out, "Hold on a sec. I'm coming. I'm coming." Liz checked to make sure her robe was fastened around her before throwing open the door.

"What a fine sight you make! Don't tell me you forgot to take your mask off from last night..."

"You're funny." Liz responded sarcastically as she let out a weary sigh. "I spent most of the night taking care of Brett. He has a cold and can't sleep and that makes him miserable which in turn keeps me up..." Liz stopped suddenly and squinted her eyes at Alex. "Why are you here again?"

"To act as chauffeur to our newly promoted head of photography at Hewitt Photos. So, congratulations, boss!" Alex pulled from behind his back a bouquet of flowers and thrust them in Liz's face. "Wish I could take credit for these, but they're really from someone else. I just said I'd deliver them..."

Liz blinked her eyes a few times and yawned before rubbing the sleep from her eyes. "What are you talking about, Alex?"

"You. And your new job with Hewitt."

Liz cocked a slender eyebrow at Alex as she eyed the flowers in front of her making no move to take them. "You really should read the office memos, Alex. Hewitt fired me yesterday after we got back from the Evans residence, remember?" Liz ran her hands through her uncombed hair and yawned once more.

Alex pushed past Liz as he headed into her apartment and turned to face her with a smile and a nod. "Uh-huh. Then he turned around and re-hired you with a promotion to boot the moment he got off the phone with Max Evans. Didn't I tell you the man can pretty much drop his name and the world moves for him?" Alex looked at her with a critical eye realizing she had no idea what he was talking about. "Do you really not know about this? Hewitt was supposed to call you..."

"Call me? What are you talking about? I didn't get any calls." Liz rushed to the phone and let out a groan when she saw the reason why she hadn't received a phone call. Holding up the phone cord to Alex, Liz shook her head causing her hair to bounce across her shoulders. "I'm really going to have to have a talk with my kids..."

Alex began to chuckle. "Well, get moving..." He glanced down at his watch. "Because we have exactly 45 minutes to get there."

"Get where?"

"Back out to the Evans residence..." Alex informed her while still holding the flowers in his hand.

Hearing the name 'Evans' reminded her of something Alex had said earlier. "Wait a minute. You said Hewitt re-hired me after a call from Max, right?"

"Yep, that's what happened." Alex wiggled his eyebrows at Liz. "You should hear the rumors going around. Half the studio thinks young Mr. Evans has the hots for you..."

"Why in the world would they think that?" Liz asked as instant irritation flashed in her eyes as her stomach suddenly tied in knots. "He's engaged, for Pete's sake!"

Alex shrugged. "Well...he got you a promotion, didn't he? Not to mention these flowers..."

Liz rushed to Alex and grabbed the flowers out of his hands. Finding the card buried deep within the depths of the blue-purple petals, Liz pulled it out of the envelope and read, "A new job to go with the new camera. Congratulations. I'm sure you deserve it. Max a.k.a. 'Mr. Donkey'".

"Aaaarrrggghhh!" Liz tore up Max's card and shook the flowers in Alex's face. "Mr. Donkey, my foot! He is still the same jack⊕ss that he was yesterday! Ohhhhh, I can't believe he did this!"

Surprised by her response, Alex took a step back and held his hands up in the air in an attitude of defense. "Whoa, there. I don't get it. I thought you'd be happy to get your job back. What's the problem?"

"What's the problem?" Liz asked as she rushed over to a side cabinet, pulled out a drawer and grabbed a pair of scissors. "I'll tell you what the problem is! He thinks he can soothe…" Snip.

The snipping noises Alex heard at each new phrase seemed to grow in intensity with each new level of Liz's anger. "… his conscience by…" Snip.

"…buying me off…" Snip.

"…with a job!" Snip. Snip. Snip. "Well, I’m going to show him! No one owns Liz Parker! Not my father…not my snooty boyfriends back home! And certainly not Mr. Maxwell Evans!"

Click. The finale of her rant was accompanied by the crashing of the scissors on the top of the cabinet before Liz turned around and stomped up to Alex with an armful of shredded petals and stems. "Here! Take this to Mr.-I-want-to-control-your-world-Evans and tell him I don't want anything to do with this…this attempt of his to…to…sleep better at night!"

Liz turned her back on Alex and dropped down on the couch with a plop as she folded her arms in front of her. Alex stood a moment staring at her as if she'd gone mad. He looked down at the flowers in his hands then back up at Liz with a slow grin. "God, I wish I'd had that one on video to show him. Could you…do you think you could come with me…and do it again?"

Her steam having been depleted, Liz let out a light chuckle at his attempt at humor then buried her face in her hands with a groan. "Oh, Alex. What am I going to do?"

Alex came and sat next to her on the couch careful not to spill the pile in his hands. "Well, what are your choices?"

Liz shrugged as she let out a sigh. "Well…I could go back to Hewitt and take the job knowing that it's a tainted position. I mean, can you remember the last time Hewitt's actually promoted someone?"

Liz waited for the adamant shake of Alex's head. "Exactly. Especially not someone as new as I am. I'm the junior member of the staff. How will everyone react when I get promoted before them after all the hard work and talent they give every day? You said it yourself, rumors are already starting to fly…"

"No, that wouldn't be right." Shaking her head, Liz stared at the table in front of her and smiled slightly when she saw Brett's favorite stuffed animal, his little brown dog named Ruff. Picking it up she held it in front of her. "Then again, I have two kids to feed. I'd love to try to find a job with an architectural firm, but…well, let's face it. Who knows how long that will take? I could take a risk on my dreams once, but now…"

"What's stopping you now?"

"Now, I have the kids to worry about." Liz answered with a sigh as reality began to set in. "Well, I guess that answers the problem, right? I need the job to take care of the kids. Heaven knows their father doesn't help much...if at all." Liz hoiseted herself off the couch and headed for the phone. "Let me call Mrs. Ferguson to see if she can watch Brett then I'll call Hewitt..."

After receiving word she'd have a babysitter for the day, Liz dialed the familiar number of her work and waited till Hewitt joined the line. "Hi, this is Liz..."

"Liz! I've been trying to call you all night..." Mr. Hewitt spoke into the phone anxiously.

"So, I hear. Sorry about that. The kids..."

"Never mind. Never mind. I wanted to tell you that I was a bit...hasty...when I fired you yesterday. Events since then have prompted my reevaluation of my position and not only do I want to hire you back, but I want to give you a promotion as well." Hewitt got his well-practiced speech out within a matter of seconds and with little feeling.

The flat, un-apologetic tone of voice Liz heard coming over the line caused her irritation to flare once more. "Events, huh? And what events might you be talking about, Mr. Hewitt? Would they be a certain conversation you had with Max Evans yesterday?" Liz couldn't keep the contempt out of voice any more than she could control the weather.

"Well...I...um..."

She began to tap her foot as she turned a glare of anger on Alex. "Huh-huh. Just what I thought. So, what exactly is the deal, Hewitt? How much did he pay you to put me back on the payroll?"

"Why, Liz...I'm shocked. He didn't pay me anything." Hewitt exclaimed in a tone she'd heard before. It was usually when the little beads of persperation began to make their way to his forehead signaling his nervousness. "He simply explained the misunderstanding and said that you were too good of a photographer for me to let go. And I agreed."

"Right..." Liz was completely unconvinced by Hewitt's words even if his tone did sound somewhat sincere. "You know what? I called you to hear you eat a little crow and tell you I'd accept this job, but now..."

Click. Just then Liz's words were stopped by the sight of a curly mess of blonde hair that was bobbing down the hallway. The next second revealed big sleepy blue eyes and the chubby cheeks of a little 2 year old who was holding his ragged blanket to his chest and sucking his thumb as he made his way to the living room.

Liz let out a sigh as her eyes moved to the photo of Autumn and Brett hanging on the wall while a war began in a mother's heart between that which she wanted to do...and that which she had to for the sake of her children. Click.

"Liz?" Hewitt's voice called her back to the present. "What's it going to be? Do you want the job or not?"
~~~~~~~~~
Heading up the stairs to his office Max heard a quiet "Psst. Pssst. Over here." Max stopped and looked around him, down the staircase then back up before turning toward the window on the landing that overlooked the garden below.

"Grams. What are you doing?" Max asked as he ducked into the window seat with his grandmother taking her hand gently in his.

"I'm watching the baby birds in the tree." She pointed a slender wrinkled finger out toward the tree whose branches barely missed touching the windows. Nestled deep within the branches sat one lone nest that had somehow missed the call of fall and sat open for public observation. "Aren't they precious? The way they wait for their mother to feed them their breakfast. All of that love spent to go out and search for food just to bring it home to her young ones."

Click. "Yeah…mothers are pretty wonderful." Max said with a smile as he not only thought of his own mother but the young mother he'd observed last night. The photos Liz had taken of her children flashed in his mind and he couldn't help but feel the warmth looking at them had given him. It was obvious how much she loved her kids not only by the way she spoke with them, but also by the way she taught them which was so evident in the way they'd accepted him into their home.

Letting out a gentle sigh, Grams turned from watching the baby birds to concentrate on the baby before her, for in her mind Max would always be her baby. One to be protected and cared for. "How was the dance last night, luv?"

Max smiled knowing what his grandmother was alluding to and bobbed his head from one side to the other in an uncertain gesture. "Well…it started off rather badly, but I eventually got through to her. She loved your camera. Hers was very special to her..."

"I know." Grams said with a satisfied smile and a tiny dip of her graying head.

"How did you know?"

"I saw her crying over it. If it had just been some piece of plastic, tears of loss like that wouldn't have been shed." Her soft lilting accent became as dreamily sad as the look in her eyes when she tilted her head to the side and began slowly rocking herself back and forth like a little child. "Do you remember before your grandfather's funeral when I was so upset about not being able to find my bracelet? The one that I'd worn so much the clasp was beginning to unhinge and the metal was tarnishing? The one that I thought..."

"The one you thought you'd lost for good?" Max asked with a nod. "Yeah, I remember it. I couldn't understand why it would bother you so much because it was so old, but we searched until we found it behind one of the cushions on the loveseat in the 'Happy Room'."

"Yes." Grams confirmed as her eyes began to mist and her hand found it's way to her wrist as if trying to find the very bracelet again. "Do you know why I cried so hard when I couldn't find it?"

"Well...I know it was a gift from Gramps..."

"It wasn't just a gift. It was the first gift he ever gave me. It wasn't much." She smiled sweetly at the memory. "It wasn't even real. Just a dime store bracelet...we didn't have money for anything else. But it meant the world to me because of the love I felt when your Gramps gave it to me. It filled the universe, Max."

Grams looked back at Max as she reached for his hand. "Just remember, luv, a lost gift from a lover can never truly be replaced. Just like the love can't. You made a good start last night but you need to respect the power of a first love..." Click.

Max shook his head in confusion. "I don't understand. Grams, what are you trying to tell me?"

Before Grams got a chance to respond, Max and Grams were interrupted by the loud pounding of Michael's footsteps on the stairs. "Finally. I found you." Michael leaned over and kissed his grandmother gently before turning to Max. "You and me. In your office. We've got a date to discuss you're little..." Michael glanced at his grandmother and amended the choice of his words. "...incident from last night."

Max rolled his eyes and shook his head in annoyance. "Can't you see I'm busy?"

"Yeah. Like you were too busy to prepare me for the bombshell you dropped on us last night." Michael turned to Grams gesturing widely with his hands. "I'm sorry, Grams, but Max and I have family business we need to deal with."

Seeing the determination in Michael's eyes, Max released a loud sigh as he got up. "Michael, this is ridiculous. You are so completely over-reacting to what happened last night..."

"In your office, Max." Michael demanded before turning and heading up the stairs to wait for Max. "Now."

Max swallowed his annoyance at being ordered around by a brother only 2 years his senior before turning to Grams with an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry. I guess I need to go talk to him and get this over with."

Click. Grams took Max's hand in pulled him down to her as she earnestly began to speak. "The survival of the family depends on us all, Max, not just one. We are a unit. We cannot have happiness if one of us is miserable. Please remember..."

Max blinked at his grandmother's words and the sudden worry in her eyes. Laughing uncomfortably, Max pulled her to him in a hug of reassurance. "Don't worry. I'll remember, Grams." Max released her with a kiss on the top of her head then headed upstairs to face Michael wondering once more how much longer it would be before Grams completely lost her mind. Click.

Considering this wedding that was about to take place and the hoops he would have to jump through to make it happen Max figured his mind would go before Grams'. Especially with this upcoming lecture from Michael.

Max stopped before the door of his office and put a hesitating hand on the knob. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and prepared himself for the storm inside before opening the door and closing it quietly behind him. Click.

No sooner did the click of the door echo through the room than Michael, who was pacing in front of Max's desk, spun around to glare at Max as a moment of silence hung in the air. Like a strained rope that finally gives way, Michael threw his hands up and exploded. "Just what the hell do you think you're doing? Do you want to ruin all us???"

to be continued...
posted on 8-Dec-2002 7:32:31 PM by Ashton
~ chapter 9~

"Just what the hell do you think you're doing? Do you want to ruin all us???" Michael's voice split the silence of the room and Max felt the full weight of Michael's question squash the rising anger that he'd instantly felt.

"Ruining us is the last thing I plan to do, Michael." Max stated matter-of-factly as he walked to his desk and plopped down on his chair rolling forward and pulling out a file to opened it as if to go to work.

Michael slammed his hand down on the file and Max snapped his head up to stare at his brother. "Damnit, Max! Talk to me! What was with that fiasco last night?"

Max let out a sigh as he rolled his eyes. "It wasn't a fiasco. And it was called making amends."

"IN A JACKASS COSTUME????" Michael yelled.

Despite the anger emanating from Michael's whole being, a slight smile took control of Max's lips as a chuckle welled up deep inside him and burst forth breaking the seriousness of the moment. Max couldn't help it. The vision he created when he waltzed into the Harding mansion along with the reactions he'd received played over and over in his mind.

Tess' eyes had turned from relief to disbelief and embarrassment in an instant. Maria tried to hide her grin behind Michael's shoulder as she turned her head behind his back. Michael stood gaping with his mouth open. And Weston Harding exploded. He demanded to know the meaning of Max's tardiness as well as the manner of his dress.

It was at that point Max realized he'd forgotten to take off part of his Halloween costume in his rush to get from Liz's place to the Harding's. He made quite the picture standing in the formal dining room of the Harding mansion wearing the bottom half of a donkey costume complete with hooves and a tail that had somehow managed to get twisted around his belt. Click.

Shrugging with a boyish grin and holding out his hands, Max's only response was, "Trick or treat anyone?" It was a question that prompted the rapid closure of the evening with Harding's loud exclamation of disbelief followed by a demand that he leave the premises till he can dress properly, accompanied by Tess' cold glare before she rushed up the stairs to her room.

Now in the light of a new morning, Michael stood in stunned silence as he watched his brother lean over the desk, his face turning red from laughter at the image Michael's reminder brought to his mind. Before he knew it, Michael's face broke into a smile and a tiny chuckle bubbled up inside him as well.

"Did you…did you…see…Harding's…face…." The few moments of shared laughter ended abruptly when Max's words reminded Michael of the risk Max's antics had put them in the night before.

Michael's face fell and his voice turned cold. "Yes. Yes, I did. Unfortunately, I'm the one that's going to have to explain this whole…mess…to him." Putting his hands on his hips, Michael made a demand. "And you're going to tell me what to say!"

Irritation flashed in Max's eyes as his grin faded. "I don't care what you tell him, Michael. Tell him…tell him it was a case of temporary insanity. Or how about that I was being human and having fun for once. I'm sure that'll fit nicely with his idea of the 'perfect', sensible son-in-law. Look, Michael, say whatever you have to. I really don't care!"

"How can you be so flippant at a time like this?" Michael asked as he began to pace in front of Max's desk without removing his gaze from Max's face. "Max, I'm telling you now, you need to be serious…"

"Why should I? You're serious enough about it for the both of us." Max shot back as his eyes turned distant and cold.

"Well, someone has to be. Do you know what Harding was doing last night when you didn't show? He was actually questioning your commitment to his daughter and this marriage." Michael turned to face Max placing his palms on the desk and leaning over it. "Doubts like that are unacceptable, Max. After all the problems with grandfather, we need this merger…"

A wry, ironic smile touched his lips as he leaned back in his chair and stared at Michael. "You know, I really don't get it. This is supposed to be my wedding. The most important day of my life. Yet, you treat it more like a business deal than the beginning of a lifetime of happiness." Max looked away uncomfortably as he muttered to himself. "Maybe that's exactly what it is to you…"

"You're kidding, right?" Michael asked as he moved to the chair in front of Max's desk and leaned forward. "Max, you know this is more than a merger to me. I want to see you happy. But the fact remains Grandfather's problems have left us with a few of our own. Harding is the kind of solution we've been looking for. His reputation and credibility can only make us legitimate again in the eyes of the public. Not to mention the money that will come along with the merger. It will help get us out of the hole we got into with court costs and investigators."

"I'm well aware of that, Michael. I know this deal like the back of my hand." Max's wearied sigh accompanied Max's hand running through his thick dark locks. "In case you forgot, this merger with Harding was my idea in the first place…"

"And a fine idea it was." Michael's face creased into a broad smile. "Especially the part about marrying the daughter..."

"The proposal was Tess' idea, Michael, and you know it. I merely…agreed." Click. Max got out of his seat with an exasperated sigh and wandered to the window. Leaning against it, he looked down at the garden in the back of the house. He spotted the bright red sweater he'd bought for his grandmother the year before for Christmas as she tottered down the worn path occasionally stopping to touch a leaf or flower gently with her aged hand before turning down the path that led to grandfather's cottage.

Max's eyes took on a haunted far-away look that Michael recognized all too well. It was the way he looked when he would think about 'her'. "You know, I always pictured this time in my life…different somehow. I thought I'd be more…" Max let out a sigh. "I don't know…more excited. Helping make the wedding plans...planning for the honeymoon. Doing more. Feeling…more. Just…" His gaze faltered as he looked down at the floor. "...*being*…more." Click.

"Look, Max. Don't do this to yourself." Michael's voice broke through Max's gentle conversation with the window. "I know Tess isn't…"

"Don’t say it…" Max put up his hand to stop Michael's words as his voice hardened. "Don't you dare say her name…"

Recognizing Max's defenses rising, Michael ventured a guess he wasn't quite sure Max would voice on his own. "Is this what last night was all about? Are you having doubts about this marriage?"

"What if I am?" Max asked back unable to meet Michael's gaze.

"Dismiss them." Michael stated calmly with a careless wave of his hand. He was trying desperately to pull Max back away from the land of doubt and guilt. "I know Tess is not what you always dreamed love would be…but you've tried it your way. And look where it got you. Now it's time to try it the way the rest of the world does…sensibly."

Click. Max took a deep breath and closed his eyes against the reality of Michael's words. Swallowing his dreams along with the lump in his throat, Max nodded slightly and opened his eyes. When Max's eyes turned back to Michael, the determination of a businessman pushed away the doubts of the romantic. "You're right. Being sensible is the way to go…"

Clearing his throat, Max headed back toward his desk and folded his hands in front of him as he sat down in his blue leather chair. "Speaking of sensible. This merger. Are you sure it's the right thing to do?"

Michael crossed his legs and leaned back in his seat sure now that Max was back on the right track. "You know the score. We can't make deals if people don't trust us. And right now…they don't."

"I know. But I hate giving up everything Gramps ever worked for…his life's dream…with just the stroke of a pen…" Max sighed as he looked down at his hands. "It just doesn't seem right."

"How else are we going to get everything back?"

"I don't know, Michael." Max's eyes searched the ceiling as if in thought. "Maybe some good old fashioned hard work. Hire a new ad agency. Show some integrity of our own. We could take it to bigger and better heights than even Gramps ever dreamed. You know, prove to people M&L Evans is a company of it's word…"

"That would take years, Max." Michael's pessimism broke through the lofty ideals Max's mind was turning out. "We'll be dirt poor by then. And unfortunately, integrity is hard to find now a days and it certainly won't get Phillip into the best schools in the world."

Max raised an eyebrow in concession before sighing. "Still, it just seems there should be a way…" Max mumbled as he sat with his chin in his hand staring at the papers in front of him seeing nothing but the plans in his head.

Michael got up with a sigh. "Well, if you figure out how…let me know. Because I'd love nothing better than to hold on to the M&L for Phillip someday." Michael headed toward the door then stopped and turned to Max with one more admonition. "Oh, and Max…next time you feel the need to make amends…please don't make a jackass out of yourself doing it."

Max grinned slightly at Michael's chuckle when he closed the door behind him knowing things were right with his brother once more. Alone once again, Max sat contemplating the puzzle pieces of broken dreams laying around him and wishing to God he had the puzzle top of his life to give him an idea of the picture he was destined to make. Click.
~~~~~~~~
"Well? Do you want it or not?" Hewitt's impatient voice brought Liz back to the moment of her decision.

Turning away from Brett's sleepy smile and the photos of the kids, Liz took a deep breath and raised her chin with determination. "Yes. I'll take the job."

Hewitt breathed a sigh of relief. "Great! Now, the first thing you need to do is get to the Evans residence…"

"Hold it." Liz stopped Hewitt instructions with the seriousness of her tone. "I'm not finished."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that I wanted to get my job back so that I could tell you this. I just realized something standing her watching my little boy smile at me. Do you know what that was?" Liz's eyes flashed with defiance and pride. "I can give these children more than food on the table...I can give them an example. An example of integrity. Of doing what my heart tells me to do. Mr. Hewitt...I quit!"

"Mr. Evans isn't going to like this..." Hewitt attempted the sentence under his breath. Then again, he was never clearly aware of just how well his weasely voice carried.

"I don't give a flying fig newton what Mr. Evans will and will not like, Mr. Hewitt. It's my conscience I have to live with…not his. And my conscience says to take this chance to walk away now before it's too late."

"Liz, please...is there anything…."

"No, there isn't. Good-bye, Mr. Hewitt." Liz dropped the phone onto the cradle with a decided air of satisfaction. Letting out a sigh she turned to Alex with a satisfied smile. "Well, that's over."

Alex stood up from the couch and began clapping loudly for her. "Bravo! Bravo! You certainly showed that stuffy Max Evans!" Alex's smile faded suddenly and his hands stopped in mid-air. "Uh….Liz? Just one question. What are you going to do now?"
~~~~~~~~~
Tess paused to plaster her trademark smile to her face before opening the door to Max's office. If she handled this right they wouldn't get into another fight like they almost had the night before when she called Max demanding an explanation for his behavior. She'd been appalled that after everything he'd put them through there wasn't one once of remorse in him. She simply needed to make it clear that his atrocious behavior wouldn't be allowed. That he'd gotten by with it this time, but things needed to change. And they needed to change quickly.

"Good morning, darling." Tess practically sang as she floated into the room and to Max's side. Leaning down and kissing him quickly on the lips, she pulled back and tilted her head to the side as she ran her fingers through the back of his hair. "My, don't you look impressive today…"

Click. Since the first time she'd run her fingers through his hair, Max had always had to fight the urge not to cringe at her touch. He fought the urge once again as he glanced up at her and took in her appearance with an acknowledging smile. "Thank you. So do you." He pushed his chair back from his desk and swung around to face her. "Look, Tess, about last night…"

Tess shrugged her slender shoulders and twittered an effected laugh in Max's direction while waving her hand dismissively in the air. "Oh, don't worry about last night, darling. I decided this morning when Mother told me you'd called and ask that I come see you that I would forgive you. I figured you must have come to your senses and realized that your behavior was not befitting the son-in-law of Weston Harding."

Tess turned away from Max as she moved slowly around his desk trailing her hand along the edge till she came to the front and toyed with a paperweight that was on his desk. A paperweight his grandfather had given him for his 25th birthday. "I even told Daddy so. And he agreed to forgive you…this time." Bringing her eyes back to his face, she ended her speech with an admonishment. "But, darling, you simply can't let it happen again. So, now that we've agreed, there's really no need to apologize…"

With a shake of his head, Max let out a sigh of irritation and began unconsciously drumming his fingers on the desk. It was obvious they were never going to agree on the events of the whole of yesterday so he might as well just come out with what he had to say. "I wasn't going to apologize, Tess."

Ignoring the shocked look on her face, Max continued, trying to choose his words carefully. "In fact, there's only one thing about yesterday that I would change if I could, but I can't. And since I can't…I've taken steps to make amends the best I can. Part of that attempt resulted in what happened last night. And the rest…well, Tess…I was going to tell you the reason why I asked you come over this morning. I've called the photographers back and they'll be here in about 10 minutes to take more photos."


Tess' hands flew to her face. "Oh, dear! Ten minutes! I need to get ready! I have to call the girls…"

"Already done." Max informed her. "In fact, they should be downstairs by now."

Tess practically jumped up and down uncharacteristically. "Oh, goodness! I've got to go then…"

"Tess, wait!" Max called out to her as she headed for the door. "There's something else…"

"Not now, dear. I need to be ready for the cameras! Our public waits our appearance in the press, you know…" Blowing Max a kiss she smiled prettily. "I'll see you downstairs in a bit! Ta!!"

Max let out a groan as he rolled his eyes when he heard the door slam behind her. "I've created a monster. I just hope Liz is up to the challenge…"
~~~~~~~~~~
Dressed in a smart dark blue business suit, Liz stepped off the elevator on the 13th floor of the Empire Towers. Clearing her throat she smoothed her hair down with her hand then took a deep breath before approaching the front desk.

"Yes, may I help you?" The blonde receptionist with the Southern drawl looked up at Liz after hanging up the phone.

Liz smiled at the receptionist. "Uh…yes. I'm here to see Mr. Cortland for a position. I brought my portfolio with several architectural drawings…"

The receptionist stopped Liz's speech with a raised hand. "Do you have an appointment?"

Liz looked down at the desk sheepishly. "Um…no, but all I really need is five minutes of his time…"

"I'm sorry, miss, but you can't get in to see Mr. Cortland without an appointment." Suddenly becoming chatty, the receptionist leaned forward. "Besides, there are no positions open for design architects. In fact, Mr. Cortland just hired 2 new people this past week. You wouldn't want to work for him anyway…he's such a skirt chaser, if you get my drift…"

Li nodded understandingly as her mind began to whirl with new angles on how to get an appointment. Architectural Designs was one of New York's premier architectural firms. Deciding that even if she got turned down there, at least she was going to start at the top Liz had made this her first stop on the road to finding a new job. "Oh, I completely understand…"

Just then a side door opened and a group of three men walked through it toward the lobby area. The short, stocky, dark-haired man of the group was talking animatedly until he saw Liz standing at the desk. He immediately lost his train of thought as his eyes swept over her perfect figure and the other two men glanced at each other with a roll of their eyes knowing they'd lost any opportunity they might have had to pitch their new campaign to their boss.

Leaving the two men stranded, Bradley Cortland approached the desk and glanced at his receptionist before turning his eyes back onto Liz. "Do you have any messages for me, Paula?"

Paula glanced at Liz and nodded her head slightly in his direction to let Liz know he was the man she'd just been talking about. "No, Mr. Cortland. I have no messages at this time…"

Cortland nodded with a smile to Liz, his eyes taking in every inch of her beautiful face. "And who do we have here?"

Liz couldn't believe her misfortune. From the looks of him, the receptionist had been right. He was a slimy leering snake in the grass dressed in a nice suit with slicked back hair and a smile that revealed deep dimples in his cheeks. His whole demeanor was of a man that couldn't be trusted, especially with that roving eye of his. Definitely not the kind of man she wanted to work for. He was even worse than Hewitt. She needed to get out of this and get out fast.

Before she could think of a good excuse to walk away, however, Cortland had reached over and captured her hand in his sweaty palm holding it firmly. She smiled uncomfortably and did what was expected. She introduced herself. "Hi, my name is Liz. Liz Parker.

"Liz Parker. What a pleasure to meet you." He tilted his balding head to the side. "What brings you to our office, Miss Parker. It is Miss, isn't it?"

Liz swallowed as her mouth suddenly went dry and she pulled her hand away. "Uh…yes. I'm here….that is, I was here to see about getting an appointment with you, but I can see how busy you are…" She glanced in the direction of the two men still standing off to the side like two puppy dogs waiting for their master's command.

"An appointment? And what would the appointment be for?" Cortland leaned into Liz so close she could feel his hot breath on her skin. She backed away a step before smiling sweetly and answering his question.

"I was looking for a job, but I hear all of your positions have been filled." Good one, Liz. That way you can get the heck out of dodge…

"What?" Cortland said in mock surprise. He turned to Paula with a smile. "All of our positions have been filled? Why…that's impossible." He looked back at Liz with a leering smile as his eyes darkened. "What kind of position are you looking for, Ms. Parker?"

"A…an architect. Actually...specializing in designs..." Liz faltered suddenly. The more she stood with this man the less she wanted to.

"Why…I'm sure we have a new position in the architecture department that just opened, don't we Tom?" Mr. Cortland turned to one of his faithful lap dogs who nodded on cue. "See? Tell you what…why don't I take you to lunch and we can…discuss future possibilities…"

Liz tucked her hair behind her ear and chewed on her bottom lip. "Well, I don't know. I really wouldn't want to interfere with your schedule…"

Bradley Cortland waved her protest away with his hand. "Don't mention it." His eyes moved suggestively down to the portfolio case in her hand. "I'd really love to see what you have in your…briefs…" He chuckled lightly. "What am I saying? I meant your briefcase…"

Click.Liz glanced at Paula with a 'what-do-I-do-now' look before Mr. Cortland took her elbow in his hand and led her to the elevator before she got a chance to make another sound.
~~~~~~~~~
Max descended the stairs the moment he heard the van door slam outside. Click. He fiddled with the buttons on his jacket and ran his fingers through his hair as he felt sudden butterflies tickle the inside of his stomach. Taking a deep breath he put on a smile and entered the side room where he'd told the butler to send the photographers when they got there.

Entering the room, Max quickly scanned the faces already gathered. Everyone was there. Tess and her entourage. His mother. Grams. Both sitting on the couch looking as if they were bored to tears with the present company. Alex, the photographer's assistant setting up his equipment. Everyone was there…except…

Max's smile faded as he approached Alex. "Excuse me, but where is Ms. Parker? I'd like a moment to speak with her…"

Alex looked up at Max and grinned. Even though Max towered over him in social stature, for the first time, Alex felt as if he had the real power. He shrugged. "She's not coming."

Max's eyes widened first in surprise then in concern. "She isn't? Did something happen…"

Alex's grin split his face. "Yeah. You could say that. She quit her job."

"She what??" Max's voice rose to fill the room stopping the girlish chatter that was coming from the direction of Tess and her retinue and made his mother and grandmother look up in surprise.

"Yep." Alex confirmed beginning to really enjoy himself. This was even better than the various scenerios he had played out in his mind on the way over to the Evans estate on how best to break the news. "Quit the moment she found out you arranged for it, she did."

Max shook his head in unbelief as he held his arms out to the open air in a gesture of frustration. "Why the hell did she do that?"

"Guess she didn't like the idea of being bought." Alex supplied the reason for Liz's actions as joyfully as if he'd been given a million dollars…well, almost as joyfully. "Oh, and she gave me a message to give to you…" Alex reached into his equipment bag and pulled out a clear plastic bag containing the remains of the bouquet Max sent to Liz. He held it out to Max. "She said she wanted nothing more to do with clearing your conscience."

Click. Max took the bag and ran his hand through his hair letting out an exaggerated sigh. He half tuned away so that he was facing his mother but his concentration was on the bag in his hand as he shook his head. Not catching his mom's knowing grin as she tried to hold back her amusement at Liz's response to his peace offering and Max's apparent bewilderment, Max spun back around to face Alex again as he pointed the bag at Alex for emphasis. "I can't believe this! Of all the foolish, stubborn, senseless, irresponsible things to do…"

"Maybe." Alex quipped. "But ya gotta admit…turning down a job with a promotion just so she could own her own life…well, it's… it's pretty damn admirable."

If Max had taken a moment to think about what Alex said, he probably would have readily agreed. But at the moment, he wasn't thinking. He didn't even realize it when Tess came up to him and placed a hand on his arm. "Max, darling? What's wrong?"

Max didn't even hear her. "How is she going to take care of the kids?"

"She who?" Tess asked as a strange feeling of déjà vu came over her.

"Like every other person in the world who has responsibilities. She's going to get herself a job." Alex responded to Max.

"With whom?"

"Who's going to get a job?" Tess asked again as her voice rose in pitch. "Max?"

"I don't know." Alex said as he pulled the camera out of it's case. "Said something about starting with Architectural Designs, I think." He placed the camera on the tripod and looked through the lens. "Doesn't really matter. The point is she's not working for you. Not here. Not today. Not ever."

Click. The moment Max heard the name 'Architectural Designs' he closed his eyes and shook his head. "No. She can't work there. Cortland is nothing but a…" Absently pushing the bag of flower petals and stems into Tess' hands, Max turned and headed toward the door.

"Max? Max? Where are you going? Max!" Tess' disturbed voice calling out his name was never answered as he slammed the door behind him.

Grams rose from her perch on the couch and carefully looked at the bag in Tess' hands. A slow smile graced her face as she spoke out loud to the person who would understand her the most as she played with the string of beads around her neck. "Why isn't that sweet, Maxwell? He got her flowers. Just like you did that first day you came to my house…"

Tess' maid of honor sidled up to her and looked over her shoulder as Tess turned away from Grams with a disdainful look. "Max buying flowers for another woman, huh? Isn't that odd? I thought you said Max never bought flowers for you."

Tess' head snapped up in the pride natural to every born Harding as she turned an upward nose to her friend. "He hasn't. Flowers are too common and too…mundane for people like us. Obviously, not so for this…person. Max was simply granting a gesture she would understand. I think it was dreadfully rude of her to refuse…" Tossing the bag on the floor Tess turned to her bridesmaids with a plastic smile. "Well, girls. What are we waiting for? Let's all get ready to smile for the camera!" Click.

~~~~~~~~~~
Sitting in a darkened corner booth, Liz sipped her water uncomfortably before trying once again to bring the conversation back to her work. "Mr. Cortland, I believe that with my energy and creativity, I could bring Architectural Designs to new heights…" Liz's sales pitch would have been going well except for the fact Mr. Cortland seemed to be paying more attention to the curves and angles of Liz's figure than the architectural drawings she'd brought with her to the impromptu 'interview'.

Bradley Cortland leaned back against the seat of the corner booth and stretched his arm out across the back of Liz's seat. "Suppose you tell me a little bit about yourself, Ms. Parker."

Click. Liz shifted in her seat slightly away from Cortland and smiled uncomfortably before taking another sip of water. Putting her glass down she turned back to him with renewed determination. She'd played this game before and had always won. There was no reason this man would be any different. "Well, I studied architecture at NYU…"

"No, no." Cortland leaned forward and tilted her chin with his forefinger. "That's not what I meant. Tell me about your personal life. Like…do you have a boyfriend?"

"No." Liz shook her head slightly and pulled away.

"You're involved with someone then."

"No, but I don't see…"

"Do you want to be? With someone that can…help you get where you want to go perhaps? Maybe…take you to new heights…" Cortland' eyes moved from her face to the top buttons of the blouse under her jacket and Liz could literally feel him undressing her with his eyes.

No longer caring about making impressions or even just getting through the lunch, Liz's eyes flashed with fire when she turned to him. "Just what exactly are you getting at, Mr. Cortland?"

Cortland shrugged and leaned forward his voice barely above a whisper and his grin suddenly reminded Liz of a shark. "This weekend. My chateau in Canada. Just you…and me…and your plans for your future…"

Click. Out of nowhere a well-built man with hair the color of raven's wings slid into the seat next to Liz blocking her from escaping either man. "Well, fancy meeting the two of you here." Max exclaimed with a bright, innocent smile. He held out his hand to Bradley trying to ignore the heat of Liz's glare. "How are you Brad? I had no idea you knew Liz."

Slipping his left arm along the back of Liz's chair, he grabbed up her right hand with his and smiled down at her before leaning over and giving her a peck on the cheek. "Hello, sweetie. You didn't tell me you were meeting with Brad today…"

Liz tried to pull her hand from Max's grip, but he held it as firmly as the painted smile on his face. Liz tilted her head to look up at him and smiled. "Well, you know me. I'm so full of surprises."

Max chuckled as his voice lowered meaningfully emphasizing every words as his dark eyes flashed her a warning. "*That* you are." Turning to Brad who was taking in the scene with increasing wariness, Max smiled. "So, what's on the menu of topics today? I thought I heard you say something about your chateau in Canada when I came up."

He turned to Liz and gently moved a strand of hair that had fallen in her face as she turned to him with raised doe eyes full of fire. "You'll love it there. Especially this time of year with all of the snow…" Breaking off his explanation to Liz, Max turned again to Brad with an innocent smile. "So, will the kids be joining us? Or were you planning on making it an adults only weekend with Lily, Liz and I?"

Liz turned her gaze to Cortland. "Lily?"

"That's Brad's wife." Max leaned over and pulled her closer to him as he explained. He was doing his level best to make sure Brad had no doubts that Liz was 'taken'. He'd had no plan when he walked into the restaurant and saw the situation Liz was in. He just dove in and began making up things as he went along. So far they seemed to be working. At least Brad's hands and eyes hadn't roamed anywhere they shouldn't be since his arrival.

Liz's eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. "Your wife?? Well, of all the low-down…"

Liz's statement was cut short when Max reached over, pulled her chin toward him and lowered his lips onto hers cutting off any further chance of speech in one swift move.

Click. The kiss was instantly electric and Max's hands moved with a will of their own to capture her face as soon as the kiss began. As he angled his head to take in more of her, a wave of pleasure rippled through him when Liz's lips parted unexpectedly to allow his entrance into the inviting heat of her mouth. A shiver of heat raced down his spine when Liz's fingers feathered through his hair as a small helpless sound from the back of her throat hummed through him, setting him on fire, while their tongues began a duel equaling the passion of earlier verbal battles.

This was exquisite. *She* was exquisite. From the silky strands of her thick, luxurious hair to the sweetness of her lips and mouth, Max was lost. Lost to all rational thought. Lost to social decorum. Lost in the feeling of heaven as it descended around him.

And he wasn’t the only one.

Liz's mind clouded with desire the instant she felt Max's warm lips on hers. The sensations that shot through her were dizzying and Liz's mind barely registered that she was the one who opened up to Max first. In fact, her mind wasn't functioning at all. Her body was in complete control as her hands found their way into Max's hair while her tongue stroked his in a fevered assault until a low moan escaped him. At the sound, her desire spiked.

The gutteral sound from deep inside Max's chest broke through the foggy haze of passion swirling around Max and he forced himself to break away from the heat of her lips seconds later with reluctance and regret previously unmatched before. In comparison to the roar of hunger ignited deep inside of them, it was a brief kiss but it was enough to set both of them on fire. And they both knew it…they both felt it…at that very first touch.

Click. Max was vaguely aware of the quickened pace of his heart when he pulled back and gazed into Liz's dazed eyes as his chest rose and fell erratically. Liz's dark eyes suddenly flickered with desire and her breathing was equally uneven as she gazed up at him in stunned silence. She'd never felt anything like his kiss before. It was soft, yet strong. Gentle, yet demanding. She wanted more, yet as ration began to descend on her once more, she knew she shouldn't. After all…he was an engaged man…

Brad cleared his throat pulling both of them back into reality. Max tore his gaze from Liz's beautiful face reluctantly and chuckled uncomfortably. "Sorry about that, Brad. You know what it's like not to be able to resist such a beauty…"

Brad's dimples made an appearance as he shrugged. "Yeah. I can certainly imagine." He answered as his gaze once more rested on Liz's now-swollen lips and he felt his chance of tasting them slip away as he watched Max and Liz together. It was obvious he wasn't going to get what he wanted, but it was also obvious by Max's mention of Lily earlier that Max wanted something as well. Now it was time to find out exactly what. "So, tell me. Does this…the two of you…mean that wedding I've been hearing about so much is off?"

Brad's question hit it's mark and Liz's gaze faltered to the table while Max's plastered grin deepened. He shrugged nonchalantly with a wink as he wrapped his arm more closely around Liz' shoulder. "No, it's still on. What can I say? A little bit of action on the side never really hurt if the little wife doesn't know, right? I mean, that has been your policy for so long, hasn't it, Brad?" Max's veiled threat was leveled smoothly and expertly and Brad got his full meaning without any further explanation.

Hearing Max's words, Liz's head snapped up in anger at the same time her foot went into action. Instinctively zoning in on her target, Liz kicked Max's shin under the table. "H--owww…would you like to order now?" Max managed to squeak out the question as he leaned forward slightly and bit the inside of his mouth to keep from yelling in pain. Click.

"Actually, I think I'd better be going." Brad responded as he removed his napkin from his lap.

"Oh, well that's too bad." Max stated with false disappointment as he quickly blinked back the tears of pain that stung his eyes. "Well, I guess Tess and I will catch you and Lily at the next gala event then." Max wrapped his arm more firmly around Liz's shoulder and cleared his throat. "Of course, by that time, I'm sure we'll have more time to discuss those plans of yours to expand your design department…"

Ah. So that's what he wanted. "Riiight." Locking eyes with Max, Brad instantly read Max's mind as he turned to Liz with a smile and held out his hand politely. "Ms. Parker. It was a pleasure. I truly enjoyed looking at your work. Would tomorrow be too soon to start?"

Liz's mouth dropped open and she was once again thrown into a situation she detested. Brad had barely looked at her drawings. How could he know if he liked them or not? No, it was something Max had said to him that brought about this change in him. Feeling Max's hand squeeze her shoulder, Liz shot Max a look of contempt before opening her mouth to answer in the negative.

Seeing the fire blaze in her eyes, Max answered before she got a chance. "Tomorrow isn't too soon at all. She'll be there at 8:00. By the way, what about the trip?"

Brad shook his head. "I think I'll take the wife and kids for a change. It's been a while since I've done the family thing…"

As soon as Brad left the table, Liz removed Max's arm from her shoulder with force and slid as far away from him as she could without falling out of the booth. Leaning over the table her eyes began to flash with fire and her voice lowered to dangerous depth. "Just what the hell was that all about?"

"That was about me saving your cute little butt." Max commented as he removed the napkin from his lap and tossed it on the table.

"Excuse me? How do you figure that?"

"Like you don't know." Max tossed back to her with a roll of his eyes. "My guess is he just created that 'position' you were interviewing for the moment he laid eyes on you, right? In fact, I'll bet the only position he had in mind was which one you'd be in once he got you in a hotel room or his chalet..."

"Don't you dare go there." Liz spat out unceremoniously reading Max's thoughts like they were her own.

Max threw his hands up. "Fine. All I'm saying is that I could see from halfway across the room that Cortland was only interested in one thing and it wasn't your designs. I was helping you out of a potentially embarrassing and dangerous situation."

"How? By putting me in another?" Liz ran her fingers through her dark hair and flipped silky ends angrily behind her shoulders. "This is unbelievable! Now instead of only being hit on by a married man I'll have the reputation of being an engaged man's mistress. Yeah, I really took a step up there." Liz's sarcastic retort hit it's mark as Max looked away uncomfortably. "Look, I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself, Mr. Evans. Or have you forgotten falling through my door last night in a fit of pain?"

"No, I've not forgotten. And what a nice little reminder with the kick under the table, by the way." Max's anger and frustration was beginning to rise as was the pitch of his voice. "Listen to me. Cortland isn't as nice as I am. He certainly wouldn't have appreciated having a certain door slammed in his face by you. He's a very powerful man in this town and he won't be satisfied with just not giving you a job in his firm, he'll make sure the door to every firm in the city is closed to you. Are those the results you were going for?

"Look. I've been holding my own against powerful men since the day I was born…"

"Not like Cortland." Max countered stubbornly.

"What is it with you? Do you feel so guilty about yesterday that you feel you have to be my protector now? We've already gone over this. You're absolved, ok? Completely forgiven. End of story!"

"No! Not end of story!" Max shot back angrily before glancing at the people next to them with an apologetic smile. Turning back to Liz he moved the water glass that was directly in front of him out of his way so he could lean forward across the table and gaze at her without any obstructions. "Why didn’t you take your old job with Hewitt back? Is it because I arranged it?"

"Among other things." Liz tilted her head to the side and stubbornly crossed her arms in front of her refusing to meet his penetrating gaze.

"Are you crazy? You have 2 children to take care of…"

Click. Liz's eyes snapped back to his face as she threw her hands up a visual stop sign that kept Max from continuing his sentence. "Whoa! Stop it right there. I have been taking care of those children for two years now. For two years they have never once gone hungry or without anything they needed physically or emotionally. Believe it or not, Mr. Evans, I've done it all without your help. And I'll be doing it long after you've gotten bored with dressing up like donkeys and stealing candy from children…and…and…and kissing strange women!"

Flipping her hair behind her shoulders Liz took a breath to calm her rising anger but failed miserably as she pointed a shaky finger in his face. "I don't need your charity or your pity or anything else that might use to ease your conscience. If there's one thing you need to know about me, Mr. Evans, it's that I cannot be bought with jobs or flowers or…or cameras..."

"I wasn't trying to buy you!" Max's hissed across the table. "Dammit, Liz, I just wanted to help!"

"Yeah? Well you know what? You don't always get what you want in life, Mr. Evans. Not by a long shot."

Click. "Really? And just who taught you that concept?" Max's eyes turned steely and his voice became almost sneering and cold. "I'll bet it was a man, wasn't it? Probably Autumn and Brett's father. Let me guess...you gave him your heart and soul and he...he tossed it in the trash when he betrayed you and walked out the door."

Max's eyes clouded with pain as he continued, his speech was obviously coming more from his own personal pain with each word he spoke. "I'll bet he left you with broken dreams and two children to raise on your own. Wondering whether you ever really new what true love was all about..."

Pain flashed through Liz's eyes as they began to gleam with unexpected moistness. "If you ask me, that sounds more like your quest than mine, Mr. Evans. I do know what true love is all about and it didn't leave me cynical or bitter the way you'd like me to be. For that, I think you'll need to look in the mirror." Click.

Unable to ignore the pain that clouded Max's eyes and the way his gaze faltered from her face to gaze at the flowers in the vase on the table, Liz chose less painful ground to continue on. "As for Cortland, I had everything under control."

Grateful to be once more on a subject he felt he had superior footing, Max's gaze snapped to Liz's face his injury of a moment ago adding momentum to his frustration at not being able to get through her stubborn wall. "Really? He'd already reached the Canada invitation by the time I got here. What would you have done when his hand accidentally found its way halfway up that gorgeous leg of yours?"

"What would I have done? WHAT WOULD I HAVE DONE?" Liz's voice was so loud now that people had begun to stop their meals and look toward the commotion as she rose up as far as she could in her seat. "I'll show you what I would have done!" Liz grabbed up the glass of water in front of her and tossed the water in Max's face. "Think about that the next time you decide to interfere in my affairs!"

Liz grabbed her purse and stomped away leaving a very surprised, very angry, very…wet Max behind.

"Wow!" Michael's whistle proceeded his exclamation as he slid into the seat next to Max and stared after Liz's retreating figure. "If you're looking for a last minute fling, she's definitely the skirt to chase. I have to say...not a bad choice...not a bad choice at all…"

"Shut up, Michael! It's not about that!" Max shot back at Michael angrily as his eyes followed Liz as far as they could out the door and down the street. Max crossed his arms in front of him and leaned back with a shake of his head. "Of all the foolish, stubborn..." Max let out a sigh as anger ebbed and admiration took it's place in his voice. "...most remarkable...gutsy...admirable things I've ever seen..."

"Uh....Max?" Michael threw a napkin in his face with a sarcastic shake of his head. "Why don't you use this to wipe up the drool..."

Max wiped his still-wet face with the napkin then dropped it suddenly, turning to Michael with a shocked look on his face. "Did you…how much did you hear?"

Michael shrugged as he waved his hand in the air. "I don't know…I guess when she went off of you about the kids…"

"Two years." Max interrupted as he looked away, his mind beginning to turn. "Didn't she say she'd been taking care of them for two years?" Max's head began to shake. "But…that's impossible. Autumn's at least four…" Max slid away from Michael heading toward the exit of their booth when Michael grabbed his arm.

"Hold on, there, little brother. Where are you going?"

"To get to the bottom of this. She's not making any sense and I…I need her…I need her to make sense for me…"

Michael pulled out his cell phone and dialed a number the second Max hit the door in search of Liz. "Yeah. It's me. I found him. Yeah, it's worse than we thought. I think…I think Max is listening to his heart again…"

To be continued…
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 10 ~

Max flew out of the restaurant looking frantically back and forth down the street for the bounce of Liz's long brunette hair, but saw nothing. He rushed to the edge of the sidewalk and visually searched the cabs coming and going on the busy street but again met defeat. It was as if she'd disappeared into the city crowd with no trace. Throwing his hands up in the air in frustration, Max's shoulders slumped as he turned back to the restaurant. Click.

Seeing Max's disappointed gait as he headed back to the table, Michael ended his call abruptly. "Look, he's back. I'll get to the bottom of this. Don't worry…"

Max slid back into his seat with a sigh and downcast eyes. "I lost her."

"Well, it's not like it's the end of the world, you know…" Michael began as he watched Max absently play with the salt shaker sitting in front of him. Receiving no response Michael's eyebrow raised along with the questioning tone of his voice. "Max?"

Max glanced up at Michael though it was clear his mind was miles away. "Yeah?"

"The skirt." Michael nodded toward the door where Liz had exited only moments before. "It's not the end of the world that you lost her."

Irritation flashed in Max's eyes at Michael's careless choice of words. "She's more than a skirt, Michael! She's…she's…she's…"

"She's what?" Michael's concern for the situation was growing with each faltering word Max spoke.

"She's a mom for God's sake!" Not able to make sense of the sudden importance of this woman in his life or why it mattered so much to him that he had once again upset her Max spat out the first thing that came to his mind before running his hands through his hair in frustration. Leaning back against the booth Max glanced back down at the table and added an amendment to his statement, weakly. "At least, I think she is."

"You think she is." Michael repeated as he leaned forward with a penetrating look Max couldn't, or wouldn't meet. "You mean you don't know?"

Max shook his head silently and Michael pursued his quest to find out why any of this should make any difference to Max. "So, what makes you think she's a mother?"

"I don't know, Michael." Max answered sarcastically. "Two children calling her Mommy seem to be a pretty good indication."

"Al-right." Michael took a breath trying to control any sarcastic retorts that popped into his mind. The last thing he wanted was a fight with Max. He'd never get the information he was looking for if that happened. "So, how long have you known this woman?"

Max looked away sheepishly knowing how Michael would react to his answer. "I met her yesterday."

"Yesterday." Michael's head began to shake in unbelief as he glanced around the restaurant trying to rein in his comments. A feat which Max was making increasingly impossible with each question he answered.

"Yeah. Yesterday." Max stated defensively as he leaned forward. "She was the amends I had to take care of last night, ok?"

"I see." Michael stated not really seeing anything at all except the obvious attraction his brother must be feeling for the exotic beauty that had run from him. Wanting to get more than just an idea of what was going on between Max and 'the skirt' than what he just suspected from his brother's behavior, Michael's voice rose in irritation. "Can you please explain to me why a woman you met just yesterday would cause you to risk your future with Tess?"

Max never answered Michael's question because his attention was suddenly captured by a dark item leaning against the seat next to him. "What's this?" He picked up the large, black soft-bound leather case his eyes beginning to dance with excited delight. Moving the pepper and salt along with the vase and empty water glass out of his way, Max laid the case on the table and unzipped it.

Opening what he had now guessed was Liz's portfolio, Max's eyes widened as he let out a low whistle. "Look at this. These are...they're incredible."

Michael leaned over to look at the drawings Max was intent on spreading out before him. "I don't see the big deal..."

"Are you kidding?" Max asked in disbelief as he pointed to the first drawing he'd laid eyes on. "Look at the intricate design in the floor pattern for the courtyard. And the fountain…" Click. His head began to nod as a brilliant smile slowly slid over his lips. His mind was whirling and it was obvious just how much he liked the direction it was taking him. "This could work. This could really, really work…"

Max's eyes took in every detail with increasing interest and awe. What lay before him was nothing short of a masterpiece of design. They were finished drawings of an apartment community that literally took Max's breath away. 'Community' was the only word Max could think of because that's exactly what the tenants would be. They had no choice but to interact and become involved in each other's lives with the design and layout Liz had created.

The square haven opened to the outside world by way of a wrought iron fence that immediately placed the guest into an archway that led to a circular inner courtyard.
The ground was covered with beautifully designed terracotta-like tile and the buildings were made of bright earthy stucco that instantly gave the feeling of old-world Spanish/Southwestern influence. There was a stone fountain in the middle of the courtyard with scalloped edges and the occasional jutting point that from above made it look like a star sitting on top of a cloud.

The apartments themselves were on two levels with French doors in addition to their arched front doors and a stoop, porch or balcony that looked out onto the courtyard and into each other's lives. Greenery enhanced the overall look and ivy climbed up the walls while flower petals hid any nooks and crannies by gracing their space with bushes and plants.

Click. Max let out an awed sigh as he held the etching in his hands and closed his eyes to get a mental image in his mind. His smile only widened to dreamy depths as a result and Michael had no choice but to look at him as if he'd lost his mind. It was a good thing Michael couldn't see exactly what was going on in Max's mind at the moment. He would probably call for a straightjacket or lock him up…at least until the wedding was over.

In addition to the obvious setting, Max heard laughter. Laughter of two little children that sounded an awful lot like Autumn and Brett's. They were playing in the fountain as their happy giggles floated through his vision. And they weren't the only ones. Liz had joined them and was calling to Max with an outstretched hand and delight dancing in her eyes. He took a step forward and placed his hand in hers as his own laughter began to bubble up from deep inside…

Snapping out of his self-induced daydream, Max stared at the design he still held firmly in his hands. "This is just the kind of idea I've been looking for. In fact, it's more than that. It's perfect…it's like she read my mind…" Max hurriedly replaced the drawings in their carry case and zipped it up as he once more began to slide away from Michael out of the booth.

"Hey! Where do you think you're going? We need to talk about this…this…"

Guessing where Michael's concern lay and not wanting to hear the term 'skirt' applied to Liz again, Max supplied the needed information. "Her name is Liz and I really don’t have time to talk now, Michael. I've got to get these to Kyle."

"Kyle? As in Kyle Valenti? Isn't he your…" Michael's words were lost on Max as he hurried out the door to fulfill a lifelong dream that had suddenly come true.
~~~~~~~~
The door to Isabel's office flew open then slammed with a force that moved the papers on Isabel's desk and caused the loose window in the door to shake and rattle. Isabel's head snapped up in shock as her best friend stood before her shaking with anger. "Liz? What's…"

"Do you have ANY idea what that arrogant, interfering son of a moron did to me!?" Liz practically yelled causing Isabel to glance out the window of her office into the outer office to see a sea of eyes turned their direction.

Rising from her seat, Isabel smiled briefly at her co-workers before closing the blinds and coming to Liz's side. She began to wrap an arm around Liz's shoulder to lead her to a chair. "No, but obviously something's happened. Why don't you sit and…"

Liz shrugged out of Isabel's arm and turned on her as angry fire flashed in her eyes. "I don't want to sit down! Why is everybody and their brother trying to tell me what to do?!"

Isabel's mouth opened to speak but no words were given the chance to exit as Liz launched into her tirade. The pacing of her steps picked up with the rising level of her rage. "Ever since I was a little girl it's been, 'Ms. Liz don't squirm.', 'Ms. Liz, don't pick the flowers.', 'Ms. Liz, don't play in the mud puddle in your nice new dress.'!" Liz's French accent added a bit of humor to the impression of an adult scolding a young child.

Click. Liz stopped pacing and turned to Isabel placing her hands on her hips. "Well, you know what?" She pointed a slender forefinger at herself. "It was my dress and my favorite mud puddle!" Her hands flew out into the air in frustration. "Why shouldn't I play in it if I wanted to? And now…NOW this jerk thinks he can just waltz into my life, tell me how to take care of the kids, and replace cameras and jobs and…and…who knows what else he thinks he'll be able to replace. By that kiss of his he probably thinks he can replace Ethan! Well he can't! Do you understand? I won't let him!"

Liz's anger ebbed as tears welled up in her eyes at the mention of Ethan's name. She turned and plopped down in the chair Isabel had offered only moments before. Fighting valiantly not to let the tears fall, they were stronger than her will and managed to slip down her cheeks, hot from her most recent display of emotion. Click.

Isabel's eyes grew sympathetic as she reached for a tissue and handed it to Liz when she came and sat in the chair next to her. "Here." She waited till Liz dabbed her eyes and wiped away her sniffles before speaking. "Are you alright?"

Liz nodded silently. "I just…I just miss them, that's all."

"So, do you want to tell me what prompted this?"

"Max." Liz's one word answer spoke volumes to Isabel. Anger no longer sharpened the effects of his name. Instead there was a softness that entered her voice. A confused longing that caused her to let out a short sigh before her eyes quietly sought Isabel's. Click.[/]

Isabel patted her hand and smiled sympathetically. "What did he do now?"

"He got me a job." Liz tilted her head to the side then amended her statement with a sniffle. "Actually, he got me two jobs today. First, he got my old job back then I quit it and he managed to get me a new job with Architectural Designs."

Isabel's blonde eyebrow raised. "Architectural Designs. Isn't that the firm you've had your eye on for a while?"

"Yes. It's one of the most prestigious in New York state, if not the country."

"I see. And you now work there." Isabel sat in thought for a moment. "Maybe I'm missing something, but how is this a bad thing?"

Liz's eyes flashed with disbelief. "How's it a bad…" She let out a frustrated sigh and sat straight up in the chair in agitation. "I didn't get it on my own merits, Iz! Mr. Cortland barely even looked at my drawings. He was more interested in…"

Liz gave Isabel a look that finished her sentence then ran her hand through her hair. "Anyway…I was just getting ready to tell the jerk where to get off when Max appears out of nowhere and…get this! He pretends we're an item! Can you believe that! Complete with hand-holding, kisses and subtle innuendo that wasn't all that subtle! Cortland slithered out of there as fast as his weasly little feet could carry him, but not before offering me a position in his firm."

Liz rose from her chair and began to pace again as she wrung her hands together. "Don't you see? I only got the job because he knows the jerk…"

"Which jerk?" Isabel asked getting slightly confused by Liz's pronoun usage.

"Max! Mr. Cortland knows Max and, of course, he offers a job to Max's new little fling! That's what business buddies do for each other, right? God, I can't believe I'm even in that category now! Because of him and his…his…"

"Well, how did he even know you were meeting with Cortland?" Isabel asked when she saw Liz's vocabulary starting to falter.

"I don’t know!" Liz exploded. "Maybe Alex said something…it really doesn't matter!"

"Maybe it does." Isabel was trying so hard to add a bit of logic to Liz's reasoning. "Think about it…you said he got you your old job back, right? Why did you quit?"

"Because he arranged for it. Rumors were already beginning to fly. People thought I was getting the job because of what I mean to him…"

"And you certainly can't have that now, can you?" Isabel made a statement more than a question as she leaned back in her chair and eyed Liz carefully.

Liz stopped her pacing and turned on Isabel suddenly. "Just what do you mean by that?"

"You know what I mean." Isabel countered confidently. "You've been trying to escape that world for so long now. The world of being singled out for how you're connected to someone instead of who you are inside…trying to gain your independence…that you've missed out on one very important thing. People need each other, Liz."

Isabel leaned forward as her brown eyes lowered with seriousness. "Look, I admire you for trying to stand on your own. I really do. But there are times…like now…where you might take things a little too far. You lost your job because of Max. You know it and he knows it. He was simply trying to give back to you what he took away. Instead of accepting it and moving on, you automatically assumed he was trying to run your life. Am I right?"

Liz nodded slowly as her gaze lowered to the floor.

"Right." Isabel continued with a nod of her head. "So he finds out that you quit and feels even more awful than he did before. He sweeps into your job interview and sees something he doesn't like. Like Mr. Cortland trying to do the old 'I'll scratch your back' scenerio and he jumps in to help you out of it."

Liz opened her mouth to say something, but Isabel raised her hand to stop Liz's protest. "Granted, I'm sure you had everything under control, but he couldn't be sure of that because he doesn't know you. He was just trying to help you out of a situation that he felt responsible for putting you in in the first place."

Isabel's calm version of Liz's day deflated any residual anger she might had left. She came back to the chair and plopped down with a sigh. "So, what do I do now? About the job, I mean."

"Take the job. I'm sure Mr. Cortland will leave you alone now that he thinks you're involved with someone." Isabel shrugged her shoulders. "Max helped your get the foot in the door now it's up to you to prove you're up to building a home…or office…or those really cool apartments you've always dreamed about."

Silence filled the room as Liz considered Isabel's advice and Isabel wondered if she should ask the question that had been on her mind since Liz's arrival. Deciding her curiosity wouldn't hold out any longer and seeing Liz's anger having been entirely erased, Isabel leaned forward as her eyes began to twinkle. "Can I ask you something?"

"Sure." Liz answered absently.

"You um…mentioned a kiss. Ok, so, does he kiss as good as he looks?" Leaning forward even more, her voice bubbled with enthusiasm. "If so, he's got to be like…" Isabel fanned herself. "…whooo! About the best ever, right?" Isabel asked with a grin completely unprepared for Liz's reaction.

"How could you even ask that??" Liz's defenses rose as quickly as the hairs on the back of a cat's back and her eyes flashed with instant fire as they snapped to Isabel's face.

Isabel blinked back her surprise. "I…just…well…"

Liz jumped up from her seat in agitation as she reached for her purse. "After everything you watched me go through…losing Ethan…" Liz headed toward the door as tears shimmered in her eyes. "No one could ever make me feel like Ethan did! You got it? No one!"

Click. Liz slammed the door behind her with all the pain of loss she'd felt in her life. Like a spider's web, the thin glass window cracked into a million tiny pieces. Strong enough to hold together within the structure of the frame. Weak enough to crumble with the slightest shake. Tears sprung to Isabel's eyes as she saw the crystal clear image of the state of Liz's heart reflected in the panes of the shattered window before her. A heart that was suddenly feeling the tremors of an earthquake rocking her to her very core.
~~~~~~~
"Boss, it's me. You won't believe what I have with me."

"It'd better be better than the Brad Pitt pictures." The deep, scratchy voice growled into the phone. "We could barely make out that it was him and once we did there was no story."

"Oh, it's so much better." He stated with confidence. "There is no mistaking the action in these."

"Who's the subject?"

"Max Evans."

"You're kidding." The gruff voice responded in awe.

"Nope. And it gets better. He's with a woman."

"Yeah?" The question was asked as an obvious prompt for further explanation.

"She isn't his intended."

A low whistle preceded a rough chuckle. "Get here on the double. We only have a couple of hours to get this done."

"I'll be there in 15." A satisfied grin claimed his thin lips as he tossed the roll of film in the air and caught it with a malicious chuckle. "Gottcha, Max."
~~~~~~~
Isabel Guerin's warm brown eyes widened and the bowl of popcorn she held in her hands dropped to the floor with a crash when she threw the door open. "Oh. My. God. It's…it's really…it's…" Her face flushed with embarrassment and she blinked her eyes trying to make sure the figure before her was real.

"Yeah, it's really me." He held out his hand to her. "Hi. Maxwell Evans. Max, for short. Ummm…is Liz…here…"

He was real. And he was standing right in front of her with his hand held out waiting for a welcoming handshake and an answer to his question. Liz. She'd be furious if she knew he was here right now. Isabel should be furious. Instead, she was completely enamored…and at a loss as she stared at Max's outstretched hand.

Liz's reaction to Isabel's question earlier had reminded Isabel just how hard it had been for Liz to get to this point in her life after losing the people she loved the most. It had been a struggle Isabel simply didn't want to put Liz through again, and unfortunately this gorgeous man that now stood in front of her was somehow digging up those memories Liz had tried so hard to bury. It wasn't until she heard Autumn's tiny voice that Isabel was able to make any sense of what was going on around her.

"Mr. Donkey!!!" Autumn yelled with delight as she ran to the door to see who was there. "Did ya come ta play?"

Max gave Isabel's shocked face a curious expression before kneeling down in front of Autumn and giving her a smile as he poked her tummy with his forefinger and sent her into a fit of giggles. "No, angel. I didn't come to play. Not today at least. I really came to see your Mommy. Do you know where she is?"

Hearing Max's question voice to her young charge, Isabel snapped out of her self-induced spell. "Autumn. Go back in the apartment. I want to speak with Max alone."

"But…"

"Autumn. Now." Isabel's voice hardened causing Max to look back up at her sharply. The stars he'd seen brightening her eyes moments before at meeting a 'celebrity' figure were replaced by an angry, protective fire.

Autumn pushed out her lower lip and crossed her arms in front of her. "Kay. But I don't wanna!" She turned to Max and tilted her head to the side with a smile as a few stray curls fell on her forehead. "Bye-bye, Mr. Donkey! Please come back and play…"

"I will, Autumn." Max promised with a smile and a wink before standing up to face Isabel waiting till Autumn was out of earshot before speaking. "Alright. Go ahead and say it." Max stated calmly as he met Isabel's gaze head on.

"Get out of her life and stay out." Isabel commanded in no uncertain terms as she crossed her arms in front of her.

Unfazed by Isabel's statement Max slipped his hands into his pocket and tilted his head to the side. "I see she's told you about the job."

"Yeah. And a few other things. Like the camera and the film. Do you have any idea what that camera meant to her?"

"Obviously not since everyone and their brother seems to keep explaining its importance to me."

"It was a gift." Isabel explained reluctantly.

"And I take it the giver was someone special to her."

"Only the love of her life!" Isabel's hastily torpedoed response caused Max to blink a couple of times and look away. Click. For some reason those words held a sting he felt but didn't quite understand. "I don't know exactly what you're up to, Mr. Evans, but whatever it is…keep Liz out of it. She's suffered enough and your presence seems to be bringing all of that pain back to her somehow. If you want to help…please…just stay away from her." Isabel began to shut the door when Max raised his hand in protest.

"Wait. Please." The plea in his voice caused Isabel to pause and look at him with guarded curiosity. "Look, I really don't understand. How is my trying to right what I did wrong bringing her pain? It's not my fault this…" Max swallowed the lump his next words put in this throat. "…great love of her life left her stranded with two children. I don't see the connection at all…"

"What are you talking about?" Isabel's eyebrows knit together in confusion. "What do the kids have to do with her camera?"

"Well, you said the love of her life gave it to her…I assumed…"

"Maybe that's your problem, Mr. Evans. Maybe you assume too much and listen too little." Isabel shook her head in disgust. "You know what? I don't think I should be discussing any of this with you…."

"Fine." Max's eyebrow raised in determination. "I'll discuss it with Liz. Now, if you'll just tell me where she is…"

"You don't give up, do you?"

"Not on something this important."

"Why?" Isabel asked as she eyed him critically as she crossed her arms in front of her. "What's so important about Liz?"

"I don't know." Max quickly shot out the honest answer of his mind while his heart whispered a different response. Maybe it's the way she took an instant Polaroid of my heart and showed me what I've been trying to avoid for so long. Or the way she captured my dreams in her drawings before we ever met. Or the way she looked at me when I kissed her… Max shook his head and put a hand to his chest to emphasize an earnest plea. "Look, I really don't want to hurt her…I just need to talk to her one more time. Please."

"Fine. I'll let her know." Isabel wasn't untouched by the plea in his eyes. Still, Liz was her best friend and her loyalty did lie with her. "If she wants to see you, she'll give you a call. Until then, just please…do as I ask and stay away." With that last admonition, the door to Liz's world was closed to him once more leaving Max alone and lost and wondering how he was ever going to learn how to dance without a partner. Click.
~~~~~~~~~
"Izzy?" Autumn called to Isabel as she turned from watching her Milan video. "How come mommy's not home?"

"She needed to go do something, sweetie." Isabel answered as she began setting out the place mats for three on the table. Liz had left a message for Isabel at the office asking her to pick Autumn up from daycare and that she'd be home in time to tuck the kids in. Whenever Liz did that there was only one place she could be.

"Whad she haveta do?" Autumn jumped up from her favorite comfy chair in front of the tv to follow Isabel around the table as she carefully laid out the plates.

Isabel glanced at Autumn's sweet upturned face and smiled sadly as she wiped away cookie crumbs from Autumn's chubby cheek. "Well…I think she went to visit your real mommy."

"How come?"

"Because she misses her."

Autumn stood in silence for a moment contemplating Isabel's words. "But…my real mommy can't talk to her can she?"

"Well, no. Not the way you and I are talking. But that doesn't mean that mommy can't feel close to her by visiting her. That's what you do sometimes when people you love go away. You get as close to them as you can so you feel their love because the love you feel for them never dies, sweetie."

"Did my real mommy love me and Brett?" Autumn's innocent question sent a sharp pang through Isabel's heart.

She knelt down next to her and brushed her wayward hair away from her eyes. "Oh, Autumn. Your real mommy loved you so much. And you know how you'll always know that? She made sure that Liz could be your second mommy and take care of you, right? And you love having Liz as your second mommy, don't you?"

Autumn nodded her head in instant agreement. "Uh-huh. And ya know what? I wanna live with her forever cuz I love her soooo much! I think me and Brett's got the best second mommy anyone's ever got before!"

"Yes, you did, angel. Liz loves you very much. More than you'll ever know." Isabel hugged Autumn then patted her gently on the rear. "Now, go get Brett. It's almost dinner time."

"Kay!" Autumn yelled as she turned to skip down the hall. She stopped suddenly and turned to Isabel with a smile and a tilt of her head. "Do ya think Brett'll feel better if I tell how much both our mommies love us?"

Isabel eyes sparkled with love at Autumn's innocent yet insightful question. "Yeah, sweetie. I'm sure he will…"
~~~~~~~~~~
"Well, here I am again." Liz whispered as she reached out and touched the smooth cold stone. "Guess this happens a lot more than you thought, huh? Me coming to you for advice. Not knowing what to do next."

Liz smiled sadly. "It certainly happens more now than it used to when you were still here. I used to have all the answers when you were the one raising the kids and I was sitting on the sidelines looking on. I guess that's the way it goes sometimes, huh? You think you can do a better job than someone else until you actually have to walk in their shoes. Let me tell you, sis, you left pretty big shoes to fill when it came to loving your kids. I'm trying, Brina. I'm trying so hard to make the right choices. To raise them the way you always wanted."

"They make it so easy to love them though. Autumn is the angel you always dreamed she'd be. And Brett." Liz smiled despite the sadness in her eyes. "Brett is going to be a little heartbreaker with those big blue eyes of his. Just like his father's. That's what you always said captured you. From the first moment you laid eyes on him…his eyes held your soul."

Liz ran her fingers through her hair as she looked down. "I…I guess that's why I'm really here. I think I finally know what you meant. Brina, I met someone. He can come off as being arrogant and cold…and downright cruel, but I don't think that's really who he is. There's a…beauty in him…especially when he smiles. When he smiles, it lights his eyes in a way that…moves me. Most of the time, his eyes are so sad, but I feel as if…as if they could really come alive with the right kind of attention." Liz's eyes began to fill with tears. "As if I somehow know the secret to making them dance…"

"He's bringing it all back, Brina. The way it feels to be alive. To want something other than just to make it through the day. And when he kissed me…I lost myself. I lost myself and never wanted to be found again. And the way he looked at me afterwards…I can't get his eyes out of my mind…" Click. Liz's finger ran lightly over her lips as the feeling of Max's kiss still lingered hours later. She took a breath and shook her head at her own foolishness. "It's not like it can go anywhere…I mean, he's getting married in four months. But…"

The ragged breath that Liz took shook her whole body as she tried to fight back the tears she was sure would come. "…he made me feel something. Something I don't think I've ever felt before. Not even…not even with Ethan." A shiny tear trickled down Liz's cheek as she shook her head slightly and gazed down at her hands. "That's completely…incomprehensible to me. And it scares me to death. Ethan was…Ethan will always be…the love of my life. So what is this man…what is Max…to me?"

Tears began to slip down Liz's face as she once more reached out and touched the stone in front of her. "Maybe that’s what he is, Brina. A reminder of what…I've lost. What…I'm missing. The life I'll never have again." Click. Liz's voice began to break as her soft whispers reached out to touch an unseen soul. "I feel so alone. Like the walls…are closing in and I'm…barely…hanging on. Like I'll never…be whole again. I miss…the both of you…so much it hurts. After all this time…it still hurts…so very very much…"

Liz's will finally broke and tears she could no longer hold back began to stream down her face as she leaned against the gravestone that bore a loving epitaph… Click.
~~~~~~~~~~
Max stood alone looking down at the tombstone that bore his name. His hands were folded in front of him and the grimness of his face spoke of his inner struggle to maintain control of his emotions. Click. It had been the first time he'd been to his grandfather's grave since the funeral two years ago.

Taking a deep breath, Max began to speak out loud to the air. To the stone. To the man who had given him so much guidance and advice in his life that he was no longer able to ignore the absence of it. "Hey, Gramps. It's me. Max." He smiled at his own halting conversation. "I guess you already know that, though, right?"

"I…I'm not really sure…what I'm doing here. I promised you and myself I wouldn't come back until I had fixed everything and cleared your name." Max shook his head sadly as tears began to mist his eyes. "Another promise broken, right? My foolishness put you here. I'm not sure…I can ever really forgive…myself for that. As for fixing things…I don't know how. Not without you."

"I guess…I guess I’m just tired of feeling so lost and alone. I usually go to your cottage, but somehow even that wasn't even enough this time. You always had a way of heading me in the right direction when I didn't know what to do."

"Well, Gramps…" Max dropped to his knee in front of the headstone and brushed the tears from his eyes before reaching out to trace his grandfather's name and admitted a truth he hadn't in over two years. Click. "I don't know…what to do….where to go from here. This merger with Harding…I'm not sure it's really want you'd want. I know I'm the one that put it together, but what if there's another way? Why do I feel as if I'm selling myself short to make it happen?"

Max answered his own question in the next breath. "I've met someone, Gramps. She's beautiful and talented. Intuitive and honest." A smile claimed his lips as he felt the soreness in his foot as he shifted his weight. "She doesn't pull any punches, believe me. She's also generous and spirited. Like a wild horse that's unpredictable. One that can't be tamed. She's what you'd call…magnificent. She's so different from…" Max looked down at his hands. "…well, you know who. In fact, she reminds me a lot of Grams…"

Max's dreamy smile faded. "And I've…well, I've been a total ass. I've completely messed up...yet again. I made her mad. Really mad. I went to get it straightened out, right? Because that's what you always said to do. You said stay up later than the sun if need be until things are worked out." Max let out a sigh as he looked down at the cold dark ground and felt the chill of the autumn wind whip through his hair. "The problem with that is I seem to be causing her more pain somehow. I don’t want to hurt her. I don’t even really know why it should matter if I did…I just know that I can't. Not her."

Max shrugged and held his hands out in an attitude of uncertainty. "So, I guess that's it. I don't know where to go from here. If I try to make things right I just may end up hurting her more. But if I don't…" Max shook his head as he looked up into the cold gray sky as conviction coursed through him. "No. Not seeing her again is not an option. I have to make her smile just one more time."

"I guess that's the real problem. I'm not sure once will be enough." Max swallowed hard as he finally heard the truth of his heart out loud. "In fact, I'm sure it won't be." Click. He ran his fingers through his hair in confusion and frustration. "God, what am I doing? I'm getting married in a few months and here I am sitting at your grave asking you to tell me it's ok to want to be with someone else…"

Max's head slowly rose and his eyes began to scan the rows and rows of grave markers as the sound of tears reached his ears in the silence of his doubts. Max stood slowly and turned around, his eyes scanning the rows to the right then the left. He couldn't understand it but there was something in the sound that called to him. Something that moved him forward when he spotted the anguished person whose tears were somehow breaking his heart. Click.

Her hair fell around her face, but there was something familiar about her as Max approached. Her shoulders were shaking as tears fell unbidden down her cheeks and Max stood a moment unsure of what to do. His eyes fell on the stone she was leaning against then they widened as the words began to connect with his brain. "Sabrina Parker Elliott. Loving mother of Autumn and Brett. Beloved sister. Death can never steal the love."

Click. Kneeling next to her, Max's gaze shifted to Liz who was so wrapped up in her own world of pain that she was completely unaware of his presence. Reaching out he gently moved her hair behind her ear before touching her shoulder. "Liz?"

Hearing her name called and feeling the weight of his hand on her shoulder, Liz's head snapped up as she turned to focus on the man kneeling by her side. "Max." Click.

To be continued…



posted on 8-Dec-2002 7:34:47 PM by Ashton
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Crash and Burn"
Savage Garden

~ chapter 11 ~

"When you feel all alone. And the world has turned it's back on you. Give me a moment please to tame your wild, wild heart. I know you feel like the walls are closing in on you. It's hard to find relief and people can be so cold. When darkness is upon your door and you feel like you can't take anymore.

Let me be the one you call. If you jump, I'll break your fall. Lift you up and fly away with you into the night. If you need to fall apart, I can mend a broken heart. If you need to crash then crash and burn you're not alone..."

~~~~~~~~~~~~
The vulnerability of Liz's heart lay open to the empathetic, mesmerizing gaze of Max's soulful eyes. Her voice tearfully whispered his name as if it were a sudden answer to prayer. "Max…" Liz crumbled into his outstretched arms and allowed the rest of her sorrow to spill out onto his coat while he held her close in an attempt to protect her from the harsh winds of grief and sorrow. Click.

Feeling the warmth of his comfort flowing through her, tears soon began to subside and Liz quickly wiped away her tears with the handkerchief Max handed to her as she forced a light chuckle. "You must think I'm a complete basket case. We haven't met once where I've not yelled at you or got you wet somehow…or both." Liz reached up and tried to brush away some of the makeup residue her tears had left on his scarf.

Max's hand moved with a will of its own to capture her hand in his stopping it's movement and causing Liz to look up into his eyes. Shaking his head slightly his eyes began to dance with unveiled admiration. "No, I don't think that at all. I think you're rather…magnificent."

At his soft confession, Liz's eyes flickered with an emotion Max couldn't quite name before her gaze wavered and she slowly pulled her hand from his grip. Motioning to the gravestone in front of them, Liz wrapped her arms around herself. "My twin sister. She died a little over two years ago." Glancing back up at Max, Liz smiled sadly. "Autumn and Brett are hers."

"So I gathered." Max commented softly as he glanced at Liz sideways. She was staring at the stone once again lost in a world of memories. "Your twin, huh? So that would explain why Autumn looks so much like you."

Liz nodded silently.

Needing more than a nod of her head to know he was connecting with her, Max attempted once more to reach Liz through her wall of pain after a moment of silence. "She's beautiful, you know. You're doing a great job with her. Actually, you're doing a great job with both of them."

Liz's eyes moved to focus on him as she tilted her head to the side causing her thick dark hair to drape over her shoulder and frame her face in the most becoming way. "You think so?"

"Yeah. I do." Max started to chuckle, half amusement, half nervousness. He was so afraid to mess up this opportunity she was giving him. With his track record so far, he was sure to do just that unless he was very careful. "How many 4 year olds would share their Halloween candy with a complete stranger dressed in a donkey costume?"

Liz's instant smile lit her face. "Not many, I guess."

Max let out a little sigh of relief when he saw her smile. As cold as it was getting outside, he felt nothing but warmth flowing through him with just that one sign from her. It gave him hope that tears were not her best friend. That smiles and laughter played an equal part in her life. A part that she was willing to share with him...even if for only a little while. "That's right. It's because of you…"

"No." Liz's smile deepened as she shook her head in contemplation. "She just has a very giving spirit."

"Well, then. It must run in the family." Seeing the way she watched him with such an unwavering gaze made Max a bit uncomfortable. It was as if she were taking more pictures in her mind. Pictures of the person he really was inside. The one he'd begun searching for again. The one he needed help trying to find. With that perceptive photographer's eye of her, he was almost afraid to know what she saw when she snapped the shot. At the same time he was hoping she'd force him to look. At least that way, he might finally have a guide out of this dark world he'd been living in for so long.

Liz saw his beautiful, sad eyes shift away from her uncomfortably and instantly understood his nervousness. Because she felt it too. Somehow she'd been given a chance to make amends and she didn't want to mess it up. Apparently, neither did he. For all his walls and coldness, there was a fire of warmth and kindness that flickered inside him. Here was her chance to fan the flames a little and show him cruelty didn't have to be his only friend.

Max motioned to the headstone in front of them trying to deflect her attention to anything but his eyes knowing full well they spoke more to her than he wanted her to know. "So, you've had the kids since your sister died."

Liz nodded, a signal of her openness to talk. Actually, it was more of a need. To talk about the one she loved and lost. A need he was meeting effortlessly. "Yeah. Pretty much. Their father had them for a little while, but…well things just didn't work out. He signed temporary custody to me and…I've had them ever since."

"That must have been difficult for you. Taking on such a great responsibility. Does their father help?" Max's comment was stated with a bit of admiration. Admiration for someone so young taking on the job of raising children that weren't her own...on her own.

"Mitch? The eternal child?" Liz smiled wryly and shook her head in the negative before looking on the positive in her situation. "It's not like he doesn't love them. He's just very irresponsible at times. I have had help, though. Isabel…my roommate."

"Ah. That's her name." Max grinned suddenly as he began to gesture with his hands. "Blonde hair, brown eyes, model type. Feisty as all get out when it comes to you?"

Liz chuckled at Max's description of Isabel before agreeing with an affectionate nod of her head. "Yep. That's Isabel. We were roommates in college. Best friend I ever had."

"Yeah, I can see that." Max stated before explaining away the confused look in Liz's eyes. "I met her earlier when I went to your place looking for you."

"You went to my place?"

"Yeah." Max's apologetic eyes met hers, unable to hide the guilt he was feeling. "I needed to apologize...for the restaurant. For a lot of things..."

"Well, you aren't the only one." Liz looked away sheepishly before capturing his undivided attention once again with her beautiful dark eyes when she looked back at him. Her nose scrunched up as she made a confession. "I have a few 'I'm sorry's' to say myself. Like, I'm sorry about your foot. And I'm sorry I got so angry with you today and caused a public scene. I know now you were just trying to help. I...don't accept help very gracefully, I'm afraid."

"Why should you from a complete stranger that's been a absolute beast to you since the moment you met?" Max dismissed her apology with a wave of his hand.

"Oh, you haven't been a beast..." Liz smiled at Max's upraised eyebrow. "...you've just been...

"...a jack⊕ss." Max and Liz both said the word at the same time then looked at each other and shared a smile at the perfectly timed finish to her sentence. Click.

Liz's smile deepened as she thought of his Halloween costume with an upraised eyebrow. "Literally."

"Completely." Max added with instant agreement and a quick nod of his dark head.

"Collosally." They said in unison again before breaking into laughter. Those few moments of shared thoughts and words led to an instant feeling of companionship between the two. It lessened the nervousness and opened the door to a comfortable level of communication.

Finally, Max stopped laughing and looked at her with an inextinguishable hope lighting his eyes. "Tell you what. Why don't we call it even? I think we've said enough apologies to last a lifetime."

"Deal." Liz said with a smile and a light nod of her head.

Turning back once more to her sister's headstone, Max's expression became serious once again. "She was so young. Can I ask…how did she die?"

"In a...plane crash." The words came out short and cold and Liz's smile faded immediately while her eyes began once more to furiously blink back unshed tears. It was obvious just how difficult and painful the words were to say and Max instantly wished he hadn't asked the question that brought her so much grief. "She was on her way to…visit me. Actually…" Liz took a ragged breath that seemed to suck the strength out of her voice...and spirit. "…she was on her way…to my wedding. She was...going to be my...matron of honor."

"Oh, Liz. I’m so sorry." Max's whispered sympathy reached out to Liz as he covered her hand with his and squeezed it gently. His eyes clouded with confusion in the next instant as a realization hit him. Without thinking, Max absently blurted out the question foremost in his mind. "Your wedding…but, you're not…"

Click. Liz pulled her hand from Max's and wrapped her arms tightly around her again as if trying to hold in the grief in her heart. "No. I'm not." Liz's clipped words did more than answer the question of her marital status. They gave him a glimpse of her broken dreams and wounded heart.

Liz closed her eyes realizing how rude she must have sounded, but she just couldn't do it. She couldn't share that much with this man. A man who'd made her feel more with one kiss than the dozens of men who had tried to claim her heart since Ethan...

Obviously running into a subject too difficult for her to discuss, Max found himself at a loss, not knowing what to say next. He just nodded and swallowed hard as he looked away. Click. Pulling a blade of grass from it's home in the ground, Max absently twisted it while they sat in silence for a moment, both lost in their own world of thoughts. His mind racing feverishly to grab hold of any topic that would break this unbearable silence, Max suddenly asked a question he hoped would get them on less painful ground. "So, why…um….why do the kids call you Mommy?"

Hearing the tentative tone of Max's voice as he valiantly tried to pull her back to a higher, more comfortable ground, Liz forced all thoughts of Ethan and 'what might have been if only' out of her mind. She shifted her position so she could look at Max while she explained the odd circumstances surrounding her current title. "Well, Brina and I lived in different cities. We tried to see each other as much as we could, but with work and just life in general, we didn't get to see each other as often as we'd have liked."

Liz ran her long slender fingers through her hair before flipping the ends behind her shoulder. "Autumn was about 2 when she died. Brett was about 5 months. Autumn had seen me several times together with Brina but she had a hard time telling the difference between us unless we actually called out to her since we were identical twins and she was so little."

"After Brina died, her little mind couldn't wrap itself around the fact that mommy was gone and Aunt Liz was still left when I was the one she was living with and the lady that looked like me wasn't around any more. Or maybe she just didn't want to face the rest of her life without a mother she loved so much." Liz looked down at her hands as she absently played with her scarf and shrugged. "Whatever the reason, she started calling me mommy and…Mitch, the kids father, said it was probably best for her at the time."

"I've explained things to Autumn now though. She understands that I'm not her real mommy." Liz let out a sigh as she smiled. "And one day, when Brett's old enough…I'll explain it to him too. I never want them to forget Brina. She was too beautiful and important to be forgotten..."

"I know how you feel." Max agreed wondering how he'd ever be able to forget the beauty that sat before him once these moments had passed. It was all so strange. He didn't even know this woman, yet he instinctively knew his life would be less without her in it.

Tired of being the one to answer questions, Liz came up with one of her own. "So, what are you doing here? Wait. You didn't…you didn't follow me..."

"No. I didn't follow you." Tilting his head to the side Max contemplated his next move. As if having made a decision, Max jumped to his feet and held out his hands to Liz. "Come on. I want you to meet someone."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"You're his secretary for God's sake, Emma! You should know where he is!" Tess' voice was clipped and sent an irritated flush over Emma's cheeks.

As much as she wanted to level a snippy retort, Emma reined in her irritation if for no other reason than her respect for her boss. "Ms. Harding, please understand. I can't tell you where he is if I don't know. And Mr. Evans simply has not checked in with me for some time now..."

Tess let out a sigh of frustration as she placed a graceful, jewel-laden hand on her hip. "Well, I tried his cell phone and can't get through. Where was he the last time you spoke with him?"

Emma bristled slightly knowing that Max's schedule was confidential...even to his fiancee'. As for the cell number, only Emma and Michael knew that Max had two. He must have the secret cell with him. Yet, Tess was definitely on a roll and it probably wouldn't hurt to let her know just this one time... "He was on his way to see Kyle Valenti."

"Kyle?" Tess's eyebrows shot up in surprise before she closed her eyes and let out a sigh. "Great. Just great. It's all starting up again..."

"What?" Emma asked in confusion.

Realizing she'd voiced her discontentment out loud, Tess snapped authoritatively. "Never mind, Emma! Just make sure to tell Max that I want him to call me pronto the next time you speak to him." With that she slammed the phone down, crossed her arms in front of her and narrowed her eyes. "If you think I'm going to let you head down that path again, Max Evans, you are sadly mistaken."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The Evans family was trying to spend a relaxing evening in front of the fire in the family 'play room' so dubbed by Max and Michael because of the many 'games' they had set up there...pinball machines, shooting galleries, pool...

'Trying' seemed to be the operative word of the evening. Lady Diane was 'trying' to listen to Maria as she recounted the details of the previous night's event. It became increasingly difficult with Michael's constant interruptions in his attempt at 'trying' to keep his father's attention averted from the impending doom brought about by Max's most recent actions. Grams was 'trying' to read but was constantly being drawn to the conversation between Maria and Diane about her youngest grandson...

"You should have seen him, Diane." Maria said with a wave of her hand as she leaned forward as amusement lit her eyes. "He was quite the picture. When he finally did arrive, he had on his tan suit jacket with gray pants that had shoe covers that looked like donkey hooves."

Diane's mouth dropped open and she started to chuckle. "Max was dressed like that? My goodness! I never thought I'd see the day when he'd dress up again..."

"Oh, and that's not the best part." Maria interrupted. "The best part...there was a tail attached to the pants!" Maria and Diane began to hee-haw at the image of proper, haughty, debonair Max having a literal tail hanging from his bottom almost to the floor. Grams glanced over her glasses and grinned in delight before returning her gaze to the article she was so intently reading.

"Oh! And then...the Hardings...they threw a fit..."

"Wait just a darn minute!" Phillip's deep voice broke into the jovility of the moment as he glanced up from the chess board he'd been staring at for the last 5 minutes. "Are you trying to tell me that Max showed up at Harrison Harding's house dressed like this?"

He turned a cold, questioning gaze on Michael who looked down ashamed. "And where were you during all of this?"

Michael shot Maria a 'gee-thanks' look and gestured with his hands as he began to explain. "I was there...at the Hardings. Don't worry though. I've had a talk with Harrison and made something up..."

"And Max?"

"I had a talk with him too." Michael's shrug of nonchalance didn't come off as convincingly as he'd hoped. "He's fine. He assured me it would never happen again..."

"Well, what in blazes was his reasoning?" Phillip bellowed causing all activity in the room to stop and focus on Michael.

Michael's face reddened as he leaned forward and lowered his voice. "It was the girl, dad. The one I told you about at the restaurant."

Phillip jumped up from his seat in agitation. "I don't like this, Michael. I don't like this at all! You led me to believe it was a one time thing. I had no idea he'd behaved in such a manner to the Harding's of all people! Doesn't he know how important this merger is for all of us?"

Michael rose to appeal to his father. "Yeah, dad. He knows. Believe me, Max isn't going to risk this family's future by being foolish..."

A frail voice broke through Michael's reassurance shattering its effect into a million pieces. "Is it foolish to stop and listen to the beautiful melody of a song?" Grams's dark brown eyes shone with wisdom beyond her years. Rising from her chair, Grams laid her paper down on the table and advanced toward Michael. "Do you think it is, luv?"

Michael let out a sigh and shook his head not completely understanding his grandmother's point. "No, Grams, but this isn't about going to a concert or listening to the band play in the park every once in a while. This is about the future of us all. Max simply won't..."

"What?" Grams interrupted as she gazed at Michael with unwavering eyes. "Listen to his heart? That's what he's doing, you know." A gently smile captured her lips as her gaze drifted beyond Michael to a picture of her late husband on the wall.

She moved wistfully toward the picture as her eyes shone with unabashed love. "She sings to him, Jasper. It's a song he's never heard before and one he'll never hear again. She harmonizes so perfectly with the melody of his heart. And their dance...oh darling, it will be like ours. In perfect time...for eternity. Do you remember our song, my love? You always told me when you first saw me you heard me singing even though my lips spoke no words. And when you joined me the angels in heaven stopped to listen to the music of our love."

She dipped her head and closed her eyes as she began to hum a few bars of music. All eyes in the room were turned on her and the only thing that broke the beautiful strains of her sofly hummed melody was the ticking of the clock.

As if hearing the sound of time marching onward, Grams's smile deepened as she opened her eyes and gazed once more on the face of her love gone before. "There's a new generation of angels now, isn't there, Jasper? A generation to hear the strains of new love as it softly begins. Blending together two lives in such rapturous oneness."

"With each passing day it will build note upon note. Beat after beat. The harmony so close it's impossible to separate the two individual lines of music without destroying the song. On it will go, till the cerscendo rings out for the world to hear." Her eyes with shining with tears of happiness as she whispered. "How will he be able to deny it when even the angels will weep for it's brilliance?"

Diane nodded to Phillip who moved to put his arm around his mother's shoulder. "Come now, Mom. I'm sure you're tired. Why don't I take you upstairs and let you lie down for a while?"

Grams turned to Phillip with shining eyes as she reached up and touched his face. "My boy. You are so kind to your old Mom. Just like you were to your father. Please don't forget that kindness. He'll need it to continue the dance..."

After Phillip led Grams from the room, Michael sighed and hung his head. "I hate to bring this up again..."

"Forget it, Michael. We are not putting Mom into an institution." Diane stated authoritatively as she glared at Michael.

"But...she's getting..."

"Oh my God." Maria interrupted Michael as she picked up the paper Grams had been reading. Staring at the front page her mouth dropped open.

"What?" Michael asked as he came around to see what his wife was looking at. "Maria, what is it?"

Maria held the paper up to Michael with worried eyes. "Dammit! What the hell was he thinking!?!" Michael exploded as he grabbed the paper from Maria. "Of all the foolish..." Michael grabbed up the phone and began punching numbers angrily in an effort to turn the tide of his brother's most recent blunder.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Click. Max held onto Liz's hand as he led her through the rows of graves to the special one he'd been standing at moments before. Gesturing to the tombstone Max made the introductions with a bit of flair. "Liz, meet Gramps. Gramps…this is the woman I was telling you about. Liz Parker."

Thinking how odd it was they were both doing the same thing at the same place at the same time, Liz grinned at Max before turning to the headstone. "You were telling him about me?"

Max shrugged as a boyish grin lit his face. "Yeah, well, I needed someone to complain to about my foot. Everyone at the house is already sick of my moaning and groaning." He chuckled when she rolled her eyes at him and nodded to the headstone. "Go ahead. Say hi." He leaned forward and lowered his voice to a whisper as if passing on a very important secret. "I guarantee he won't bite."

Shaking her head at his morbid humor, Liz followed suit and waved her hand at the words on the tombstone. "Hi, Gramps. Please don't believe everything your grandson says. I've already caught him in a whopper or two today alone." Her smile sweetened as she leaned down and brushed some leaves off the top of his stone. "I've met Grams. She's such a lovely woman. I wish I could have seen the two of you together. I get the feeling you two were..."

"Magical." Max finished for her with an absent smile as Liz straightened back up and looked at him. Max's voice suddenly became serious. "I do wish you could have met him for real. I have a feeling he would have really liked you."

Clearing his throat Max blinked a couple of times then looked away as he sucked in the cool evening air into his lungs. "I...haven't been here since he died two years ago. In fact, he's the reason I hate all..." Max cast a meaningful look in Liz's direction. "...well, almost all photographers."

"Will you tell me why?" Liz asked almost shyly. She really wanted to help him if she could, but asking someone to bear their soul wasn't such an easy thing to do...especially when she hadn't been willing to bear hers completely.

Bitterness whipped through his voice like the cold wind that blew her hair around her face as Max began to explain. "They destroyed him. Took his good name, his reputation, and finally...his health."

"How?" Liz asked softly recognizing in Max the same pain and distance she'd noticed the first time she saw him only a day before.

Click. It was obvious by the way his shoulders slumped that this was a subject he rarely discussed. A subject he wasn't sure he wanted to discuss now. Still, he felt with Liz he could share something of his pain…even if only a little portion. Large enough to give her a glimpse of himself. Small enough not to burden her with the all the sorrow that accompanied his heart.

Max glanced back at her as all of his pent up anger began to resurface and build. "It's very long and detailed...and I'm sure very boring, but suffice it to say that Gramps was accused of something he didn't do and the press smeared him as much as they could." He gestured widely with his hands. "They didn't even give him a fighting chance even when we had evidence that he wasn't involved. No one would listen to us."

Melancholy shadowed his mood as Max nodded to his grandfather's grave. His gaze rested wearily on the name of a man he loved so much. "I watched this man…a man who was robust and strong. A man who at age 70 could still climb a mountain and kayak right along side of me. A man who's inner strength was the greatest I'd ever known..."

Click. He shook his head as he knelt down and lovingly traced his grandfather's name gathering the courage to go on. "Under the pressure of lies and suspicion...he shriveled up...right before my eyes. His health began to fail. He began to lose interest in activities he used to love. Eventually, he just...gave up...and died."

Max's final words were whispered as a sob choked his throat and tears sprang to his eyes. Liz knelt next to him and wrapped an arm around his shoulder while placing a comforting hand on his arm. She leaned into him for a moment trying in her own small way to absorb his pain somehow. Click.

Max quickly wiped a tear that had fallen down his face before shaking his head in unbelief, feeling but unable to acknowledge the strength he felt flowing through him with her touch as he continued. "Even then, they wouldn't let us be. Here. At the gravesite. They took an intensely private moment of grief and exposed it to the prying eyes of the world when they printed it in their magazines. Eyes that should have never seen the kind of grief and emptiness..." Max's voice trailed off unable to voice the rest of his thought.

Liz slipped her hand down his arm to cover his hand before giving it a quick squeeze as silence filled the moment. Suddenly, her eyes widened as a realization hit her. "Wait a minute. That was you? Oh God. I remember that picture…"

Hardness edged Max's voice. "Join the club. I still get comments about it..."

Reaching up and turning his face so he was looking at her, Liz swallowed the lump that came to her throat when she saw the utter emptiness in his eyes. "Oh, Max." She blinked and looked away unable to see such pain without it affecting her ability to speak. "Can I...can I tell you something? About the picture?"

Max nodded slowly as he took her hand in his unsure of what she was going to say and completely taken by surprise when the words finally left her mouth.

"It healed me." Liz whispered as her eyes looked off into the distance unable to meet his penetrating gaze.

"What?"

"Well, maybe not completely, but it began the healing process for me." Sighing Liz pushed her hair back away from her face. "After my sister and…well, after the plane crash, I almost lost it. I mean, I didn't go crazy or anything, but in a way I did. I withdrew into myself. Into my pain and grief. Into denial. I didn't function normally. I didn't cry. I refused to grieve."

She bit her bottom lip as memories began to rush back to her making it difficult to continue. "My friends were...really worried about me. I wouldn't eat or sleep. I just sat...staring out the window most of the time. Not really seeing anything. Not really wanting to."

Brushing her hair back from the wind that was now blowing against her back, Liz continued. "Isabel was staying with me at the time...trying to take care of me...making sure I was going to make it somehow. She'd been reading an article in that magazine and had left it out on the table when she went to go to the store."

Bringing her eyes back to meet Max's, Liz nodded. "That's when...I saw it. That picture of you. So much anguish…tears that I wouldn't allow myself to shed were falling down your face. I know it's weird, but suddenly, I recognized myself. The way I was deep inside."

Liz grabbed both of Max's hands in hers. "Don't you see? I finally had the courage to face the truth. The peop..." Liz stopped suddenly and swallowed, amending her statement. "....the person I loved most in the world was gone. I'd never get to hold her or tell her I loved her again…or just see her smile. I cried for days. But it was good. It was healing. It was because of you."

Max stared at her in unbelief as he tried to let her words sink into his heart. His picture...the picture he'd hated for so long...had helped her. Somehow, he'd been able to connect with her long before he ever knew she existed. He sat in stunned awe at the workings of Fate. That he, of all people, had the ability to heal anyone was beyond a mystery...it was a miracle. Click.

Taking his silence for another reason, Liz pushed her hair back from her face in embarrassment. "I…I can't believe I just told you all of that. I just…somehow I thought you'd understand. That you should know…"

Max impulsively pulled Liz to him as he wrapped an arm around her shoulder. Max whispered as he brushed his lips against her temple. "Thank you."

"For what?" Liz closed her eyes as she smelled the faint scent of his cologne waft to her as she breathed in the chilly air. It felt so good to be in his arms, even if only for a moment.

"For making it worth the pain." The sincerity of his statement struck Liz's heart like a sweet song of triumph.

Liz pulled away and smiled up at him as she squeezed his hand. "You miss him, don't you?"

Max nodded and looked down at the ground. "You know how they say time will make it easier? Well, it's only made it worse for me."

"I know how that is. It does get better though. I know it may sound corny, but love really does heal." Liz responded as a sudden shiver ran through her.

Noticing for the first time the way her nose was getting red from the cold, Max smiled and stood up reaching out his hands to her once more. "It's getting pretty cold out here. Perfect weather for hot chocolate, I'd say."

Liz's face beamed as she clasped her hands in front of her. "I love hot chocolate! In fact, I know the perfect place to get a great cup. The absolute best in town!" Click. She bit her bottom lip adorably as she glanced down at the ground and shuffled her feet as if from the cold when it was really from nervousness. "Would you...I mean, I'm sure you have things to do. But...would you...maybe want..."

Max grinned for the first time in a while. "Yeah. I'd want very much."

"Ok." Liz's eyes began to sparkle unexpectedly at his response. "You can follow me..."

Just then Max's cell phone began to ring and Max closed his eyes and let out a groan. "Nooooo." A wicked smile claimed his lips as Max opened his twinkling eyes and held out the phone to Liz. "Tell me. The logical, sensible thing to do right now would be to answer this phone, right?"

Liz's nose scrunched up adorably as a teasing, understanding grin split her face. "Uh...yeah. That's usually the normal procedure. Phone rings. You answer."

The continued ringing of the phone split the deadly silence of the cemetary in two. "Right. But I don't feel like being sensible. So...tossing it say..." Max looked around and saw an unfinished hole being dug for new bushes and pointed toward it. "...over there, well that'd be kinda crazy right?"

"Um...yeah. It also might scare some poor soul that comes out here to leave flowers..." Liz reminded Max with a nod of her head as she folded her hands in front of her.

Max frowned as he thought through the annoying ringing of the phone. "Yeah, you're probably right." Taking a deep breath and letting out a loud sigh, Max held the phone in front of him as if he was going to answer. "Well, I guess there's only one thing left to do." He wiggled his eyebrows and pulled the battery from the back of his phone causing the ringing sound to stop mid-ring. Looking back at Liz his mischievous smile deepened. "Kill the thing."

Liz chuckled as she swept her hand around her. "And in such an appropriate place. Do we need a burial plot for it?"

"Nah." Max shrugged as he placed the phone and the battery back in his coat pocket. "I'll resurrect it after a while."

Liz looked down for a moment as temporary guilt washed over her. She had no right to do this. No right to claim his time when he was on his way to a wedding altar in 3 weeks. What would his fiance' think?

Max noticed and reached out to touch her arm and get her attention. "What? What is it?"

Liz bit her lower lip as she pointed to his coat pocket. "Are you sure you really should do that? I mean, it might have been something...or someone important..."

Max shook his head as his eyes softened. "Nothing is more important right now than getting hot chocolate with my new friend. After all, she did promise to take me to the best place in town."

Max's honest response made Liz's dark eyes dance. "Yes, she did. So, what are you waiting for?" Click. She linked her arm in his and began to tug him toward the entrance while the wind picked up behind them whistling a gentle tune of new beginnings...

to be continued...
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 12 ~

Tess paced back and forth in her room before turning in agitation once more toward the phone. She grabbed it and punched a few numbers then barked an order into the phone the moment it was answered. "Chantelle, bring me my magazines at once."

Slamming the phone back down Tess closed her eyes and took a deep breath in order to calm herself. Mother had always taught her how unladylike it was to show her temper. That emotion was reserved for the uncouth and uncivil vulgar lower classes. The rioting masses to whom the word 'control' meant nothing. She was definitely above that. Above them. And she'd prove it.

Tess slid onto her lounge chair and leaned back closing her eyes, taking another deep relaxing breath. So Max hadn't called since leaving her high and dry to explain his absence from the photo shoot to everyone except the photographer who seemed to be wearing a knowing Cheshire grin throughout the entire shoot. So what? Max was a busy man, what with wheeling and dealing and making billions for their future. And it didn't matter that he'd gone to see Kyle. She'd soon convince him that with their wedding four months away it was time to focus on their future and not some childhood dream of his.

Tess sat up and swung her feet over the side of the chair. She tapped her foot impatiently as she crossed her arms and exhaled loudly. And it certainly didn't matter that the flowers he'd pushed into her hands earlier had been sent to an unknown 'she'. It was probably Max's generous gesture of…well, of something. Try as she might, Tess hadn't come up with a good excuse for that one yet.

A light knock on the door was followed by an abrupt, impatient "Come in." Chantelle entered her 'lady's chambers shyly then curtsied in front of her before hesitatingly handing a stack of magazines to her 'ladyship'. Tess grabbed the magazines impatiently and dismissed Chantelle without even glancing at the requested materials.

After Chantelle closed the door behind her, Tess got up and prepared a drink for herself then returned to the lounge and leaned back against her chair once more preparing to loose herself in the glorious world of fashion and gossip. She took a sip of her drink before flipping through her options. People. No. Entertainment Weekly. Uh…no. Not that one either. She was in the mood for something really gossipy. Like the Star Gazer. Yeah. That's the one. Tess quickly found her favorite local magazine and tossed the others aside.

As her eyes came to rest on the front cover, Tess' hands began to shake uncontrollably and her breathing came hard. She sat up straight and without care, which caused her drink to spill onto her favorite silk robe. "Aaaarrrggghh!" She threw her drink across the room as she let out a yell like a wild banshee. Bringing her hand back to the magazine she torn the front cover off and tossed the rest aside as she jumped up from her seat, anger and jealousy pouring through her.

Venom shot out of her eyes as Tess glared at the picture before her noting the way Max's hands rested so gently against the side of that little witch's face. She never remembered Max touching her face like that before. "You little…just wait till I get my hands on you. You'll regret the day you ever laid eyes and lips on Max Evans!" The picture joined the glass on the floor as Tess ripped it up and threw it in the air before stomping out the door.

Well. So much for maintaining control. Click.
~~~~~~~~~~~~
Michael slammed the phone down. "Damn! I can't get ahold of him."

"Did you try…" Diane began but was unceremoniously cut off by her eldest son.

"I've tried everywhere!" Michael turned from the phone to face his mother and wife. Shaking his head in disbelief, his eyes once more fell on the magazine he'd thrown on the table in anger. Grabbing it up, Michael stared at the picture on the front page. "What the hell has gotten into him? This is the most outrageous…idiotic thing I think he's ever done!"

"Well, the jack⊕ss costume was pretty high up there…" Maria began but was cut short by an angry look from her husband.

He turned the magazine around and shoved the picture in her face. "He's kissing her, dammit! He's an engaged man and he's…he's in a public restaurant KISSING another woman! No wonder she threw water in his face!"

Maria' eyes flashed with amusement as she looked back up at her husband in surprise. "She…threw water…in his face?"

"Yeah. Right after she told him off. Rather loudly, I might add." Michael continued to fill in the blanks of what little he had seen at the restaurant.

Diane's amused chuckle irritated Michael even more as she tried to convince him of something even she didn't believe. Especially after watching Max's reaction to Liz's returned gift earlier that morning. Max had definitely met his match. No wonder he was no where to be found. "Well, then. That settles it. If the girl threw water in his face there's absolutely nothing to worry about."

Playing Devil's Advocate, Maria tilted her head to the side. "Well, now, I don't know, Diane. Attraction can often be hidden under the guise of anger. If you'll remember, my first meeting with your son here wasn't much different. He lasted…" Maria looked up at Michael and pushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. "…what would you say, Michael? Three sentences? Maybe four before I slapped you. You followed me to my hotel room to 'give me a piece of your mind' and ended up giving me…" Maria winked at him sexily before wiggling her eyebrows. "…well, you know."

Michael's face turned crimson as he glanced at his mother then back at his wife after her embarrassing admission of how their relationship began as a one-night stand. His thoughts instantly turning to his brother and the doubts Max had voiced earlier regarding his marriage, Michael recognized a certain pattern and put his head in his hands before letting out a groan. "Oh, God. If it runs in the family, we are so in trouble on this."

Maria hid her grin behind her hand before turning back to Diane. "Now, I'd say our only hope is if she isn't as attractive as that photo makes her out to be."

Another groan from Michael and Diane chuckled and shook her head at Maria when Maria turned to her for explanation. "Sorry, dear, but she's absolutely beautiful."

Michael's head snapped up. "Beautiful? Beautiful doesn't cover it! Gorgeous doesn't even come close! She's a damn goddess to a man in Max's position! With the way he's been acting, if he falls there is no way he's getting out of this one alive…" Michael jumped up out of his seat again and headed toward the phone. Picking it up he dialed a few numbers and waited for the operator to come on the line before making an outrageous request. "Yeah. Get me the number of every last Liz there is in New York City...."

Tess' cold, detached voice interrupted Michael's quest to find his brother. "Why don't you narrow it down a bit, Michael. I'd really like to speak with my fiance' sometime this millennium." She sailed into the room and tossed her purse casually on the table before bringing her eyes back to Michael's. "Ask for Parker. Liz Parker."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Liz and Max were greeted with the excited exclamations of two little children as they walked into Liz's front door. "Mommy! Mommy's here!" Autumn's clear voice rang out as the padding of Brett's feet followed close behind. Brett came rushing into the room and dropped his cup of juice on the floor as he instantly held out his chubby arms to Liz. "Mama! Mama!''

Liz chuckled as she hugged Autumn then swept Brett into her arms for a big hug and kiss. "Boy! You guys act like I've been gone forever!"

Autumn tugged on Liz's pants to get her attention. When Liz leaned down she bobbed her head and whispered. "We missed you, Mommy. Just like ya missed our real mommy. I took care reeeeallly good care of Brett and told him all about her. I told him that both our mommies love us ever so much and he got better right away. See?"

Liz smiled through the lump in her throat before she ran her hand over Brett's curly locks and kissed his forehead noting his temperature was definitely down. Kneeling down next to Autumn, Liz furiously blinked her sudden tears back and wrapped an arm around her. "I see that, sweetie. Your mommy and I are very proud of you for taking such good care of Brett while I was gone. Hey, where's Isabel?"

"In her room. I think she's talking to Alex. Cuz she's whisperin' and gigglin' like she allllways does when she's talkin' to him."

Liz didn't have a chance to say any more before Autumn's eyes widened and her mouth formed a perfect 'o' as she focused on the man standing behind Liz. "Oh, Mr. Donkey! YEAH!!! You came back just like ya promised!"

Max grinned as he knelt down to greet Autumn when she ran around Liz and threw her arms around Max's neck in an unexpected hug. "Yeah, I came back, sweetie." Max patted her back and pulled away as he smiled at her. "Tell ya what. Since I'm here again why don't you just go ahead and call me Max."

"Max?" Autumn tilted her head to the side as she contemplated his name. "I never heard a name like that before ‘xept for my friend Tommy’s doggie. Did your mommy really name you after a puppy dog?"

Max's amused grin widened at Autumn's question as he glanced up at Liz but didn't miss the fact she had quickly wiped a remaining tear from her eye. "Uh...no. It’s short for Maxwell. Actually its kinda like a nickname. Kinda like when your mom calls you 'Angelface'."

"Ooooh.” Autmn’s eyebrows furrowed in concentration then shot up with understanding. “I see now. Like when I call Brett 'poopie-pants' sometimes?" Autumn asked as the curls around her face began to dance with the slight nod of her head.

Liz's mouth dropped open in shock and Max dipped his head to hide the grin on his face at Autumn's childlike openness. "Autumn! You shouldn't say things like that around strangers…"

"But Max isn't a stranger, mommy. 'member? We met him last night…only he was Mr. Donkey then!" Autumn turned back to Max with a bright smile. "I'm so glad ya came back to play! We're gonna have lotsa fun!"

Max nodded in agreement. "I think you're right. I think we will. But first…" Max lowered his voice to a whisper and motioned for Autumn to come closer as he leaned forward "…your mom promised to take me to the best place in town for hot chocolate. You wouldn't happen to know where that would be, would you?"

Autumn's gasp of excitement was quickly followed by her clapping hands. "Oh, I do! I do! We make the bestest hot choco in the whole big world! Mommy says so all the time!!" Autumn turned her big brown eyes on Liz as they danced with delight. She jumped up and down and clapped her hands together again. "Don't we mommy?"

Liz nodded with a smile. "Of course you do. That's why I brought Max back here. I figured the least I could do for our new friend was introduce him to the Parker-Elliott hot choco making parties."

"Yeah!! C'm on, Brett! We get ta make hot choco!" Autumn reached over and grabbed Brett's hand after Liz released him to Autumn's sisterly supervision with a slight shake of her head and a smile.

Click. Max waited till the kids had disappeared before turning to Liz. He reached out and touched her shoulder as he once again saw that sadness creeping back into her eyes. The sadness he was sure Autumn's earlier words had brought back to her. "Hey. You ok?"

Liz nodded as she smiled bravely. "I was just thinking how proud Brina would be of them right now. How much love she's missing."

Click. Max slipped his arm further around her shoulder and pulled her to him slightly. "She's not missing it. There's enough love in this room to be felt all the world over and straight up to heaven. She feels it, Liz, and she's smiling down on you for making it happen." Instead of a smile, Liz's eyes began to shine even more brightly with new tears. "Hey. I didn't mean to make you cry…"

Liz shook her head. "No. I…" She glanced back up at Max and smiled brightly at his concerned expression. "Thank you. That was the most perfect thing…I really needed to hear that…"

A relieved smile broke over Max's face then turned into a light chuckle as Autumn called out from the kitchen. "Hey, guys! Hurry up! We got the whopped cream out and everything!"

Liz wiped her eyes once more as she began to chuckle and lead the way to the kitchen. "Well, Mr. Donkey, I hope you're ready for us…"

Max hung back a moment watching her walk away from him realizing for the first time that she was perhaps the most beautiful sight he had ever laid eyes on. More than that…she made everything feel so warm and safe for him. A sudden overwhelming fear rushed over him. He knew instinctively that walking away from this place tonight might be the hardest thing he would ever have to do. "Me too, Liz. Me too." Click.

Isabel leaned against the wall unseen as a small smile began to curl her lips. "Well, I'll be. Wait till Alex hears about this…"
~~~~~~~~~
"Tess." Michael said as he laid the phone down. "I'm sure there's a reasonable explanation for all of this…"

Tess smiled rather calmly for a woman who had just seen a large photo of her fiance' kissing a woman he'd only met, to her knowledge, once before. Somewhere between the stormy exit from her home and her arrival at the Evans mansion, Tess had once more gained control of her emotions. "I'm sure there is too, Michael. Which is why I'd like to hear it from Max. Now, I'm assuming you haven't been able to reach him just like I haven't all day. Since the last person who he seemed to be…" Tess took a deep calming breath. "…in contact with him was this photographer from yesterday I think we should check with her. Which I believe you were about to do, were you not?"

Michael nodded silently as his gaze drifted to Maria and his mother. "Good. Her name is Liz Parker. So, I suggest asking for that name."

Concerned about actually finding Max at Liz's place with Tess in the room as a witness Michael began to protest. "Tess, don't you think it might be a good idea if you…"

"Dial the number, Michael, or so help me I'll do it myself." Tess commanded as she raised herself to her full height as her eyes threatened what her voice sweetly foretold. "Then I'll follow it up with a phone call to Daddy, who hasn't an inkling of this…situation…yet. I'm sure he won't be pleased once he hears about it. Especially if I don't have a plausible explanation from Max." Folding her hands in front of her she raised her chin. "Now, are you going to call…or shall I?"

Michael quickly picked up the phone and began to dial only to find the steady, irritating sound of a busy line...
~~~~~~~~~~~
Jeff Parker reached for the phone on the third ring. "Hello?"

"Yeah, it's me. Calling to give my monthly report."

Jeff cleaned his throat and leaned back in his chair glancing through his open office door to make sure no one was close enough to hear his conversation. "Go ahead."

"Not much change. I've just sent him on another assignment. He's still in the dark as to what happened."

"That's good. And you'll let me know if there's a change in that?"

"First thing." The voice answered. "But in all honesty, if he hasn't remembered by now, I doubt he ever will. It would take a miracle…"

"Well, then I guess we have to make sure miracles don't happen in your corner of the world, won't we?"

A soft chuckle of understanding. "Right, boss. I'll keep him so far in the bush he won't know what to do with civilization once he reaches it. Don't worry…he's not a problem for you any more…."

Tbc…

posted on 8-Dec-2002 7:36:43 PM by Ashton
~ chapter 13 ~

"Kay, Max. It's your turn." Autumn sang out to Max as she handed him the can of whipped cream. While drinking their hot chocolate Autumn, Max and Liz had been taking turns drawing pictures with the whipped cream on the pieces of pumpkin pie that Liz had dished out for them while Brett sat in his booster seat lazily kicking his feet and chewing on a cookie.

Max shook his head with an exaggerated sigh. "I don’t know…I just don't think I'll be able come up with anything better than the face you just drew."

"What’s this? Afraid of a little competition?" Liz's teasing challenge egged him on as he began to chuckle.

"Uh…no. I'm never afraid of competition." His eyes began to twinkle with mischief as he tilted the can toward the pie plate in the center of the table. "Especially from someone so completely devoid of talent. You know…someone like you…" Quickly aiming the can toward Liz, Max squeezed the end as a stream of white cream flew out and hit Liz square in the chest on her pale pink sweater.

Liz's mouth dropped open as she let out a yell of surprise. Her eyes flashed as she jumped up from the table and put her hands on her hips in mock indignation. Silence filled the kitchen momentarily before Autumn, Brett and Max burst into laughter when Liz lunged over the table and tried to grab the can from Max's hand yelling, "Why you little…! Talent? I'll show you talent!"

Max held the can high in the air and Liz managed to slip around the table in time to grab it before he could get out of his seat. Max put his arms up to ward against Liz's attack just as she squeezed the tube and sent a flow of white cream down the arm of his shirt.

Click. As her giggles filled the kitchen joining Max's protests, Liz continued to spray Max until he finally managed to reach up and grab her arms then pinned them behind her knocking the can out of her hands. He playfully pulled her close to him as his legs quickly wrapped around hers to lock her in place. Liz and Max's combined laughter quickly died as their eyes locked and held each other captive.

Click. In that moment everyone and everything else disappeared except the laughter they found in each other's eyes. Laughter that rapidly turned to desire.

Liz's chest rose and fell with the heaviness of her breathing and her face was flushed with exertion from their playful fight. Max's eyes instantaneously darkened to midnight as he swallowed suddenly at the electricity he felt flowing through his body with her closeness. The sweet smell of jasmine and lavender surrounded him as her hair fell forward like a curtain brushing lightly against his burning cheeks. His eyes searched hers as his hand automatically came up to brush the hair away from her face. His face. Their faces as they unconsciously leaned toward each other. Tucking the hair behind her ear, Max’s fingers lightly trailed down her cheek to her chin pulling her lightly, but firmly toward him.

One slender hand rested on Max’s broad shoulder as Liz felt herself falling when her eyes roamed the curves of Max's handsome face. From the serious set of his strong jaw, up the smooth cheeks to the wisps of dark hair falling almost to his eyebrows. Desire sparked to life as his deep amber eyes held her captive with their intense, penetrating gaze. A gaze that suddenly set her on fire and sent shivers down her spine. Liz instinctively knew this was no ordinary attraction she was feeling. This was instantaneous…overpowering. Potentially dangerous and definitely confusing. This attraction was…more. So much more than she’d ever felt to anyone before.

The sudden urge to lean forward across that small gap that separated them and taste the sweetness of the whipped cream as she kissed his cheeks and perfect lips was stopped only by the sound of her little girl's voice announcing the winner of the game they'd begun. "Mommy, I think Max caught you!" Autumn exclaimed with giggles as she looked to Brett for support. "Ya think so, Brett?"

"Yeah! Catch!" Brett began to beat his tiny fists against the table in agreement completely breaking the spell of the moment. Max reluctantly released Liz from his grip when he saw her look at the children uncomfortably and avoided looking back into his eyes at all costs.

Liz cleared her throat and attempted a smile before heading to the refrigerator to put the can safely away. "Yeah, well…he cheated." With those amazing eyes of his. Liz added silently to herself before she tossed Max a towel and began to wipe cream off her own sweater.

Max rolled his eyes and shook his head at Autumn in an effort to act as if he was completely under control. Her giggles almost drowned out the sound of his heart still pounding loudly in his ears. Almost, but not quite. Click. Max dabbed his face with the towel to clean off the cream as a slow dreamy smile claimed his lips when he began wondering how it would have felt to have Liz's lips do the job instead. The way she had looked at him…with any luck he'd find out one day...

Liz's thoughts were running along the same track as Max's only in the opposite direction. Click. With her back to the room, she closed her eyes and breathed a sigh of relief that Autumn had interrupted when she did. If she hadn't who knows what would have happened. Even as warm as physical closeness with Max made her feel inside…all the heated, intense sparks shooting through her…she needed to remember she was definitely playing with fire where he was concerned. After all, he was still getting married in a matter of months…

Liz took a deep breath and turned around from the sink to an unexpected sight…Brett slipping down from his seat and toddling over to Max. Brett's long eyelashes fluttered like feathers against his cheeks as he batted his big blue eyes at Max and handed him a soggy half-eaten cookie. Max looked at it in surprised uncertainty before appealing to Liz for explanation with his eyes.

Liz's own eyes widened in shock when she saw Brett offer up his cookie as a gesture of friendship. Autumn spoke up before Liz got a chance to step in and stop the unsanitary exchange. "Go 'head, Max. Brett's wantin' to be your friend. He never ever, ever let's anybody have his cookies. Not ever. Not 'less he likes 'em."

Unable to let a statement like that go by without action, Max smiled at Brett as he leaned forward. "Why, thank you, Brett! Mmmm, I just love cookies!" He grimaced involuntarily as his fingers touched the wet outer shell and he swallowed as he held it up in front of him contemplating its fate.

"Eat!" Brett commanded with a point of his chubby finger and a grin.

Eyebrows raised. "Eat." Max repeated as he once more looked at Liz, who by this time was about to burst out into laughter at his predicament and the look of disgust on his face he was so valiantly trying to hide.

She hid her chuckles behind her hand before clearing her throat. "Brett, sweetie. I'm not sure if Max should eat his cookie right now." She came to kneel next to Brett and wrapped her arm around his slim shoulder. "See, he hasn't had his supper yet and if he eats the cookie, it may ruin his appetite."

"Eat!" Brett repeated again as his eyes began to twinkle with delight.

Max's eyes widened at Brett's obstinate command. "Oh, I don't know, Brett. I think your mommy's right. It would *really* ruin my appetite." He swallowed hard as he looked at the cookie with unveiled distaste and whispered under his breath. "In fact, I think it already has..."

"Eat!"

Max and Liz looked at each other, each wondering what to do next. Both breathed a sigh of relief when Autumn heard a familiar song playing in the living room and jumped up and down yelling, "Brett! Hurry up! Pooh-bear's on!"

"OH! Yippee! Ninnie Ooop!" Brett jumped up and down and turned to toddle after Autumn as she ran toward the living room. Max and Liz watched till they were safely out of earshot before looking back at each other and bursting into laughter. Click.

"Ninnie Ooop?" Max's eyes crinkled in laughter as he turned to Liz for explanation.

"Brett's version of Winnie-the-Pooh." Liz explained as she flashed Max a brilliant smile when she heard the kids begin to sing the Winnie the Pooh theme song. Pointing to the cookie Max still gingerly held between his fingers, her eyes began to twinkle with admiration. "That was…ummm…pretty brave of you. I hope you realize that Autumn was right. I don't think I've ever seen Brett voluntarily give away a cookie before. In fact, I think Autumn and I are the only ones who've even gotten close to the privilege. We always have to ask first."

Max shrugged as a faint blush spread over his cheeks at her compliment. "It was just a little male bonding going on."

"Oh. Is that so?" Liz's smile deepened as she began to clean up the mess Max's little game had caused. "Uh-huh. Just what I thought. Especially after that little whipped cream stunt you pulled."

"What's that?" Max's curiosity became piqued by the mere fact Liz brought up the whipped cream incident. He figured by her manner only a few moments before that she'd want to forget it as much as he wanted to savor it. Her next statement proved him right.

"You find it easiest to bond with a 2 year old because that's your maturity level." Liz saw Max's eyebrows shoot up in mock surprise and she began to chuckle when she turned back to the sink and ran water in the cups.

Max watched her back for a moment and chose not to respond in the normal teasing vein but instead picked up the plates from the table and carried them to the sink. Laying them down under the faucet he commented hopefully. "Oh, I don't know. I'd like to think we're not doing too bad at that bonding thing right now."

Click. Liz hesitated before glancing up at him with a warm smile. She knew she shouldn't encourage too much familiarity, especially not after what had just happened or…almost happened, but she was simply unable to resist the note of sincerity and hope in his voice. "No, we're not doing too bad at all." She turned back to the sink and began washing dishes when she saw a look of delight begin to dance in his eyes. "So, tell me, Max. Besides your name, what other characteristics did you get from Gramps?"

Max began to chuckle at the way her mind jumped from subject to subject with no apparent connection between the two as he grabbed a towel and moved to rinse and dry the clean dishes she'd begun to pile up. "Well, Gramps was pretty active. Physically, I mean. And I happen to love a lot of sports like basketball, kayaking, I’m into some martial arts and I work out just about every day. Even brought home the trophy for state competition in skateboarding when I was younger.”

“Oh, no.” Liz turned wide eyes on Max.

“What?”

“Don’t you dare tell Autumn that. She has this weird fascination with skateboards. All she talks about is getting one.” Liz explained as handed Max another plate. “And of course anything Autumn does…”

“Brett has to do.” Max grinned and shrugged his shoulders when he saw Liz’s questioning eyebrow raised. “I remember what it’s like to be a little brother. Although, I have to admit, as grown ups no one is more different than my brother, Michael, and me…I sure did try to be like him when I was little.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. For twin sisters, Brina and I were pretty different…” Liz interjected as she reached up to tuck her hair behind her ear then stopped, realizing that her hands were wet.

“Here. Let me help.” Max reached out and did the job for her allowing the silky strands of her thick, shiny hair to slowly run through his fingers. Click. His eyes locked with Liz’s when the back of his hand grazed the soft skin behind her ear and his hand lingered a moment longer then necessary against her smooth, creamy neck. A flicker of warmth raced through her eyes and her chest rose and fell quickly as if her breath had suddenly gotten trapped.

And trapped it was. Right in the center of her chest. Right where her heart was suddenly thumping so hard she could barely hear or feel anything else. Swallowing hard, Liz tore her gaze from Max and cleared her throat attempting to remain calm despite the waves of heat rippling through her. “So…um…why don’t you uh…tell me more about Gramps.”

“Right. Gramps.” Max let his hand drop and blinked his eyes back into focus on the conversation at hand instead of the beautiful woman standing by his side. “Well, uh…let’s see.” Why was he suddenly having the hardest time forming coherent sentences? Max’s released a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding and tried not to concentrate on the tingle of fire that blazed where his skin had met hers. “There’s…uh…well, there’s business." Max let out a sigh as his gaze drifted to a distant past. “Gramps taught me everything I know about business. Every deal I’ve made, every decision has somehow been guided by his wisdom.”

“Then, of course, there’s the most important thing…love.” Max’s gaze moved naturally to focus on Liz's beautiful face as he laid the last plate down on the stack he’d been building. "I wouldn’t know how to recognize it if it weren’t for Gramps and Grams. Not that my parents don’t love each other or my brother and I. Because they do. Very much. But the kind of love Gramps and Grams had…well, it was…”

“Magical?” Liz provided for Max and Max just nodded silently in return. Liz eyed him carefully as she held out her hands to receive the plates he'd dried. “So, this…magical love you believe in…” Liz dropped her gaze to the plates in her hands as her voice softened and floated to him like a feather on the wind. “Have you ever found it?”

Click. Max gazed intently at Liz’s profile and a soft smile played on his lips when he saw a light dusting of pink shadow her cheeks. How was it possible for such a strong woman to suddenly look so completely vulnerable? And with that vulnerability she was absolutely…adorable. Forcing his thoughts on the question Liz had asked and not the hesitant tone of voice in which she’d asked it, Max swallowed a sudden lump in his throat. “I thought I did…once.”

The injury in Max’s voice matched the cloud of pain in his eyes when Liz’s gaze snapped to his face. A slight shake of his head and a waver of his gaze made Liz’s heart melt with sympathy. Her hand unconsciously covered his and a gentle squeeze prompted his inner thoughts to surface. “It was all an illusion, you know. A trick I fell for like a fool.”

“No, Max. It’s never foolish…” Liz’s eyes softened with understanding when Max’s gaze met hers. “…to love.”

“No, you’re right. It’s not.” Max agreed quietly. “But it is foolish to know what true love is and ignore all the warning signs that tell you that you don't have it. To think you love and almost lose everything because of it...that's what's foolish.”

“I’m sorry, Max.”

“For what?” The question was gently voiced.

“I’m just sorry you’ve lost so much.”

Max looked down at her hand still covering his and smiled sadly. “Yeah, well…I’m not the only one who’s suffered loss…”

“No, you’re not.” Liz’s steady gaze held his as she tilted her head to the side. “But I get the feeling that the pain of loss cuts you more deeply than others. And I’m sorry that you’ve been hurt. No one…should have to hurt like that.”

Liz’s heartfelt words were rewarded with a soft smile. “That’s life, Liz. A paradox. Life and death. Love and loss. Laughter and tears. They all go hand in hand somehow. Sometimes in losing, you win. Sometimes…you just lose. Either way the key is to be open to possibilities. Because life is full of them.” Max’s eyes took on a distant look and his voice lowered almost to a whisper as if he were remembering things from a dream. “And as long as you believe in that little bit of magic called love, the risks are worth it. The pain is bearable. And the best life has to offer will be within your grasp…just waiting for you to claim it...when you least expect it…”

Max blinked a couple of times as the silence of the moment registered in his brain. A shrug of his shoulders accompanied an embarrassed grin for having shared so much. “Another lesson my Gramps taught me. I just…” Max’s gaze wavered. “…I’ve just forgotten for a while. For a really long while.” His eyes raised to meet hers again. “Thanks for reminding me.”

Liz’s eyes flickered with an emotion Max couldn’t quite name as she silently studied him with an unwavering gaze. Click. He was such a mystery. A bundle of contradictions. One moment a sadness claimed him with such force that Liz felt tears spring to her eyes in reaction. The next a gentle playfulness would wind itself around him and bring out a smile that rivaled the sun in brilliance or a laugh that made the angels in heaven jealous for the beauty of it. And he was certainly no stranger to anger…or love.

Realizing Max was staring back at her with increasing curiosity, Liz cleared her throat and turned from him to busy herself once more. "Does this bother you? Talking about this? About Gramps?"

Click. Max watched her silently for a moment as she moved to open the cupboard and gently laid the plates inside. He realized in that moment just how long it had been since he'd talked about his grandfather. Really talked about him. Oh, there were times among the family when a memory would surface and he certainly talked about him with Grams, but it had been since his death that he'd really spoken of him to anyone outside the family. Liz was the first.

Max waited till she closed the door and turned back to him expectantly before answering in the negative with a bit of awe creeping into his voice. "No. Not with you. Somehow telling you makes him feel closer."

Liz smiled at his quiet admission happy to see the sadness in his eyes lessen with each new step he took in opening up to her. "I'm glad."

"Me too." Max responded quietly as his eyes began to darken again when he leveled a penetrating gaze on Liz's face and inched his way closer to her. He hadn’t planned to kiss her, but memories of their earlier kiss began to flood his mind. He could still feel the sensations her fingers running through his hair had sent racing through his body…the smell of her hair as it brushed against his cheek, slipping through his fingers…her soft lips pressed passionately against his. Standing so close to her now…sharing such personal thoughts…talking about true love…kissing her suddenly seemed like the most natural thing in the world. So, he leaned forward praying she wouldn’t reject him. Hoping she’d feel the sparks he was feeling. Needing her to want him as much as he suddenly wanted her. Click.

An unseen force seemed to pull Liz to Max. His eyes locked with hers flickered with a message she simply couldn’t resist. A call she suddenly didn’t want to deny. Before she knew it, they were only a whisper away from each other as Max’s hands raised with a will of their own to cup her face before he leaned toward her. All reason was gone as Liz’s face instinctively tilted upward, anticipation dancing in her eyes as her gaze dropped to focus on Max’s lips. Her lips parted slightly and her breath seemed to still in her chest when she felt Max’s warm breath against her skin as his head dipped down…

"I said no! Brett, you can't do that! MOMMY!!!! Mommy, Brett's being bad!!" Liz jumped back from Max and looked away uncomfortably when the sound of shouting came from the living room.

"Uh-oh." Liz wiped her hands nervously and tossed the towel on the counter, her gaze refusing to raise and meet his. "Sounds like the beast has decided to make an appearance." Liz glanced at the clock on the stove. "It's about their bedtime anyway. I'll just…uh…I’ll just go take care of them and then…” Liz tucked her hair behind her ears nervously. “…I'll um…I’ll be right back…"

"Sure." Max nodded in agreement relieved that she hadn't suggested by the lateness of the hour that he should leave. Especially with the uneasy way her hands were shaking and her words were catching on themselves in her attempt to flee his presence.

She was gone in a blink of an eye leaving Max feeling dizzy and confused, but mostly feeling very alone. With a deep sigh, he poured himself another cup of hot chocolate and slid into his seat his eyes resting on the remains of their ‘talent contest’ in the middle of the table. Laughter echoed in his memory and suddenly Max didn’t feel all that much alone any more. She was still here. In this room, in the air that he breathed. In the pictures attached to the refrigerator door. Click.

A smile drifted over his face at the sudden feeling of peace he found sitting here alone in her kitchen. It had been a while since he'd felt peace anywhere, but especially when he was alone. That's usually when the thoughts he tried to ignore all day with work and wedding plans seemed to creep out and grab him. The moments his guilt and bitterness would take control. But tonight…tonight none of that existed for him. He knew exactly what the change was. Liz…with her beautiful eyes, flowing hair and exquisite lips. Liz…with a heart of gold and unspoken dreams that somehow he could hear. Max knew now more than ever, it was a change he simply wasn't willing to let go of… Click.

Hearing footsteps and thinking Liz was coming to join him, Max allowed a contented smile to cross his lips. In the next instant the smile disappeared and was replaced first by surprise then by instant rage. "I knew it! I knew something like this would happen if you tried to get involved with her!" Isabel's angry voice sounded behind him as she plopped something down in front of him.

It took Max only a matter of seconds to understand her meaning when his gaze fell on the photo before him and the eye-catching phrase guaranteed to win sales. Max jumped up from his chair and grabbed up the magazine as instant rage flowed through him. "What the… Dammit! When will they ever stop?!"

Max pushed back his chair angrily and attempted to stalk out of the room but was stopped by Isabel's crossed arms and angry glare. "Just where do you think you're going? Don't you think you have some explaining to do?"

Max exhaled a furious sigh as his voice lowered dangerously. "More than you know. But not now. Right now I need to take care of this. They will not be allowed to do this again! It could ruin everything!" Max shoved the magazine back in Isabel's hands and physically moved her out of his way.

Click. Stopping at the door briefly he turned back his eyes warm with another emotion besides anger. They were actually glowing with…happiness. "Tell Liz this was the best…" He paused and shook his head as that happiness drained to sudden guilt. "No, just tell her I’m sorry for leaving so soon and I'll…I'll call her later." With that last promise he disappeared as the door slammed behind him moments later.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Silence hung in the room as Michael replaced the phone with a shrug. "It's still busy." Michael handed Tess a drink and glanced at Maria who gave him an 'You-are-on-your-own-on-this-one' look. Michael nervously wrung his hands in front of him before shoving them into his pockets. "I'm sure this is all just a big misunderstanding, Tess." He finally managed to say feeling as if something, even if it were pretty lame, needed to be said.

The gaze of Tess' marbled eyes moved from the floor to Michael's face. An even smile touched her lips as she inclined her head to the side. "Oh, I don't doubt it, Michael. You see, for that…" Tess pointed to the magazine still laying on the table in front of her. "…to be true Max would have had to lose his mind…or his taste."

She took up the magazine and stared at the picture in front of her choosing to concentrate on Liz's form instead of the way Max was holding her. "All I see here is an out of work photographer who wouldn't know class if it bit her in the…" Her affected chuckle caused Michael to swallow hard. "…well, I'm sure you know where I was going with that."

"The simple fact is Max is too intelligent, sensible and refined to ever allow someone like this…Liz…" The added note of disdain when Liz's name was spoken caused Diane's eyebrow to raise and Maria's elbow to nudge her mother-in-law's arm. "…to ruin what we share. What our families could have together. Isn't he, Michael?"

The threat in Tess' question and words wasn't lost on Michael as he quickly nodded his head. "You are absolutely right. Max is very aware of what he has in you and I'm sure he'll never do anything to risk it…"

Tess' smile widened when she heard Michael's words of reassurance choosing to ignore the uncertainty that caused his voice to shake as he spoke them. Rising from her throne, Tess tossed the magazine back on the table. "That's what I thought. Well, then I think I'll just go wait for Max in his room. I'm sure he'll be home where he belongs soon enough."

Tess paused at the door briefly and turned back around with a thoughtful tilt to her head. "You know, if something like this had to happen, my only regret is that they didn't include a picture of me." At the obviously shocked look on Diane and Maria's faces she continued in explanation with an arrogant sweep of her hand. "It would be so completely obvious to everyone who Max belongs with if they could see the both of us. I mean, really. She probably shops at that K-Mart place for her clothes. She's so out of our league that there's simply no contest…" With that final word of ignorance, Tess swept out of the room leaving stunned listeners behind.

Maria finally voiced what both she and Diane were thinking. "Well, that settles it. She must not have seen that picture in the article."

"Definitely not." Diane agreed. "It says a whole lot more than the cover ever will."

Michael looked back and forth between Maria and Diane. "What picture? You mean there are more pictures?"

"Of course there are, son. The front cover was just a teaser. The real stuff is on the inside…" Diane found the article and handed it out to Michael.

Michael's eyes widened the moment his eyes hit the page. He dropped his head and let out his third groan of the evening. "Oh my God! We're dead. We are completely dead! Correction. My brother will be dead the moment I get my hands around his goddess-kissing neck…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~
Liz returned to the kitchen only moments after the slamming of the door. A look of confusion passed through her eyes when she saw her roommate staring at the doorway in shock with no Max to be seen. "Iz? Was that the door I heard? Where's Max?"

Isabel's brown eyes focused on Liz and she opened her mouth to speak when Liz's own mouth dropped open as her eyes fell on the cover of the magazine in Isabel's hands. "Oh no! Oh no, I can't believe this!" Liz rushed forward and yanked the magazine from Isabel' grip. Her eyes snapped to Isabel's face. "Did Max see this? Did he?"

Isabel nodded silently as Liz swore under her breath. "How was he? I mean was he angry? Upset?"

Isabel tilted her head in surprise. Liz had certainly been a bundle of contradictions today. First, she'd been angry as all get out at the guy earlier. Enough to run out of Isabel' office crying when this kiss, the very one the whole world was probably discussing now with the advent of this picture, was even mentioned. Then she ends up bringing him home and laughing more than Isabel had heard her laugh in years. Now, she was all concerned about his emotional state when he left out the door. Not to mention that tender moment Isabel had spied from the hallway.

Something strange was going on with her best friend and she wasn't quite sure whether she should be celebrating or putting up the walls to protect her just yet. "Why should you care? Look what he's done! Because of him, you're on the cover of every one of these magazines in town! What was he doing here anyway? I thought you didn't like the guy…"

"I was wrong about him, ok? He's no different from me…from most people. He's hurting just like everyone else." Liz shot back quickly as she turned and headed into the living room with Isabel close behind. "I need you to take care of the kids for a while…"

"Where do you think you're going?"

"To find him. Did he say specifically where he was going?" Liz reached into the closet and pulled out her coat and put it on.

"No, he just said something about not letting them get away with it again. But Liz…"

Click. "Look, I can't explain it. I just know he needs me right now." Liz's eyes were a window of various emotions. Concern. Plea. Hope. Confusion. Determination. "Tell the kids I love them and I'll be back. Oh and do me a favor. Call his mom…ummm, Diane Evans…and if she's seen the picture tell her not to worry. I'm going to find him and I'll make sure he's alright."

"But Liz…" Isabel's protest fell silent with the slamming of the door. Despite her fears a warm smile spread over Isabel's face. "He needs her, huh? Looks to me like it's the other way around." A chuckle bubbled up from deep inside Isabel as she let out a sigh when she looked back down at the cover of the magazine. She'd been too incensed before to really pay attention to it.

Now gazing at it intently, she fanned herself quickly and let out a whistle. Isabel's earlier questions about that kiss were more than answered with the picture she held in her hand. Liz's reaction made perfect sense now. She'd felt something with that kiss. For the first time in years…Liz Parker felt something. "Welcome back to the land of the living, Lizzie. Welcome back…"

to be continued….
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

~ chapter 14 ~

Once up in Max's room, Tess tossed her purse on the bed and moved to the window contemplating her next move. Her gaze moved upward toward the full moon as her mind twirled with reasons why Max wasn't by her side. Perhaps he'd been in an accident. Or got caught in a business meeting. Traffic had been bad earlier. Or…

Tess let out a frustrated sigh as she realized it was no use to deny the truth. "Or he's with *her*." She swallowed back the lump of jealousy that suddenly made it hard for her to breathe. She closed her eyes then opened them quickly as the image of that kiss the photographer’s camera captured for eternity flashed before her.

No, she wasn't going to do this. She wasn't going to wallow in self-pity when there was action to be taken. She'd worked too hard and waited too long to lose Max to some…out of work, second-rate photographer just because she was photogenic. Moving quickly to grab her purse Tess reached inside for her phone. She certainly didn't want to leave this particular number on Max's phone records. They could be traced too easily if he ever suspected.

Dialing a once familiar number, Tess waited till the phone was answered by a deep groggy voice. "Wake up, El. It's me. I need you to do another job."

"Tess? I don't believe this. What happened? I thought the last one cinched the deal for you."

"Oh, it did. We're on our way to the altar. Unfortunately, there's a bit of a snag in the wedding plans. We have a new pest that needs to be eliminated." Tess explained.

A heavy sigh accompanied the question from the other end of the phone. "What's her name? And what information do you want me to make up on her?"

Tess shook her head as she tapped her fingers against the bedpost of Max's four-corner bed. "Not the technique I want to use. I really don’t think it would accomplish much this time. Half of the family likes her too much."

"Then what do you have in mind?"

"Something less subtle. More permanent. Something…" Tess paused as she thought a moment. "…something that will prove once and for all that the grass is definitely not greener on the other side."

"And just how do you plan on doing that?"

Click. A wicked gleam transferred from Tess' eyes to her lips as she began to smile. "Let me handle her. I know the perfect thing... In the meantime, this is what I want you to do..."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Michael grabbed the phone as soon as it rang. "Hello? Who is this? Who?" Michael let out a sigh as he handed the phone to his mother. "Someone named Isabel Guerin for you."

Diane shook her head at Michael's questioning look to let him know she had no idea who the caller was. "Hello? Diane here."

"Yeah, uh…Mrs. Evans. I mean, Diane, right? That's…that's what Liz told me to call you…" Isabel began in nervously broken speech.

"Liz?" Diane repeated as she sat up straight her question getting an immediate response from Michael and Maria. Maria's eyes turned to Diane and her hand stopped mid-air on its quest to filling her mouth with a piece of chocolate while Michael sprung from his seat to land in front of his mother with a thud.

"Yeah. Liz Parker. She's my roommate." Isabel continued to explain as Autumn found her way into the living room to look for her favorite stuffed bear.

Once finding it, Autumn hugged it to her chest and turned to Isabel with a questioning tilt of her head. "Isabel? Where's mommy? And where did Max go? Isn't he gonna say good night to me and Brett?"

Isabel put her hand over the phone to block out her conversation, but Diane heard every word loud and clear and couldn't help but smile at the subject matter. "I'm afraid not, sweetie. Max and mommy had to run somewhere and I don't think he'll be back tonight. Mommy said she loves you and Brett though and she'll look in on you when she gets back. Now you run along to bed like a good girl, ok?"

"Kay." Autumn agreed as she turned to go stopping for one more comment. "Isabel? Ya think Max'll be back ever?"

"I don't know, honey."

Autumn's face fell at the thought of not seeing her new friend again crowded her thoughts. "I really hope so cuz I like him lots. And I really like how he and mommy act together. They're really funny...and he makes her laugh."

Isabel smiled at Autumn's childlike perception before motioning for her to come get a hug. "I know he does, Angel-face. We'll just have to see." Kissing her quickly Isabel shooed her off to bed. "On you go. I'll see ya in a bit..."

Turning back to the phone Isabel began to apologize. "Mrs. Evans...I'm so sorry about that. It was Autumn...Liz's little niece. Sometimes she forgets not to interrupt when we're on the phone."

Diane smiled into the phone as she winked at Maria. "That's all right, dear. Being a Mom myself, I remember those days. Not to mention having a grandson now…"

Michael made a circular motion with his hand to indicate his mother should speed up her conversation and get to the information he was looking for…mainly, where his brother was. Diane nodded her understanding to Michael and continued her conversation. "So, Isabel. You said something about Liz asking you to call me?"

"Oh, yeah. Um…well, I really don't know how to say this. You…" Isabel took a deep breath before launching into her unpleasant duty. "…you wouldn't have happened to see…"

"We’ve seen the photo of Max and Liz if that's the question." Diane's attempt to make Isabel's job easier as she heard the uncertainty in her voice. "What we really want to know is…has Max?"

"Uh…yeah. He saw it and shot out of here like a bullet."

"Did he say where he was going?" Diane asked as her brows furrowed in worry.

"No. But that's why I'm calling. Liz was determined to go after him. She wanted you to know she'll find him and make sure he's alright. And well…I've never known Liz to fail at anything she's put her mind to. So, I guess what I'm trying to say is…your son will be fine just as soon as Liz finds him."

"I see." Diane commented as her eyes drifted to Michael's anxious face. "I appreciate your calling me to let me know. And will you tell Liz thanks for all she's done?"

"Sure." Isabel smiled to herself thinking the Evans clan might not be as bad as Alex had made them out to be. "Well, I guess I'll let you go now…"

"Isabel? One more thing." Diane paused before asking her question not wanting to alarm Michael any more than necessary but needing to know if her hunch was correct. "Does she…did he laugh too?"

Isabel's smile deepened at the question knowing her answer would only bring joy to a mother's heart. "Yeah, yeah he did. The two of them together…well, it was…a really beautiful sound. Like a song."

"Just what I had hoped… Thank you, dear." Click. Diane closed her eyes and smiled as her whispered gratitude ended her conversation with Isabel before she turned to her overly anxious son who pounced on her almost before she'd hit the off button.

"Well? What did she say? Where is he? How the hell did he let this all happen?"

Diane put the phone down with a sigh deciding it was best not to fill Michael in on all the details of the conversation. "That was Liz's roommate. Max has seen the picture and he'll be home soon."

"That's it? It took all of that time to say that?" Michael nearly exploded as he jumped up from his seat in front of Diane. "Didn't she say where he was? Why he isn't here explaining his way out of this now?"

"No, Michael, she didn't…"

"He's with her, isn't he? That foolish rascal is still with that…that…Liz woman!" Michael began to pace as he ran his fingers through his hair while getting lost once more in thought. "Of all the stupid…when the family is in a crisis like this he’s probably out pulling some romance trick and wooing some…some…skirt!"

Diane's irritation with Michael flared at the inconsiderateness of his questions and the tone of his voice. "No, Michael, he's not. Truth is, she doesn't know where he is. No one does…yet. Now, it's about time you get ahold of yourself. The most important thing in all of this is that Max will be fine and he will be home soon. When he does get here you can ask all the questions you want. Until then, wait like the rest of us and be grateful this is minor compared to what we've dealt with in the past."

"Minor?" Michael's voice raised in agitation as he spread his arms in a wide gesture. "You call this minor?!"

Noting the rising tension in the room, Maria laid a hand on Michael's arm. "Babe, why don't you go check on Phillip. It's about his bedtime and he hasn't gotten a chance to see much of his daddy today."

Before grudgingly taking his wife's advice, Michael pointedly addressed his mother. "Fine. But I know what this is about. You like this girl and you're trying to make excuses for him again just like you've done in the past. Just like you did with Gabrielle." Michael got up from his seat and held the magazine up to Diane before tossing it back on the table. "This is completely unacceptable and he will have to explain it to *my* satisfaction."

As soon as Michael stalked out of the room Maria turned to Diane and leaned toward her conspiratorially. "So, what's the real story on Max and this Liz woman?"

"Apparently they…make each other laugh." Diane said simply as a motherly smile spread over her face.

Maria' eyebrow raised as she once more looked down at the photo in the magazine lost in silent contemplation. "Michael's going to lose this one, isn't he?"

"I hope so, Maria. I really hope so."

Maria reached over and squeezed Diane's hand. "I'll make sure he's occupied when Max gets home. That will give some reprieve…at least for tonight."

Diane patted Maria’s hand in return and smiled in gratitude before looking out through the window into the distance. "Thank you, Maria. I have a feeling he's going to be dealing with enough on his own when he gets home..."
~~~~~~~~~~
The sound of drawers opening and closing grew louder with each passing minute. Grams frantically threw open her closet and reached into the back to pull out a cardboard box only to replace it after careful inspection. "Please, Maxwell. Please help me find it..." She whispered the plea as she continued her extensive search.

A joyous smile spread over her face and she gasped aloud as her fingers suddenly found themselves wrapped around a wooden box sitting in the corner of the closet hidden under several books. Pulling it carefully from its hiding place Grams turned toward her room and moved slowly to sit on the edge of her bed as her hand lovingly caressed the top of the box.

"Here we are, my love. The beginning of all our memories. I've not looked in these since you left me, Maxwell. I've been too afraid of the pain. But he needs this now. He needs it to believe. He needs it to find courage…"

Grams slowly opened the top of the box and held her breath as tears instantly stung her eyes. Reaching a weathered hand inside she pulled out a photo, wrinkled and yellowed with age but still full of the love and hope shining in two young lover's eyes. A tear slipped down her cheek as her thumb ran over the features of her husband's face. "Oh, Maxwell. I miss you so..."

Sniffing back her tears, a wave of determination surged through her as she closed the box lid and held the photo up to the light. A small smile curved her lips as her eyes began to shine with love. "This is it. This is what will show him what he's been missing all of this time..." As she held up a copy of the Star Gazer magazine next to the photo her smile deepened. "...and how he now has the chance to hold it in his arms forever..."
~~~~~~~~~~~
Max's car was moving through the streets of New York City at breakneck speed. The only thought in Max's mind was getting to the people who had done this to Liz and making them pay. Images of Autumn and Brett's faces flashed before his mind and his foot unconsciously pressed down harder on the gas pedal. Click.

Weaving his way back and forth between cars Max's mind drifted to the last time he'd seen his grandfather. Pale and weak lying in a hospital bed that should have never been wasted on one who was once so strong. He closed his eyes briefly remembering it all. His last smile. His last words. His last breath. His grandmother's tears…

It had all been because of him. The charges. The accusations. The proof that was never found. If he'd just listened to the wisdom of his grandfather. If he just hadn't trusted certain people… Everyone told him it wasn't his fault, but he knew they were wrong. He knew he'd foolishly allowed his heart to guide where his head told him not to go and it had cost him more than he'd dreamed…

Max's eyes flew open as he heard the horn of a car angrily passing him by and he swerved quickly to get back in the middle of his lane. Swallowing his memories, Max once more concentrated on the road before him. One last turn and he'd be there. One last turn and he'd make sure the foolish mistakes he'd made with his grandfather wouldn't be repeated with Liz.

Click. Determination flashed in his eyes. He would not let them use him to destroy another person he cared about...
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Half a world away, bathed in the glow of the morning sun, a lone woman stood just inside the threshhold of her open french doors taking in the magnificent view of a wide ocean that had brought her to this exotic place. Like the waves of the ocean, her thoughts drifted in and out, rolling and crashing within her. Bringing tears of regret to eyes full of sadness as her gaze drifted downward to the picture frame in her hand.

A finger lightly traced the features of the man's handsome face as a tear slipped down her cheek to land with a plop on the glass. "Oh, Max. I wish you knew...I wish I could tell you how sorry I am..."

Clutching the frame to her chest, her gaze drifted once more to the world outside her door. "Some day, you will know. If it's the last thing I do, I promise you, Max...someday you'll realize just how much...I will always love you..."

She stiffened perceptibly at the deep voice that sounded low and deadly behind her. "Tsk. Tsk. Tsk. My dear Contessa...and here I thought I taught you never to make promises you won't be able to keep..."

tbc...



posted on 8-Dec-2002 7:38:56 PM by Ashton
~ chapter 15 ~

She turned to face him, her eyes matching his with equal determination. "And who will stop me from keeping it?"

A laugh of wicked amusement split the air and she blinked back sudden tears because of it. "You're joking, right?" He took the needed steps to meet her toe to toe, will to will, and reached out to brutally yank the frame from her hands. His eyes danced with delight when she gasped in pain and gazed down at the fresh wound the edge of the frame caused to her hand. "Come now, Gabi. Could you really be so foolish as to think Max Evans would even give you the time of day after what you did to him and his family?"

Holding her injured hand to her chest, she turned steel blue eyes on her companion. "I had no choice. Max will understand that. Max loves me…he'll…he'll…listen…"

Another laugh sent a chill down her spine. "Loves you? Some kind of love." Cocking a dark eyebrow at the woman before him, a knowledgeable smile drifted over his lips. "The great Max Evans cut you off the second he learned of your betrayal then. What makes you think he'd listen to you now?"

She swallowed the lump that rose in her throat at the honesty of his words. "Time has passed, Rafe. Things might have changed…"

"Oh, I'd say they've changed. A great deal more than you know." Handing a bundle of letters to her, he tossed Gabrielle Deverille a smirk. "You should find the top letter rather interesting I would think. Appears to be an invitation of sorts. To a wedding, I believe…" He paused as he watched Gabrielle's eyes widen in surprise then water with pain. "Ah, I see you recognize the names."

"This is impossible. Max would never…" Gabrielle's words stuck in her throat as her eyes raised to meet those dark eyes of Rafael Chenard. "He doesn't love her."

Pursing his lips, Rafe's eyes danced with amusement. "Ever the dreamer, eh, Gabi? How did that lie of yours and Max's go? Something about…forever, I believe." He tossed the picture frame over his shoulder before turning and heading toward the door, never once pausing as he delivered his last jab the moment his foot crushed Max Evan's picture under its weight. Click. "Oh, well. So much for true love…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~
Liz swore under her breath as she was once more stopped by another stoplight. "What is it tonight?! Are the stoplight gods against me or something?" Her frustration level was nearing panic with each minute she was losing in her search for Max even though she had a pretty good idea where he'd flown off to.

Literally terrified of what Max might do, Liz had been speeding from stop light to stop light coming to a screeching halt with a frustrated groan at each red beacon that kept her from her increasingly important goal…to save Max Evans from himself. Although she first thought of Max as being cold, cruel and heartless, she knew now his reaction to her taking photos in his home was for just the opposite reason. Despite the events of their first meeting, Liz now knew Max to be a man with a heart. Not just any heart. An enormous heart. One that knew how to feel and love deeply. To suffer and grieve in the most profound ways.

That's why she was scared for him. As levelheaded as he appeared to be there was one area in his life where reason held no ground…publicity. The deep pain he'd suffered from losing his grandfather to the lies of the press made him react in ways that weren't logical. At least not logical for someone who had let the pain go. Which he hadn't. That much was obvious since the moment she'd met him.

As the light finally turned green Liz found herself suddenly wishing she could take it all away for him. All the bitterness and anger. The overwhelming grief. She knew, logically, from her own experience, it was something he'd have to work through on his own. But then her heart whispered to her. And in that whisper she heard that Max Evans didn't have to be alone while he did it.

Which is precisely why she had to find him. Something deep inside her told her that he was reliving those memories that had caused him to destroy her camera. Those same memories that drew him to his grandfather's grave and gave him the perceptive sensitivity to hold her when her grief had been too much to bear alone.

Now, it was her turn to hold him.

Turning one final corner, Liz squealed with victory when she spotted Max's black Jaguar parked in the corner of the lot by the back door. She whipped into the lot and carelessly pulled up along side his. Slamming on the brakes, Liz threw her car into park, jumped out of the car and smashed her hip into the door behind her not bothering to lock her car.

Rushing toward the front door Liz threw it open and hurried into the Star Gazer's front lobby. Addressing the young woman at the desk filing her wildly painted nails with her feet propped up on an open filing cabinet drawer, Liz excitedly leaned over the counter. "I'm looking for a man…"

"Ain't we all, honey?" Her thick New York accent matched the thick layer of hair spray on her bouffant as she glanced up at Liz lazily before returning her gaze to her nails and chomped on her chewing gum.

Liz let out a sigh as she rolled her eyes. "That's not what I'm talking about. It's a particular man. He's tall with dark hair, amber eyes…"

"Oh, you mean that sumptuous meal that just flew in here? The way he
sashayed his way past me…what a great behind. I swear to God I would love to devour him…" The girl stated as her eyes glazed over and a dazed smile spread over her face.

"Would you please just tell me…" Liz's impatient, irritated question was stopped by the sound of shouting from a back office. Liz immediately headed in the direction of the angrily raised voice she was quickly coming to recognize. A loud thud came from behind the closed door as Liz picked up her pace and ran toward it grabbing the knob when she reached her destination.

Noting the titled name on the door, Liz threw it open and flew into the room in a rush. Immediately taking in the scene before her, Liz charged forward. "Max! NO!" Liz yelled as she ran up to him and grabbed his arm pulling it back only seconds before his fist had a chance to connect with a man's face.

"WHAT??!! Liz, what are you doing here?!" Max's exasperated question exploded with the force of his unfulfilled punch as he turned confused, angry eyes on Liz. He was not only surprised she was standing there, but also confused as to why she would want to protect the person who made her face recognizable to all of New York and beyond. Although confused about her presence there was one thing he was clear about. He didn't want her there. "Leave, Liz! I don't want you here to see this…"

"Max, please. Don't do this…" Liz's voice pleaded with Max to let go but he only held on with fierce determination.

"Leave now, Liz! This is *my* fight."

Liz nodded in understanding as she rubbed his arm gently and lowered her voice to a soft whispering plea. "Fine. But this isn't the way to win."

Liz's hand slipped down his arm till his clenched hand was in hers and she turned him to look at her as his one arm still pinned his photographic nemesis to the wall. A silent message jumped from her eyes to his and although he didn't understand the meaning of her words, he clearly recognized the pattern. How could he not? She was stealing it from him. It was the 'make-it-up-as-you-go' bluff.

"Come on, Max. I think it's time. I think it's time we tell them the truth about what's really going on. Don't you?"

She was up to something. He could tell by the look in her eyes. Not sure where she was taking them but curious to see the workings of her mind manifest themselves, Max nodded silently as his eyes curiously watched this petite woman slip into action when she turned to the editor with a smile.

"Hi. Liz Parker. The unnamed woman in your photo. You must be the editor, Thomas Crowe." Liz addressed the rumpled middle-aged man standing behind a desk nearby before turning to the photographer who Max still had pinned against the wall. "And you're Randall Young."

"I'm so sorry about Mr. Evans' behavior. He's just very upset right now." She gently reached over and removed Max's arm from the photographer's neck, her eyes sending Max a secret message of calm reassurance as she gazed up at him. Giving his hands a gentle squeeze before dropping them, Liz turned and moved toward the editor's desk. "You see, that little picture and story you ran almost blew our cover."

"Your cover?" The editor asked with an unbelieving smirk as he sank into his seat relieved to see the crisis of only moments before was suddenly under control with little damage to his office. Not that anyone would have noticed. His office looked like a hurricane as it was.

"Yes. Our cover." Liz moved to sit on the edge of the editor's desk and began to address the two men before her while Max stood on the sidelines waiting to see where this was leading. "You see, I work undercover with a special investigative unit of the NYPD that works closely with DOL and EEOC. We handle workforce sexual harassment complaints. We've been trying for months to flush out a certain…" Liz paused and cast her eyes up to the ceiling while pursing her lips as if searching for the right term. "…scumbag…for lack of a better word, that we've received many complaints on."

Liz rose from her perch on the edge of the desk and began to slowly move throughout the small room taking time to observe framed stories hung on the editor's wall as she proceeded with her story, seemingly calm and completely in control. "His name is Bradley Cortland. Brad for short." She grinned suggestively as she turned around and leaned in to whisper an embarrassing 'secret'. "From what I hear his name isn't the only thing that's short, if you get my drift…"

Max cleared his throat to stop a spontaneous chuckle and hid his grin behind his hand as he pretended to be scratching his cheek. Liz glanced up at him with an upraised eyebrow and twinkling eyes before turning back to her waiting audience. "Max here has been gracious enough to help us on this particular case because he knows Brad. Only as a business associate, of course. He's been a witness to and disturbed by Brad's behavior for a while now and has been an immense help to our case." Liz paused to cast Max a brilliant smile. "To which we will be forever grateful." Turning back to the editor, Liz continued. "Anyway, we were just closing in on him this afternoon at lunch resulting in the pictures you took."

Liz looked to Max with a satisfied smile. "So you see, gentlemen, that kiss you saw is not the real story. The *real* story is the *reason* for the kiss. And that reason was nothing more than Max Evans doing his civic duty to protect the vulnerable women of the workforce from the prying eyes and roaming hands of Bradley Cortland. Mr. Evans should be commended for his efforts, not put under suspicion for them."

Thomas Crowe leaned back in his chair, propped his feet up on the desk and sucked a moment on his cigar. After a moment of thoughtful contemplation, he pulled the cigar out of his mouth and blew a few puffs of smoke in the air while his eyes narrowed critically. "So, you're trying to tell me there's nothing goin' on between the two of yous?"

Liz nodded as she glanced up slyly in Max's direction. "Pity, isn't it?" She allowed her eyes to glide over Max's chiseled face down his well-toned physique and back up. Her eyes flashed Max a secret smile as an exaggerated sigh escaped her lips. "To let such a…beautiful…working relationship go to waste..."

Turning back to the editor she shrugged her shoulders carelessly. "Unfortunately for me, he's very devoted to the woman he intends to marry in four months. The kiss you saw was nothing more than part of the act to catch Brad at his worst. Which worked, by the way. As soon as Mr. Cortland thought I was 'taken' by one of his associates, he made a very quick job offer that I'm sure would have been retracted when I refused his invitation to his chalet in Canada."

The editor's eyebrows raised. "He invited you to go away with him?"

"Sure did. And on our first meeting no less." Liz confirmed as she tapped her chin with her forefinger and looked up at the ceiling. "Let me see…how did he put that? I think he said something about me and him…alone…to discuss my career. Sound familiar to you guys?"

Crowe and Young exchanged glances. Removing his feet from the desk, the editor straightened up and pulled a piece of paper from under a stack of old magazines and newspapers. Grabbing a pencil the editor looked back up at Liz. "And this is the same Bradley Cortland that owns Architectural Designs?"

"Very same one." Liz nodded in confirmation. She pointed to the paper that Crowe was writing on and added. "If you want more details, I'd consider calling his secretary, Paula. I'm sure she could give you a really good scoop. But, of course, she won't work with you unless I tell her she can. And before I do that, you'd have to retract your current article." Folding her hands in front of her, Liz smiled down at the editor. "So what do you say? Shall we work together on this?"

The editor glanced at the photographer with a scowl that left no doubt whose story he believed. He'd heard rumors about Cortland for years but no one ever wanted to comment when approached for quotes on a story for fear of their jobs. He couldn't run the story without proper verification that it was true. That was back when the magazine still had integrity…and almost closed their doors because of it. Now they printed anything and everything that seemed even plausible. His eyes began to shine as he looked back at Liz with the greed of a former star reporter.

"Retraction of the article in exchange for an exclusive interview with the secretary if what you say pans out." Floating his gaze over to Max he jabbed the air with his pencil in Max's direction. "And an interview with Mr. Illusive, here."

For the first time Max spoke. Unfortunately, it was to decline at the exact same moment Liz accepted. "No."

"Fine." Liz said in agreement then turned to Max when she realized he'd spoken in the negative. Turning back to the editor, she held up her finger and flashed him a smile. "Just…give us a moment please." Taking Max by the elbow she pulled him into the corner with their backs to the editor and photographer and began whispering in heated tones. "What are you doing?"

"I will not give an interview to these…" Max cast a disdainful look back at the editor. "…gossip mongering sharks. Not even if my life depended on it."

"You're life may not depend on it, Max. But your wedding very may well. Please. Trust me on this." Click. Liz made a plea with her eyes as she whispered a solemn promise. "I won't let them hurt you." Just that one look and the confidence of her assurance was enough to break his will. Max paused momentarily contemplating why it should be so easy to give in to her on something he staunchly opposed before he acquiesced with a silent nod. A beautiful smile spread over her face and Max was forcefully introduced to his reason. Click

Turning back to the editor, Liz continued to smile although the editor didn't receive the benefit of the genuine, full-fledged Liz Parker smile that had been saved for Max. "Well, it looks like we have a deal…*only* if the subject matter of Mr. Evans' interview remains his upcoming wedding."

"Fine." The editor replied as he glanced down at his notebook. "How about this Friday? Say...10:00."

Liz cast a glance in Max's direction when there was no immediate answer forthcoming. Seeing the raise of her questioning eyebrow Max rolled his eyes and shrugged his compliance. Click. A radiant smile was once again his reward as Liz turned back to the editor and stuck out her hand. "Deal."

The editor took her hand in his as he eyed her warily. Something in they way these two communicated with one another told him there was more going on than they were saying. He'd been too good of a reporter in his day not to sense the vibes between them or the way she could turn the tide of his resolution with just a look. Her presence alone had changed him from a raging, roaring lion ready to devour his prey to a docile kitty cat who purred to perfection with the gentle stroking of her words. It didn't matter though. With bigger fish to fry their story could wait…for now.

"Thank you, Mr. Crowe. Mr. Young. We'll be in touch very soon…" Liz promised before grabbing Max's hand firmly in hers and pulling him out of the office and into the relative safety of the lobby.

Once the door was closed behind them, Thomas Crowe leaned back in his chair once more as he stared at the doorway. Randall moved to a chair in front of his desk and began to plead his case. "Boss, look. I know what I saw…"

Crowe held his hand up to stop the photographer's onslaught of explanations. "Save it. You still got your job." He puffed on his cigar and blew smoke into the air as his mind began to whirl. "I want you to take Russell and follow up on the Cortland story."

"But what about them…"

"I'll handle them." Crowe stated definitively. "It'll be an interestin' job to find out what's goin' on between Ms. Parker and the oh-so-dedicated-to-his-fiance'-Evans. Shouldn't be that hard...even for an old washout like me. Anyone can see by watchin' 'em that something's up. Even if they don't realize it themselves…yet…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
He slumped into a seat and let out a sigh as his blue eyes darted around the dusty barroom. He hated this. He really did. The constant moving. The unsettled state of his life. The steady stream of new faces.

Strangers. All of them.

What he wouldn't give for one familiar face. For one moment of recollection.

If he could just make it through this last assignment…maybe, just maybe, he could go on a search of his own. Maybe he could find that mysterious woman from his dreams. Maybe…he could find home again.

Tbc…
~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 16 ~

He slumped into a seat and let out a sigh as his blue eyes darted around the dusty barroom. He hated this. He really did. The constant moving. The unsettled state of his life. The steady stream of new faces.

Strangers. All of them.

What he wouldn't give for one familiar face. For one moment of recollection.

If he could just make it through this last assignment…maybe, just maybe, he could go on a search of his own. Maybe he could find that mysterious woman from his dreams. Maybe…he could find home again.

And maybe he could find out what his real name was. He'd been consciously going by the name Parker for the past year. Before that, it was the name chosen for him by the nurses and doctors attending his case. They said he'd often whispered it in his sleep or delirium…whichever state of unconsciousness he'd been in that first year of his care. How he wished he knew more…

All thoughts of home were put to rest when the door to the bar opened shining a bright light into the smoky dimness and his blue eyes immediately sought and met those of the newest patron. A brief nod of recognition and the contact made his way to the booth with long strides. Stopping short of his seat, the burly visitor with thick eyebrows stared down at the table. “You Parker?”

Blue eyes narrowed as one nod signaled the man’s answer. The man slipped into the seat across from him and eyed him warily. "Must be new. Marcus has never sent you before."

Parker shrugged his shoulders and leaned forward. "I've recently been promoted."

A gruff chuckle was Parker's response. "From what? I thought errand boy was the bottom of the investigative chain."

"Depends on where you're coming from, I guess." Parker swallowed the uncomfortable feeling once again of not knowing exactly where that was. Where he came from. Who he was. What he used to do. The only thing he did know about his past was what he'd been told by the nurses and doctors at the hospital he'd been released from six months ago. And that hadn't been much.

Pushing those disturbing thoughts to the back of his mind, Parker eased his way into his assignment. "Speaking of investigations…do you have the information Marc asked for?"

A yellow manilla envelope was produced with a little hesitancy. "Not an easy task, I'll tell you that right now. Rafael Chenard is not an easy man to track."

"Arms dealers usually aren't. At least not the successful ones." Parker quipped as he opened the envelope and peeked inside. "So, this has everything? Location? Activity within the past 6 months? His current contacts?"

"All that and then some." Parker's contact, a man that went by the name of Dagger, flashed a toothy grin. "There's a babe in the picture now. They call her his 'companion', but I'm guessing we both know what that means…"

Parker barely noticed the suggestive tone of voice as he pursed his lips in concentration. Marc had said to make sure all of the information was there. He caught a glimpse of a photo and pulled it from its hiding place behind a map. So that was Chenard. He looked…familiar. Sunglasses. Dark hair slicked back. Suits that cost much more than their worth, but there was something about him. Something that seemed to jog a bit of Parker's memory though Parker really couldn't say what it was.

Parker's eyes moved to the woman in the picture by Chenard's side. Perfect figure. Long dark hair. Piercing blue eyes full of sadness and distance. Chenard's 'companion'. Parker's blue eyes remained focused on the figure, reading more in that snapshot then a thousand words in a book could describe. She was with Chenard. No question about it. But she was with him…against her will.

"What's the companion's name?" Parker asked suddenly as he stuffed the photo back into the envelope.

"Gabrielle something or other." Dagger answered. "She's a looker…but not our concern."

"Understood." Parker answered. "Anything you want me to pass on to Marc?"

"Just tell him to be careful. Chenard doesn't like to be double-crossed and he takes no prisoners."

"Got it." Parker nodded then slipped from the seat. "Your payment is in the briefcase next to your feet. We'll be in touch if we need more information..."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Once outside the building, Liz grabbed Max's arm and pulled him toward her haphazardly parked car. Turning to Max suddenly she held out her hand. "Alright. Time to resurrect that phone. Quick…before they get a chance to make a call…"

Max absently did as he was told and put the battery back on his phone. He handed it to her and watched in stunned amazement while she punched in numbers and tapped her foot impatiently waiting for the ring to be answered. "Paula. It's Liz." Liz nodded with a smile. "You remember that wish you told me about today? The one where you'd like to expose Brad for who he really is? Well, you're on, babe. The Star Gazer will probably be contacting you soon…"

Ending her cryptic conversation after a few quick explanations, Liz hurriedly dialed another number. Hearing a voice on the other line, Liz jumped into action. "Chief O'Reilly please. Tell him it's his long lost daughter."

Liz looked up at Max and winked at the surprised expression on his face. "Paaaat. How are you?" Liz crooned into the phone. "Doing great. Need a favor though. There's this guy…" Liz stopped and smiled. "No, I don't need him picked up and thrown in jail for stalking." She glanced at Max and rolled her eyes. "Awww. You're so sweet. I'll keep that in mind. Listen, you might get a call from the editor of Star Gazer Magazine. He'll probably ask if I'm working undercover for you. I need you to say yes…"

After more quick explanations and an assured ally in the police department, Liz clicked Max's phone off triumphantly. Handing the phone back to Max with a smile, Liz tucked her hair behind her ears and sighed with satisfaction. "There. All taken care of. We now have a cover to our cover story about…''

"…our cover story." Max and Liz both finished. Liz's grin deepened as she shook her head. "We really need to stop doing that."

"You are amazing." Max's thoughts were out of his mouth before he had a chance to reign them in. "How did you do all of that?"

Liz rocked back on her heels as a proud smile swept over her face at his compliment. "Let's just say I have connections."

Seeing the unbending tilt of Max's head and his raised eyebrow Liz sighed and shook her head while she pushed out her lower lip in an adorable pout. "Awww, you're no fun. Here I am trying to be mysterious and you're demanding details."

Max began to chuckle as his eyes flashed with amusement at her playfulness. "What can I say? Mystery's over-rated and I'd love to know how you were able to turn the tide of my latest blunder in our favor."

With the eagerness of a child, Liz leaned forward and began to explain. "Well, I know for a fact that Paula, Brad's secretary, has been aching to...nail him, shall we say?" Liz smiled at her own pun. "...for quite a while now." She glanced back at the front door with a wave of her hand. "I also know what these places are like. They'll run with a story like a dog with a bone until a bigger bone comes along. I just threw them one. Now, they'll chase it a while, probably catch what they're looking for and that'll give you and your family enough time to do damage control with this interview you agreed to."

Click. Liz let out another sigh of satisfaction as she folded her hands in front of her. Her eyes were shining as brightly as the evening stars that were beginning to appear. That she was proud of herself there was no question. That she'd actually had fun with it was never in doubt. That she literally sparkled with life and happiness never once escaped Max's notice.

Max's eyes shone with admiration as he watched her and his voice softened perceptibly. Click. "Like I said…amazing."

"And you…" Liz pointed her finger at Max trying her best to ignore the way her insides suddenly felt all warm and fluttery with the way he was looking at her. "…are absolutely nuts. Do you have any idea what could have happened if I hadn't shown up?" At the slight shake of Max's head Liz continued. "You stormed into the enemies camp, Max. Without back up or a plan. That story could have easily been followed up by one in tomorrow's edition showing you punching a photographer over this stupid article. Then where would you have been?"

Max looked very much like a little boy being scolded by his mother before he ventured to explain almost shyly. "Truth? I…I didn’t even think about what it would do to me. I only thought about you…how that kind of publicity could hurt…"

"Are you kidding?" Liz smirked, her hands a constant flutter with appropriate motions. "A photo like that with a man like you…why it ought to up my ratings at the grocery store at least. I can see it now…I'll be moved to the head of the lines. I'll be able to check out in the express lane even if I do have 100 items." Liz placed her hands on her hips and tilted her head to the side in thought. "Hey, who knows? They might even offer to carry my groceries…"

Max looked down at the ground as his eyes clouded with pain. "Please don't make light of this."

Instantly regretting her attempt to soothe his raw emotions with jokes, Liz reached out and touched his arm. "Max, I'm sorry. I know how upsetting it must have been for you to see our picture plastered on the cover of that rag like that. Especially with your wedding around the corner…"

"It's not that, Liz." Max stated quietly as his eyes remained fixed on the ground. "You don't know what it's like to have your life ripped apart by their lies. By photos that have enough truth in them to destroy your faith in basic goodness. To have people form images of you based on what they read and not on what they know."

"Yes, Max. I do." Liz's suddenly serious voice caused Max to look up at her sharply. Click. Seeing the recognition of shared pain in his eyes, Liz shrugged her shoulders slightly as she covered a deeper truth with one less painful. "What do you think this morning was about? People at Hewitt had already begun making assumptions about us. About the reason I got a promotion..."

Understanding dawned in Max's eyes. "I see. Then I add to that by making it look like we're a couple to Brad. I'm sorry about that, Liz."

Liz shrugged her shoulders and smiled slightly knowing she hadn't minded it nearly as much as she'd let on. "It served our purposes both then and now. Although I must admit, I thought you were a complete lunatic at the time."

"Yeah, well, you're just as crazy as I am." Max shot back as a realization dawned on him. "Did you think about what this is going to do to your job with Brad if they follow up on that harassment story? He'll fire you in a heartbeat."

Liz shrugged again and tossed her hair behind her shoulders. "Doesn’t matter. I quit earlier today. That's how I knew Paula would be willing to talk to the press. If you can call the Gazer that."

"You what??" Max asked in shock still caught on Liz's first statement. Passing his hands over his eyes before running his hand through his hair in frustration, Max shook his head and let out a sigh. "Please tell me it's not because I had something to do with it…"

"No. That's not why." Liz assured him quickly. "Look, I appreciate you trying to help. I really do. But when it comes down to it, I don't want to work for someone like Brad. I want to take pride in my job...and my employer. I want the kids to know I have some integrity when it comes to what I will and won't do. And I wouldn't be able to do that with him. It's as simple as that."

Max shook his head as a remembering smile crossed his lips. "Integrity. Gramps always said that's what mattered most in business." Bitterness seeped through each word that he spoke as his eyes once more clouded with repressed emotions he wouldn't release. "It's a shame his was blown to bits by unbelieving reporters..."

"Max..." Liz paused a moment contemplating her next words. "I know you said in there this was your fight, but..."

"It is." Max's voice hardened with determination and his jaw tightened with conviction.

Not to be daunted, Liz took a deep breath and pressed forward. "Still. I wish there was something I could do to help..."

Click. Max's eyes softened as he looked down at her and grabbed her hand up in his. His voice was as tender and warm as the hand that now engulfed hers and Liz felt her insides melt with his sudden gentleness. "You have. More than you'll ever know. More than I can ever thank you."

Liz nodded uncertainly knowing there was still more she could do if he would just let her. Perhaps now just wasn't the time. "Well, I uh…I guess I'd better…you know…go now then. The kids probably still need to be tucked in..."

Raising her eyes back to his Liz smiled slightly when she realized he'd made no move to let her go but felt the pressure of his hands on hers tighten instead. Click. Max's shimmering amber eyes were fixed on her face as if he were trying to memorize every perfect feature. As if he were searching for her soul and finding it in the depths of her eyes.

The shaky voice that greeted Max's ears betrayed the effect his closeness was having on her. "You...should probably...go too. I'm sure your...fiancee's going…" Liz took a deep breath and swallowed as her gaze dropped from Max's eyes to his slightly parted lips. "…out of her mind...with worry right now. I know I would be…"

"You would be worried about another woman?" The question was barely whispered as Max's voice lowered huskily, his eyes taking in the focus of her gaze and feeling an instant shiver of desire run through him.

"No." His question brought her eyes instantly back to his. Liz shook her head the sincerity of her words backed up with her honest, open expression. "Knowing how you feel about publicity, I'd just be worried...about you." Looking away uncomfortably after her sudden confession and the way it made Max's eyes light up with admiration, Liz somehow wasn't surprised by the slight waver in Max's voice when he said her name.

"Liz." An uncertain whisper met Liz's ears as the meaning of her words hit Max's heart and made him crave the selflessness he'd always dreamed of in a partner but, until meeting her, had never found. Click. His gaze faltered shyly to the hands he was holding unsure of her reaction to his next words. He felt very much like a boy asking a girl out on a first date sure of instant rejection but unable to resist the prize if she said yes. "Can you…give me…" He took a deep breath to still the racing of his heart, but it only served to make his head spin with desire. "…one reason…why I shouldn't take you in my arms right now…" Max raised his eyes to meet her gaze. "…and finish what we started in the kitchen? Why we…shouldn't make that article a reality?"

She should have been angry with him for the mere suggestion of it. She should have been incensed that he assumed there'd been something to finish. Instead her heart leaped in her chest catching her breath on its way and stopping it as her mind became numb to reason. "I'm sure, you know…that there are hundreds…" Liz's gaze dropped once more to Max's lips. "…thousands even, but I..." A shaky breath escaped her as she licked her lips unconsciously. "…I can't seem to think of a single one."

Click. "Neither can I." Max whispered as his eyes darkened with passion and his body moved closer leaning forward to close the gap between them. His lips were seconds from meeting hers and Liz felt her eyes close in preparation for another burning kiss when suddenly reason reared its ugly head.

He's engaged, Liz. It's been an emotional day. You've leaned on each other. It's nothing more than that. You're nothing but his cold feet trying to run from certain commitment...

Liz's eyes flew open and she put a restraining hand against Max's chest pushing him back slightly before nervously playing with the fringe of his scarf unwilling to meet his eyes. "No, Max. I…I *can't* think…which is why…" Still able to feel his breath on her skin, Liz pushed him back a bit further to emphasize her point as she swallowed the lump in her throat. "…you need to go right now. Go home to your fiancee', Max. That's where you belong…"

"I'm not sure I've ever belonged." Max whispered as he backed away and looked up at the full moon before letting out a quiet sigh. He turned away slightly and ran his fingers through his hair as thoughts of his family flooded his mind and he suddenly felt the full weight of the burden he'd been carrying for so long. "And home…right this…moment…" Max's hand drifted up to cup the side of Liz's face as his eyes met hers with gentle sincerity. "…well, it doesn't seem that far away."

Click. Liz nuzzled her face into Max's palm as her eyes closed, her heart taking in his soft confession, her body registering the sensations his touch sent shooting through her. Her hand moved with a will of its own to cover his and she let out a light sigh before reality took hold once more. He was engaged. He shouldn't be touching her so gently…so magically. Liz swallowed hard. She had no right to feel this way.

"No, Max…please." The plea was whispered reluctantly as she wrapped her fingers around his hand and removed its warmth from her face.

Click.A silence engulfed them as Liz dropped his hand and looked down at her hands, shuffling her feet nervously. There didn't seem to be anything left to say…yet neither of them made the move to leave. They were equally rooted to their spots. Unwilling and unable to end even an uncomfortable silence. Neither of them wanting to be the first to take a step back…to be the first to say good-bye.

Max watched Liz through lowered eyes and wondered if her protest to his kiss was because of him or his impending wedding. He instinctively knew it was the latter and cursed the day he'd promised his hand to another woman. One who didn't even come close to filling him the way this beauty before him had in the short 2 days that he'd known her. Still, she was right. He was committed to someone. It would be unfair to her to continue where he so desperately wanted to go.

Liz cleared her throat when the silence between them was finally too oppressive to handle. She knew this had to end and with all of these new feeling churning inside of her, it would be better now than later. So, she took refuge in responsibility. "Ok. Ummm…I'm going now. The kids…I have to…"

Unwilling to let her go just yet, Max reached out and grabbed Liz's arm as she started to back away. "Liz. Wait." Searching frantically for a reason to make her stay, Max stumbled onto a subject he felt they both could handle. A subject where confusion and fear didn't divide them. "About earlier…at the cemetery…"

"Don't worry. I won't…say anything to anyone." Liz assured Max with a relieved smile glad that the subject hadn't been their near kiss.

Max shook his head in response. "No. That's not what I wanted to…" He took a deep breath and looked down at the ground before gathering the courage to look back up at her. "Thank you. Today…well, it was really hard. Going back there the first time. I'm…I'm really glad you were the one who saw me through."

"Me too." Liz agreed readily. "I mean…" She began to bite her lower lip in nervousness. "I'm glad you were there for me too. I'm…I'm not…sure I could have made it…"

The ringing of Max's phone halted Liz's faltering confession and brought an annoyed look of disgust to Max's face. "I should have buried this thing when I had the chance…" Max mumbled under his breath as he glanced down at the phone then back at Liz apologetically.

An amused smile swept over Liz's lips as she nodded to the phone. "Go ahead. It's probably piper-paying time. You've kept everyone waiting long enough…"

Max nodded once knowing she was right. Who knew what further spell would be cast if he lingered here under the full moon with this angel before him? Although his heart longed to find out, his mind whispered that she was right. There were other people in his life to consider. His family. His bride to be. His promise to his grandfather…

The phone rang again and Max hit the on button before raising it to his ear. "Max here." Max grimaced and held the phone out from his ear as Michael's voice shouted through the ear piece. Michael's angry, panicked rant could be clearly heard even from Liz's distance. Max's jaw tightened and his head shook in silent response while his eyes rolled as he listened to Michael angrily hurl questions at him without giving ample time to reply. After a few sighs and frustrated gestures, Max finally got a word in...but it apparently wasn't enough for Michael as a heated argument ensued.

Liz watched Max struggle to calm his brother's ire and fight his own urge to lash back in anger. A fight he was steadily losing as the conversation progressed. Sudden guilt washed over her as she realized just what kind of predicament Max had been placed in because of her. This wasn't right. These feelings that were being stirred up between them. The actions that were almost fulfilled. If he weren't engaged it would be one thing. But he was.

Their shared time was affecting more than she and Max. It was creating difficulty with his family...with Tess. And what would happen to Autumn and Brett if they began to count on Max being there? Certainly when he was married, he wouldn't be making hot chocolate jaunts to their apartment to spend time with them. She simply couldn't let this...whatever it was...continue. Too many people could be hurt by what was beginning to spark between them. Not to mention, Ethan's place in her heart…

Liz had wanted to help Max. Now, she knew how. She finally knew what she had to do. Leave him and these feelings he created in her behind for good. It would be best for everyone involved if good-bye was the last word he ever heard her say…

Liz began to back away from Max as he still fought to gain ground with Michael. Max turned in time to see her retreating movement and immediately noted the changed expression on her face. In that instant he knew she was going to leave. She was going to turn and walk out of his life and she had no intention of ever returning. Click. Max shook his head vehemently, took a step forward reaching his hand out to her.

Oblivious to the sound of Michael's voice, Max dropped the phone to his side and implored her to abandon the plan he read so clearly in her dark eyes. "No, Liz. Don't do this…"

The plea for her to stay so evident in his amber eyes she could no longer resist the sudden urge to feel his lips against hers one last time before saying good-bye forever.

Without warning, for the first time in years, Liz followed a force stronger then her will when she looked into the depths of his eyes. In one swift move she stepped up to Max, slipped her hand around his neck and ran her fingers through the hair at the nape of his neck while bringing his lips swiftly down onto hers. Click.

A shiver ran down Max's spine the instant he felt her fingers slip through his hair and her lips connected with his. It was as if magic lived in the tips of her fingers and the heated softness of her lips. Magic that swirled around him with her nearness and swept through his body with that one simple touch. First he was hot then he grew cold only to have his temperature spike to fever level. He wanted to crush her to him, but he loved the tantalizing feel of her lips lightly brushing against his leading him and giving promise of better things to come. He'd never known such sweet torturous sensations before.

Then suddenly, fireworks exploded throughout his body when Liz's tongue teasingly slipped along his bottom lip coaxing him to open up to her which he readily, eagerly did. As her tongue slipped through his lips to begin a dance he never wanted to end, Max moaned softly and quickly bent his taller frame to match hers. Instantly wrapping his free arm around Liz's waist, Max finally crushed her to him like he'd wanted to do so many times since the restaurant and angled his head to take better advantage of her open mouth and probing tongue. Feeling in her heart the rhythm of good-bye…hearing deep within his the song of never let go, Max cupped her face in his hand, pulling her deeper into him and eagerly matched her desire with a hunger of his own till it surpassed any she'd ever known. Click.

Liz felt the gentle softness of Max's warm hand against her skin and leaned her face into his palm wondering if his touch was always this tender or if her skin was just made to comply with the leading of his caress. She heard him moan and it was all she could do to keep her knees from collapsing under her as his arm pulled their bodies together for full, instant contact. His hair glided under her fingers and she could feel shivers running through her as Max upped the tempo of their dance from a waltz to a tango as his mouth pressed insistently and his tongue dueled fiercely against hers.

She felt her lips burn as Max's lips demanded more of her moving expertly over hers as if they had been created to mate each with the other and her heart was racing with a speed she'd never known could exist. Max's hunger fueled a need deep in her soul that she thought had died long ago and when their dance began, Liz suddenly felt as if she were floating on air as the world around them slipped away into nothingness. Nothing but the blissful world of Max. Click.

The world didn't slip away though and Liz was brought back to sudden reality when she heard Michael's voice yelling Max's name. Instantly, Liz pulled away and looked up at Max with dazed desire clouding her eyes. Click. Her hand slipped from around his neck to rest on his flushed cheek as her eyes suddenly brightened with a film of tears she couldn't control let alone understand. Her fingers found their way to trace the swollen lips that for a moment had made her feel perfect completeness. Dropping her hand, Liz stepped back unable to look him in the eyes. "Good-bye, Max." Liz whispered then was gone.

Click. Max stood rooted to his spot completely dazed and confused by Liz's words and actions and utterly incapable of controlling the pounding of his heart and the shallowness of his breathing. His knees were suddenly very shaky and his head was beginning to spin as if he'd just been whipped around a roller coaster then thrown into a sudden stop. The kiss that rendered him senseless and immobile had given her the strength to run so fast that she seemed to disappear in a heartbeat.

Michael's angry insistent voice brought Max back to the present as he continued to call out to him. "Max? Max, answer me!" When silence greeted his question, Michael surmised the obvious. "She's there, isn't she? Liz is there with you! Dammit, Max! Talk to me! What the hell is going on?"

Max jammed the phone next to his ear and allowed the anger he'd been holding back to explode. "You want to know what happened? I'll tell you what happened! Your irritating voice drowned out the music! That's what happened!! Because of you…" Max's anger drained as the reality of his situation and Liz's words hit him causing his eyes to sting with sudden tears. "…because of you…I'll never dance again…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Click. Pause. Click. Pause. Click. Pause. Click.

A chuckle escaped him as he stood in the shadow of the doorway. "Nothing goin' on between 'em my foot! I knew if I followed 'em I'd get the good stuff." Shaking his head, Thomas Crowe glanced down at his camera. "Just didn't know it would be outside my very door." Pulling out the full roll of film, Crowe held it up to his discerning eyes. "Now, the only question is…what to do with these pictures…"

To be continued…

posted on 8-Dec-2002 7:43:10 PM by Ashton
~ chapter 17 ~

"Aaarrrggghhh!!!!" Michael let out a yell as he slammed the phone down onto its cradle.

Maria dropped her brush and came rushing from their master bath into their room to find him pacing back and forth in front of their bed. "Michael? What's going on? What happened?"

Michael spun around to face Maria his face red with anger as he pointed animatedly to the phone. "He hung up on me! He literally cut me off! He…he…he rambled something about never dancing again then…then he…he just…shut me off!"

Maria bit her lower lip to keep from bursting into laughter as Michael sank down on the bed in frustration before lowering his head into his hands in defeat. The last time anger had stumbled Michael's speech had been…well, she couldn't even remember the last time. That didn't mean she didn't remember the cause...

"I take it you mean Max." Maria climbed onto the bed to kneel behind Michael. As she began to lightly rub his shoulders, Michael's head came up and she felt the tension in his muscles begin to ease slightly. "Talk to me, babe. What's really bothering you because I know it's much more than a business merger that might go bad."

"This merger is important to us, Ria. You know that…"

"Yeeeessss, but I also know you. Come on, babe. You can fool everyone else with this business-based panic of yours, but I know different. Family comes first with you, Michael…" Maria slid down from her knees to sit on the bed and she turned his face to look at her. "…always."

"This company is our future, Maria…"

Michael's eyes wavered and Maria interrupted. "No, Michael. We are our future."

"You know what I mean." Michael's solemn eyes met hers and Maria nodded once knowing she had her husband where she wanted him.

"Yes, but you know what I mean too. As for needing this deal with the Hardings…it's not life or death. Not to me anyway. You know that I didn't marry you for the money or your family name. My law practice is more than holding its own. So if this deal doesn't go through and we lose M&L Evans it won't be the end of the world. I won't walk and you'll still have 50 or 60 years to make up for that disaster of a first anniversary just like you promised. The Evans family has been through worse things before and survived. We'll make it through this..."

Maria paused as a slight smile touched her lips when she absently ran her hand over Michael's shoulder before threading her fingers through his hair. "Then again, I think you know that. Just like I know there's something more going on here. Much more than the financial state of our company is making you go bonkers on me, Michael. Now are you going to talk to me or am I going to have to knock it out of that thick skull of yours?"

Michael began to chuckle as he reached up and gently caressed the side of Maria' face. "You really do know me, don't you?"

Maria agreed with a nod of her head and a quick smile of acknowledgment. "Uh-huh. Even down to each and every single stone in that wall of yours." She gave him a wink and a playful poke with her finger before giving a serious command. "So, spill it, Michelangelo."

Michael let out a sigh and looked down knowing it was now time to fess up. "It's Max."

"Duh, Einstein." Maria stated authoritatively after shaking her head slightly at Michael's attempt to delay the real cause of his concern. "I need specifics."

Noting how his wife's attitude had quickly shifted from confident supporter to demanding inquisitor, Michael glanced back up at her and Maria saw a twinkle of amusement light his dark eyes. "Before I continue…is this my wife or my lawyer that I'm spilling all to?"

Maria's answer was swift when she reached out and pulled Michael's face close to captured his lips with a kiss that made him forget Max and mergers and anything else but her. When she pulled away a few passionate moments later and leaned back against the bedpost with a satisfied sigh, Michael slowly grinned while his eyes were still closed. "Wow! You wouldn't consider having a mad passionate love affair with a client would you…"

Maria rolled her eyes at Michael's comment and punched him playfully in the arm before receiving an overly exaggerated "Ow!" from him.

Michael's laughter soon died and his expression became serious once more when he looked back into Maria's patiently waiting face as she wrapped her arms around her knees pulling them to her chest and moving a strand of hair away from her cheek. "You've stalled long enough. Now, talk to me."

Michael let out a sigh and hung his head at her gentle prompting and the fears his compliance would openly acknowledge. "Max falls in love too easily, Ria. Then he gets hurt. I just…I don't want to see him hurt again."

Maria sat in thought for a moment before tilting her head to the side and addressing Michael's statements. "You know, I never thought that of Max. That he falls in love too easily. I think he's more in touch with his 'Prince Charming' side than you are so that it *appears* he falls easily when that's actually not the case."

Maria shook her head. "No, this last time...Gabrielle hurt his pride more than his heart. I mean, I'm not saying he wasn't hurt. Come on, who wouldn't be after all of that? He was blasted from every side for a while there. Having her betrayal come right on the heels of the trouble with your grandfather, I think the impact was harder but not because of any special feelings he held for her. I mean, yeah, he was definitely enamoured with her, but he had doubts about trusting her, Michael. And that's not love. In fact, I don't think he's ever really been in love before. He's a lot more like you than you think."

Michael let out a scoffing laugh. "Max? Like me? You have got to be kidding..."

"No, actually, I'm not." Maria answered as she swept her hair out of her eyes and gazed at a family picture hanging on the wall. It was a picture dated three years back. All four Evans men were standing, three stationed behind their wives and Max holding Phillip in his arms. She remembered that day distinctly. Everyone had been so happy, laughing and enjoying each other's company.

Everyone except Max. Although joining in the general raillery, he looked like what he really wanted to do was run and hide somewhere. It was as if in a room full of love, Max felt so very much alone. That must have been why he had suggested holding Phillip for the photo...he so desperately needed someone to hang on to that day.

Realizing it for the first time, Maria sighed and brought her eyes back to her husband's face. "The more I think about it the more I realize just how alike all of the Evans men are. Your dad, Max...you."

Michael's brows knit in confusion as he pulled his legs up onto the bed and sat Indian style before her. "How so?"

"Well, you all have a very healthy appreciation of beautiful women. In fact, you flirt shamelessly with any and every beautiful woman you come across, but..." Maria took Michael's hand in hers and gazed down at it lovingly as she absently rubbed her thumb over his wedding band. "...when it comes to really truly giving your heart away...it only happens once in your life. Just like your grandparents and Phillip with Diane. You and me. The only difference is that Max just hasn't found that one person to give his heart to. Until now."

Michael pulled his hand away from Maria's and shook his head emphatically. "Don't even go there, Maria. Don't try to tell me you think this...Liz...could be the love of Max's life..."

Maria shrugged. "Why not, Michael? You said it yourself...she's very beautiful and from what Diane says she's just as sweet. They seem to have fun together. And from what you saw at the restaurant, Max just may have found his match in this woman. So why are you so opposed to her?"

"He's engaged, for God's sake!" Michael's booming voice echoed through the room.

A raised eyebrow was Michael's immediate response. "Need I remind you...so was I when you met me?"

Michael raised a finger and pointed it at Maria. "*That* was completely different!"

A wry smile crossed Maria' lips. "How so?"

"How so? I'll tell you how so! You were *so* not in love with that stuff-shirt Pemberly Grant! Besides that...what happened between us was completely...unforeseeable! It just...it just hit us like..."

"A tornado? Hurricane? White squall? Any natural disaster would probably do." Maria added with a twinkle in her eyes and a wave of her hand.

Michael flashed an irritated glance at her then softened when he saw the teasing look in her eyes. "Not exactly my choice of words, but yeah...something like that." He hung his head for a moment and let out a sigh as he reached for her hand his voice and words softening uncharacteristically. "It was...the single greatest event of my life, Maria. Finding you...loving you...having a life with you..."

Maria covered Michael's hand with hers. "I know, lunkhead. So why don't you give Max the chance to find the same thing? To be as happy as we are?"

Michael swallowed and looked back up at Maria as worry continued to furrow his brows. "Because...because he's my baby brother. I saw what losing Gramps did to him. Maria, if he falls as hard for this woman as I have for you...and then he loses her...I don't think he'll survive it."

"So you'd rather have him married to someone he doesn't love?"

Michael's eyes snapped to Maria's face. "Look. I know you don't like Tess…"

Maria scoffed at Michael's choice of words and rolled her eyes. "Don't like? Please, Michael. Let's get honest here. That conniving, self-centered, snobbish little…"

Michael clamped his hand over Maria's mouth stopping any other descriptive words from escaping her mouth. "Ok, ok. I get the point." Michael cast Maria a smirk. "'Don't like' *might* have been a tad too mellow."

"Pshaw! I'll say!" Maria shot back from behind Michael's hand before she reached up and moved his hand from her mouth. "The point is, Michael, that Max doesn't love her. You know it. I know it. Hell, even Max and Tess know it. It makes absolutely no sense…"

"She won't hurt him, ok?" Michael returned quickly. "She may not be ideal and she may not be the love of his life, but that's the point. If he doesn't have this…head-over-heels, knock-him-over-with-a-feather…all-consuming love for her, he won't hurt if and when it ends badly. That's what Max knows. That's what Max is going by right now. He's decided not to try for the fairy tale any more. He's decided to go about it sensibly…"

"Then he's decided wrong. Love isn't determined by your head, Michael. It's determined by your heart. You know that. Max *used* to know that. You know he's heading down the wrong path. And you're not only sitting by and doing nothing to stop him, you're pushing him with all your might toward someone he doesn't love."

Michael's hands flailed helplessly into the air. "What do you want me to do, Maria? Change directions mid-stream and push him toward this Liz woman on a whim?"

Maria suddenly chuckled at the absurdity of Michael's question. "From the looks of that picture…babe, he's already there." Michael let out a groan of defeat and fell forward dramatically resting his head, face down, in Maria's lap. Maria chuckled again as she ran her fingers through Michael's hair. "You know…it's not that bad. Being head over heels is a kinda cool position to be in…"

Michael's head shot up and a sly grin started to make its way over his lips and his voice lowered suggestively. "You don't say."

"Yep." Maria let out an exaggerated sigh as her lips pursed in thought. "Except of course when you're head over heels in love with a over-bearing, difficult, irritating, competitive numskull…like you."

"Hey!" Michael frowned in mock irritation. "I am *not* competitive."

Maria chuckled at the word Michael chose out of her disparaging description of him. "Who are you kidding?" Maria asked as her eyes began to shine with mischief. She knew how difficult it was for Michael to open his heart sometimes. Even to her. She also knew how to handle him when he did and when to fan the flames of defeat with a little teasing. "You don't fool me a bit. This whole thing isn't really about Max loving and losing...it's about you losing. Period."

"What?" Michael blinked a few times wondering how this conversation suddenly got so turned around that she sounded almost accusatory.

Maria nodded as a knowing smile lit her eyes. Her mind had taken hold of an idea and now she was going to run with it come hell or high water. Whether it was true or not. After the day he had, her Michael needed a little levity. "It terrifies you to think that Max could actually win."

"Win? Win what?" Confusion ruled Michael's expression.

Maria' eyes moved to focus on Michael's face as she laid out her case before him. "The competition that's always going on between the two of you. I think what's scared you so much is the fact you recognized yourself in that photo tonight. Only more." Maria answered Michael's query.

"What the hell are you talking about?" Michael sat back and grunted with a roll of his eyes.

"I'm serious, Michael. There was something very familiar in that photo. Even I recognized it."

"Maria, you are, without a doubt, the most brilliant woman I know, but there are times…" Michael shook his head at Maria's dizzying logic as he let out a frustrated sigh before giving in to his curiosity. "Alright. Recognized *what*?"

"The way a man looks when he's really in love." Maria folded her hands in front of her with a satisfied air.

Michael shook his head in disbelief. "You're crazy! Max barely knows the woman. There's no way he could be in love that fast..."

"I'm not saying he is...yet. But the potential is there. And it looks like it's going to be the dance of a lifetime with those two. In fact, they sound a lot like your grandparents. And we all know how perfect they were together...how sweet and romantic they were...like a real life fairy tale..." Maria' eyes shone with mischief as she pushed her teasing a bit further. "That's it, isn't it!? You're afraid Max will do 'being in love' better than you!"

A moment of silence was broken when Michael burst into laughter and fell back on the bed as tears began to run down his face. Maria leaned over him and cracked a smile relieved to hear his laugh again. Slapping him playfully on the chest, her own laughter suddenly began to blend with his. "Hey! Stop that! Don't laugh at me!"

Wiping his eyes and trying to catch his breath Michael continued to chuckle at his wife's preposterous statement. "I'm sorry, Maria. It's just the idea of Max...being better at ANYTHING than I am..." Michael wiggled his eyebrows suggestively. "...especially in the love department. After all...which one of us provided mom and dad with their first grandchild?"

"I'm not saying he WILL be, Bubblehead…" Maria clarified as a chuckle escaped her at Michael's immense ego. "I'm just saying you're AFRAID he will be. And I really can't blame you. He's so reserved but…hot, you know? I mean, he's got the looks and those soulful eyes…the shy, quiet but commanding and in control 'presence' thing going for him."

"He is the ultimate typecast for the Prince Charming role. Oh, and did you see the way he was looking at her in that picture after they kissed?" Maria's excited gaze had moved from Michael's face to an imaginary spot on the wall as she tapped her cheek with her finger and lost herself in dreamy thought.

"Yeah. Like he had gas." Michael quipped suddenly.

"Michael!" Maria grabbed a pillow and hit him over the head. "Stop it! I'm trying to be serious!"

Michael propped himself up on his elbows and tried to stifle the urge to laugh again as he looked back up at Maria. She looked so beautiful sitting next to him trying her hardest to explain something to him that would probably never make sense...the workings of his brother's heart. Watching her, Michael realized that Max was suddenly the last thing on his mind. "Ok. I’m listening. Closing arguments, Counselor?"

Maria sighed and tilted her head to the side as she brought her full attention back to Michael. "I guess I'm saying...lighten up on him. There's something there. Even I got goosebumps just looking at the two of them together. You know there is something there too. And I don't care that they don't know each other or that they've just met. Time doesn't matter to love." Seeing Michael's eyebrow raise at her idealized statement, Maria continued to state her case. "Look. You didn't know me, but that look was in your eyes from the moment we met."

Maria put a restraining finger on Michael's lips as he opened his mouth to protest. "It's true and you know it. We didn't have a chance. We don't have the most conventional love story, but the way you used to look at me...the way you look at me still...well, it's why I fell for you. And no amount of protests from mother or obligations to my family could keep us apart. We were meant to be."

She reached over and caressed Michael's cheek as a knowing smile claimed her lips. "Hounding Max on this will only push him away. He's too stubborn to do what you say just because you say it. I was the exact same way with mom. Besides...if I'd listened to *my* family or let my head rule my heart that beautiful little boy sleeping three doors down wouldn't be here. And I would have never known the best seven years of my life."

Michael captured her hand in his and kissed her palm before meeting her eyes with a smile. "Me either."

"Then let him try. Give him the space to see if he can find a way to be as happy as us."

"Not possible." Michael responded with a slight shake of his head as he pulled Maria down toward him and began placing kisses along her jaw down to her neck. Giving in to the pursuit of his newest goal, Michael's statement was as close as Maria would come to gaining his consent to her plea...at least tonight. "Max can try all he wants...he'll never be as happy as we are. There's only one woman in the world who holds the key to true happiness. And she's all mine."

Maria closed her eyes and smiled at the attention her husband was showering on her and his sincere words that sent a flutter through her heart. Shifting her weight to give him better access, she sighed with pleasure before attempting to speak again. "See. I told you it was a competition..."

Michael pulled back, his eyes twinkling with mischief and darkening with sudden desire. "Competition or not, there's at least one thing I *know* I can do better than anyone."

A grin spread over Maria's face as she gazed into Michael's eyes with a teasing upraised eyebrow. "Oh, yeah? What's that?"

Michael flipped Maria over unexpectedly and lowered himself on top of her. "Love you..." His response was a husky whisper before his lips captured hers to prove his point beyond a shadow of a doubt.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Tess rose from the chair in agitation when she heard the grandfather clock in the hall chime the hour of eleven. She exhaled loudly and made her way around the room one more time. "Where could he be?"

A knock on the door caused Tess to jump before she flew to the door. Taking a deep breath and smoothing down her hair, she replaced her anxious expression with one of nonchalance. "Yes?" Her condescending gaze swept over the visitor to Max's door.

"Oh, dear. I must have the wrong room." Grams' eyebrows furrowed in confusion as she glanced up and down the hall. As if counting the doors, Grams mumbled to herself. "I thought it was the fourth door down..."

Tess released a bored sigh before crossing her arms in front of her. "If you're looking for Max's room, you found it. He just doesn't seem to be home right now."

Grams tilted her head to the side as she gazed at Tess absently. "Then can you tell my granddaughter I'd like to see her please?"

A blonde eyebrow raised in response. "Your granddaughter? Mrs. Evans, you don't have a granddaughter that would be found in Max's room. Not yet, anyway. And…I'd like to make it clear that it will *only* be by marriage when you finally do..."

"Oh, but I do already. See?" Grams stated as she held up the magazine to Tess. She pointed to the picture of Liz being held in Max's arms and looked back at Tess. "Liz...Max's wife. I know she isn't flesh and blood, but she's my granddaughter just the same..."

Tess' face flushed red with anger before she yanked the magazine out of Gram's hands. It shook in her long slender fingers and she didn't even try to conceal the look of disgust that puckered her porcelain face. "THIS is NOT Max's Wife! I AM!"

Grams' surprised expression fueled Tess' anger even more, but not as much as her next words. Grams' eyebrows furrowed as she muttered doubtfully under her breath and shook her head in disbelief. "But...I don't understand. Why would Max marry the maid?"

"MAID? YOU THINK I'M THE MAID??? OHHHHH!!!!" Tess' hands were clenched into fisted rage. "What would you know you...you…you crazy old loon!?!" Tess yelled in indignation as she stepped back and slammed the door in Grams' face.

A gray eyebrow raised as Grams slowly turned from the door. "Well now, Maxwell. That was rather fun..." Her girlish giggle followed her down the hall as she bobbed her head to a phantom song playing in her head.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
For the past half hour, Max had been driving aimlessly through the streets of New York City. Seeing none of the sights. Hearing none of the sounds. The radio had been on, but Max clicked it off angrily.

Love songs. With their sappy words full of promises that would never be kept and their soft melodies that lulled one into a false sense of bliss.

Lies. That's all it had been. Nothing but lies and contradictions.

The way her laugh assured him he could make her pain go away. The way her eyes darkened with desire while her hands pushed him away. She'd told him she wanted to help…then she turned and ran. And that kiss. The kiss that screamed to him she could never let go…then the words of finality that ended the most beautiful song he'd ever heard.

Good-bye.

Click. Max shut his eyes against the fierce pain that ripped through his heart as his fingers gripped the steering wheel. Nothing made sense. Nothing seemed right. Nothing…fit. Nothing except the knowledge that he'd been mercifully saved from another heartbreak…one that had the potential to destroy him. That love wasn't meant to be felt…it was meant to be chosen. That fairy tales didn't exist and that he, Max Evans, was no Prince Charming. He had no Princess waiting for him to rescue her. He only had…

Max's eyes opened as a tear slipped down his cheek. Swallowing the lump that was firmly lodged in his throat, Max turned his car with determination toward the only place he knew he belonged… Click.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Tess tossed the magazine on the bed and furiously paced in front of it twisting her hands as her mind began to whirl. Letting out a frustrated scream, Tess stopped her pacing and took a deep breath. She closed her eyes and willed herself to focus on regaining control. There would no way she could formulate a plan unless she was calm.

Opening her eyes, Tess' gaze rested once more on the magazine laying open on the bed. It had inadvertently fallen to open to the snippet on Max and Liz and gave Tess yet another glimpse of the kiss she couldn't get out of her mind. Inhaling deeply, Tess flipped her hair behind her squared shoulders then leaned forward and picked up the magazine.

Giving it a cool gaze, her lips pursed in thought before moving into a sardonic smile. "So, you know the feel of his kiss, do you, little Ms. Liz Parker? Well, enjoy the memory while it lasts because it'll be all you have while *I*...enjoy the pleasure of his bed..."

A chuckle rumbled deep in her chest as she slowly began to unbutton her blouse.

Tbc…
~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 18 ~

Isabel opened the door with Liz's tears echoing in her ears.

Max's head snapped up when he heard the click of the door and as his haunted eyes met Isabel's she immediately regretted the part she'd have to play in this unexplained but certain good-bye. "Where's Liz? I want to see her." Max impatiently demanded before Isabel had a chance to blink.

Isabel opened her mouth to answer an untruth as her eyes faltered but Max's command stopped her words. "Don't even think about telling me she isn't here because I saw her car parked below. Now, either go inside and get her for me or I’ll come in and get her myself..."

His voice was as hard as the shell around Liz's heart. A shell he'd managed to crack with the bond of grief they'd found at the cemetery. Or maybe it was the laughter they'd shared earlier that floated it's way through the apartment and created a song that had long been dead. Even the partnership of minds that somehow salvaged their reputations. Or…maybe it was the kiss that brought their souls face to face with one another and was breaking their hearts wide open in this moment.

Isabel's eyebrow raised simultaneously with the crossing of her arms in front of her as her regret turned to instant offense. "Excuse me?" A disbelieving smile passed over her lips. This man was unbelievable. And completely changed. In fact, if questioned intensely, Isabel would be hard pressed to prove the man standing before her now was the exact same man that had enjoyed hot chocolate and pie at their kitchen table earlier. Amazing what a few hours can do to alter a person…

"Just who exactly do you think you are anyway? Huh?" Her eyes swept over Max from head to toe with disapproval. "You know you may have enough money to buy this whole block, but when it comes down to it, buster…you still have to have permission to enter this apartment. And that's not going to happen. Not tonight. Maybe not ever."

Max took a deep breath as his eyes flash with barely restrained frustration. "Look. I'm not in the mood for games. I need to talk to Liz. And I will talk to Liz. Tonight. It’s too important to me to just be put off like this…"

"Yeah? Well, it just so happens that I’m not overly concerned with what’s important to you. All that I am concerned about right now is Liz and how upset she is.” Isabel’s hands dropped to her hips as she stood firmly in Max’s way. “What exactly did you do to her anyway?”

“Me? Do to her?” Max’s voice raised in intensity as his hands flew through the air in frustration. “What about what she did to me? What she’s been doing to me ever since I met her?”

“And what exactly would that be, Mr. Evans?” Isabel questioned back in retaliation, harboring a secret hope that Max would find an answer deep within him that would make it impossible for her to turn him away.

Max blinked as the direct shot hit his heart. Shocked by the simplicity of the question. Speechless from the complexity of his answer. At that moment, with confused thoughts crowding his brain and conflicting emotions raging in his heart, Max Evans couldn’t form one coherent, logical reply. A sensation that was completely new to him. So he remained silent, his gaze dropping silently, uncomfortably to the floor.

Just what had Liz Parker done to him?

Isabel sighed with disappointment when Max's lips remained firmly closed. “O.K. So, while you’re trying to figure that one out, let me just make something very clear to you. The only thing that matters to me right now is Liz and what she wants. Or doesn't want in this case." Isabel shot Max a pointed look. "And what she doesn't want is to see you. Ever. Again."

The statements were simple and direct. And damaging. In that moment, Max knew he'd never heard a harsher sound than Isabel's words. They did something he thought couldn't be done...they cut his heart even deeper than Liz's good-bye. Click.

Seeing the unbending determination in Isabel's eyes, Max let out a sigh of frustration as he half-turned from Isabel and ran his fingers through his hair. Hanging his head, Max pinched the bridge of his nose for a moment before turning back to her, his eyes bright with a sudden moistness he seemed unable to dry. "You aren't going to budge on this are you?" Waiting for the certain shake of her head that he knew he'd see, Max's voice almost broke as it softened to a whisper. "Can you...at least tell me why?"

"Why?" Isabel's would have chuckled at the preposterous question if not for the utter confusion in Max’s eyes. "You're kidding me, right? Have you lost your mind?"

Max's eyes drifted closed as a soft murmur left his lips. "Believe me, I'm really beginning to wonder…"

Isabel continued with a shake of her head not having heard Max's soft confession. "Heelllo! For starters, Liz may be spunky and enthusiastic about things, but she's usually not prone to emotional outbursts. And yet I've seen her more upset, angry and sad in the past 2 days that I have the past year or so. Seems you know how to push every last button she has, Mr. Evans. And I'm not quite sure that's a good thing at this point.

"And as if that weren't bad enough, you're an engaged man. And you know what? I've heard about and seen more of you in the past 24 hours than I've seen my own boyfriend. In case you didn't know, pursuing a single woman relentlessly while getting ready to put on those matrimonial shackles is not a good sign." Isabel backed up a step and placed her hand on the door readying it to slam. "In fact, if you ask me…I'm thinking your fiancee' is probably slipping that 2 1/2 carat off her hand right about now. So, my advice to you…go pound on her door."

Isabel moved to slam then door when Max saw his last chance to talk to Liz disintegrate right before him. His eyes flashed with determination and he stuck his hand out to stop the door from closing all the way. “Wait. Look. This has nothing to do with Tess and everything to do with Liz. Please. I…I…"

Click. Max looked away momentarily before bringing his gaze back to her face with determination and sudden vulnerability. "I rarely admit what I need, let alone beg for it. Right now, I'm…I’m begging you for what I need most. Please, Isabel. Please let me see Liz..."

Isabel's heart didn't go untouched by Max's heartfelt plea and she hesitated a second wondering what she should do. In fact, she practically melted at the sight of his heart as it leapt into his eyes. Isabel fought the urge to yank Max into the apartment and force Liz to face him…to be the one to look in his eyes and tell him in no uncertain terms she never wanted to see him again. She was certain Liz wouldn’t be able to pull it off…not if Max looked at her with half of the emotion that was dancing back and forth in his eyes just saying her name.

Her curiosity about their 'relationship' grew by leaps and bounds. What exactly had happened between the two of them? And why had it made Liz run into the apartment as if a ghost was chasing her? Whatever it was, it was pretty clear by the tears in Liz’s eyes earlier and the sadness shadowing Max’s eyes now that it had affected both of them in monumental ways…

Unable to be cruel any longer yet remembering the way Liz had looked when she entered the apartment, Isabel's loyalty to Liz won out and kept her resolve firm as she stepped into the hallway shutting the door behind her, her voice softening with her original feelings of regret. "Max, look. I…really am sorry. But you had your chance earlier and…now it’s over.”

Remembering the tender scene she’d observed between them earlier and guessing the feelings Max couldn’t even name yet, she continued. “You know, maybe if you’d both met in another time or place…maybe you could have had…” She stopped herself from saying ‘something special' when she saw his eyes cloud over with pain. “…but not now. Just do yourself and Liz a favor and…let it go."

"I...don’t think…I can..." Max took a deep breath and swallowed back a lump that had swiftly risen in this throat.

“Well, you’re going to have to because whatever is going on…it’s just not…” Unable to form the right words, Isabel let out a sigh and leaned against the door. “She’s scared, Max.”

Max’s eyes snapped to Isabel’s face before asking his next probing question. "What is she so afraid of?"

Isabel shook her head apologetically. "It's not my story."

"Alright then." Max shook his head in frustration at hitting yet another wall as he once more began to plead his case. "Fine. Then let me see her..."

"No." Letting out a sigh, Isabel's plea for reprieve was clearly written in her warm brown eyes. "Max, please understand. I wish it didn’t have to be this way, but Liz...well, she's my best friend. What she needs comes first to me."

"How do you know it doesn't with me too?" Max threw out his strategic statement to no avail.

"Max…" Isabel's voice held a note of warning as an eyebrow raised.

"Alright. So, I'm being rather selfish right now. I just..." A sigh accompanied the shake of his raven head as Max closed his eyes dreading the answer to his next question. "What...does she need then?"

"For you to let it go."

"I can't. Not yet." Max responded stubbornly.

Silence filled the hallway and Isabel couldn't help but admire Max's determination, even if it was a bit misdirected at the moment. In the next moment, her heart hardened, knowing that kind of stubbornness might only bring Liz pain. Then again…

That kind of hard-headed determination just might be what Liz Parker needed in her life. A distant echo of Liz and Max's combined laughter filtered through Isabel's memory and Isabel prayed her instincts about Max were right. Then she prayed even harder that she was making the right decision. Releasing a deep sigh, Isabel spoke the one word she hoped was true. "Time." Her eyes raised to meet his. "Give her time."

Max swallowed hard, knowing Isabel had just handed him a second chance. "How much?"

"I don't know."

Click. Though his head was hung in defeat, his words were anything but surrender. "Fine...for now. Tell her...tell her this is far from over. It won't be good-bye until we're both ready say the words..."
~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Is he gone?" Liz's soft question was barely discernible as Isabel quietly entered Liz's room.

Coming up along side her best friend as she stood by the window, Isabel looked out over the city lights before responding in the affirmative. "Yeah, Liz, he's gone."

Silence filled the room as Liz closed her eyes and hugged a photo frame to her chest. A tiny tear slipped out of the corner of her eye and captured a gleam of light to sparkle against her cheek before falling on the windowsill with a dull plop. Click.

Seeing so much confusion and pain in both her friend and her friend's most recent visitor, Isabel's own question no longer found solace in the quiet of her mind. "Why, Liz? What happened between the two of you tonight?"

Liz simply shook her head as her lips began to quiver. Click. Her fingers involuntarily found their way to touch those same lips that were still burning where Max's soul reached out and breathed new life into hers. Dreams and desires had been re-awakened in her tonight. She didn't know when they began or what had been said or done to ignite them, but she did know the exact moment she knew they were alive and well. It was the moment that she felt a fire blazing in her heart. It was the fire brought on by that final kiss. The kiss of good-bye that felt more to her like the beginning of a brand new life...

The soft touch of Isabel's hand on Liz's arm brought Liz back to the present question and the emptiness that had invaded her since leaving Max's side. An emptiness she wanted to refuse to acknowledge for fear of what it would all mean. When she finally spoke her voice was flat and devoid of all the emotions that were suddenly running through her heart. "I found him. We talked. We said good-bye."

Isabel's eyes narrowed slightly as she watched her friend's face transform from blissful longing to emotionless nothing in the space of a heartbeat. She instinctively knew Liz had been reliving moments spent with Max. Moments that made her live again. "I got news for you, girlfriend. You may have said the words, but Max was right. This is far from good-bye."

Liz's eyes flashed with fire as she turned on Isabel suddenly. "Max doesn't control what I do or don't do, got it?"

"Who does then?" Isabel gently touched the picture frame in Liz's hand. "Is it Ethan? Because I've got to tell you...for someone who has struggled for independence the way you have, you sure do give him a large amount of control. Control even he wouldn't want."

"This isn't about Ethan!" Liz's explosive defense only drove Isabel's point home even further.

"Really? Then what's it about?"

"He's engaged, Iz. You and I both know where this will lead. Nowhere except to heartache for everyone involved. You should have heard him tonight arguing with his brother about what happened with the photo. And I can just imagine what his fiancee' is going through. I refuse to become a hypocrite. I will not do that to another person. If he's getting cold feet or looking for one last fling he'll have to find it somewhere else..."

"You think that's all this is for him? A bad case of cold feet?" Isabel asked incredulously. "Liz…I'm telling you…if you could have just seen him out there…you're breaking his heart."

Liz shook her head defiantly. "No, I'm not. He would have to feel something for me…and that simply isn't the case. I mean, my God, Iz. We don't even know each other…"

"Yeah, you do." Isabel interrupted quietly. "I saw it myself tonight. It's the kind of knowing that's instinctive. He knew you were hurting when Autumn mentioned Brina. More than that, he knew what to do and say to make the hurting stop."

When Liz didn't respond, Isabel continued. "And what about you? You obviously knew where to find him when he needed you tonight. And that good-bye you said, well…it wouldn't have hurt him so much if your being there for him hadn't meant the world to him...if he didn't feel something..."

Click. Liz turned away to look out at the city lights unable to refute Isabel's argument. They had instinctively known what the other needed tonight. At the cemetery. The apartment. The editor's office. Not only had they known, they both followed those instincts and healed a piece of each other effortlessly, even if only for a little while.

Isabel gently continued knowing the ice she was treading on was very, very thin. "You know what I think? I think you're afraid the greatest love you've ever known may not have been all that great. That there just might be someone else out there that could make you love more than Ethan ever dreamed. That's why you've pushed away every man that's approached you since Ethan. What you're forgetting…or choosing not to remember…is that your life didn't end with him. It's over, Liz. He's gone. And until you're willing to let him go…"

"I will never…" Liz emphasized each word before pausing as her voice became heavy with determined emotion.

"Liz. Ethan wouldn't want you to live the rest of your life alone..."

Liz turned on Isabel suddenly the fire of anger being washed away by sudden tears that she valiantly kept from falling. "You have no idea what Ethan would have wanted for me! You didn't know him like I did...you never heard our promises..."

"If he wanted this for you..." Isabel threw out her arms before pointing to the picture being hugged to Liz's chest. "...this prison you keep yourself in..." She took a deep breath and attempted to soften her words with her tone. "...that's not real love, Liz."

Liz choked back her tears and turned her back to Isabel as silence filled the room. "Please, Isabel…can you just…leave? I need some time…"

"Mommy?" Autumn's sleepy voice sounded at Liz's door causing both women to turn to her. "Did Max come back home with you?"

Liz quickly wiped her tears away and went to pick Autumn up. "No, Angelface, he didn't."

"Is he gonna come back ta play sometime?" Autumn asked she rubbed her eyes and tilted her head to the side.

Liz glanced at Isabel then back at Autumn. "No, I don't think so."

Autumn gazed at Liz and reached up a small finger to wipe a tear that had missed Liz's quick attention. "Is that how come you're cryin'? Cuz ya miss him 'ready?"

Seeing Liz's eyes tear up once more Isabel came to her rescue. "Just what do you think you're doing, young lady? Mommy's gonna think I can't take care of you by myself anymore if you don't go to sleep when I ask you too."

"I's just wantin' to see Max again..." Autumn pushed her lower lip out in an adorable pout.

Isabel reached out and took Autumn from Liz's arms. "I know, sweetie, but he's not here. So, why don't you kiss mommy good night and we'll head back to bed. Humm?"

"Kay." Autumn agreed as she leaned forward and kissed Liz on the cheek. As she pulled away, Autumn reached out and took Liz's face in her hands. "Don't worry, mommy. Max'll be back."

"What makes you say that, sweetie?" Liz asked suddenly wondering how her four year old niece could suddenly sound so wise.

Autumn shrugged and laid her head on Isabel's shoulder. "Cuz he was happy here with you..." A quiet yawn silenced the rest of Autumn's sentence as her eyes fluttered closed.

Liz's eyes flicked to Isabel's face. "Don't say it..."

Isabel shook her head. "I don't have to. You already know she's right." She turned and headed toward the door leaving Liz to listen to the quiet whisperings of her heart.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"So, what do you say, Ms. Parker? Do you think you could love a poor starving photographer like me for the rest of your life?"

A dark eyebrow raised playfully. "Well, that all depends."

"On what?" He slipped his muscular arms around her shoulder and pulled her close to him whispering in her ear as they continued to slowly walk down the street.

"On if you expect me to love you and only you for the rest of my life. I mean, who knows what rich, handsome, powerful stranger might be waiting for me right around the next corner?"

"Well if rich, handsome and powerful are what you're waiting for, I'm sure we can find a few lurking back home at daddy's. Say the word and I'll deliver you to your old doorstep personally."

Liz slapped him playfully. "Don't you even joke about that."

Taking her former statement literally, he pointed to the corner of a building they were walking toward. "So you think they might be around the corner then, huh? I guess you must mean that corner. The one right there. The one that leads to the studio. You think maybe there's a rich, handsome, powerful stranger waiting to make all of your dreams come true right around that very corner." She felt him shrug his shoulders before he slipped from behind her and held out his hand to her, his blue eyes twinkling with mischief and the dimple in his left cheek making a sudden appearance.

Tilting her head to the side, Liz grinned at his outstretched hand as her eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Ethan Austin Lawrence, what are you up to?"

"Leading you to the man of your dreams, that's all." Ethan took Liz's hand in his and led her around the corner of the building into the alleyway then opened the back door to his studio.

Liz stopped short and gasped when Ethan flung the door open with a flourish, her eyes growing wide at the sight that greeted her. Ethan had transformed his small studio into a virtual gallery full of seven foot tall photos of Liz and himself. Wall to wall coverings documenting their relationship caused bright tears of love to well up in her eyes as they roamed the black and white pictures that brought memories to her mind of times most precious to her.

Liz stepped forward and ran her hand along the photo taken on their first date. A picnic in the park. She'd known even then, with his eyes as blue as the summer sky, he was all she'd ever dreamed of. As she moved forward her gaze rested on the picture taken the first night he told her he loved her. The evening had begun at the fair eating cotton candy and shooting fake ducks just to win a prize. It ended under a blanket looking up at the ceiling of stars reveling in the comfort of his loving arms.

Memories of love and laughter surrounded her as she turned full circle to face him. "Ethan…oh, sweetie. This is absolutely incredible…"

Ethan's broad grin spread over his face deepening the creases in his cheeks until they were full-fledged dimples. "You like it?"

Liz turned to him and ran her hand in a gentle caress across his cheek. "I love it, sweetheart. And I love you…"

Ethan leaned in for a kiss then pulled back slightly, his eyes darkening with seriousness. "I love you, Liz. More than I ever dreamed possible to love in my life." A light chuckle escaped his lips. "You know the first time you walked into the studio helping Isabel to look for a modeling job, I thought the heavens had opened and God had sent me my own personal angel. Now, all of this time later...I know I was right. I'd be lost without you."

"I feel the exact same way..."

"Good." Ethan's smile made his blue eyes twinkle. "Then I don't feel so bad asking you this." He took a deep breath and held onto Liz's hands a little tighter as he turned and pulled her toward the last photo on the wall.

It was covered with a white sheet and Liz turned to Ethan curiosity dancing in her dark eyes. "What's this?"

Ethan looked down at the ground as an embarrassed blush began to spread over his cheeks. "It's the future. Or at least I hope it is." He moved to remove the cloth and Liz's hands flew to her mouth the moment she saw it.

"Oh, my…" Her whispered exclamation accompanied a tear as it fell down her cheek. Her heart began to rapidly pound and she felt as if she could fly as her gaze focused on the photo before her. It was the two of them dressed in wedding attire, their love for each other shining brightly in their eyes as they placed rings on each others fingers. "How did you..."

"I doctored a photo of us." Ethan shrugged casually at the awe in her voice. He dropped the sheet and grabbed her hands in his before gazing into her dark eyes so full of love. "I can't live without you, Liz. Even if I could...I don't want to. Will you...make this photo a reality? Will...you marry me and promise to love me forever?"

Liz's face lit into a loving smile as she gently took his face in her hands. "God, yes, I'll marry you. And I promise you, Ethan, I'll love you...you and only you…forever."


Liz slowly pulled the photo frame away from her chest and gazed down at it lovingly remembering the happiest night of her life. Her hand reached up and traced the features of the face she'd loved for so long as tears quietly began to fall. "What's happening to me, Ethan? Why can't I feel you the way I used to? Why don't your eyes speak to me any more?"

"Oh, God." She hugged the photo to her chest fiercely. "Is it because I've been untrue? Au6tumn was right, Ethan. I miss him already...because...he made me happy too. Are you angry with me…for how he made…me feel tonight?" She shook her head as she drew in a long, shaky breath. "I always said no one could take your place…I won't…I won't let him take your place. He can't. I barely know him."

Reaching up, Liz swiped away a few stray tears as her she voiced all the confusion clambering in her heart. "How can it feel…so right…how can I even feel…anything at all? Ethan…you were supposed…to be…the only one…"

Click. Liz's head bent as tears became the outward sign of the storm between a past love and future possibilities began to rage in her heart...

A thundclap accompanied the slamming of Max's car door as he slid into his seat and lowered his head in defeat. Click. His heart pounded furiously in his chest at the very thought of putting the key in the ignition and driving away. There was so much he wanted to say to her. So many feelings to explore. Yet, the one who caused them all was denying him access to the very thing he needed most...her heart.

Click. Shaking his head and blinking back sudden tears, Max's gaze drifted out the window toward the fourth floor of Liz's building. As his eyes came to rest on a dimly lit window, Max felt his heart break in two when he recognized the familiar figure framed like a picture before him. Liz stood at the window, clutching something to her chest, the sorrows of her heart evident in the tears that were running down her cheeks before she bent her head.

Max swallowed the lump that instantly lodged his throat and looked away quickly. The depth of emotion she displayed was too intense to be viewed, yet Max couldn't help his gaze from drifting upward to her once again before starting his car.

Liz's words came back to him suddenly. "So much anguish…tears that I wouldn't allow myself to shed were falling down your face. I know it's weird, but suddenly, I recognized myself. The way I was deep inside."

"Oh, Liz. I…recognize myself too..." Max blinked back sudden tears as the sky opened up and joined the solemn cadence of falling tears when Max finally choked out a whisper. "Good-bye, Liz..."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Max?"

The motherly voice called out to him from the den as he headed down the hallway. Max stopped his journey to his room and moved toward the voice so full of concern. Throwing his arm out in an apologetic gesture, Max lowered his eyes with a guilty shake of his head. "I'm sorry about all of this, mom. The pictures...the magazine..."

Diane shook her head and held up her hand to stop his apologies. "I don't care about the pictures, Max. I care about you. How are you...really?"

Max shrugged as a mocking chuckle escaped his lips. "Oh, I feel just fine for a guy who's been on an emotional roller coaster for the past two days."

Diane moved her feet from the couch before patting the seat next to her. "Come. Tell me about it."

Max sat down with a weary sigh and leaned his head back against the couch closing his eyes. "How is it possible to have everything so right and so perfect one moment and then have all of that just…disappear with one word?"

Diane smiled slightly to herself before answering his question in the form of a statement. "I guess that all depends on what the word was when it all disappeared for you. I take it Liz found you."

"Yeah. She found me all right. She swept into the editor's office at the magazine, saved me from making a bigger fool of myself than I already have…then she just…" Max's eyes took on a distant look as he absently licked the lips that still burned from Liz's kiss. Click. His hand moved with a will of its own to touch the last part of Liz he may ever have and when he finally spoke, his voice softened to a whisper. "…she just left me."

Diane sat silently observing her son's expression, watching his every more, instinctively knowing Max was holding back details. And guessing exactly what details he was holding back. There had been another kiss…and it had moved him. "What did you do?"

Snapping out of his self-induced memory, Max clear his throat and glanced at his mom as his hand dropped heavily to his side. "I went to her place, but she…she refused to see me."

"Why?" Diane's eyebrows furrowed in confusion.

Max shrugged and shook his head. "I don't know."

"Max? What was the word that made it all disappear?"

Click. Max swallowed hard and looked down at his hands. "Good-bye."

Diane reached over and touched Max's arm. "Son, are you really ready to let this be?"

A deep sigh preceded Max leaning forward and running his fingers through his hair as he sat lost in thought. "We saw each other earlier tonight. At the cemetery." Max glanced up at his mom before continuing to explain with a shrug. "I went to see Gramps."

"Oh, honey. That must have been difficult. I wish you would have told me. I could have gone..."

Max shook his head. "No, mom. I needed to be with him...alone. I needed to talk some things out with him...like I used to." Staring back down at his hands, Max continued in a softened voice. "Anyway, I heard someone crying and...well, Liz was there. Her sister died...about two years ago. It wasn't the most pleasant experience I've ever had...watching her cry. Seeing the grief in her eyes. But I knew, mom...somehow I knew how to comfort her."

"That doesn't really surprise me, you know." Diane commented with a proud smile. "You always did have a soft heart when it came to hurting people."

"Yeah, but this was different." Max's brown eyes closed and he exhaled slowly as he searched for the words to describe what Liz had done to him. Click. "I didn't just comfort her, mom. I absorbed her pain somehow. It became a part of me. I understood her. Just like she understood me when I talked to her about Gramps."

"It sounds like you were both there for each other in a very special way. I'm glad for that."

"Yeah. So am I." Max smiled sadly to himself knowing no matter the future, he would always cherish this night as one of the best in his life. With all of its pain and anger, memories and frustration, it had been the best because there had been laughter. There'd been understanding. And caring. There had been…Liz.

"So, what changed?"

His raven head shook in doubt and confusion. "I'm not really sure. Between the cemetery and her good-bye...so many things happened it would be hard to say what made the difference." Steepling his hands in front of him, Max leaned back against the couch and gazed up at the ceiling. "I do know what the results were whatever the turning point."

Click. Silence greeted his statement as Diane patiently waited for Max to continue at his own pace...a wait that didn't last too long as Max began to pour his heart out to her. "She cried, mom. Through her window. I could see her crying like her heart was broken. I'll tell you, now…it's something I never want to see again." Shaking his head he turned to look at Diane, his eyes bright with sudden moistness. "Her roommate says its because of me. That I've…I don't know…brought back painful memories for her or something. If I did that…if I am doing that to her…mom, I've got to let go."

"But do you want to?"

Max looked away without saying a word. Click. And Diane instantly had her answer. "You know sometimes it's easier to follow your heart after you watch someone else follow theirs. Maybe that's what Liz needs right now…to see someone else follow their heart." Diane rested her hand on Max's shoulder to get his attention. Once he was facing her, Diane smiled wisely. "Isn't it time you took an active role in your life, Max? Stop letting everyone else tell you what to do and do what your heart tells you to."

Max stood up and leaned over to kiss Diane lovingly on the cheek. "I am, mom. That's why I'm walking away before I hurt her anymore than I already have..."

"But Max..."

"Mom, look. I...I had no idea. I wouldn't have known how to comfort her that last time. Because I saw me in her tears. I mean, my God…I haven't been able to heal myself these past few years. What makes me think I can heal her?" He looked away and ran his fingers through his hair before turning back to Diane. "I can't reach her when I'm the one causing the pain, mom. It's best...to let it go."

"But is it best for you?"

"It's best...for her. That's all that's important." Max answered softly before raising his hands to stop any more questions. "Please, mom. I'm really tired."

"Ok, honey." Diane tossed him an encouraging smile before a thought brought a frown back to her face. "Max, wait. Tess…"

Max let out a sigh and dropped his head. "I really can't deal with Tess right now…"

"I know." Diane interrupted. "That's why I thought you should know she's waiting for you."

Max's head snapped up. "Where?"

"Your room."

Max passed his hand over his face wearily. "Great. Just what I needed." Max attempted a smile as he squared his shoulders preparing for the certain confrontation to come. "Well, I guess its time to see if there's at least one thing I can manage to do right tonight. See you in the morning, mom."

"Good night, Max." Diane nodded with an encouraging smile as she watched Max wearily make his way out of the room.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Lost in thought, Diane didn't hear Grams slip into the quiet room till her fragile voice broke the silence. "His dance faltered tonight."

Diane turned suddenly and smiled sadly at Grams. "I'm afraid it did, mom."

"Why?"

Diane shrugged. "Well, it sounds like they let go of each others' hand."

Grams nodded her graying head. "Then all is not lost."

"They've said good-bye, mom. From the determination I just saw in Max, I think it's over." Diane stood and moved toward Grams and wrapped her arm around her shoulder.

Responding by wrapping her arm around Diane's waist, Grams smiled a secret smile. "It's not over. They've just come to the part of the dance where they had to let go long enough to realize how much they want to hang on. The music can't be denied now. It'll draw them back together." Her dark eyes began to twinkle with thoughts. "Sooner than you think...with a little help from Grams..."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Tess' smooth, unruffled voice greeted Max from his darkened bed as he wearily slipped through the door to his room and closed it behind him. "Hello, darling. I knew if I waited long enough you'd come home. Right where you belong..."

to be continued...

posted on 8-Dec-2002 7:45:50 PM by Ashton
~ chapter 19 ~

The sharp ringing of the telephone so close to his ear sliced through the hazy web in which Max was deeply entangled. A web most people would call sleep, but from the events of last night, Max could easily call it 'escape'. A second ring brought a groan from deep inside his chest. A third, the slamming of his hand onto the handset before he picked it up and yelled loud enough for his business associates in Jakarta to hear. "WHAT IS IT?"

"Max? Oh, my God. I'm so glad you're there. Max…something has happened…" Liz's terrified voice broke as her words halted their rapid tumble across the phone line.

Max sat up immediately, his eyes popping open and his breath catching in his throat at the sound of the voice he never dreamed he'd hear again. "Liz? Liz, what is it? What's wrong?"

Liz took a breath and wiped the tears from her eyes. "It's…it's all my fault, Max. God, I…I don't know what happened…she just…she just…"

New tears made their way into Liz's voice. Click. Max immediately swung his feet over the side of the bed and went into action, his body moving with a will of its own at the sound of her distress. "It's ok, sweetie. Whatever it is, it's going to be ok. Just calm down for me, alright?"

Reaching into a drawer, Max pulled out a t-shirt and a pair of jeans and proceeded to carelessly throw them on while trying to maintain some control over his own rising panic. "Where are you? Are you at home?" Click. Receiving nothing but a sob on the other end of the phone, Max ran his fingers through his rumpled hair and forced himself to focus. "Liz. Listen to me…are you listening to me?"

"Yes." Liz's barely audible whisper was accompanied by a short sniffle and Max knew she was trying her best to remain calm and focus for him.

"Alright. Now, tell me where you are…"

"At…the hospital."

Autumn's face flashed before his mind and Max took a deep breath as he felt his own chest tighten with fear. "Which one?"

"Mid-General. Um, we're in…in the emergency…"

"Hang on, ok? I'll be there in a bit..." Max stated quickly as he grabbed the keys from his stand and headed toward his door. Another sniffle from the phone and Max stopped abruptly, his features softening when he could sense the fear in Liz's silence. "Liz…listen to me. Everything's going to be fine. Autumn…is going to be fine. Hold onto to that till I get there, ok?"

One more sob and Max felt his heart lurch in his chest. What he wouldn't give to be Superman so he could zip to her and hold her right this second. Soon. He would be with her very soon, holding her and helping her through this nightmare…whatever this nightmare was. "But…Max…" Liz's voice cut through his thoughts and brought his world to a sudden stop. "It's…not Autumn. It's…Max, it's Grams…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~
Tess yelped in pain as the carelessly tossed phone hit her in the shoulder while she lay in bed. "Dammit, Max! Watch what you're doing…"

But he didn't hear her. He had already slammed the door behind him. Tess' jaw clenched in anger. She'd heard his end of the conversation and she didn't like it one bit. That twit actually had the gall to call him at home. And he had the nerve to run to her no questions asked. He'd sounded flustered but there was an underlying tone of eagerness Tess couldn't wish away. An eagerness to be with *her*...

Well. She'd change that soon enough. Pulling the covers up around her naked body, Tess reached for the phone that nearly gave her a concussion. Dialing a number quickly she waited for the phone to ring. "El?"

"Yeah, I got him." The simple answer to her unasked question came through loud and clear. "He's heading west. I'm not sure where he's going but wherever it is, he's wanting to get there in a hurry."

"So I gathered with the way he just tore out of here." Tess remarked dryly. "Just keep with him and report back to me when you get more information. Especially who he's with."

"And what will you be doing, may I ask?"

A slow, devious smile flitted across Tess' face. "He was so smashed last night when he came in, I think it might be the perfect time for a little unplanned pregnancy…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~
Liz rubbed her arms to chase away the chill in the cool sterile air around her. Shaking her head slightly as she gazed out the window Liz knew it was more than the temperature of the room that was causing goosebumps to appear on her arms right now. It actually had more to do with the terrified silence that hung on the line just before Max's whispered, "I'm on my way" and the dial tone that greeted her hearing.

Closing her eyes, Liz tried to block out the image of pain in Max's eyes the night before while at his grandfather's grave. If anything happened to Grams because of her…

Liz fought back that thought along with the tears that once more threatened to spill down her cheeks. Trying to reconstruct what exactly did happen was difficult since it all happened so fast and so unexpectedly. But try to reconstruct she did because Max would want answers when they were finally face to face...

The knock at the door had awakened Liz from an uneasy sleep. She'd stumbled to the front door with one eye open and a hand running through her hair to try to smooth it down. Hair and everything else was forgotten when she saw the visitor waiting for her on the other side of the door. "Grams?"

Grams looked around her furtively then leaned forward whispering as if afraid someone may hear. "Liz, dear, may I come in? It's a rather important matter…"

Liz stepped aside and waved the elderly lady in. "Of course, you may. Come in. Can I get you anything?"

Grams stepped into Liz's home and looked around as a small smile touched her lips. She shook her head to Liz's question and reached up to remove the delicate hat from her graying head. "No thank you, dear. I do so love what you've done with the place."

Liz blinked at Grams' sudden change of attitude. Only seconds earlier she'd seemed on edge, almost frightened even. Now, she was beginning her conversation as if her visits were a weekly occurrence for high tea at noon and she had just now noticed a recently changed decorating style. "Uh…well, thank you." Liz stated a little uncertainly before motioning for Grams to take a seat on the couch. "Please, have a seat."

Grams turned and daintily eased herself down onto the couch meeting Liz's eyes with a smile. Liz took her place on the chair opposite and smiled back at her, feeling a little more at ease than she had when she first saw the older woman at her door. "So, what can I do for you?"

Grams looked away for a moment taking time to collect her words…or her courage. Liz couldn't quite tell which. Finally, she pulled something out from her purse and gazed at it lovingly before handing it to Liz with a sigh. "I wanted you to meet him."

Liz took the object Grams handed her, her eyes widening with interest and surprise. Glancing back up at Grams, Liz stated the obvious with a slight smile hovering over her lips. Not only did she recognize the man though she'd never seen him, but she recognized something else…a hint of herself in the woman. "This is you and your husband. The Gramps that Max loves so much."

Liz smiled down at the picture as a new wave of familiarity washed over her unexpectedly. "You both look so very happy. It's plain to see how very much in love you were."

"Oh, we were. Our love was one thing we could never hide or deny…even when we tried." Grams sighed. "People said they could hear the music of our love from miles away. That it lit up the room whenever we were together. That's how clear and true it was."

Grams' smile widened and her voice became dreamy. "That picture of me and my Maxwell was taken on our wedding day. What a beautiful day that was. The birds were chirping the melody to our dance from the trees. The sun was wrapping its warmth around us from the brilliant blue sky. The flowers opened to smile upon us and the breeze had the whisper of forever as it gently swirled around us. It was as if the universe itself approved of our love." Grams brought her gaze back to Liz's face. "Have you had days like that? Days that agree so completely with your soul that you just know nothing will ever compare?"

"Yeah." Liz whispered as her eyes took on a distant look. "Yeah, I have…"

Grams continued as if she hadn't heard though her eyes sparkled with secret knowledge. "And then years go by. And something unexpectedly does. For me, it was the night Max was born." Grams leaned her tired back against the fluffy couch cushions as if settling in for a long chat her voice echoing the experienced years of a storyteller. "There was a fierce storm brewing outside that night. The lightening was flashing and the rain was pouring down. And the wind…it whipped and howled viciously destroying so many things in its path. Uprooting baby trees. And it was cold. Bitterly cold. Suffice it to say, it was not the most pleasant welcome into this world of ours."

"And little Max must have felt it for we almost lost him. Diane had a very difficult delivery and once he was born there were several hours when we didn't know if he was going to live or die. The doctors put him in one of those incubator boxes and had him hooked up to all kinds of machines with tubes and needles. He fought for every little breath he took."

Grams looked down at her hands, which were neatly folded in her lap and let out a sigh. One hand began to softly caress the other as her memories transported her to the past. "I remember standing at the window staring out at the storm praying we our family wouldn't face the sorrow of losing him when my precious Maxwell came to me and took my hand in his. He pulled me close and whispered the thing I needed to hear the most. 'Lily…'"

Grams glanced up at Liz with a faint smile as her hand came to rest on her string of pearls hanging daintily from her neck. "Before I was Grams, I was a Lily, you see." Her gaze dropped once more as she continued her story, her fingers gliding effortlessly over the beads of her necklace. "Lily, through the years we've seen our share of storms. And we've weathered each one. With strength, wisdom and love…just as he will. He is an Evans through and through. A fighter and a survivor. Why, just now…I saw his eyes open and I swear to ya, Lily…he looked right at me. It was as if he were trying to tell me something. That he's going to make it. That he's going to live to see the sun rise. Not just one, but many. Years of sunrises await that boy. And he'll make each one shine better than the last. Mark my words, Lily…he'll be the best one of us all…'"

Grams let out another sigh as her dark eyes raised to meet Liz's. "And my Maxwell was right. Max completed our family in ways I never dreamed were possible. He was our bundle of hope. Whenever something bad happened, it was Max who would be our shining light of possibilities. The one who would climb into our laps and hold our hands before telling us that everything was going to be alright. He had the uncanny ability to see light in the darkest tunnels. Max filled empty holes in our hearts that we never knew existed until he came into our lives."

She nodded toward the picture in Liz's hands once more. "That's how I felt about Maxwell. He completed me. He made it possible to know love in its purest form. He was the one truth I always knew. That I could believe in. That's why I wanted you to see it. So you can see what can be yours. And what you'll be missing if you let him go…"

Liz blinked in uncertainty at the elderly woman's cryptic words. Just what exactly was a picture of Gramps and Grams supposed to show her… Liz glanced back down at the picture and her breath caught in her throat. She swallowed hard. The way they were holding on to each other. The way Maxwell was looking at Grams… The picture of Max and Liz from the magazine flashed before her eyes and she closed them instantly hoping the image would fade.

It didn't. And suddenly, Liz felt an ambush coming.

Her eyes snapped to Grams' kindly, old face. "Uh…Grams, you know, I don't think…"

"They say a picture's worth a thousand words…" Grams seemed lost in thought and interrupted the beginning of Liz's protest without a hint of awareness that she was doing it. "My Maxwell was so very handsome, wasn't he? With his eyes shining bright with intensity. And that shadow of a smile on his lips. So very much like your Max, don't you think?"

"*My*…?" And now the attack had begun. Preparing for another battle, Liz stiffened in her seat and her eyes that had been bright with tears in response to Grams' story of Max's birth, now took on a wariness that hadn't been there before. "Look, Grams. I don't know what Max has or hasn't told you, but I really think you have it all wrong. Max…is not mine. And I’m not his. There is absolutely nothing going on between us..."

"She never deserved him, you know." Grams' gaze drifted to beyond Liz, beyond this world into another as she completely ignored Liz's protest. "She loved him, but not enough. Not enough to put him first. Not enough to really know him."

Liz's attention was immediately captured as a sharp pang of unexpected jealousy shot through her heart. "She?" Her lashes fluttered as her eyes blinked rapidly as her mouth utter the question her heart knew would get her in trouble. The more she knew, the more she'd care. It was instinctive. "She…who?"

"Gabrielle." Grams answered softly. "His heart is strong, but she nearly broke him. The hope he consistently held out to us…disappeared. That confidence in dreams and possibilities…" Grams' eyes clouded with sadness. "Where once Max filled the empty holes in our hearts…now his heart is just as empty. Even more."

"He…he must have…" Liz swallowed the lump in her throat that the words in her head had caused. For some reason, Liz found it suddenly very hard to breathe. "…really loved her then."

Grams' eyes snapped to Liz's face. "He loved the idea of her. As I said…love gets to know someone. Inside and out. Love is trust. Love becomes a shelter when the wind is blowing and the rain is pouring down. It means wrapping your arms around them when they've fallen and helping them to stand again. Love takes the tears and finds a way to turn them into smiles again."

Grams shook her graying head as her eyes lowered. "Max and Gabrielle only saw the sunshine. They only knew days of beauty with bright suns and warm breezes. The moment the sky darkened and rain threatened to fall, Gabrielle ran for cover and left Max to…" Grams swallowed sudden tears that sprang to her eyes. "…left Max to shoulder the brunt of the storm. Alone."

Grams leaned forward and took Liz's hands in hers, hope and determination dancing in her dark eyes. "Just like my Maxwell predicted, your Max is a survivor…a fighter. And the battles he's faced recently have been the hardest of his life. But he's lost his wisdom, Liz. He's lost his strength…his very will to fight. He's wounded and bleeding and he needs someone to heal him. He needs someone to show him how to love again. Please don't run away from him just because you think the sun is beginning to peek out from behind the clouds. He still needs you…"

"Grams, please. You don’t understand." Liz averted her eyes and pulled away from beneath the warmth of Grams' wrinkled hands. "I…I can't…" She pushed her hair back behind her ear nervously. "Believe me, I'm…I'm flattered that you think I can help Max. But…I can't. I…I can't…feel for him…what you want me to feel…"

Grams frowned at Liz's words then pulled out a second picture from her purse turning it to show Liz. One that had Liz had seen several times over the past hours. One that wouldn't leave her mind. Just like the memory of the kisses shared had haunted her dreams. Grams handed it to her and pointed with a slender, wrinkled finger. "Then what is the meaning of this?"

Liz sighed and looked down at the picture then back up at Grams uncertainty ringing in her voice as she tried to speak with determination. "It's a mistake. A big, big mistake. That's all."

"Love is never a mistake, my dear." Grams responded with a slight smile. "Especially not one as true and yours and Max's."

"Love?" Liz asked incredulously as she stood up in sudden agitation and handed the photos back to her. "Look, Grams. I know you mean well…at least I think you do…but I am certainly not in love with your grandson. I can barely stand him, in fact." Liz added the lie with conviction in her voice, but her eyes betrayed her.

"Is that why you're so afraid of seeing him again? Why you're terrified to look in his eyes?" Grams held Liz's eyes a moment as an uneasy silence hung in the room.
Click.

The padding of little feet grabbed Liz's attention and her eyes gratefully shifted to Brett's sleepy face as he entered the room from the hallway. He held his arms out to her though his eyes were fixed on the stranger on the couch. Grams turned to see him and her face broke into a wide smile. "Oh, what a darling. How very beautiful. What a lovely addition to our family you'll be. I always thought Max would make a wonderful father…"

At the sound of Max's name, Brett's little hands clapped together. "Yeah! Max!" His big blue eyes turned to meet Liz's shocked dark ones and his long lashes batted adorably. "Mama…Max catch! Play cookie!"

Liz's eyes narrowed in frustration as she looked from Brett in her arms to Grams. She was surrounded. Completely, inescapably surrounded by Max lovers when she was trying to desperately hard not to fall into the same trap. Her voice tensed involuntarily and her stance stiffened noticeably. "I know what you're trying to do…and its not going to work. Max…a father? Please. I'll admit he's good with the kids, but they certainly won't be an addition to your family. They aren't even mine! I mean, I can't…you can't just think that…"

Grams stood, her eyes beginning to dance with earnestness. "He needs your love, dear. Please don’t deny him the chance at his once in a lifetime. His destiny. Don't deny yourself the same chance to have the greatest love you'll ever know…"

At Grams' words, something in Liz snapped. Her eyes flashed with sudden fire and her lips set in a grim line as her voice turned hard. "How dare you? How dare you walk into my home and start telling me about love and what I do and don't feel for Max? You don't have the first clue about me or...or anything for that matter."

Shaking her head in disbelief, Liz let out a mocking laugh as tears sprang to her eyes unbidden and accusations even she didn't believe began to spew forth. "Now, I see where Max gets it. That overwhelming need to control the lives of others around him. Like he knows what's best for me and everyone else but he doesn't even know how to fix his own problems!"

"So, what is this really all about? What did he do? Send you here? Is that what he did? Thinks I won't be able to resist him if he sends his sweet little grandmother to…to tell me sob stories and…and plead his case?" Taking a step closer, Liz hiked Brett higher up on her hip her whole body was shaking with pure, unadulterated fear. "Well, you go back home and tell that grandson of yours something for me. Whatever happened between us…or…or what he thinks happened…it's over. I don't want him coming around here. Or trying to contact me. Or sending anyone else to do his dirty work every again! Oh. And just so there are no misinterpretations…I have already had the love of my life…and it wasn't Max. And it never will be."

Liz stepped to the door and opened it before turning to glare at Grams before her gaze dropped uncomfortably to the floor when she saw the haunted look of disappointment and pain pass through Lily Evans' eyes. "I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to ask you to leave now. And please don't come back. Any of you. Your attempt was valiant, Mrs. Evans. But in the end…you failed…"


Liz closed her eyes in pain and regret at the words she'd carelessly cast out to the elderly woman. The words that were born out of fear. Fear of the truth. Fear of the changes she saw looming on the horizon if she didn't slam the door, close all the shutters and lock herself deep inside a prison of memories. Words she had no idea would cause such a reaction. For right after she spoke them, Grams gripped her chest, stumbled and collapsed into a dead faint on her couch.

"Liz! Liz!" Max's frantic voice pulled Liz into the present and she spun around to see him rushing through the doors toward her. His handsome face was contorted with concern and his eyes were wide with fear. Click. When he reached her he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into a crushing hug and she hung onto him just as tightly knowing what they both needed most in this moment was the comfort of each others' arms. She savored the warmth of his embrace suddenly feeling whole again. Complete. Filled with a new sense of hope.

Max held her for only a moment before pulling back but not letting go. "Where is she…how is she? What…what happened?"

At his last question, Liz's eyes began to tear up. "Oh, Max. I'm so…so sorry. I…I never meant…"

"Sweetie, what is it?" Max asked as his concern level had now risen to near panic when he saw her tears. Click. He brushed her hair back from her face before tilting her chin upwards so her eyes were looking into his. "It's ok. You can tell me, Liz. Tell me what happened. We'll handle it together."

Click. Liz shook her head slowly and reached up to touch the smooth lines of his face before letting her hand drop with a light thud onto his chest, right above his heart. His strong, beautiful heart. With its steady, confident beat. Tears trickled from Liz's eyes as she raised her gaze from her hand to meet those amazing eyes of his. Her heart suddenly constricted in her chest and a sob escaped her at the knowledge that her explanation just might very well mean that she would never see his face again. Or look into those eyes that spoke so much. Or hear his voice whisper her name.

And now, standing here before him after having walked away the night before, after having spent a sleepless night trying to deny that she felt anything for the man brushing his fingers softly through her hair, Liz Parker suddenly realized how tragic loosing Max Evans would be. Liz felt her heart break deep inside and did the only thing she could. Click.

She threw herself back into Max's arms and held on for dear life. "It's…it's all my fault, Max. If she dies…" A sob caught in her throat as her tears wet Max's shirt. "…if she dies…it will all be because of me…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
El had followed Max at a safe distance. Although, truth be known, Max wouldn't have noticed he was being followed because of his increasing state of panic and concern. The only thing that seemed to matter to him was reaching the side of the beautiful brunette and soothing her tears.

And now that he was, El got his first glimpse of the woman Tess Harding was so concerned about. From a safe distance, hidden by the partitions of a phone booth, his blue eyes widened and he ran a shaky hand through his curly blonde hair. He let out a ragged sigh when Max pulled away from their embrace and shifted to the side giving El a perfect view of Tess' competition…the very image of his own razor-sharp memories.

Once he reported his findings, Tess Harding wouldn't only be concerned, she'd be terrified of losing Max Evans. And for good reason. Liz Parker was a gem among women. Mitchell 'El' Elliott should know. Liz Parker…was raising his children.

tbc…
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 20 ~

"Is he here yet?" The wavering voice came from the direction of the large, white bed and bounced off the sparse, sterile walls.

The girl's bright red hair bobbed against her pink and white candy-striper uniform in answer as she stared out the room's inner window to the waiting room down and across the hall. "At least there's a man out here that looks like you described. Dark hair. Nice build. Amazing eyes. Wow. He's a real hottie."

Grams smiled proudly from her prone position on the bed. "That's him." She pushed the button on her call box hanging from the rail on her bed and raised the bed's head to a slant. "Tell me, dear. What is he doing?"

The girl shifted positions to look out the window. "Well, he's with a woman. Dark hair. Really pretty."

"Yes? And what are they doing?" Grams couldn't keep the excitement out of her voice.

"They're hugging each other."

A wide smile graced the old woman's weathered face. "And…"

The candy stripper moved to get a better view before reporting her findings. "And…now their talking…"

"Yes? And how do they seem?"

"Well, he just reached up and…awww…."

Grams' head whipped to the side. "What? What's happening?"

The candy stripper turned to Grams with a dreamy sigh. "He just wiped her tears away."

Grams let out a sigh as she fully reclined against her fluffy pillows. A bright smile curved her lips upward as her dark eyes began to twinkle with triumph. "I knew it. I knew all they needed was just a little push." Her fingers wrapped around an old locket that lay dormant in the palm of her wrinkled hand. "Don't worry, Maxwell. He'll be happy yet…"

Turning back to the girl, Grams continued in a heated whisper. "So? Tell me what's going on now?"

"Well…she just reached up and caressed his face then…." A light gasp followed and Grams sat up straighter.

"What? What happened? What's going on?" Grams tossed the blankets surrounding her to the side and slipped her feet from the bed to the floor.

"They're hugging each other again. Actually, clinging to each other is more like it. He's….awww, this is so sweet. He's running his hands through her hair and now…" Another dreamy sigh filled the room. "…he cupped her face in his hands and just leaned down and touched his forehead to hers. Now he's…he's wiping her tears again and they're staring into each others' eyes…"

Sniffing back an unexpected tear, the girl's bright eyes remain glued on the couple comforting each other in the hospital waiting room. "Wow. This is way better than a fairy tale…"

"Yeah, way better. That, my dear, is real …" Grams' softened voice sounded low in the girl's ear as Grams peeked over her shoulder, her eyes softening with happiness as they rested lovingly on the product of her most recent scheme.
~~~~~~~~~~~~
Click. She couldn't form a word. Or a thought. Even a blink of her eyes was too much effort against the magic of Max's gentle touch. The tender connection of skin against skin and heart against heart brightened Liz's eyes with dazed wonder. How could something so simple as his fingers slipping through her hair bring such refreshing comfort? Or the feel of his sigh against her skin give her the strength to take another breath? Or the weight of his adoring gaze lift the burden of guilt and fear?

Was it possible Max Evans really could be her shining light of possibilities? Her flicker of hope urging her to begin a journey through a long, dark tunnel of buried dreams?

Click. Max was lost. Disoriented. He felt as if he’d been whipped around in so many directions over the past few days that he simply didn’t know which way was home. Every emotion he could feel now…had ever felt in the past…had descended upon him like a storm last night leaving him bereft and torn. Weary and hopeless...and alone. And now…faced with this crisis, ironically, his loneliness seemed to disappear. In its place was a sense of strength. A lifting of a burden too heavy for one person to carry. All was calm. All was quiet.

Except the pounding of his heart as he stared into Liz’s luminous eyes. How was it she could make him feel things he’d only dreamed of before? How was she able to stop the sting in the back of his eyes from advancing into full-blown tears by just touching his face? Or make everything that had gone wrong turn right again without one single word being spoken?

Liz Parker made perfect seem…possible.

But not probable. At least not at this moment. Because things weren't perfect. They were standing in a hospital where Grams had been admitted for only God knew what and Liz was obviously feeling responsible. Max forced himself to concentrate on the situation that brought Liz and he back together instead of the amazing fact that they were once more face to face after the events of the previous night. He needed to find out what happened…

Running his hands down to Liz's shoulders, Max pulled away slightly and nodded toward the waiting room couch. "Why don't we sit?"

Liz nodded as one last sniffle sounded when Max wrapped his arm around her shoulder and helped her into a seat before sinking down next to her. Taking her hand in one of his, Max tucked a strand of hair behind Liz's ear before his soft voice asked the question Liz had been dreading since calling him earlier. "Do you think you can tell me what happened now?"

Liz took a shaky breath and glanced up into Max's compassionate eyes as a calm seemed to blanket her. "Grams…came to my place this morning…"

"She what? She went to your place? But…but why would she do that?" The completely confused look that passed over Max's expression made the words of accusation Liz had carelessly flung at Grams stab her even deeper than before. She'd been wrong. Max hadn't sent Grams to her to convince her to talk to him. He didn't even have a clue…

"She…" Liz pulled her hands from Max's grip and buried her face with a groan. "Oh, God, Max…I've been so stupid."

Max reached up and pulled Liz's hands away from her face and forced her to look at him. "Look, Liz, you may be confusing the hell out of me right now, but you are not stupid, ok? That is one thing that I'd stake my life on. Now tell me what Grams was doing at your place."

Liz took a deep breath before her words came out in a tumble. "She came to convince me to be with you."

"She what?!" The intensity of Max's voice caused a few people to stop in their tracks and toss him curious looks.

“She had a picture of her and Gramps. And…and she kept talking about how much they loved each other…and about how you were born with the storm and how love is a shelter and…and …” Tears brightened Liz’s eyes once more as her hands abandoned Max’s to gently capture his face, her doe eyes turning on him with awe as the truth of Grams words were haunting Max’s eyes. Click. Her question was abrupt and probing. “…you really have lost the will to fight, haven’t you?”

Max swallowed hard and his gaze faltered before his eyes closed when he felt Liz’s hands against his skin. “She was right, wasn’t she, Max? Grams was right…you need…” Liz swallowed the word ‘me’ and allowed her hands to slide down from Max’s face as silence filled the space between them when a new realization hit her. Click. Isabel had been right too…Max Evans was hurting in part because of her…

She could see it in his eyes. The way he’d looked her. With a hint of fear dropped in a well of admiration. Then the way he closed his amazing eyes when she touched him, with a mixture of longing and pain etched in the perfect features of his face. Willing her to keep contact…afraid to hope that she would. Reveling in the fact that she did…

That’s why Liz let go. She had to. She couldn’t let these feelings that had begun to sprout up from the deep soil of shattered dreams to confuse the situation. To make more of it than it was…two people leaning on each other in a moment of crisis. Two people who would inevitably say good-bye when the emergency had passed…

Pushing aside the electric sparks Liz’s touch sent shooting through his body. Denying the truth he’d seen in her eyes. Plugging the spring of hope that began to seep through Max’s heart. Those seemed to be the immediate goals of Max’s thoughts as he forced himself to focus on the crisis at hand instead of the perpetual feeling of frustration that came with forever surrendering to the idea of utter hopelessness.

Max felt the absence of her touch before her fingers grazed his skin in retreat. It had been a moment. A spark of what could be. A hint of what he was missing. And he felt it disappear with a silent closing of her heart’s door. Click.

Swallowing hard, Max attempted the impossible…to look into Liz Parker’s eyes and not be drawn into their fathomless depths of warmth as he abruptly ignored her questions in an effort to pull them both onto safer ground. "God, Liz, I can only imagine what you’re thinking. I swear to you I have no idea what Grams said but I didn’t send her…"

It was Liz's turn to take Max's hands in hers and despite the warning bells going off in her mind, she did it instinctively. "I know that ok? At least now I do. I didn't earlier. And…and I…" Liz's gaze faltered. "…I said things. Bad things…mean…things." Liz glanced back up at Max. "I…I practically ordered her out of the apartment and then I told her to never come back. That’s when she collapsed. I swear, Max, I'm not usually like this. So…mean and hateful, but lately I've just…"

Max fought the grin that was tugging at the corners of his mouth. "…borrowed a certain jackass costume of mine?”

Liz chuckled through her tears and nodded her head at Max as her hands tightened around his bringing a seriousness to her expression. “Max, I’m so sorry. I never intended…”

“I know that.” Max interrupted as gave Liz a warm smile of understanding. Click. Pulling his gaze from her beautiful face, Max began searching through the many white-coated personnel milling about. “Do we know who’s handling the case?”

“Um, yeah. It’s a doctor Morris. They really wouldn’t give me any more information since I’m not family…”

“Damn hospital regulations…” Max mumbled under his breath before grabbing her hand in his. “Let’s go find out together what’s going on…”

As Max and Liz approached the desk a middle-aged man with a stethoscope wrapped around his neck walked from the emergency room door and addressed the nearest nurse. “Is there anyone here for Mrs. Evans?”

“Excuse me.” Max stepped up to the man with Liz by his side. “Are you Dr. Morris? I couldn’t help but overhear you ask about Lily Evans. I'm her grandson, Max." Max stated as he held out his hand to Dr. Morris. "How is she? What's happened?"

The doctor shook hands with Max then glanced at the woman hanging tightly onto Max's arm with one hand and capturing his other hand in hers for support. Click. He nodded his acknowledgement. "Mrs. Evans…"

"Oh. I'm not…" Liz started the stopped when Max jumped in.

"This is a friend of mine. Liz Parker." Max stated curtly as a form of introduction before wrapped his hand around the one Liz had anchored to his arm and turned to address his main concern. "Dr. Morris, what's going on with my grandmother?"

The doctor's eyebrow raised as he glanced back down at the chart before him. "At this point, Mr. Evans, I'm not really sure. We've run several tests and they’re all coming back negative. I'm afraid I don't have much to tell you now except that we will be running more tests and that your grandmother is resting peacefully now."

"When can we see her?" Max asked as he felt Liz's hand tighten on his arm and unconsciously patted her hand in reassurance.

Dr. Morris glanced at Liz then back at Max. "I'm sorry, but right now, it's family only."

"Liz is family." Max stated with unequivocal determination after glance at her. Click. He told himself that he’d said it because of the disappointment he saw cloud Liz’s eyes, but the reality was he really needed the warmth of her hand in his when he went into this unknown territory of seeing his grandmother weak and bed-ridden. Too many memories of hospitals and death surrounded him…. "If I go, she goes…"

"Max, no." Liz tilted her face upward to look in Max's eyes turning him toward her with a slight shake of her head. "It's probably best that I don't because I'm the one that upset her in the first place."

"Liz, I told you this isn't your fault."

"I know, but still. She probably needs to see you more than me right now." Her gaze turned pleadingly upward. "Please, Max. Go on. I'll just...I'll just go to the restroom and freshen up a bit. I'm sure I look like a wreck…"

Click. Max's eyes warmed as they roamed her face in the gentlest of caresses and it took everything in his power not to tell her she never looked more beautiful to a man who never thought he’d ever see her face again. He opened his mouth to say something but stopped himself, clamping his mouth shut instead. With a curt nod, Max’s agreement to her plan was complete but when Liz began to take a step back, Max stopped her with a pleading look and a tight grasp on her hand. Click.

Reading the sudden questions and uncertainty in Max’s eyes, Liz smiled up at him, her eyes softening in understanding as her hand reached to cover his with a gentle caress. “It’ll be ok, Max. You know what she told me today? She said you were a survivor…a fighter. From what I’ve seen of your family…I can tell you exactly where you got that from…” Click. Liz reached up and touched Max’s face once more as she saw the doubt in his eyes lift but not disappear. “But just in case you need me…I’m here, ok? I’ll be…right…here. All you have to do is call. I’m not going anywhere…”

Max let out a sigh as a smile of gratitude covered his lips and reached his eyes making them lighten from the darkness of gloom to the golden hues of hope. “Thank you…for everything…”

Click. With one tender squeeze of her hand and a light brush of his lips against her cheek, Max followed the doctor through the doors with one final glance back Liz, unable to stop the swell of music that suddenly whispered its way into his heart without warning or fanfare. Gentle as the breeze. Warm as the sun. As sure as the steel of determination that flashed in his eyes.

Max Evans had just been sheltered in the midst of a storm. For the first time in his life he really knew what that felt like. And he’d be damned if he’d let that feeling go without a fight…
~~
Liz waited till she could see Max turn the corner before turning around to search for the restroom and found herself face to face with a ghost from her recent past instead. “Mitch! God, you scared me. What…” Liz glanced around her as confusion furrowed her brow. “…what are you doing here?”

Mitch Elliott took Liz gently by the arm. “We need to talk. And we need to talk now.”

A look of worry passed through Liz’s eyes. “What is it? Is it something with the kids…”

“No, no. Nothing like that.” Mitch let out a sigh. “It’s just…you’ve got to stay away from him, Liz.”

“Him? Him, who?” Liz pulled her arm from Mitch’s grasp and took a step back, eyeing him carefully. “Mitch, have you been drinking again?”

“No! I swear, Liz…I’ve been clean for months now. It’s not…” Mitch ran a hand of frustration through his blonde curls. “Look, I don’t want to see you hurt. He’s trouble, Liz. Max Evans is the kind of trouble you can’t afford.”

Liz stiffened and her chin raised in defiance as she began to sidestep Mitch. “That’s for me to decide…”

Grabbing her arm, Mitch hauled Liz up close to him, crystal blue eyes flashing with intensity, his voice low with warning. “I mean it, Liz. Don’t mess with this fire. You will get burned and when you do…” Blinking suddenly at the wince on Liz’s face, Mitch loosened his grip on her arm when he realized how tightly he’d been holding on to her. “Please, Liz. Leave now. Walk away…do it before he has a chance to stop you.”

“But…why? Mitch you’re not making any sense…” Liz’s voice shook with a hint of fear and her eyes widened at Mitch’s bombshell of an answer.

“Dammit, Liz! Just do it! Please. If you don’t…if you don’t, it could mean the difference between life…and death…”

tbc…



posted on 8-Dec-2002 7:48:23 PM by Ashton
~ chapter 21 ~


Her voice was incredulous.

"Life or death?" Liz backed away from Mitch a step as a sense of foreboding settled in the air around her. Trying her best to still the thumping of her heart, Liz sought to cast blame in a direction altogether different than the truth. "Ok. That's it. You've definitely been drinking again and I really don't think this is something we should…"

Mitch took a step toward her. "Liz, I mean it. That family is cursed or something. Get involved with Max and you could very well end up like…"

A flash of realization hit Liz and her breath froze in her chest as her hands flew to her mouth. "Oh my God."

Mitch let his warning dangle in the air between them and watched Liz carefully, knowing she was beginning to put two and two together. The look in her eyes told him the truth of his words was hitting her…hard. He never dreamed she'd take his news so personally. It made him wonder just how long she'd known Max Evans. And just how close they really were.

Liz slowly sidestepped Mitch and sank down into the nearest hospital lounge as thoughts raced through her head. Did Max know? Did he even suspect? She was certain he didn't. There would have been more determination to investigate. More venom launched on the unknown people that had done this horrible thing. And what about Grams? Was it possible she knew deep down inside? How could she not? By all accounts, they had seemed to be sewn together at the heart. Wouldn't she, of all people, be able to sense the possibility?

Through her unseeing gaze, Mitch could tell Liz knew. He tentatively walked to her and cautiously sat next to her, taking her hand in his. After a moment, he began to speak. "Look, I don't know what's really going on between the two of you, but you seem…connected. I know how hard it was for you to loose…" Mitch looked away at the flash of pain that entered her eyes and ran his fingers through his hair. Exhaling loudly, Mitch finished with a meek apology. "I'm…sorry about this, Liz, but its safer for everyone involved if you just walk away now."

Suddenly snapping out of her daze, Liz fixed her penetratingly determined gaze on Mitch's face. "Tell me everything you know."

Mitch blinked and looked back up at her. "What?"

She took a deep breath and demanded his co-operation a second time. "Tell me everything you know about Maxwell Evans’ murder…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~
Max's entry into his grandmother's room was stopped by the sound of Dr. Morris' voice behind him. "Mr. Evans, may I please have just a word with you before you go in? I have a matter I'd like to discuss with you about your grandmother."

Max's hand dropped from the doorknob as Max turned to Dr. Morris with a wary smile before he took a step away from the door. "Of course, doctor. Anything I can do for Grams…"

Dr. Morris' lips pursed in thought as his hazel eyes peered out of horn-rimmed glasses at Max. "I truly hope you mean that, Mr. Evans." He glanced down at the chart in his hands. "I've been going over your grandmother's records and there is one course of treatment that I feel I need to discuss with you…"

“No way.” Mitch shook his head.

“Mitch, please. Tell me what you know.”

Another shake of his head. “Uh-huh. I know you, Liz. And I know that if I tell you this you won’t let it go.”

“Why should I?” Liz retorted as irritation flashed in her large dark eyes. “If a man was murdered, then something should be done…”

Mitch threw up his hands in protest as he quickly tried to backtrack his way out of telling her what she wanted to know. “Look, I’m not saying for sure that he was. It’s just…” He let out a deep sigh as he met her gaze. “Being a private eye means that you hear things. Things that don’t always pan out to be the truth. You’re life with Ethan, not to mention your father, should have taught you that.”

Liz’s eyes clouded with pain then cleared with determination. “Yes, it did. But it also taught me that P.I.’s and reporters have gut instincts. And if the P.I.s and reporters are as good at what they do as you are and Ethan was then those gut instincts are usually right. Now, obviously something you know feels ‘right’ enough to you for you to be concerned about me. So, what if what you’ve heard is the truth, Mitch?” Liz leaned forward and grabbed his hand in hers. “Shouldn’t his family be allowed their justice?”

“No.” Mitch shook his head emphatically. “Not if it means getting you involved.”

“I’m already involved.”

The statement was direct and honest. So honest, in fact, that it even shocked Liz. Her gaze wavered when Mitch’s penetrating blue eyes locked on her face. “Just…how…involved are we talking here?”

Liz swallowed hard and pushed the hair back from her face in a nervous gesture. Good question. And Liz Parker had absolutely no answer for him. Maybe because ‘involved’ was the wrong word. Is it really possible to be involved with a whirlwind? Or are you simply caught up in one? That’s exactly how Liz had been feeling the past few days.

Caught up.

Snagged by a tempest of emotions.

A storm of pain and fear and guilt had been brewing all around her as she stood still in one singular moment and just…felt. Everything she’d forgotten to feel. And things she’d never known she could. Then in the next moment, she launched herself into the reckless whirl of action. Not caring about the consequences. Just being…alive. And breathing as if for the very first time.

Liz’s silence confirmed Mitch’s deepest fear. She really cared for this…Max. Deeply. Perhaps more than she even realized. Tess’ instructions came crashing down on Mitch’s mind. He swallowed the bile that lodged in his throat at the very idea of being the one to end whatever kind of happiness Liz might be able to find after all the hell she’d already lived through. “Liz? Are you…having an affair?”

Liz’s head shot up. “God, no!” She blinked rapidly and bit her lower lip. “He’s…he’s engaged, Mitch! Do you…honestly think I could do something like that especially after…”

Mitch passed his hands over his eyes and dropped his head. “Of course. God, Liz, I’m sorry. I forgot about your father.”

Releasing a shaky breath, her hands bunched in her lap, Liz tried her best to put her feelings into words, though even she knew it would be impossible to capture what Max Evans had made her feel with mere words. “I…I don’t know what it is, Mitch. You…were right earlier. When you said we were…connected. And I don’t…know what it means or…or even where its leading. I just know that I have this need inside of me. A need to be there for him.”

She rose to her feet and moved silently to the window nearby. As she gazed out at the people coming and going, the flowers beginning to reach their petals up toward the sun, Liz continued softly, reverently. “In being there for him, I feel like I’m being there for Ethan. In those moments of terror right before that plane went down…” A tiny tear slipped out of Liz’s eye to slide down her face. “…no one was there for him to hold on to.”

“Brina was there.” Mitch’s voice was low and soft in Liz’s ear as he came and stood next to her.

“It should have been me.” Liz turned and raised pleading eyes to Mitch. “It can be me…now. For Max.”

Understanding the double meaning of her words more than he’d care to admit, Mitch nodded and gently grabbed her hand. “Let’s go to the cafeteria. It’s not much, but I’ll tell you everything I know.”
~~~~
“Grams…" Max's soft voice filled his grandmother's hospital room five minutes later.

Standing by the door, Max's unsure gaze swept over the stark white room before settling on his Grandmother's wrinkled face. She looked so old lying there in bed, surrounded by nothing but pillows and blankets and monitors that beeped the steady rhythm of her heart. Max's mind flew to the conversation the doctor had tried to have with him. Denying permission for an emotional and mental evaluation for Grams was definitely the right thing to do.

Ridiculous. To think she was senile. To think she was incapable of knowing her own mind. Sure she had her lapses in memory and there were times he felt as if she’d completely left this world to join his grandfather somewhere in their past or…somewhere in the future, but that didn’t make her crazy. It didn’t make her any less his grandmother.

And it didn’t make their problems go away…

“Max?” Grams’ soft call pulled Max’s gaze to her alert eyes and Max couldn’t help but smile at her outstretched hand.

Heading to the side of the bed, he took her hand and squeezed it gently before leaning forward he placed a kiss on her cheek. “I’m so glad you’re ok.”

Grams placed a worn hand against his cheek, her eyes dancing with secret delight. “I did it for you…”

“I know.” The sad smile that drifted over his lips made it to his eyes. “And because you did…” Max let out a defeated sigh and sat down in the chair next to Grams’ bedside. “Grams. We have some serious decisions to make…”

Tbc…
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 22 ~

Grams’ smile deepened unexpectedly as she patted Max’s hand. “I know you'll want to keep things on an honest note with Liz, but my suggestion is that we don't tell her the truth about this just yet…"

"What? How can you think I won't tell…" Waving his hands in the air as if to clear the subject, Max rolled his eyes. "…no, wait. Grams, that's not what I was talking about." Suddenly, Max's back straightened warily and his eyebrow raised in question as he watched Grams' eyes twinkle mischievously. "Wait. *Why* don't you think we should tell Liz the truth about this?"

Grams shrugged. "Might push her away is my guess. If she thinks we're in cahoots together or something. We don't want to do that now, do we?" Winking at Max, Grams plastered a knowing smile on her face.

Exhaling loudly, Max's lips tightened into a thin line as he silently cursed himself for falling for her games. "Grams. There are more important things to worry about here than your failed attempt at matchmaking, ok?"

"I don't think so."

"Oh, you don't?" Max ran his hand through his hair ruffling it even more than it had been, his voice hardening in seriousness as if he were speaking to a child that was getting ready to be punished. "Well, I do…"

"No. I don't think it was a failed attempt." Grams countered cheerily as her frail hands smoothed her blanket out.

"Grams. Can we forget Liz for a moment here?"

"I don't know." Grams countered easily with a teasing smile. "Can *you*?"

Max let out a frustrated groan and slumped back in his seat, his head bent in a futile attempt to regain what little control he'd had over the conversation up to this point. "Grams…"

Grams tilted her head to the side as she watched Max struggle with their current situation. Deciding to end his misery, she let out a sigh as calmness seemed to drape itself around her. "They want to throw me in the loony bin, don’t they?”

Max's head snapped up. “How did you…”

“Did you really think I didn’t know the risk before I took the leap?” Grams asked quietly, her eyes shining with a wisdom built deep and strong over the years. "Don't worry, luv. They'll never prove I'm crazy enough."

“Why did you do it?” Max’s voice was suddenly serious and quiet after a moment of silence. He swallowed the lump that rose in his throat. “Why did you pretend to have a heart attack? You scared Liz to death, Grams. And I was beside myself when she called me…”

“Yes, I know. That's exactly why I did it. To scare her.” Grams waited till Max’s gaze met hers. “Enough for her to follow her heart and call you.”

Max’s gaze wavered and a tiny smile touched his lips as hope invaded him at Grams' words. Touched to the core by his grandmother's grand scheme, he allowed himself one brief moment of remembrance. Liz, in his arms, touching his face as if he were the most precious thing in her life. The next instant, logic lassoed his soaring heart and forcefully pulled it back to the ground of reality. His smile disappeared as he began to shake his head in disagreement. “I appreciate the thought, Grams, but she called because I’m your grandson. The only one in the family she knows. And even if there was-by some weird twist of fate-another reason, Grams, you shouldn’t have done this. You shouldn’t have…”

“What? Brought you face to face with the only person that can give me back my grandson?”

“Grams…”

Deftly switching gears at the warning tone in Max's voice, Grams asked a question seemingly plucked out of the sky. “What did you do about Tess last night?" At Max’s upraised eyebrow of question, Grams’ inclined her head to the side. “I…paid a little visit to you. That’s how I knew she was waiting for you in her room. So, how did you handle it?”

Max's gaze dropped sheepishly as a blush began to spread over his cheeks. "I…uh…well, I sorta pulled a Gramps."

Grams gasped. "You didn't."

"I did." Nodding his head, Max glanced back up at Grams and held his hands up in protest. "Hey, don't blame me. Your husband is the one that told me it always worked for him. He said the best way to get out of an argument with you was to pretend to be drunk. And believe me, I knew when I walked in that room I was headed for a doozy of an argument that I simply couldn’t deal with last night.”

“So what happened?”

Max shrugged. “I swaggered a little. Slurred my words and said a few incoherent things before I gracefully passed out on the couch snoring very loudly till she got in a huff and crawled back into my bed.”

Grams chuckled. “Well, that’s definitely your Gramps’ handiwork. He never attempted to head to bed in that state though because he knew I’d kick him out.”

“I wouldn’t have tried that even if I hadn’t been pretending.” Max mumbled under his breath. His eyes flickered with an emotion Grams couldn’t quite place as he stared down at his hands. It was a look that sent a thrill through her heart. She instinctively knew, he was ready for 'the talk'.

She folded her frail hands in her lap as her dark eyebrow raised. “And why would that be?”

Blinking back his surprise, Max glanced up and flashed Grams an embarrassed grin. “I…uh, didn’t think you heard that.”

“I may be losing many faculties, luv, but these…” Grams winked at him and pointed to her ears. “…are not one of them.” Grams took a deep breath and continued. "So, did you end up in bed at some point in the night?"

Max shrugged. "Yeah. I kinda rolled off the couch about three this morning. Tried to lay back on the couch but I think I landed wrong or something because I couldn't get comfortable. My back was bothering me too much so I ended up slipping into bed. Must have been what I needed because I fell right back to sleep."

"And Tess?"

"Completely zonked out on the other side of the bed under piles of pillows and blankets. Gramps was a smart man with this rouse of his. I didn't have to mess with her at all last night and with the way things are going today already, I probably won't have to deal with her until this afternoon at the earliest. With any luck, I may not even have to till tonight." Max's voice held a note of victory that Grams' couldn't mistake. It was the sound of a man who had successfully evaded a very painful execution.

Grams paused a moment gauging Max's mildly curious expression at her questions before plunging in. "So, tell me…is that normal nowadays?"

"Is what normal?" Max's brows knit in confusion.

"Not wanting to be intimate with your fiancee'." Grams' prim voice leveled the statement without embarrassment or hesitation.

"W-what?" Max's eyes widened in surprise at his grandmother's boldness.

Grams chuckled and raised her eyes to the ceiling, speaking to an unseen spirit. "Hear that, Maxwell? Straight A student all through school and he doesn't know what I mean." Her eyes returned to the uncertain expression of her grandson as he began to wiggle uncomfortably in his seat, catching him in the act of lowering his gaze from the same direction hers had been pointed in only seconds before. "Sex, dear. I'm talking about…sex."

"I know *what* you meant but, Grams…that's, that's…" Max fought to find the right words but failed.

So Grams helped him. "Personal? None of my business? Something a woman of my age shouldn't know about?"

"Yes! No! I…I mean…I just never thought that you would…I…I mean that's pre-marital…you know, I didn't think that's something you would approve…that you would even know…" Cheeks flaming with embarrassment, Max buried his head in his hands. "God, what am I trying to say?"

Grams began to chuckle as Max continued to stumble over his words. "It's natural, dearie. To feel a bit overwhelmed the first time you realize your sweet, proper Grams not only knows about sex but she talks about it too. Michael felt the same way when we had our talk before he and Maria got married."

Max's head snapped up and a disbelieving, amused grin spread over his face as a finger pointed toward his grandmother. "You. You talked to Michael. About sex. Before he got married."

One single nod of her graying head and the neat folding of her hands in her lap and Grams' confirmation was complete. Max burst into laughter and his eyes began to fill with tears of mirth. Grams quietly watched Max with amusement until he managed to pull himself together and wipe the errant tears from his eyes. Letting out a sigh and shaking his head, Max leaned forward putting his elbows on his knees. "God, I bet he loved that." Still chuckling, Max glanced up at Grams. "Ah, Grams. You never cease to amaze me."

Grams' pert nose turned upward. "A girl's gotta keep some secrets, you know?" She and Max shared a smile before Grams reached out her hand to him. "Come here." Max grabbed her hand and move to carefully sit on the edge of her bed.

Squeezing his hand in one of her wrinkled ones, Grams covered it with her other. "Max, luv, you grew up watching Gramps and I love each other. You saw our friendship. Our magic. Our peace. But you never saw our passion. Not with all of its power and glory. And I'm afraid that because of that, you think a marriage without it is…acceptable. To not even want Tess…"

"I never said I didn’t…" Max swallowed hard, his gaze wavering, unable to even push the lie past his lips. Especially not to Grams. Refusing to meet Grams' gaze, he forced a smile. "Look, Grams. Tess is a very attractive woman…"

"But you don't feel passion for her, Max." Grams stated confidently and softly.

Max bit his lower lip nervously as his voice softened perceptibly. "I've already had passion, Grams." And look where it got us. The thought invaded his mind before he could stop it.

"Yes." Grams agreed then reached out to raise Max's chin till his eyes met hers. "And with it came restlessness and uncertainty. But no peace, Max. You never had peace with her." She shook her head slowly. "Passion and peace aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, they go hand in hand very well."

Grams leaned forward and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper as her dark eyes twinkled with mischief. "I'll let you in on a secret. One that I'm sure your Gramps never told you. Those nights of Gramps playing drunk…you know how they always ended?" A soft smile drifted over Grams' lips and her eyes closed in sweet remembrance. "Not a half an hour after I'd slip into bed, I'd hear him rustling around. Unable to sleep and mad as all get out that I could."

Her sweet voice gentled as her smile broadened. "Then the next thing I would know, he'd be on his knees by my side of the bed. Touching my face. Kissing my hand. Running his fingers through my hair. I could feel his love and passion for me in every gentle caress."

Grams' sigh broke the stillness of the moment and Max blinked back involuntary tears as he watched love etch itself into each wrinkled feature of his grandmother's face. When her eyes opened, they were sparkling with triumph and glazed with memories of a love gone by. "There wasn't a night your Gramps didn't spend by my side, Max. Not because his back hurt. Or because he couldn't get comfortable on the sofa." Grams placed her hand over Max's heart. "Because his heart couldn't rest till I was safely wrapped in his arms. Peace. And passion. Hand in hand."

A tear slipped silently down Max's face and Grams patted Max's hand in response. "Have you felt passion the last few days, luv?”

“Yes.” The word was barely breathed and Max’s eyes began to darken a shade.

“And have you also felt peace?” The question was equally whispered.

A slight nod of Max's head was Grams' answer and she squeezed his hand in hers. "Did they come from the same source?"

Swallowing hard, Max bit his lower lip before responding. "Yes."

Eyes dancing with knowledge, Grams gave Max a half-smile. "Then what are you doing in here with me? I've given you the opportunity…seize it, Max."

"Grams, you don't understand…" Max began in earnest as he shook his head.

"Yes. I do. She has known one kind of love, Max. And she's afraid to let it go in favor of another. That's what's bringing her pain." Shaking her head, Grams leaned back against her pillow with a sigh. "I'm not saying its going to be easy. I'm not saying its even going to work. But you have an opportunity before you. A very rewarding one, despite the risks. Seems to me you have a choice. You can either run in the opposite direction out of fear…or you can take a leap and find out exactly what's waiting for you in Liz Parker's eyes. Which will it be?"

Before Grams even asked the question, Max's heart knew the answer. Had known the answer long before he'd even walked into the hospital room. Flashing Grams a smile, Max slipped off the bed and leaned down to give her a kiss. "If you don't mind, I…uh…I think I'll go check and see how Liz is doing. Maybe sneak her in so she can see for herself that you're ok."

Grams beamed at Max as he headed toward the door stopping just short of opening it and turning back to her with a question. "So, you weren’t fooled? When Gramps…”

Grams waved her hand in the air. “Pshaw! He never once fooled me when he pretended to be drunk. I just let him believe he did. After all, he deserved a little taste of victory. All his little tricks ever did were to delay the inevitable because your Gramps…” Grams’ nose turned up into the air as a cloak of pride wrapped itself around her. “…never won an argument with me.”

Max shook his head and chuckled. "I'm beginning to see why." He opened the door and winked at her. "Love ya, Grams…"

Grams let out a sigh as her smile deepened. "Love you too, Max..."
~~~~~~~~~~~
Liz leaned forward across the table and lowered her voice. "You're telling me that Max's grandfather was accused of embezzling from his own company?"

"Those were the charges." Mitch confirmed as he took a sip of his coffee.

"And you think he was actually murdered by the people who set him up to take the fall?"

Mitch nodded. "Yep. Look, all the evidence points to it. The set up was perfect. Too perfect, if you ask me. That's why I don't believe the old coot did it. Hell, I don't even think the D.A. believed he did it. But the District Attorney can't go on gut feelings. He has to go on evidence. And all the evidence pointed to Gramps being the culprit."

"And I bet the press was all over that, weren't they?" Liz questioned sarcastically.

"You grew up the daughter of a media mogul. What do you think?" Mitch's chuckle was wry and full of animosity. "I definitely couldn't see Jeff Parker sitting back on that one. He'd have taken Maxwell Evans' family and ripped them apart whether what he printed was true or not."

Liz let out a groan and slumped back in her chair. "Yep…that sounds like good ol' dad alright. Never did know when to keep his nose out of people's business and he never, ever knew the truth. Even if it bit him in the nose."

Mitch reached over and patted Liz's hands as they angrily ripped apart a napkin lying on the table. "It's over, ok? He's out of your life and you don't have to worry about living under his shadow any more."

"Thanks for that." Flashing Mitch a grateful smile, Liz pulled her attention back to the discussion at hand. "So, what kind of evidence did the D.A. have?"

"Well, all the documents transferring funds from several accounts to one particular account set up as a dummy corporation were legally signed by the elder Maxwell Evans. Handwriting experts were called in as witnesses. The fund withdrawl was classic embezzlement. It was a sound proof case for the D.A. He had no choice but to prosecute."

"But Max truly believes his grandfather is innocent." Liz protested.

"And I'd go with him on that. Look, Max Evans…" Mitch cleared his throat and glanced at Liz to catch her reaction and was surprised when she didn't even flinch. "…*your* Max…he has good instincts, Liz. About business. About people…" Mitch let out a sigh, his gaze wavering. "…from what I know of him in business, he reminds me of Ethan in that respect."

"Well, then…he must be really good at what he does. Too bad he misses it in his personal life a bit…" Liz mumbled to herself, for the first time realizing that it was getting slowly easier to talk about Ethan and Max in the same sentence without bursting into tears. Must be the subject. Completely business. Completely non-emotional.

Pushing her hair back from her face as an outward gesture of trying to push back her inner thoughts, Liz shook her head. "Still, I don't get it, Mitch. If Max has such good instincts, then how would he not know that his grandfather had been murdered, if that is what happened?"

"Well…" Mitch reached up and scratched his curly head and squirmed a little in his seat unsure of how Liz would take the next bit of news.

"Well, what?" Liz prompted noting Mitch's obvious nervousness.

Letting out a sigh, Mitch glanced back up at Liz. "Mind you, this is just my own conjecture, ok?" Mitch wet his lips as Liz nodded her head in understanding. He glanced around them furtively before leaning forward. "I think Max does know…deep down inside. He just doesn't want to acknowledge it."

Liz's mouth went dry and her stomach did a flip-flop. For some reason a certain name popped into her mind and she fought the urge to hurl. "W-why do you think he…doesn't?"

"Because if he acknowledges it, he'll have to put even more blame on himself than he already does."

"Why?" Blinking rapidly, Liz was desperately trying to steel herself for what was coming. Her fingers tightened around the spoon she was holding in her hand.

"Because he's the one who gave this person access to his family." Mitch stated slowly. "Because this person who I believe murdered Max's grandfather…was his ex-girlfriend, Gabrielle…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~
Having practically skipped out of Grams' hospital room in search of Liz, Max's smile faded when he saw she'd disappeared from the waiting area. A nurse glanced up and caught the disappointed look on his face and smiled to herself. She'd seen the two of them earlier and had inwardly sighed. Those two had something...speical. It was good to know there were still good things in this life. Like friendship. Support. Love… "Mr. Evans?"

"Yeah, that's me." Max turned to her and walked to the counter.

She searched on her desk for something then picked up a piece of paper and handed it to Max. "The young lady that was waiting for you ask me to give this to you if you came looking for her."

Max glanced through the note telling him she'd run down to the cafeteria for a bit, his smile instantly returning. Nodding to the nurse, he mumbled a 'thanks' then headed off to the elevator pressing the down button. Minutes later, after having reached the first floor, Max exited and followed the signs heading toward the cafeteria. Completely unaware that he was being observed, Max stopped just short of opening the door to the cafeteria when he caught sight of Liz Parker sitting in a booth…with a blonde haired man. A man, who had just reached over and held her hand.

A man who just received a Liz Parker smile…

Max's eyes darkened to black as a surge of envy swept over him. So wrapped up in every little move…each little nuance of her expression, Max nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard the smooth, unruffled voice rippling in his ear as warms encircled his waist. "Such rapt attention. Something must be pretty interesting in there. Wanna share with the rest of the class..."

Tbc…


posted on 8-Dec-2002 7:54:24 PM by Ashton
Hey all!!

I KNOW it's be...ok, let's just say it...FOREVER on this story. This part is really just a set up for the next few chapters. I know so many of you are wanting me to work on RtW and I will be doing that, but I just had a bit of 'inspiration' for this one as well as TWT. I really hope you like it. As I said, it's setting it up so I hope you enjoy even though nothing major is happening yet. Would LOVE to hear what you think!! As always, you're the best and thanks soo much for the support!!!

Hugs,
Ashton
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 23 ~


Four days later…


"Do you have any idea how long it's been since I've actually felt the warmth of the sun on my skin?"

Max's quiet, enigmatic question had been the first full sentence he'd uttered to Michael in four days.

With an apprehensive glance in Max's direction, Michael shifted his weight from one foot to the other uncomfortably. He's only been standing by his brother's side for a minute and he already didn't like the direction this supposed rescue of his was going.

His mother had sent him down here. To the garden. In the middle of a cold, miserable rain.

Over one arm, he was holding the winter coat Diane Evans shoved into his hands for Max as she pushed him out the door. With the other holding an umbrella over the both of them, Michael shrugged and tossed out a careless, well-meaning suggestion. "Easily remedied. Jump on the jet and head to the Mediterranean. The beaches over there are the cure for this dreary winter weather we've been having. Maybe if you take Tess, you'll both start feeling a bit better about this wedding of yours."

Continuing as if Michael hadn't spoken, Max's distracted voice echoed the distance in his haunted eyes. "Even now. I don't feel it. The cold. The rain." Stepping out from under the umbrella and holding out his arms, Max tilted his head backward and allowed the rain to mercilessly beat down on him. An inexplicable silence held him there a moment before his arms dropped heavily to his side and Max's head lowered with resignation.

Michael opened his mouth to say something when Max's voice stopped him. "I thought I'd at least feel this, but…I've been so numb for so long now that I…" A sudden lump of emotion lodged in his throat. Swallowing hard, he removed it. As a result, his confession was a mere whisper. "…I don't think I know how to feel anything anymore."

"What are you talking about, Max?" Michael covered Max once more with the umbrella, the rough edge of his voice indicating just how worried he was getting about his brother's behavior. Not to mention his words. "Of course you know how to feel. You've been pissed at me the past four days. That's gotta be worth something."

Shoulders slumping, Max's chin dropped to his chest as his eyes closed in either aggravation or pain. Michael couldn't tell which. A moment of concentrated silence was broken only by the sleet-like rain hitting their umbrella before tumbling to the ground around their feet. Squaring his shoulders, Max's deep sigh contradicted his reassurance when his eyes met Michael's. "Go back to the house and tell mom and Grams I'm fine. The wedding with Tess will go on as planned. Our company will be saved and the family will be back to normal. I promise."

"Max. That's not what they're worried about." He paused. "Frankly, neither am I."

A wry, knowing smile touched Max's lips. A hardness returned to his eyes. His voice was edged with determined resignation. "What's wrong, Michael? Don't like what you see? Well, guess what, bro." He held out his arms in an open gesture, his tone thick with accusation. "This is what you wanted. Me…following the plan. Marrying Tess. Doing what you expect instead of..."

"Instead of what, Max?" Michael prompted quietly when Max abruptly cut off his own sentence.

"It doesn’t matter." Max shot back agitatedly as he blinked the rain out of his eyes. Or a hint of tears. Michael couldn't tell which.

Pressing the issue, Michael hit the nail on the head his first try. Then again, knowing Max it hadn't been that hard. Michael simply remembered the last thing Max said to him before his self-imposed silence. "Instead of dancing?"

Swallowing hard, Max's silence and averted gaze said more than any answer would have.

Nodding once at the confirmation he'd received, Michael's admission was monumental. "Look, I don't pretend to know what was going on when I called the other night…what I interrupted…or what you meant when you said you'd never dance again…"

"It doesn't matter."

"Yeah, you keep saying that. Thing is, Max…maybe I was wrong. Maybe…" There was a hesitant pause before Michael added an alternative to the current state of affairs in the Evans household. "…maybe you should find Liz Parker and explore this thing going on between you…"

"She's involved with someone, Michael." The interruption was harsh and abrupt.

"Not what the detective I hired to check her out said."

"So, the man I saw her with at the hospital was her ex-brother-in-law. Autumn and Brett's father." Max shrugged. "That doesn't mean she's not involved with someone else."

"Max, there is no indication…"

"There was someone once. Someone she loved very much. She's made that rather clear." Max's gaze shifted painfully. "It's also very clear she isn't over him." Jaw clenching, Max pushed the words out through tight lips. "Liz Parker wants nothing to do with me, Michael. Even if she did, I'm engaged." Determination flashed in his eyes as his gaze flicked back to his brother. "That hasn't changed. And it's not about to."

"But…"

"Michael." The harshness of Max's tone stopped Michael's protest cold. "I will marry Tess. After that, Liz Parker will only be a memory." His eyes darkened to a painful midnight as his voice cracked with emotion. "Then, it won't matter that the music's gone…"

Michael barely registered the anguished whisper before Max turned his back and stepped back into the rain...


Fifteen minutes later, back in the warmth of his own bedroom, Michael Evans stared out the window and tried to ignore the heated glare he could feel boring into his neck.

"Michael." Maria's hiss filled the room. "Do something."

Hands on his hips, he heard her advancing stomp as his darling wife of seven years was preparing for battle. Closing his eyes in an attitude of defeat, Michael's voice was weary when he spoke. "And what exactly do you think I should do, Ria?"

Now standing next to her husband, Maria pointed agitatedly out the window. "Go back down there and talk to him!"

"I've tried."

"Try harder."

Turning a disbelieving stare on his one and only, Michael scoffed. "After all the years you've spent in this family, you still haven't got Max figured out, have you?" Wildly gesturing toward the window, Michael's voice raised in irritation. "Look at him! The man is standing barefoot in the garden in his bathrobe getting rained on in the middle of winter! And he's blaming me for this! He's clearly lost it, Ria! You honestly think he's going to start listening to me now when he's been giving me the silent treatment for the last four days!?"

"Did you give him the file the detective gave to you on Liz Parker?" Maria persisted, crossing her arms in determination.

Rolling his eyes, Michael ran his fingers through his hair in irritation. "Yes. I gave him the file."

"And?"

Letting out a loud sigh, Michael turned from Maria and moved to sit in a nearby chair. His gaze was distant, his voice laden with concern. "He barely glanced at it, ok? Apparently, you were wrong. What he saw didn't convince him. He couldn’t have cared less if this Liz Parker woman is dating someone or not."

A knowing smile curled Maria's lips. "Or so he wants you to think." The silence following that statement was creatively charged. Maria began to pace as fast as her mind whirled.

Seeing Maria's green eyes sparkling with an idea, Michael practically groaned. "You can stop right now. Whatever it is…whatever you're cooking up in that brain of yours…it isn't going to work."

"Yes, it will." Her grin was wide and confident.

"Maria, I mean it." Michael was struggling to keep his frustration in check. His eyes met hers in unwavering command. "Let. It. Go."

"Not until Max does." Waving a dismissive hand in the air, she continued to pace.

"He has."

"Oh, right. And you know this because…"

"Because he just told me."

Maria stopped pacing to turn toward Michael and crossed her arms in front of her. "He's lying."

"Maria…"

"Maria's right, luv." Grams' frail voice came from the direction of the doorway. She shuffled into Michael and Maria's room, her eyes wide and sad. "He's missing his music." Daintily playing with the string of pearls around her neck, Grams' gaze shifted from Maria to Michael. "He may say he can't hear it any more, but I'm afraid he's lying. Especially to himself. He hears it now more than ever. It not being able to dance to it that's hurting him now."

Jumping up from his seat, Michael aided his grandmother in sitting on the setee next to him before returning to his own chair. "Grams, I know you and Max speak a whole other language than some of us in the family, but..." Letting out a sigh, his eyes met Grams'. "…I really think Max has his mind made up this time."

Reaching out to pat Michael's hand, Grams smiled that wise smile of hers. "No, dear. He's allowed circumstances to make it up for him. What he needs now is a…" Eyes beginning to twinkle, Grams's gaze met Maria's in conspiratorial scheming. "…shift in perspective. Isn't that what you called it, dear?"

Nodding emphatically, Maria came and sat next to Grams on the setee. Michael instantly became wary. "You two have been talking about this?"

Maria winked at Grams and flashed her a smile before giving her husband a 'duh' look. "Of course we have, bubblehead. And we think we've got things figured out. What Max needs is an…" Maria paused before announcing the big plan with a wiggle of her eyebrows. "…intervention."

Michael rolled his eyes. "Oh, you have **got** to be kidding me."

Maria ignored his comment. "Now, before we can actually pull this off we'll need a little bit of help…"

A trap had been set. Michael felt like screaming as he imaged himself falling head-first into the pit of matchmaking schemes. His head unconsciously began to shake. An emphatic finger jabbed the air. "No. Uh-huh. There is no way you're getting me to play along with whatever grand scheme you've planned..."

Stepping into the room just in time to hear Michael's outburst, Diane Evans' command was unwavering and clear the moment he jumped up from his chair to escape the coming plan. "Sit down, Michael."

"Mom?" Surprise laced Michael's question. "They got to you too?"

"Got to me?" Diane's eyebrow rose. "Son, I'm the master of this three-ringed circus. Now. Take down these instructions." Handing Michael a notepad and pen, Diane sat in the chair opposite him and leaned back with an air of authority. "First order of business is finding out exactly how Liz Parker feels about Max…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Three weeks later…


For Liz Parker, the past three weeks had been a flurry of activity. Full of excitement. Abounding with creative successes that catapulted her straight into the career she hadn't dared to hope for in years. Complete with a renewed friendship with Kyle Valenti, an old college classmate of hers.

And it all began when Liz returned from her meeting with Mitch in the hospital cafeteria…

The note left for Liz at the nurses desk on his grandmother's floor instantly brought back to Liz her very first impression of Max Evans: cold, impersonal, shut off. She had to admit, the curt tone of his obvious dismissal cut her momentarily. She couldn't imagine what could have shifted Max's attitude toward her so quickly. Until the nurse mentioned a blonde socialite having been escorted by her handsome friend into Mrs. Evans' hospital room.

The picture instantly became clear.

Max was with Tess. His fiancee'. His future. His family.

The way it was meant to be.

Liz left the hospital without another word. Without a note. Without a message. She headed straight to the address Max had listed on his missive. What she found there changed her entire world…

She'd drawn Kyle Valenti's name as a project partner her first week in college. By the second week, they'd gone on their first date. By the third, they were spending all their time together as a full-fledged couple. Though Kyle was fun to be around and she'd spit out more soda than she'd care to admit because of his consistently humorous antics, the relationship never really grew beyond friendship. When it came right down to it, Kyle and Liz shared a love of architecture and laughter.

They never shared a heart.

It had been an easy break up. Kyle knew the moment Ethan entered Liz's life that his time with her was coming to a close. With a friendly kiss and a sincere wish for her happiness the night she admitted she'd lost her heart to someone else, Kyle Valenti shifted into the background of Liz's life. Watching her love for another grow with each passing day. Genuinely congratulating her four years later when, with bright eyes, she showed him her ring and announced her plans for the future.

Two years after graduation, he'd been in busy L.A. building his own career when the news of Ethan's death reached him. He'd tried to call but the phone was busy for days on end. When he finally got through, he'd only been able to pass his condolences on to Liz through Isabel. Concern for Liz's emotional state and the lack of appropriate words kept him from calling again, though he did send her a bouquet of flowers on her birthday to let her know someone was thinking of her. Except for the brief phone message she'd left to thank him for his thoughtfulness, Kyle Valenti hadn't seen or heard from Liz for two years.

Until Max Evans walked through his office door with her forgotten portfolio.

The moment he saw her work again, Kyle recognized Liz's unique style. Eager for a chance to grab such an extraordinary talent like his old college pal, Kyle readily agreed with Max to hire Liz if she wanted the job. There was, of course, one hitch: he couldn't let Liz know that Max 's money would be paying her salary.

Ignorance being bliss, Liz's genuine happiness at seeing an old friend bubbled into an elated acceptance of Kyle's job offer. She started work the very next day and had already pulled in two new clients before delving into the bid on the large River's proposal. If she pulled this contract off, Kyle's company would be sitting pretty for a while, financially.

The first sign of trouble was the day Liz's first paycheck arrived. Neither Max or Kyle had thought anyone, least of all Liz Parker, would pay special attention to the name at the bottom of their check. Being the daughter of a newspaper man, Liz was curious and detail-oriented. It took her only a matter of seconds to notice the telltale signature.

An inquiry quickly followed and Liz was informed that yes, Max Evans paid the salaries as well as the bills of Kyle's small establishment. Yes, he was a silent partner who had no real say in the creative flow or the minute details of the day to day running of the office. No, he hadn't bought Liz her job. Nor had he demanded it. He simply hooked Liz up with an old friend and an even older, and obvious, love: architecture. The decision to make something of the renewed connection and her own unique talent was all up to Liz.

She took the news better than Kyle thought she would have given the high level of importance Max had placed on his silence. He still hadn't told Max that Liz knew. Then again, he hadn't spoken directly to Max in two weeks.

That particular phone call wasn't the first thing to arouse Kyle's interest in Max and Liz's relationship. But, it was the first indication Kyle had that Max Evans was, for the first time in a long time, in the middle of an intense struggle with his own heart.

Of course, the call was made on a pretense of checking on business. But it didn't take long for the not-so-subtle questions to meander aimlessly through inconsequential subjects before reaching their real target. Weary of the obvious game Max was playing, Kyle brought Liz's name up first, prompting an almost audible sigh of relief as Max's non-verbal response.

Once the subject was broached, the questions varied... 'How's she doing at work? Has she mentioned the kids? Has Brett gotten over his cold? Has she made plans for the holidays? How long did you say you knew her again?' But the most telling one of all was…'is she happy'?

To which Kyle Valenti had only one response: Are you, Max?

Max suddenly had a meeting to attend. The call ended abruptly. He hadn't called since.

The truth was, Kyle didn't know the answer to Max's question for sure. From all outward appearances, Liz seemed happy. She smiled a lot. Her laughter often joined his throughout the day. Then again, Liz had always had a pleasant disposition. An inherent optimism. A bright perspective on life.

Even then the truth was, Kyle had an idea what the answer was. He'd seen her in love. He'd seen her at the height of delirious joy. He'd seen her eyes bright with hope and her step bouncy with anticipation. Though talking about 'her' kids brought a loving glow to her eyes, nothing he'd seen from Liz Parker so far even came close to the way she'd look when Ethan walked into a room.

Truth was, Kyle's gut told him she was merely existing now. Without Ethan. Without hope for a future. The infinite sadness in her eyes said as much. The frown lines around her lips was a daily reminder of all she'd lost. Of everything she'd lived through. Of the pain that still permeated her heart.

There had only been one hint that Liz Parker's heart might have a second chance to beat again. To live. To love.

Like the rest of New York City, he'd seen the photos of Max and Liz kissing. His heart stopped the moment he saw that kiss. His breath froze in his chest at the look in Liz's eyes when she gazed up at Max in the photos afterward. Kyle recognized that look. The passion. The awe. He'd seen it so many times from a distance. In fact, he'd seen it every time Liz looked at Ethan.

If possible…it held even more intensity than he remembered.

And although Kyle certainly didn't want to mix business and pleasure by jumping into the middle of whatever was brewing between a former girlfriend of his and one of his oldest friends, he had to admit, his curiosity was clearly piqued. Especially after the truth about Max's position in the company had been revealed to Liz.

Her intuitive questions were much more subtle than Max's. The progressive interrogation from Max's business dealings to his relationship with his family then on to his upcoming wedding and what Kyle really thought of Max's fiancee' moved as smooth as silk. But when she had come to Kyle with Max's handwritten note and an unusual request, his curiosity shifted into overdrive…

"So." Nodding toward the slip of paper in his hand, Liz Parker focused on her employer's unreadable expression. "You're friends with him. What do you think?"

Kyle Valenti pursed his lips as his eyes scanned the hasty, hand-written note.

It was short, to the point. Very businesslike. Very Max Evans.

Liz,
Grams will be fine. Thank you for your assistance in getting her to the hospital. Considering the current situation, I will be respecting your wishes of last night. I request that you do the same. It was nice to make your acquaintance.

Maxwell Evans

P.S. To retrieve the portfolio you left at the restaurant go to the address below…


Chest rising and falling with a deep sigh, Kyle's blue eyes shifted to Liz's anxious face. Before completely forming his opinion, Kyle asked a quiet question. "What does he mean by 'your wishes of last night'?"

Gaze flickering uncomfortably, Liz shifted from one foot to the other as she crossed her arms protectively in front of her. "I had…told him to never contact me again."

Kyle nodded, pausing before answering, knowing he was about to put an added layer of pain in eyes already more than acquainted with the concept. Best thing was to follow his instructions. Especially since she was obviously hanging on to something that Liz herself was desperately looking for a reason to let go of. "Sorry, Liz. This is classic Max Evans cutting all ties." He handed the note back to her. "If I were you, I'd forget all about him. Take what he's given you and move on."

Nodding slowly, Liz swallowed back a lump of emotion as she focused on the note in her hand. Her voice was soft with regret. "Yeah. Yeah, you're probably right." Tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, Liz's gaze shifted from the note to Kyle. "Thing is…what's he's given me is…pretty amazing. I'd really like to thank him."

"Don't." A smile touched Kyle's lips as he leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on his desk. Lying to her shouldn't be too much of a problem. After all, he'd been keeping Max's secret from her for the past few weeks. This was simply an extension of that personal favor. Not to mention, the plan. "Trust me on this, Liz. Max didn't do anything special for you. He saw talent. He brought it to me. He would have done the same if it had been anyone else. This is a business arrangement for him. As my silent partner in this small firm of mine, the more business I do, the more profit he makes. Putting an extremely talented architect on the payroll helps both of us reach our goals."

That hint of pain Kyle had been expecting was stronger than he'd imagined. He hastened to soften her disappointment. "Look. If you really want to thank Max, concentrate on the Rivers account. If you can pull that one in for us, you'll have little Max Jr.'s college education paid for before he's ever born."

Folding the note and slipping it back into her pocket, Liz forced a smile and nodded once. "You're right. It's obvious things are…exactly the way they're meant to be." Hitching a thumb toward her work space, Liz practiced a cheerfulness that simply lacked in sincerity. "Just wait till you see what I have planned for the meeting with Rivers. It's going to knock their socks off…"

Thoughtful eyes watched Liz Parker as she squared her shoulders and headed back to her desk. Back to her work. Back to her life. For the hundredth time in the past three weeks, Kyle Valenti wondered exactly what had happened between his business partner and his newest architect.

Having successfully tabled the Max Evans' discussion for at least a while with his prompt and unwavering advice to move on, Kyle's mind was now churning with questions. Suspicions. And plans…

With that thought in mind, Kyle leaned back in his chair, his gaze shifting to an unsuspecting Liz Parker, picked up the phone and dialed a familiar number…
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The phone on her desk rang. Maria Evans absently answered then snapped to interested attention when she heard the voice on the other end of the line. The longer she listened, the wider her grin got. After a few short, insightful answers and a quick look at her calendar, Maria readily agreed to inform the rest of the crew the time had finally come.

As soon as she hung hit the off button she dialed another number and waited impatiently for the phone to ring. Once she heard the unruffled voice on the other line, Maria plastered her best smile on her face and hoped its warmth would edge its way into her voice. "Tess, dear. It's Maria. Listen, Michael and I have been discussing the wedding and I had some ideas that I thought you might be interested in. How would you like to have dinner tonight? Maybe the four of us could go out…"

Surprised, Tess' answer was a study in restrained relief. "How thoughtful, Maria. Unfortunately, Max and I are having dinner with Daddy and Mother tonight at the Carlton Lounge."

Grinning at the information that just fell into her lap, Maria pretended to be disappointed then offered an alternative. "Sounds like a perfect excuse for an afternoon at the spa then. Why don't we meet up at two and we could discuss wedding plans over a few mud wraps and facials?"

Maria could practically hear Tess gritting her teeth as she agreed to the meeting. With a cheerful 'see you later', Maria quickly made the arrangements with appropriate parties before calling her mother-in-law. "It's a go, Mom. Pass the word along. At two this afternoon, Max is finally going to face the music…"

Tbc…